Monday, 27 April 2015

GG Series Collection Plus (DS), Part 3

This time, it's the biggest and also the best section of the cartridge: the "Action" section, which covers a few genres!

Shinobi Karakuri Den
This game is probably the best one on the whole cartridge, and the standalone DSiWare release actually reached North America, I think, though unfortunately not Europe. You play as a constantly-jumping ninja tasked with destroying cogs that are guarded by various kinds of samurai. You've got a bunch of tools at your disposal: shurikens, a sword, air-dashing, and every few stages there's aboss fight against an enemy ninja. Enemy attacks don't damage you, just knock you back, with death only coming when you fall off the bottom of the screen. The thing is, though, that every time you jump off of a platform, it disappears and another one appears in a random place. I may give this game its own post at some point in the future, because it's deeper and more interesting than it seems at first glance.

Super Hero Ouga
As if to deliberately provide contrast, the next game in this section is terrible. It's a single-plane beat em up starring a hero who bears an uncanny resemblence to Kamen Rider Agito, who fights of many identical enemies and occasionally a boss. It's boring, repetitive and your character feels way too weak. A disappointment all round.

Assault Buster
Getting back on track, Assault Buster is a great little single-screen shooter starring a jetpack-clad heroine zipping around shooting enemy turrets, with a big installation at the end of each stage and a bossfight against an evil-doer with a jetpack every few stages. Interestingly, each boss has a different special attack that's like a significantly-upgraded version of an attack one of the types of turrets use. Assault Buster's a really fun game, and I don't have much more to say about it other than it also looks pretty good, compared to many of the games on this cart, too.

Drilling Attack!!
this one's a platform game starring a robot that looks  lot like Mechazawa from Cromartie High School, and who can also transform into a flying drill. The aim of each stage is to find a keycard and then the exit, with a secondary objective of finding glowing stone tablets hidden inside rocks. There's also a fun scoring system built around consecutively drilling through many blocks in quick succession to build up and maintain a multiplier. This one's a lot of fun, and also really satisfying to play.

The Last Knight
Something a bit different, a top-down action psuedo-RPG. You play as a knight who goes from room to room killing gargoyles and will-o-the-wisps and so on. For every five rooms you clear, you can increase your strength, dexterity or vitality. I recommend always putting points into strength, unless you're on low HP, in which case vitality will restore it and increase the max. I don't actually know what dexterity does, but i never felt weakened by its absence. This game's alright, I guess. It's not bad, but it's not one you'll come back to often, either.

Variable Arms
Back to platform games, with this one's gimmick being that you pilot a tranforming robot in it. In robot form, you can jump higher and have a fast, weak, short-range weapon, and in vehicle mode, you move faster and jump further, and your weapon is a long range cannon with a much lower fire rate. Another one that's pretty average, really. Nothing to write home about at all.

Whipper no Daibouken
A cute little platform game where you play as a little man with a whip who has to traverse jungle stages and get to the exit. This one doesn't have any special gimmicks or anything, but it does have well-designed stages, and it's fun enough to play that that doesn't matter. You can whip in front of you or upwards, and there are anchor-like hooks that your whip can latch onto, too. There's also a few different kinds of enemies that stand in your way, all with their own different behaviour patterns. Definitely one that's worth playing.

The Hidden Ninja Kagemaru
A stealth platform game that sees the eponymous ninja sneaking around stages trying to steal scrolls without being seen. Kagemaru has various items at his disposal, like a camoflage sheet to hide behind while guards walk past, and a magic eye that lets him see the guards' fields of vision. Unfortunately, though the concept is excellent, I just can't get into this game. Maybe it's just limited by its small scope: larger stages and Tenchu-esque stealth kills might have been massive improvements. Worth checking out for the cool gimmick, but not that great a game to play.

All Breaker
Yet another platform game, this time starring a girl with a big hammer, traversing stages with the mission of smashing special orange blocks littered about the place. The hammer can be used to smash most of the blocks from which the stages are built, too, and as the game progresses, different kinds of blocks with different properties start to appear. For example, blocks that are sent reeling ahead when hit, or ones tht are only held aloft by othe blocks, that fall when those blocks are smashed, and so on. Yeah, you probably won't regret spending your hard-earned points on this one.

Nano Creature Nyokki
A strange one this: you play as a microscopic tapeworm thing, and you swim around the screen collecting cubes and avoiding everything else. It's not a bad game, but it's not very interesting, either. I get the feeling this one was probably more fun to make than it is to play.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

GG Series Collection Plus (DS), Part 2

Time for part two of the review of this colossal officially-sanctioned multicart, and this installment covers the "shooting" section.

Piloting a ship that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Vic Viper, the player navigates tight space-tunnels and destroys stationary energy ball enemy things. The gimmick is that your shots are fired from two orbs on the front of your ship, and when you're not shooting, they'll turn to point in the opposite direction to the one you press. So you can shoot in eight directions. Although the lack of variety in the enemies does make the game feel cheap, it's still a lot of fun to play, and it's a shame the sequel is only available (as far as I know) on the Japanese DSiWare store.

Wonder Land
Feeling a little bit like a knock-off Touhou, Wonder Land is a simple, Alice in Wonderland-themed vertical shooter that does start to get a little bullet helly a few stages in. The player can shoot a slow, weak 3-way weapon or a fast, powerful narrow stream of bullets, and rather than bombs, there's a meter on the side of the screen that fills up when enemies are being shot. When the meter's full, the player can use a one-off attack that freezes time for a few seconds and turns all the bullets onscreen into points items. One cool touch is that damage done to enemies during the time-freeze doesn't actually happen until it ends. I saw screenshots of this before I'd unlocked it in the collection, and I have to say i was a little disappointed. It's a bit slow, the boss fights take far too long and are far too repetitive and though it's not a bad game, it's far from being the best shooter on this cartridge.

Dark Spirits
This one has a bit of an action-horror anime theme to it, and you control some flying guy with four familiars floating around him. The familiars can be made to focus all their fire straight ahead, or to spread their shots out either in front or behind your guy. This game's gimmick lies in the fact that there are a few different weapons to collect (and level up), and all four familiars collect power-ups individually, so if you choose, you can have each one firing a different weapon. When I first played this game a long time ago, I wasn't really impressed with it. Though it's one of the better looking games on the cartridge, I felt that the game itself didn't live up to that. Over time, however, I've changed my mind: it is actually pretty good, and one of the better games in this section.

It's safe to say that the "D" of the title stands for "Defence", as D-Tank sees the player controlling a little tank, charged with the responsibility to defend bases from invading enemy tanks. Although there's a fair few different enemy types, and a bunch of different power-ups to collect, this game just doesn't excite me at all. It's a bit slow, it takes a while to get even a bit challenging and it's just not very fun.

Score Attacker
This one is easily my favourite of the section. You have a power meter that can be filled up to five times, by shooting enemies and collecting the E items they drop on destruction. The meters can be spent either on a temporary shield that absorbs enemy bullets for points, or on one massive, super-damaging shot. The super shot is big enough to take out several smaller enemies at once, or do big damage to one (or two if they're right next to each other) large enemy. Furthermore, enemies that are killed with a super shot drop bigger E items, which not only fill up more meter, but are also worth more points. So it's all about the building and expenditure of meter to maximise your point-scoring potential and I love it. There's also a bit of a dynamic difficulty level thing going on, scoring more points on one stage means playing the next stage on a harder difficulty, which means there are more bullets to absorb for more points.

Shadow Army
Something a little bit different with this one, as it's a psuedo-stealth game, that sees the player infiltrating enemy bases and killing everyone they meet with a variety of weapons that all have limited ammunition and their own uses. It's got a few neat little touches, like having to reload, and being able to hide behind boxes and pop out to shoot. It's hard, and it can start to feel a little repetitive after a while, but it's not a bad little game.

Harisen Bon!
Last, and definitely least, is this game that's clearly inspired by Kirby and maybe also Starfy, about an orange puffer fish floating about collecting stars and shooting spikes at other fish. Though it looks nice and colourful, and it has pretty nice music, it's slow and boring and awkward to play. It's definitely the worst of the section, I wouldn't bother rushing to unlock it.

Friday, 17 April 2015

GG Series Collection Plus (DS),Part 1

GG Series Collection Plus is a collection of 30 games, some of which are available individually on the DSiWare store, though a lot of them are exclusive to this cartridge. None of the games use the DS's touchscreen, and the collection can be compared to finding a huge box full of loose cartridges for a 16-bit console. Since the cartridge contains 30 games that are all fairly unique to each other, I'll be splitting the coverage of them into four posts, one for each of the collection's categories. First up is the Puzzle section, containing four games.

Conveyor Konpou
This game is set in a pastel-coloured penguin factory, and the player has to pack penguins into boxes that match their colours. This is done by moving a 2x1 cursor around, and switching the positions of boxes and penguins, in a manner similar to Tetris Attack/Panel de Pon. There's a combo mechanic, but rather than focussing entirely on pre-setting up multipart chains, it places its weight on just quickly packing massive amounts of penguins in quick succession, so it's better to place your efforts into gathering large groups of the same coloured penguins into one place before bringing a box in to clear them all in one go. It's a pretty good game, and it seems to build up points for unlocking games quicker than most of the others, which is helpful, as unlocking more games is a massive chore.

Energy Chain
Set in some kind of cube-based electrical circuit map, the aim of Energy Chain is to connect up the four pre-placed, immovable generators with lines of coloured blocks. Obviously, power can only travel along lines of uniform hue, and once a connection is made, the coloured blocks disappear, making room for more to be placed. It's not an exciting game, but it does have a certain kind of charm that only boring games have. It's not the worst game in this section, not at all.

Very similar to the Konami classic Quarth, Vertex presents the player with simple shapes like squares and regular pentagons with missing vertices, which must be filled in as quickly as possible. Y shoots one vertex, X shoots two and A three. Over-verting results in the shapes quickly jutting downwards and in time-honoured tradition, once a shape crosses the line at the bottom, the player loses. Though the game generously gives three lives instead of an instant game over.

Black x Block
A game in which the player controls a little stick-person, who has to reach the exit on each stage by picking up, turning and placing large black blocks. I'll be totally honest, I'm terrible at this game and I don't enjoy playing it and the minimalist presentation leaves me a bit cold.

This one reminds me of Gunpey both mechanically and aesthetically, and like Gunpey, it doesn't really excite me. Blocks fall from above with little arrows on them, and the aim is to turn them so that the arrows point into lines, with 90 degree turns acceptable, and when a line is at least four blocks long, all the blocks will disappear. It's not a bad game, and it's pretty easy to set up mildly satisfying chains, but mild satisfaction is all it really offers. I don't dislike it as much as Black x Block, but it's not one I return to often.

Yuusha Puzzle
Yuusha Puzzle is an RPG-themed colour-matching game (except that instead of colours, you're matching RPG equipment). You're presented with a stream of typical fantasy RPG monsters, who attack by dropping garbage blocks into your well, as well as by doing Tetris Battle Gaiden-style status effects like blocking your view, restricting movement and so on. To fight back, you match items. Weapons like wands, swords and spears just straight up damage the monsters, with more damage dealt by matching up more at once. Sheilds and helmets and other bits of armour erase any garbage blocks touching them when they go, dealing a bit of counterattack damage to the enemy for each garbage block deleted this way. It takes way too long to get difficult, and it repeats monsters far too much, but for some reason, when I play it, I'll often end up becoming enthralled with it for long periods of time.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Running Battle (Master System)

You probably already know this, but the Master System in the 90s was in an unusual position. It was long dead in Japan, and never really took off at all in North America, but in Europe, South America and Australia, it still had enough of an established userbase that it was still getting games released in those territories. While many of those games were made in those territories, there were still games in the strange position of being made in Japan but never sold there, mainly by one of SEGA's subsidiaries SIMS. Running Battle is one of these, as was Masters of Combat, which I've previously covered.

Anyway, Running Battle is a single-plane beat em up about a guy named Gray  seeking out the killers of his partner (and possibly brother?) Brody. It's pretty standard and generic: walk from left to right, kill lots of the same enemy, then do it again. It sometimes throws in an extra element, like wall-mounted guns (that seem to hold an oddly generous amount of extra lives if you destroy them). There's also some power-ups like guns and super strength and a very rare power up that allows Gray to run forward at high speed, ignoring obstacles and pits and killing enemies on contact for five seconds. The most interesting thing about Running Battle, however, is that it feels like an unfinished mish-mash of assets the devs just had lying around.

The game starts in a typical beat em up ghetto stage, though all the stages after it take place inside sci-fi enemy bases. The first few bosses ignore this sci-fi theme, being a dwarf pirate, a cowboy, and a Samurai, each with their own individually themed room. The last two bosses fit better, though: a psychic super-villain and some kind of giant tank thing that's so big, the health bars have to become numbers at the bottom of the screen to make room for it.

So, that thematic jumble explains the "mish mash", but as for the game feeling unfinished? It's not massively glitchy, but rather there's a few little things that imply that the game wasn't tested or balanced as much as it could have been. For example, throughout most of the game, there are doors at the end of the stages. To go through them, the player stands in front and presses up on the d-pad, like a million other games. At the end of the first stage, there's a door, but to finish the stage, the player just walks past it and off the edge of the screen.

There's also the issue of balance. Like I said earlier, the game is really generous with the extra lives once the wall-mounted guns show up, and this seems to be because the last two bosses take very little damage from the player's attacks, but also deal massive amounts of damage with hard to avoid attacks. So the extra lives seem to be a sort of half-solution to this problem, turning te final boss battles into battles of attrition, in which the player has to hope they've saved up enough lives to survive and gradually wear down the bosses.

In conclusion, I don't recommend Running Battle at all. It's not painful to play, there just isn't really anything interesting about it, and it generally feels like it was quickly knocked out on the cheap.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Itazura Tenshi (Arcade)

I've said before about how sometimes, when looking through lists of games, certain titles seem to jump out at you for no obvious reason. Itazura Tenshi is one of those games, and I'm glad it did. In the early 1980s, most games set in outer space would be sci-fi themed shooting games about spaceships, with maybe some greek mythological imagery thrown in, if the designers were fans of Saint Seiya or Ulysess 31. Itazura Tenshi takes a different route, being themed around a cosmic fantasy romance, and starring an angel instead of a spaceship.

The angel in question endeavours to win the heart of his celestial love by touching the stars in the sky and turning them into constellations. He doesn't perform this task unopposed, however, as various obstacles stand in his way. There's UFOs flying around randomly shooting, other angels who not only chase our hero around, but also try to undo his hard work, and for some reason there's also crabs casually wandering about and getting in the way. Oh, and every now and then, a wizard in a green robe will give chase, shooting bolts of magic along the way.

The game only uses the joystick and one button. The button does serve two purposes, however: most of the time it just makes the angel flap his wings and fly faster, but on collection of a bow, it also shoots arrows for a limited time. The bow power-ups work slightly oddly though, as picking one up while you already have one won't extend the time it lasts, so for more shots, you have to wait until your current bow runs out before collecting another.

There's also at least two bonus sections in the game, too. The first happens when the player completes half of the constellations in a stage, and compares the number of stars still unmarked to those the player has touched, and offers a bonus if the player has done more. This is a bonus the player really has to work for, since getting more than half the stars in this way means deliberately ignoring the simpler constellations, and also partially completing some, all while avoiding the various things out to kill them (which is hard enough already). The other happens after a whole stage has been completed and is a lot easier, simply having the player guide the angel into the arms of his love as they run towards each other from across the screen. Success sees the two embrace, with a points bonus and the message "I LOVE YOU FOREVER!", failure awards no points, and "A BROKEN HEART!".

Itazura Tenshi is a game I recommend giving a go, as it's very pretty and has a nice theme that was fairly unusual at the time, and still pretty unusual today. I do warn though, that the difficulty level is merciless right from the start, and the experience of playing it is a mix of fascination and frustration. There's an idea that I've seen attributed to Yu Suzuki (though I don't know how legitimate that attribution is) that while great console games are like classic novels, great arcade games are like works of poetry, and I think Itazura Tenshi is a great example of that idea.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Soul Calibur V (Xbox 360)

You might be wondering what such a popular and mainstream game is doing on Lunatic Obscurity, the world's greatest obscure videogames review blog, but don't worry, it's just an April fools post (although Patreon subscribers will be reading it on the 30th of March). Rather than do a pointless prank that no-one would ever fall for, I've decided to write about a popular game, but hopefully from a slightly unusual perspective.

I actually like Soul Calibur V a lot, though it's not the mechanics that really excite me, nor do the game's characters and story do anything for me. You might be wondering what else there is in a fighting game to like, and in SCV, that thing is the character creation mode. Now, this game's character creation mode has a lot of problems, from the segregation of a lot of the clothing and hair items by gender, and the narrow choices of items available compared to other games with character creation modes. But there are other factors to take into account.

When we look at other games with character creation modes, the main three cases that come to mind (for me at least) are wrestling games, the Saints Row series and most modern Western RPGs. Now, the things all these cases have in common are restrictions on the stories that can be told with the characters the player puts into them. Wrestling games have a tradition of character creation and customisation going back to the SNES, and the big two series, the WWE games and the Fire Pro Wrestling games are famed for the ability they give players to create an amazing variety of characters. The downside is that they are just wrestling games: the characters will only be wrestling in arenas, playing out wrestling storylines. RPGs and Saints Row have a similar problem, only moreso, in that whatever character the player creates can only ever play the part of The Boss or the Lone Wanderer or whoever.

Soul Calibur V, however, is set in a heavily romanticised, fantasy version of the early seventeenth century, and has an excellent mode that has the unassuming title "Quick Battle". What quick battle mode does is allows the player to take their characters and fight against a couple of hundred pre-made characters, who range wildly in appearance, from monsters to might soldiers to beautiful women to members of royalty. So, in tandem with the character creation mode, SCV allows players to play for hours and hours and hours without interacting with any of the game's characters, or participating in its storyline.

Thanks to all this, I tend to think of Soul Calibur V not as a fighting game, but a little escapist fantasy story-telling game. Each character I've made in the editor has a simple one-line backstory, and when a fight begins, I look at the opponent and the stage (and all the stages are rendered with almost decadent detail and grandeur), and come up with a similarly simple description of what's going on. The mighty warrior who eternally seeks stronger opponents hears tell of a demon lurking in an old, disused temple. The young traveller is led astray by a mischievous fairy with a taste for human flesh, or she has to fight off an agressively xenophobic city guard. A soldier for hire is paid by a magic school to test one of their promising young students in battle, or hired to expel a malevolent spirit that has been haunting the wooded hunting grounds near a village.

This all probably sounds incredibly lame, but I just think it's a nice way to enjoy a game, and to enjoy storytelling through gameplay. And it wouldn't be possible if Soul Calibur V didn't have this exact blend of creation mode, setting, and a mode full of characters with just the right amount of genericity that they can act as puppets for the player to tell their own stories.