Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Frame Gride (Dreamcast)

Before they hit the mainstream with the Souls series, From Software spent years making games aimed at very specific niches, like their slow-paced, high-difficulty first person action RPGs (the most famous of which being those in the Kings Field series), or their super in-depth Armoured Core series of giant robot sims. Frame Gride is, compared to those games, a lot simpler, easier and more accessible. Another difference is in the setting: while the AC series takes place in a futuristic world of capitalism gone mad, Frame Gride takes place in a medieval fantasy world, more akin to the likes of Aura Battler Dunbine or the Vision of Escaflowne, and with mecha that look like grand, ornate suits of giant armour.

It's a game of one-on-one giant robot arena fights, though with controls and setup being a lot simpler than the Armoured Core games. There's only a few different stats for each piece of equipment, and the stats are represented by simple bars, rather than pages and pages full of numbers. The way you acquire more equipment is also simplified: there's neither currency nor shops in this game. Instead, defeating foes rewards you with various gems, and in your home menu, you can combine two of these gems at a time, with each possible combination garnering either a piece of equipment or a "squire", which I'll get onto later. Luckily, there's no need to waste time and gems on trial and error, since the equipment screen does tell you what gems you need to combine for each item.

Now, the squires. They're self-operated robots you can summon to fight alongside you in battle (and your foes can do the same). You get them by combining gems, just like your equipment, and they all have their own properties and different kinds of weapons. They each also have an LF points value, which is like a quota. The maximum amount of LF's worth of squires you can summon depends on which pieces of armour you have equipped. They're not a massive help, but they're better than nothing. Also, destroying your enemies' squires gets you more gems.

The game, other than the menu between fights where you combine gems, change equipment and so on, is very simply structured. You just go from one fight to the next, until, after defeating seven foes, you fight the final boss. It's not a long game, but there's an obvious reason for that, though unfortuantely, it's one that I can't really tell you about in great detail. Frame Gride has an online battle option, and it's clear that it's this the game was built around, with single player being there as both an obligation and a bit of added value. Obviously, there's no way for me to possibly play Frame Gride online in this day and age, so I can't tell you about how it worked. But I can say that it's weird that it was never brought to the west, purely because Dreamcast owners outside Japan were starved of games with online play. Magazines and internet message boards alike would decry the lack of online games being released. We can now see that they did exist, in many genres, but only in Japan, another case of SEGA Europe and America's infamous ineptitude when it came to choosing Dreamcast (and Saturn) games for western release.

All that aside, though, Frame Gride is still a great-looking game, and single player mode is still a fine way to pass an hour or two. There's also a translation patch floating around on the internet, to make things that bit more accessible. I think the version I played must have been an early version of the patch, as I have seen mention online of the game being fully translated, and the version I played still had a lot of Japanse text left untouched. Either way, it's far from impenetrable as it is, and I recommend you give it a try.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Elevation II (Amiga)

I've given up, at least temporarily, on finding anything interesting in the Assassins PD compilation disks, as after looking at a few, it seems they were almost exclusively interested in making compilations of uninteresting clones of old arcade games. So instead, here's a solitary PD Amiga game that, rather than copying verbatim an old arcade game, offers up an original game that wouldn't have looked out of place in arcades a decade before its actual release.

So, you're a little man, and you have to run across the floors of a building until you reach your lady love at the top. Obstructing you are elevators, with various levels of speed and erraticnes. It's incredibly simple: the only controls are left and right, and touching an elevator results in a lost life. There's also various kinds of items that fall from above at random intervals, including extra lives, invincibility, points bonuses and items that instantly move you up or down a floor.

Scoring is pretty simple, too: other than the 1000 points item that might fall down, at the end of each stage, you get a bonus based on how quick you were, as well as fifty points for each stage you've cleared and a hundred for each remaining life you have. Obviously, the items appearing at random can mean that your score isn't totally a reflection of your skill, and there's always something of a luck element. Unlike in other games where I've slated such an aproach, though, I think Elevation II is just about simple enough to get away with it.

It would be remiss to let this review end without mention of the game's presentation. Since the game is a one-man job from 1993, it's obviously very simple, but at the same time, there's a lot of nostalgic charm to it. I'd describe it as a kind of mix of the black backgrounds and simple sprites of classic arcade games and the cheap and cheerful brightly-colored working class charm of 1980s ITV Saturday night light entertainment.

Elevation II is an incredibly simple game, and even at the time of its release, it couldn't possibly have been considered meaty enough to be a commercial release on either home systems or in arcades, but it remains one of my favourite Amiga games. It just has a timeless quality, it's a ton of fun to play, and surprisingly addictive.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Keriotosse! (Saturn)

I'm tagging Keriotosse as a fighting game, like I have with a few other similar 32-bit oddities in the past, but it's a very tenuous tag, as this game lacks most of the trappings of what you'd consider to be a real fighting game. There's no healthbars, no knockouts, almost no special moves, and no punching. What it actually is is a somewhat silly contest in which four characters on a small circular stage all try to kick each other off the edge. The last one on the platform wins the round, and the first to win three rounds wins the match.

Thinking about it a little more, the stages themselves actually suggest a little inspiration from the Bomberman games, as each one is slightly different, whether it has interactive playground equipment, running water, strong winds or other such features, that all have some kind of effect on the proceedings. An annoying feature that every stage has is that no matter what kind of surface they take place upon, all the characters slid around as if it were a traditional platform slippy slidy ice stage. Obviously the devs were thinking this would aid in characters kicking each other around, but it's mostly just a nuisance.

The characters are a weird, incoherent selection, seemingly made up of anything that came into the designer's heads. Your starting selection includings a harpy boy, a deep-voiced alien woman, a beer-loving bunnygirl, and an aging buddhist priest. A few stages into single-player mode, you'll also start encountering other weirdos, including robots of both faux-Gundam and faux-R2D2 flavours, a weird masked princess, and others. They all mostly play identically to each other, with the exception being the special attacks. I assume these characters can be unlocked, though unfortunately, I haven't yet found out how.

Special attacks are limited-use (typically once per round, though if the round goes on long enough, they do eventualy recharge), and each character's is totally different. For example, the harpy boy can fly around for a short time, taking him out of reach of attacks and allowing him to swoop down and claw at his foes. The monk surrounds himself with a ring of hearts, that knockback foes much further than the normal kicks. The bunnygirls can offer a pint to an opponent, that leaves them drunk for a short time, and the R2D2-like robot can trigger a large explosion. It's nice that the special attacks aren't just slight variations on the same few effects, but it does mean that some characters have massive advantages over the others. In my experience, the priest and the harpy boy are by far the best equipped of the initial few selectable characters.

Keriotosse isn't a bad game, but it's not a very good one, either. It's incredibly average. The only reason you should really play it is to see the very nice low-poly stages, and the slightly less nice low-poly characters. I mean, I can't think of any better kicking-people-off-platforms games, but it's not a very exciting concept to begin with, either. After this and JSWAT and that awful game with the pig, I should really try to seek out a forgotten Saturn game that I can be a bit more positive about, shouldn't I?

Monday, 12 December 2016

Maze Action (PS2)

It wasn't long ago that I proclaimed Minami no Shima ni Buta Ga Ita to be the worst game ever featured on this blog, but in Maze Action (Also known as The Simple 2000 Ultimate Series Vol. 8: Gekitou! Meiro King), I've found a fairly robust challenger to that title. It does fall short, though, in that while playing Maze Action is a completely miserable experience, and it's a pretty cheap-looking title, even for a Simple Series game, it does at least feel like it's just a bad game, and not a personal insult from the developers directed at the player. (Minami no Shima ni Buta Ga Ita really was that bad).

The plot and the mechanics both seem to have been inspired by the popular comic Hunter X Hunter, specifically the hunter exam story arc. You are one of the four of this year's candidates to have reached the final exam at the hero academy, but there can only be one graduate, so you've got to face each other in a contest of skill and strength to determine who that'll be. So single player mode has four stages: you face off against each of the three characters you didn't pick, and then you fight a copy of your own character. It seems likely that there's probably a fifth stage with a final boss character, but you'd honestly need the patience of a saint to bother playing long enough to find out.

The mechanical influence from HxH is also from the hunter exam part, as the contests in which you're place see you running around a maze, trying to be first to find three matching keys and getting to your opponent's starting pad. The twist is that while you need three red keys and your opponent needs three blue, you start with a blue key and they start with a red. So, just like that part on the island where all the hunter candidates have to run around trying to steal each other's number badges, while protecting their own, you will be forced, at some point, to fight your opponent. There are various items littering the mazes, along with the keys. There's weapons, of both melee and projectile varieties, and there's traps. There's also some traps permanently planted around the place, too.

This could have all addedup into a fairly decent game, but the problem is all in the execution. Moving around feels awkward, combat is haphazard and unsatisfying, and it just generally doesn't feel very good to play. It's frustrating, because it also feels like the developers were really inspired and really wanted to make a simplified videogame version of the hunter exam, but they just didn't make it enjoyable to play.

So yeah, Maze Action is a terrible game and you definitely shouldn't play it. But I can see what they were trying to do, at least. That's something, right?

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Diet Family (Arcade)

When I first saw this title, and the fact that it was made by the Korean company Semicom, I was instantly interested. This was mainly because, as I've covered before, Korean arcade games aren't always completely original, and I thought that it might at least be a fun knock-off of the excellent Data East game Diet Go Go (which I covered on this blog many years ago). It's actually a totally original (as far as I can tell) Galaga-style shooting game, with a bit of an unhealthy approach to weight loss as its main theme.

So, you play as one of five characters (and if they're a family, as the title suggests, then it looks like it's two daughters, mum, dad and their weird blue cat thing), and set out to destroy/avoid food, and eat only the tasty diet pills. Yeah, that's a bit weird and unpleasant, isn't it? I mean at least Diet Go Go had the protagonists dressed like they were going to do execise too, and the food that evil scientist was giving out was all massive cakes and legs of meat.Most of the food in Diet Family is pretty healthy stuff like fruits, vegetables and sushi!

But all that aside, the game is at least full of interesting ideas mechanically. For example, scoring and obtaining power-ups relies heavily on the game's comboing system. Unusually, that system focuses entirely on accuracy, rather than the more typical speed, as your combo counter goes up for every one of your bullets that hits an enemy in a row, and resets if one of your bullets flies offscreen. As the combo gets longer, more and more items and power-ups will make their way down the screen to you. It works fairly well, though the requirements to get a power-up for your weapon are incredibly steep, needing twenty sucessful shots in a row. On the other hand, as you get further into the game, there are more enemies coming at you in thicker patterns, so it does get easier to rack up big combos as you go along.

The way your lives work is different, too. You have three lives and an energy meter. If you take a hit, the energy meter decreases, depending on the strength of the enemy that hit you (you're told the strengths of the different enemies at the start of each stage). It goes up a tiny amount for each diet pills you collect. If it decreases past the bottom of the bar, you'll lose a life, your sprite will get fatter (though this is only cosmetic, you aren't slowed down or anything), and the energy meter will be back near the top again. If you collect enough pills to make the meter go over the top, and you've lost at least one life, you'll get another life back, though the meter will be back at the bottom. So it's easier to claw lives back than in most shooting games, though you are limited to a maximum of three (plus a full energy meter).

Saying whether or not I actually recommend Diet Family is a difficult one: though I didn't personally find it to be a very enjoyable game to play, I can also see that it's definitely competently made and designed, and someone with more patience for its accuracy-based mechanics could very well get a lot of fun out of it. What a terrible, fence-sitting conclusion!

Friday, 2 December 2016

Minami no Shima ni Buta Ga Ita (Saturn)

What we have here might be the worst game ever featured on this blog. It's definitely the most shameful licensed commercial release, with production values that would look bad if they were in some Chinese Pirate Mega Drive game, let alone a game licensed, officially released and sold for money on the Saturn in 1996. Even having an animated FMV intro doesn't make the game look any better, since even that manages to be grotesque and cheap-looking.

You take control of a whip-wielding pig, on a journey to retrieve a load of lost piglets (as far as I can tell, at least). This journey takes you across various different landscapes, which are fairly typical platform game locales: snowy place, clockwork place, jungle place, beach place, and so on. The stages themselves can be tackled in any order, and also have two types of sections. When you first enter an area, you'll play through a psuedo-platformy stage (though there's no actual platforming to be done), where you walk from left to right, using your whip to defeat enemies and free piglets from bubbles. Once you get to the end of one of these areas, you'll then enter a puzzle stage.

The puzzles are all varied, to the point at which I've seen quite a few of them, and they were all unique with none of them being just a variation on one of the others. The main problem is that not only do you have to solve the puzzles, but you also have to figure out what slving the puzzles requires. Like I said they're all unique, but on top of that, none of them come with instructions in any language. You're just dumped in there and expected to work out what you're meant to do, and how to do it in three attempts. If you solve the puzzle, you'll go on to another action stage/puzzle stage cycle. If you use up your three chances, you'll get a game over, and if you voluntarily quit, you'll go back to the area select screen.

I can't really tell you any more about it. The action stages are terrible and pointless, with tiny sprites jerking around in front of backgrounds that aren't even in the same scale. The puzzle stages are boring and if you solve them, there's no satisfaction, while if you fail, you don't feel any incentive to go back and try again. I played this game for about an hour, and the only positive thing I can say about the experience is that I can at least tell you not to bother.

I hate to say it, but Minami no Shima ni Buta Ga Ita is a game that deserves to languish in obscurity, forgotten forever. After you finish reading this review, try to forget you ever even heard this game's title.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Musashi no Ken - Tadaima Shugyou Chuu (NES)

Based on an 80s anime of which I'd never heard prior to playing the game, Musashi no Ken has one of the most wholesome and innocent premises for a platform game I've ever seen. The protagonist has a big kendo tournament coming up, so he takes to the wilderness to go and train, by hitting inanimate objects with his shinai. Obviously, we can't expect too much deviation or innovation from an 80s licensed platformer, so there are still enemies to kill in the stages, though they're mostly either indistinct blobs, or random objects like maid dolls or walking bowls.

Your journey through the platform stage actually does act as a kind of training, as when you hit platforms, wooden posts, tires and other stuff strewn about the stages, little tiny shinai items pop out of them. These items come in three flavours: high, middle and low, and they're also floating around in the stages in the traditional platform game item fashion. These items don't actually do anything during the platform stages, but after three such stages, it's time for the big tournament!

But before I get onto that, I have more things to say about the platform stages. Firstly, there's an added complication in that as well as avoiding all the hazards, traps and enemies, you're also racing your dog to the end of the stage. This isn't really a big deal though, as he's so slow that he's usually only halfway through the stage by the time you reach the end. Secondly, the game uses a kind of rudimentary HP system: you start with fifty HP, and getting hit causes you to lose twenty-five of them, and should you happen across any riceballs along the way, they'll restore 10 each. At the end of the stage, you'll get 100 points for each HP you have left. What I find interesting about this system is that if you've been hit once, finding a riceball will allow you to survive one more hit before losing a life, but after that hit, you'll need to find two of them to get another hit. Obviously, this also means that the best scoring strategy is to avoid hits and find riceballs, so you have the maximum number of HP to turn into points at the end.

The platform stages are so absurdly difficult that, though I'm ashamed to admit it, I actually had to abuse save states to reach the tournament, because I really wanted to see it and screenshot it for my beloved readers. It was totally worth the effort, though, as it's good enough to have been a game on its own. What happenis is that you fight five sequential opponents in traditional first-to-two-points kendo matches. The items you collected during your training come into play here, as each 10 you have in each category allow you to use a powerful strike once. These strikes are almost guaranteed to win you a point when you use them, but you still need to be careful with tham, as the amount of items you have going into the tournament is what you're stuck with: they don't replenish between rounds, or when you lose a life (by losing a round).

Musashi no Ken is a pretty good game, with a lot of cool ideas. If they could flesh it out about, and come up wwith a replacement for the item-limited power strikes, the kendo tournament is good enough to be its own standalone game. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: kendo is a sport that should work well in videogame form, and it's totally bizarre that over almost forty years, there's less than ten kendo games in existence.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Mimizu Panzer (PC)

This is a game I first read about on Insert Credit over a decade ago, back when it used to be a news site, though I only actually got round to playing it fairly recently. It's a single-screen shooting game in which you control a long, segmented millipede-like tank, destroying gun turrets in the desert. That ancient IC news post made mention of the plot placing the player in the boots of a moe version of a Nazi tank commander in World War II, though I guess either it's an incredibly loose interpretation, or they based that post on an early version, and all that stuff was replaced with more generic moe girls for the final release.

On first play, Mimizu Panzer seems slow, boring and hard, and the scores seen on the high score table seem unreachable compared to the scores you'll be getting. Most of these things will change once you work out all the little tricks to how the game works. Firstly, there's the length of your tank, which affects things in various different ways. You start with four segments behind your head tank, and gain one for every enemy you kill. Furthermore, only your head can be hurt, and all the other segments stop enemy bullets. If you lose a life, you also lose half of your segments (not including the first four). Some of the segments have holes in, and those holes glow when hit by enemy bullets. If you shoot one of the glowing hole segments with your own bullets, it'll start shooting flames from one side, which is the key mechanic you have to master to get anywhere in this game.

The most obvious thing about the flames is that they're significantly more powerful than your normal shots, which is important, as all but the weakest of the enemy turrets can take a lot of punishment before going down. At the same time, though, they're also significantly harder to aim, unless you pre-calculate the path you want your tank and its fiery emissions to take before letting them off. The other thing the flames do is vastly increase your scoring potential: enemies killed by shot have pretty small points values, while enemies killed by flame have their points value multiplied by the number of extra segments (again, discounting the first four). It's really got everything a good score system should have, in that it rewards both skillful use of the game's main mechanical gimmick, plus it rewards staying alive, and even more than that, it makes staying alive a more difficult task the longer you keep it up (since you have to avoid crashing into yourself and the sides of the screen on top of everything else).

The only real problem with Mimizu Panzer is really more a problem with myself rather than the game, and it's the fact that it's really difficult. To get a decent variety of screenshots for this review, I had to resort to continues and even the game's pre-recorded replays to get a look further in the game. I will say this in its favour, though: even as hard and frustrating as it gets, it doesn't stop being addictive. I've whiled away hours trying to get just one screen further while playing it for this review. It's for that reason that I totally recommend Mimizu Panzer, and I say that it's a shame it languishes in the obscurity inherent in being a years-old Japanese PC game, and will probably never get an official western release, and is even less likely to get the audience it deserves on consoles.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Hyakumanton no Barabara (PSP)

So, it's only after playing the Japanese version of this game for a few hours that I learn that it actually had a western release, under the name "Patchwork Heroes". But I think the fact that I've never seen or heard anyone speak about either version makes it fine material for an obscure videogames blog. Anyway, if, like me, seeing screenshots of it makes you assume that it's some kind of quirky tower defence-type thing where you build flying battleships with cannons and turrets and things. It's actually kind of the opposite! What Hyakumanton no Barabara is is an imaginative twist on the old Qix formula, that sees you cutting apart huge flying battleships while working under the pressure of a strict time limit (since you want to destroy the battleships before they reach your hometown), and while under attack from the ships' various defence systems, mobile and otherwise.

So the way it works is that you climb around on the side of the ship, and you can cut swathes across it. If you cut in such a manner that the ship is split in two, the smallest part is destroyed and falls away. Your mission on each stage is to keep destroying bits of the ship until it falls out of the sky. Some stages also add little extra objectives that need to be fulfilled alongside your main goal, like ensuring one certain part of the ship remains intact, or collecting all of a certain item that's strewn around the ship.

There's many different kinds of enemies crawling around the ship triyng to stop you, and they each have a skill, like being able to repair the ship, or being able to fly, so they can't be killed when you cut away the part of the ship they're standing on, and so on. You can take two hits from enemies before dying, represented by the fact that you have two other people climbing alongside you at the start of each stage. There's also prisoners to rescue from cages dotted around the place, and if you have less than two remaining, they'll step in to replace them. Otherwise, they'll fly away with a balloon. There's also a few power-ups, which are the same as usual for Qix-alikes: faster movement, stop time for all the enemies, and so on.

The game looks and sounds really nice, too! Like you could guess from the game's western title, everything looks like it's made from big, colourful patchwork quilts. What you can't tell from the title is that the music is really bouncy and fun, sounding like a kind of eastern european marching band? It's pretty unique, as far as videogame soundtracks go, at least.

I really enjoyed this game. I'd even go as far as to say  that playing it is the most fun I've ever had playing a Qix-alike game! That might be damning with faint praise, since most of them have more of a "addiction through frustration" thing going on, rather than genuine enjoyment. But yeah, Hyakumanton no Barabara/Patchwork Heroes is a great little unsung hero of the PSP library. I think it might also be the first PSP game I've featured on this blog that I recommend without reservation? That's nice.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Metal Freezer (Arcade)

I know what some of you might be thinking, and this game doesn't have anything to do with Dragonball Z. In fact, it's a futuristic maze game, that's almost as good as the game that I (and I'm sure many other people) place at the top of the genre, Raimais (and yes, I realise that this marks two arcade games in a row that I've compared to better-known games by Taito. The thing is, if you like arcade games, you like Taito games. They just put out a ton of varied, high quality games in the 80s and 90s!)

Anyway, Metal Freezer has you placing floor tiles over what appears to be exposed electronics, though functionally, this is exactly the same as collecting stuff in almost every other maze game that exists. It might actually be a spiritual sequel to another game from the same publisher named "Mustache Boy", albeit with a significant aesthetic improvement (but I'll get back to that later). Anyway, in four out of every five stages, you simply have to move over all the exposed electronics squares to place floor tiles over them, while avoiding/destroying the enemies roaming around. Every fifth stage has you getting through a tight obstacle course-like stage and reaching the exit as quickly as possible.

There are several distinct types of enemies, and they all do different things. For example, one type of enemies drags you towards it with magnetism, while one drills holes in walls to create more work for you, and another shoots goo at you that prevents you from jumping for a few seconds. Touching any of them loses you a life, though you aren't nearly as defenceless as you would be in most maze games, as you can shoot them with your freeze ray as much as you like (well, it has an overheat meter, but unless you go crazy with it, that won't even matter), turning them into ice cubes that can be pushed off the stage, into walls, or even used to crush other enemies.

Anyway, those aesthetics, eh? At first, the game'll look no better or worse than any other mid-budget late-80s arcade game. But there's a lot of great little details in there that you'll gradually start to notice! Like the way every type of floor and wall block has a different animation for when the stage fades to black on completion. And there's the cool cyberpunk wireframe progress map that displays at the start and finish of every game. All these little things add up to lift Metal Freezer a little higher than its contempories, and make it feel a little bit more professional.

Anyway, Metal Freezer is an excellent game, and I strongly recommend giving it a try!

Monday, 7 November 2016

Powerplay - The Game of the Gods (Amiga)

If Powerplay's claim is true, and it is actually the game of the gods, then it tells us three things about them. The first and second things it tells us are that the gods have both incredible patience and a lot of time on their hands, as a single glaically-paced game of Powerplay took the better part of two hours. The other thing it teaches us about the gods is that above all, they value knowledge of trivia.

Powerplay takes the form of a board game, each player (either a human versus the CPU, or up to four human players, though I struggle to imagine a situation where that has ever happened) picks a greek god and four champions to represent them on the board. Each turn you pick one of your champions to move, and then you answer a general knowledge question. If you get it right, you score a few points and you can move your chosen champion one space in any direction. If not, your turn ends. That's what happens most turns, anyway: sometimes, your champions will just wander around the board at random, and you do nothing. When a character reaches 25 points, they'll "mutate" into another character.

Should one of your champions meet one of your opponent's, a challenge will start. There's two types of challenge: either a tug-of-war held over a lava pit, or some kind of bizarre trial, over which the gorgon Medusa presides. It doesn't matter which you get though, as they're both exactly the same, mechanically: you answer more trivia questions. Get three in a row right and you win, get three in a row wrong and you lose. You also lose if your champion runs out of strength, which depletes for both sides at a rate of one per question. The losing champion will either go down one level of mutation, or if they're in their default state, be taken off the board entirely.

Once only one god is left represented on the board, they win. You get an animation of Zeus congratulating you, and then the game asks if you want to play again. Which is pretty presumptuous, considering you've just spent two hours answering stupid questions, and they already started repeating half way through.

Powerplay is a terrible game. I had it in the box of pirated disks that came with my Amiga when I was a kid, and even then, I knew better than try to get someone else involved in trying to play through a multiplayer game. As an adult, I wouldn't recommend bothering with single player, either.