Friday, 26 February 2016

He Jin Zhuang Bei II (Game Boy Color)

I don't know what the title means, or if there's actually a  He Jin Zhuang Bei I, but what I do know is that this is an unlicensed beat em up themed around the Metal Gear Solid games. Despite it's worldwide popularity, Metal Gear Solid doesn't seem to have inspired many pirate games, compared to the likes of Street Fighter or Dynasty Warriors. In fact, before this game, the only previous MGS Pirate I'd seen was a Russian Mega Drive pirate, that was just a quick hack of Crack Down with only the title screen changed.

The game starts with a codec conversation (in Chinese) between Snake, Mei Ling and the Colonel, before dumping you on an RPG-esque map screen. From this map, there are two stages the player can visit, in whatever order they like. There's an incredibly tedious bridge stage, that feels like it goes on forever, and sees Snake fight various kinds of soldiers and also what appear to be martial artists dressed in raggedy jester costumes with sacks on their heads. The other's a kind of warehouse district that doesn't have the jesters, though it does end with a boss fight against a big robot, that towers over Snake (who himself must be about seven feet tall, being significantly taller than most of the human enemy types). I dont know if there's some kind of copy protection that hasn't been cracked, or if there's some I was meant to do but never knew about because I can't read any of the text, but after completing these two stages, I could only play them again, the game didn't open up anything new.

Mechanically, it's very mediocre. Like a lot of other unlicensed GBC beat em ups (especially the many Dynasty Warriors games, and Final Fantasy X: Fantasy War), it has a levelling up system, and for the first few levels of experience, you do very little damage to enemies and every fight is a boring slog. You have a button to attack (doing Snake's punch-punch-kick combo from Metal Gear Solid!) and another to jump. Pressing them together performs a gun attack that drains your health and hardly ever hits, so don't bother with it. Other than that, there's really nothing about the way He Jin Zhuang Bei II plays that's particularly uniue or interesting.

Unless you're a rabid obsessive for either unlicensed games or Metal Gear Solid, there's unfortunately not really much to recommend about He Jin Zhuan Bei II, the various Dynasty Warriors GBC bootlegs are mostly better than it, and it definitely doesn't hold a torch to the excellent School Fighter.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Courageous Perseus (PC-88)

So, this game's older than me, and is a very early action RPG. Being developed and released so close to the dawn of its genre doesn't hold it back, though: it takes place in a relatively large open map, and the only restriction on your exploration is your ability to fight the enemies in a particular area.

Unfortunately, that's a bigger restriction than it sounds. The fact it, in Courageous Perseus, if your attack stat isn't high enough, you won't even scratch an enemy that's out of your league, but your stats increase very slightly for each enemy you kill. So, while it initially seems like the game is an open-world action RPG, it's more of a highly treacherous scavenger hunt, where trying to pick up the clues in the wrong order risks life and limb. You can't hang around an area full of weaklings to grind, either, as slain monsters don't respawn. It kind of reminds me of the DSiWare game Crystal Adventure, which is one long puzzle, in which the player has to discern the order in which every monster and item in the game should be collected or beaten.

Since the game provides nothing but an opportunity to conduct your own long-winded experiments in trial and error, it's mostly a frustrating waste of time. Even if you have a list of the enemies in order of ascending strength, there's still plenty of frustration to be had. The main source being the fact that the enemies just move around the screens completely at random, and it's very easy to get stuck between a bunch of enemies too strong for you to fight, leaving you helpless to do nothing but wait to die or hope that they get out of your way before that happens.

There are good points to Courageous Perseus, though. There's the aforementioned free-roaming aspect, which is years ahead of its time. There's also the graphics. While the island itself is just a bunch of yellow, brown and green blobs, with bright blue water, the monster sprites look great. Though they're tiny and only have a couple of colours to each of them, they're all different to each other, and it's clear what they're all supposed to be.

Courageous Perseus is a game that's impressive and very ambitious, but unfortunately, it's not very fun to play. It's worth playing if you have a curiosity about videogame RPGs from a time before the genre was truly codified by the likes of Wizardry, Black Onyx and Dragon Warrior (although Wizardry, at least, does predate it).

If you do decide to play it, here's the first few enemies in the order at which they can be beaten: turquoise soldier, white horse, satyr, centaur. That's as far as I got, so you'll have to work the rest out on your own.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

New York Warriors (Amiga)

So, European-developed shooting games, especially ones on the Amiga historically have had a repuatation for being terribly designed, boring and just generally not very good. New York Warriors, though it's not a patch on the likes of Mercs or Gun.Smoke, at least tries to redress that balance by being actually pretty good.

It's been said before that one of the main signifiers of quality for a home game in the 1980s and early 90s was how much like an arcade game it was, and New York Warriors (as it's called in adverts and on the game's box, though the title screen says N.Y. Warriors) is a lot like an arcade game, in more ways than just mechanically. It takes the grand old Japanese arcade tradition of "taking inspiration" and "paying homage" to other media in its setting and character design and makes it its own, with the setting itself being a mish-mash of The Warriors and Escape From New York, with one of the enemy gangs also being called "The Ramboids" and described as being "very sly".

Aesthetically, it gets the whole 80s VHS apocalyptic dystopian action movie look down pretty well, and all the stages look excellent. There's nice little details, too, like rats scurrying across the streets occasionally, and people sleeping on park benches. There's some problematic elements too, though, like the enemy gang of Chinatown being ninjas, and the one black gang being called "The Ganjas" and looking like lazy caricatures. And the fact that you get points for killing the aforementioned sleeping homeless people.

How does it play, though? It plays pretty well, actually. It's fast-paced, and though it's very difficult, rarely feels unfair. In fact, at first glance, it'll look a lot harder than it is. In some ways, it's actually ahead of its time too. For example, there's pretty much always massive clouds of enemy bullets coming from every direction, and though they don't have the elaborate patterns of later danmaku-style STGs, and the emphasis is on destroying the enemies quickly to stop the flow of bullets rather than being able to weave a path through them, it's still a striking sight to see in such an old game. There's also a nice touch regarding the power-ups: if you collect one power-up while you still have remaining ammo on a previous one, the game'll remember the earlier power-up and switch back to it when the newer one runs dry. It even does this for multiple power-ups, so long as you manage to stay alive that long. Another nice idea it has is that along with easy, normal and hard difficulty settings, there's also one named "flame", which is harder than the hard setting, but tilts the scales in your favour somewhat by giving you an unending supply of the best weapon in the game, the exploding fire laser.

If you can get past the few unpleasant elements, which are presumably more the result of the game being made by a bunch of late 80s European teenage boys just trying to make a videogame version of the movies they'd seen on video than the result of actual malice, New York Warriors is definitely worth a look. Especially since, as I mentioned, good Amiga shooting games are few and far between.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Dragon Unit (Arcade)

Dragon Unit was released in 1989 by the little-known Athena co., and it's an odd kind of hybrid platformer/beat em up. Odd because rather than being a platformer with beat em up elements, there are instead two kinds of stages: straight platformer stages and other stages that are mainly a long, flat corridor of enemies, but have two Guardian Heroes-esque planes to switch between by pushing the joystick up or down.

Other than that, and the fact that the shield the protagonist is carrying actually does block small projectiles, it's pretty unremarkable, mechanically speaking. There's lots of enemies, a whole range of power-ups and different weapons to collect and all the typical stuff you'd expect from a 1989 arcade platformer. Its charm lies in its presentation. At the most basic level, you can plainly see that the sprites are big, the colours are bright and lurid, and it looks pretty nice, though the black outlines on everything are a little ugly. Looking further than that, there's nice little touches, like how your knight's armour gradually falls apart as your health decreases until he's in his underwear, like a more gradual version of Arthur from Ghouls and Ghosts.

There's also a lot of visual variety in Dragon Unit. Even though there are only six fairly short stages, they all look completely different to each other, and mostly have their own sets of enemies, who are mostly big and always ugly and evil-looking, which is nice too. It's a game that mostly gets by on its atmosphere, the ugliness of the enemies, the overly saturated colours, and so on really make it stand out. At the same time, it's all very rough around the edges, I don't know whether it's down to a lack of experience on the part of the developers, or maybe budget or time contraints, but the whole thing looks, sounds and feels very unpolished.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, and I'd say it actually adds to the game's appeal. It could have given the impression of a game lazily knocked out to fill a quota, but instead it feels more like a labour of love, made by a team whose passion and creativity slightly outweighed their technical abilities. I'd say it's definitely worth a look and a credit feed through at the very least. There's apparently also a NES port, called Castle of Dragon. I haven't played it, but I can't imagine it being a game that makes the transition to such an underpowered console gracefully.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

King Colossus (Mega Drive)

It's often an annoying cliche to compare 16-bit action RPGs to A Link to the Past, especially when lazy critics accuse the likes of Story of Thor and Soliel of being "Zelda-clones", when the only similarities are at the most superficial level. But in this case, there's a good point to be made, though it's done by contrasting this one with Nintendo's classic. The thing is, they're good  examples of the differences in the design philosophies typical to their host consoles.

First off, there's the tone and aesthetic of each game: if ALttP can be likened to a fun, colourful adventure anime that gets dubbed on the cheap and aired at 6am, then King Colossus is more like a grim late 80s fantasy OAV that gets dubbed with extra swear words and released on tape by Manga Video. That is, while Zelda does have some dark elements, it's mainly bright and colourful, with the tone being skewed towards fun and adventure. In contrast, King Colossus has your orphaned hero being sold into slavery by the old man that raised him, being forced to fight to the death in an arena as part of a ritual honouring an evil god. (And that's just the start of your hardships).

The contrasts carry over into each game's structure, too: unlike ALttP, KC has no currency to accumulate, nor does it have a large open world to explore. It's a lot more linear and arcadey in its execution. Pretty much the entire game is spent in dungeons fighting monsters (or in the colosseum fighting your fellow captives), with only short expository interludes between them. There's still a little exploration to be done within the dungeons, but the meat of the game is combat. It's fortunat, then, that the combat is pretty good. There's an array of different weapons to find, and not only do the get stronger as you go through the game, but they also attack in different ways. There's swords, axes and spears that attack in front of the player at different lengths, as well as crossbows that shoot over long distances, flails that attack in a circle around the player and others.

The only criticism that can really be levelled towards King Colossus is that it is a little bit too easy. I'm most of the way through the game at the time of writing (and I do intend to eventually see it through to the end), and I've only died at two or three points in the game. Other than that, though, it's a fun action RPG that's a little darker in tone than the usual and it's worth a try if you're curious.