Monday, 30 May 2016

Jet Ion GP (PS2)

Usually, when a new console gets released, magazines will cover every game they can get their hands on, even Japan-only titles. Which makes it odd that Jet Ion GP (released in Japan under the vowel-deprived title of Hresvelgr: Interntional Edition) seemed to go by unnoticed, despite being released in the opening months of the Playstation 2's life, in December 2000. There was even an earlier revision, simply named Hresvelgr a few months earlier, that similarly went unmentioned in UK magazines of the time.

Anyway, Jet Ion GP is a futuristic racing game, with anti-gravity crafts taking the place of cars. The road is also replaced, by a glowing "energy belt" that serves the dual purpose of showing the way through the racecourse, and ensuring no-one can take shortcuts, as it's also the power source for the crafts. If a pilot tries to fly away from it, their speed gradually decreases, until their craft's power cuts out altogether.

The future in which the game is set takes an unusually optimistic view of the decades to come, as the setting combines the luxury and opulence of the Ridge Racer series with the wonder and spectacle of a post-scarcity, pollution-free high-tech civilisation. With this in mind, the tracks themselves take place in a variety of locations with serene mountains and forests accompanying the standard neon megalopolises. The locations are the same on every difficulty level, though the actual course that's flown through them is different.

The course designs are great, too. They start off simple, letting the player learn to fly their craft, gradually getting more complex and difficult as they advance. Just like you'd expect, really, though special mention must go to the mountain-set final stage, Bramble Yard. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, Bramble Yard offers a really spectacular race, with roller coaster-esque vertical climbs and drops, and twists around buildings and under and over pipes and beams.

There is one downside to Jet Ion GP, though: the framerate. Though I don't have a single particle of sympathy for the ridiculous framerate bores that plague the reviews section of many Steam games, Jet Ion GP really does have a shockingly low frame rate, especially for a racing game. It's at its worst in the first few seconds of each race, as all the crafts are close together, but it never gets to a speed most would call "smooth." I wonder if this problem could be fixed in emulation? But anyway, I've said all this, but it really didn't hamper my enjoyment of the game at all. It is, however, noticable enough that it does need to be mentioned.

In conclusion, Jet Ion GP is an enjoyable, overlooked racing game, and you can get a copy for practically nothing (in the UK at least), and I'd say it's worth doing.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Aquapolis SOS (MSX)

When you first start playing Aquapolis SOS, it seems like nothing more than a much easier knock-off of Taito's 1979 arcade game Lunar Rescue, but it's actually more than that: it's a much easier knock-off of Lunar Resuce with some added elements of Missile Command! Anyway, the premise is that the underwater city of Aquapolis is under seige, from missiles and floating mines, and you're charged with the task of helping evacuate the place, as well as operating the city's forcefield to protect the buildings. You can probably work out most of how this works from the screenshots, but basically, you pilot your submarine down to the city, land on top of one of the buildings to pick up an evacuee, and then go back up to the surface ship. On your way back up, you can shoot the mines for extra points, though your score actually goes down if one of your missiles hits the surface ship. I can't think of many other arcade-style games where you can actually lose points like that, the only one that immediately comes to mind is Dynamite Deka 2, in which you lose points when you lose health (and gain points when you get it back). As well as mines, there's also a seahorse, that will try to drag you around if you get too close, though it can't hurt you itself, and you can't hurt it.

As for the missiles and the force field, that's just something you have to manage as you play. At the push of a button, you can open or close a forcefield above the city which destroys anything it touches (except for that indestructible seahorse), the opening and closing is pretty slow, so once you get a few stages in, and there's more mines for you to avoid, you've really got to be skillful in balancing the tasks of avoiding mines, protecting the city and not smashing into the field yourself. Missiles that get through will destroy one of the buildings, permanenly taking away one landing spot in the city, and if all of them get destroyed, it's an instant game over (though, I had to deliberately not use the forcefield and play through several stages to confirm that this happens).

There's some other little quirks in the game too, like the end-of-stage bonus, based on how many successful rescues you get during a stage. This is interesting because a stage ends once five evacuees have left the city, and the only way to lose one is by losing a life on your way back up the screen after picking them up. I would have preferred a time bonus, but I guess the random appearence of the missiles would have added to large an element of luck to scoring.

Aquapolis SOS is a game that I can't really say is particularly good or bad. It's not very exciting or interesting, but it passes the time in a fairly unpleasant manner. The most significant thing to say about it is that it's a very early game from the team that would go on to become MSX stalwarts and Puyo Puyo creators Compile.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Chaos Heat (Arcade)

If you think way back, you might remember when I wrote about a terrible Playstation survival horror game named Chaos Break, and how I mentioned that it was a vastly inferior "adaptation" of an arcade game called Chaos Heat. This is that very game. Obviously. Before I start, I should also mention that the emulation of this game isn't totally perfect yet, but it's definitely good enough to play.

Anyway, it's a 3D action game, that's structured like a beat em up, but you mostly shoot stuff, rather than punch it. I guess kind of like the later Capcom game Cannon Spike? It's got the same plot as a million other 90s videogames: you're a member of an elite military team, and you've been sent to some remote lab full of genetically-engineered monsters. There's three characters to pick from, and they're different not just in movement speed and attack power, but in the weapons they carry.

To elaborate, the weapons can be shot normally, by tapping the fire button, or they can be charged by holding it down. So different are the characters' weapons, that even the way charging works is different for each of them. For example, one character's charge attack is a powerful laser that fires continuously for however long you held the button before releasing, while another character's charge attack only works if it's charged all the way, and it increases the power of their normal shots for a short time. The third character doesn't have a charge weapon, instead firing a powerful flamethrower that uses up ammo at a much higher rate than their normal gun when the button is held.

As you play the game more, you'll encounter various other interesting things about it, like how there are branching paths through levels, that diverge based on your ability to perform timed tasks, like protect an NPC teammate for 30 seconds while they hack an electronic lock, and so on. Different paths through stages can even lead to entirely different boss fights, too, which is more impressive than the "same boss fight, different background" offered by the likes of House of the Dead 2!

The most interesting thing from a historical standpoint, though, is a mechanic that's way ahead of its time for a game released in 1998: the player has an invincible dodge roll move. I know Chaos Heat probably isn't the first game to have such a thing, but it's still something I associate with more modern action games, like Dark Souls or Bayonetta (actually, is the DS roll even invincible? It's been years since I played it). Once you know that this move is there, it totally changes the flow of the game, as it does in most games where it exists. The only downside to it is that it's performed with a double direction tap, rather than a single button press, which does feel slightly unwieldy.

Chaos Heat isn't a great all-time classic, but it is a bit of a hidden gem, and it's a crying shame that Taito decided to make that horrible survival horror game rather than give this one the home port it deserved. As it is, though, if you can tolerate playing a game in less-than-perfect emulation (or if you somehow gain access to a real cabinet), Chaos Heat is definitely worth a look.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Doman (Amiga)

Round about the mid-90s, though most people had cast the Amiga into the past, never to be thought of ahain, there was still enough of a following for the system that commercial game releases were still coming (and, in fact, would continue until at least the early 00s). It's in the mid-90s that a small Polish developer, named World Software, released a few belt-scrolling beam em ups, that would become infamous for their grim settings and gratuitous violence. Doman is one of those games.

I can't tell you anything about the plot, as obviously, all the game's text is in Polish. But I can tell you that it's set in a dark, bleak world of medieval fantasy, where the background has giant black mountains and foreboding forests, while the foreground has impoverished villages where all the inhabitants are hung up, or beheaded, or generally suffering some kind of severe misfortune. You play as one of two absurdly muscular barbarians, one with dark hair and a sword, the other with blonde hair, a beard and an axe. You walk from left to right, violently murderering groups of soldiers, orcs, wizards, demons, archers, and so on.

Despite coming out as late as 1994, it doesn't have any option (as far as I can tell) to use two-button controllers, nor does it have the typical beat em up combo system. Instead, you can perform different attacks by holding the fire button and pressing different directions. The most effective strategy is to rely on the attacks assigned to up and down. The up attack knocks enemies to the ground, allowing you to pummel whoever's standing with the down attack, which is pretty good for attack power, range and speed. When the downed enemy starts to get up, knock the current guy down and switch targets.

The structure is pretty strange: the first time I played, I though I was just doing really badly, and failing to get past an incredibly long first stage. After getting a game over and seeing the high score table, I realised I was wrong: the scores are just a simple percentage, which I assume is how far you made it through the game. So that's pretty interesting, the game being one long stage, right? There is one bad thing about the game, though: there's a lot of loading. It stops to load every time you walk a screen's distance, it stops to load whenever a group of enemies appear, and the load times at the start of the game, and between games are very long. Also, if you plan on playing it on real hardware, it comes on five disks, which will be an immense pain if you only have one disk drive.

Doman isn't a bad game. It can seem unfairly hard at first, but once you've got a hang of how the combat works, it gets a lot more manageable. Obviously, there's many, much better beat em ups on consoles and in arcades, but as far as they go on the Amiga, it's easily the best I've ever played. Plus, there's a little bit of novelty in playing an arcade-style game that comes from Poland, when in recent years, eastern Europe is probably more known for PC games, first person shooters, and so on.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Volleyfire (Game Boy)

Long-time readers will remember a few times in earlier posts where I mention having a 32-in-1 pirate cart for my Game Boy as a kid, which, along with a few mainstays like Tetris, Tennis and Alleyway, also contained a whole load of lesser known Japan-only games that I otherwise would have never heard of, of which Volley Fire is one. I think the title is supposed to suggest a kind of volleyball, but played with fire, and I can kind of see where they're coming from with that, but it's more like a more advanced version of the 1975 arcade game Western Gun/Gun Fight. But with spaceships instead of cowboys.

The game's setup for the first stage is like this: you control as a spaceship on the bottom of the screen, and there's an AI-controlled spaceship at the top. You have to shoot each other and avoid each other's shots, while shot-blocking indestructible asteroids float by in the middle. Now, when I played this back in the ancient past, I saw this simple first stage, and got bored and moved on before bothering to get past it. Playing it again as an adult, I learned that I was wrong to give up on Volley Fire so quickly.

After the first stage, it quickly starts introducing new elements: destructible scenery, mirrors that reflect your shots back, an array of different power-ups, battles taking place in scrolling mazes, bosses fights, and so on. As the game goes on, it also starts to combine these things together. It also looks pretty nice for a 1990 Game Boy game, and it's got decent, catchy music, too.

Based on my old memories of it, I really thought I'd be telling you not to bother with Volley Fire, but it looks like I proved myself wrong, and it's definitely worth a look. It's not the best GB STG (that'd probably be Nemesis II), but it's still a lot of fun, and fairly unique, too.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Demon Chaos (PS2)

When Dynasty Warriors 2/Shin Sangoku Musou came out back in 2000, it wowed everyone with it's hge battlefields filled with dozens of enemies. As that series has gone on, the amount of enemies on the battlefield, as well as the amount of enemies appearing onscreen at a time have both increased. But even now, after tons of sequels, spin-offs and licenced tie-ins, none of Koei's games have been able to match the sheer number of enemies displayed in this PS2 game from 2005.

Developed by Genki and published outside of Japan by Konami, Demon Chaos (also known as Ikusa Gami) sees the player controlling a big, burly lion-man samurai, somewhat reminiscent of the 1970s tokusatsu series Taiketsu Lion Maru. They're tasked with saving feudal Japan from hordes of spider-like demons that are spewing forth from giant red gems called blood crystals. At first glance, it all looks like a fairly standard Dynasty Warriors clone, albiet with a fantasy coat of paint, and few more on-screen enemies.

As you progress through the first cople of stages, however, things start to change a little. Firstly, you'll become a leader of men, having huge armies of human soldiers following in your wake. These soldiers are obviously a lot weaker than the player character, though you have to rely on them to destroy the blood crystals, which are unaffected by your own attacks. Secondly, you gain the ability to order your soldiers to build magic pillars. These pillars have various uses: healing soldiers that are near them, firing arrows at nearby demons, and destroying nearby enemy structures (including blood crystals).

The fact that your entire army follows you directly, and that you need them to build pillars gives the player more a feeling of responsibility when it comes to keeping them alive, compared to the Dynasty Warriors games, where you barely interact with your underlings, and their lives are of no consequence to you. I guess it also helps that there are constant on-screen trackers telling you exactly how many soldiers you have left alive.

There's more interesting things to be said regarding the pillars, too. As well as the main effects they carry, having them built is also the best way to fill up your power meter, which allows you to perform special moves and activate your "spirit release" ability, which essentialy turns you into a destructive force of nature ntil it runs out. There's also the whole "earth force" mechanic relating to the pillars too: as you walk around, you'll see ripples of energy at your feet. These ripples represent the earth energy, kind of like ley lines, and the more ripples there are in an area, the stronger pillars built there will be.

Now, the enemy count. It's insane. Only a couple of stages in, and you'll be killing hundreds of enemies in the opening skirmish, and thousands by the end of the stage. On top of this, you'll also have hundreds of your allies fllowing you around too, so there's always a sense of the battles taking place on a grand scale. Taking this to its absurd extremes is an extra mode aside from the main game called Massacre mode, which places the player alone in a flat, featureless field with 65535 enemies, where they have to attempt to kill as many as they can in 3 minutes.

Although the whole battlefield action genre has an (unfair) reputation for all being identical, boring and repetitive, Demon Chaos is a game that definitely does enough to stand out from the crown, both in its mechanics, and in the sheer spectacle of its battles. It's odd that no-one (as far as I know) has ever tried to match or even top the scale of the battles in this game, especially considering that it came out over a decade ago, and there's been two rounds of more powerful consoles since then.