Tuesday, 28 June 2016

100 Yen Disk No. 1 (PC88)

100 Yen offered a fair bit of choice to the mid-80s PC88 owner, as there were at least three series of disks on the market with that price in the title: 100 Yen Disk, 100 Yen Music Disk, and 100 Yen Soft. I've picked this one in particular to cover for a reason, though: it features early work by the legendary videogame composer Yuzo Koshiro!

Anyway, if you've read any of the Disc Station posts on this very blog before, you'll know what to expect from this: there's a few games, a text feature and a little bit of advertising. The first game on the menu is the generically-entitled Shooting Master 86, which happens to be the best game on the disk by a long way, so I'll come back to it after getting the others out of the way. A nice little touch is that the cursor on the menu is Samus Aran, and when you select an item, she turns into Takahashi Meijin for some reason.

So, the next game on the list is Graman Bee, the work of Mr. Koshiro himself! Unfortunately, it's either unfinished or for some it's not emulated well, as the graphics are glitchy, there's no music and the first boss' attacks seem completely impossible to avoid. I hope it is just unfinished and there's a full version out there somewhere, I'll keep an eye out, at least.

Following Graman Bee is Electric Novel, which isn't a game, it's a cool-looking title screen followed by a few screens full of text. Then there's The Rotten Wall, which is a spectacularly awful Breakout clone that's terrible in every aspect. There's also an option labelled "The Information of NAO Graphic Lab", which is an advert for an upcoming game called Triangle Panic, which I haven't found a disk image of, unfortunately.

Next is another game, Jumper, which must be one of the earliest examples of an endless runner. You play as a white blob thing that has to jump over a series of walls without crashing into the low, spike-covered ceiling. That's it pretty much. I wonder if it actually was the first?

Finally, we come back to Shooting Master 86, which is actually better quality and more fully-featured than a lot of standalone PC88 releases. It's a kind of hybrid shooting game/RPG thing. There's some things I haven't yet figured out, like how to buy better ships, but basically, you play a short shooting game stage, then you're dumped onto a map screen. You move a cursor (represtented literally by the word "CURSOR") around, until you meet one of the programmers, who will ask you something. Press Y on the keyboard and you'll enter another short shooting stage.

It's a pretty accomplished game that's so far beyond the others on the disk in terms of sophistication, plus, though he didn't do the programming, Yuzo Koshiro did do the soundtrack, so it sounds great too. Unquestionably the highlight of the disk, I really don't know why they chose not to package Shooting Master 86 on its own and sell it for a higher price. Maybe there's some 80s Japanese reason why they couldn't?

Friday, 24 June 2016

Sub Rebellion (PS2)

Even moreso than tanks, submarines are pretty under-represented when it comes to videogames. The only really well-known sub game I can think of is the classic arcade shooter In The Hunt, which, coincidentally, was created by Irem, in their fondly-remembered "dirty-looking pixelart" period, while Sub Rebellion was also made by Irem in their later, more tragic "weird experimental PS2 games" period. (Tragic because it was the last stage of their existence as a games company, pretty much.)

So, Sub Rebellion, then. It's set in a post-apocalyptic future (like almost every Irem game, come to think of it), in which the world has flooded, and humanity survives in underwater cities, most of which are ruled with an iron fist by an evil empire. You play as a submarine-piloting mercenary tasked with helping the resistance save humankind, and if you have time, also finding lost artifacts of an earlier age, which can be used to develop new technology to upgrade your sub. Is it a requisite that every underwater PS2 game has to have you looking for sunken treasure?

The missions are pretty much as you'd expect: find the thing (or things) and blow it (or them) up. Then, without fail, a boss will show up, and you blow them up, too. And while you're at it, keep pinging your radar to find buried artifacts, which are excavated by blowing up rocks and dirt. Though the controls use every button on the PS2 controller, plus both analogue sticks, they're very easy to get ahold of, and it won't belong before you're swoocing through the depths like a big clunky metal mermaid. You have two main weapons to facilitate your blowing up of objects: a machine gun, fired by tapping the fire button, and lock-on torpedos, targeted by holding the fire button, and fired by letting go.

Sometimes, you'll also have to surface and sail around shooting helicopters and gun turrets and the like, which is actually a lot harder, since your enemies can move around and dodge your attacks in 3D, but you're mostly confined to 2D movement in this state (though you could go the slightly unweildy route of dodging surface attacks by submerging when they get too close, I guess?), and to make things worse, you can still be fired upon by sub below you while you're surfaced, which is a bit unfair.

Sub Rebellion is a pretty great game, to be honest, though it can be frustratingly difficult, especially when you die right at the end of a mission you've spent 10-20 minutes playing through. I can only assume the reason it never got anyone's attention is it's generic-sounding name, and generic-looking boxart, and for once, the western publisher's can't take the blame, since it had the equally dull title "U:Underwater Unit" in Japan. Anyway, you can pick up a copy of this game dirt cheap, and it's definitely worth doing that.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Net Yaroze Round-Up Vol. 9!

Unread (Sin, 1996)
A weird shooting game with some unusual ideas. Your ship is accompanied onscreen by a smal purple drone. Pressing square at any time instantly switches the positions of ship and drone,the skillful use of which is the only way to avoid certain hazards and enemy attacks. Unfortunately, Unread doesn't make enough use of its gimmick, and is mainly a pretty bland shooter without even a scoring system to liven things up.

Supanda (Koh/Ray-Net, 2001)
A very odd single plane beat em up in which you play as a kangaroo travelling across some kind of pastel-hued theme park beating up clowns, penguins and various assorted inanimate objects. It's a pretty amusing diversion, though it's a shame there's only one stage, that just suddenly and abruptly ends.
A little extra note: the "Net Yaroze 2012" compilation claims that Supanda is a port of a SNES game, though I haven't been able to find any evidence of such a game existing. Does anyone reading this know anything about this one way or the other?

The Appointed Station (Syuntarou Yoshikawa, 1996)
Another shooting game, this time a variant on the old time limit/score attack Caravan formula. The twist is that rather than starting the game with a fixed time limit, you instead get a series of very short time limits, each with a minimum score threshold that has to be met if you want to continue playing when the timer reaches zero. Special note should be made of this game's grainy-textured low polygon count aesthetic, which looks great in motion, if not in static screenshots.

Roller (Matt Verran, 2002)
This game's very well presented, with clean and sharp textures and models, professional-looking menus and HUD, and the voice of a woman with a thick southern accent saying "Ready? ...Go!" at the start of each stage. Unfortunately, despite all that, it's not very fun to play. You tilt floating 3D platforms so that a ball rolls around collecting gems and getting to the exit, without dropping the ball or running out of time.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Jaki Crush (SNES)

Everyone remembers the PC Engine and Mega Drive entries into Naxat Soft's Crush series of pinall games, right? Well, there was a Japan-only SNES entry too, that never enjoyed the same success as its forbears, and as a result, isn't remembered anywhere near as fondly. The reason it stayed in Japan is easy to figure out: while Alien Crush had a theme that was heavily inspired by the Alien movies, and Devil Crash was themed around European-style occultism and fantasy, Jaki Crush draws its look from traditional Japanese depictions of hell, and as we all know, western companies in the 1980s and 90s were inexplicably obsessed with pretending that Japan didn't exist. There was sort of another entry into the Crush series which was a western exclusive, but that's a topic for another day.

Anyway, if you've played any of the previous games in the series, you'll basically know what to expect from Jaki Crush: a pinball table, stretching upwards across three screens, with a pair of flippers on each screen, and various demons and monsters marching around or standing in formation or even forming part of the the table itself. There's also bonus bossfight-style mini-tables that can be accessed by opening certain holes (often the mouths of demons) and getting the ball in there.

Presentation-wise, Jaki Crush is excellent: the table is full of little details and gimmicks and various things that change over the course of a game, like a demon face on the bottom screen, that eventually turns into a set of traditional pinball bumpers, which themselves change formation a few times (in a bit of a callback to some similarly-acting bumpers that appear in Alien Crush) before eventually disappearing to be replaced with a different demon face. The colour choices are really great too, with lots of purples, greys, pinks and reds giving the game a very visceral, fleshy feel. And as is series tradition, the game has a great, energetic soundtrack to mindlessly hum along with as you play.

The game itself is good, though you'll be playing a lot of practice games if you want to get any enjoyment out of it. It's easily the most difficult pinball videogame I've ever played. The ball seems incredibly eager to go right down the middle of the flippers on the bottom screen, and the fact that the flippers on the middle screen are in some bizarre asymmetrical arrangement makes it really hard to get away from the bottom and stay there. Add this to the fact that it takes a pretty long time to get exciting things happening and portals to bonus stages open and it means it'll take quite a bit of play before you get a lot of enjoyment out of Jaki Crush. If you have the patience for it, though, it is worth it, as seeing the table changing over time is pretty satisfying, and the stuff that happens on the top screen is especially extravagant and cool-looking. There's also even multiball, which I don't think is a feature in any of the other games in the series (though it's been years since I played either of them, so I could be wrong).

So yeah, in conclusion, Jaki Crush is a worthy entry into the series, and it'll reward players who have the patience to get through it's horrific skill barrier.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Ninja Emaki (Arcade)

Ninja Emaki (also known as Youma Ninpou Chou) is a 1986 entry into a now mostly dead shooting sub-genre: the Commando-style top-down walking shooters. Nowadays, it seems that vertically scrolling shooters have to either be more standard ship-style games with player's shots only going in one direction, or twin-stick shooters where the player's movement and firing directions are totally independent.

You play as a ninja in fuedal Japan who, in a mildly cliched story, goes off to rescue a princess who we see being carried off by a giant flying snake at the start of the game. You're armed with a crossbow as standard, and there's also magic scrolls that periodically appear, giving access upon collection to your choice of eight different offensive spells. The way this works is very versatile: once you collect and activate a scroll, the magic will work for twenty seconds, and during those twenty seconds, you can cycle through the different weapons as much as you like. They're all pretty different, too, having effects from a crashing wave that course up the screen destroying enemies, to a series of small whirlwinds that surround you, killing enemies that come near, to a simple power boost for your crossbow bolts.

What makes Ninja Emaki stand out from the pack (and believe it or not, there is something of a pack of ninja-themed scrolling shooters) is its slightly manic pace and structure. Though you start the game in the skies riding a cloud, each area you enter is different: you're riding a cloud, then you're running through a field, then you're on a boat, then fighting giant spiders in a graveyard, and so on. And I say "areas" rather than "stages" because there's never really a solid "end of the stage" like you'd expect in most games. Instead, you just travel up the screen, going from one situation to the next, the action never stopping for more than a second or two.

Though its qualities don't instantly jump out on first playing, Ninja Emaki is a fun, exciting game, and definitely worth your time. And if you find it too easy (which is definitely a possibility, as it's pretty generous with the extra lives), apparently the Japanese version is a lot harder, though I've not yet played it myself.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Spartan X 2 (NES)

The original Spartan X (also known as Kung Fu Master and just Kung Fu) was an iconic and highly influential game early in the mid-80s. Though it spawned many imitators on pretty much every system popular in Japan at the time (including an old Lunatic Obscurity subject, Dragon Wang), though oddly, it never got a sequel until more than half a decade later, and that sequel never got released outside Japan, nor did it even come close to becoming as iconic as its predecessor.

There's a few reasons for this: Spartan X, while not the first beat em up, was a fairly early entry into the genre, and brought with it simple, fun mechanics and beautifully simple graphics that made great use of chunky sprites and limited colour palletes to depict a classic kung fu cinema-inspired setting. Where Spartan X 2 falls short is that it keeps the simple mechanics, despite the fact that 6 years had passed, and in those six years, the likes of Final Fight and Nekketsu Kunio Kouha-kun (among others) had totally revolutionised the genre, making Spartan X 2's single plane stages and one-hit enemies look old hat by comparision. That's not to say that the single plane beat em up was totally obsolete: 1988's Altered Beast, for example became an icon of its era by adding all kinds of new gimmicks and mechanics onto the idea (and by being a prominent Mega Drive launch title too, no doubt).

Mechanics aside, Spartan X 2 also suffers through its setting and graphics. Gone are the simple, bright sprites of the original, as well as its chinese setting. It's hard to blame the devs for making things look more detailed and up-to-date, but the real sticker is the new setting, having the game take place in a modern-day world filled with crime and violence, just like dozens of other beat em ups and other action games that had been released in the interim years since the original game.

So, if we overlook the ways in which it fails to be a "worthy" sequel to the original, is Spartan X 2 a good game? I can honestly say it's not a bad game, at least. It's decently fun to play, it looks and sounds al right, and it doesn't feel unfair or annoying at any point. The problem is it's not particularly anything special, either. It really is just another one of many, many beat em ups that's not particularly remarkable in any way. It also has the problem that it's far too easy: you can take a lot of beatings and strangulation before losing a life, and extra lives are given out at every 20,000 points (which happens at least once per stage). There's also the bizarre fact that you gain points while enemies are strangling you, which makes no sense to me at all, either thematically or mechanically.

If you happen find a copy of the Famicom cartridge for a (very) low price, Spartan X 2 is a fun game to add to your collection, but otherwise, it's not really good or interesting enough to go out of your way to acquire.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Curiosities Vol. 8 - Secret Shooting Games

Something I've always liked since I was a kid was secrets in games, and especially secrets that added extra fun to games, like stages or characters. Like most early-90s kids, I was obsessed with Sonic, and got really excited when I heard there was a secret stage hidden in the cartridge, the Hidden Palace Zone. Of course, all that excitement turned to disappointment when I used my cousin's Action REplay to access the HPZ and it was just unplayable garbage with a title card. Even more exciting than hidden bits of games, though, are entire hidden games, which is what this post is about.

Before I really start, I want to clarify the difference between "secret" and "unlockable": unlockable games will be easily accessible from an in-game menu, and the game might even acknowledge the games before they're available. Secret games require cheats or passwords to get to, and the game doesn't let you know they're there if you don't know about them already. There'll probably be posts about some unlockable games on this blog in the future, but today I'm talking about three secret games, that also happen to all be shooting games hidden away in the bowels of non-shooting games. 

First up is Arnold Palmer Tournament Golf for the Mega Drive. It's a golf game, that would be totally forgotten by history, were it not for its secret. And that secret is a simple little game based on SEGA's beloved Fantasy Zone games. It's a single-screen shooter in which you have one life and a constantly increasing score, and all you have to do is stay alive for as long as possible. It's very simple and you're unlikely to last very long, but it is fun. The only problem is that it's a pain to get to: you have to get a game over in the main game, then input the famous Konami code on the game over screen. Getting a game over requires using one hundred shots on a single hole, which will take you about ten minutes. Best to do this in an emulator, and make a save state on the game over screen.

Next is another, much better Mega Drive game: Mega-lo Mania (known as "Tyrants: Fight Through Time" in America), which is a surprisingly deep real-time strategy game about giant immortal floating heads using humans to wage war against each other. Inputting the password "JOOLS" into the game's save/load option also unlocks a weird, vaguely asteroidsy shooting game where you fly around space and impotently shoot at seemingly-intangible enemies, until one of the main game's floating heads says "do you want to be on my side", then flies in and smashes you to death. Yeah, it's not very good. But luckily, Mega-lo Mania is really good, so once you've got over the novelty of having a secret game in there, you can just play that instead.

I've saved the most impressive secret shooter till last, and it's hidden in the early Playstation 3D fighting game Zero Divide. Though it's a game that's been forgotten by history, Zero Divide's got a lot of charm, and that mainly comes from the fact that the developers were obviously very excited about the inherent possibilities of all the storage space on a CD (compared to cartridges and floppy disks) and even the memory card. There's tons of unlockable stuff, some of which comes only after the game's been played for 200 hours, and there's a lot of weird experimental stuff too, like an annoying DJ who comments on how well or badly you play.

But anyway, among its many other features, Zero Divide also includes Tiny Phalanx, a cut-down port of the X68000/SNES shooter Phalanx, a game that's infamous in the west for the bizarre boxart the SNES version got in North America. It's unlocked by holding start and select on the second controller as the game loads up, and it's really good. It looks and sounds great, it's got proper power-up and scoring systems and it's just really impressive for a secret freebie. Since Zero Divide came out in 1995, there were probably full games being released at the same time that were lower quality.