Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Curosities Vol. 10 - Playable Politicians

There's plenty of games starring real people, most of them being atheletes, with some musicians and actors and even the occasional comedian. Less common, though still more than you'd expect are games starring politicians, a few of which I'll be looking at today. There are actually quite a few omissions from this post, like Bill Clinton's appearance in NBA Jam, and pretty much the entire cast of the old Spitting Image fighting game, but I've tried to stick to games that are relatively obscure, and also to games where the politician in question is clearly the protagonist and/or main character.

So the first game is probably the most well-known of the ones appearing in this list, though at the same time, its star is the politician with the least fame outside his own country. SEGA's 1985 arcade game I'm Sorry is a single-screen maze game that sees Kakuei Tanaka (Prime Minister of Japan between 1972 and 1974) walking the streets of Japan collecting gold bars and avoiding sex scandals. It's got a nice risk/reward mechanic, whereby you don't get any points for the gold bars until you take them back to your mansion, but the amount of points increases greatly with each bar collected before returning home. Still, it's more interesting as a historical curiosity than as an actual good game, and even without knowledge of Tanaka's career, seeing tiny little 80s sprites engaging in BDSM and such is mildly amusing the first few times.

Next up is a politician who is, pretty prolific, as far as videogame appearances go. As well as having two otherwise unrelated games of his own, he also makes an appearance in Street Fighter II. Of course I'm talking about the final General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev! I can only assume that Japanese game developers saw him in the news and thought he was cute or funny-looking or something?

Anyway, the two games were released within months of each other in 1991, with Gorby no Pipline Daisakusen landing first, in April for the MSX. It's a combination of two better-known puzzle games, those being Tetris and Pipemania. There's a Tetris-style pit, lines with open pipes at each side. Blocks with pipe shapes in them fall from above, and the aim is to link the pipes on the right with the pipes on the left. There's a quota on each stage that has to be fulfilled before the pit completely fills up with pipe-bits. It's a surprisingly difficult game, and though it's fun and can hold your attention for a short time, it's unfortunately less than the sum of its parts, with both Tetris and Pipemania both being much better games than it.

Two months later, Ganbare Gorby! reached the Game Gear, and this time, it's a top down action game. In it, you play as Gorbachev, now working in some kind of distribution centre, ensuring people get the bread, medicine and Game Gears that they need, by stepping on switches to make conveyor belts point in the right direction. Obviously, there are some complications: the conveyor belts also have upon them less desirable items, like mouldy bread, poison and gears. (The gears are the unwanted item on the stage with the Game Gear as the wanted item, a joke I've only noticed now that I'm typing it out.) There's also thieves and, for some reason, armed guards wandering about the place, stealing items and beating up Mikhail, to interfere with his work. It's not a bad game, and it's also got a decent difficulty curve, with the stages gradually getting more complex, with more labyrinthine layouts of belts, and multiple different sets of switches, and so on. A de-Gorbied version was also released in the west a bit later, renamed Factory Panic.

Our last politician is a bit of a renaissance man, having also been a conspiracy theorist/TV personality, an actor, and, most impotantly, a wrestler. Of course, it's Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Governer of Minnesota from 1999 to 2003! The game that bears his name, Jesse "The Body" Ventura Wrestling Superstars, a localisation of the Mega Drive game Thunder Pro Wrestling Retsuden, was never actually released, and the ROM was only found and leaked publicly in 2016. Since Thunder Pro was itself a spin-off of the excellent Fire Pro Wrestling series, it's mechanically sound, and definitely a big step up from other wrestling games of the time. The only real problem it has is that the single-player game is far too easy: I managed to get to the final stage on my first play. Still, it's a fun little game, and other than Ventura himself, takes the usual Japanese wrestling game route of having oddly-named copyright-friendly clones of real wrestlers. You should at least give it a go, if only because it's a recently unearthed lost treasure.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Treasure Strike (Dreamcast)

My opinion of Treasure Strike, if made into a graph, would take on something of a U shape. When I first read a description of the game and saw a couple of screenshots, I thought "great! A Power Stone 2 clone with character creation!", unfortunately, I then played the game and my first impressions were more along the lines of "oh, it's not really like PS2 at all, and the character creation's not that great." I stubbornly kept playing, however, and that's where the graph goes right back up, as I realised "it's not like PS2, but it's still a ton of fun, and the character creation actually opens up a short time into the game".

You'll probably want some clarification on all that, right? Well, Treasure Strike's a 3D battle action game, in which you take on the mantle of a member of a town's treasure hunting guild, and you go to various places and find treasure, which can be sold to buy new weapons. The matches are a little unorthodox, as they see you running around various locations seeking out keys to open treasure chests. Keys come in three colours, and most chests are one or two of those three colours (two-coloured chests need both matching keys to open, and there are wooden chests that don't need a key at all). Each chest contains a treasure, but only one chest contains the target treasure needed to win the match. Obviously, your opponents all want the same thing too, and you're all armed with any two from the combination of melee weapons, guns and mines. Taking damage makes you drop treasure and keys, and running out of health sends you back to your homebase (which is also used for storing treasure, and to actually win the match, you need to get ahold of the target treasure and bring it back here). Yeah, at first, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't an all-out brawl, and the attack animations are a little slow and clunky, but after a few stages, the action becomes crazier and more manic, and a lot more fun. And the face that it's a treasure hunt rather than a fight gives the game a fairly unique screwball comedy feel.

The character creation mode is eacily the deepest I've seen on the Dreamcast, with the exception of Fire Pro Wrestling D, though like I said earlier, at the start of the game, you don't get much to work with. Upon starting a new story mode, you can choose your skin colour, hair style and colour, height, and facial features, all of which are permanent except hairstyle. You can't change your outfit until after you've won the first battle, which is annoying, but once you get the option, you'll spend at least half an hour customising stuff (at least, that's how it went for me). There's a massive array of clothes, accessories and hairstyles available, and the best thing is that they're all free! There's no tedious grinding to get the cool outfit you want like there is in a lot of more modern games with dressing up modes, and, your outfit has no bearing on your in-battle ability! Both things I definitely approve of.

Normally, I'm dead set against the idea of buying new weapons and upgrades in action games, but there are always exceptions of course, and Treasure Strike is one of them. In this case, it's an exception because like I've already mentioned, combat isn't actually a big thing in the game, and the advantage granted by buying more powerful weapons is pretty minimal. Plus, you'll probably be able to afford the most expensive weapons in the shop after only a couple of matches.

Along with all the good things this game has mechanically, you'll be pleased to know the developers haven't neglected the aesthetics. Everything looks great in this game: the locations look like cool, fun places, reminiscent of particularly well-designed theme parks. The characters are all amazing, too, the townspeople are a bunch of kooky-looking eccentrics (though the beauty salon/fashion boutique is owned by a pair of old fashioned gay stereotypes), your opponents all look like characters from a cool 90s shonen manga, and you'd really have to deliberately try if you wanted to make a character that wasn't cool, cute, or cool and cute.

Though it's a game that was clearly designed around a (now long-dead) online multiplayer mode, Treasure Strike does still have a full and robust single player mode, and though  I haven't had the opportunity to try it out, it also has a split-screen multiplayer mode. Both of those things that modern developers with budgets several orders of magnitude larger than a Japan=only third party Dreamcast game would have had seemingly can't manage. It's also a ton of fun to play, so I totally recommend you do so as soon as possible.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Edono Kiba (SNES)

If you're of a certain age, you might remember the days when the only Japanese cartoons being released in the UK were what were sometimes called "beer and curry videos," which were mainly 80s and early 90s OAV with lots of sex and violence, and lots of gratuitous swearing added in the English dub, and a lot of these OAVs were set in cyberpunk dystopias, with lots of evil robots killing people and slightly less evil robots also killing people, but sometimes killing the evil robots as well. Anyway, Edono Kiba, aesthetically, owes a lot to those old OAVs (though I guess they'd be fairly contemporous when it came out), but with the sex and violence.

It's a beat em up in which you play as a constantly-running (or walking, or riding a flying surfboard, depending on the stage) robot, who travels through a futuristic city killing lots of evil robots. the constant movement does make one common beat em up bugbear irrelevant: the old "stay in one place until you beat up enough enemies" gimmick, as it keeps the stage constantly scrolling and enemies either come zooming in from ahead or behind you, or they jump in from the background. The downside is that though the stage is constantly scrolling, it still looks a bit silly when your character is staying on the same spot of the screen, apparently walking or running in place. Almost all of the enemies are one hit kills, too, which also helps give the game a fast pace.

There's a much bigger downside to the constant movement thing, though: as the stage keeps moving in one direction, and your character has no animations for running backwards, you can only face right. This is bad for two reasons: the first, and most obvious, is that you can also only attack in one direction, making combat with enemies coming from behind awkward and annoying, as you wait for them to pass you before you can strike. The other problem is that it makes the game feel very cheaply made, like it wasn't totally finished. I mean obviously, it's done as part of the game's whole fast paced, always moving forward thing, but even with that in mind, it still feels off.

Edono Kiba isn't a bad game, it looks great and it's a decent enough way to pass half an hour or so. But it's no classic, and the SNES has many other, better beat em ups you should play before you get to this one. And if you really want a grim cyberpunk SNES action game, you'd be better off going for Hagane.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Glorace: Phantastic Carnival (PSP)

There's not much love in the world for the PSP, outside of a few games, and there's good reasons for that: it was uncomfortable to hold, the d-pad was garbage, and people mostly only bought it for either emulation or Monster Hunter. Sony did seem to be putting some effort in getting it to take off (unlike the PS Vita, which they've barely bothered with, and which would be pretty much dead by now if it weren't for anime and RPG fans. which is a shame, because for me, it might well be tied with the original DS for the title of "best handheld ever"), even going so far as to make games for audiences outside of the "big three" markets of North America, Europe and Japan. Last time I wrote about a PSP game on this blog, it was Chandragupta, a game made especially for the Indian market. This time, it's Glorace, a game made (and only released in) Korea.

It's a cute racing game, where you play as a kid who rides around on the backs of weird monsters, racing against other, riderless weird monsters on tracks that look like amazingly colourful fairy-kei dreams come to life. The tracks are pretty amazing in their layout as well as their visual design: some of them are double-sided, and a lap will see you riding across both the top and bottom of the road, as well as slightly Sonicesque loops. Other stages have pitfalls, not only from falling off the side of the track, but also through holes in the track, and by failing to get about moving platforms at certain points.

You've probably made the assumption that mechanically,  Glorace skews closer to Mario Kart than it does Gran Turismo, and you'd be right. There's a bunch of less-than-realistic additions to your tactical options, though they are handled a little differently than in the typical licensed MK knock-off. Firstly, you start off with three boosts that you can use at any time. There's also power ups on the track, though you don't get to store them like you'd expect. Instead, after you pick up the power up, you have a couple of seconds to activate it by pressing the left shoulder button or risk losing it. I don't know why they did that instead of just having them be activated on collection. Another way the power ups differ from the norm is that none of them are the typical projectiles, but rather weird state-changing magic spells. There's a shield, which stops you from slowing down when you bump into walls, obstacles or other racers, there's snow, which puts a white filter over your opponents' screens, very slightly obscuring their vision and there's quake, which causes a mild tremor, slowing down all your opponents for a few seconds.

There's a story mode and a race mode, which covers single races in both single- and multi-player. The big problem is that you can only (as far as I can tell) unlock tracks in race mode by completing them in story mode. This is only really a problem because the fifth track (and presumably the ones that come after it) add mission objectives besides "end the race in the top three". Maybe these missions are pretty simple, and easy to execute, but unfortunately, they're all in Korean, so I don't know what they are. It's a shame, because most of the game's other functional text, from menus to power up names is in English, otherwise leaving just cutscenes and flavour text in Korean. (The cutscenes, for what its worth, are very nicely presented, though, being made up of very nice storybook-style illustrations. I stilled skipped them all mercilessly, though, obviously.)

Glorace is a very charming game, and has some of the best-looking 3D graphics on the system. It's also decent fun to play, though it's nothing earth-shattering or life-changing. If you're curious, it wouldn't hurt to give it a go, and if you do, and you figure out any of the later mission objectives, please tell me what they are.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Flame Gunner (Arcade)

The quick and easy way to describe Flame Gunner would be to say it's like a mix of Taito's Dead Connection and SEGA's Virtua Cop, with a couple of extra flairs of its own. Like Dead Connection, the bulk of the game has you in single-screen areas, shooting lots of badguys coming from all sides of the screen as quickly as possible with an automatic weapon. The similarity to Virtua Cop is a little harder to explain, and a little more tenuous, but I'll try: before they actually shoot at you, the enemies in Flame Gunner will have blue lines projecting from the ends of their guns, showing where they intend to shoot. After a second or two, they'll settle on a direction, and the line will turn red, giving you a very small amount of time to get out of the way before they pull the trigger. It might just be me, but that seems a lot like the colour-changing target circles in VC (as well as a couple of other SEGA lightgun games).

Unlike Dead Connection, though, Flame gunner doesn't have charmingly tiny sprites and and detailed pixel art backdrops. Instead, it takes the very mid-90s approach of placing polygon model characters on top of mostly-static pre-rendered backgrounds. I'm sure there's been other arcade games that take this approach (and obviously there are a ton of console games from the period that do it), but none come to mind immediately. It's a good look, to be honest, and it means that MAME does a much better job of running than most full 3D games.

By now, you might be wondering what the "extra flairs of its own" I mentioned earlier might be. Well, there's two of them, and they're kind of connected. Each of the three characters has a different starting stage, and after you finish it (and after you finish ever subsequent stage), you get to choose the next stage from  a shortlist of two or three options. The choice of stages isn't just a choice of favoured locations, as each stage has its own mission, from the obvious "kill all the enemies" to things like destroying a minimum amount of objects within a time limit while an endless stream of enemies come in to try and kill you. There's also the odd boss fight here and there, too, though they're a bit boring and disappointing to be honest.

The weird thing about this game is that I've actually lost more credits to (very narrowly) failing to complete missions within the stringent time limit, rather than being killed by enemies. After a few games, though, I started to figure out the easier missions, and can get pretty far into the game on a single credit now. Flame Gunner is a fun game, and definitely worth having a look at. It's just a shame that, as far as I can tell, it's the last game by the developers GAPS, and their only action game. If anyone knows any better, please let me know!

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Landmaker (Playstation)

Landmaker's a Taito arcade puzzle game from the mid-90s, when Taito were putting out a load of them, presumably due to the success of the Puzzle Bobble series. In it, you play as one of eight gods, each representing a different kind of biome (forest, mountains, desert, icefield, and so on) that wants control over a continent. Control is gained by beating all the other gods in a kind of civilisation-building contest. (All these story details are pretty much entirely conjecture on my part based on what appears to happen in the game. There's not a lot of documentation on the matter, you know?)

These contests involved shooting coloured diamond-shaped blocks up a diagonal grid, and when blocks of the same colour touch each other, they become houses, and if they form squares, they form larger, and more extravagant buildings the bigger the square is. Forming big, fancy buildings garners a lot of points, and erasing them (by shooting another same-coloured block at one of the formation's downward-pointing corners) garners more points, and lowers the upper limit of the opponent's grid. Obviously, if a block falls off of the bottom of your grid, it's game over.

I really like this game, like all the best versus-style puzzle games, it's fast and satisfying, with a good match involving things constantly moving and changing state all over the screen, and there are opportunities for clever players in a bind to turn things around. The presentation seems a little lower-budget than Taito's other games of the period, with the characters lacking individual voices, and other little omissions, though there is one small touch that I really like: each character has a different architectural style applied to the buildings that they grow.

The home port also adds a single=player puzzle mode, which doesn't feature the arcade game's setting or any of its characters, and replaces the detailed building sprites for slightly plain polygon structures. The premise for this mode is that you're tasked with founding cities in various locations around the world, and the better the job you do, the higher the city's population grows, and the more it develops. More cities get unlocked as the world's total population grows.

Though it uses the same basic mechanics as the arcade game, puzzle mode is set out pretty differently: each stage starts with a specific amount of remaining space and atarting layout of blocks, and you're tasked with creating a building of a minimum size before getting a game over. You get points for every building you make along the way, and massive bonuses are available for making buildings bigger than your quota.  It's a pleasant enough way to pass some time and watch a big number gradually get bigger, but it's not a patch of the fast-paced action of the arcade game.

As will be obvious by now, I really like the Landmaker arcade game, and this port is arcade-perfect (except for the loading times), plus it comes with a mildly amusing extra game on the side. It's available dirt cheap, and I recommend you get ahold of a copy.