Friday, 28 October 2016

Tokusou Kidoutai JSWAT (Saturn)

In the early days of the 32-bit era, there was a lot of experimentation going on, thanks to the fact that everyone now had access to things like texture mapped 3D and the ability to save games without increasing the price of the game itself (because of the cost of the battery needed to save in cartridge games) all in their very own home consoles. New genres were born, and other genres that had previously been confined to PCs in a time when very few people had them at home were made available to the masses. One of the latter genres being the first person shooter.

Now, for some reason, there aren't many Japanese-developed first person shooters, and the ones that do exist tend not to be very popular. Some of them, like JSWAT, don't really deserve to have been popular. I'll admit that there are some things I do like about the game, like the fact that it uses live action FMVs between stages to tell its story, and that those sequences do manage to be pretty seedy and grimy thanks to the harsh lighting and general dirtyness of how everything looks, in a case of a low budget working in a production's favour. There's also the fact that all the game's bullets are actual visible projectiles, rather than the invisible hitscan situation as seen with things like Doom's chainguns, for example. Of course, this also means that all the shots move pretty slowly, giving you and the criminals ample time to dodge bullets like some kind of superhuman. Another thing I like (or at least find mildly interesting) about the game is that the graphics mix full 3D (though very blocky and simple) environments with Mortal Kombat-style digitised sprites, which I guess helps maintain some small amount of aesthetic coherency between the people in the cutscenes and the people in-game. Though the in-game sprites are so low resolution, until you get up close they mainly resemble vaguely humanoid greyish blobs, which ruins the effect somewhat.

There's a few attempted concessions to realism, too. For example, you start each stage with a certain loudout of weapons with limited ammunition (you can choose these, but it's simpler to just pick the "auto" option), and you can only reload a weapon when its current magazine is empty. The game also tries to bring things into full 3D, making you actually aim your weapons vertically, as opposed to the "infinite height" enemies of games like Doom. Unfortunately, the way it does this is incredibly clunky and awkward: to aim, you hold the Z button, and move your crosshair around the screen with the D-pad. It'll stay in whatever position you put it in as you walk around until you tap Z again.

JSWAT also tries to complicate the first person shooter beyond just killing all the enemies and getting out of the stage. Since you're a member of the eponymous Japanese police squad, you're given missions, like rescuing hostages and finding illegally smuggled weapons and so on. This would be something I could count totally in JSWAT's favour, were it not for the fact that no matter what I do, I can't get the second mission (the aforementioned gun smuggling one) to end. I don't know if this is just a poorly designed stage with some obtusely hidden gimmick somewhere, or if, yet again, my Japanese illiteracy has caused me to miss some vital part of the mission's briefing.

All in all, Tokusou Kidoutai JSWAT is a game that's very ambitious, but not very fun to play. Even if i was able to get past the second mission, I think the clunky controls and general slow pace of the game would have stopped me from getting much further into it before boredom and frustration set in. I know the Saturn port of Doom is supposed to be pretty bad, but the console's also home to Quake, Exhumed and Duke Nukem 3D, all three of which it does an excellent job of hosting, and all three of which you should definitely play before you resort to this.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Blocken (Arcade)

For years, I thought that Taito had made the first competitive block-smashing game in 1997, when they combined Arkanoid and Puzzle Bobble into Puchi Carat. But it turns out that Visco beat them to it by three years when they released Blocken, which for some reason seems to have been totally forgotten and never even got ported to a single home system, despite its ground-breaking concept.

Each match sees the two opponents each smashing blocks in their own seperate well, and the match can end in one of three ways: a player can win by clearing all the blocks in their well, or they can lose by either losing their ball off the bottom of the screen (though each player does start with a row of multi-hit bricks behind them, so this rarely happens) or by having their bat crushed by descending blocks.

It could be said that it's less "pure" than Puchi Carat, though, as while Taito's game uses nothing but blocks, ball, bat and the bottom of the screen to create the rules of engagement, Blocken uses a similar system of power-ups to the infamously brutal SNES competitive puzzler, Tetris Battle Gaiden, in that certain blocks drop stars, which, like the power pellets in TBG, can be saved up and used towards various ends. Using between one and seven stars will push your opponent's blocks down one row for each star used, and if you used more than five, you'll also summon the games mascot, a small winged ball creature, to come and repair one of your protective blocks. If you keep collecting a few more stars after you've saved up seven, your star gauge will start flashing, and cashing in while this is happening gets you all the lesser benefits, as well as a few seconds in a kind of super-mode where your ball smashes through blocks without bouncing off them, and your bat becomes enflamed and indestructible, also destroying blocks it touches.

Once you figure out how the rules of the game work (or have someone explain them, like I just did), it's actually a lot of fun! It doesn't have the aesthetic polish or mechanical purity of Puchi Carat, but it's definitely as fun and totally worth playing. Plus, even without that game's polish, it does have a lot of it's own nice little touches, like how the ball can hit stars on their way down the screen, knocking them slightly off course, or how each of the AI opponents has a slightly different-looking bat. It's little things like that that can really add a lot of character to a simple game like this.

Blocken's a game I definitely recommend seeing out if you enjoy block-smashing games or competitive puzzlers (or both), and it's a shame it never got the attention or recognition it deserves.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Griffin (Game Gear)

Griffin has a few odd similarities to a game I reviewed a while ago, Pop Breaker: they're both Game Gear games about tanks, that are decorated (the games, not the tanks) with inconsequential pixel art of anime girls. Seperating them, however, is a much bigger difference: while Pop Breaker was a bit of a shooting/puzzle hybrid thing, Griffin is a pure shooter.

Some commendation should actually be offered to Griffin's devs, even, as they've clearly made a pretty valiant attempt at recreating the essence of contemporary arcade shooting games in 1991 on the humble Game Gear hardware. There's power-ups, screen-clearing bombs, and even a second, significantly more difficult loop that starts right after you finish the game. Between each stage, there's also some fullscreen art of your tank's female pilot after the first three stages, with the fourth and final stage being followed by the text telling you that the next loop is about to start. Frustratingly, I got right up to the final boss of the second loop before dying, so I can't tell you if there's an ending there or another loop. Sorry.

Anyway, it's a tank-based vertically scrolling shooting game. You roll up the screen, shooting enemies, avoiding bullets, and so on. Nothing really innovative on show, except for the aforementioned courage in making a game with the same design principles as then-current arcade games specifically for low-powered handheld hardware. There is one neat little graphical trick on show regarding the bosses, though. The parts of the boss you actually fight are very small, like the arms of a giant robots, or the cannons of a battleship. These aprts would be sprites, while the main, non-interactive "body" of the boss was part of the background. This meant the game could have you (appearing to) fight huge enemies, albeit huge enemies that are almost totally static. There's also one stage that only appears in the first loop where you pilot a squat, unaerodynamic-looking plane instead of a tank. This stage is the worst part of the game, having a repetitive, ugly background and incredibly boring enemy patterns. I assume the developers realised this and decided to leave it out of the second loop (but I guess they needed it to pad out the first?)

Griffin's a pretty good game. I won't say it's the best shooter on the Game Gear, as I know there's a port of Galaga 88, as well as two specially-made Aleste games, which are all probably better than it (though I haven't played any of them yet), but it is a pretty good one and definitely worth a look.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Korokoro Post Nin (Playstation)

It's a trite, lazy and annoying thing, when someone describes a work by calling it a mix of other works, but I'm going to do it now anyway: Korokoro Post Nin is like a combination of elements from Cameltry, Paperboy and Sonic the Hedgehog. This really is a description of it at its basest level, though: it's a game where you rotate a maze to move a character inside, and that character is not only tasked with delivering small packages to mailboxes, but her movement speed is also heavily dependent on the slope of the surface on which she's stepping, and the momentum she's built up.

So yeah, it's some kind of (possibly post-apocalyptic?) future, and you're a delivery girl working for some kind of robot guy. You're tasked with delivering to every postbox in the area, then getting to the door within the time limit. Although, referring to the game's protagonist as "you" isn't exactly accurate, as like I mentioned earlier, you actually control the maze in which the delivery girl, postboxes and door exist. It's a mystery why this game was released for the Playstation in 2002, as it's exactly the sort of thing that would have become a beloved cult hit, had it been released on the GBA in the same period.

Playing the game is incredibly simple: R1 and L1 turn the maze left and right. If the ground upon which the delivery girl is standing is a slope, she'll walk down it. If it's a steep slope, she'll run down it (which is not only faster, but also essentially for smashing through certain obstacles). If there's no ground directly beneath her, she'll fall. The thing is, though, this game is actually a masterclass in old-school game design, by which I mean that it is entirely based around these (and a couple of other) simple rules, and the stages are all tests of both your knowledge of these rules and the precision of your dexterity in pulling them off.

On a larger scale, it also introduces new elements every few stages: first there are obstacles, both moving and stationary, which will knock three seconds off your remaining time you you hit them while you're not running. Next, there are spikes, which you are to avoid altogether, with a brutal penalty of five seconds for each violation. Further than that, I can't tell you about, as I'm just not good enough to get through more than the first couple of stages with spikes. However, that's fine, it doesn't feel like an unfair game, or an artificially difficult one. In fact, I'd love to see this game make the rounds in the speedrunning community, as each stage is obviously designed with an optimum or perfect path in mind, and I know there are people out there who would love the challenge of learning the layout of each stage by heart, and mastering the controls so that they can get through perfectly, and it's clear to me that this game was designed with that in mind.

In summary, Korokoro Postnin is a game that was slightly too hard for me, but it's also a game I can't help but respect, and I hope it somehow, someday gets the attention of the audience for whom it's truly intended. (Even if it is well over a decade too late for it to matter to the developers or publisher).

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Assassins PD Games Disk 1 (Amiga)

Covering Amiga games is often a tricky one for me, as though almost anything on the Amiga can be considered obscure outside of Europe, assuming it never got ported to consoles, some Amiga games are very fondly remembered locally, while going completely unheard of elsewhere. So, I decided to start looking into an area pretty much untouched by the internet: PD games (which is what homebrew was called back then, though it actually stands for Public Domain). And the easiest way to get a decent cross-section of that wide, forgotten world is to go through old compilation disks, so this is the first of what will be an occasional series (and I will get back to doing posts about Disc Station someday, honest!)

So, there's five games on this disk, though I don't have much to say about Tanx, the first game. It's a fairly primitive 2-player only Scorched Earth/pre-Worms type thing in which two distant tanks have to aim shots at each other from across the battlefield until one of them hits the other. There's lots of different options like wind speed, gravity strength, hills and mountains, and so on, but it's still not very interesting, to be honest.

Next up is Rollerpede, which is exactly what it looks like: a Centipede clone. There's a few power-ups and some nice music on the title screen, but other than that, it's just a moderately competent version of the ancient arcade game. Surprisingly, it uses the joystick for controls, rather than trying to emulate trackball controls using the mouse, but if I'm honest, I hate using a mouse to control action games, so I'm happy the developers took that decision.

The third game is by far the best, and it's called Amigoids. Again, it's not really an original game, since it's just a high-quality Asteriods clone, though it does have a couple of interesting options. Firstly, you have a selection of three "specials" to choose from, those being the traditional hyperspace, a temporary shield, and a simple instant 180 degree turn. There's no option to use a controller with a second fire button, but they special is mapped to "down", which actually works pretty well, so it's not that big a problem.

The other interesting thing Amigoids adds to the formula is the ability to load new graphics, replacing the score font, player's ship, UFO and the asteroids themselves. There's a few styles included on the disk alongside the detailed default sprites, like Atari 2600-style coloured blobs, faux-vector white lines, childishdrawings of faces, houses and shapes, and one that turns the asteroids into various computer parts and paraphrenalia. The fact that these are loaded from a generic Amiga file window, rather than an in-game menu suggests that the game allows players to add their own spritesheets, should they want to. It's a nice package all-round, really.

Fourth is Cave Runner, a barebones Boulder Dash clone. It's fine, I guess? It's not flashy and it doesn't add anything to the formula, but it is brutally difficult, if that's your kind of thing, and you've somehow already played all the other brutally difficult Boulder Dash clones that exist in the world.

Finally, Avatris, which is obviously a Tetris clone, though it is also a bit of an oddity. Firstly, the game's clearly designed for three players: two on joysticks, the third on keyboard. There'll always be three players, though if you're on your own, you can set all three to be controlled by the same device, so you have one game played in triplicate (since the pieces come out in the same order for all three players). Secondly, it goes back to the stages-with-lines-quotas system of the old arcade version of Tetris, but rather than getting faster, each stage after the first has an arrangement of pre-set blocks already on the field to get in the way. These stages start off so difficult, I've not been able to clear stage 2, after quite a few attempts. Thirdly, and this is the most annoying thing, once all three players are out, the game just stops. There's no game over screen, it doesn't go back to the title, you just have to reset the Amiga. Avatris is an okay game, though I assume it gets exponentially better with actual opponents.

So, that's the first of the Assassins PD compilation disks. It was alright, though when I decided to cover PD stuff, I was hoping for less clones of old arcade games, and more weird experimental stuff that could never possibly be a commercial release. Fingers crossed for the next disk I do then, eh?

Monday, 3 October 2016

Scorpius (X68000)

As you look through the screenshots for this post, you'll notice that they're mainly from the first two stages. That's because this game is brutally, incredibly difficult, and though some of the difficulty comes from stupid, unfair design decisions, such as obstacles that are impossible to avoid without foreknowledge of their location, a lot of it does simply come down to the fact that Scorpius is just a game that just seems to be designed entirely around the player's tears.

It's a horizontally-scrolling shooting game, and the gimmick that gives the game its title is that each of the three ships has a retractible scorpion-like tail that extends from their rear. The tail fires shots from the end, though aiming it takes a fair bit of getting used, as the tail moves in a manner vaguely similar to (though much harder to get the hang of) your dragon's tail in Irem's 1989 arcade game Dragon Breed. You can also put the tail away, and shoot normally, which is the best thing to do in most circumstances. Don't, however, neglect to learn how to control the tail, since it becomes absolutely vital to survival as soon as the middle of stage 2.

The game's big claim to fame is that it was put out by Shinseisha, the publishers of the legendary arcade magazine Gamest. It's clearly was a labour of love, too: the graphics and sound are both of a very high quality, especially when you take into account that this was a 1991 release, it could easily have come out two or three years later and still fit in fine among its contemporaries. Of course, the other side of the coin is that it's definitely made solely for an audience of super hardcore arcade fans. There are no concessions or allowances made for players who don't have either the skill to play well, or the fortitude to learn. I have to admit that I eventually fell short on both counts. Scorpius is just too hard for me! I had to give up after a straight hour's play, I managed to get to the third stage, then losing all my remaining lives within seconds. I'm ashamed to say it, but I was almost in tears.

It's easily much more difficult than even more modern danmaku-style shooting games, but with that level of extreme difficulty comes the physical sensation that comes along with all the best shooters. While reaching and fighting the second boss, I was on edge the whole time,feeling immense pressure and tension, followed by incredible, though brief, relief when the stage was done. All I can say is that if you want that kind of feeling, and you think you have the fortitude to stick with the game, and push through the trauma it inflicts, Scorpius is one you should seek out. No-one will think any less of you if you don't, though.