Sunday, 27 November 2016

Musashi no Ken - Tadaima Shugyou Chuu (NES)

Based on an 80s anime of which I'd never heard prior to playing the game, Musashi no Ken has one of the most wholesome and innocent premises for a platform game I've ever seen. The protagonist has a big kendo tournament coming up, so he takes to the wilderness to go and train, by hitting inanimate objects with his shinai. Obviously, we can't expect too much deviation or innovation from an 80s licensed platformer, so there are still enemies to kill in the stages, though they're mostly either indistinct blobs, or random objects like maid dolls or walking bowls.

Your journey through the platform stage actually does act as a kind of training, as when you hit platforms, wooden posts, tires and other stuff strewn about the stages, little tiny shinai items pop out of them. These items come in three flavours: high, middle and low, and they're also floating around in the stages in the traditional platform game item fashion. These items don't actually do anything during the platform stages, but after three such stages, it's time for the big tournament!

But before I get onto that, I have more things to say about the platform stages. Firstly, there's an added complication in that as well as avoiding all the hazards, traps and enemies, you're also racing your dog to the end of the stage. This isn't really a big deal though, as he's so slow that he's usually only halfway through the stage by the time you reach the end. Secondly, the game uses a kind of rudimentary HP system: you start with fifty HP, and getting hit causes you to lose twenty-five of them, and should you happen across any riceballs along the way, they'll restore 10 each. At the end of the stage, you'll get 100 points for each HP you have left. What I find interesting about this system is that if you've been hit once, finding a riceball will allow you to survive one more hit before losing a life, but after that hit, you'll need to find two of them to get another hit. Obviously, this also means that the best scoring strategy is to avoid hits and find riceballs, so you have the maximum number of HP to turn into points at the end.

The platform stages are so absurdly difficult that, though I'm ashamed to admit it, I actually had to abuse save states to reach the tournament, because I really wanted to see it and screenshot it for my beloved readers. It was totally worth the effort, though, as it's good enough to have been a game on its own. What happenis is that you fight five sequential opponents in traditional first-to-two-points kendo matches. The items you collected during your training come into play here, as each 10 you have in each category allow you to use a powerful strike once. These strikes are almost guaranteed to win you a point when you use them, but you still need to be careful with tham, as the amount of items you have going into the tournament is what you're stuck with: they don't replenish between rounds, or when you lose a life (by losing a round).

Musashi no Ken is a pretty good game, with a lot of cool ideas. If they could flesh it out about, and come up wwith a replacement for the item-limited power strikes, the kendo tournament is good enough to be its own standalone game. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: kendo is a sport that should work well in videogame form, and it's totally bizarre that over almost forty years, there's less than ten kendo games in existence.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Mimizu Panzer (PC)

This is a game I first read about on Insert Credit over a decade ago, back when it used to be a news site, though I only actually got round to playing it fairly recently. It's a single-screen shooting game in which you control a long, segmented millipede-like tank, destroying gun turrets in the desert. That ancient IC news post made mention of the plot placing the player in the boots of a moe version of a Nazi tank commander in World War II, though I guess either it's an incredibly loose interpretation, or they based that post on an early version, and all that stuff was replaced with more generic moe girls for the final release.

On first play, Mimizu Panzer seems slow, boring and hard, and the scores seen on the high score table seem unreachable compared to the scores you'll be getting. Most of these things will change once you work out all the little tricks to how the game works. Firstly, there's the length of your tank, which affects things in various different ways. You start with four segments behind your head tank, and gain one for every enemy you kill. Furthermore, only your head can be hurt, and all the other segments stop enemy bullets. If you lose a life, you also lose half of your segments (not including the first four). Some of the segments have holes in, and those holes glow when hit by enemy bullets. If you shoot one of the glowing hole segments with your own bullets, it'll start shooting flames from one side, which is the key mechanic you have to master to get anywhere in this game.

The most obvious thing about the flames is that they're significantly more powerful than your normal shots, which is important, as all but the weakest of the enemy turrets can take a lot of punishment before going down. At the same time, though, they're also significantly harder to aim, unless you pre-calculate the path you want your tank and its fiery emissions to take before letting them off. The other thing the flames do is vastly increase your scoring potential: enemies killed by shot have pretty small points values, while enemies killed by flame have their points value multiplied by the number of extra segments (again, discounting the first four). It's really got everything a good score system should have, in that it rewards both skillful use of the game's main mechanical gimmick, plus it rewards staying alive, and even more than that, it makes staying alive a more difficult task the longer you keep it up (since you have to avoid crashing into yourself and the sides of the screen on top of everything else).

The only real problem with Mimizu Panzer is really more a problem with myself rather than the game, and it's the fact that it's really difficult. To get a decent variety of screenshots for this review, I had to resort to continues and even the game's pre-recorded replays to get a look further in the game. I will say this in its favour, though: even as hard and frustrating as it gets, it doesn't stop being addictive. I've whiled away hours trying to get just one screen further while playing it for this review. It's for that reason that I totally recommend Mimizu Panzer, and I say that it's a shame it languishes in the obscurity inherent in being a years-old Japanese PC game, and will probably never get an official western release, and is even less likely to get the audience it deserves on consoles.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Hyakumanton no Barabara (PSP)

So, it's only after playing the Japanese version of this game for a few hours that I learn that it actually had a western release, under the name "Patchwork Heroes". But I think the fact that I've never seen or heard anyone speak about either version makes it fine material for an obscure videogames blog. Anyway, if, like me, seeing screenshots of it makes you assume that it's some kind of quirky tower defence-type thing where you build flying battleships with cannons and turrets and things. It's actually kind of the opposite! What Hyakumanton no Barabara is is an imaginative twist on the old Qix formula, that sees you cutting apart huge flying battleships while working under the pressure of a strict time limit (since you want to destroy the battleships before they reach your hometown), and while under attack from the ships' various defence systems, mobile and otherwise.

So the way it works is that you climb around on the side of the ship, and you can cut swathes across it. If you cut in such a manner that the ship is split in two, the smallest part is destroyed and falls away. Your mission on each stage is to keep destroying bits of the ship until it falls out of the sky. Some stages also add little extra objectives that need to be fulfilled alongside your main goal, like ensuring one certain part of the ship remains intact, or collecting all of a certain item that's strewn around the ship.

There's many different kinds of enemies crawling around the ship triyng to stop you, and they each have a skill, like being able to repair the ship, or being able to fly, so they can't be killed when you cut away the part of the ship they're standing on, and so on. You can take two hits from enemies before dying, represented by the fact that you have two other people climbing alongside you at the start of each stage. There's also prisoners to rescue from cages dotted around the place, and if you have less than two remaining, they'll step in to replace them. Otherwise, they'll fly away with a balloon. There's also a few power-ups, which are the same as usual for Qix-alikes: faster movement, stop time for all the enemies, and so on.

The game looks and sounds really nice, too! Like you could guess from the game's western title, everything looks like it's made from big, colourful patchwork quilts. What you can't tell from the title is that the music is really bouncy and fun, sounding like a kind of eastern european marching band? It's pretty unique, as far as videogame soundtracks go, at least.

I really enjoyed this game. I'd even go as far as to say  that playing it is the most fun I've ever had playing a Qix-alike game! That might be damning with faint praise, since most of them have more of a "addiction through frustration" thing going on, rather than genuine enjoyment. But yeah, Hyakumanton no Barabara/Patchwork Heroes is a great little unsung hero of the PSP library. I think it might also be the first PSP game I've featured on this blog that I recommend without reservation? That's nice.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Metal Freezer (Arcade)

I know what some of you might be thinking, and this game doesn't have anything to do with Dragonball Z. In fact, it's a futuristic maze game, that's almost as good as the game that I (and I'm sure many other people) place at the top of the genre, Raimais (and yes, I realise that this marks two arcade games in a row that I've compared to better-known games by Taito. The thing is, if you like arcade games, you like Taito games. They just put out a ton of varied, high quality games in the 80s and 90s!)

Anyway, Metal Freezer has you placing floor tiles over what appears to be exposed electronics, though functionally, this is exactly the same as collecting stuff in almost every other maze game that exists. It might actually be a spiritual sequel to another game from the same publisher named "Mustache Boy", albeit with a significant aesthetic improvement (but I'll get back to that later). Anyway, in four out of every five stages, you simply have to move over all the exposed electronics squares to place floor tiles over them, while avoiding/destroying the enemies roaming around. Every fifth stage has you getting through a tight obstacle course-like stage and reaching the exit as quickly as possible.

There are several distinct types of enemies, and they all do different things. For example, one type of enemies drags you towards it with magnetism, while one drills holes in walls to create more work for you, and another shoots goo at you that prevents you from jumping for a few seconds. Touching any of them loses you a life, though you aren't nearly as defenceless as you would be in most maze games, as you can shoot them with your freeze ray as much as you like (well, it has an overheat meter, but unless you go crazy with it, that won't even matter), turning them into ice cubes that can be pushed off the stage, into walls, or even used to crush other enemies.

Anyway, those aesthetics, eh? At first, the game'll look no better or worse than any other mid-budget late-80s arcade game. But there's a lot of great little details in there that you'll gradually start to notice! Like the way every type of floor and wall block has a different animation for when the stage fades to black on completion. And there's the cool cyberpunk wireframe progress map that displays at the start and finish of every game. All these little things add up to lift Metal Freezer a little higher than its contempories, and make it feel a little bit more professional.

Anyway, Metal Freezer is an excellent game, and I strongly recommend giving it a try!

Monday, 7 November 2016

Powerplay - The Game of the Gods (Amiga)

If Powerplay's claim is true, and it is actually the game of the gods, then it tells us three things about them. The first and second things it tells us are that the gods have both incredible patience and a lot of time on their hands, as a single glaically-paced game of Powerplay took the better part of two hours. The other thing it teaches us about the gods is that above all, they value knowledge of trivia.

Powerplay takes the form of a board game, each player (either a human versus the CPU, or up to four human players, though I struggle to imagine a situation where that has ever happened) picks a greek god and four champions to represent them on the board. Each turn you pick one of your champions to move, and then you answer a general knowledge question. If you get it right, you score a few points and you can move your chosen champion one space in any direction. If not, your turn ends. That's what happens most turns, anyway: sometimes, your champions will just wander around the board at random, and you do nothing. When a character reaches 25 points, they'll "mutate" into another character.

Should one of your champions meet one of your opponent's, a challenge will start. There's two types of challenge: either a tug-of-war held over a lava pit, or some kind of bizarre trial, over which the gorgon Medusa presides. It doesn't matter which you get though, as they're both exactly the same, mechanically: you answer more trivia questions. Get three in a row right and you win, get three in a row wrong and you lose. You also lose if your champion runs out of strength, which depletes for both sides at a rate of one per question. The losing champion will either go down one level of mutation, or if they're in their default state, be taken off the board entirely.

Once only one god is left represented on the board, they win. You get an animation of Zeus congratulating you, and then the game asks if you want to play again. Which is pretty presumptuous, considering you've just spent two hours answering stupid questions, and they already started repeating half way through.

Powerplay is a terrible game. I had it in the box of pirated disks that came with my Amiga when I was a kid, and even then, I knew better than try to get someone else involved in trying to play through a multiplayer game. As an adult, I wouldn't recommend bothering with single player, either.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

G-Type (PC)

G-Type was actually one of the first doujin shooters i ever played, back in the mid-00s. Unlike other games from that period, like Warning Forever or Dan! Da Dan!, it's not one I ever went back to in the years between then and now. That's not to say it's a worse game than those two (well, not significantly worse, anyway), it's just that comparatively, it's a lot more old-fashioned and slower paced than those games, and obviously I'm one of those impatient millenials that needs everything to be fast and flashy all the time. Well, my shooting games, anyway.

There's a good reason why this 2002 game is so slow and archaic, though: it's a loving homage and fusion of those two elder statesman of the shooting genre, R-type and Gradius. Later on, you even get to fight weird fusions of bosses from those two games and the Darius series, too! How it works is that the stages are mostly Gradius-like in design, and your ship is clearly a variant of the classic R-9 Arrowhead. The power-up system is the most coherent fusion of the two games, though. You collect generic power ups that each advance a counter at the bottom of the screen by one, and you press the second controller button to activate the currently highlighted power-up. So far, that's Gradius, right? The twist is that when you start the game, the fourth option is "Force", and the fifth and sixth are blank. When you choose force, the force floats onscreen and the last three power up options become "M-Way", "Laser" and "Burst". Laser refers to the blue power-up from R-Type, the three-way lasers, M-Way is a weak and boring multi-way shot, made pretty much redundant by the laser serving the same purpose, and Burst is the burst missiles seen in some of the Gradius games.

As well as the two big stars, there's also some homages to the Darius series in there! Firstly, the third stage, taking the form of the traditional R-Type battleship boss/stage takes place over a fire planet that periodically spits out firballs, like the first stage of Darius II. The fourth stage also takes the form of a boss rush, during which your opponents take the form of fusions of classic Darius, Gradius and R-type bosses.

You're probably wondering by now if there's actually a good game under all the homages and nostalgia, and there is. Like I said earlier, it's pretty slow-paced by modern standards, but it's still a lot of fun. It also looks great, with nice, chunky sprites, and a kind of high-contrast colour style reminiscent of R-Type Leo. The difficulty's also perfecty pitched: not too hard, and not too easy, and if you want to see a little further in the game (like if you want to take more screenshots to put in your review for example, ahem), you can start a new game from any stage you've previously reached. A good tip is to obtain and power up your force as early as possible, since when you lose a life, it stays behind with all its power-ups intact. This might be a little inauthentic, but it's also a pretty good way of alleviating the slippery slope that was prevalent in both R-Type and Gradius, whereby you lost all your power-ups on death, leading to rapid loss of the rest of your lives. If I remember right, didn't Gradius V do a similar thing with Options a couple of years later?

G-Type is a pretty good game, and a nice homage to its spiritual progenitors. If you're a fan of either of them, I'd recommend giving it a shot. Some advice though: you'll need to use JoyToKey or a similar program to use a controller, no matter what the options screen might suggest, and the only display options are a tiny 320x240 window and the same resolution stretched to fullscreen. That sort of thing doesn't bother me, but I know that some people are gigantic tedious snobs when it comes to that stuff.