Sunday, 26 February 2017

Onyanko Town (NES)

Traditional top-down maze games aren't very common any more, and they haven't really been since the 80s. When a new one does arrive nowadays, it'll often have a deliberate Pac-Man-inspired abstract "retro" aesthetic. Onyanko Town, released in 1985, eschews this idea, though. Probably because it was released soon enough after the Pac-era that an abstract look would have just looked old-fashioned, rather than retro. What it has instead is a cosy, friendly-looking Japanese Suburbia setting, and in that we might find two reasons for the wane of the maze game genre: that with the level of detail available on the consoles coming to prominence in the mid-1980s, there weren't many different possible ways of presenting a top-down maze, and the other reason being that towards the end of the decade, the kinds of settings that were commonly being used for videogames in general were largely narrowing down to mainly sci-fi, fantasy and military settings, to appeal to the nerdy audience that were buying a lot of games. (Yes, I know there are plenty of exceptions to this trend, but those kinds of settings definitely started to become the vast majority at around that time, and it's only recently starting to go the other way).

Anyway, you play as a mother cat, in a dress and apron, who has to roam the streets of her neighbourhood looking for her wandering kitten while avoiding the unwanted attention of all the loose dogs. Luckily, this cat has been gifted with a ery specific kind of telekinesis with which she can defend herself: if she's facing a manhole cover, and there's no barriers between her and it, she can open and close it from a distance. She's also a very talented jumper, being able to jump over any hedge, wall or house, as long as it's only one block to the other side. She can't jump while carrying a kitten, though. Thusly, each stage is sort of split into two halves: the first, in which you have your full range of movement options, and the second, after picking your kitten, which sees you trying to safely get back home minus your ability to jump. There's no time limit, though, so if you can repress your natural desire to progress, you can meander around the first stage forever, tricking dogs and collecting items for points

But this is a game that gets more fun to lay the more you learn about it and the better you get at playing it. When I first started playing, it seemed to me that your score mainly relied upon the thousand points you get upon completing a stage, as you only get ten points for making a dog fall into a manhole. Then I realised that you get a lot more points if you close a manhole after a dog's fallen in, andthis amount increases dramatically for each subsequent dog that falls in before you close it up. There's also points items that appear in the driveways of certain houses, like jewellry, cakes and cars, and in two houses on each stage, there's a fish in the driveway, just waiting for a cat to come and steal it. The fish is of course, the traditional maze game temporary power up, speeding up your movement, and allowing you to trample over dogs for fifty points ago for a limited time. It's a double-edged sword, however, as taking it also summons an angry, cleaver-weilding fishmonger who'll chase you until the end of the stage or your death, so you really have to think tactically about when and if you want to take the fish. There was one occasion when the kitten, a fish and home were all within two screens' distance, but so were five dogs all clumped together, and no well-placed manhole covers. It was very satisfying to get the fish, steamroll the dogs and dash home with the kitten.

So in conclusion, Onyanko Town is a game that will first appear to be slow, frustrating and tedious, but put a little bit of time into learning its ways and its systems, and it'll become a lot more rewarding.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Crows The Battle Action (Saturn)

It's an odd coincidence that there's two very rare Saturn games that are both beat em ups, both licenced from long-running non-game franchises that are associated with specific subcultures and they both have the word "crow" in their titles. Anyway, the awfulness of The Crow: City of Angels is a well-known matter of public record, but how does the other crowgame fare?

WEll, it's pretty good. You control your delinquent of choice, and beat up other delinquents, as well as yakuza members and what appear to be military-themed goons. The stages are surprisingly short, being only a couple of minutes long each, and mostly ending without bossfights, which tend to be relegated to their own seperate stages. Though the game looks nice, with well-animated sprites (even though they're super deformed, which doesn't really fit with the gritty image the game's trying to put across), the most interesting thing about Crows is how it plays, and the ways in which it's just a little bit unoriginal.

The first impression you'll get from playing is that it's a lot like River City Ransom/Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari. You have seperate buttons for punch and kick, and they don't really chain together well, and when you pick up weapons, punch swings the weapon, while kick throws it. So that's suspiciously similar to RCR, especially when you throw in the fact that it's a game about big-headed juvenile delinquents, right? The difference is that Crows uses every button on the Saturn controller (or at least, it has things assigned to all of them). There's buttons for quickly sliding across the  floor, taunting your opponents, blocking, and the shoulder buttons each have customisable combos assigned to them (which reduce your health at such a huge amount that they're rendered totally useless). Mostly, though, you can get by with just punches, kicks and weapon attacks.

It might sound like I don't like this game, but that's not true. It's a pretty good game, it's inoffensive to play, the problem is that it feels a little soulless, like it's just ticking boxes and passing time. Even most of the aforementioned controls feel like they're just there because the developers felt like they needed to use every button. I think the main reason Crows gets by is because the late 90s were an incredibly lean time for beat em ups as a genre, and as a result, there's very few of them on the Saturn, meaning that an okay beat em up gets elevated to being a pretty good one, just by virtue of its lack of competition. But obviously, in this day and age, none of that actually matters, since anyone with a computer can play pretty much any game on any system up to about ten years ago.

So yeah, Crows The Battle Action is an okay game, and it's definitely a lot better than The Crow: City of Angels. Don't pay the crazy prices it fetches online nowadays, though. Obviously.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Splendor Blast II (Arcade)

So, you remember the early 90s, when the first big 3D arcade games were coming out? Virtua Fighter, Virtua Racing, and so on? It's shameful to say it now, but at the time, I wasn't impressed. Since I was a poor kid who couldn't afford a Saturn or 32X, and lived in some podunk village with no arcade, I only ever saw still screenshots of these games, that looked like a bunch of ugly boxes. Obviously, yers later, I saw these games in motion and was made to be ashamed of my thoughts and actions. I clearly didn't learn anything, though, as upon seeing stills of Splendor Blast II, I thought it looked like just another 80s shooting game with ugly low resolution graphics. Then I actually played it, and it turns out I was wrong on many fronts: it's actually an innovate futuristic racing game that looks amazing in motion, and the backgrounds look that way because it uses a kind of pre-mode 7 rotation effect to fake 3D!

This game was actually never released, though it is finished, and we can only play it thanks to Shoutime getting ahold of a copy and dumping the ROM, and we should all be thankful for that, as it really is a great game. It's pretty much as you'd expect from a futuristic racing game: spaceships instead of cars, racers risking life and limb, interfering space monsters and a little bit of shooting, as well as that old chestnut, the "fuel gauge that serves as a combined health bar and time limit." You race through the stages at high-speed, dodging obstacles and overtaking your opponents. The latter half of each stage will also let you shoot to destroy obstacles and aliens, though not your opponents, who will manage to avoid getting hit every time (though you can use this to your advantage by getting them out of the way). At the end of each stage, you get a bonus based on which position you finished in, how quick you were (as long as you finished in under a minute) and just a bonus for finishing. You also get some of your fuel back, at a rate which seems to be directly tied to how large your bonuses were.

It really is a game ahead of its time in a few ways. Obviously, there's the graphics, which look great in motion. Not only are they super-fast, but the psuedo-3D effect looks really cool as well, with some parts being especially good, like the lava stage with has columns of flame shooting out of firepits, like something from the hellish planet Apokolips in Jack Kirby's Fourth World. There's also the fact that you are actually racing against opponents. Though the game won't end if you place low at the end of a stage, the bearing that your placement has on the energy you get back would severely hamper your chances of surviving the next stage. But the fact that it keeps track at all is something to talk about, as most racing games in 1985 pitted you purely against the clock, with other racers only there to give you a points bonus when you pass them (though SBII does that too, of course).

The fact that this game was never released is bizarre to me. It's obviously a complete game, and not only is it a great one, but it's also an innovative one that's years ahead of its time. The only possible explanation I can come up with is that maybe Alpha Denshi saw SEGA's Super Scaler games and thought that their vertically-scrolling effort looked old hat in comparision? Anyway, now that it's available for everyone to play, I strongly recommend that you do so as soon as possible.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Kuru Kuru Panic (Playstation)

It's yet another colour-matching competitive puzzle game! This time, it's on the Playstation, rather than arcades, and it seems to have been made by a very small team, who proudly put all their names on a screen preceding the title screen, which sounds like it would be annoying, but it actually gives the game a feel of being the product of a ragtag bunch of enthusiasts. According to GameFAQs, they only did two other games, one of which was part of the Atelier series, and the other is the Dreamcast version of that visual novel thing starring Samurai Shodown's Nakoruru. Which is a bit sad really, isn't it?

Anyway, the main gimmick this game uses to stand out from the crowd is that rather than rectangular pits, you have coloured blobs falling towards the centre of large wheels? Though it might not be obvious at first, the effect this has isn't just aesthetic, but also has a few effects on gameplay. The first is that the wheels mean that unlike most games, your playing area is much wider than it is tall, so while piling on the blobs in one place will kill you quicker, you have more places in which to drop them. There's also the fact that you move the wheel itself round, rather than moving the blobs round it, which takes some getting used to at first, and allows the game to do another thing: set up blobs to fall in at different locations at the same time (or at least, in very quick succession).

The fact that you're almost constantly bombarded with blobs to place, and that you have such a wide area in which to place them makes Kuru Kuru Panic a fair bit more stressful than other puzzle games, even before it starts speeding up. It gets a little better once you realise this fact, and concentrating on just setting up little chains here and there when you can, and not getting too caught up in trying to build up one big chain. The fact is, you don't always have total control over where every blob, so you just have to do what you can to manage. Writing it like this makes the game sound like it's mostly luck-based, and not very good at all. And to be honest, I don't feel too bad saying that.

Every time I review a puzzle game, I always seem to end up talking about how it's good enough, but it has nothing to allow it to stand up to the giants of the genre. But in this case, I think it's more a case of that I desperately wanted this game to be better than it is, but it's just not. It's not a terrible game either, though: it's well-made and well-presented, but more important than all that is the fact that it's just not a very fun or interesting game to play.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Savage Skies (PS2)

Some concepts are so obvious that you can't believe that hadn't been done earlier, and Savage Skies is one of those very concepts: a fantasy combat flight sim, with mythical creatures instead of fighter jets. It was apparently going to feature Ozzy Osbourne early in development, too, which probably would have got it a bit more attention. (More than none, I mean. I'd never heard of this game at all before picking up a copy for next-to -nothing on a whim  few weeks ago.)

We might never know what the Ozzied-up version of the game might have been like, but the version we got has a pretty boring, generic fantasy plot, about a good kingdom and an evil horde and another horde that's neither good nor evil but they are weird-looking, and they're all at war with each other. You can pick any one of the three to play as, and they each have a series of missions to fly, as well as their own unique set of monsters. You don't get to pick your monster, though, each mission has one set to it. On the plus side, this means that there are a lot of them and they're all different, both visually and in the weapons with which they're equipped.

The good guys are the least interesting, having a fleet mainly made up of the obvious fantasy suspects: dragons, rocs, pegasi, and so on. The weird faction have weird steeds: flying eyeball monsters, flying manta rays, and other non-mammalian-looking monsters. The bad guys, of course, have typically evil-looking rides: giant bats, a giant locust made of bones, and my favourite of all the monsters I've seen so far, a giant flying rat armed with "vomit spray" and "plague breath". I love how childishly disgusting that guy is! I should also make mention of the stages themselves, which look amazing: mountains and deserts and huge majestic castles, the developers really made the most of the setting, giving you lots of picturesque locales to fly around and over that obviously would never appear in a traditional flight sim.

Anyway, it's not all fun: none of the monsters I've ridden so far have homing weapons, and the enemy flyers take a ton of hits before going down, so unfortunately, this means you spend a lot of time flying round and round in circles chasing an arrow at the edge of the screen pointing towards your nearest foe. Not every stage is like that, though, and some of the monsters do have weapons that make the process a lot less painful, like high-powered close-range breath weapons, or weapons that slow the enemy's movement. There is a level skip cheat, though, and I've found the best way to get the most enjoyment out of Savage Skies is to just skip a stage as soon as it gets boring or frustrating. When the game told me the next mission was a race, I skipped right away. There's something incredibly frustrating and joyless about race missions in non-racing games.

So yeah, Savage Skies is a game that mainly stands on the twin pillars of looking really nice and having a great concept. If I'd paid full price for it, I probably wouldn't be happy, but for the prices it goes for nowadays, you can totally have a lot of fun with it in conjunction with the level skip cheat.