Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Battle Pinball (3DO)

Longtime readers of this blog might remember that back in the mists of antiquity, I wrote about a SNES game with the same title as this one. The two are unrelated, though. While that game was a regular pinball game themed around battles, this one is a game about battles taking place in the form of pinball scoring contests.

There's four characters (a mole, an alien, death and a gambler), each with their own table. In single player mode, you pick one, and do battle with all four characters in random order. The battles work like this: you each get three balls, and the aim is to get a higher score than your opponent. The score really is all that matters: if you lose all three balls first, but have a higher score, your opponent continues playing until they either beat your score or lose their last ball. Once you beat all four characters, you see a short FMV ending (lovingly rendered, like all the character art, in hideous early-90s CGI, the kind that they used to call "Silicon Graphics" in magazines at the time.) And that's it, pretty much.

The tables are all very simple: a few bumpers, a couple of sets of targets, a ramp or two, and that's all. No multiball or special table events or moving parts of any kind. I guess the reasons for this are twofold, though both necessities of development. I'm only theorising here, but I think it'd be a heavy strain on the hardware to have to keep track of two fully-featured, action-packed pinball tables at once. The other reason is that I assume it would be a lot harder to balance the four tables, to make sure that none of them had massive scoring advantages over any of the others, if they were full of dozens of features and gimmicks.

It's surprising that no-one's used this splitscreen "Vs. Pinball" concept since (as far as I'm aware, at least). It's a good idea, and a lot less fiddly and confusing than the turn-taking multiplayer modes that a lot of pinball games do have. A simultaneous competitive pinball game could work really well on handhelds, too. Anyway, Battle Pinball is a fun little game with a cool concept, though the single player mode is incredibly anemic, and of course, it would work a lot better on more powerful hardware.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Dark Native Apostle (PS2)

When Bomberman: Act Zero came out for the 360 in 2006, it was universally loathed, and rightfully so. But an annoying point about the coverage it got is that so much of the negativity was focussed on the concept of a gritty sci-fi Bomberman game, that it was barely mentioned that the game itself was absolute garbage, with only one arena, no local multiplayer, and a single player mode that consisted of playing the same stage 100 times in a row. The thing is, it wasn't the first attempt at a gritty Bomberman for the 21st century. Though it doesn't bear the name of the esteemed multiplayer franchise, Dark Native Apostle was published in Japan by Hudson Soft, and features a protagonist with the ability to drop small timed explosives wherever he goes. (Coincidentally, it was developed by recurring Lunatic Obscurity favourites Tamsoft!)

It's not a multiplayer Vs. arena game, though, but takes the attack mechanic from the Bomberman series and applies to, of all things, a blend of survival horror with the occasional bit of light 3D platforming. Well, "survival horror" in the respect that the plot involves genetic engineering and bio-weapons, and that a lot of time is spent running back and forth finding keys, putting disks into computer terminals and flicking power switches. There isn't anything actually scary in the game, your main method of attack has infinte ammo and there's an ample supply of healing items.

So yeah, you're some genetic engineered bio-weapon guy with amnesia, and you go into the labs where you were made to try and find out your past. It's pretty much the exact same plot as a billion other games that came out between 1996 and 2005. The combat aspect of the game is incredibly easy: most enemies will stand still while firing at you or changing direction, so you can just drop a bomb at their feet to dispatch them. You can hold the square button down and walk away when you drop a bomb to give it a longer fuse, but I've gotten a fair few areas into the game, and beaten a few bosses and this ability has not yet been useful once.

The puzzle-solving aspect of the game is a lot more difficult, though. Well, I think it is, it might just be my being a bit thick. Though you are expected to comb every room you can go into to find every item and clue that might lead to you opening more rooms and progressing. There is one interesting feature the game has involving the upgrades to your powers: you can equip up to four "chips", each of which improves an aspect of your abilities, like the power of your bombs or you max HP or whatever. But, by equipping them in the right order, you can also gain special abilities! Some of these are almost universally useful, like the dash ability. Some are useful in a few certain places, like the ability to see invisible objects. Some are useful in literally one part of the game and then never again, like the ability to drop blinding flash bombs, that only seem to affect the big purple lizard boss you fight in the sewers early in the game. The fact that you often don't get the chips needed to acquire a special ability until around the time you get the note telling you about it is a disappointment, too: playing a second time around with prior knowledge of all the "recipes" could have possibly led to a sneaky bit of sequence breaking, maybe?

Dark Native Apostle isn't a great game, but it's not a particularly bad one either. I guess the core concept alone is interesting enough to be worth a look, though. An obvious comparision to make is to the Playstation game Silent Bomber, which I like a lot more than DNA, though it is a pure all-out action game, so it's not an entirely fair comparision to make.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Toughman Contest (32X)

I never thought there'd be an EA Sports game on this blog, but it's game that's long forgotten, on a console that no-one cares about, featuring a sport that wasn't really popular for very long (and even when it was, it was never massive). Toughman Contest is an amateur boxing tournament that's been going since the late 1970s, but the only time I've ever heard of it was in the late 90s, though it apparently continues to this day. This game is vaguely based on that competition, though all the boxers in it are fictional caricatures with silly names.

Presentation-wise, it's a bit of a mixed bag in many ways: though the graphics are all competently drawn, the game has an ugly pseudo-realistic aesthetic, and the menus look cheap and low-rent compared to the game itself. The character sprites are all massive, taking up most of the screen, though whoever you pick will always be represented by a green outline. A nice touch is that there are four tounaments in which you can compete: North America, South America, Europe/Middle East and Asia/Australasia, and each of them has their own (heavily stereotyped, in a Street Fighter kind of way) arena.  As for how it plays, it's kind of like Super Punch-Out, but worse in every possible way.

Like Super Punch-Out, you view your boxer from behind, and you've got to dodge your opponent's punches and hit them back with the right timing. Unfortunately, it doesn't work as well as Nintendo's game, since in the name of realism, there's no tells when any of your opponents are going to attack or dodge or block, and it just feels like everything happens at random. Sometimes you won't get a single hit on your opponent the whole match, other times, you'll pummel their face in by simply holding up and C. There's also times when your opponent's health will just randomly drop to nothing, a mechanic which I assume is supposed to represent a lucky suckerpunch? Another problem is that I've played plenty of matches, and have never won nor lost by knock-out. Every match has been decided by judge's decision, which also feels slightly random. The final result usually makes sense, and the most successful boxer will win, but it could be a fight where you didn't get a single hit in, and you'll just barely lose by one or two points. Conversely, you could batter your opponent into paste, and just barely scrape a couple of points ahead of them.

I saw screenshots of this game, and gave it a shot, hoping it might be a diamond hidden in the substantial rough that is the 32X library. But it's just another ugly, boring game that's outshined by better titles on less powerful hardware. Oh well, never mind.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Kozure Ookami (Arcade)

So, Lone Wolf and Cub, sometimes known as Babycart or Shogun Assassin, is a very well-known comic and series of movies about a guy named Ogami Itto and his three year old son, who goes around violently killing lots of people. I have to admit that I've never actually read any of the comics or seen any of the movies, but I do know that much about them, but doesn't everyone? This game's a beat em up based on that story.

Obviously, you play as Itto, and you go about with your son in a backpack, slashing lots of guys to death. Though it's a belt scrolling beat em up, in terms of mechanical complexity, it inhabits a kind of middle ground between the simpler single plane beat em ups that came before it, like Spartan X, My Hero, et al., and the more complex belt scrollers that would come later, the Final Fights, the Streets of Rages, and so on. There's no comboing, but you do have a block button, and can perform a couple of different slashes with your sword by holding a direction as you press the attack button.
There's very few power-ups, with the most exciting being the famous babycart itself, which will appear for a short time, giving you increased movement speed and a projectile attack. Interestingly, if you press the block button while the babycart is present, you'll instead dismantle it to create a halberd, giving you slightly greater attack range for a short time instead. I assume there must be some advantage to doing this, though I'm yet to have figured out what. Another one is a little piece of paper (I think?), that does nothing until you collect three, at which point, you're whisked away to a duel mini-game. Be the first to attack after the counter reaches zero, and you cut your opponent down, and get a big points bonus. You don't lose a life if you fail, you just get sent back to the main game without a bonus.

Other than that, the game's structured pretty traditionally: you go along the stages killing enemies until you get to a boss, then you kill the boss and go onto the next stage. Starting with the second stage, though, the game does commit a heinous design crime: there's platform sections, with instant death pits, while you also have to avoid enemies jumping out of the pits and the game doesn't even have a dedicated jump button (you press block and attack together to jump). It's unfair, it's no fun, and it's an awkward break from the constant disembowelling that makes up the rest of the game. I'm not going to say it totally ruins the experience, but it's definitely a significant detractor.

That one big flaw aside, though, Kozure Ookami is still a pretty great game, and it does an especially good job creating a mood and forging its own identity through the way it looks and sounds. I'd say it's definitely worth a look.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Royal Pro Wrestling (3d0)

There's a long and fine tradition in Japanese wrestling games, most famously seen in the Fire Pro series, whereby the roster will be full of real life wrestlers but with their names changed to some silly nonsense, and that's apparently enough to get around any copyright laws. (And I'm sure you're aware that this was a common practice in arcade games in general throughout the 80s, leading to difficulties when it comes to modern rereleases of games like Outrun and Afterburner, as copyright holders begin to notice that their stuff was being used without permission). Anyway, Royal Pro Wrestling carries on that tradition in amazing style, with names like Mike Warrior, Golden Lips and Underdise the Morgan. My favourite is the name they've given Randy Savage, though: Andy Savage. Amazing!

Anyway, Royal Pro Wrestling plays like any typical Japanese wrestling game of the 16-bit era (except the Fire Pro series, which were always a class above the rest): you lock up by walking into each other, then hammer the buttons and direction in the hopes of performing a move. You've also got running moves, top rope moves, and there's always exactly one chair at ringside waiting to be used as a weapon. Some characters even have planchas where they jump over the ropes to land on an opponent outside the ring! The roster of wrestlers is pretty big, and split into American, Japanese and Mexican wrestlers (though most of the wrestlers in the Mexican section are just masked Juniors from Japan, like Tiger Mask and Jushin Liger). There's also four arenas, one for each country, and another, extravagant one that's inside some kind of ACropolis-style building.

You might have noticed the slight dig at the game in the last paragraph, saying it's a typical 16-bit game when it's on a 32-bit console. The thing is though, it really does play, and mostly also look like a SNES game, plus there are only two match types: single and tag, with no rule modifications or anything like that. There is a concession to the new hardware, though: the presentation, outside of the matches themselves, is excellent. If you play career mode, each match is preceded by a great-looking animated and voice-acted promo from your opponent (though the voice acting is awful, which lets the game down a little). There's also really great comic-style artwork for each wrestler on the versus screen, and a very short FMV clip of the outside of each arena, to add a bit more flavour. Come to think of it, there's some nice little touches in-match, too: during tag matches, the referee will argue with illegal wrestlers if they don't get out of the ring, and wrestlers whose real-life counterparts have managers will have them at ringside in this game too.

Royal Pro Wrestling is far from being a classic, but it is a very well-made game, as well as being the only wrestling game (as far as I know) on the 3d0. If you're curious, it wouldn't hurt to give it a shot. And if you need a break from actually playing, there's also a massive gallery of concept art in the menu, which is interesting, and the game being what it is, essentially a load of 90s wrestling fanart.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Kid Chameleon (Mega Drive)

It's been said many times that Sonic the Hedgehog was SEGA's answer to Mario. This isn't just true on the basic level of being a company mascot, but from the way Sonic's first game was designed, to his brash, rebellious personality made him different to Mario, and by extension, made SEGA different to Nintendo. Kid Chameleon can also be said to be SEGA's answer to Mario, especially Super Mario Bros. 3, a game which saw Mario take on various different forms as the game went on.

While Sonic's games were almost totally different to Mario's, other than being platform games, Kid Chameleon is very similar to SMB3 in a number of ways: a main character who transforms, blocks containing power-ups that are broken from below and so on. But philosophically, Kid Chameleon shows a different set of ideas to Nintendo's game. Super Mario Bros. 3 is designed like a game adults think children should enjoy, while Kid Chameleon feels as if a ten-to-thirteen year old had played SMB3, and designed their own heavily-inspired game in an exercise book stolen from school, and then somehow their drawings had become an actual game. (I'd like to note that I don't mean to disparage either game here. They're both classics, of course.)

As you play Kid Chameleon, you can hear that kid's voice saying "Mario changing into a raccoon or a frog is okay, but what if you were a badass dude in shades, and you could turn into a knight or a samurai?", and then of course, the more you play, the further the ideas get from the family-friendly Nintendo fare: "What if you were a nazi tank in hell that shot skulls? And then you turned into Jason Voorhies and got chased around by giant skulls that scream 'DIE!' at you?". The structure of the game feels faily adolescent, too. The stages are huge, and full of secrets. Secret areas, invisible power-ups, and of course, secret exits that lead to extra secret stages.

I don't really know how to end this piece, since Kid Chameleon is already a pretty well-known game, and most people reading this will have probably played it at some point and already formed an opinion on it. I guess there's this anecdote: when I was a very young child, someone told me they were playing this game, and that it was so long and hard, they might not live long enough to ever finish it. Obviously, I suggested that they have it put into their coffin so that they could continue playing it in the afterlife. I was a very practically-minded child, I'm sure you'll agree.