Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Cardcaptor Sakura - Tomoeda Shougakkou Daiundokai (Game Boy Color)

Around the turn of the twenty-first century, Cardcaptor Sakura was a very popular show in Japan and around the world. Being a popular kids anime meant that obviously, it got a bunch of videogame adaptations, too, though since it's a cartoon with a female lead, and western companies inexplicably hate cartoons with female leads, none of them got released outside of Japan (in fact, there was barely any western merchandise in general). Testament to exactly how popular the show was is the fact that though it only ran for a little under a hundred episodes, it got ten games across six formats in that shot time. And while most of them were as you'd expect: games about magic and action and so on, this one more than any of the others, I think, shows just how popular the series was: it's a game about Sakura and her classmates participating in a school sports day.

A fantasy-action show getting a videogame that totally eschews both of those in favour of the characters having some light-hearted fun seems like a big risk to me, especially releasing it on a cartridge-based console in 2000, rather than as a simple download in 2018. But anyway, it exists, and it's a Track and Field-style button-annihilation game in which you pick either the pink or blue team and take part in various events. There's normal sports, like the 100m dash and the relay race, there's sports you only see in school sports days, like the three-legged race and the "assault course" that ends in sack racing, there's sports you only see in Japanese school sports days, like the one where teams of three kids carry around a fourth kid, and the kids on top have to steal each other's hats, and there's some slightly weird stuff, like a colour matching puzzle game and a thing where you race over bumpy ground, running behind a giant ball.

As for how it plays, it's alright. A lot of the events are about pressing A and B as fast as you can, with a few extra little twists for each one too, like handing the baton in the relay, or crawling under obstacles in the assault course. The hat-stealing game is the most fun, as it sees you trying to knock your opponents off their balance to so you can easily grab their hat, while also trying to avoid your own hat getting taken as you lean in to do the pushing. Of course, like all TaF-style games, I'm completely terrible at every event, and in a couple of hours' play, haven't managed to win a single one. But that's where the game's secret weapon kicks in: the license.

Of course, Cardcaptor Sakura is an all-time classic show, that doesn't get quite as much recognition in the west as it should, for aforementioned reasons, and this game captures (ho-ho!) a lot of its charm. The actual in-game character sprites are pretty nice, and between events, there's lots of big, luxurious pixel art of the characters, and it all looks excellent, brightly coloured, and super-cute. Though it's clearly a case of just applying a license to a generic game, it's still very effective and adds a ton of charm.

If you're a fan of the show, I'd definitely recommend tracking this game down, as it's pretty fun, really captures the show's feel against all odds, and would generally be a cute addition to your collection. If you're a fan of the genre, I'm not really sure what might make a good or a bad Track and Field game, and there's probably plenty of others that are a lot more easily available for you to get your hands on, and provide just as much of that arm-tiring action you crave.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Nyoki Nyoki Tabidachi-hen (3DS)

The developer/publisher of this game is a company named Compile-O, who are apparently made up of former members of Compile. Considering that this is a colour-matching versus puzzle game, that must be a good thing, right? At first glance, the little multicoloured blobs look a lot like Puyos, too. Luckily, though Nyoki Nyoki Tabidachi-hen manages to be both a good game, and an original enough concept to avoid being trapped in Puyo Puyo's shadow.

Like in Puyo Puyo, you put the same-coloured blobs next to each other and they merge, but unlike Puyo Puyo, you can keep doing this with as many of them as you like, and they won't disappear on their own, they'll just keep merging into bigger and bigger hattifattener-like blobby towers until you're ready to make them pop. The process of making them pop is a little like Super Puzzle Fighter, or Baku Baku Animal, in that you accumulated tower of blobs has to be touched by an activation blob of the same colour to vanish. The difference being that in this game, rather than waiting around for the activator to be given to you, at the touch of a button, you can change the piece you're currently controlling into an activator, and you can do this whenever you like, and how often you like.

Obviously, getting rid of lots of blobs at once means giving your opponent lots of junk blobs to get in their way, but even this is subject to the same kind of player choice as the activator blobs. All the junk pieces you create by destroying the coloured blobs on your side are stored until you want to use them. Once they're there, you can drop them at any time you like, though a maximum of 40 can be dropped in one go, after which there's a few seconds of cooldown time. These two mechanics, the player-summoned activator blobs and the player-launched junk blobs work together to create a unique kind of tension not usually seen in these kinds of games: you might be tempted to build up huge piles of blobs before you get rid of them, or huge amounts of junk to pummel your opponent with, but you have to be careful and keep an eye on what they're doing too, as if you're not, just a few well-timed junk blobs dropped into your field could ruin all your plans.

So yeah, Nyoki Nyoki Tabidachi-hen is a decent game, that proves that there's still new things to be done with the competitive colour matching puzzle genre. And by the people who started it, no less! Of course, it's a Japan-only 3DS game, so actually getting to play it might be difficult for some people, but I'm sure you can figure something out if you want it.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Super Bubble 2003 (Arcade)

There's an unusual story behind this post: a total stranger on Youtube sent me a message saying that the only information they could find on it anywhere were short video clips, and asked if I could write a post about it. I'd never heard of it before, and looked up those short video clips, and it looked okay, so here this post is.

For a long long time, I've lamented that I would often see screenshots of freemium MMORPGs and mobile phone games from Korea with really, incredibly good pixelart and sprites, always sad that there was this pool of talent there was was a perfect fit for cool, fun, arcade-style games, seemingly doomed to an eternity of their art being wasted in a world of nickel-and-diming micro-transactions and grind-based games. Meanwhile, Korean arcade games had a reputation for not only being incredibly low in quality, but also for stealing art assets from western and Japanese games. Super Bubble 2003 bucks both trends by not only being okay to play, but by having all-original (as far as I can tell) artwork!

And that artwork is truly excellent. All the characters are super-cute and well-animated, the points items are all lovingly rendered sprites depicted various foods, everything's bright and colorful without being garish; it's all just really high quality. I think the only negative thing I can say about this game, visually speaking, is that there's no visible life counter! The music and sound effects are pretty unremarkable, if you're wondering.

As for how it plays: it's a Bubble Bobble clone. Like most BB clones, it doesn't, as far as I can tell, copy the original's Druaga-esque system of byzantine secrets-within-secrets, only the core mechanics of trpping enemies in bubbles and popping them for points items. It does a pretty good job of it, though, and it does add a couple of other things to the formula, too: there's a tug-o-war minigame that appears when you collect a magic wand, and a giant/invincible mode that happens when you collect a bootleg Superman icon. The minigame is pretty much impossible to win, as far as I can tell though, so I have no idea what the prize is. The giant/invinciblity power up is nice, having its own super-cute sprites rather than just blowing up the regular-sized ones.

It's got a very steep difficulty curve that almost instantly shoots right up after you finish the first set of fifteen stages. I shamefully have to admit that I credit-fed up to the mid-30s to take screenshots, but I find credit-feeding incredibly boring so stopped there. It's proper difficulty, though: it doesn't change the rules on you or any other underhand tactic like that. With a lot of practice and skill, you could totally 1cc this game eventually. Whether or not it's a recommended play hinges, I guess, on your tolerance for that sort of thing, possibly tempered by your desire to see super-cute sprites. Give it a try, I guess?

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

All Star Pro Wrestling (PS2)

I'm sure you're aware that there are plenty of older games that look a lot better, and ever have certain graphical effects that only work properly on an older CRT TV. Some, like old rhythm games are actually borderline unplayable on flatscreen TVs, for various reason to do with refresh rates and the like. However, All Star Pro Wrestling is the first videogame that feels like it was made to not only be played on a CRT TV, but more specifically a black and white one from the 1970s.

This is despite the fact that most of the wrestlers featured in it were current at the time of its release in 2000 (though, since i know nothing about Japanese wrestling of that period, I can't tell you anything about them). It's just so incredibly austere in its presentation that it looks and feels like a tv broadcast from three decades earlier than its release date. If Jim Cornette were ever to play a wrestling videogame (despite his hatred for "videogame marks"), this would be the one he'd play. There's no gimmick matches(not even tag matches! There's nothing but singles matches on offer), barely any music, no finishing moves, no flashy entrances, absolutely no concessions towards the idea that wrestling is a form of entertainment and not a legitimate sport.

The game itself makes no concessions towards being entertainment, either, being an absolute chore to actually play. There's the controls, first of all, which are entirely mapped to the analogue sticks. You move with the left stick, and attack (or sometimes run to the ropes, if that's what your wrestler feels like doing) with the right stick. To grapple, you press L3 and R3 together, while standing so close to your opponent you're already touching them. When while grappling, you use the right stick to do a move, which will almost always be a snapmare, an Irish whip, or a backdrop, no matter what you do or which wrestler you're controlling. (Note: there is apparently an alternate control scheme that uses the buttons, but it also uses the universally terrible touch sensitivity feature the PS2's face buttons had that was so bad that Sony asked developers not to use it after a couple of years).To make matters worse, all this happens so slowly that you'd think the wrestlers were submerged in a vat of treacle.

This game was part of the second half of Squaresoft's "experimental period", which started on the Playstation with the likes of Einhander, Racing Lagoon and Tobal No. 1, and ended in the early days of the Playstation 2 with the likes of this, Driving Emotion Type-S and The Bouncer. You've probably figured out by now that I do not recommend it, and it might even be the worst 3D wrestling game I've ever played. There must have been an audience for slow, boring wrestling games in turn-of-the-century Japan, however, as it somehow sold enough copies to get two sequels.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Jerry Glanville's Pigskin Footbrawl (Mega Drive)

Before I actually start talking about this game, I want to talk about its title. Say it out loud: "Jerry Glanville's Pigskin Footbrawl", and there's something somewhat satisfying in the way it flows. So much so, that for years, I'd assumed that Jerry Glanville was a fictional character, invented purely for the sound of his name, but apparently, he's some kind of sporting multiclasser, having been an American football player as well as a driver in two kinds of car racing. Anyway, it's a port of an arcade game that didn't feature any license, but getting sportsmen's names in titles was a big strategy for early Mega Drive games in the US, so I guess Jerry was the only player they could get who would put his name on this incredibly tenuous adaptataion of the sport.

It's played in a vaguely belt scrolly kind of way, on pitches littered with various objects and hazards. An odd quirk compared to most team sport games is that you control the same player for the entire match, which, since the camera follows the balls, means that you spend a lot of the time offscreen trying to catch up. You do have one little sliver of control over your teammates, however: when you press the punch button, everyone on your team throws a punch at once. Obviously, the main aim is to get the ball to your opponent's end of the pitch, scoring seven points when you do. There's also a "possession" meter that slowly fills while a member of your team has the ball, and if it's full when you score, you get an extra point.

Mostly, this is a pretty fun game to play, with only two major problems: there is both too much and too little of it. Too much because the shortest a single match can be is ten minutes, plus all the intermissions and so on whenever anyone scores and at the end of each quarter. Too little because it's incredibly bare bones: there are only two teams, "Red" and "Blue", and single player mode consists of playing one game as the blue team against the red team. There's no season or career or anything to be found here. There are two pitches, though: the first half of the game takes place in a field, and the second half in a dungeon.

Pigskin Footbrawl is an okay game, but it's really only worth your time if you have at least one friend who's very enthusiastic about playing lots of long matches in a sports game where every match features the exact same teams playing in the exact same venue, forever.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Battle Tycoon - Flash Hiders SFX (SNES)

I complain a lot about how many action games, especially those released in recent years, are ruined by the addition of experience points, skill progression, and the negative difficulty curve that those features create. But of course, there are exceptions to every rules, and Battle Tycoon is one of them. It's the sequel to a PC Engine game I've not yet played called Flash Hiders, and both games seem to be pioneering forays into the kind of long, robust single player modes that later fighting games like the home ports of Street Fighter Alpha 3 or Virtua Fighter 4 Evolution would have.

Obviously, there's the traditional modes where you just pick characters and fight against other human players or computer-controlled opponents, but the meat of the game is in the "Advance" mode, which has you selecting a character that you'll stick with for the duration, while you fight opponents, gain experience and raise your stats. This mode is split into days, and at different times of day, you can go to different places: the official arena to take part in fights against random opponents at random power levels, the street fight arena, where you can choose your opponent from a whoever's present on that day, the gambling den where you can bet on fights in which you don't personally participate (though, if you want, you can actually sit out of fighting altogether and have the computer do it. though the strategy/raising part of the game isn't really deep enough that this would be worthwhile for anyone), an item shop, a place to save your progress, and your apartment where you can look at your stats.

Mostly though, you just take part in fights and watch numbers gradually go up. There's an interesting thing to note about the character stats in this game, though. There are four stats: Attack, Guard, Speed and Point. The first three are obvious, but Point is a pool of extra stat points that can be assigned as you see fit at the start of every bout. All the fights are so easy that the stats don't really seem to matter very much at all, but it's a nice touch. It's an enjoyable mode, and when it came out, there probably wasn't really anything like it. It's kind of surprising that a game like this, that is, a longform action game that's totally accessible to the JP-illiterate doesn't seem to have any kind of fandom in the west already. You would have thought it would have been a hit as far back as the imports market in the 90s, especially when you get onto how it looks and sounds.

How does it look and sound? Well, it's obvious that the developers not only had a target audience in mind, but they knew exactly hoe to hook them. Everything about this game is aggressively designed to appeal to 1990s anime fans (or as they were known at the time it came out, just regular anime fans). The character designs, the stages, even the menus, all look like they could have been licensed from a hundred different OAVs of the time, with music that comes as close to the ideal as the SNES can muster, too. The sprites are a little smaller than most fighting games of the time, but the quality of the artwork is still generally of a very high standard and the whole game looks great.

I totally recommend trying out Battle Tycoon. It looks incredible, and though it's not a particularly sophisticated fighting game, it's still fun enough and the single player mode is, as mentioned, years ahead of its time. It really makes me want to splash out on a 6-button PC Engine controller and a copy of the first game, too, since that has things like full-screen pixel art cutscenes and CD quality music.