Thursday, 26 April 2018

Sports Jam (Dreamcast)

You'd think, even as late as 2001, something with the mainstream appeal of a sports game would still be guaranteed to get a worldwide release on the Dreamcast, but Sports Jam oddly never made it to european shores. Though if you look at it another way, it makes more sense: like the PS Vita is now, by 2001, the Dreamcast was a niche console, and most people still buying games for it were arcade nerds and anime fans, and with the arcade scene in the K at least being so poor, they would have had no prior knowledge of this game, nor would they be naturally inclined to give a sports game a chance. And from the other side of it, Sports Jam is such an oddity of a sports game, that would have put off a lot of mainstream players anyway.

What it is is a variant on a format as old as time: it's a Track and Field-type game, in which you play various short events, trying to get the fastest time or the highest score. The game's big hook, though, is that rather than the traditional athletic events, you're instead playing various minigames based on isolated aspects of sports that would ordinarily have their own videogames. For example, there's two American football games, one where you're running and bashing down sandbags to score a touchdown, and another that relies on perfect timing to kick a field goal. There's also games representing aspects of tennis, golf, basketball, bicycle racing, soccer, baseball and ice hockey.

There's a few different modes to pick from: DC Original and Arcade are both pretty much the same: you play four events, each picked as you go. The difficulty of the events depends on how late in the game you're playing them, and this is a real bit of strategy you should pay attention to: some games are easy enough whenever you play them, some are near-impossible on later levels, but incredibly simple early on. There's also a mode called Your Original, in which you play all twelve events, choosing their order before you play. It seems like a strange omission to me that there's no mode in which you play a single event, or even a practice mode, but it's no big deal, I guess.

Whether you like this game pretty much lies entirely on how much you like multi-event sports games. If you don't at all, it's probably not going to do anything to change your mind. But if you do, then it's an excellent example of one, with varied and fun events, as well as the kind of lavish presentation and production values you'd expect from a SEGA arcade game of this era. Like I said earlier, though, its not a surprise that it fell through the gaps and got forgotten.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Curiosities Vol. 14 - SEGA Saturn Sample Program Ver. 1.00

So, this interesting piece of history was recently found and released by someone over at the forums. It is as the title suggests: a sample program for the Saturn that shows various different graphical tricks it can do. It starts with a menu featuring items such as "Scroll Sample", "Sprite Sample", and so on, and most of them have several options inside them.

First up is Scroll Sample, which lets you see various kinds of scrolling, obviously. You can have a bunch of random garbage scrolling across the screen, numerous blocks of letters scrolling around in layers, a kind of distorted blob moving over a picture of sonic and tails, and so on. The most interesting part of this menu is the option that has a seemingly infinite field of textured cubes floating in a heavenly white background.

Next there's Sprite Sample, which as a little more interactivity. In here, there are options that let you spin various simple shapes around, you can move an Opa Opa sprite around to see how the Saturn handles shadows, you can distort and warp an enemy sprite from Fantasy Zone, and you can spin and rotate a little polygon gem thing. Oh, and look at some spinning cubes demonstrating different kinds of shading the Saturn can do, too.

Window Sample is probably the least interesting menu, as it just lets you see sprites moving inside transparent windows, so we'll move straight on to Game Sample, which is a simple little 2D shooting game where you avoid bullets and shoot red triangles and sonic sprites for points. Nothing spectacular, obviously, but it is a thing that exists, at least. It's just a sample, showing that the Saturn can indeed keep track of things and allow players to control objects and generally all the bare minimum things expected of a games console.

Finally, there's the enigmatically named 2/14 Demo (which is presumably a demo, made on the fourteenth of February). This shows a cube thing with SEGA-related animated textures on each side, floating above a magic carpet, with mountains in the background. It's all very ~aesthetic~.

Obviously, something like this isn't going to provide more than a few minutes of entertainment for anyone, but of course that was never its purpose. It is interesting to see these kinds of primordial test programs from consoles' development cycles, though. Even though they're only a couple of decades old, there's something about them that feels immeasurably ancient and secret. Sorry if this is a bit of a lacklustre post, but I've been slightly unwell recently and I just didn't want to go too long without posting. I'm mostly better now, though, so there'll be a proper post in a few days.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Bunmei Korokoro Game Egg (Playstation)

It's really amazing that even though the Playstation is one of the most popular consoles of all time, and even though it's one of the systems that's been featured on this blog most of all, there are still weird obscure little gems to discover in its incredibly vast library. Of course, Bunmei Korokoro Game Egg is one such gem (the title, I believe, translates to something like "Civilisation Rolypoly Game Egg", in case you're wondering).

So the basic premise of the game is that you control some kind of cosmic god-egg, that rolls across flat, barren plains, leaving civilisation in its wake. Of course, you aren't alone in what I assume is a young, fledgling universe, as each plain also has another, differently-coloured egg rolling around in it. A cool little touch is that each colour egg has its own architectural style for the buildings that spring up whereever it goes, and they range from styles based on various realworld civilisations, to futuristic sci-fi type settings, bio-organic growths and even brightly coloured abstract solid shapes.

I haven't been able to play the Versus mode, so unfortunately I can't tell you about that, but the single player mission mode sees you taking on your rival eggs in a series of battles, each with different objectives, like an olympic games for ovoid dieties. But let's not get ahead of ourselves: first, let's describe the basic mechanics, or at least, as much as I've been able to figure out of them.

So, the game is turn-based, and you move your egg by selecting a direction, then chosing your speed on a moving power bar, like the kind you get in old-style golf or bowling games. Most of the time, when you move, you cause buildings to sprout up behind you, but not always! There are five options you can choose from before you move (though the offensive options aren't always available): the egg is the standard movement that lays buildings, the signpost lets you turn already-laid buildings into protective barriers over which your opponent can't roll, the ocean wave and sunrise both cause massive destruction in the surrounding area where your egg stops rolling, and the coloured zig-zags work similarly to the egg, except they cause earthquakes in your wake instead of growth.

It should also be noted that when an area of blank squares is completely surrounded by your buildings, that area will then completely fill up with your buildings too. The first time this happens in a stage, a strange spinning, swirly tower will also spawn. This tower will get taller and more elaborate the more area on the map you've taken over, too. Your egg can take damage, either by bashing into the walls around the edges of the map, by rolling other enemy territory, or by being bashed into by the opponent's egg. I'm not 100% sure on how healing works, but it seems that you slowly heal by rolling over and stopping in your own territory, and sometimes if you stop in a particularly large piece of your own turf, a big cryogenic chamber thing will appear around you, and you'll have healed a lot by the start of your next turn. But like I say, I'm not totally sure on how accurate these methods are, or exactly how to make the chamber appear. Your tower is something of a weakpoint for your empire, too, as if the enemy bashes into it, it'll shrink a level or two, and a whole bunch of your land will disappear.

Now on to the actual missions. I don't know how many missions there are in single player mode, but I got up to mission five, the objective of which I couldn't figure out at all. Each mission takes about 20-30 minutes to get through, as turns go by pretty slowly, and you usually have a pretty hefty task ahead of you. The first two missions are both simple enough to figure out: take over 30% of the map, and bash your opponent's egg until they crumble to bits. Mission three is a little more complex, as the mission is to wait until your opponent has built a tower, then destroy their tower. I had the most success on this stage by eschewing any kind of defensive tactic, and just going straight in to bash their tower down. Waste too much time, and you risk breaking your own shell before you've knocked their tower down. The fourth mission was interesting, but very easy: build your tower up to the maximum height (level nine), which you do by simply claiming a lot of land. The AI was really terrible on this stage, as they seemed more interrested in rolling over very tiny portions of my land to cause me almost unnoticable amounts of damage, while I just went about my busniess claiming more than half the entire map.

So that was a good few hours I got in on this game, and I definitely intend to play more of it, and hopefully get others interested in doing the same so we can all learn more about this strange and original game. Of course this means that this review is ending in an unquestioned recommendation, so go and track it down and play it at the earliest opportunity!

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Cyber Cross - Busou Keiji (PC Engine)

I don't know why, but transformation became something of a theme in single-plane beat em ups during the late 80s, as the genre was in its waning phase and belt-scrolling beat em ups become more popular. In the arcade, there was Altered Beast and Wonder Momo with transformation gimmicks, though they were very different in both execution and theme. Cyber Cross is another to add to those, though it was never in the arcade, being a PC Engine exclusive. And it kind of takes thematic cues from Wonder Momo, and mechanical influence from Altered Beast, but executes both much better than its more famous forbears.

Like Wonder Momo, it's themed around tokusatsu superheroes, though it does this in a much better way than Namco's. While Wonder Momo seeks to replicate live stage shows, Cyber Cross goes directly for a TV show feel, and, despite being on a HuCard rather than a CD, makes a valiant attempt at having a TV-style intro. There's not much animation, and there's no actual vocals, but it does have lyrics displayed onscreen if you're Japanese-literate and want to sing along with the intro to a thirty-year-old videogame.

The mechanical influence from Altered Beast is only very slight, however: you collect items to gradually take on ever more powerful forms. It works in a much more interesting way then Altered Beast, though, as rather than havign a different final form on each stage, there are three kinds of transformation items, and each has a different final form. You start as a regular guy in a red jacket, and the first time you collect one of the items, the only difference between the three is the colour of your costume. If you manage to keep your health higher than 50% until the next time one appears, then you get to take on a slightly more impressive form, with armour and a weapon. The weapon you get depends on which colour item you've collected: red gets you a fairly useless sword, green gets you a slightly useless boomerang, and blue gets you an actually pretty useful gun.

You should always take whatever you're given though, since all the weapons are better than your regular punch and the armour on your sprite in this form isn't just for show: It protects your health bar from three hits before you're shunted back down to the basic transformation. Unlike a lot of tokusatsu-themed games, Cyber Cross doesn't cheap out on the enemies. Though there are a few different varieties of the same foot soldier that appears in every stage, right from the start they're backed up by various other monsters like giant flies, big dung beetle-men, and other buggy fiends. The bosses aren't bug-themed, oddly enough, though they do tend to stick to the human-animal hybrid template. Also, unlike a lot of PC Engine games, it wasn't designed with turbo controllers in mind, as all the bosses will crumple like wet cardboard boxes if you turn on the turbo and crouch next to them punching at maximum speed.

Cyber Cross is a pretty strong entry into a now long-forgotten genre, and if you want to get a real copy, you can get it boxed for pretty cheap. I recommend doing so, too: it might take a while to really click with you, but when it does, it's a really fun little game.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Palamedes II - Star Twinkles (NES)

You might remember that a while back, I reviewed the arcade game Palamedes, which was all about matching dice and forming hands and so on. Palamedes II is the sequel to that game, obviously. It's still about matching dice and forming hands, but it's been completely re-jigged to make a much faster, more competitive game.

The most obvious difference compared to the first game (and the only one that Wikipedia mentions) is that the dice now rise up from the bottom of the screen, rather than descending from the top, but there are many more changes. For example, while before, your character held a die, and you would cycle through the sides, throwing it up to hit a matching die above. Now, you press a button to shuffle the column of dice directly beneatht you, and another to take the top of the column. Complicating this is the fact that you can only take a die that is the same, or one higher or lower than the last die that was taken. This is simple enough to keep track of in the single player endurance mode, but when you've got an opponent, the same "last die taken" applies to both players, which offers an extra little strategic element as you try and ruin your opponent's hands while building your own.

The hands themselves have also changed, as they're now made up of only four dice instead of six, which means versus games are a lot faster, with both sides forming hannds and cashing them in every couple of seconds, and as a result, both characters moving up and down the screen quickly. It's pretty exciting, and a good change all round, even if it does take away the satisfaction of forming a nice clean 1-2-3-4-5-6 hand like in the first game. I should probably mention that as the dice are ascending up the screen, the characters stand on a platform on top of them, and you lose when your character is crushed between their platform and the ceiling. Oh, and forming hands erases rows of dice from beneath you, and forces the same number to quickly rise up beneath your opponent. Those are pretty important details, but I just couldn't find a place to fit them in until now.

I've said this before about competitive puzzle games, but though Palamedes II is a great game, it's in a genre with some pretty much perfect entries in the form of the Puyo Puyo series, the Magical Drop series, and in more recent times, Puyo Puyo x Tetris, too. But if you've got a Famicom (or a NES with an adaptor, or some other Famicom-compatible console) and you see a copy of this game going cheap somewhere, it's definitely worth picking up.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Soleil (Mega Drive)

A lot of the reviews of Soleil (also known as Ragnacenty or Crusader of Centy) compared it to A Link to the Past. At first glance, this seems pretty apt: they're both top-down action RPGs, they both star young boys with swords, they both have you cutting grass to find coins. The thing is, it's only at first glance that comparision holds up. If you really need to compare Soleil to a SNES game, the one to go for would be Earthbound (or Mother 2). (It should be noted, however, that Earthbound wasn't yet out when Soliel was released. But that doesn't make the Zelda comparision any less lazy.)

Though they don't have a lot in common mechanically, or even aesthetically, with Earthbound being a Dragon Quest-style turn-based RPG set in a strange version of mid-twentieth century America, and Soleil being an action RPG set in a pastel-hued fantasy realm, they're both games that have narrative ambitions well beyond what was expected of console games at the time of their release, and conversely, well beyond their peers.

There's plenty of people who have written about Earthbound's setting and writing and so on, and I'm not a particularly big fan of it, so I'm not going to reitierate much about it, but basically, the people who do love tend to take from it not only a strong sense of nostalgia, but a real emotional resonance, and it's often said that the game does a good job of replicated the world in which a child lives. Clearly, its ambitions were loftier than most RPGs that existed at that point, which were almost all sci-fi or fantasy stories (that's not to say that there weren't good stories among them, just that they weren't literarily ambitious).

Soleil, though starts with a typical fantasy setting in which boys from the village long to become heroic monster killers when they grow up ,and so on, it quickly subverts it in a number of ways. The first subversion is seen when the village boys go to see off an older boy, Amon, as he leaves the village to go and kill monsters and be a hero. You encounter Amon once or twice later in the game, too, and there's the implication that in a more traditional RPG story, he would be the player character with the lofty destiny.

Instead of the normal heroic quest, Soleil's protagonist is embroiled in a number of bizarre events, during which they gain the power to speak to animals, temporarily get turned into a monster, and ever go to heaven while still alive. Possibly the most important of these, and definitely the most interesting is the section of the game where you're turned into a monster. At the risk of spoiling an important part of the game's story, you basically find out that monsters largely live in mortal terror of human heroes, and just want to be left alone, and that the monsters you kill do have families that mourn their passing. It's something that could have been just a throwaway joke in the vein of the henchman's family scene in one of the Austin Powers movies, but it's played totally straight, and though you do go back to kiling monsters when you retain your human form, you are given a new purpose in life: to find out why humans and monsters fight, and to strive towards ending that conflict.

So, that's Soleil. I can't say if the writers of 1994 were genuinely lazy or stupid in their easy comparisions, or if the climate of the time simply made the idea of thematic criticism of a videogame totally unthinkable to them, but either way, they were wrong. Soleil is a game that's worth playing on its own merits, and should hold a place in history alongside the Mother games as an early attempt to subvert and experiment with what's possible in a videogame's narrative.