Thursday, 28 June 2018

Akanbe Dragon (MSX)

This is a game with an interesting premise, and the quick and easy way of describing it would be to compare it to a combination of chess and the Game Gear game Godzilla Kaiju Daishingeki (though it predates that game by a few years). Unfortunately, it scuppers all the goodwill generated by the concept through a few terrible design decisions.

I have to make an admission here: I never got past the first stage of this game. I played for hours, and made many attempts, and I did come close a few times, but in the end, the odds are stacked way too heavily against the player. But I should get onto actually describing the game. There's a map with a grid on it, and each square contains a different kind of terrain: mountains, plains, water, and so on. At the top and bottom of the map, there are two groups of monsters, the player at the bottom, and the enemies at the top. Each type of monster not only has four stats: HP, strength, speed, and jump, but they also have a chess class, which affects how they move on the grid (and like in chess, the aim is to kill your opponent's king).

When two monsters try to occupy the same space on the map, the game has them engage in a real-time, side-view, no time limit battle to the death. All the monsters attack by shooting stuff, though there's still a fair bit of variety in the attacks: some can fire a bunch of shots that quickly go in a straight line, others might only be able to fire off one shot at a time that takes a more wibbly path that's harder to dodge. Though the AI seems pretty good at moving its monsters around the map to keep a tactical advantage, in battle, the enemies all seem to just randomly bounce around the screen shooting at random. They'll still win a lot though, due to the game's biggest flaw: no matter what the situation, the enemy monsters always have significantly higher stats and more HP than your own, making every battle a precarious and miserable slog. Making things more annoying is how the strength is dealt out among your own monsters, with your pawn (amusing mis-spelt ingame as "porn") being second only to the king in strength, while your queen and knight are so weak as to be almost completely useless.

An interesting aside is that entering battle with the enemy king does something slightly different to normal enemies: he has his own specific battleground that overrides whatever terrain type on which you encounter him, and the battle feels more like a boss fight from a platform game. As far as I can tell, the best strategy to take is to get as many of your monsters to fight the king and wear him down before sending your king in to finish the job. I almost won with this method, but I guess the enemy had the same idea, as by the time the enemy king had taken out all my underlings, my king was weakened doing the same. On my last attempt, my king succumbed with only a sliver of the enemy king's health left. Unfortunately, I'd completely lost all patience with the game by this point, and had no desire to make any further attempts.

It's honestly a shame, as I really wanted to like Akanbe Dragon, but the atrocious balance means that I can't recommend it at all. If only playing it didn't seem like a futile uphill struggle, it mgiht have been a hidden classic.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Ane-San (PC Engine)

It's a mystery why I haven't written about this game sooner, it combines two things I love (beat em ups and sukeban), and I've known about it for years. But I'm writing about it now, and that's all that counts, isn't it? Anyway, for the same reasons it caught my attention also make it a bit of a rarity: there's not many beat em ups on the PC Engine (despite the console's heyday coinciding with the genre's), nor are there many sukeban-themed games on any system. (In fact, to my knowledge, about a third of all that exist are just romhacks of games in the Kunio-kun series.)

So, you play as a trio of tough girls, out to make themselves the leaders of all the tough girls in the country, not through democracy or inspirational leadership, obviously. In the world of juvenile delinquency, power is obtained through the successful application of physical violence: you beat up entire gangs, before beating up their leaders. The first two you beat, an idol and an overweight ballet dancer who acts as an unpleasant fat joke, even join you as playable characters! The combat is fairly typical, and by the game's release in 1995, would have been pretty primitive for the genre. There's no weapons, very few attacks, no big supers or anything, just your attack combo, grab attacks and a throw, a jump attack, and a ground attack. The one thing that really makes the game stand out is that, at the start of the game at least, both you and your enemies are very fragile, going down after only one or two combos.

I say "at the start of the game", as Ane-san features an item shop between stages, and with that comes that eternal bugbear: the negative difficulty curve. I've written about this concept many times before, so I won't bore you by doing it again, but I actually feel like it doesn't hurt this game too much, even though it means you can easily complete the game without using continues in under an hour. The reason for this is actually due to a criticism usually levelled at beat em ups by their detractors: that the genre is nothing but style over substance. It works because Ane-san is rich in style, thanks to its near-total commitment to the sukeban aesthetic.

The stages are all in slightly seedy-looking urban areas at night, with docks, public parks at night, closed shops with the shutters down, docks and so on all appearing in the background. The music for most of the game is a very Japanese interpretation of a kind of 50s America-inspired rockabilly/surf rock sound, which fits the action pretty well, but the final stage ramps up the drama massively, featuring a mournful whistled tune most of the way through, followed by chanting monks for the final boss. It's all very atmospheric, and successfully draws the player into the game's world. There's really only two flaws I can think of, thematcially speaking: the aforementioned "fat joke character", and the fact that the ending is all about one of the characters having a big fancy white wedding in a church. That's not cool or badass or rebellious at all! It's really jarring and ill-fitting with the fun, tough world in which the rest of the game takes place.

Despite its faults, Ane-san is a game that I totally recommend playing. Like I said, the atmosphere and aesthetic are strong enough to negate the cracks in its mechanical armour, and though it only lasts an hour, it's a really great hour, and I can definitely see myself playing it many more times in the future.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Ninpen Manmaru (Saturn)

It's a long held piece of recieved wisdom, perpetuated by idiots, that the Saturn couldn't do 3D graphics, despite the existence of games like NiGHTs, Panzer Dragoon, Quake, Burning Rangers, and a whole bunch more. Ninpen Manmaru is one to count among that bunch more, being a proper, fully 3D platform game that looks great, easily the rival of any of its bigger budgeted Playstation contemporaries.

It's based on an anime that appears to be for small children, which does explain some of the game's design choices, like how there's no combat (even though your character is a ninja penguin with a sword strapped to their back). Enemies in the stages are really just mobile obstacles for you to avoid, and though there are bosses, they're confrontations, rather than fights. Instead, the game's purely about platforming, with the sole aim being to get to the end of each stage within the time limit, and without getting killed by traps or enemies.

The game's big problem, though, is the controls. They're just really sloppy! Your penguin will sometimes land on a tiny platform, then start running immediately after landing, sending him down into the lava below, and sentencing you to another long wait for the platform to come back within reach. In fact, that's the game's other big problem: how much time is spent waiting for moving platforms to get into the right position for you to jump on or off them. I know it's a longstanding platformer tradition, but for some reason, it really grates in this game, right from the start. Maybe I just don't play as many platformers as I once did, and I'm no longer used to the genre's quirks, I don't know, maybe it's just jarring considering how fast your movement is the rest of the time, and it breaks the game's flow. (As an aside, if this game were on any other console, you could mistake it for an attack on SEGA, since the excuse often given for the lack of a proper 3D Sonic game on the Saturn is that the Dreamcast was the first console capable of loading large enough 3D stages for Sonic to run around in, and Ninpen Manmaru is a 3D mascot platformer about a fast-moving blue animal navigating stages as quickly as possible.)

Going back to the subject of bosses, the confrontations being non-violent allows them a little bit of variety, as they take the form of various contests, such as collecting most of the coins in a small area while your opponent does the same, running away from a foe who seems to be trying to eat you until the time runs out, and so on. I haven't played particularly far into the game, as despite being aimed at apparently primary school children, the difficulty curve becomes incredibly steep after the first set of stages, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a regular old race as a boss stage at some point in the game, either.

In summary, Ninpen Manmaru is a decent enough game, that's techinically impressive for any home console of the time, let alone the Saturn. However, if you want to play it, be warned that legitimate copies fetch absurd prices, ranging from around seventy pounds, to ten times that amount. I'm not sure how those prices are justified, either, as the amount of copies on sale on ebay alone show that it can't be a particularly rare game. But I'm sure you can think of some other way of playing it if you really want to.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Small Games Round Up Vol. 1!

I've long laboured over the fact that there are lots of games I'd like to tell you all about, mainly early arcade games, or ones on very old computers, but weren't complex enough to carry a post on their own. I could just write shorter posts, but then you'd be eagerly waiting five days for a new post, just to get a few lines an a couple of screenshots about some anncient relic. Then I realised I could just bundle them together, and for this inaugural round up, I've put together three little PC88 games, starting with Skyscraper. Another note before we start: the PC88 is known in some circles for being home to a lot of great music. None of the three games featured in this post live up to that, though, they just have bleepy sound effects.

Skyscraper is a single-screen shooter, in which you avoid or shoot various seemingly-random shapes and objects, while also catching tiny little people who are falling to the deaths (well, some are falling to their deaths, some have parachutes). Once you've met your rescue quota, the stage ends. There doesn't seem to be any penalty for letting the fallers die, other than wasting time (and losing a bit of your time bonus at the end of the stage), which is nice, since they die if they hit the bottom of the screen, any of the enemies, or even your own shots. Between stages, there's a very strange bonus "game" that simply asks you to press a letter on the keyboard. All in all, a fun enough game, with some really nice pixel art backgrounds.

Next up is Karakuri Ninpou, a very arcade-looking game, and, I suspect, possibly an influence on the Haggleman games on the first Game Center CX game for the DS. In it, you play as a green ninja out to rescue their red ninja friend, who gets kidnapped by god in the pening cutscene. To do so, you have to navigate a house full of enemies, stairs, and doors. Not every room is reachable by stairs alone, so you have to use the doors, which are all linked to each other in pairs, though it's up to you to figure out and remember which doors are connected to which. I have to admit that though I made many attempts, I never actually got past the first stage of this one, as there's an enemy that sometimes appears, a black ninja, who throws shuriken at you, and there doesn't seem to be any way of avoiding or deflecting that. Still, someone with the patience to build up superhuman skill (and probably a lot of luck, too) at playing this game might get more joy out of it than I did. It definitely feels like it's a game that might better than it first seems, at least.

Last, and also least, is Donkey Gorilla, a very simple, almost Game and Watch-esque game. It uses text mode graphics, so everything's very charming and simple in a geometric kind of way, and you play as what I think is a chameleon hanging onto a washing line while things that are probably gorillas dance around below you. You kill the gorillas by dropping hearts on them, and sometimes one of them will try to climb a tree, killing you if they reach the top. Also a bird-like thing occaisionally flies overhead to try and kill you with hearts, too. There's not much to say about Donkey Gorilla, really. You might get a minute or two's amusement out of it, at most, but not much more.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Simple 1500 Series Vol. 30: The 1 on 1 Basketball (Playstation)

When you look at a list of arcade games, there's one name near the top that always sticks out, to me at least: 1 on 1 Government. I always notice it, because it's close to the top of an alphabetically ordered list, and it's such a strange title that gives nothing away about what kind of game it is. What it is, though, is a port to arcades of this, more sensibly titled Playstation game.

It's surprising that it was a Playstation game before it was an arcade game, as it's structured very much like an arcade game, and, like Lethal Crash Race tried to apply the Street Fighter II formula to racing games, The 1 on 1 Basketball tries to do that for Basketball. You pick a character from a pretty big selection (that includes, aong a few regular people, a monkey, an angel, and some kind of childish cartoon drawing of a person), and you go on to face the other characters in a series of basketball games. By default, the games last ninety seconds, or until someone scores eleven points. Also, I don't know if this is an actual basketball rule, but if the time ends on a draw, the game carries on for another twenty seconds. This didn't strike me as odd, but it'll keep doing that until there's a winner, one way or another.

It should be mentioned that as well a the 1 on 1 mode, there's also a 2 on 2 mode, though as far as I can tell, there's no "canon" teams, so you just throw any two characters together, and your CPU opponents will do the same, and it otherwise plays out the same as the main mode, except the stages are a little too small for it, so there's a lot of bumping into each other. Anyway, this game plays pretty well! The controls are simple enough to pick up: you move left or right across the court, with up and down moving you left or right in relation to your oppnent's position. There's also a button each for shooting, getting in your opponent's way, and trying to steal the ball. Like the fighting games it's trying to emulate structurally, it's fast paced, and easy to start playing straight away.

Anyway, yeah, I recommend playing this (or the arcade version, since as far as I can tell, there aren't really any differences between them). For various reasons, I keep getting more curious about arcade sports games these days, and it seems like a lot of them are pretty good (this one being no exception).

Friday, 1 June 2018

TH Strikes Back (Arcade)

You might remember a few years ago, I reviewed a Spanish arcade game entitled Thunder Hoop. Well, the TH in this game's title stands for the same thing I guess, since this is the sequel to it. Like its predecessor, it's about a guy who looks a lot like Son Goku (though this time round, it's more of a "Dragonball Z as drawn by Rob Liefeld" kind of Goku than the original game's shorter, more cutesy Dragonball style) running around platform stages shooting stuff.

Unlike the original though, TH Strikes back has less of an Amiga/Microcomputer feel to it, having a much faster pace, and more of an influence from console games as well as its arcade peers. There's generally a lot less careful platforming in this one, as you storm ahead as fast as you can, constantly shooting the many crowds of one-shot enemies, making you feel like the super-powered fighter your character resembles visually. The game has the "semi-auto" shooting, where you can shoot as fast as you can press the button, which is always satisfying, especially during boss fights. All in all, it's generally pretty fun to play. If you like Contra or Metal Slug and want a not-quite-as-good-but-still-pretty-good alternative, TH Strikes Back is a decent enough effort in that regard.

With the talk of the actual mechanics out of the way, I want to talk about the game's graphics. I've already mentioned the main character being a bit unoriginal, but the enemies are all pretty interesting. There's weird biological horrors, sleek, shiny sci-fi women who look like they've been ripped from the cover of an issue of Heavy Metal, floating cast-offs from The Real Ghostbusters, and even weirder biological horrors. The backgrounds are nice, too, being a mix of standard sci-fi spaceships and tech along with some shameless Giger-cribbing. All the enemies also have unique deatth animations, which for the most part have them exploding, spreading their innards all over the place, but special note should be made of the aforementioned sci-fi women, who upon death, inflate until they burst. I'll give the developers the benefit of the doubt since this game came out in 1994, but in our post-deviantart 2018 world, it does seem like that might have been some fiendish, perverse animator catering to his own special interests on the sly.

There's another cool little touch that kind of covers mechanics and aesthetics at the same time: enemies generally don't instantly kill you on touch. Bullets and other projectiles they shoot do, but the enemies themselves will instead initiate some attack when they touch you, and if you're quick enough, you can kill them before they actually pull the attack off and kill you. Like the death animations, those are all different for each enemy too. Lots of attention to detail in this game all round, which is a nice surprise when you consider that a lot of western-developed arcade games are just ugly, cheap cash-ins with the minimum effort put in.

TH Strikes back isn't going to change your life, and there's lots of better games in the genre, but it's still got enough going for it that you should at least play a few credits and have a look for yourself.