Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Hellraider (Amiga)

The most interesting thing about this game is that it turned out to be a totally different kind of game than I thought it was when I started playing. When I started playing, I thought it was an incredibly difficult Bosconian knockoff with some weird quirks, where you were supposed to fly around an eight-way scrolling world and destroy every enemy base. Turns out I was totally wrong: it's an incredibly difficult (but kind of original) shooting/escort type thing!

As the HMS Hellraider, you're tasked with collecting gems from the surface of the planet Hell (nothing to do with the Ngihtwish song though, as far as I can tell), where the intense heat and pressure cause the local volcanos to just spit them out like nobody's business. Though for most of the game, you don't actually control the Hellraider itself, but its four little scouting/escort ships, called Orbitals. The Hellraider will float around slowly, seemingly at random, picking up gems as it flies over them. When its hold is full of gems, the stage is over and you go onto the next one. The problem of course being that not only is Hell a hazardous planet to begin with, being peppered with volcanos, lava lakes, and  big rocks to crash into, but there are also apparantly rival mining interests already here, who are far more organised than you and not willing to share. So the main point of your mission is to pilot an Orbital escorting the Hellraider, and protect it from any enemy ships, turrets or mines that want to destroy it. If the Hellraider gets destroyed, you do get to fly around shooting enemies until your Orbital goes down, but you can't actually finish the stage. If all four Orbitals get destroyed, you can then control the Hellraider directly. It moves very slowly, but it can take a lot of hits (assuming it hasn't already been shot to near destruction, anyway), and can shoot in seven directions.

You might notice that all the screenshots I've taken are of the first stage. This is because, despite playing for over two hours, I never managed to complete it (though I did come close once or twice). I only know there even are more stages because I looked it up on youtube! I think there are two main problems that make this game such a chore. The first is that there's no radar, so you never know when enemies are going to suddenly fly in and start shooting your mothership to bits, or when you're about to stumble upon a nest of enemy turrets. Also, if you do chase an enemy ship and end up away from the Hellraider, there's no way of knowing how to get back to it.  The second is that the Hellraider itself just seems to move around at random, often just flying straight past convenient clumps of gems all stuck together. The stage would be over much quicker, and you wouldn't have to protect it for as long (the stages can go on for over five minutes!) if it had some kind of gem-seeking AI (apparently, you can play a kind of co-op game, with player one controlling the Orbitals and player two controlling the Hellraider, but I haven't been able to try it. If so, that sounds like a much less stressful game).

Hellraider is interesting: it's a game that I initially thought was a low-quality knockoff of an arcade classic, but it turned out to be an interesting and original game, ruined by a couple of huge flaws. I've said in the past that people's nostalgia for the Amiga keeps them from admitting that most of its games looked amazing, but played like garbage, but I have to admit that the low barrier for entry does result in a lot of experimentation in design that can result in games that, even if they aren't actually fun to play, are at least different and cool conceptually.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Magical Taruruto-kun (Mega Drive)

It's yet another game based on an early 90s anime that never got translated into English. I guess this one must have been much more popular than Genji Tsuushin Agedama, as while that only had one videogame, Taruruto-kun had seven of them across four formats and in only two years! You'd think that kind of success would get the franchise earmarked for international release, but I guess not. Anyway, you play as the eponymous magical boy, who's a chubby little guy with a two-pointed hat and a magic wand, and obviously, it's a platform game.

It is a pretty high quality platform game, too! You can use your want to pick up items and throw them at enemies (for some reason, picked up items grow a smiling face), or just to hit enemies at very short range if there's no items around to pick up. You can also press jump again midair to sprout wings and perform a wide bowl-shaped swooping glide type action. Like any good platform game, it's designed around these abilities, with a few other gimmicks specific to each stage. One big fault I've found, though, is that while there are plenty of parts where you need to use the glide to reach power ups or squeeze through gaps, there's very few points at which you can really let loose and glide over a long distance without worrying. I know the devs were probably focussed on designing challenging stages, but the glide is really satisfying, and it's a shame you don't often get to enjoy it to its fullest.

It should also be mentioned that this game looks amazing. It's so colourful, and the sprites are all chunky and cute, and it's kind of got a SNES-ish look to it, if you think of the stereotype that SNES games were cuter and more pastel-hued than the Mega Drive's grittier, darker games, like if the SNES was TV anime, and the Mega Drive was violent OAVs, if you will. Despite the looks, though, it still plays in the harder arcade style you'd expect from the Mega Drive: it's a lot harder than it looks, it can definitely be played for score, and it's definitely designed around mastery of the mechanics and controls. (That's not to say that there aren't SNES games like this, but it's obvious to anyone that the Mega Drive's library, especially in the early years, was heavily skewed towards being a home arcade). Sorry about that overly-long foray into system comparisions, got a bit carried away there I think.

Magical Taruruto-kun is an amazing-looking game, that's also definitely worth playing. It strange how a game of such obvious high quality never really had much attention from western importers until the modern era. I guess being based on a kids show and not being an arcade port meant no-one in the west bothered to take notice of it on release. It's also left me interested in whether any of the other games based on the same show are any good.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Graduation (PC)

The Graduation/Sostsugyou series was pretty big in Japan in the 1990s, and spawned a bunch of sequels, anime adaptations and other spin-offs. You probably already know that that success never travelled abroad, though, but there was one attempt at making it. Oddly, that one attempt was made by Mixx Entertainment, the company that would later become Tokyopop, a big part in the turn-of-the-century english-translated manga boom. I'm no industry analyst, but I suspect that a big part of the reason why they failed so hard that most people aren't even aware that any of the Graduation games got a western release is because they chose one of the PC versions to bring over, rather than one of the many console ports. (As an aside, despite the name, this game is actually a translation of one of the sequels, Graduation II: Neo Generation.)

I'm sure the reason they made that decision was to cut costs, though at the same time, they also redubbed all the dialogue instead of just subtitling it (and of course, this being a 90s dub of a Japanese property, all of the girls are from the UK and various parts of America now). The problem is that, before the likes of Cave Story started the big indie boom in the early 00s, PC games had a bit of a problem with aesthetic and thematic homogeneity. That is, it seemed (at least to a casual observer) that PC games were all about manly men doing violent things in grim worlds, compared to consoles, which hosted games of almost every genre, with settings and styles for every taste. Combined with the fact that PCs weren't as ubiquitous then as they are now, and you get the situation that most of the people who would have been interested in playing this game had no way of doing so, or even of finding out it existed. (And there are even more factors you could take into account, like how PCs were usually kept in shared family rooms back then, and toxic masculinity being what it is, a lot of male potential players probably wouldn't have wanted to play something that looked so "girly" in front of their parents, while consoles would more likely be kept in the privacy of one's bedroom).

So, the English release of Graduation sank without a trace. The only reason I know it existed is because I happened to pick up an issue of Mixx-zine from around the time of its release on one of my first ever trips to a comic shop, in which it was heavily promoted (along with another Mixx CD-Rom, a weird multimedia Sailor Moon thing that I'm yet to track down). Nearly twenty years later, I finally get ahold of it, and I have to say: it's not for me, to be honest. The premise is that you're a teacher with a class of five girls, with different personalities (nerd, airhead, delinquent, annoying child, and generic pretty girl), and you've got to guide them through their final year of high school, with the aim not only to keep their grades up, but also to make sure they turn out to be happy, well-rounded individuals. You do this by choosing once a week which subjects to focus on, which girl needs more attention, how strict your teaching style is, and so on. You even have control over what the girls do at the weekends!

The problem is, I'm just not very good at this kind of semi-abstract strategy game. To me, it mostly feels like I'm clicking on boxes and watching numbers go up and down, and I just don't see the logic to any of it. I'm sure someone with the patience and desire to see it through could play the game over and over, eventually learning all its systems and how every thing works, eventually getting a perfect ening where all five girls go on to have amazing lives, but I just don't have the patience for that. I'm not saying it's a bad game, it's just one that doesn't work for me at all (I mean, it might be a bad game too, I guess?). Still, hopefully someone who would be interested in this game, but didn't know it existed might read this, track it down, and write a better, more qualified review of it. But until then, this is probably going to be the only review on the whole internet. Sorry. One final note: since this is an old PC game, you might be wondering about compatibility. Well, as long as you go into the .exe's properties and run it in Windows 95 compatibility mode, it works perfectly in 64-bit Windows 10.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Genji Tsuushin Agedama (PC Engine)

This is an anime licensed game, based on an anime that, as far as I can tell has never been translated into English. So I can't really tell you anything about it, other than it ran for 51 episodes, and didn't have any other videogames. I can guess that it wasn't massively popular, then, since a fair few kids anime from the early 90s had a game each for PC Engine, SNES, Mega Drive, Game Boy, and sometimes even Game Gear, too!

Unusually for a licensed game, this one is a fairly original concept. Well, original might not be the right word, but it's not well-worn territory, at least. Genji Tsuushin Agedama is what might be the first and only Atomic Runner Chelnov-alike, being as it is, a platform/shooting game hybrid with a player character that can't stop running forwards. Obviously, that means that there's no exploration or anything, and the platform elements are mainly limited to trying not to fall into pits while simultaneously fighting off enemies.

So you run, jump, and shoot, and you've also got magic attacks performed by holding and releasing the fire button. As you hold it, a meter at the top of the screen fills up. The meter's split into differently coloured sections, each colour is a different attack, more powerful than the last. The longer you hold the button, the more powerful the magic you cast, though also, all the magics after the first are unavailable until you collect items to unlock them one by one, though this doesn't take long or force you to go out of your way. Another ability you've got is that you can do a quick roll along the ground by pressing down on the d-pad. You're invincible during this roll, and it can do a lot of damage, but it's very quick, so you're at risk of getting hurt as soon as it ends.

Though getting hurt isn't itself that big a risk, either, since you can take eight hits from the start, and there's plenty of healing items to pick up, too. In fact, though this is a fun, cute, and charming game, the one big criticism that can be levelled at it is that it's very easy. On my first play, I managed to get pretty far into stage four, and there are only six in total. Despite that, it is still a lot of fun, and definitely worth playing. I'd recommend buying a real copy, but I feel like I got lucky with mine: I got it for about a third of the usual price, since the ebay seller clearly didn't know the game's name, or how to look it up, and had it listed as just "Japanese PC Engine Game". But still, it's pretty fun, though maybe not be £30+ worth of fun.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Attack Pla-Rail (Arcade)

I'm sure most of you have probably heard of Taito's Densha De Go series of train-driving games, based on real Japanese train routes and with an array of specialist controllers associated with the home ports. Attack Pla-Rail, made by Namco and based on a toyline by Tomy seems to be either an attempt at making a rival for that series, or a version of it that aims for a younger audience. The controls, as far as I can tell without having yet played any of the Densha De Go games, are pretty much the same: a lever for controlling your speed, and a few buttons for making decisions and parping your horn.

The most obvious difference between Attack Pla-Rail and its better-known rival is the aesthetic: while Densha De Go aims towards realism, this game gives every object a plastic sheen, and people, vehicles and other objects are very simple. Because they're all toys, obviously. Also playing into the toy aspect is that your time limit is given in the form of remaining battery life, with different trains having different rates of usage, along with differing top speeds and corner handling abilities. You get more batteries by doing different tasks, though they're very simple things: speeding up to go through a loop, beeping your horn at cows, stopping while a bridge gets into place, and so on.

Obviously, with the mention of loops and such, you can already guess that the routes in this game aren't based on any from real life, and that's true. Instead, there's an Outrun-esque system of stages with branching paths between them, though unfortunately, I haven't been able to find any information regarding the total number of stages, or a diagram of where every branching path takes the player. You do go through five stages before the game ends, though that doesn't mean there are fifteen in total like in Outrun, as late in one run, I encountered a stage that had appeared early in another run on a different route. A nice touch is that once you've finished your five stages, you get to use your remaining battery power on a cool-looking night time stage with no obstacles to navigate.

It's a lot more relaxing than the usual excitement you'd want from an arcade game, but despite that (or maybe because of it), Attack Pla-Rail is still a fun game, though since it has no sequels or home ports, I have to say that if it was intended to take custom away from the Densha De Go series, it's had the opposite effect, as it's got me looking up the games and their controllers on ebay, wanting more in a similar vein.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Small Games Round Up Vol. 3!

It's another round up of three games that aren't big enough to support posts of their own, and this time I'm looking at a trio of SG-1000 games, starting with Golgo 13. Obviously the middle-aged fantasy world of Golgo 13, the stoic sniper who assassinates people and beds women is an ill fit for the pastel-palleted world of the SG-1000, so in this game he's using his skills for a non-violent purpose: rescuing people from a runaway train by shooting out the windows so they can escape. Between Goglo and the train, though, there's an infinitely long cargo train and a road. If your bullets hit one of the boxcars on the cargo train, or a truck passing by on the road, it'll bounce back at you, and you have to avoid it. After a few stages, some misanthropic helicopter pilots will also start tryng to bomb you, plus there's a time limit. Unfortunately, if the time limit runs out, the train just goes offscreen, there's no sequence of it hitting a wall or going off a cliff or anything.

Golgo 13 is an okay game, but it's really let down by the fact that once the helicopters start appearing, that's as hard as the game gets. It doesn't speed up or add any more elements, it's essentially just that stage over and over until you run out of lives. Even something as simple as the train going up and down hills occaisionally would be a big change, forcing the player to aim vertically as well astiming their shots and aiming horizontally. Never mind. Hustle Chumy is a more standard game for the time, being a single-screen platformer about a sewer-dwelling rat that just wants to bring home some food. To do so, you leave the sewer and brave the world above, filled with cats, bats, crocodiles, astronauts and an invincible fishman. All the enemies except the fishman can be killed by throwing dots (stones, maybe), with the fishman acting as a slow, but unrelenting terminator-type figure.

The big twist in Hustle Chumy is that the more bits of food you pick up (it's impressive for a game on such an old system that they vary from stage to stage, including fruits, sweets, pudding, and so on), the heavier and slower you get. You can still jump at the same speed, though this carries its own risk, thanks not only to the bats flying overhead, but also the fact that your jump is a set arc, over which you have no control. Hustle Chumy is a pretty good game, well worth a look. Plus it has some very cute sprites, with the cat enemy in particular looking great.

Finally, there's GP World, a racing game that feels like a genetic forebear to SEGA's more well-known sprite scaling racers like Outrun and Hang On. It makes a decent attempt at looking like a sprite scaling game on hardware where that couldn't possibly support it, and it features simpler versions of mechanics that would appear in those games, like Outrun's two-gear system, and the fact that there's no actual placement in the races, you're just racing against time, and the other vehicles are present just to ct as obstacles and to provide points bonuses for passing them. One odd little touch that really speaks to GP World's prototypical nature is that rather than having a timer that counts down to zero, the timer counts upwards, and each stage has a different time limit that gives a game over when the timer gets that high. It's only a little thing, but looking at this game, and the games that came after it, you can see how they streamlined things and improved them bit-by-bit over time.

As for GP World itself, it's a good game. It's fun enough on its own merits, and it's a nice little curiosity: a look at the DNA of some later, more polished games that we all know and love.