Thursday, 27 December 2018

Buddhagillie (MSX)

In the US and UK, at least, Wisdom Tree's selection of platformers about biblical figures carrying things on top of their heads are what we mostly think of, when we think of religious videogames. They also have a reputation (that they totally, one hundred percent deserve) for being awful to the point of near-unplayability. But of course, there are videogames with religious themes other than those relating to Christianity in the world, such as the 2006 Judaism-themed adventure game The Shivah, and though I can't remember the name, I definitely remember seeing a video of an Islamic-themed Tomb Raider-like a few years ago. And more infamously there's a game about (possibly even by?) the Aum Shinrikyo sect on PC88. But, as you might have gathered from the title, Buddhagillie is a game about Buddhism.

You play as the Buddha, with the aim of making all sentient beings your equal. This is done by going into hell and fighting the four sufferings (birth, aging, sickness and death), and absorbing the karma they spit out to power your mantra. You can only fly around the left half of the screen, you see, and the beings you hope to free from the circle of reincarnation: demons, asura, humans, gods and so on, all appear on the right side of the screen. So you have to use you sword to absorb karma, to power your mantra nad fire it at them. In gameplay terms, you slash small enemies with your sword by tapping the attack button. Holding the attack button lets you block their bullets, and absorb them. After you've absorbed bullets, you'll shoot your own on the last attack of your three-slash sword attack chain.

So, this is basically a decently-designed shooting game, with a few interesting ideas, and even a proper scoring system. Though those aren't surprising, since it's a homebrew game from 2018 released for free on the internet, and not actually a commercial MSX game from the 1980s. Whether you interpret it as an actual work of religious devotion, or you just see the Buddhist content as a bit of aesthetic flavour, it can't be denied that it does make the game stand out: there's not many games that look like this in the world, or that have selected quotes from the Buddha onscreen at all times.

But is it actually good? Yes! Like I said, it's got interesting ideas, and a proper, functional scoring system (that mainly centers around killing multiple small enemies with one three-hit chain), and it's pretty addictive, too. The only real complaint I have is the fault of the host hardware, rather than the game itself, and it's that there's quite a bit of sprite flicker, and it's very frustrating getting killed by a temporarily-invisible bullet.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Shanghai Kid (Arcade)

Also known as Hokuha Syourin Hiryu no Ken, Shanghai Kid is the first in the long-running Hiryu no Ken series of fighting games and beat em ups. The last entries in the series were on the Playstation and N64, so I guess it just wasn't able to survive the move to 3D, though I'll save that talk for another time, as I do intend to cover a few other games in this series at some point in the future, but for now: back to Shanghai Kid. It looks like an early fighting game, though it's really more of an attempt at a more complex (for the time) martial arts simulator-type game.

The structure is the same as most fighting games even to this day: you fight a series of gradually more difficult opponents. The difference is in how the fighting takes place, and how you control your character, as the developers came up with a system that allows for quite a bit of sophistication using only two buttons and an eight-way joystick, long before special move motions or combos had been invented. The two buttons are predictably assigned to punch and kick, but the interesting stuff comes in the form of the joystick. Though you can walk left and right, jump, and crouch, those aren't the things you'll mainly be using the joystick for. Instead, the game uses a system of high, middle, and low attacks, as well as corresponding blocks.

The way this works is almost turn-based in its execution. There are red circles that will appear on you or your opponent, at the head, feet, or torso level. When a circle appears on you, you just press the joystick up, down, or sideways to block the incoming attack. When it appears on the opponent, you do the same, but you press punch or kick at the same time, to attack your opponent's temporary blind spot. Obviously, as the game goes on, and the difficulty of opponents increases, so does the speed at which circles appear, disappear, or change places. Another complication is that a few fights in, you start facing special opponents (including one that happens to look exactly like Tiger Mask! There are probably otther unofficial appearances from old manga characters too, that I haven't recognised) who have unique attacks, for which you'll need to figure out the most effective evasive maneuvers.

I really like Shanghai Kid, it's an interesting game, and the Hiryu no Ken series is interesting to me in general, so like I said earlier, expect to see some of the sequels covered here at some point in the future. Until then, obviously I recommend giving this game a try!

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Tenma de Jack - Odoroki Mamenoki Daitoubou!! (Playstation)

The early days of 3D platforming were a little odd, as developers came up with their own ideas as to how what was probably the most popular genre on home systems at the time would work in 3D. Games like Pandemonium and Klonoa just played like 2D platformers, but with amazing-looking polygon graphics. Crash Bandicoot turned things sideways and had players going in a fairly linear path into the screen, instead of across it. Mario 64, Croc, and Spyro, between them, took what would become the most popular approach: huge 3d worlds to run and jump around in. But there was another approach that's been mostly forgotten by history: Bug on the saturn had players navigating netowrks of thin paths suspended in space, and had almost no imitators. In fact, this game: Tenma de Jack - Odoroki Mamenoki Daitoubou is the only one that I know of, coming out on Playstation in the year 2000.

Tenma de Jack's paths aren't floating in total isolation though: despite the protagonist being a weird blue goblin with a detachable head, he's actually the folkloric Jack, and the whole game is about climbing his famous and popular beanstalk, which runs up through the centre of each stage, and in most cases, can be jumped onto and climbed up, too. There's a few things stopping you from just jumping on and climbing to the top (and end) of the stage. First, there's an extra objective: each stage has a native flower, of which there are three specimens to find (though you only need to get one of them to be allowed to go to the next stage). Second, there's areas on the beanstalk that you can't grab ahold of, meaning that getting to the top requires strategic use of both platforms and stalk to get to the top. There's also a meter on screen showing Jack's remaining arm strength, which depletes as you're clung to the stalk, and Jack's movement speed goes down with it.

There's also, on each stage, a special enemy to go along with the usual birds and worms and such. This enemy is a human (or at least vaguely human-like), who will chase you around, trying to steal your head, for some reason. They're incredibly annoying, and you can only knock them out for a few seconds at a time. In fact, when you first start playing, the whole game is pretty annoying: every where you go, you'll find a new irritating trap or enemy or mechanic stopping your progress. But as you learn to recognise these things, and also to figure out the game's logic so you can more easily figure out new obstacles as they appear, it becomes a much more enjoyable game! Stages that were painful slogs, you begin to soar through at high speed, and it all becomes quite rewarding. Thugh it's not in the same league of quality as Speed Power Gunbike, I do think it belongs to that same school of games that get better in proportion to your ability to learn their systems and play them.

Tenma de Jack isn't a great game, but platform fans might want to track it down to try something a little out of the norm for the genre. You will need a bit of patience to get you through the initial frustration, though.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Family Pinball (NES)

Family Pinball, released in 1989, seems like it might have felt a little bit dated. Not only is the main table, a 2 screen high Pac-Man-themed affair, a bit simplistic when compared to real pinball tables of the late 1980s, but also compared to video pinball games on other systems. For example, Alien Crush had been released on PC Engine just a few months earlier, and while it might be a little unfair to compare games on systems with such different power levels, but while the Famicom had no chance of putting out anything that could rival Alien Crush graphically, it could definitely have played host to a pinball table that was just as complex and interesting.

I guess Namco saw the same problem in their own game, as while the Pac-Man table is the only traditional pinball table in the game, there are a bunch of other tables, that are more like pinball-inspired minigames, rather than actual tables. The first is 9-Ball. It's an odd combination of pinball and pachinko, where the aim is, like pachinko, to launch the ball at just the right speed so that it goes into one of the holes on the table. Before starting, you bet points, and winning the bet relies on getting balls in holes so that they form squares or lines. The pinball element enters proceddings in two ways: firstly, you can nudge the table to try and influence how the ball falls, and secondly, instead of a ball just falling off the bottom of the screen helplessly, there's a pair of flippers down there, so you can send it back up if you're quick enough.

The third of the minigames is battle pinball, and is also probably the most filled-out conceptually speaking, as well as the most fun to play. It's a versus pinball game, in which the aim is to get the ball past your opponent's flippers. First to three points wins. The way gravity works in this mode is a little odd, though I can't think of any better way they might have handled it: the ball will "fall" towards the nearest set of flippers, with "down" changing direction halfway up the table. (Or down it. You know what I mean.) There's three different tables in this mode, too, which would add a bit of variety if it was being played a lot (which I can actually imagine happening back in the game's heyday).

Finally, there's sports pinball, coming in soccer and ice hockey varieties (though there isn't much difference between the two as far as I can tell). This is mostly like battle pinball, with the same physics, and the same aim, but with no pinball bumpers or targets strewn about the tables, and with a much odder control scheme. Instead of activating two flippeers in front of your goal, you have a goalkeeper there, who you can move left and right, and who automatically deflects the ball, Pong-style. In the opponent's side of the table, you have one flipper, which you can also move left and right, and you can also press the buttons that activate the two flippers in other mdes to spin it clockwise or counter-clockwise. This mode feels a little half-baked, and is more fiddly than fun, especially compared to the much better battle pinball mode.

All in all, I found Family Pinball a bit of a disappointment, mainly thanks to how basic the main table is. If you have someone to regularly play against, you'll probably get decent milage out of battle mode, but otherwise, it's not a title worth bothering with.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Magical Speed (Arcade)

Magical Speed is an adaptation of the tradition card game (traditional as in it uses a deck of normal playing cards) Speed, with a really nice-looking fantasy RPG lick of paint, and there's a few interesting (or at least unusual) things about it. Speed, if you don't know (and I didn't before playing this) has two cards in the centre of the table, and the players have 4 cards at a time each, as well as a pile to draw from when one of them is gone. You get rid of your cards by putting them on top of one of the two cards in the middle, though it has to be one higher or lower than it (suits don't matter). The winner is the first player to be rid of all their cards, or whoever has the least remaining cards when time runs out.

The first interesting thing about this game is that it's intended to be played two-player, on a cocktail cabinet, with the players facing each other. So each player sees their cards at the bottom of the screen facing them, and their opponent's cars at the top, upside down. Luckily, there's also a single player mode, as even if I could get someone to play, figuring out how this arrangement would work while emulating on a PC would be a bit of a hassle. The single player mode is surprisingly thorough, too! Though it's just a typical fighting game-style deal where you play against a bunch of opponents in succession, each more skilled than the last, there are three difficulty levels to pick from, and each of the three levels has its own seperate cast of opponents, all with unique sprites and animations, plus their own cute little introductory cutscenes. And there is actually a fair difficulty curve too! Well done, Allumer.

The other interesting thing is the controls. Since this is a game all about having the fastest reactions, using the joystick to move a cursor to select your card, then choose which pile to put it on would be far too slow. Instead, there are six buttons: two on the top row, representing the two piles and four beneath, representing your four face-up cards. Hit the button for the card you want, then the pile you want it to go to, and that's how you play. I may have mentioned before, but I typically use a USB replica SEGA Saturn pad for playing stuff on PC that doesn't require any analogue sticks, but in this case, I was having trouble figuring out a setup that let me press all the buttons quickly, while also avoiding my getting confused about which button was which. Eventually, I managed to come up with something that worked pretty well: holding the controller in my right hand, I had the two top buttons mapped to the Y and Z buttons on there, and with my left hand on the PC keyboard, and the four bottom buttons mapped to Q, W, E, and R on there. I could only play for 10-15 minutes at a time before the fingers of my left hand started getting stiff, but it was good enough.

In summary, Magical Speed is a very cute game, and it's fun enough, but I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to play it more than a few times in single player. I guess if you're lucky enough to ever encounter a real cocktail cabinet of it, it seems like it'd be a ton of fun to play against a real opponent that way, though.