Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Sol Negro (Amiga)

I decided to play this game based entirely on the boxart, which featured the hero and heroine looking like they were from some cool european sci-fi action comic. Though the cover wasn't a total bait-and-switch, as those two characters are actually the protagonists, the world they inhabit is more like an uglier, more luridly coloured version of a nineties platformer world. More interesting is the story, which is a rip-off of the story from the 1985 fantasy movie Ladyhawke. Ladyhawke, if you don't know, is about a warrior and a lady who love each other, but are kept apart by a curse that means when he's a human, she's a hawk, and when she's a human he's a wolf. The main characters in Sol Negro have a similar dilemma, except that the guy in this case turns into a fish. Also they'e both rifle-toting post-apocalyptic soldiers.

So, at the start of the game, you pick one of the characters, who you play as in human form, while rescuing/protecting the other, who obviously appears in their animal form. The most interesting thing about this is that it means each character has different stages: the male character starts the game in a surreal place with mountains and giant mushrooms and flowers, while the female character starts under the sea. Beyond that, however, I can't tell you any more, since this is yet another Amiga game, that's absurdly difficult, and after many attempts, I never made it past either character's first stages.

The game's mechanics are as much of a rip-off as its story, as it sees you walking and flying along narrow horizontally-scrolling stages shooting groups of small enemies, a lot like the arcade game Atomic Robo-Kid (in the interests of fairness, it should be mentioned that Atomic Robo-Kid and Sol Negro were released in the same year, and the Amiga version of ARK didn't even come out until two years later, so the similarities might just be a coincidence). Though obviously, Atomic Robo-Kid is a lot better than this in pretty much every way. Sol Negro has terrible collision detection, pointless non-enemy characters that do nothing but float around making you wonder what you're supposed to shoot, and various other problems. The most hateful of all, I think, is the dolphin that appears in the female character's underwater stage: it can't hurt you, but unlike all the other peaceful characters, if you accidentally shoot it, a bunch of tridents fly in from off screen and kill you as punishment.

In summary, Sol Negro is a bad game, despite having unique presentation and an endearingly shameless/bizarre plot. Just play Atomic Robo-Kid instead, to be honest.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Initial D Gaiden (Game Boy)

I'm sure most of you are familiar with Initial D, but for the few that aren't, it's a comic/TV/movie/videogame franchise that started in the 90s, and it's all about people with badly-drawn faces taking part in street races down twisty mountain paths, mainly at night. If you were reading English-translated manga around the turn of the century, you might remember it being advertised in the back of seemingly everything Tokyopop published for about two years. Anyway, Initial D Gaiden is a Game Boy incarnation of it. Oddly, I think it might also be the first ever videogame adaptation of the series, beating the Saturn game Initial D: Koudou Saisoku Densetsu by three months.

It's a pretty simple game, but I consider that to be one of its strengths. You just pick a car, then participate in a series of one-on-one races until you get to the end of the game. Obviously, drifting around corners is a big part of the proceedings, and luckily the devs made that fun and easy to do: you just have to let go of the accelerator, tap the brake, then go back to holding the accelerator down. Just like Outrun 2, which came out about 5 years later! There's no car tuning or parts replacement or any other complications, you just go from one race to the next, with a little skippable dialogue scene between each one.

Mention has to be made of the game's presentation too, which is generally excellent. It must have taken a miracle, but the developers somehow managed to give a racing game that plays out on a tiny four-colour screen atmosphere! Even though the road seems to be  floating in a black void, it and the cars still look great, and the backgrounds really do give the feeling of driving down a mountain road at night, with the city lights shining in the distance. The only real problem the game has presentation wise is the lack of music, having instead a constant low buzz representing engine sounds punctuated with high pitched beeps when you're drifting.

There's not much more to be said here: Initial D Gaiden is just a really good racing game, on a system that isn't really known for them. It's a shame that the license precluded it from getting a worldwide release so more people might know about it. But without the license, would anyone have taken any notice of it today, including me?

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Pastel Island (Arcade)

Pastel Island is an unreleased arcade prototype, though as far as I can tell, the only noticable bug it has is that the "INSERT COINS" text keeps flashing while you're playing, so it doesn't seem totally unfair to treat it as if its a finished game. And it's not like it's on sale anywhere or anything, so I'm hardly going to be tricking anyone into buying a stinker or anything. Anyway, it's a maze game from 1993 where, by the time-honoured tradition, you are tasked with collecting all the points items (this time they're hearts) in a stage, before going to the next stage and doing it there, and so on.

It's a pretty full-featured game, too. There's a couple of scoring systems in play, the main one revolving around collecting stars. Stars are one of a few random power-ups that can appear when you destroy one of the destructible items littered around each stage, and when you kill an enemy. As a side note, while the power-ups are random, you can shoot them to turn them into other power ups, so scoring isn't totally reliant on the kindness of the random number generator, which is nice. The stars, when collected, multiply the value of the hearts for a limited time. If you collect a star while one's already active, the multiplier increases by one. So, collecting stars, and doing it in quick succession, is obviously an important part of the scoring system.

The other main scoring element is the selection of end-of-stage bonuses available. There's a bonus for how many stars you collected, as well as no-jump, no-dash, and no-miss bonuses. It's possible there might be a no-shoot bonus, too, but I haven't been able to finish a stage without shooting, so I don't know. The power ups other than the stars are S and P icons, whose purpose I haven't quite figured out, but I think that one of them will allow you to take one extra hit before dying, and a bubble, which turns your shots into lethal bubbles, rather than the stunning popcorn-like bullets you usually put out.

I should also mention the graphics, since this is a pretty good-looking game. The enemy and player sprites are an exception, all being quite ugly, but in their favour, every enemy has different behaviour and different abilities, and they're all easy to tell apart, which is nice. The stages are what really looks good, though: I'm not sure if they're made of a very low number of texture-mapped polygons, or if each stage is a huge Mode 7-style rotated sprite, but whatever it is, it's an effective and appealing effect. The stages also change name and visual theme every other one, and I was amused by stages 3 and 4 being called the "Confort [sic] Zone".

Pastel Island is a great-looking game that's fun to play, and while it's no Raimais, it would have been a worthy addition to the genre had it been officially released. Having said that, it's fairly obvious why it wasn't: in 1993, the first 2D fighting game boom was in full swing, and 3D fighting and racing games were just starting to loom over the horizon too. A maze game, no matter how well-designed, would have looked embarassingly old hat in that environment. Still, I recommend giving Pastel Island a chance if you're a fan of score-chasing.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Mo Jie Qibing (GBA)

I'm not the biggest fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in fact, my main exposure to it was watching the first movie at a friend's house on DVD many years ago, and being left with no desire to ever watch the other two. What I do like, though, is the KiKi KaiKai games, also known as Pocky and Rocky. They a great bunch of Commando-style shooting games, but they're about a shrine maiden shooting ghosts instead of an army guy shooting other army guys. Mo Jie Qibang is an unofficial, unlicensed Lord of the Rings game that's also an unofficial, unlicenced KiKi KaiKai game.

You play as Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn, Gandalf, or Frodo, and you set out on an adventure that's a very, very loose interpretation of the original story. Like how the first stage is a north american-style desert full of cacti and bleach-white cow skeletons, culminating in a boss battle against a giant scorpion. Like the KiKi KaiKai games, you can shoot enemies from a distance, or you can bat them away with a risky, very short range melee attack. You've also got a limited-use bomb (represented by a gold ring) that instantly clears the screen of enemies. There's not need to save your bomb for the bosses, either, as both it and your melee attack are disabled during boss fights. I wonder if this is because the developers couldn't come up with a way of making those weapons do normal damage, rather than having them insantly kill enemies? We'll probably never know.

Anyway, though it's a terrible LotR adaptation, it is a pretty decent KKKK knock-off, so it's a lot of fun to play. There's only two real problems I've encountered. The first is that power-up distribution is totally random: every enemy seems to have an equal chance of dropping any power-up, or nothing at all. So on some runs you'll get lots of health items, extra lives, and so on, and on other runs you'll get nothing. The other big problem is the first boss: it's so much harder than the stages and bosses that follow it, and again, there's a bit of luck involved in beating it. Basically, there's a safe spot just in front of its face and to the side a little, and if you stand there, it'll stay still, fruitlessly trying to attack you while you safely shoot it in the face. Sometimes, though, it'll just move straight away and go back to attacking you.

Other than those faults, Mo Jie Qibang is still a pretty good game, though: it looks great, and it's a lot of fun when things go your way. It's easily one of the best pirate originals I've ever played, and I like it more than any official Lord of the Rings-based media I've encountered, too. Totally worth playing, though not as much as the actual KiKi KaiKai games are. Play those first, obviously.

Thursday, 10 January 2019

PatchMon (PC)

So, this is a game made in the fighting game engine MUGEN, more commonly known for those big giant mashups of every fighting game character ever, and of course, for SaltyBet. Contrary to stereotypes though, PatchMon is game using sem-original materials! I say semioriginal, as while it doesn't use prites from other games, it is a fangame based on a 1970s series of trading cards called Pachimon which featured a bunch of original kaiju going about their monsterly business.

The big gimmick of this game, as you can see from the screenshots, is that the graphics for the characters and most of the backgrounds are taken directly from the cards themselves. It makes for a unique and authentic look, but it also massively limits what the characters do: most of them don't have jumps or blocks, and one character in particular, a giant coelacanth/whale/shark thing, can't even move, and attacks by summoning waves and ships to travel across the screen on its behalf.

The rest of the cast doesn't have much more articulation, either, and the controls amount to moving left and right, performing two normal attacks and one (or sometimes two!) super attacks. One thing that has to be said though, is that the incredibly limited animation does have a lot of charm, and looks kind of like what you'd get if Monty Python's Terry Gilliam had put his animation methods towards making a cartoon about giant monsters.

The arcade mode takes a Street Fighter II approach, with you fighting all the playable characters, followed by four unplayable (as far as I'm aware) boss characters, and as well as that, there's survival and a crazy simultaneous two-versus-two mode. It would be a lie to say that PatchMon is a good game: it looks ridiculous, it's totally unbalanced, and it's stiff and weird to play. But it would also be a lie to say that it isn't a fun one, and you can definitely get an hour or two's enjoyment out of it before it outstays its welcome.

Friday, 4 January 2019

Sword of Sodan (Mega Drive)

This is a game whose title I'd always seen in lists of Mega Drive games and never bothered to take any notice of, assuming it was some boring, ugly western-developed RPG or something. Then I learned that in 1995, the final issue of Beep! Mega Drive magazine had it listed as the lowest rank Mega Drive game of all time, by Japanese Mega Drive owners. The fact that a western-developed game had gone pretty much entirely unnoticed in the west, while enjoying such notoriety in Japan got my interest, so I investigated. Turns out it's not an RPG at all, but an ugly, boring single plane beat em up!

You start out picking from a nameless hero or heroine, and then you set out to awkwardly shuffle forwards, swinging your sword at everyone that crosses you path. The game was apparently originally released on the Amiga, though since it uses all three buttons on the Mega Drive pad, plus the start button, it must have been even worse on a system whose controllers had one or maybe two buttons available at best. Anyway, the C button attacks (and you also have to press it in conjunction with the d-pad if you want to change the direction you're facing), B does a little jump that's totally pointless until a few stages in, when you can use it to try and jump over the massive, invisible instant death pits, and the A button drinks potions.

The potions are probably the most interesting thing about Sword of Sodan. There's four different potions to collect, and you can carry up to four at a time. The twist is that when the game is paused, you can pick two of the potions in your inventory to mix together for various different effects, from extra lives, to flaming attacks, to pointless self-poisoning. Otherwise, though, you mostly just shuffle along, hacking at enemies, and hoping you don't get torn apart by the traps in the stages, which are near-impossible to dodge with your incredibly unathletic warriors. Another little point of interest is that some enemies do require a little extra technique to kill, for example, the giants that start to appear at the end of the third stage: press C and up to slash their faces until they take a knee, then you have to stand at he exact right distance to them, and press C and up a couple more times to behead them.

I don't think Sword of Sodan is the worst Mega Drive game of all time, but it is a very bad game, and it's not one you should waste any time playing. It's not really a surprise, but that's how it is sometimes.