Monday, 27 May 2019

Plus Plum (Dreamcast)

Also sometimes spelt as "Plus Plumb", this is a pretty low budget-looking, Japan-only competitive puzzle game. Of course, it's about matching coloured blobs, but it does at least bring some new ideas to the table, even if they're not good ones.

Like you might expect, Plus Plum has you arranging coloured blobs into matching sets of three, which then disappear. What's different is what happens when they disappear: not only do the blobs above them fall down, but all the blobs touching them also change colour. So to make combos, you not only have to take into account where the blobs will fall, but what colour they'll be when they do. Luckily, the colour changing isn't random, and the six colours are in three pairs: red and blue, white and purple, and yellow and green. The blobs also only fall one at a time, and rather than changing shape or formation like you would in most puzzle games, you can move that one blob around, and change it to its opposite colour.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but it's pretty simple once you've got the hang of it. I think with a bit more work, it might have led to a decent puzzler, but this game has one massive problem: it's incredibly slow. I haven't had a single game, win or lose, that's taken less than four minutes. The blame for this falls at the feet of PP's other oddball mechanic: the playing fields of you and your opponent are on some kind of counter-balanced platforms, and the game is lost when either one player's platform has been lifted high enough that their blobs touch the top of the screen, or their platform is so weighed down that it hits the bottom. Compare these four minute matches with the likes of Magical Drop (my personal favourite competitive puzzle series), where matches can be won or lost within seconds of them starting, and Plus Plum feels like a meandering, tension-free bore.

I can't recommend tracking down Plus Plum at all. There might not be as many competitive puzzle games on the Dreamcast compared to the Playstation, but there's still plenty that are better than this one. Strangely, though, it was apparently popular enough to get a sequel, Plus Plum 2. However, that was released on the original XBox, in Japan only, so it presumably sold about seven copies.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Other Stuff Monthly #1

So, this blog has been around for a whole decade now, and I've decided, for various reasons, to add something to the formula. What is that something? Monthly posts about things that aren't obscure videogames! But they will be mostly other obscure things. And sometimes they might also be videogames. Plus, it's only one post a month, so don't worry about the blog's focus changing or anything, okay? It'll be fine. Anyway, the first subject is this cute piece of merchandise from the 90s anime Magic Knight Rayearth!

I saw it on YAJ, with its name machine-translated as "The Book of Rayearth Magic Chapter 2", which is almost definitely wrong, but it was cheap, and I wanted to know what it was. What it is is a kind of Rayearth-themed personal organiser thing, kind of similar to the Funfax line that was popular among UK kids in the early-mid 1990s. The back of the box even advertises what appears to be additional inserts (sold seperately), just like what Funfax had! Some of you might be left in the dark by the past few sentences, so I'll elaborate further: this is a little ring binder/filofax-type thing, that contains various pre-printed inserts for organising your life when you're a mid-90s 10-year-old Japanese girl on the go.

Oddly, it doesn't contain an address book section, which you'd think would be standard for this sort of thing. It does have lots of other stuff, though, and I'll tell you about it, in as much detail as I can muster without being able to read Japanese. The first section seems to be teling a little about each of the three main characters, and contains what I think is a little personality quiz to see which one you're most like. Then, each of them has their own section, in which I think they're giving the reader advice on things like fashion, excercises, making gifts, and so on. After that is the most disturbing part, considering that this is a product for little girls: the "power-up record" section, which seems to contain sheets for keeping a record of one's height, weight, and other measurements over an extended period of time. Why'd you include a thing like that, SEGA?

Finally, there's a series of plastic envelopes containing various useful day-to-day items, like a Magic Knight Rayearth ballpoint pen (which doesn't work. I assume the ink inside has solidified over the decades rather than ran out, since everything else in the box was totally unused when I got it.), a couple of blue plastic magatama, a bunch of cards with some really nice MKR artwork, and a little mirror. Altogether, this thing is a nice little piece of anime merch, with the exception of the power-up record, which is unpleasant in so many ways, like if they made a Dragonball organiser for boys with a page to keep track of like, your bicep size or something? Just really drive home those body image issues early, right? But the concept of it is really cool, at least. So that ends the first post of this new series, I hope you liked it, and look forward to more old toys and stuff in the future.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Championship Wrestling (C64)

A few weeks ago, me and a friend wondered if there was a World of Sport Wrestling game on C64. There wasn't, but in looking for one, a screenshot of this game caught my eye, with its isometric view and diamond-shaped ring being reminiscent of the Fire Pro games, the best series of wrestling games there's ever likely to be. Does "reminiscent" still apply, when this game predates Fire Pro by a couple of years? Anyway, I obviously wasn't expecting anything anywhere near as good as any entry in that series, but I still had to satisfy my curiosity by playing it.

The out-of-game presentation is pretty bad, even for a game from 1986. That picture at the top of this review with the plain text on a blank blue background is the actual title screen, and all the menus look like that. Also, there's no nice artwork on the loading screens, either: they're just black. Luckily, this is more than made up for by the in-game graphics since, as you can see in the rest of the screenshots, it looks pretty good. Even more impressive is that the animation isn't bad, either!

As for how it plays: it's not terrible. I've definitely played significantly worse wrestling games. As was a standard workaround on these old microcomputers with one-button controllers, you can do different moves by holding the button and pressing different directions. There seems to be maybe eight moves per wrestler, too (though obviously, there's a lot of move-sharing): while the wrestlers are roaming free, you do punches, kicks, and so on, but you can also get your opponent into a headlock, from which you perform a couple of throws. There doesn't seem to be any mat wrestling, though, as pressing the button next to a downed opponent goes for a pin, instead.

The main problem the game has is a lack of variety: though there's eight wrestlers that all look different to each other, they all feel the same when you play as them. Plus, there's only one match type, and there's actually only seven wrestlers, since if you select Zeke Weasel as your own wrestler or your opponent, the game will crash while loading. After ten minutes of play, I was already bored, and after half an hour, I was ready to never play it again.

It's pretty obvious that I can't really recommend this game, but I do feel a bit guilty about it. It wouldn't be a surprise to learn that this was the best wrestling game available in the UK in 1986. It's not 1986 now, though, and you can get literally hundreds of much, much better wrestling games instead of it.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Motorbike King (PS2)

On paper, it almost seems as though Motorbike King (also known as Simple 2000 Ultimate Series Vol. 13: Kyousou! Tansha King ~Kattobi Baribari Densetsu~) was made specifically for me: it's a Bosuzoku-themed racing game, in which you can choose to play as a sukeban, and not only is it a Simple Series game, but it was even developed by those B-grade legends at Tamsoft! It was a disappointment, then, to actually play it and find an awkward game with motorbikes that handled like shopping trolleys and an absolutely merciless difficulty curve.

Luckily, I stuck with it for a couple of hours, bolstered by my love for the aesthetic the game was presenting, and once you've got a grip on the weird handling and you start winning races, it becomes a lot more satisfying. The main problem is, as already mentioned, the brutal difficulty curve: the fact is that even if you have a decent lead on your opponent, if you mess up once, that's all they need to not only overtake you, but to zoom off into the distance, never to be seen again. Once you get a couple of upgrades for your bike, you might be able to regain the lead, but only if you lost it early in the race, and you drive perfectly from that point on.

Anyway, as you might have gathered, the game takes place over a series of one-on-one races, all on public roads, and all at night. As far as I can tell, there are three underling opponents you have to beat, before you can face off against the two bosses. There might be further races beyond those two bosses, but I haven't managed to beat either of them yet, so I can't currently confirm that. During the races, you'll get told at certain points in each lap (they're the same every time, so you can be ready for them after your first time round) "Appeal Time Remaining", an awkwardly translated prompt for you to partake in a bit of showing off. There's various tricks you can do by holding down R2 in combination with other buttons, such as standing up and dancing atop your bike, pulling a wheelie, or playing the start of Auld Lang Syne on your horn. While playing, though, I've learned that the best trick to do, in terms of risk taken, ease of input, and points gained, is simply taking your hands off the handlebars and waving them around, by holding R2 and L1 together.

At the end of each race, the points you get from performing stunts (AP) get converted into the points you can spend on bike upgrades and cosmetic items (KP). Win the race, and you'll get a couple of hundred KP, plus another one for every 200 AP you earned during the race. Lose, and you'll get ten KP, plus one for every 2000 AP you earned. So you can unlock stuff without winning races, but it's significantly more laborious. A nice little touch you'll notice while navigating the game's menus is how colloquial they are: rather than every confirmation prompt offering Yes and No, each one is different, and they're all a lot more casual than that.

In fact, the translation and localisation of this game is really interesting generally. It's a game themed around a very specific Japanese subculture, and yet there's been almost no effort to try and shoehorn it into looking or feeling like some kind of western equivalent. I assume this was done to avoid the additional costs and time involved in that kind of aggressive localisation, but remember that only a few years before this, we had the Playstation port of Gunbird being stripped of all its personality and localised as "Mobile Light Force". So whatever their reasons for doing it were, some thanks should go to 505 Games for leaving this one intact.

I've actually had a few people asking me on social media sites to recommend Simple Series games for them to play, so I'll probably be covering a few more in the near future, too. In this case, I'll say that if you like the aesthetic and setting, and you have the patience to get through the steep learning curve, Motorbike King is one that's worth seeking out.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Sword and Fairy 6 (PS4)

Okay, so this game only came out a month ago, but I don't think it's got the coverage it deserves, so just this once, that's obscure enough to get it on the blog. It's a Taiwanese-developed RPG, and the latest entry in a series that's supposedly as popular in Taiwan and China as Final Fantasy is everywhere else. Like Final Fantasy, all the games are standalone stories, so we aren't left in the dark having missed the previous seven games (there were a couple of non-numbered spin-offs, of course). I'll start by addressing the twin elephants in the room, that every other review seems to have obsessed over.

The first, and biggest elephant, is the fact that this is a pretty unstable game. It glitches a lot: every time a new scene loads, the framerate takes a nosedive for a couple of seconds, battles start with a split-second of character models freaking out a little, and sometimes the menus act in strange, and unintended ways. The second elephant is slightly more subtle, and it's the fact that the translation is far from perfect. Some other reviews I've read and watch would have you believe that the dialogue is reduced to gibberish, as if it was translated by Alta Vista's Babelfish in 2001 or something. Really though, it just amounts to sentences sometimes reading a little awkwardly and occasionally the wrong word's been typed. But it's totally understandable.

Now that I have those two points out of the way, I can tell you the truth about them: they don't matter at all. I bought this game on a whim, since I just happened to be online when the limited edition went on sale, and it was pretty reasonably priced. So I decided to satisfy my curiosity about Taiwanese RPGs and get a game that sold out within a couple of hours. And I'm glad I did! The reason the above negatives don't matter is because over the past week of playing Sword and Fairy 6, I've totally fallen in love with it. It's hard to know where to begin in describing it!

The first thing you'll notice, and you can see it in the screenshots, is that this is an aesthetically beautiful game. It stars beautiful characters in a world made up of beautiful locations. The writing is also good enough to shine through the issues the translation has, too. I don't want to go into too much detail, because I really want you to go and play this game, and I'm trying to avoid spoiling anything so you can go into it with almost as much ignorance as I did. The story itself is a pretty decent fantasy saga (so far, at least. At the time of writing, I'm "only" about twelve hours into it), it starts with the protagonists investigating a cult that's been scamming and kidnapping people, and gradually escalates to involve gods and demons and hidden realms and so on. The best endorsement I can give is that as much as I normally hate cutscenes in games, this game's story is good enough that I can sit through some very long scenes of almost nothing but dialogue with no problem at all.

But it's the characters that are Sword and Fairy 6's real strong point. Every character has their own distinct personality and motivations, and they all feel like real people, not the usual scenery-chewing videogame hams made of stereotypes and cliches. Also of note is that in your own party there's a character who has trouble understanding interpersonal relations, and needs help knowing how to talk to people, and what people mean when they talk to her, and a character who suffers from depression and low self esteem, yet isn't depicted as a moping, spineless sadsack. The other characters are all interesting and unique in their own ways too, but again, it's hard to talk too much about them without spoiling anything.

It's not a perfect game, of course, and there are some lesser faults to add to the two big ones, like how the battle system is poorly explained and will take a few attempts to get to grips with (but basically: it's real time, but you only control one character at a time, which you do by selecting their actions from a menu. You select which character this is going to be by going into the "queue" section of the out-of-battle menu and putting them in the leftmost space in your party.) The subtitles are also a bit of a problem. All the cutscene dialogue is spoken in Chinese, and there are English subtitles. The problem is that these subs are small and white, and there's no thick outline or backing box, so that if the background behind them is light-coloured, they become pretty hard to read. This is a nuisance, but again, it's not a dealbreaker.

In summary, I strongly recommend Sword and Fairy 6 to anyone who has ever liked RPGs, and I honestly think it's an instant classic and one of the all-time greats. Playing it has made me feel the same way I did the first times I played Final Fantasy VII, Grandia, and Shining Force III. Can you give a stronger RPG recommendation than that?

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Agress - Missile Daisenryaku (Arcade)

The circumstances of Agress' release, and that of its unofficial English translations are somewhat interesting. It's a Versus puzzle game released in 1991 and themed around the Gulf War, even having grainy digitised photos of Saddam Hussein and George Bush in the attract mode. Then, an unofficial English version seems to have surfaced in 2003, presumably to exploit the US and UK's invasion of Iraq that was happening at that time (though they didn't update the attract mode to feature George W Bush).

The title might lead you to believe that this game is related to the long-running Daisenryaku series of very serious military turn-based strategy games, but other than the theme and name, I can't find any relation between the two. In it, you're presented with a map covering the top half of the screen that has missile launchers at either side, representing the two sides of the conflict. The actual game takes place in the bottom half of the screen, where there's two grids (one for each player, just like the missile launchers). The grids each have a bunch of grey tiles, a few coloured tiles, and one empty space. There's also a picture that shows the coloured tiles arranged into a certain pattern or shape. Your task is to keep moving the tiles round to mimic the pictured shape, which causes you to launch missiles and very gradually tunr sections of the map your colour.

So, just like how, a few years later, Puchi Carat would figure out a way of making Arkanoid-style games into endless puzzles, Agress has figured out how to make those annoying little plastic slide puzzles endless, and competitive to boot! I think it's also the only videogame version of a slide puzzle I've seen that wasn't pornographic, too. Is it any good though? Well, unfortunately, I've only been able to play it single player, and even on the easiest settings, it's a struggle to get more than a couple of stages in, and it's very stressful figuring out how to move the tiles round to get that one tile where you need it to be. Just like real slide puzzles, really! Once the game starts increasing the number of coloured tiles, and even adding multiple colours, it gets more and more difficult to keep treading water.

I suspect, though, that it's the two-player mode in which this game would shine. Having two human players facing off against each other would make for a tense, though probably brief exchange, with the fun not being hampered by one competitor having a perfect computer brain designed solely to win at this game. (I'm sure I've read before that in making videogame AI, programmers make it as good as it can possibly be, then pare it back to make them into reasonably beatable opponents for human players. It seems like the developers of this game skimped on the second part slightly.) So, I guess if you can get someone to play an old, ugly, tastelessly-themed puzzle game with you, you'll probably have a decent time with Agress. If you're going to be playing alone, though, I wouldn't bother.