Friday, 28 June 2019

Boukyaku no Senritsu (Game Boy Advance)

I don't know what made this game's title stand out to me while I was perusing a list of GBA games, but it did, and I'm glad I decided to investigate for myself then and there instead of going online and looking it up first. Because what this game is is a pretty fun Kiki Kaikai-alike, and what GameFAQs inexplicably lists it as is an adventure game. If i'd have seen that listing before playing, I would have just assumed it was completely unplayable without Japanese literacy and ignored it. So the moral is not to trust crowd-sourced info when it comes to lesser-known games, I guess?

So yeah, Boukyaku no Senritsu (also known as The Melody of Oblivion) is a top-down shooting game based on a 2004 anime I've never seen,, and in it, you pick from one of three characters and go trough five stages fighting against strange monsters, like robot cows, monkeys and babies, a bull/buss hybrid thing, and so on. Once per stage there's also a non-shooting section where you're riding on a jetbike and you just have to avoid stuff until it's over. I was pleasantly surprised in a number of wats playing this game, too: not only is it a really fun game to play, but it also has an amazing soundtrack, reminiscent of PC98 shooting games. The GBA doesn't have a great reputation regarding music, but it is possible to eke a good soundtrack from it.

With two exceptions, the presentation is a good job all-round, in fact. The first exception is that the sprites are in that ugly, blobby pre-rendered that was popular for some reason in the GBA's heyday (though the backgrounds are still nice enough). The other is that a few times per stage, and between the stages, there's lengthy dialogue scenes that you can't just skip in one go with the start button or anything: you have to sit there hammering the A button until the characters stop their yammering and let you go back to shooting stuff. There is one really nice bit of aesthetic flourish that almost makes up for those things, in that when you use your bomb attack, you get a few seconds of full screen animation that not only looks great, but is also pretty impressive for a GBA game. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any others that do that. And again, the music really is great.

There's not much more to be said about this game, to be honest: it's another, heretofore unsung high quality action game that manages to be worthwhile on a system that already has a generous supply of better-known high quality action games. It's a little easy, since I got to the final boss on my first attempt on default settings, but there are higher difficulties, including one that has to be unlocked by completing with every character. It's also pretty cheap to get a legit copy of, which is probably thanks to its relatively unknown status. I recommend it! One final word: apologies for this shorter-than-usual, slightly thrown-together post, but a combination of being busy with some other writing, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night getting released last week, and some bad mental health days have all hit at once, taking away the time and energy I need to research a few posts in advance like usual.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Other Stuff Monthly #2: Marvel Cross

There's not much information around regarding the Japanese fandom of western-produced comics and cartoons. I think the most well known piece of that world are the cute pieces of fanart made of South Park characters by mainly female Japanese fans. If we go into things a little more specifically, towards Japanese fans of western superhero comics, the only time an english-language spotlight has been shone on that area that I'm aware of is the 1994 one-shot "Justice", printed by Antarctic Press, which featured fanart and translated fanzine articles drawn and written by Japanese fans, mainly about Marvel and DC characters.

A couple of years ago, however, I became aware of an officially licensed magazine published in Japan in the 1990s entitled Marvel Cross, which featured Japanese translated reprints of various Marvel comics. A while later, I actually managed to get my hands on a copy, and here we are. Before we get onto the actual contents, it should be noted that those Japanese fans must have been truly dedicated: a 120-page issue of Marvel cross cost 1000 Yen, compared to the breezebloack-sized Shonen Jump, which in 1997 cost a mere 210 Yen a pop. Furthermore, while collected trade paperback editions of manga also cost a couple of hundred yen per volume, this issue contains ads for the first volume of the X-Men storyline The Age of Apocalypse, carrying a hefty 3200 Yen pricetage.

Now, we finally get onto the contents! There's four issues reprinted in Marvel Cross #14, all of which come from the 1980s: The Amazing Spider-Man #310 (December 1988), Uncanny X-Men #137 (September 1980), The Mighty Thor #337 (November 1983, and X-Men Annual #12 (1988). It looks like, judging what's listed in the previous issues directory towards the back, and on the next issue preview page, that Spider-Man was in there as a permanent fixture, while the other series would cycle in and out in 4-6 issue long arcs. For example, the X-Men annual is listed as the first part of a three-part X-Babies story, while Uncanny X-Men #137 is the double-length climax to the five-part Dark Phoenix storyline, to be replaced in the next issue by the start of a three-part Iron Man/Captain America team-up, and what I think is the start of ongoing 1960s Iron Man stories.

As well as the comics themselves, there's a fairly generous portion of back matter, too: a letters page, a Q&A section "hosted" by Uatu the Watcher, a few columns, comics news and sales charts from the US, and, most exciting of all: a fanart section with a couple of cosplay photos thrown in for good measure! The magazine in general is pretty well-presented, to be honest. Each comic is preceded by a brief recap/dramatis personae section, with the Dark Phoenix's page being especially impressive, listing twenty-two characters!

All in all, there's really no good reason beyond curiosity for western fans to pick up issues of Marvel Cross: even if you can read Japanese, it'd be easier to get hold of the comics contained therein in their original English. I'm glad I did, though, just because it means I could learn about a previously unknown facet of a fandom that's been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and even more importantly, to share that learning with you. Having said that, it is a really aesthetically great-looking magazine, and I've long been of the opinion that superhero publishers should look further into anthology formats (which, to give them credit, they actually do in the UK). As this isn't a review, I'm not sure how to end it. I'm done imparting information now. Goodbye!

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

The Cyber Shinobi (Master System)

This might be just how I rememer it, but it feels to me like the Mega Drive's Revenge of Shinobi/The Super Shinobi was a pretty big part of early 1990s UK childhood, and is still beloved to this day (making its omission from the EU version of the Mega Drive Mini seem like a foolish oversight). The Cyber Shinobi, by contrast, was barely ever heard of back then, and not well-remembered today. A big part of this is probably down to the fact that it was on the Master System rather than the Mega Drive, but another big factor is probably the burial it got in pretty much every magazine at the time. It was written off as an ugly, stupid cash in on the popularity of the Shinobi series.

Those criticisms aren't entirely unfair, though. The sprites and backgrounds are okay, but the game's whole look is ruined by a massive ugly grey HUD taking up the top third of the screen. The strange thing about this is that there's a prototype version of the game where the HUD was still massive, but it was at least a bit more colourful and less ugly. It's also definitely cashing in on the name of a popular series, since it's not a Rolling Thunder-alike like the original Shinobi or Shadow Dancer, nor is it an action-platformer like the previous year's Revenge of Shinobi. Instead, it's a single-plane beat em up with occasional platform elements.

It's mostly actually pretty okay to play. There's some kind of boring design choices (like you you move along a bit, stop to fit a few waves of the exact same guys, then move on to do that again on the next screnn), and some terrible ones (parts of the ground that fall away to drop you into a deathpit that look identical to every other part of the ground, leaving you with Rick Dangerous-style memorisation), but it's still good enough to hold your interest.

There's also a couple of interesting design choices, like the projectile weapons: you collect a P item, you get eight projectiles. But what's interesting is that you can collect up to 24 projectiles, and the amount you have determines what you shoot. At one to eight, you shoot weak shuriken, nine to sixteen are slightly more powerful bullet/missile things, while seventeen to twenty-four are grenades, which are not only more damaging than the other two, but they also explode for splash damage, but they're thrown in an arc instead of shot straight forward.

Furthermore, those "fight the enemies in a stationary screen" thing isn't that bad, either. Every screen has a different layout of platforms and obstacles, along with stationary enemies that shoot at you while you're fighting the more mobile melee enemies. This means that each of those stationary screens is at least a different encounter, making you find the best place to be in each screen to fight the enemies it throws at you. The problem is the repetition within each one: having only one wave of enemies per screen would speed things up, or having multiple waves made up of different parties of enemy types would make them fell less of a slog.

So, The Cyber Shinobi is an okay game sunk in its time by the weight of the name with which it was lumbered. I think if it didn't have Shinobi in its name, it wouldn't have been hated quite so hard by the critics of the time, but it also probably would have sank even further into obscurity. As it is, it's an okay game, and, like most Master System games, you can get it dirt cheap, and it definitely contains like £2 worth of fun.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Satan (Amiga)

Black Tiger is something of an unsung hero in Capcom's late 80s arcade oeuvre. Though it's a great game, it never achieved the level of fame enjoyed by the likes of Ghosts and Goblins or 1942. In fact, though it got ported to various microcomputers in Europe, the first official console port didn't come until 2010, 23 years after its debut! Despite being mostly forgotten, though, it does have its advocates. For example, the first time I encountered it was a fan-made port on the Korean handheld the GP32 in the early-mid 00s, and it had a rethemed spiritual sequel in the form of Sonson 2 on the PC Engine in 1989. Why is all of this relevant? Because the first half of Satan is clearly very influenced by Black Tiger, further cementing its place as a minor cult hit, despite having fallen from the collective conciousness.

Satan's plot is about a warrior who wants to kill the eponymous demon, but realises he needs to become a wizard to do so. To become a wizard, he journeys through some kind of subterranean world killing monsters and collecting money and power ups, until he faces off against what looks like a white dragon from Castlevania. Then his wizardly diploma falls from the 'bove, he grows a beard, and sets out on the second part of the quest. This bit is okay, like a poor man's Black Tiger, pretty much. But Black Tiger is really good, so that's not too harsh a criticism.

The game's second half has you playing as the newly-qualified wizard, using money to buy spells with which you fight Satan himself, who, upon defeat, splits into two and then four flying demons. There's also something about rescuing captured wizards before Satan can kill them, but this is where the game reveals itself to be broken: those wizards are all on platforms that are too high to reach. It seems like there's a whole exploratory part of this half of the game that's just totally inaccessible because your jump isn't high enough. You can still fight and kill Satan in his various forms, though if you go back to the shop once he starts flying, there's a good chance that when you come back outside, he'll be offscreen somewhere, killing wizards with impunity.

It really is a shame, as like I've mentioned on this blog before, it often feels as if the Amiga is a system that coasts by on nostalgia, and doesn't really have many actual good games, and Satan is so close to being a good game. It just lets itself down with one stupid mistake in the latter half. Tragic!

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Tank Racer (Playstation)

This game's title tells you pretty much everything about its premise: it's a racing game, but with tanks. You can even shoot at each other as much as you want! That's really it, I don't have anything more to put into this opening paragraph, sorry.

So, it's a British-developed game, which is obvious from the first two tracks: a pretty authentic-feeling little country village with a church and a duck pond and so on, followed by a very silly, inauthentic-feeling depiction of the USA-Mexico border. You can also tell that it's a western-developed game from the late 90s, since there are UFOs on some of the menu backgrounds, and there's a UFO power up ingame, too (though it's pretty rare, and I missed my shot every time I got it, so unfortunately, I can't tell you what it does).

How does it actually play though? Eh, it's alright. I was disappointed that the tanks just control like the cars do in any other racing game, where you hold the accellerator and steer left and right. I would have been much more interesting if you had left and right accelerators, one for each tank tread, and you steered by letting go of one of them (like how Steambot Chronicles/Bumpy Trot would have you controlling its walking vehicles a few years later. I really like that control method, actually, and I'd love to see it in a high speed racing game someday).

Also, though you can shoot your tank's cannon as much as you like, it's the weakest-feeling tank cannon I think I'v ever used in a game, as whether you're hitting an enemy or taking a hit yourself, it barely seems to have any effect at all. I guess the developers had to make a choice between making a fast and fair racing game, or a manic one with powerful weapons that could get incredibly frustrating. I'm not sure which would have been the best choice, actually, so I can't really be too hard on the game for that.

There's a few other small, nitpicky problems, too, like how some parts of stages are destructible and some aren't, but I think that's just the fault of the Playstation's hardware limitations (on the other hand, though, other games like Rollcage did a better job of hiding those limitations when it came to what you could and couldn't smash on their tracks). The biggest problem this game has is just the fact that it's on Playstation, and it can't hold a candle to the monolithic might of Ridge Racer Type 4, nor is its unusual theming strong enough to make it an interesting novelty. So, like I said a few paragraphs up: eh, it's alright.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Futari wa Precure Max Heart Danzen! DS de Precure Chikara o Awasete Dai Battle (DS)

So,there's quite a few licensed beat em ups on the original DS, and a lot of them seem to be based on superheroes: The Mighty Thor, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters, and so on. This game, with what might be the longest title of any game I've ever featured on this blog, against all odds, might well be the best of them, and an actual worthy entry into the genre in general.

Of course, it's based on one of the earlier iterations of the long-running magical girl franchise Pretty Cure, and it seems like the developers decided to eschew contemporary conventions and, instead of making "just a licensed game" or "just a game for little girls", actually bothered to make a good game that happened to be based on a license for little girls. AS already mentioned, it's a beat em up, and it's firmly in the time-honoured belt scrolling style. You know how it goes: you go from left to right, fighting enemies, picking up food off the ground and occasionally fighting bosses.

Of course, it's not that simple, and PreCure brings a few new ideas to the table to help it stand out. For example, friendship is a big theme in the TV series, so whichever of the two characters you choose to play as, the other one will also be present, controlled by the CPU to help you. (Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a 2-player co-op mode, which is a huge shame and one of the very few black marks against this game's name). But the friendship theme doesn't end there! There's a super meter, which can be used to perform powerful, full-screen team up moves, plus something I don't think I've seen in any other beat em up before or since: when one character gets knocked down by an enemy, if the other is in the right position on the screen, they'll catch their fallen partner efore they hit the ground, restoring a little health and gaining a little bit of super meter. It's cute, it's original, and it fits the game's theme perfectly.

Some other good points, that aren't innovative, but they do stand out from the game's contemporaries are the omission of various hated  "features" seen in many twenty-first century beat em ups. The biggest is that there's no levelling up, there's no equipment, and there's no skill shops: you actually get to just play the game, without grinding or losing interest towards the end because of a negative difficulty curve! In a beat em up released in 2005! Can you believe it? The other, lesser omitted albatross is one that I was actually only reminded of recently, when I tried to play the aforementioned Thor and Go-Busters DS games: constantly having the action stopped by text boxes telling the player "press B to jump!", after you've already spent the first two seconds of the game pressing the buttons to see what they do. This one doesn't seem to crop up in action games so much any more in 2019, and it definitely isn't missed.

Other than the lack of multiplayer, the only other real problem this game has is that it's a bit too easy. I know it's a kids game, but an optional hard mode would have been nice, at least. But besides that, this is a legitimately good beat em up, with nice sprites, that isn't thematically reliant on nostalgia for the 80s or 90s, and brings new gameplay ideas to the genre. I definitely recommend it.