Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Junker's High (Mega Drive)

Just for clarification, Junker's High is the beta title for Outrun 2019, and the only differences, as far as I can tell, are that Junker's High was intended to have the ability to save times and even replays, though it seems like these options don't actually work, even though they're there in the game. But still, Outrun 2019 isn't particularly well known as it is, is it? Until the Asian version of the Mega Drive Mini comes out, at least.

Despite the different working title, it's pretty clear that this was always meant to be an Outrun sequel: it looks and feels like Outrun, and even uses a similar branching paths system. Similar, but not exactly the same. Before you start playing, you pick one of four stages, each of which is made up of a collection of branching paths, like the one in Outrun. Though they don't follow the same big triangle formation as in the original game, instead being a selection of diamond and chain shapes. This means that each time you play a stage, the first and last areas will be the same as the other times you picked that stage, but there's a bunch of different routes to take in the middle. So while a single play will be shorter than a game of the original Outrun, there's a greater number of routes to go back and see.

The structure isn't the only change to the formula, though: your Batmobile-looking vehicle also has a boost function, that works in a pretty unique way. If you reach and maintain top speed for a few uninterrupted seconds, the boost will activate, significantly incresing your speed until you slow down for any reason. It's a little more strategic than the usual limited-use boost items you'd see in other racing games, and what makes it better is that it really does seem like the tracks are designed around it. It pays to learn where the straight parts are in a track that let you really cut loose with the speed, and where you should tap the brake to stop the boost activating so that it doesn't send you careening off of a bridge.

Another interesting thing is that though it looks like it's going to be set in a grim cyberpunk dystopia, there's actually a bit of optimism in the game's backdrops. Most of the city stages seem clean, shiny and genuinely advanced, and there's a few stages set in  lush green paradises, too. From what I've seen, there's only one stage that takes a "glass half empty" approach, and that's a stage with you driving on bridges over clean-looking water, with a backdrops of ruined, crumbling skyscrapers in the distance.

If you like Outrun and want some more of it, then Junker's High/Outrun 2019 will give you exactly that, with a couple of new and interesting twists bundled in, too. The Asian version of the Mega Drive Mini probably has the best line up generally, and Outrun 2019 is a part of that, which is nice, since actual cartridge copies seem to be selling for the same price as they did when the game got released in 1992. (On another note, who would have ever have guessed it'd be Konami of all companies, that did the proper thing with their mini console by putting the same lineup on every version of it?)

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Other Stuff Monthly #3

I'm not sure how to write well about toys, so you'll have to forgive me if this post isn't great. But hopefully it's something I'll get used to and figure out over time, okay? Anyway, this post is about a figure from the 1994 anime series Haou Taikei Ryu Knight. The series is a fantasy mecha show, that occasionally throws a bit of wild west stuff in there too. It's nothing spectacular, but it's decent enough. If someone had dubbed it into english and had it broadcast in the US or UK at 6am, I'm sure it would've been a cult hit that a few people remembered and loved to this day.

The protagonist party in the show all fit into typical RPG classes, like knight, mage, ninja, and most pertinent to this post, priest. They all also have giant robots called Ryus, that are thematically appropriate to their character class. What I have in this post is the Ryu Priest Baurus action figure, accompanied by a smaller, unarticulated figure of its pilot, the priest Izumi. Getting Izumi out of the way, in terms of toyeticity, he's kind of superfluous here: nicely sculpted and painted, but unarticulated and not to scale with his mecha. Thinking like a kid, though, if you had a bunch of the other figures, having the pilots with them, even in this form, would add a lot of between-battle play value.

Onto the main figure: it's pretty good! I'm missing a couple of pieces (the big tall priest hat, and a part to attach unused weapons to the figure's back), but it's not too big a deal. It occupies a space between model kit and normal action figure, which I guess must have been a common trait for kids' mecha shows in the early 1990s, as I remember having, when I was a kid, a Samurai Pizza Cats figure that I later learned was an imported and repackaged Japanese toy. So the figure comes mostly pre-assembled, apart from weapons and a few details, and it can also be dismantled to a certai extent, too.

You might expect this hybrid approach to result in great articulation, but while there are some points you wouldn't have normally seen on regular action figures of this period, like in the middle of the feet, there's also some weird omissions of joints you'd think would be mandatory. The most glaring of these is the lack of elbow joints, especially since the figure comes with multiple weapon options (a large club, two smaller clubs, and a shield), that can be health in either hand. Speaking od which, the hands are pretty interesting: they're in a weapon-holding position that similar to what you'd see on Gunpla. The difference is that this toy is skewed towards a younger audience, and towards play more than display. So the hands are made of a slightly flexible rubber/plastic, making it easy to change what they're holding.

How do I end a review of a toy? I don't know, I guess I'll just say that I really like the squat, cute mecha designs of this series, and they do make for great-looking toys. I also think that as a kid, the lack of elbow joints would have annoyed me, but not enough for it to be a deal-breaker. That's all I've got, really: it's a pretty good toy, but it definitely could have been better.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Dragonball Z (Plug and Play)

So, back in the mid-00s, there were a lot of these licensed plug and play joystick things, usually shaped like a character from a show they were based on, and more interestingly, containing one or more completely new 2D games! Though there's recently been talk of a lot of plug and plays actually being famiclones, with brand new, officially licensed Famicom games still being written because of them, as far as I can tell, these Jakks Pacific ones aren't famiclones. The games are too colourful, the sprites are too big, and so on.

This one was shaped like Shenron, and contained three games, all of which vary in both quality and thematic appropriateness. We'll get the worst and least fitting out of the way first, with "Kamehameha Assault". This is Dragonball Z-themed Pong. You pick one of five characters (Goku, Vegeta, Piccolo, Cell, and Buu), then you hit a green energy orb back and forth while also shooting energy blasts at each other. Each of the two characters has some of the Dragonballs behind them, and every time one of them gets hit by the green orb, it goes over to the other character's side. When one character has all seven, they win. It really is just fancy pong where you can also shoot each other a bit. It's definitely not fast or exciting enough to be considered a Windjammers-alike.

Next up is the most thematically appropriate of the three games, and while it is better than Kamehameha Assault, it's not by a great amount. Its name is Buto-Retsuden (fighting fighting legend? Am I reading that right?), and it's a fighting game. The roster is the same five characters as before, and it looks and feels like a poor imitation of the Super Butoden games. Except there's no special move inputs, beyond, say, forward+attack. Also, all the attacks, even the supers, do a pathetically tiny amount of damage and the fights feel like they last for hours. As a result, I never even managed to finish a credit of this, win or lose. By the halfway point of the second fight's first round, I was losing the will to live every time, and just quit.

Finally, we've got the best game of the three, and while it doesn't fit the theme particularly well, it's pinball, and basing pinball tables on things no matter what they are is a grand old tradition dating back to colonial times, at least. Also, the ball launch mechanism is Goku charging and firing a Kamehameha, which is a nice little touch. It clearly takes a lot of inspiration from Devil Crush, with the basic structure being a three-screen-tall main table, with entrances to seven bossfight bonus tables hidden around the place, and enemies marching up and down the place waiting to be smashed by the ball. Of course, every time you beat one of the bosses, the ball turns into a dragonball for you to take to goku up at the top of the table. Get them all to summon Porunga (since this table is set on Namek, during the Freeza arc) for lives and points and such.

Pinball isn't a spectacular game, but it's not awful, either, and it's a lot better than the other two games on here. Whether or not it's worth the price of admission depends on how much that price is. The going rate on ebay at the time of writing seems to be £10-20, which is far, far too much. If you see one of these for a pittance in a charity shop, though, the pinball game will give you half an hour's fun before you put the stick on a shelf, where it will at least make a fairly nice ornament forevermore.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Otostaz (PS2)

I can't find any evidence of this besides on mention in a 17-year-old issue of Edge, and I don't know if any other games came out of it, but Otostaz was possibly the result of an initiative at Sony in the early days of the PS2 to put out some games with lower production budgets and shorter development times. Presumably, the aim of such an initiative is to create more interesting, unique games, that didn't necessarily need to sell lots of copies, since they had less to lose. That's the kind of thing I like to see in videogames, movies, and so on. Lower budgets, more imagination!

Anyway, it's a kind of solitaire Othello game, themed around making buildings grow. There's three kinds of tiles in the game: ground, tree, and water. If there's one piece of ground touching both a tree and a bit of water, then a level one house will grow there. If there's a bit of ground touching two level one houses, a level two house will grow there, and so on up to level six. Your job is to make as many high-level houses grow as you can before each stage ends, to score points. There's also a game over condition that I think happens when you don't have any houses in the leftmost column of spaces when the screen scroll past it. But you'll be playing a few hours before you get to the point where that happens.

There's a few more advanced techniques to learn too, but you'll pick them up along the way, plus not only is there a very through tutorial, but there's also an option to turn all the text into English, despite this being a Japan-only release, which is nice. It's generally a fun and satisfying game to play, too, once you've figured out how it all works: lots of squares constantly flipping over, and numberse going up, and all those little kind of kinaesthetic touches that let you know you're doing well.

The presentation's pretty nice, too, with the game seemingly being set in a world made of thick coloured paper, though the stock sound effects do make it feel slightly cheap. The only real problem with Otostaz is that there's not much to write about regarding it. It's a decent game, pretty unique, and if you see a copy going cheap, it definitely wouldn't hurt to pick it up. You'll definitely get a few hours of enjoyment out of it, even if the first hour is just learning how to play.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Off-World Interceptor Extreme (Saturn)

This is a game that got a lot of coverage around the time of the Saturn's European launch, though I don't remember ever hearing of anyone actually owning or even playing it. There's a few reviews on GameFAQs, that are all well over a decade old and incredibly poorly written, even by GameFAQs standards, and they all absolutely hate the game and everything about it. Which strikes me as odd, since the game isn't terrible by any degree, nor is it even well-known enough for any supposed low quality to be received opinion, either. But one review even went as far as to say that Off-World Interceptor Extreme was so bad that Superman 64 looked good next to it.

It's not like this is some great forgotten classic, either, of course. But it is pretty good. You play as a "trash man", which is a kind of futuristic bounty hunter, employed by some military-looking people to chase down and kill space-criminals, and if you happen to also kill tons of space-cops along the way, that's fine too. Yeah, I'm not sure what kind of organisation is employing you, except maybe some kind of incredibly well-funded space-anarchist vigilante group? But anyway, you go to various planets in your futuristic gun-car and kill lots of space-cops and occasionally a space criminal, then spending your bounty on new cars and upgrades.

"Pretty good" is a perfect assessment of this game, in fact: driving isn't perfect but it's fun enough and goes at a decent speed. Shooting enemies and seeing them explode is kind of satisfying, et cetera. It wouldn't have been a wise purchase at full price even in 1995, but if you pick up a copy cheap in 2019, you'll get an hour or two's worth of fun out of it. (I did check ebay, and the prices for this game vary wildly: from £2 up to £50!)

Of course, it's a western-developed game from the early days of CD consoles, so there's the obligatory live action cutscenes between each stage, during which you're given your missions and the higher-ranked officers gradually warm up to you and so on. It all looks like a very low budget TV show, like most live action FMV did, bet there is one small difference that makes OWIE's cutscenes stand out: self-awareness. I don't know if it was the intention to do this from the start, or if the developers saw the footage and took and instant dislike to it, but all the cutscenes has imposed onto them the silhouettes of two guys in armchairs, watching the proceedings and making jokes at the game's expense, in a manner obviously inspired by Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Occasionally, they do even get some actual funny lines, too!

Off-World Interceptor Extreme is really the kind of game that natually gravitates towards being forgotten: it's nothing special, but it's not really a bad game, either. It feels a lot older than it is, too, despite the stages being made of texture-mapped polygons, too (though all the things in the stages are sprites): replace them with a good-old stripey road like you'd see in a typical sprite scaling game and take out the cutscenes, and this is a game that could totally have appeared on consoles five years prior, or in arcades ten years prior. That's not to say it's bad, but at the launch of a shiny new console generation, it probably got buried under all the games that were offering something genuiniely new.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Supreme Warrior Ying Heung (Mega CD)

I've long theorised that the thing that killed the Mega CD was western publishers and their obsession with FMV, since the PC Engine CD, which had almost no support in the west, and had no FMV games, was a pretty big success (in Japan, at least), just by having lots of good games. Until now, though, I hadn't actually played any of the western "interactive movie" style FMV games, only the likes of Road Avenger and Strahl: the "laserdisc arcade" school of FMV games that were made up of long strings of QTEs and cool-looking 80s animation. Those games are pretty fun, if very limited.

Supreme Warrior Ying Heung is the first interactive movie I've played, and using the word "played" is an act of generosity it doesn't deserve. The story sees an evil warlord attacking a small town in sixteenth century China, demanding half of a magic mask from the local martial arts master. If he gets the mask, he'll be all-powerful and go on to rule the world. Unfortunately, the master is too old to fight the warlord, and his best student is injured. So it falls to you, a collection of disembodied limbs attatched to a movie camera to save the day.

There's some good things about this game, that I should mention before I continue with its burial, so here they are: the production values are surprisingly good, in a mid-90s American TV show kind of way, and the video quality is a lot better than most live action Mega CD games. That's about it, though. The big problem is that the developers have tried to make something a bit more sophisticated than the typical QTE festival, and it just doesn't work. This is a problem shared by one of the aforementioned laserdisc arcade games, Cobra Command (aka Thunderstorm FX), which added a fiddly, semi-functional crosshair shooting element to proceedings. Supreme Warrior manages to be go even further with the complexity, and while Cobra Command was pretty difficult to play, this game is practically impossible.

The actual game part of Supreme Warrior has you fighting the warlord's three henchmen, then, if you somehow manage to beat them, the man himself. The fights are completely live action and first person, with the henchmen punching and kicking in the direction of the camera, while you're expected to punch, kick, and block in accordance with the little prompts that appear at the edges of the screen. The problem is that the prompts sometimes don't appear, and sometimes hitting the right direction and button doesn't do anything. I made a few attempts at fighting each henchman, and I never landed more than two hits on any of them. It just doesn't work on any level: it's no fun to play, the basic mechanics don't work, and your hands and feet flying in from the edge of the screen look stupid every time.

I wish I could say it was a shame that this game turned out how it did, and that the concept had so much potential, but I can't see how else they would have done it. I guess they could have made it a simple QTE game like the arcade games that had been originally released almost a decade earlier, or they could have used the movie segments as mere cutscenes to a more traditional action game, maybe with Mortal Kombat-style digitised sprites. But neither of those solutions really offers the kind of interactive movie innovation towards which Digital Pictures strove. Since no-one else has managed to make a good game from the concept in the decades since, maybe it's just not possible?