Friday, 30 August 2019

Windy x Windam (DS)

I remember when this game was originally released in 2008, I was pretty excited for it! I've always been interested attempts at fitting arcade genres like fighting games, beat em ups and shooting games onto handhelds, and this wasn't just a handheld fighting game, but it was made specifically for the ds, so it wasn't a downgraded version of a "proper" fighting game, like the massively disappointing Guilty Gear: Dust Strikers. Nor was it a licensed game, which I considered a plus, as though Treasure's Bleach DS fighting games were a lot of fun, the world and characters didn't appeal to me at all. (One extra little note: why weren't there any Capcom or SNK fighting games on DS? The GBC and GBA played host to some miraculously great versions of the Street Fighter ALpha and King of Fighters games. A missed opportunity.)

Then it actually came out and I played it a little, but it just couldn't hold my interest, and I quickly forgot about it in favour of playing Last Blade 2 and Mark of the Wolves via the surprisingly good homebrew Neo Geo emulator the DS had. Playing it again a decade later, it's got a lot of charm, but I can definitely see why it didn't have staying power, and why pretty much everyone almost instantly forgot about it: that charm has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get you to look past the big flaws in how the game actually plays, and it's just not up to the task.

I'll talk about the positives before I get onto the negatives, though. Like the world and characters are pretty nice. I guess it's set in the same world as the DS roguelite Izuna the Unemployed Ninja, since two characters from that game are unlockable in it, along with a stage set in their village, plus the chharacters are part of the story like everyone else, and the village is on the map just like the other locations. The fact that the attacks have little-to-no recovery time is pretty nice, too. It means you can make weak combos just by attacking really quickly, and almost feels like a poor man's Asuka 120%, albeit with none of the impact that that game's attacks have, and also lacking the cool clash/parry mechanic from that series.

That's pretty much it for the positives, unfortunately. And some of these negatives are pretty hefty, too. Like how sometimes, jumping just doesn't work. That's pretty much unforgivable, right? Any game with unreliable controls has to do a lot of work to make up for that, but for a fighting game? It's an insurmountable barrier. It's clear that this was a problem the developers had noticed too, as they add a seperate jump button, along with the traditional pressing up on the d-pad. Unfortunately, while I'm sure with some dedication, a player might eventually get used to it, with heavy attacks on the X button and jump on the B button, it feels very awkward. Another, lesser flaw is that all the characters seem to have a ton of health, making fights seem slow and undramatic. Though that one's more an issue of preference than a game-breaking catastrophe like the controls.

Obviously, I can't recommend Windy x Windam, especially now that a used copy seems to cost more than a brand new copy did back when it was released. Pretty much every major handheld since the original Game Boy has a bunch of way better fighting games than this, including the DS itself. So get one of those instead.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Other Stuff Monthly #4

Other than Judge Dredd, British comics don't seem to have much of a place in mainstream "nerd culture" (or "Funko Pop-culture", as it's sometimes derisively called), not even in the UK itself. There's probably a lot of complicated reasons for this, but speaking from the position of a fan with no real knowledge of the inner workings of the comic industry, I'd lay the blame at the feet of publishers who thought they were just churning out penny dreadfuls for children, ignorant of the wealth of talent in their employ, and at the quality of the work they were printing. Sonic the Comic, probably the most fondly remembered UK comic of my generation's childhood is only so highly-regarded in spite of its publishers wishes, as the creative team had to sneak even the simple concept of serialised narrative under the radar.

There's some effort being made to redress that nowadays though, as comics that have never been reprinted in the decades since their original serialisation are finally being collected and made available. This is most notable with regards to the girls' comics of the 1970s, as the entire genre has pretty much disappeared over the past thirty years or so. It really is a crime, when you see how comics like Ace wo Nerae and Onii-sama E Oniisama are internationally renowned, while their UK equivalents have spent decades locked away unread in dusty archives somewhere. So today's subject is a recently printed volume of two stories originally printed in a magazine called Jinty, which was a sci-fi comics anthology aimed at girls, a concept that, if announced today, would enrage all kinds of foul-smelling fedora-wearers.

The first of the two stories is Land of No Tears is the story of a girl named Cassy, born with one leg shorter than the other, a trait that she uses constantly to garner sympathy and weasel out of stuff. After being anaesthetised to undergo the operation to lengthen her shortened leg, she wakes up in a future world, a tory's paradise where the hospital is reduced to rubble and no-one has sympathy for those less fortunate. In fact, any girl who dares to be imperfect in anyway is a slave to those who are. Of course, this is a comic aimed at young girls, so the secret to winning freedom is swimming and gymnastics, as there's a big sports competition for preteen girls that seems to be universally watched, and if the imperfect "gammas" can snatch victory from the perfect "alphas" in front of the world, then everything will change! Luckily, Cassy did a lot of swimming in the past as part of her physical therapy, and one of the other girls, who had her hair partially burned off as a baby, is a talented gymnast.

I won't spoil any more, but there's various powers conspiring against them and so on, and there's an incredibly cruel fate in store for one of the main characters at the end. In my opinion, this was the better of the two stories in this volume, though the other one isn't bad at all, it just isn't as good.That other story is The Human Zoo, the story of a girl named Shona, who, along with her sister Jenny, and a bunch of other unrelated people, are abducted by  big-headed telepathic aliens. They're taken to a world where humans are treated like any other animals: used as food, slaves, pets, and kept in zoos as entertainment.

Before going further into the plot, I want to mention how the aliens  communicate with each other in hilarious unemotional sci-fi speak, woth parents and children referring to each other as "guardian and progeny", and this meets its apex when the aliens dress Shona as one of their own for a circus show, and one of them thinks "This should part lips greatly!" But anyway, Shona's time on the other planet starts in the eponymous zoo, though it doesn't stay there long, as she serves time as a child's pet, a circus animal, and eventually gets freed into the wilderness, where she meets some human-like aliens living in caves, apparently indigenous to the planet. I don't want to say any more, as there are a lot of genuinely surpsing twists, and some pretty grim moments of horror, too.

One thing I will says is that though this story was written and originally published in the 1970s, some of the messages are incredibly relevant today. One of the aliens justifies their torture of rebellious humans with some throwaway excuse about "property damage", just like the apologists for police violence in 2010s America, and there's another scene where humans are enslaved on a farm with the explanation "Machines break down and need repairing. When our men collapse, they just round up more" given as to why the technologically advanced aliens haven't automated all their labour. As our own world quickly approaches the level of technology at which humans can be liberated from drudgery, expect to find similar excuses between the lines whenever corporate bosses and their right-wing political lapdogs make excuses as to why people are still being worked to death for a pittance.

With all of the above being kept in mind, it only makes the story's somewhat milquetoast ending more frustrating. Again, I dont want to go into specifics too much, but essentially, the day is saved when Shona, Jenny, and the native humans discover that all they needed to do to win their freedom was be nice to their oppressors. I mean, obviously this story was published in a children's comic, and obviously, the path of non-violence is probably the better one to be teaching to kids, but it still feels like a bit of an anti-cathartic wet noodle after all the indignities and violence the telepathic aliens had visited upon the humans. I still recommend the story, though, and of course, the book as a whole. If you''re at all interested in comics at all, you'd be doing yourself a disservice by ignoring it. Even though I said Land of no Tears was the better story, I wrote significantly more about The Human Zoo. Hmm.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Mahou City (PC)

So, like a previous game I've covered here, Panic in Nakayoshi Land, Mahou City is a magical girl-themed Battle City clone. Though as far as I can tell, the magical girls in this case aren't from any existing property (though there's homages to a few existing magical girls in the very silly 2001 A Space Odyssey-homaging intro). You play as a girl with a cannon-lance weapon, and you go around mazes shooting other, similarly armed girls. Also, you've got a base to protect, and the game instantly ends if it gets shot. Instead of the militaristic eagle emblem of Battle City, it's a big fat yellow bird sitting on a nest.

All the Battle City hallmarks are present: destructible walls, enemies without AI that move and act completely randomly, power-ups that also appear at random, and most importantly: fun, simple action that manages to be compelling despite the heavy reliance on randomness. It even adds a few elements, like power-ups that give you a four-way shot, or shrink you down so you're harder to hit.

There's also some presentational changes, though they range from pointless to being of an actual detriment to the game. The pointless includes the addition of two extra camera angles: on low down, close to your character, and a first person view, which also changes the controls to a swivel-and-move arrangement. Unfortunately, they're both much worse for playing than the default bird's eye view camera, though they can make for some nice screenshots. The cosmetic change that's of active detriment to the game is that the Bomb Attack power up, that kills all enemies present in a stage when you pick it up, is now preceded by an unskippable animation of an airship flying in to carpet bomb the area. Actually, there is one bit of flair I feel ads to the game: the big explosions every shot creates are very satisfying.

There's also a few technical problems this game has, like the aforementioned intro being unskippable every time you load the game, or the fact that it doesn't save high scores after you close the program. All in all, though, if you like Battle City and clones thereof, this is one of those, and it's as addictive as any other. Even if it's also the hardest Battle City clone I've ever played, and I can only get 5 stages into it. Anyway, it's available from the dev's website for free, so you might as well give it a try, right?

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Simple 2960 Tomodachi Series Vol. 3 - The Itsudemo Puzzle - Massugu Soroete Straws (Game Boy Advance)

I'd previously written off the Simple 2960 Tomodachi series, assuming that it was just a bunch of untranslated visual novels like the Dreamcast's Simple 2000 DC series. I happened across some screenshots of this one recently, though, and it turns out I've been wrong all this time, and the GBA Simple games have at least one cute puzzler among them! In fact, looking at the list of titles, I have no idea where I got my previous assumption from, as it's clear that none of them are visual novels at all. But anyway, this is The Itsudemo Puzzle ~Massugu Soroete Straws~, or The Anytime Puzzle ~Line Up the Straws~, and it's pretty good!

The game presents you with groups of stars connected by lines, and you move your cursor thing around, pushing stars up and down the screen so that the connecting lines become one straight line, either horizontal or diagonal. Do it multiple times in quick succession for more points, of course. There's a totally unimportant story about an apprentice witch who I think is trying to hold back the dawn for as long as possible by arranging the stars in the night sky into straight lines? That's what seems to be happening in the main mode, anyway, as the moon scrolls across the screen and the sky gets lighter as time starts to run out, while going in reverse when you get more time while clearing lines.

Other than the main game, there's also a time attack mode, in which you attempt to score as many points as possible in three minutes, and a free mode, which just goes on forever until you quit via the pause menu. Oddly, even the free mode has a high score table, though the nature of the mode means it really just measures the player's tolerance for boredom (though playing free mode did help me figure out little techniques here and there to improve my game, like any good practice mode should).

There's not much more to be said about this game! It's cute, it's fun, and unlike a lot of Simple Series games, a real copy of it can be found for next to nothing online if you're lucky. It's recommended!

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Gamera - Daikaijuu Kuuchuu Kessen (Game Boy)

Videogames based on Kaiju and Tokusatsu properties can be a mixed bag, though I'm probably not alone in thinking that the 2014 Godzilla game on PS4 is probably the best. And while its true that a lot of these games have got a worse rap than they deserve due to critics not really understanding their appeal (the common opinion of the Dreamcast's Godzilla Generations, for example), I might have found the worst of them all, by some considerable margin.

How Gamera - Daikaijuu Kuuchuu Kessen works is kind of like a turn-based fighting game, with no menus. Every turn, you're asked to input a command, then both monsters' maneuvers play out, and that carries on until one of them runs out of health. The closest thing to which I can compare it is probably the weird FMV fighting game Battle Heat on PC-FX. Except it's on the Game Boy, so you don't even have the visual spectacle of lavish full-screen animation to liven things up. Though if you're playing on a Super Game Boy, there are some nice borders to look at, I guess.

There are really two problems with this game, and they're both massive ones. The first is the inconsistency: it seems like pressing the same button combination on different turns doesn't always result in the same action, and furthermore, performing the same action won't always produce the same results, even if the enemy does the same thing, too. So the game boils down to you watching little animations of Gamera and his current opponent doing seemingly random things at each other until one of them suddenly gets hurt. This repeats over and over until one of them runs out of health, and to make things worse, you have to win two rounds against each monster.

And that leads nicely into the second problem: this game is unbelievably slow! Honestly, it took me a few attempts to get past the first fight, simply because it was sapping me of the will to live, and when I did finally get past it, it took over twenty minutes! And that's without losing any rounds! Then you get to the next stage and are faced with the prospect of this carrying on. Apparently this game has a total of five stages, but I can't imagine anyone having the patience to play through them all. I definitely don't recommend trying to.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Small Games Vol. 4!

All the games in this post are for the Epoch Game Pocket Computer, from 1984. Also, I'm going to at least mention all the games for the Epoch Game Pocket Computer, as there's only seven of them. And only two (maybe three) that are actually worth playing. Now, I'm not 100% on this, but while it definitely wasn't the first handheld games console, I think this might have been the first to have all the true hallmarks of what we think of as a handheld console: interchangable ROM cartridges, processing power in the console itself (as opposed to being inside the cartridges), and a pixel-based display (as opposed to a bespoke Game and Watch-style display for each game). If I'm wrong, please correct me, but I can't see any earlier handhelds that have all three properties.

The first game I'll talk about is Astro Bomber, which is mostly a clone of Konami's arcade game Scramble, though it does have a few of its own original elements, such as fuel-eating clouds, and a final bossfight against a ship that shoots giant snakes at you. It's fun enough, but it's both incredibly easy and far too generous with the lives: you start with six of them, and on my second play, it took until midway through the second loop to lose one of them. I guess that'd make it great for a long train journey, though? Oh, also when you beat the boss, it plays a little bit of Star Wars music, which gave me a laugh the first time.

Next up is Block Maze, which is an original idea, as far as I can tell: you play as a thing in a maze, and you have to kick four blocks from the middle of the maze to the four corners. There's also enemies to avoid, and balls to kick at the enemies and kill them. Plus, after the first stage, the blocks and corners get marked with letters, and you have to get each block to its matching corner. Unforutnately, it suffers the same problem as Astro Bomber: six lives that are way too easy to keep ahold of. Also, the scoring system relies heavily on a little roulette minigame that plays whenever you get a block to its corner, and you know I hate luck-based scoring systems.

The third game isn't even a game, it's the console's built-in art program! That's pretty impressive for a mid-eighties handheld, right? Of course, there's not much you can do with a 75x64 screen and 1-bit colour, but it's interesting nonetheless. I couldn't get much out of it, but I bet pixel artists who love limitations would have a lot of fun with it! The two biggest shames are that there's no way to save your work (on the original hardware, at least. Obviously in an emulator, you just take screenshots), and that every  time the cursor moves a pixel, it's accompanied by a hellish beeping.

As for the rest of the line-up, there's a puzzle game that's also built in, but it's unfortunately a sliding tile puzzle, which doesn't even make a picture, you're just putting letters in order. There's also Sokoban and Mahjong games (I absolutely hate sokoban, and I'm useless at mahjong), and there's an Othello/Reversi game, which might be okay, but there's not really anything to say about it. And that's the Epoch Game Pocket Computer! We hardly knew ye.