Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Other Stuff Monthly #7!

This month's thing that isn't a videogame is an old, rare fanzine! Which is about videogames. Specifically, PC Engine games, it being called The Complete PC Engine Guide Book and all. It was printed in 1993, as far as I can tell, on regular white photocopy paper, with slightly thicker yellow paper used for the cover. Naturally, after twenty-six years, such an item feels pretty fragile, and in fact, the ebay seller from whom I bought it sent me a message when I placed my bid, requesting that I promise to take care of it. It's pretty rare, too, it seems to have been only listed on ebay twice ever (though I don't know if both times were the same copy).

There's about 90 pages of actual content in here, along with a few blank "notes" pages, and some ads on the inside back cover. There's a section detailing all the different models of PC Engine, which even includes the LT and the LaserActiive, which is pretty impressive from a pre-WWW fanzine. Then there's a section on peripherals, the highlights being something called a "colour booster", which does... something to do with making the colours better on  a "SCART PC Engine", as opposed to a PAL one. I know there were a small number of PAL PC Engines released by mail-order, but I have no idea what a SCART one might be, or why the colours need boosting, and half a page dedicated to the Magic Super Griffin. This is one of those big, old-fashioned piracy devices, that goes into the HuCard slot of your PC Engine, and connects to a floppy drive via parallel port. It cost £250, and the article claims that "It is quite legal, in the UK, to buy and use these copiers, so long as you do not sell the software", which sounds very dubious to me. There's also a small mention of a forthcoming, unnamed peripheral that will allow users to record up to an hour of broadcast tv to a CD. Was such a thing ever announced for the PC Engine? It sounds like some absurd fantasy.

There's also a short anime section, explaining what anime is, in that very early 90s way, and giving glowing reviews to Akira, Project A-Ko, and Warriors of the Wind, and a not-so-glowing review of the 1986 Fist of the North Star movie. Then we get a little preview of the Arcade Card, before the bulk of the book: the games reviews. There's 48 pages of these, packed in 5 to a page (all hand-written, too!), and some of the opinions on offer are pretty unusual. I have to say I'm glad I don't have to rely on this book as my primary source of info when buying PCE games. For example: the excellent KiKiKaiKai only scores two out of ten, while the very mediocre L-Dis scores seven! Wallaby scores higher than KiKiKaiKai, even though the writer admits he couldn't even figure out how to play it! There are some undeniable universal truths, though, as Rondo of Blood and Final Lap Twin both score much-deserved nines.

What's most interesting about the reviews section, from a historical standpoint, is some of the titles used for certain games. Obviously, internet access would have been very rare back then, and even if you were online, there wouldn't be a lot of English language info on Japanese videogames out there, so, when people couldn't read the Japanese titles of games, they just kind of had to guess. So, there's a game just listed as "Dodge Ball", though there's at least three games that could be on PC Engine. Bonze Adventure is "Hell Explorer", Schubibinman is "Overhauled Man", and best of all, Bravoman is "Mr. Stretcho Man". There's even a few mystery titles, like "Kario World", "Son of Dracular", and "Japan Warrior".

The book ends with a sizable cheats section, which was probably very useful in that pre-internet age, and the aforementioned notes pages and ads. Some previous owner of my copy has written in some Devil Crash passwords on the last of the notes pages, and the ads are for a few early 90s UK games importers, plus a faux-leather HuCard waller for only £3.20! I can't really recommend seeking out and buying a copy of this guide, unless you're really interested in the ephemera of early import videogame fandom in the UK. Naturally, all the information is available much more easily and more more accurately online in 2019, so historical curiosity is all it has to offer.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Sideswiped (DS)

Sideswiped, also known as Clash King V201 is a great little racing game for the DS, that seems to have gone mostly unnoticed and forgotten. You'd think a fast, fully 3D handheld racing game, that didn't force the use of a terrible touchscreen steering wheel would have got people's attention, but as far as I could tell at the time, the only people who paid any attention to this one were people paying attention to Japanese DS releases on its original release, and then when it came westwards, the few members of that previous group who were interested in racing games. (Having said that, though, I do seem to be suffering a bit of a Mandela effect moment, as various websites have both versions of this game coming out within a month of each other, while I remember playing Clash King V201 for several months before Sideswiped came out. Weird.)

It's not just a racing game, either! It's a little handheld version of the Playstation classic Destruction Derby, with you competing in three kinds of "races", only one of which is focussed on being the first to pass a finish line. There's "Destruction", in which you drive into traffic, trying to ram innocent people's cars hard enough that they fly into the distance and explode, scoring big points for causing chain reactions and "Crash Race", where you drive around a track with seven other cars, scoring points by crashing into them, with less spectacular results than in Destruction. In both of the above modes, you're given a time limit and a points quota to meet in that time. In the final mode, "Normal Race", you take part in a normal race! There's seven other cars, like in Crash Race, but this time you're all just trying to make it over the finish line first.

Most of the stages take place in places like Las Vegas, New York, and generic Seaside and Mountain locales, but there's also an Arena area, which adds a couple of its own, weird race types: "Bowling", where you drive into a bunch of giant pins, and the even stranger "Trampoline", which has you driving off of a raised platform, to bounce on a series of giant trampolines, and popping as many floating balloons as you can along the way. All in all, there's a lot of variety in Sideswiped! Though to be honest, it's only Destruction and Normal Race that you'll ever want to go back to, as the others are either stupid and gimmicky, or just plain boring. But  good stages are really good, don't get me wrong.

Sideswiped is a game that doesn't have any real problems, other than it being surprisingly hard to get ahold of (it doesn't seem to even be listed on Amazon UK!). But if you can find it, it's definitely worth getting.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Bay Route (Arcade)

Yes, that title does sound a lot like "Beirut", though the game is set in a generic post-apocalyptic sci-fi land, so I have no idea why they did that. But anyway, it's a game developed by Sunsoft and published by SEGA, that's a lot like Contra. As is so often the case with SEGA arcade games from this period, I have to wonder why it never got a Mega Drive release. The resemblance to Contra makes it even stranger, since that series was so popular back then, and it could have been a bit of a coup to say "our console has a game like contra, that's more colourful and better looking than anything on Nintendo's console!"

Like Contra, you play as some guy going from left to right, shooting lots of generic enemy soldiers, a fair few pieces of big enemy military hardware, and occasionally a big enemy weird monster here and there, too. The first boss is even a big barricade wall thing with guns on it, like in Contra. There's some differences, though: for example, you start with four weapons and can switch between them at any time, instead of waiting for the right powerup to come along. Also, the flamethrower is definitely the good kind of flamethrower, as opposed to Contra's rubbish fireball gun thing.

On its own merits, without comparisions to Contra, Bay Route is pretty good overall. It's nothing particularly special, just a well-designed run-and-gun game, with easily-learnable enemy behaviours, some cool set-pieces, and a nice smooth difficulty curve. It looks and sounds pretty good, though nothing mindblowing for an arcade game of its era. Obviously, it's not even slightly original, but I don't want to be too harsh on it for that, especially since it's of a pretty similar quality to the series it's ripping off, rather than being significantly worse. Unfortunately, that averageness makes it kind of hard to write about.

I guess I can recommend playing Bay Route? You won't be missing out on a great deal if you don't, but you'll have a decent enough time if you do. It's hard not to be on the fence about this game; there's a lot of reasons why a game might fade into obscurity, and this one clearly did just because it's so completely unremarkable.

Monday, 11 November 2019

3-D Bomberman (MSX)

Though it seems like an obvious thing to have tried at some point in the mid-00s, maybe around the time of the awful Bomberman Act Zero, as far as I can tell, this game from all the way back in 1984 is the only attempt at a first-person Bomberman game. To put that in perspective, I don't even think anyone involved had even realised the multiplayer potential for the series at this point! Obviously, this doesn't use polygons, or even sprite scaling for its 3D effect, instead using Phantasy Star-style dungeons to stage an action game.

By that, I mean they're mazes with identical walls, where your movement is in pre-determined steps, and you can only turn in increments of ninety degrees. This wasn't the only action game from this era to use such a setting, with the most famous example in the UK being 3D Monster Maze, released in 1981 on the Sinclair ZX81, a computer with significantly less power than the MSX. An important difference between that game and 3-D Bomber Man though, is that while 3D Monster Maze had the player as a passive participant, running and hiding from the T-Rex in the maze, the player in this game is tasked with killing the enemies (malevolent green balloons, the eponymous floaters from the UK's localised version of the first Bomber man game, Eric and the Floaters), by dropping time bombs in the grand Bomberman tradition. You can also escape from the maze by finding a ladder, but you don't get any points for this, and I'm not sure if the game has an ending to reach.

The game's execution is about as good as can be expected with the technology of the time, with two small exceptions. Firstly, each of your steps covers the distance of half a block in the maze, which, couple with the stiff 90 degree turning, means you can sometimes get stuck on corners for a few seconds, which can be annoying when you're being chased. The other problem is that there are two types of wall: the indestructible outer wall of the maze, and the destructible walls within, and they both look identical. You do have a small radar that only shows you, the enemies, and the outer walls, but it's a weak compromise. There are other problems, but they're not so much problems with this game, but ways in which someone playing it in 2019 can see that it could have been improved upon with more advanced technology: things like atmospheric stereo sound, the ability to peek round corners, and move in directions other than backwards and forwards would all have added a lot, but obviously wouldn't really have been possible in 1984. Which makes it stranger that it's not an idea Hudson ever revisited, as far as I know.

3-D Bomber Man isn't a bad game, but at the same time, it's more interesting than it is good. It's worth playing out of curiosity, but not much more than that. Also, since I mentioned it at the start, I want to point something out about Bomberman Act Zero: while everyone laughed at that game's attempt at applying a dystopian sci-fi aesthetic to Bomberman, the real problem it had was that it was barely a game at all: the single player mode consisted of 100 identical boring stages, and the multiplayer mode was only playable online. And even then, you could only play in that one stage that's in the single player.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Cross Wiber - Cyber Combat Police (PC Engine)

Last year, I reviewed Cyber Cross - Busou Keiji, which is one of the most-played PC Engine games among those of which I actually own real copies. Cross Wiber is the sequel to that game, and it too is a tokusatsu-themed single-plane beat em up. This time, though, the aesthetic is one more contemporaneous to the tokusatsu shows at the time, as opposed to the 1970s retro look of the first game. Think Blue Swat or Mobile Cop Jiban, as opposed to Kamen Rider or Battle Fever J. The best part of this is that one of the bosses from the first game (the fire-breathing giant frog-man) reappears in the new style, looking totally different, but also instantly recognisable.

The new look is generally pretty great all round, though: everything's very detailed and well-drawn, and it has a little bit of a gritty edge to it, and there's lots of shiny technology and gooey monsters. The game itself has had a few changes made to it, too. For example, where transformation in the first game was dependant on collecting an item, this time round, you just have to press the select button when your health is high enough to have some blue segments. There's really no reason why you wouldn't transform as soon as possible, but requiring you to manually do it does make it feel a little cooler.

Just like last time, there's red, green, and blue forms to transorm into (the default is red, and the other two have to be collected as items), and the weapons for each form are the same, too: red has a sword, green has boomerangs, and blue has a gun. It seems the devs realised that the gun was the best weapon by a long distance, so its use is reliant on battery power, and the blue form is reduced to using punches and kicks when that runs out. Other than these small differences, and a shooting stage where you're riding on a hoverbike, it's very similar to the first game, but with a new coat of paint.

The main difference, which is a big factor as to why I don't like this as much as I did Cyber Cross is the difficulty. The first few stages are very, very easy. A lot easier than the first game ever was. Then along comes the sixth stage, which takes place atop a bunch of metal pillars, with instant death pits below and gangs of floating monsters going about the place, waiting to slightly knock you to your doom. It just feels like such a letdown that instead of designing stages and enemies that challenge you in combat, the devs inserted this kind of test of memory and luck. It's not a total game-ruiner, but it did deflate my enthusiasm for it quite a bit.

As it is, Cross Wiber is a game that's decent, but far from essential. The most damning thing about it, though, is that it's both less good and more expensive than its predecessor. I won't tell you not to play it, but I'd definitely direct you towards Cyber Cross instead of it.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Dark Awake -The King Has No Name- (PS3)

So, this is a fighting game that was originally released on Taito's Type X arcade hardware as "Chaos Breaker" in 2004, with this, the only home port, coming six years later. It's a fantasy-themed 2D fighting game base around team battles, kind of like a combination of Golden Axe: The Duel with the King of Fighters series, but with a few interesting little gimmicks to call its own. As far as I can tell, the home version is pretty much a straight port of the original, with the only addition being online play (which I'm fairly certain is no longer available).

There's eighteen characters, divided into six teams, all of except one of which is racially homogenous. So there's a team each of humans, elves, dwarves, sea demons, and undead, as well as a team that's made up of a goblin, an orc, and a troll. Though the designs do lean heavily on typical fantasy tropes, there's still some cool ideas in the designs. One of the dwarves, for example, comes with an entire artillery cannon, and there's members of the monster and undead teams riding mounts of their own. And even the more cliched characters are cool enough to be appealling, too. Though it's a straight KOF-style team battle arrangement with no tagging, you can call the still-concious members of your team in for assist attacks, and this plays into the game's main unique gimmick.

When you pick your team, you see, you get four slots to fill. The first three are for your characters, and the fourth is for an item. There's a ton of items to choose from, and they do various things like healing your health or super meters, increasing attack or defence for a few seconds, summoning a monster to attack your opponent, and so on. This ties into the assist system in a couple of ways:assists are called by pressing a combination of two attack buttons, and your item is listed among your team memebers and used in the same way. Where things get more interesting (in a single player game, at least) is when, after defeating a team, you get a few more items to pick from, and you can choose to use them to either replace the item you picked at the start, or if you're feeling brave, to replace up to two of your characters, giving you a disadvantage in terms of the number rounds you can lose, but also giving you a bigger choice of usable items.

So, is the game any good? Yes! It feels good to play, all the attacks look and sound good, it's just all-round a pretty good game. It was never going to have an easy time, being a post-2000 2D fighting game with no ties to existing series, and it definitely can't have been helped by the fact that it looks a lot better in motion than it does in still screenshots, either. In motion, it looks great, with big sprites and expressive animation, but in stills, the sprites tend to look a lot more blocky and ugly. If you have the means to play a Japan-only download-only PS3 game (or, for that matter, a Taito Type X game), it's definitely worth your time.