Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Shinseiki GPX Cyber Formula VS (PSP)

 You might not have heard of Shinseiki GPX Cyber Formula, but it's a series that's interested me for a while. Originally an anime that aired on Japanese TV in 1991, obviously trying to cash in on the popularity of Formula 1 racing in Japan at that time. It's not a massive franchise, but it does seem to have been a bit of a cult hit, spawning several straight-to-video sequels over the course of the 1990s, and a seemingly endless stretch of videogame adapatations, with the most recent being released in 2018. Despite all this, and even despite the existence of an English dub that aired in parts of Southeast Asia, almost nothing of it has ever reached North America or the UK, with the one exception being the SNES game, released in the US as "Cyber Spin".


This entry was released in Japan only in 2008, and it's pretty good! When it comes to racing games, I'm usually more interested in the glamourous likes of the Ridge Racer series than the grey world of Gran Turismo or F1, but having seen a few episodes of the source material, I decided to give it a chance. It mostly plays like an arcade-style racer, rather than a psuedo-realistic simulation, which is definitely fine by me. There's plenty of different things to hold your attention, too.


There's three main modes of play, ofr a start: Survival, which has a very arcade-like structure, and sees you competing in races until you fail to finish one in first place. Unfortunately, I've only managed to get a few races deep into this, so I can't tell you if it's endless or if it has an ending. The fact that the tracks are always presented in the same order suggests to me that there's an end to it, though. Conquest is the one of the three I've played the least, and seems to be made up of shorter, harder, one-on-one races. The real meat of the game seems to be in the GPX mode, in which you pick a set of stages, and race through them in sequence, with the usual system of points awarded for higher finishing places, and so on.


What's interesting about GPX mode, is that the higher difficulty courses add more laps to each race. This is interesting because the cars in the game have a boost function, limited by the amount of fuel it uses up. It's essential to winning races, and as the races get longer, it'll run out a lot sooner before the ends of the races. So, as you progress through th ranks, you'll have to get better at both rationing the use of your boost, and in timing your visits to the pit lane to refuel. This probably doesn't sound like much to people who are more used to simulation-style racers, but in most racing games, I pretty much never enter the pit, so it's interesting to see a game that necessitates doing so, without slowing down or over-complicating the action.


There's a couple of other side modes in there, too: a solo drag race time trial mode (called ZERO 4000), and a mode called "Max Speed Attack", which sees you racing round part of a track, attempting to reach as high a speed as possible when you go past two specific points. I've made a few attempts at beating both these modes, all unsuccessful.


Anyway, I'm not even sure if most of my readership is even interested in racing games (which is why I try and keep a bigger gap between each one than I do with other genres), but if you are, this is one that's definitely worth a look. It looks great, it's fun to play, and it's fast. All you want from a racing game really, right?

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Noon - New Type Action Game (Playstation)

 Disregard the title: it's a puzzle game, not an action game, and it can be played by anyone, not just newtypes. It is, though, a game with a lot to hold your interest, and there's even a bit of mystery outside of the game itself to enjoy, too! But I'll get back to that later. First: the game itself.


It's a versus puzzle game, but not of the "stuff falling into a well" variety. Instead, you and your opponent are doing battle in a square arena. Near the top and bottom of the arena, there are two rectangular grids of coloured squares: one blue and one green. Also, coloured orbs randomly appear throughout the arena. Each player also has a timer, that starts at ten seconds, and depletes whenever every square of their coloured grid is full of orbs. If your counter reaches zero, you lose.


Now, you can push the orbs around, and there are two methods of clearing them from the arena. For the sake of convenience, I'll called them "squashing" and "smashing". First, squashing: if you push an orb against a wall or another orb, after a couple of seconds, it'll break and your power meter will fill up a little. When the power meter is full, you can use a super attack, which is different for each character: making a bunch of same-colloured orbs appear, making a few rainbow-coloured wild orbs appear, making a tond of junk orbs appear, and so on.


Smashing is a little more conventional: get three or more orbs of the same colour in a straight line and hit them with your melee attack, and they'll all disappear, and some junk orbs will appear in your opponent's grid. THere's also boss fights where your opponent has a health bar instead of a grid, and you damage them by smashing orbs. It all took me a couple of games to get ahold of, but once I did, I was having a pretty good time.


The presentation is also really high quality! There's a ton of excellent pixel art in here, for the characters, the stage backgrounds, and the story cutscenes. Even the main menu is pretty cool, being made of a big cog-power machine thing. This might not make sense, but it siimultaneously feels like both a medium-budget title, and a small creator-driven passion project.  Which leads nicely into that mystery I mentioned earlier!


Before the titles screen, along with all the usual company logos you'd expect to see at the start of a videogame, there's also a plain black screen with the white text ""Kouji Oono Original Version 1993", and every mention of copyright includes a 1996 copyright for Microcabin, and a 1993 copyright for Kouji Oono. Now, the obvious part of all this is that the Playstation version of Noon is a remake of a game made in 1993, by Kouji Oono. THe mystery is the fact that all my searching hasn't been able to turn up any information on either the pre-Playstation version of the game, or its creator.


I have a few assumptions and educated guesses, at least: if the game was commercially released, it wasn't on any consoles, since  there would be some documentation of it online somewhere, since pretty much every official console game release is documented, and almost all are ripped and uploaded too. My guess is that it could have been released on a microcomputer, since the gaps in generally available knowledge in that field are significantly bigger than the gaps in knowledge of console games. My guess is the X68000, based on nothing, really, except that the game itself jst has a kind of intangible X68000 feel to it. As for Kouji Oono, I could only find a short list of games he had development credits in. So short, in fact, that neither version of Noon was among them. The only other solution I can think of is that the 1993 game had a different title, in which case the only chance we have of finding it is to play every Microcabin game released in 1993, and hoping it's one of them.


Mystery aside, Noon is a fun, exciting game, as well as being pretty unique and vety aesthetically pleasing. It's definitely worth your time, and I recommend giving it a try.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Dokapon - Monster Hunter (GBA)

 You look at this game's logo, and the western boxart, and it's easy enough to tell that it owes its western release to a superficial resemblence to the Pokemon games. Though there is a monster recruiting mechanic in Dokapon, it's entirely optional, and the items needed to do it are pretty rare. Personally, I didn't bother with it at all, but the game has enough of its own charm and ideas that it doesn't need to be a Pokemon mockbuster.


I'll address the most obvious quality first: the way the game looks. Though there's not much in the way of animation, the spritework in the game is beautiful. The overworld sprites look as if someone took the typical blobby pre-rendered sprites seen in so many GBA games and drew over them to make them look good, but the in-battle sprites are the jewel in the game's visual crown. Every enemy monster is a very charming, well drawn creature or humanoid, and your own character's sprite is not only their equal in terms of being well drawn, but there's a unique sprite for every sword and shield you can obtain in-game. That's two hundred all together!


The dungeons aren't particularly interesting. There's a slight bit of roguelike-ness, with procedurally generated floor layouts, but the battles are all more traditional RPG turn-based battles, and you don't recover health while you walk around, nor is there a hunger mechanic. You also get to keep your level when you die, but not your items, equipment, or money. The equipment is the biggest loss, to be honest, as it levels up as you use it, so a sword and shield that have lasted at least one dungeon are going to be significantly stronger than anything on sale in the town shop. I've played up to the third boss so far, and I do like the game enough that I'll probably play it all the way through eventually, and I do like that after the first two dungeons taking the standard settings of mine and forest, the third takes place in a circus.


Another misconception you might have on your first play is that the battles are simple and boring, but there are in fact quite a few interesting ideas in there! First, there are attack and defence turnsl when you attack, your enemy defends, and vice versa. The reason this is interesting is because of the second big idea: rock/paper/scissors. Whether attacking or defending, you can either choose the standard attack or block, or one of three skills, each mapped to rock, paper, or scissors. Your enemies do the same. If, while defending, you pick (for example) your "rock" defence skill, and your enemy attacks with their scissors attack skill, their attack is totally nullified, and you get the effects of your defence skill. Defence skills are usually stat buffs or status recovery, attack skills might do more damage, or inflict status ailments, and so on.


You might have read the previous paragraph and think that this means that the battles are a totally luck-based affair, but that's really not the case at all. You can see what attack skills your enemies have equipped to each slot, and with this knowledge, you can make an educated guess as to what they'll do. Certain enemies will prefer to try and inflict certain status ailments, for example. Or, you might see a fire-breathing enemy that has a skill named "napalm", and you just use common sense to assume that they'll try and use that when they attack. It's actually a fun and interesting system, that brings a little more strategy to random battles against non-boss enemies that, in a lot of other RPGs, would just have you mashing the confirm button to attack until the battle's over.


If you like RPGs, Dokapon Monster Hunter has a lot to offer in most departments except plot (which is barely present at all, and what little there is is very cliched). If you don't, it probably won't do much to convert you. On the other hand, if you like pixel art, you should at least go and look up sprite sheets for the enemies and equipment because they're really, really good. It's good enough that it's also got me curious about other entries in the series, so expect some of those to pop up on the blog at some point in the future, maybe.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Mick and Mack as the Global Gladiators (Mega Drive)


If you went back in time a couple of decades, the level of fame enjoyed by the two McDonalds licensed Mega Drive games was pretty much the exact opposite: Global Gladiators was pretty well-known, and has a lot of advertising in magazines around the time of its release, while McDonalds Treasureland Adventure was a much smaller release, that I didn't even know got released outside Japan until fairly recently. But with the Treasure-mania that followed in the wake of Ikaruga in the early 2000s, their game got a lot more attention, and Global Gladiators got forgotten among all the other licensed platformers from the 90s.


I actually had Global Gladiators as a kid, and even I had mostly forgotten it (other than the surprisingly good music, which is a far cry from the usual farty rubbish you usually see in American-developed Mega Drive games) until I recently decided to load it up on a whim. The thing is, this is a game that doesn't deserve to be forgotten! It's actually a fast-paced and exciting platform shooter, which sees you playing as one of the eponymous  Gladiators (actually just two kids with super soakers full of brown slime), and shooting monsters in various locales.


There's lots of cool little touches that just add to the quality of the game, like how your character's walking/running speed not only builds up as you go in one direrction, but the acceleration rate is affected by going up or down hills, too. Just like Sonic! Your weapon has infinite ammo and shoots as fast as you can hit the fire button, but you still have to pay attention to what you're doing, as the recoil knocks you back just a tiny bit per shot, and can have unattentive players falling to their doom. Another quirk is that there's no bosses: every stage just ends with Ronald McDonald waving a flag.


The game's got an overall theme of environmentalism, even having a bonus stage themed around picking up pieces of rubbish and putting them in the right recycling bins. This theming comes trough in some stages better than others. The first stage, for example, is a great subversion of the usual Green Hill Zone knock-off so often used to open platform games: there's lots of green all over the place, but it's actually toxic slime, rather than grass or leaves! And the monsters in that stage fit the theme too, being various kinds of gooey slime monsters. Then that's followed up with an actual forest stage, looking like the Pacific Northwest, and seeing you shooting beavers, fish, and plant monsters. It's obviously not a game-ruining problem, but it is a mildly annoying bit of ludonarrative dissonance.


Global Gladiators is definitely a game that deserves a bit more recognition as being a high-quality platform shooter, albeit one with a somewhat strange and ill-fitting license attached to it. If you haven't played it, or if you played it long ago, I recommend giving it a look.

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Drive Girls (PS Vita)

 Drive Girls is a game that had been on my Vita wishlist for a long time, and when you look at it on paper, it's not hard to see why: a beat em up developed by Tamsoft, with a weird gimmick? Of course I'm going to be interested! (The weird gimmick being that the playable characters are girls who can transform into cars.) Unfortunately, I recently got ahold of it, and it's a big disappointment.


The main problem can be boiled down to the fact that although the Simple series was dead by the time Drive Girls came out, it still displays in abundance the worst excesses of that budget range, despite being sold as a full price title. There's a lot of recycling: the enemies are various kinds of generic giant slightly robotic-looking bugs, with only a few models being repeated in different sizes and colours. Even more egregious is the fact that while the first two stages take place in different locations, stages two to six all take place in the same location!


But anyway, the transformation gimmick. For the first few stages, it's a lot of fun! You beat up the enemies, and when a new batch appears in the distance, you transform and drive towards, then into them, as a cool little opening gambit. You'll soon learn that the safest and most effective way of dealing with enemies is to transform and drift around in circles, doing big damages to any bugs that get in your way. Even this gets taken away from the player, though. After about five or six stages, rows and rows of landmines start appearing. The landmines do a ton of damage to you, but they're only set off if you go over them in car mode. So, in lieu of giving the enemies themselves an effective defence against your drifting, the game essentially punishes you for trying to use what is not only its main gimmick, but the most fun and effective way of playing. 


As well as the regular beat em up stages, there's some stages where you race another cargirl around a track. These are surprisingly straight-laced and down-to-earth. The only real deviation from a normal racing game in these stages is that you have a boost that's charged by driving through the small groups of enemies dotted around the tracks. It's okay, but nothing special, and very very easy once you've figured out that running over bugs charges your boost.


This game was a big disappointment. Tamsoft are one of my favourite D-list developers, but I guess Drive Girls really proves that they are still D-list nonetheless. Go and play one of the Oneechanbara games instead, and don't waste any time on this one.

Saturday, 21 November 2020

United States Presidential Race - America Daitoryo Senkyo (NES)

 Here's a rare bit of topicality from this blog, even though it is a couple of weeks late: a game about getting elected to the presidency of the USA, which coincidentally had a translation patch released just as an actual election was taking place in that country in real life. Unfortunately, it's one of those super-abstract stat-manipulation strategy games, and like I said in my review of Graduation, I just don't understand what I'm supposed to be doing or how, so I haven't been able to get particularly far in this one.


I've made a couple of attempts at playing this game, but every time, I get knocked out of the race by scoring fewer than fifteen percent of votes in two consecutive primaries. The way the game works is that you pick a candidate and an assistant, then you go and campaign in primaries, one state at a time. Campaigning means picking three out of several screen's worth of issues, and deciding how far left or right you want to lean on those issues. Then you can decide how many speeches you want to give during the campaign, as well as spending money on opinion polls and TV ad campaigns. I guess the secret to success is figuring out exactly which issues are important to each state, and which direction the people there want you to go in on each issue.


I was actually surprised when I started playing at how specific the politics in the game are. There's three candidates each for Republicans and Democrats, and the Republicans have traits like "Televangelist" and "Anti-Communist", while Democrats have traits like "Liked by unions" and "Black". And the little left/right slider you use when setting policies is actually labelled Democrat and Republican at the left and right ends, respectively. Going in, I'd expected a much more abstract kind of politics, where you just had to manage your campaign budget, maybe avoid randomly-occuring scandals, and so on.


I guess I'll have to say what I always say regarding these games: if you have the patience to figure out how the whole thing works, and get far into it, then it seems like it has a lot to offer. But I can't, so it's just a bunch of boring numbers and a few well-drawn character portraits to me.

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Ninku 2 - Tenkuuryuu e no Michi (Game Gear)

 Ninku was an anime that ran for little over a year in the mid-1990s, but even though it's pretty much completely unknown in English-speaking parts of the world, in that short time it was somehow popular enough in Japan to have spawned seven tie-in games! This one's a fighting game, with a slight emphasis on single player, which makes sense, given how impractical it was setting up multiplayer on handhelds in those days (though it does have a versus link up mode, too).


There's two main modes of play: story mode, which has you playing as the three protagonists (an ugly little boy, a generic young man, and a guy in just his underpants) as you go through the story, watching lavishly pixel-illustrated cutscenes and fighting opponents (including one instance of that annoying little quirk of fighting game story modes: the unwinnable battle). It reminded me a lot of the Game Gear's most famous fighting game, Virtua Fighter The Animation, though it's actually a lot more fun than that, as the more traditional superpowered fighting game style of Ninku 2 fits the GG better than trying to squeeze the realistic martial arts of Virtua Fighter into a tiny 8-bit game. Then there's 1P battle, which is a standard arcade mode, allowing you to play as any of the eight characters in the game, and fighting the others in random order.


The cutscenes aren't the only thing that reminded me of VFTA, either, as the game has a quite impressive faux-zoom thing going on in the fights, too, as if the two characters get far enough apart, the camera zooms out to show everything much smaller at a distance. I'm pretty sure the only way they could have done this is making two complete sets of sprites for each character: one large and one small, as well as a large and small version of every stage. That seems like a lot of work for what is essentially a pointless visual gimmick, but I'm glad they did it, it really makes the game stand out! And it's not the only standout feature, as for an 8-bit fighting game, it's surprisingly complex! There's forwards and backwards dashes, power meters, multiple special moves for each character (and yes, you can do every move as the tiny zoomed-out sprite too!) and so on!


The power meter is something I have to take issue with, unfortunately, though. There's no super moves in the game (as far as I can tell, at least), and the meter instead limits your use of special moves. This alone wouldn't be an issue, but coupled with how meter is built, it becomes one. There's two ways of building meter in this game: charging it by holding punch and kick together, or getting hit. Hitting your opponent doesn't build meter. So all this comes together to de-incentivise using specials, and punishing players for trying to combo their opponents, or wear them down with specials. I can see why they might have done this, to disable "spamming" of specials and also to serve as a primitive comeback mechanic, but it just makes the fights a little less exciting, in my opinion.


Despite that one rather large flaw, Ninku 2 is a game I think is worth playing. It's a lot of fun, and most of the characters look cool! I think if a copy of this game had somehow come into the possession of my nine-year-old self, even though I'd never have seen the show, and wouldn't be able to read even the character names, let alone any of the story text, I think the visuals and the accessible fighting action would have been enough to capture my interest. And then I probably would have spent decades frustrated at how I couldn't get my hands on any English-language Ninku stuff.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Near Fantasy Space (PC)

 Now, I'm sure you'll all take one look at these screenshots and you'll instantly know one thing: this is a Fantasy Zone fangame. And while that's an accurate assesment, it's also an incomplete one! Because Near Fantasy Space might take most of its aesthetic and mechanical inspiration from SEGA's pschedelic shooting game series, it uses them as a skeleton to pay homage to a whole bunch of other shooting games too! How efficient!


Now, I'm going to have to be honest with you all here: on this blog, I've always insisted on only using my own screenshots to illustrate my reviews. Unfortunately, Near Fantasy Space is one of those cases where that stubborn adherence to principles has somewhat limited my capacity to show all the cool stuff a game has to offer. So while I can show you the first three stages, which pay homage to Ikaruga, Battle Garegga, and R-Type respectively, you'll have to go elsewhere to see the later stages homaging the likes of Darius, Gradius, Fantasy Zone itself, and more. Sorry.


Other than the stages themselves, more little treats are on offer in the super-cute weapon shop screen, which is made to look like a modern shopping website, compllete with star ratings on each item and some recommendations right at the bottom. Furthermore, the rapid fire item looks just like the Rapid Fire Unit peripheral that was released for the Master System!


The most frustrating thing about the game's difficulty is how uneven it is. The stages themselves are actually pretty easy, and if you're not totally useless at shooting games, they shouldn't really offer you any trouble. The bossfights, by contrast, are harrowing ordeals. The bosses take an incredible amount of punishment before going down, and they definitely aren't shy about dishing it out, either. I almost wrote this game off, as I was having such a hard time getting past the second stage's boss, and I didn't want to post a review that only had sreenshots of two stages, but after about an hour of repeated failure, I eventually got past it. I will say this though: seeing how each new stage pays homeage to its inspiration is a pretty nice reward for getting through each bossfight.


Near Fantasy Space is a game that was clearly made with a lot of love, and like the X68000 game Scorpius that I reviewed a few years ago, is living proof of the fact that old-style shooting games are significantly more difficult than modern danmaku-style games. You can get it pretty cheaply online if you don't want to seek out a physical copy, and if you have the fortitude for a game with such a small amount of mercy, then I recommend you do so.

Monday, 2 November 2020

Sabnack (X68000)

 There's something about the title of this game that's just so ugly, isn't there? Look at it: Sabnack. Ugh. The game itself doesn't look very nice, either, considering it's a commercial release on the X68000, a computer known for having amazing looking ports of arcade games years before consoles could really manage it. But let's not hold those things against it, as a game it's actually alright. In fact, it manages to make a Sokoban-style game actually interesting!


I usually find the block-pushing action of Sokoban games as embodying a combination of negative traits. Right from the start, they're usually too difficult to even get ahold on them, and you couple this with the fact that they're often literally about pushing boxes in a warehouse and it's all so off-putting and unrewarding that I just don't want to figure out how to get further into them.


Sabnack solves both issues! It opens with stages that are deceptively easy, teaching you how all the game's elements work and interact with each other, before gradually turning up the difficulty as you go on. I managed to get through eight whole stages before it got too hard for me! 


You play as a little man in a cape, and you can go up to statues and bring them to life, so they follow you, until getting stuck behind a wall or something makes them go more than one space away from you, at which time they urn back into statues. The goal of each stage is to take the fairy to the exit, and turn her back into a statue. But there are also enemies in each stage, and if any of them touch you or an un-statued fairy, you fail (though you get infinite lives, so it's not too bad). There are other statues around, too, like knights, who destroy enemies with whom they come into contact, and guys that look like wizards, whose purpose I haven't been able to figure out. So each stage uses these elements, along with various different kinds of enemies that each have their own movement rules, to create all kindss of different challenges for the player. It's that "purity" thing I've talked about before.


However, just like with puzzle platformers, I have to put my hands up and admit that this is a genre of game I just don't get along with. If you do, it definitely seems like a high-quality, well-designed iteration of the concept that's worth giving a shot. A cop out of a conclusion, but there it is.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

Robbit Mon Dieu (Playstation)

 Everyone loves the Jumping Flash games, right? The early Playstation releases that brought a splash of colour to the normally dour world of the first person shooter, their only big downside being the draw distance that had barely improved from their genetic forbear Geograph Seal, and restricted the player's field of vision to barely a few metres in front of their noses. Luckily, there was another sequel, released only in Japan in 1999 that corrects that problem! Unluckily, it's also a very, very boring game to play.


As I just mentioned, the Jumping Flash games stood out amongst other first person shooters by being bright, colourful games, set in fanciful wonderlands. They also stood out by not only have a jump button, but by letting players use it to triple jump to incredible heights. Robbit Mon Dieu, unfortunately does away with almost all of the shooting of the previous games, and in fact pretty much all of the action and even the challenge of those games along with it. A first person game focussed on platforming is still a fairly novel concept, especially in 1999, but not like this.


I feel like the problem might lie in a shift in the demographics the publishers were targeting: as a game aimed at the under-fives, Robbit Mon Dieu would actually be one of the all-time greats. It sees you fulfilling simple tasks like delivering a package to someone who lives up on a floating island, tackling obstacle courses, diving off a high platform and falling through hoops, and so on. There's a few stages that technically have you shooting things, but since those things don't shoot back or offer any other kind of resistance, it's hard to really consider them shooting stages.


 Though it's odd that they'd aim a game at such a young audience and use characters from a pre-existing game that was a few years old itself at that point. Furthermore, there is a lot of text in this game, including menus, mission briefings (though obviously, most of the missions are simple enough that you can easily work them out without being able to read them), and story text. So I'm going to assume that the game was aimed at pre-existing Jumping Flash fans.


And with that in mind, it's a total failure. Unless the aesthetics were literally the only thing that drew you to the Jumping Flash games, and you don't care about how they play, Robbit Mon Dieu is not worth bothering with. It does look amazing, but that's pretty much all it does. Not recommended.