Saturday, 29 February 2020

Other Stuff Monthly #10!

Possibly the furthest these posts have gotten away from videogames and general nerd culture this month, as today's subject is a book about prefabricated housing blocks in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries in eastern Europe. It's not as boring as it sounds, though, as this book is Panelki, and the back half of it is made up of a press-out-and-put-together kit to build your own little replica of one of those very blocks.

The book itself is short, but fairly interesting, with text about the history of these building systems, how they came about, and why, and how "a home for every family" was a high priority in the postwar USSR. These prefab blocks were the way to fulfill that goal, in that time of diminished resources across all of Europe. (Interesting to note that in 2020, "a home for every family" isn't anywhere in sight in capitalist America or Britain. More like "a hundred homes for every landlord"). There's also a lot of big pictures, since this is essentiall a coffee table book, comprised of both photos of the blocks and the people who lived in them, and reproductions of promotional posters and magazine covers from the time.

The kit itself is surprisingly big, and obviously, it's a simple build, since you are essentially very slowly putting a big box together. While building it, though, it's kind of educational with the repetitive routine of putting the square panels demonstrating how a gigantic concrete version of the same would be a quick and cost-effective way of building a lot of housing in a short time, compared to manufacturing millions of bricks and having them be put together into one house at a time. Most of this won't be of any interest to most people, and to be honest, it's not a subject I expect I'll be looking into any further. But sometimes, you have to look into areas of knowledge that go alightly further away from your main interests (even if it's just going down a wikipedia rabbithole), or you'll end up being a boring, ignorant person.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Polestar (PC98)

Released in 1995, it's clear that Polestar is an attempt to bring some approximation of contemporary arcade racing games like Daytona USA and Ridge Racer to the humble, and by then over a decade old PC98 hardware. (Though the fact that you're driving a red convertible with a passenger is an obvious homage to Outrun, it's those more modern games that Polestar plays more like) In doing so, it also brings to mind the legendary MZ-700 port of Space Harrier, which made incredible use of ASCII graphics to produce the illusion of high-speed sprite scaling on vastly underpowered hardware. Though the PC98 is more powerful than the MZ-700, and Polestar uses low resolution sprites rather than ASCII, the principle's still the same.

The structure is a simple as can be: you drive around a bunch of tracks, racing only against the clock, no other drivers. The biggest problem this game has is that the time limits are incredibly strict: crash or even just go off the road even once and you're not going to finish the race in time. Luckily, you can just go into time attack mode and choose which track you want to drive on if you can't make it through the two linear courses. And it's worth doing too, as it's the tracks themselves that are the real draw in Polestar.

There's eight of them, and they're all ful of cool things to see (albeit some tracks have more stuff than others). The 3D effect offered by the lo-res sprites works excellently, though it's a lot better in motion than it is in still screenshots, unfortunately. And it's used to great effect, too, as you drive past aeroplanes taking off, people on theme park rides, flocks of ravens flying out of the windows of a ruined castle, and lots more interesting things. The devs have been very successful in making a racing game set in a world that's full of life, not just barren tracks with decorative billboards next to them. Though the arcade games mentioned above have all this stuff too, they do it on powerful hardware with polygonal graphics. Personally, I'd love to see a sprite scaling arcade racer with the same kind of background features as Polestar, but with more detailed sprites. I guess the closest thing would be 1992's Outrunners, but even that falls a little towards the "decorative billboard" style of the 1980s.

Polestar is a decent enough game, and incredibly impressive consdiering the host hardware. The only real problems it has are that the time limits are way too strict, and the actual act of driving the car doesn't feel that great, either, so once you've seen all the cool stuff in every track, you aren't likely to go back to it. Contrast with games like Outrun or Super Hang On, which feel great to play, and as such, are endlessly replayable.

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Lin Zexu No Smoking (NES)

The odd title Lin Zexu No Smoking (also known as Lin Ze Xu Jin Yan) can be explained away by the fact that in this game, you play as Longyin Yan, an agent of the nineteenth century Chinese official Lin Zexu, and you spend the game trying to stop the opium trade in China, by fighting against the evil British and their treacherous allies. This all takes place in a beat em up, with some very light adventure game trimmings.

Those light trimmings seem to be an attempt at telling a TV serial-style story through an eight bit videogame, which is very ambitious, though unfortunately, the game doesn't really live up to that ambition. Basically, at the start of each stage, you're given an order, like, go and investigate the British Museum. But you can't go straight there, you have to ask around to find out who might know the way, then find them and ask them for directions. This wouldn't be too bad, were it not for the invisible walls that actually stop you going anywhere until someone's told you the way to get there. And this happens for pretty much every location you need to get to on foot. A particularly egregious case is when you're looking for a secret passage in a garden. The secret passage is hidden in a well, but you can't go down it until you've spoken to the woman nearby who lies and tells you that there's no secret passages nearby.

As for the beat em up sections, they're not totally horrible. Even though there's rarely more than two enemies on screen at a time, they still manage to be challenging, and you do have a few moves at your disposal, though honestly, the only really useful one is your flying kick. Once you get to the jungle and enemies start shooting projectiles at you, the difficulty drastically shoots upwards, too. In fact, there's apparently a part later in the game where you take to the high seas and fire cannons at British ships, but after over half an hour trying to get past one particular gun-toting enemy on the beach, I had give up for the sake of my sanity.

Despite its various huge flaws, I can't bring myself to be too harsh on Lin Zexu No Smoking, as like I said, it is a very ambitious game, both for the hardware, and for the time it was released (in 1996, even on the Playstation and Saturn this kind of story-heavy action game wasn't that common). It's not a good game, but it is at least worthy of note. And one last thing: if you do decide to play it, I strongly recommend doing so on an emulator with the NES's sprite limit turned off. Otherwise the game is a flickery mess. Not to the point of unplability, but it is very ugly and dampens the experience.

Friday, 14 February 2020

The Lost Golem (Dreamcast)

Remember Pushover on the Amiga? It was a puzzle game about an ant pushing over dominos. The Lost Golem reminds me of that game, only it's top-down, rather than side-on. You play as a golem, who iis charged with looking after a king. The king, like most royals, is some kind of blinkered lemming-esque idiot who constantly walks foward until he hits an obstacle, at which point he turns ninety degrees and carries on. Unless the obstalcle is a bottomless pit, then he walks into it and falls to his doom.

So, what you have to do is go ahead of the king, pushing walls around using you immense golemic strength, to make sure that the king's walk takes him to the next door. There are, of course, some further complications. The first is that the king has to walk directly towards the door, as if he approaches it from the side, he'll go straight past it (he's a blinkered idiot, remember?). The second, for which I have no explanation, is that a certain number of the walls in the stage have to be connected by pillars when the kind goes through the door. Pillars will crumble away when there's no walls touching them, and there are two kinds of pillar (in the stages I could reach, anyway): ones that cause attached walls to rotate ninety degrees when pushed, and ones that just let their attached walls go forward one space when pushed.

So, like most puzzle games of this type, those are the elements that make up the stages, and the rules that make up the puzzles, and the game itself is just a long series of those puzzles. Also like most puzzle games of this type, I'm terrible at it. Unfortunately, the stages in the main mode have to tackled in a linear fashion, and I managed to get to the thirteenth of them, which I made many attempts at before giving up. But, as far as I can tell, this is a decent enough example of these kinds of games. There's some stages where you try every convoluted solution you can think of before it hits you that you literally only need to make one move to solve it. That seems like a good thing to me.

There's a couple of other diversions besides the main story, too! There's a simple stage editor that lets you set up a stage in a 3x3 grid, and I guess if you've got the patience for this kind of game, you probably also have the patience to make stages for it, too. I know for a short time back in the ancient past, I was playing a lot of Chu Chu Rocket, and enjoyed that game's stage editor, and it's the same principle, isn't it? Finally, there's a two player versus mode, with a king, two golems, and two doors. You move walls around to annoy your opponent and also guide the king to your door. There's no AI opponent, though, and even if you had someone around, I can't imagine wanting to play this over any of the Dreamcast's many excellent fighting games.

The Lost Golem is of a genre that's a little outside of my wheelhouse, but I think I enjoyed it enough to say that if you like puzzle games where you move stuff around and there's a specific solution to every stage, then this is a decent one of those.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Girls und Panzer Dream Tank Match (PS4)

I thought this a few years ago, and it still seems to be true: there's surprisingly few videogames about tanks. But here's another one, based on the anime, Girls und Panzer. In case you aren't already aware, the anime is set in a world where Panzerfahren is seen as a respectable and feminine sport for young women to participate in. Panzerfahren is the waging of tank battles, in actual World War II tanks. The insides of the cockpits have been treated with a special carbon coating, so no-one actually gets hurt, despite them shooting live ammunition at each other. Totally believable, I don't know why we don't do that in real life.

The game is surprisingly structured like a home port of a fighting game: there's a story mode, where you play through the events of the movie, "domination mode", which is essentially arcade mode, having you pick one of the available school teams (each one very loosely themed around a country involved in WWII and driving that country's tanks) and play through five randomly assigned battles, and "extra mode", which has a bunch of special challenge missions. In all but extra mode, there's also ludicrous amounts of dialogue before and after each battle, which can luckily be skipped, since each conversation takes two or three times more time than the battles themselves. I started the game intending to watch them and find out about the characters, but they really are too long.

So, the important question: are the battles actually fun to play? Luckily, yes! There's various kinds of battles on offer, like straight up team battles, kill-the-captain "flag battles", one-on-one battles, and a weird kind of gauntlet thing. The gauntlet, referred to in-game by the unwieldy title "arrive at the destination", is almost the most interesting type of battle.  You play it alone, and the aim is to drive your tank to the end of a treacherous mountain path, along which are the five members of the opposing team, who'll take pot shots at you as you go. The one thing holding it back is the fact that there's only one map that you play every time this match type comes up. What a shame!

That's not to say the other battles are bad, though. The tanks are satifying to control, feeling big and slow and heavy as they trundle around the maps (I felt a similar way about the way the monsters feel in the excellent PS4 Godzilla game. Maybe there should be more games where you control big heavy things?). As well as moving, there's also satisfaction to be found in shooting. You can only do it once every few seconds, since you're driving a tank, and every shot needs to be loaded individually. There's an auto-aim option, but you really shouldn't use it, as a big part of the combat in the game is not just hitting your enemy's tank, but hitting the right part of the tank, as different parts take different amounts of damage, and you can temporarily immobilise foes by shooting their treads. Like movement, the combat is slow, heavy, and satisfying.

Girls und Panzer Dream Tank Match is a game I definitely recommend. It's fun to play, and there's a lot of it (other than the lack of maps for the gauntlet missions), and through the use of the anime license, it manages to be a game about vintage military hardware that doesn't have a boring, ugly macho aesthetic. The license also gives it an excuse for its fighting game-style structure, as opposed to being about larger scale, more realistic battles, which might have ended up been longer and a little more tedious. It never got released in the west, but an English version did get released in South East Asia, so track that one down if you're interested.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Curiosities Vol. 17 - Blaze

So, back in the ancient mists of time, there was a preview in issue #115 (June 1991) of CVG of an Amiga version of Sonic the Hedgehog that never came into being. The reasons why such a game might have been cancelled are obvious: as soon as it was released in the UK, the first Sonic game, and Sonic in general launched a kind of SEGA-mania that would last for almost half a decade, and the Amiga was, in mid-1991, the only major 16-bit competition to the Mega Drive in the UK that didn't have to be imported. Sonic appearing on the Amiga might have hampered sales of the Mega Drive, which was in the UK, almost monolithic in a way that the NES/Famicom was in the US and Japan in the 1980s.

Some might have said that the Amiga just couldn't do everything that the Mega Drive did, and a substandard port might also damage the brand. Blaze, a fanmade demo for an Amiga Sonic-alike could be used as evidence for and against this theory. On the surface, it does do a lot of the fancy tricks seen in Mega Drive Sonic: high-speed scrolling, loop-the-loops, water-surface reflections, and so on. However, it came out in 1993, not 1991. And, to the best of my knowledge, no commercially released Amiga platformers attempted any of this stuff, despite how poentially lucrative it might have been.

It does as decent a job as you might expect of emulating the feel of a genuine Sonic game, too. Not only does it have loops, but one particular highlight is a massive series of five linked loops in quick succession. There's also robot crabs and hornets, and gems to collect in lieu of rings. Blaze even curls into a ball to attck when he jumps! Interestingly, though, if you press down while running, he doesn't curl into a ball, but goes into a Splatterhouse-esque sliding kick.

The physics do occasionally feel a little off, particularly with regards to running up and jumping off of quarter pipes. This can be forgiven, though, by that fact that this was made in an age before widespread internet access, and long before there was the meticulous observation and analysis of Sonic phyisics that there is today. In fact, it's obviously impossible to be totally one hundred percent certain about this, but I think Blaze might be the first ever Sonic fangame!

So, that's Blaze. An interesting thing in many ways. It's a shame it never got fleshed out into a full game. It would obviously have been too late to have saved the Amiga from its inevitable doom, but it would at least have freed Amiga fans from decades of pretending Zool was as good as any platform game that originated on consoles.