Saturday, 30 May 2020

Other Stuff Monthly #13!

As soon as I saw the sun-baked Carlos Ezquerra cover art for El Mestizo, and its yellowed brick-effect logo, I was drawn into it. When I heard the premise, of a mixed-race mercenary fighting in the American Civil War, my interest was peaked even more. Of course, I wasn't let down when I did eventually get ahold of it, as it's a great action story, with no slow moments or filler.

I did have some questions, though, and they're probably the same questions you're thinking about after reading the premise. Mainly: why would a mixed-race former slave act as a mercenary in the Civil War, instead of just fighting against the Confederacy? Well, the story does offer a few answers to this, and I guess they're good enough to allow the reader to get into the action. Basically, it was a pretty anarchic war, and there were some companies in the Union army who were essentially uniformed raiders, pillaging small towns and killing everyone in sight, including the slaves they were meant to be freeing. So El Mestizo is portrayed as a man who'll fight on the side of whoever pays him, but also against anyone who he sees to be harming the innocent, no matter which side's uniform either of the above is wearing. I think another thing that should be taken into account is that most young boys in 1970s Britain probably didn't know or care much about the American Civil War, and it was, to them, just a change of scenery from all the World War II war comics that were popular at the time.

The book's only about sixty-four pages long, but in the old British comics tradition, chapters were only a few pages long each anyway, so not only is the storytelling very dense and full of action, but there manages to be a few complete story arcs in that small space! Mestizo avenges murdered slaves, saves North America from the bubonic plague, and manages to see the end of the Civil War, all in the page space of two or three US-style comic issues! The book even ends on a hook for a sequel that (as far as I know) never came about, set in Mexico.

Obviously, I recommend that anyone interested in comics that cover subject matter outside of the usual stuff gives El Mestizo a read. Like I've already said, it's tightly written, full of action, and the art is esecially excellent, exactly the kind of stuff Carlos Ezquerra seems to have been born to draw.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Coron Land (SNES)

For a brief period in the early nineties, there was a craze of Bomberman wannabes, obviously fuelled by that series' massive popularity, that even managed to sell big expensive multitaps to people in decent numbers, too. I hesitate to call them clones, as while they were all top-down single screen action games with idiosyncratic attack methods and four player versus modes, they mostly each had their own unique gimmicks. (Though there were one or two that were literally just Bomberman knockoffs, like the ninja-themed SNES game Otoboke Ninja Colosseum).

Coron Land's gimmick is kind of snowball-themed. In story mode, you defeat enemies by shooting them a few times, turning them into pink orbs. You can then pick up these orbs and throw them at other enemies, or before doing that, you can make them bigger and more powerful by rolling them along the ground like snowballs. In the multiplayer mode, shooting just stuns your opponents, and the orbs randomly fall from the sky, but they can still be rolled and thrown and so on. It's a fun little thing, and even rolling an orb a short distance is worth doing, just for the little bit of extra damage it does, so rolling doesn't really slow the game down too much.

It probably goes without saying for a game of this type, but the multiplayer mode, even when played alone against CPU opponents, is a lot better than the singleplayer story mode. In this case it's especially so, though, since the story mode has a ludicrously steep difficulty curve, with some very hard enemy types showing up after only a few stages: enemies that can send orbs back at you, enemies that can stun, then pick up and throw you like you do to the orbs, and so on. Multiplayer is fine, I guess. A nice touch is that every player gets to be a differrent character, not just palette swaps of the same one, a feature I don't think the Bomberman series offered until about three or four games in, if I remember rightly. There's also a selection of stages, each offering a slight variation: trains that speed across the stage, running players over, a stage with bouncy walls, a stage with no walls at all, with instant death for players who fall off, and so on.

Coron Land is a decent enough game, I guess. It's not really worth playing unless you have thee friends willing to play it with you, though, and even then, it'd probably be easier to get ahold of a copy of one of the Super Bomberman series. Though having said that, this is a much faster game than Bomberman, so it does have that in its favour.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Wolfchild (Mega CD)

Wolfchild is that precious, rare kind of Mega CD game: it came from a western developer, but it isn't a terrible FMV game or boring edutainment title. Though to be fair, it is from Core Design, who had a reputation in UK magazines, at least, for making great Mega CD titles, after seemingly every publication in the UK lost their minds over their sprite scaling shooter Thunderhawk. It does one bit of FMV though: a charmingly ugly animated intro.

Oher than the intro though, Wolfchild is a pretty typical early 90s platformer, albeit one with something of a psuedo-gritty "dark superhero" setting, that you might see in some of the comics and tabletop RPGs of the time. You play as some guy who's used science to turn himself into a psuedo-werewolf, to go and defeat the evil Chimera group and rescue his scientist dad. Oddly, Wolfchild apparently takes its cues for werewolf abilities from Altered Beast of all places, as the main advantage of wolf form is that you shoot fireballs from your fists.

How transformation works is linked to your health bar: above a certain level, you're a wolfman, below that level, you're just a manman. There's some kind of subtle levelling up ystem in place whereby your maximum health increases as you make your way through the game. I'm not sure whether this is related to scoring points or collecting items, though, as the game does nothing to draw your attention to it happening (I didn't notice it until I'd already played the game a few times). Other than that, this is a pretty standard decent-quality platform game.

There's a few little problems the game has, like how even in wolf form, and after collecting some power-ups, you still don't feel particularly powerful, and the power-ups themselves have a problem that you see in a fair few western platformers of the time, whereby they all just look kind of like tiny indistinct polished orbs (everything else looks great, though. Especially thr backgrounds). There's also one stage of the game that has a few instances of what some call "Rick Dangerous nonsense", where hazards just suddenly pop out of the scenery without warning, meaning the first time you go through an area, you have no way of knowing they're there, and you just have to remember them next time. There's not enough of it to ruin the game, but it is still annoying.

Wolfchild isn't some great classic, but it's not bad, either. I receommend at least giving it a look, definitely.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Gekitotsu Yonku Battle (NES)

For years, I ignored this title, because the title made me think it was just some generic racing game, unworthy of note. Then, one day, I remembered that I actually quite like racing games, especially old ones that aren't burdened with the tedious albatross of realism. The most ridiculous part of all this is that while Gekitotsu Yonku Battle is a game about cars, it turns out that it's not about racing them at all, and the word "battle" is to be taken more literally than I'd expected.

What this game actually is is a kind of high-speed survival dodgems game. The goal of each stage is to survive until the Teki counter drops from fifty to zero. It goes down by one every time you destroy an enemy car, by ramming them into the walls (or just ramming them enough that they explode on contact). There are also numbered flags that appear around the arena. The flags start out with a number one on them, and over time this gradually increases up to four, until finally the flag turns into an crown, with a value of five. Of course, the Teki counter goes down by the value of the flag/crown on collection. Enemy cars can pick up the flags too, though (and the start aggressively pursuing it in later stages), so you have a little bit of a gambler's choice there: get the less valuable flag now, or wait for it to grow, running the risk of getting nothing at all. (It's worth noting also that flags are worth double their points value in cars, and the crown double that again.)

There's also other items in the stages, which are there from the start and don't respawn, like invincibility stars, and fuel tanks to refill your health. That's really all there is to Gekitotsu Yonku Battle, and that's really all there needs to be! It's a very simple, very fun game, and the only real criticism I can give it is that there's not enough of it: Each stage will take you less than two minutes to get through, and there's only eight of them.

Still, I highly recommend giving this game a shot,whether through emulation, of if you ever encounter a cheap physical copy on your travels.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Monster Bass (Playstation)

Do you remember those Hot Wheels sets that were clearly designed as a lame attempt to get nerdier kids to buy toy cars? Like, they'd have aliens or dinosaurs or post-apocalyptic landscapes besides the track? Well, Monster Bass (also known as Killer Bass) is a fishing game that puts in a lame attempt at appealing to the under-75s by having genetically-engineered zombie fish and bait that includes lives spiders and mice and so on.

Unfortunately, though, the fish just look like regular fish in-game, the horror theme doesn't actually affect gameplay at all, and after a couple of hours of play, the game had long since started repeating stage locations, but still hadn't let me use any bait besides the spider. That doesn't necessarily mean the game is bad, though, it could still be a fun and accessible fishing game, even if th horror theme's a bust! Unfortunately, while it is accessible, it's not fun. And it's really only accessible in the sense that playing it is so incredibly simple that pretty much anyone could do it, and most of the actual challenge appears to be down to luck rather than skill.

Anyway, the game is structured kind of like a racing game, in more ways than one. Each stage, you're given a quota, like "catch 3 fish", "catch a total of 25lbs of fish", or "catch a fish weighing at least 3lb", and you have to fill that quota as quickly as possible. Like a racing game, whoever finishes first gets the most points, and everyone who finishes below a certain ranking is elminated. This is fine, I've got no problem with this really, except for the weight quota stages, it seems totally random as to how big the fish you catch are, so you can finish them in under a minute, or you can be stuck catching fish after fish, hoping the next one is big enough.

The real problem with Monster Bass is the fishing itself. You cast your bait, and it always travels about 41.7 feet away, no matter what, then you slowly rell it back in towards you, maybe jiggling it about a little, hoping a fish bites. When the fish bites, you just hold the X button down until it's eventually reeled in. You can jiggle the d-pad a bit to increase the line tension, which might make it reel in faster, but I'm not actually certain on that. Then once the fish is brought in, you've either met the stage quota, ending the stage, or you haven't and you go back to toiling at the old fish mines. The fishing mini-game in Breath of Fire III is more complex, more exciting, and more rewarding than this entire retail release that came out almost half a decade later!

Of course, I don't recommend you get hooked on the lame bait that Monster Bass is dangling in front of you. For fishing fans, it's presumably too simple and the theme is probably too silly, and for non-fishing fans, it does nothing to dissuade the notion of fishing being a boring, stupid waste of time.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Magical Tree (MSX)

The great thing about writing about obscure stuff is that sometimes, you find something great, and can then go on to show it off to everyone, so they can enjoy it, too. This is one of those times. Magical Tree is an MSX platform game about climbing a tree. I first tried it out, because I saw the boxart, and thought it might be a clone of Noboranka, the arcade shooting game about climbing a tree. I was wrong, but luckily, it turned out to be better than that anyway.

I'm sure I've mentioned before the concept of "pure" game design. Don't confuse purity with quality, it's just a stylistic assessment. What I mean by it is a concept that was more common in the eighties and early nineties than it is now: videogames in which each element, be it an enemy, an item, a part of the stage ,or something else, serves a specific in-game purpose and is easily identifiable from the other elements around it. Obviously, this kind of thing is much easier to do in simple, old-fashioned, arcade-style games like this one, but it's something you can also see in Minecraft, which is probably one of the most complex videogames of all time. I'm bringing it up here, because Magical Tree is a game that has this purity, and it does it well.

It is a very simple game: you go up the tree, avoiding enemies and collecting points items. At certain score thresholds, you get extra lives, so there's an incentive for playing for score, if that's not enough of a motivating factor for on its own. But like I describe above, you can easily learn how each enemy type acts, how certain objects interact with certain stage elements, and so on, to figure out every way possible of maximising your score, and of surviving to climb a little higher up the tree. Luckily, along with all of that, it is actually fun to play the game and do all this stuff.

One little stylistic thing that I think adds a lot to the game, and how addictive it is, is the constant on-screen tracker of how far up the tree you currently are. It's a constant reminder of your progress, and an easily-remembered benchmark to compare against earlier runs. It's probably copied from the "how high can you get?" screens, but they only appeared between stages, in twenty-five metre increments, while this counter is constant, and counts every metre you climb. It's just satisfying, you know?

Obviously, I recommend that you play Magical Tree. It's fun and cute and addictive. It seems that I keep finding more and more MSX games to love as time goes on, and while other Japanese microcomputers might have excellent graphics or music, it's the MSX's games that keep me coming back most often.