Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Other Stuff Monthly #15

So, back in the Tokyopop-led English-translated manga boom of the early 2000s, one of the titles that really caught my eye and my imagination was actually a Korean comic, Ragnarok, by Lee Myung-Jin. It's a fantasy comic with amazing art, and it's probably less well-known than its spin-offs: the MMORPG Ragnarok Online, and the TV anime Ragnarok The Animation (which was based on the MMORPG, rather than the comic, but I'll return to that subject later).

Re-reading it as an adult, it definitely feels like a case of style over substance. Luckily, the style is good enough for that not to really matter. The art is consistently excellent, and though most of the comic is made of characters either firing big magic attacks at each other, or dramatically delivering exposition to ach other, it all looks so good that you barely even notice. Me and my friends definitely didn't back then, at least. The look of the world is a very videogamey mix of European and Asian fantasy aesthetics, with a slight bit of sci-fi flavour on the weapons and armour, which all appear to be made of some kind of very smooth, curved, futuristic materials.

Teenage me was very disappointed, of course, when after the tenth volume, Ragnarok just seemed to stop coming out. I even e-mailed Tokyopop! They actually did reply, and even more interestingly, they told me the real reason as to why volume eleven wasn't out yet: the creator was making so much money from Ragnarok Online that he was focussing on that instead of his comic. How disappointing! There was even an interview with him in the back of the fourth volume, in which he describes his plans for Ragnarok: a 40-50 volume saga with seven story arcs! Tokyopop were clearly behind the series, too: I remember it being heavily promoted by them at the time, and they also added an unusual extra to the volumes themselves: psuedo-Dungeons and Dragons stats for all the main characters! (Well, they said the stats wee just "inspired by the manga" and not part of any real RPG system. But they look closest to DnD, at least.)

More disappointment came when the anime came out, and it was based on the MMORPG rather than the comic itself. Even now, I'm not interested in online games, but back then, I didn't even have a computer or internet connection at home! Not only that, but it really did feel like the last nail in the coffin of the original Ragnarok story and its characters. Well over a decade later, and I'm pretty sure Ragnorok Online is long dead by now, too, and I haven't heard anything about the comic coming back, either. RIP Ragnarok!

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Taiyou no Yuusha Fighbird GB (Game Boy)

So, I was attracted to this game due to it being a vertically-scrolling shooting game on the Game Boy, which is pretty unusual. The Game Boy does have some surprisingly great shooters, of course, but they tend to scroll horizontally, like Nemesis II, for example. It's also interesting because instead of a ship flying up the screen, you're piloting a giant robot, walking up the screen.

Unfortunately, it doesn't do a very good job of representing vertical shooting games on the Game Boy, on account of it being rubbish. The problem is not just that it's easy, but it's also boring. You trudge up the stages, easily killing the occasional enemies (that mostly don't even really look like anything besides abstract shapes). You can take eight hits before getting a game over, but after you've taken one or two, you can rely on a nice convenient power-up to come along and restore you back to full health.

As a result, I completed Taiyou no Yuusha Fighbird the first time I played it. Then I completed it again to take screenshots for this review. The thing is, before you start playing, there's a character select screen, with two characters to pick from, and the title "select your level". Whichever you pick, there doesn't appear to be no difference at all, either in the character you're controlling or in the difficulty of the stages. Mysterious. Either way, the game's about ten minutes long, and they aren't even ten particularly exciting minutes.

I don't recommend wasting any time on this game, unless you really need to play every Game Boy shooting game, or if you're completely obsessed with the anime on which its based and need to experience everything to do with it. Otherwise, don't bother.

Thursday, 16 July 2020

L'Aigle de Guerre (GBA)

The Game Boy Advance being a big step up in power from the handhelds that had preceded it meant there were various attempts at genres that were previously impossible on handhelds. Like how there are a whole bunch of GBA first person shooters, for example (I know the original Game Boy had Faceball 2000, but that's a far cry from a port of Doom). L'Aigle de Guerre is an attempt at squeezing a real time strategy game onto portable hardware,and a fairly successful one at that.

Well, it's successful at being an enjoyable game, at least. I suspect that fans of super fast-paced multitasking PC real time strategy games will probably be left a little cold. It is a lot slower paced, which is at least partially down to the fact that instead of a cursor, you control Napoleon, as you ride around the battlefield, telling your soldiers where they should go in person. Other than that, the game mostly focusses on capturing bases by sending infantrymen, the weakest units into them.

Infantrymen are the weakest, but you need to send four into an enemy base (or a neutral city) to capture it, cavalry are faster and more powerful, and artillery are the most powerful, but they move very very slowly. On some stages, you'll also get various kinds of boats, but they're pretty much just nautical versions of your land units. Like I said, most stages will have a main enemy base to capture, but some of them are boss fights, like a giant monster troll thing, or Horatio Nelson surrounded by giant cannons and endlessly respawning soldiers.

The plot is something that's definitely worth talking about in this case, as all of the characters seem to be people who actually existed, with the main villain being the strangest of all: wax museum proprietress Marie Tussaud, depicted ingame as being an evil monster-summoning witch who wants to take over the world. Only Napoleon and his plucky band of French military commanders can stop her!

L'Aigle de Guerre is a pretty fun game, and I definitely recommend that you give it a try. Like I said earlier, though, don't go in expecting something like Starcraft or even Command and Conquer. It's its own thing!

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Sutte Hakkun (SNES)

I think I've mentioned before that I'm not very good at platform puzzle games, nor do I really enjoy playing them very much. Still, I occasionally give one a try, to see if it'll click with me. The only one I can think of that I really liked was Samurai Kid on Game Boy Color, and even that cleverly disguised itself as an action game. Sutte Hakkun is one such attempt, being a puzzle platformer released on the SNES in 1997, either through Satellaview, or through the Nintendo Power download stations, different sources seem to claim different things.

In it, you play as a flightless hummingbird/mosquito thing made of glass that has to collect multicoloured gems that are stashed away in hard-to-reach places on each stage. To get to them, you have to utilise your innate drinking/regurgitating ability. There are transparent blocks lying around, that you can drink in one location, then spit out in another. Furthermore, there's pots of coloured ink that you can drink, and then inject into the transparent blocks. Doing this makes the blocks move on their own: vertically with red ink, horizontally with blue ink, and diagonally with yellow ink.

Eventually, the game also introduces other elements, like stone statues, that make you incredibly heavy while you have them drank, or weird transparent creatures that take on various different properties when injected with coloured ink. Like all games of this type, it familiarises the player with the essential building blocks of its world, then arranges puzzles that require the expert use of those blocks, quickly requiring outside-the-box techniiques like placing a block inside a wall, so you can suck it up again from the other side, or rapidly extracting, then re-injecting the colour from a block in midair to re-set its range of movement.

It's pretty generous to the idiot player, too, allowing access to thirty stages across three areas right from the start, and unlocking more after twenty-five of them have been solved. Unfortunately, as I've already mentioned, this really isn't my kind of game, and I had to throw in the towel at twenty-three. I know it's a terrible cop-out, but as far as I can tell, if you like these kind of environment-traversing puzzle games, then this seems like it's a high-quality example of the genre, and it does have plenty of interesting and original ideas. I can't really recommend it fully myself though, as, like so many other games of this type, most of my time with it was frustrating and boring.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Pleasure Hearts (MSX)

Pleasure Hearts is one of the early works of M-Kai, a developer who would go onto later fame through his Wonderswan game Judgement Silversword, and even later than that, the XBox 360's Eschatos. Though it's an early work, you can already see that he's a developer with plenty of ability in both programming and game design. In fact, this might be the best-looking game on the MSX (discounting laserdisc games, of course), with all kinds of animation and scrolling tricks in effect.

Luckily, it also plays really well. Though it might look like an old-fashioned horizontal STG, it actually occupies a space in between old-fashioned games like Gradius and the like, and faster danmaku-style games, which had already been populatr in arcades for a few years by the time of Pleasure Hearts' release in 1999. Bullet patterns are mostly confined to boss fights, though, with the stages having large crowds of small enemies each firing individual bullets directly at you, often at different speeds. This is a really strange paragraph to read, isn't it? Sorry about that.

Basically, it's a fast and fun and very high quality game. Interestingly, for a game on an 8-bit system, the scores go really high, really quickly, and score growth seems to be exponential: I tend to hit the one billion mark around the start of stage four, and only a stage later, I'm already at three billion! I'm not totally certain on this, but there is a bullet graze counter among the various other stats and meters at the top of the screen, and I think this acts as a multiplier on the points diamonds that are dropped by some enemies, and which your bombs turn bullets into. Like I said, I'm not 100% certain of that theory, though.

There's even some kind of plot in the game, as evidenced in the optional prologue stage, which sees a fully-powered up ship with a massive score at the end of some grand adventure getting betrayed by its allies and ultimately destroyed by a giant dragon. Presumably, then, the game's plot is about seeking revenge on the traitors and their dragon? I'm only guessing, of course. There's no text or anything as far as I can tell, and it would presumably be in Japanese anyway, even if there was.

I could keep writing about how great this game is, but if I did, it really would be just that: a stream of compliments directed at every aspect of the game. Obviously, I strongly recommend that you go and play this game as soon as possible. It's very easily available online, since M-Kai himself released it and his other MSX games as freeware back in 2009, so go and find it, load it up in your MSX emulator of choice, and have a great time!