Sunday, 28 February 2021

Beyond The Labyrinth (3DS)


Unfortunately, this is a game to which I've had to concede defeat. I really wanted to get further into it, if only take screenshots of more areas, since it is a visually beautiful game, but the first boss is just too hard for me. My save file says it has a little under three hours of playtime, but I've played at least that much again in failed attempts at beating that boss. There's still a lot to say about it, though, so let's go!


Its official title is Labyrinth no Kanata, and unusually for an RPG in the (relatively) modern era, it never got an official English release, though there is an unofficial translation patch. It's a dungeon crawler that recognises the old-fashioned nature of the genre, but at the same time, brings a lot of new ideas to the table. The game starts with you playing a faux-online dungeon crawler with kind of MSX-looking graphics (that is, if the MSX was capable of full-colour texture-mapped 3D mazes). As you make your way through the maze, other players join your party, and there's a little banter between them, until you're suddenly taken away to another world: one that not only has more modern graphics, but also a cute silver-haired girl who instantly befriends you.

Your presence in this world is a bit of a mystery, even to the characters in-game: it seems that "you" are actually present in the world, while your party members are still just at home, watching everything through their screens. They can talk to each other and you using the game's text chat, but they can't talk directly to the girl, even though she can somehow see them (or is at least is aware of their presence), and they can attack monsters, since all the combat is done through the medium of magical projectiles.

The combat itself is fairly original. It seems simple at first, as there are only three elements (working in a rock-paper-scissors kind of way), very few different types of items, and no spells or special attacks. Things mainly hang upon the interplay of the three elements, and the order in which everyone takes their turns. If you attack an enemy with the element that's their weakness (or vice versa), not only do they take double damage, but the damage is stored in the corner of the screen, and the next time a character (good or evil) of that element attacks, they'll absorb all the stored damage of that element as recovered HP. So it's not always the best option to attack the enemy upon whom you'll deal couble damage, if they're just going to re-absorb it on their next turn. Furthermore, when you attack, you can choose the strength of your attack, with stronger attacks putting you further back in the turn order. During battles, you can see where everyone is in the turn order, and exactly what damage you'll do when you attack, so though there aren't a lot of options like you'd see in most RPGs, there's still a lot of strategy involved.


As for the girl (as far as I've got in the game so far, she hasn't been named, and is literally referred to ingame as "the girl"), right from the start, she takes a place in the turn order, though at that point, every time her turn comes around, she just picks up a pebble off the ground and throws it at an enemy to deal one point of damage. After a few floors, though, she has magic powers awakened in her. Her turns don't come around as often as everyone else's, and the damage she does is non-elemental. The damage she does is also based on a equation involving the percentage of her own HP she has remaining multiplied by the amount of damage all of your party memebers have inflicted on enemies since her last turn. If you plan things well, she can do pretty devestating attacks, though you don't get to choose which enemies she attacks, unfortunately.

In summary, Beyond the Labyrnth is a game that's very beautiful (it's been on my radar for almost a decade, since the first promotional screenshots were released) and also very interesting. It's just unfortunate that it's a bit far outside my usual wheelhouse, and as a result, way too difficult for me to get very far into. But if you are a big fan of dungeon crawlers, even I can tell that this is one made to a very high standard, and definitely worth your time. And if anyone I know does play it and get further than me, please show me your screenshots of later areas when you get there! One final tip: if you're playing the translated version, then you probably can't speak Japanese, and the subtitles for the girl's voice aren't switched on by default, so go into the menu and do that.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Tom Mason's Dinosaurs For Hire (Mega Drive)

 For some reason, SEGA of America had a strange habit of making Mega Drive games based on comics that no-one had ever read. There was Ex-Mutants, Chakan: The Forever Man, and this one, Dinosaurs For Hire. Chakan's probably the most well-known of the three, though that definitely has more to do with the videogame than the comic. In Dinosaurs For Hire's case, it could have turned out a little differently, as there was a cartoon in development that never came into bring, according to Wikipedia. Then it could have formed a trinity of 90s cartoons about gun-toting dinosaurs alongside Extreme Dinosaurs and The Terrible Thunderlizards.


The game is, at its most basic level, a Contra-esque platform shooter, which sees you pick a dinosaur, then go from left to right (or sometimes from bottom to top) shooting soldiers and monsters and vehicles and so on. There are a few twists to the formula though, to the extent that the game almost feels like some kind of experimental take on the genre. The smallest, but most obvious twist is that because the player characters are anthropomorphic dinosaurs, they dwarf all the human enemy soldiers that are running around. That's a nice little touch.


But the weirdness starts as soon as the game does, opening with a boss fight against a giant turtle-like monster that's climbing up the Hoover Dam and breathing fire. After you kill it, the credits start rolling before a cheeky little pterodactyl appears and tells you that was just a prank and the game actually starts now. This fight is also the first time that your HUD disappears, which is presumably some kind of resource-juggling programming trick based on the presence of the giant monster here, and the fact that it happens again when other giant bosses are onscreen. One thing you can always say in SOA's favour is that they were always trying different tricks and techniques to get fancy effects out of the Mega Drive hardware.


With that in mind, it's a shame that some aspects of the game's presentation are kind of terrible. I'm not saying the game itself looks bad: the sprites and backgrounds are all well drawn and animated, and the player characters are especially full of personality, with little touches like gleeful facial expressions as they blast away when you hold the fire button for a couple of seconds. But there's some little things that bug me, like how all the text in the game uses a font that I assume must be the default in Mega Drive devkits or something, since it can be seen in things like leaked betas, and the notorious homebrew Crazy Bus. I know i'm nitpicking here, it's something that really jumped out at me from the start, and made the game feel a little cheap, maybe even unfinished?


I do have a more legitimate complaint, too, though: some of the stage design is really bad. For example, early on there's a stage where the main threat comes from tiny mounted security camera guns, which are constantly firing at you from all angles, and in another game, it might not have been so bad, but in Dinosaurs For Hire, the characters are too big and not maneuverable enough to deal with this kind of situation. Even something as small as a Gunstar Heroes-style fixed aiming mode might have made this stage a lot more palatable. Then a few stages later, you're making your way upwards through a spooky cave, and for some reason, as you climb, if you fall back down below, the areas where you just came from are now an instant death pit, with no kind of warning or signifier that this might be the case.


Dinosaurs For Hire is a game that's almost great. I wonder if they ran out of money or time during development and had to rush it out before they could polish up the presentation or sand the rough edges off of the game itself. But either way, if you want to see a game that's more ambitious than it is actually good, then give it a look. Otherwise, don't bother.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Kick Challenger - Air Foot - Yasai no Kuni no Ashi Senshi (Famicom Disk System)

 Kick Challenger is a strange game. Not just mechanically or thematically, but in both respects. For a start, the boxart depicts the main character as a face-having tomato with a pair of two long legs stretching from its underside. This is inaccurate, though, as ingame, the protagonist, while being a tomato with a face, doesn't have legs, instead moving by way of a pair of Rayman-esque detached feet moving presumably though some kind of psychokinesis. I'm not just saying that to exagerrate the difference between representative artwork and what oyu see ingame, either: your two etached feet can move and cross over each other in ways that they wouldn't be able to, were they on the ends of legs attached at the other end to a body.


I might have been exaggerating slightly regarding the strangeness of the game's mechanics, on further reflection, "unusual" might be more appropriate. The aim of the game is mainly just to make your way up the screen, kicking the many bugs that try to stop you, and trying to keep out of bottomless pits, rivers, and other hazards. The twist is that this is a game that makes the act of walking itself an actual part of the game. Rather than just holding the direction you want to go in, and then your character walking semi-autmatically, you instead use the D-pad to move one foot at a time, with the A button switching between them, and the B bubtton being used to kick with your currently active foot. 


There are some quirks besides the controls, too! Like the weird little holes that sometimes appear when you kick the scenery, in lieu of a power up (and I'll get to those shortly). Put your foot down on it, and you're transported to another location; one that's similar enough in theme to where you were to let you know that it's part of the same stage, but with a different tileset and layout. It kind of reminds me of the front and back sides every stage has in Fantasy Zone II. Power ups are also collected by putting your foot down n them, and most of them come in the form of different kinds of shoes, which do actually get worn by your character while they're in effect, which is a nice little touch. The different kinds of shoes offer abilities like faster walking, better grip on slippy and sloped surfaces, and even the ability to walk on areas that would normally kill you. Other than the shoes, there's a power up that turns your head (which is a tomato under normal circumstances) into a can of bug spray, allowing you to shoot projectiles at your enemies from a distance.


Kick Challenger is a decent game. It's fun, it's unique, and it's neither too difficult nor too easy. It won't set your world on fire, but it's definitely worth playing, and you'll get at least get an hour or two of amusement out of it.

Monday, 8 February 2021

Magic Castle (Playstation)

 Some of you will already know about this game, but for those who don't, it started life in 1998 having been created using a Net Yaroze as a pitch to be shipped around to various publishers in the hopes of getting funding to turn it into a full commercial release. Unfortunately, none of the publishers were interested, and the game was put away and forgotten about for over twenty years, until the creators rediscovered it, finished it up, and released it for free online!


What the game is is an action roguelike, where you pick one of four characters (Knight, Fighter, Wizard, and Archer), and attempt to make your way through twenty floors of a castle full of monsters and treasure, that is, of course, different every time you play. To get from floor to floor, you have to keep killing monsters on your current floor until one drops a giant bouncing key. Attack the key, then go onto the next floor. It might sound like a pretty generic concept, but it's executed so well, that I can't hold that against it at all.


The fact is that the game is a ton of fun to play! All four characters play differently, but you'll have a good time whichever one you pick. Not only do they have different stats, but also special abilities, some of which are only unlocked when you find better equipment for them, though. For example, finding the Wizard's upgraded staff lets them fly around, and getting the Archer's upgraded bow makes their arrows fly through enemies, hitting them multiple times, and so on. There's also various rings and scrolls and stuff that all have various different effects, too, though I don't want to spoil too much by listing them here.


As well as being fun, Magic Castle is also a game with a ton of charm. Though the graphics are very simple, I love the way the game looks, and the castle being furnished with paintings, grand pianos, bookcases and so on just adds so much character to the game. Bridging the gap between mechanics and aesthetics are all the secrets and other little things to discover, not just in the game world itself, but also there's a whole menu of mysterious "unlockables"! Even the fact that the game isn't one hundred percent finished can create some funny moments, like the "blue leaf" item, which just gives a message of "IT'S NOT FOR THIS GAME. THERE'S NO POISON HERE."upon use. Also, though the mltiplayer function is apparently not yet properly implemented, you can use the first controller to move players one and three simultaneously, which can provide a bit of extra amusement.


Another thing that's interesting is the option on the main menu labelled "Training", which isn't actually a training mission like you might expect, but a kind of test mode, that shows off various functions and features of the game. If you pick this mode, press select to goto the next scene each time. It might not be interesting to some people, but I enjoyed pulling the curtain back for a peek. 


I definitely recommend that everyone goes and plays Magic Castle. I've already played it for hours, and I think I'll be playing it for a long time to come, too. Plus, it's free! One final thing I should mention, for those who aren't already in the know: Net Yaroze Europe has a mountain of information on this game, including developer interviews, an online manual, and more. So go have a look there, too.

Monday, 1 February 2021

The Pirates of Dark Water (SNES)


The Pirates of Dark Water is a cartoon from 1991 that I've never really cared for. The plot is a kind of thinly-veiled environmental-type thing, where a fantasy world is being slowly devoured by a substance called Dark Water, so some pirates set out to find some magic treasures to stop it. Well, the Dark Water part sounds like a metaphor for pollution, anyway, though the magic treasures part doesn't really fit. But anyway, the low regard I have for the show itself won't marr my opinion of this videogame adaptation, as it actually forms the basis of its greatest strength!


Mechanically speaking, this isn't a game with a lot of originality. The only thing it really adds to the generic beat em up formula is a strong attack button that you can use on its own, or at any point during your regular attack chain. (Wikipedia claims that there's lso a block button, though? I must have missed that.) It's not a bad game, but it's not a particularly remarkable one, either. It's obviously very heavily influenced by Capcom's arcade beat em ups, almost as much as Crest of Wolf was. It's still a decent game that's worth your time, though.


Why? Entirely for aesthetic reasons. Pirates of Dark Water is a game that manages to stand out from the pack just by having a different setting. If you haven't ever seen the source material, it's got a kind of Spelljammer-meets-Arabian Nights kind of look to it, that works great for a beat em up, offering various kinds of exotic locales, both inhabited and wild. It's also been rendered with a lot of skill, with really charming backgrounds and sprites, and great colour palletes. It all works together to give a feel of swashbuckling adventure as you beat up and chuck about all the enemy pirates. It might seem weird for me to say all this after earlier saying that I didn't care for the cartoon itself, but what can I say? The first time I loaded the game up, I was playing through the first stage, fighting guys in front of a sunset, while off in the distance, more enemies could be seen flying around on dragonback, and I just thought "this is really cool!"


Before I end the review, there's a few other things I want to mention regarding the game. First, there's an enemy that starts to appear a few stages in called the Mutarios, which is a little pug-looking monster thing that's hard to hit and continuously runs back and forth knocking you over. I hate it. Secondly, pretty late in the game, there's suddenly a bossfight that takes the form of a little shooting stage, putting you on the back of a dragon, like those guys in the background of the first stage. Unfortunately, it's not very good, mainly because the boss itself spends lots of time flying into the background or offscreen, leaving you sat twiddling your thumbs waiting for it to come back for agonisingly long seconds at a time. Also, for some reason, you don't score points for attacking or killing this boss. Weird.


Earlier, I compared Pirates of Dark Water to Crest of Wolf, in the respect that they're both games that borrow a lot from Capcom's various arcade beat em ups, and going back to read my 2017 review of that game, I think I can say the same thing about this one that I did about that one: that it's an okay game elevated by its interesting setting and theming. Unlike Crest of Wolf though, Pirates of Dark Water is very rare and fetches ludicrous prices for legitimate copies online. I definitely don't recommend paying hundreds of pounds for a copy of it, but if you love beat em ups, you should still find some way of playing it.