Thursday, July 30, 2009

Still plenty of games for sale

Yes sir I've got tons just waiting to be sold. In fact I've added some new ones recently so check them out.


So I really don't have any idea what I'm going to do. I haven't even been playing any games lately. Okay well I have been playing a little Marvel Vs Capcom 2 on XBLA. It's a decent port of a broken game so while it plays well online I wouldn't bother with the ranked matches. All too often if you're not using certain characters or even certain character assists you'll find the game to be a serious headache. It's loads of fun with friends or people you know on the internet at least.

Other than that though there's nothing out there for me it seems. Maybe I should dump everything and start anew. Maybe I'll buy that new PC I keep talking about it and go from there. More likely I'll just sit here waiting for something to happen.

Whoops should also point out that there are a handful of bugs when playing MvC2 online.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

This blog is due for a new direction

I don't know about you guys but I'm not finding this blog very enjoyable. It's mundane, predictable, and repetitive. In fact it's sort of like this game I'm playing right now called Sacred 2. Why am I playing it? Because it combines level-ups and random loot. I thought quitting Diablo 2 would have gotten me to quit messing around with these stupid games yet here I am down in it again. The names change and I'm sure I'm fighting different shapes than before but for the most part the only reason I'm playing it is because hearing level-up noises and equipping rare items that make random numbers bigger is one of the few constant thrills I get out of videogames.

So I'm changing the direction. I'm not sure where I'm going or even what I'm doing but I will not stay here.

In possibly related news I just finished reading a fascinating article on Diablo II. It may be worth checking out.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The word "Gameplay" has got to go.

All too often when somebody is describing a game they're saying things like "boy the gameplay is really good" or "the gameplay stinks" or some variation of that. What does good gameplay even mean? I think the problem is that people are using it like an umbrella term. When somebody says a game has great gameplay it probably means it has great concept, focus & direction, structure, rules, mechanics, controls, level design, enemy design, balance, design decisions, variety, fun, and so on and so forth. Trying to wrap all of that up in a single word like gameplay is simply impossible. At the expense of maybe a couple extra minutes I believe it would be more beneficial to actually describe what makes a good game instead of going by the old standby "it has good gameplay". 

The concept is the simplest thing about the game but is potentially the most important. With the concept you sum up the entirety of the game in a couple lines. Through this description a basis is established and a twinkling of identity is created. Identity is paramount to making a great game because without an identity it's only a matter of time before that particular game is made obsolete by something bigger and better. Anyway concepts are simple to create but not so simple that you'd say Ikaruga is a "2D shooter" or Call of Duty is a "first-person shooter". Ikaruga is more of a "Chaining-based 2D shooter where life and death are tied to ship & bullet color." while Call of Duty is a "Checkpoint-based first-person shooter with rechargeable health and multiplayer." Again establishing an identity through concept can be useful even though it's just a small part of what makes a game great.

From the concept we go on to the focus & direction. While the concept establishes a fine basis without focus or direction it's nothing more than a concept. Is the game going to be arcade-style and feature simplistic gameplay with steadily increasing difficulty or is it going to a free-roaming game that has a variety of ways to play and multiple solutions for every stage? Some games tend to throw out a lot of ideas and play around. This is fine as long as the focus remains the same and the direction goes unchanged. For an example of a great game that likes to play around just look at Super Mario World. That game also uses a fairly non-linear map as progress though so it's a bit more understandable. On the other hand if I was playing an arcade-shooter like Dodonpachi and stage 5 was actually easier than stage 1 because the designers tried something new that didn't really build upon anything in the other stages that would be a grave issue. 

Structure is the most essential aspect to any game. I don't think I've ever played a game with poor structure and that's because without structure a game is simply incomplete. It'd be like playing football but without touchdowns, field-goals, or even safeties. Without a proper structure the game may as well not even have a beginning let alone an end. For arcade games and most older titles the structure is obvious. In those games without endings you continue to play until you run out of lives and in those games that do end you try to beat the game without running out of lives and/or continues. Even with newer genres like MMORPGs structure remains an important part. There's a constant array of quests, dungeons, and PvP battles where the object is to collect X number of objects, reach the end of the dungeon and kill the boss, or complete the objective against the enemy party. The structure in something like a fighting game is simple. The person to deplete their opponent's lifebar completely wins the round. Getting bored and quitting or finding that the game is too hard are not factors in structure as we're assuming that everyone will complete every game they play. Whether they actually enjoy themselves and want to play the game again is another story though. Needless to say if a game fails the structure test it's not a game, it's an alpha, a beta, or whatever the heck a game is called when it's still in the testing stage.

The rules of the game must be established early on. The player has their own set of rules, the enemy has theirs, and the level they compete upon has its own rules as well. Unlike football or any other sport the player is usually unable to break the rules they're given. Instead they must work with what they're given and it is up to the enemies and level to reward or punish them. Rules should also properly determine small yet important things like how much damage a particular attack from an enemy does(provided the game gives the player a health meter). If one attack does more damage than another then there should be an understandable reason as to why that is. When the game punishes the player for breaking a rule it tends to come off as a design decision. These should be avoided if possible as they go against one of the most important aspects in a videogame which is balance.

Along with the rules there must be mechanics. In this blog I talk a lot about mechanics and for good reason. Mechanics dictate how everything behaves when actions are performed as well as how everything reacts when an action is performed on them. When you're playing a beatemup what should do the enemy do when you punch them? What about when you perform a jumpkick on them? When you go to grab them is that through a button-command or by getting close to them? Should the player approach from a certain angle to maximize effectiveness? Strong mechanics can be a lot of work because there's a ton of aspects to consider. The great thing about mechanics though is that it's one of those aspects that make up a game with a good identity and therefore a great game. Mechanics is what separated Mario from other platformers of that day and what separated Sonic from Mario. Mechanics can also cover other aspects like hit-detection. Say you're playing a 2D shooter and the game expects you to fit your large ship in-between a bunch of bullets. Usually this is accomplished by making the hit-box smaller than the ship itself. Chances are if your ship can't fit in-between those bullets it's because it's either against the rules and you weren't supposed to try that in the first place or there's a problem with the mechanics. 

Controls is at about the level of structure in terms of importance in a videogame. Basically if the player can't control their character with maximum effectiveness while staying within the set rules and mechanics the game is broken. Controls must be fluid as well as intuitive and depending on the genre the player should be able at least accomplish basic tasks with little effort. A combination of rules and mechanics will limit the player's controls but if they are hindered by aspects that are not considered sensible than there is a problem with the game. Basically if your player is slipping all over the place and he's not in an ice stage or the enemies didn't cause some "slippery movement" effect then something is seriously wrong. Sometimes controls might seem limited compared to similar titles but that's not really a problem. In fact a videogame is not made to be compared with another game. Above all it is a vision and either the player deals with it or they go and find a game that's more suited to their taste. In the effort to create an identity and be remembered as great it is not the game's duty to provide for everyone. I didn't mean to get sidetracked there but it's just one of those things that bugs me when people talk about certain aspects of particular games.

At this point we've reached one of the more particular aspects of a videogame. Level-design is an umbrella term in itself as it covers more than just the average stage in Super Mario Bros. Level-design can extend to fighting games(yep even the ones that are just a simple rectangle with different backgrounds), strategy games, MMORPGs, Grand Theft Auto and its many clones & variants, and you get the idea. From the level-design all of the enemies, rules, mechanics, and every other aspect of the game is put to the test. Through proper usage of level-design the game can apply new rules and enemies as well as introduce greater challenges or work things out however it would prefer. 

The enemy can be anything. They're the goombas you bump into, the ninja dogs that surround and annhiliate you in Shinobi, the ships and tanks that fill your 2D shooter with bullets, the enemy base that's controlling all of the squadrons out to get you in a Strategy game, and so on. Enemy-design determines everything from their behavior to their means of attack. While they tend to be straightforward(especially in older games) in newer games they require a lot of AI routines to deal with all of the freedoms they've been given. On that same note however depending on the direction the developer wants to go in they can put in more "dumb" enemies as opposed to a few "smart" ones to either change the rules for a particular stage or in extreme cases develop the entire game around them. Great games can do one or the other but rarely can they accomplish both. 

Throughout everything there is one aspect that must be maintained and that is Balance. It is afterall the nature of all things so we expect all great games to have balance. All strong enemies must have a weakness just like all of the best weapons have limited usage and the riskiest move is usually the most rewarding. It is entirely possible that this aspect of a game would require the most testing and even today it's not always guaranteed. Regardless it is just as necessary as anything else.

Design-decisions are a tricky concept to grasp. I'd like to think that most if not all of them are arbitrary and are nothing more than a quick-fix to get out of balance issues. Trouble is these are usually hard to identify and harder to prove that they're actually design-decisions. Off the top of my head I can remember one example though and that is in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. If you've played that game you already know what I'm talking about. The judge-system is at best inexplicable. The game decides the rules for nearly every battle and punishes the player severely if they break them. There is a way around this but it's not sensible. At least with the sequel the judge system was revamped so that the only punishment for breaking the rules was the loss of a few prizes and the ability to revive player-characters. I'm not saying it's the optimal solution but rewarding the player for playing by even the strangest rules is always preferable to punishing them for breaking them. Regardless design-decisions are something to look out for.

Variety is basically what we determine to be when and how often a game changes. Most of the time variety extends as far as the level and enemy design but sometimes the rules and even the genre can be changed as well. The things that should go unaffected despite this are the mechanics and the concept. One example that readily comes to mind as a game that changes its focus yet retains nearly everything else is Offworld: Stranger's Wrath. Without giving too much away(though you're doing yourself a disservice if you haven't played the game by now) the game goes through a change that could be conceived as radical yet it still retains most of the qualities it had when the game first started. It's a credit to the developers when variety works well but at times it's more of a crutch to make up for some quality that the game is lacking in. 

But is it fun? This is the wildcard of a videogame and can potentially over-ride everything else. Establishing what makes a game fun is not an easy task and relies solely on the player to determine for themselves. Furthermore the only real way to share what makes a game fun is to relate experiences the player had with it. You could watch a video of a game or listen to a friend tell you about all of the fun things he did in the game but in the end there's no real way to develop fun. It's only through the combination of all these aspects and how the player respons to them can they conclude for themselves whether something is fun. 

Obviously all of this isn't going to translate well to a single word. Whether you bothered to read all of this or not I implore everyone out there to say what makes game X good aside from saying it's the gameplay. In truth gameplay has no actual meaning. It's like saying the game has good graphics or sound. Sure it was fine back when we were all reading Electronic Gaming Monthly and reviews were done in fifty words or less but with the freedom that the internet provides we can easily spend hundreds of thousands of words simply talking about the mechanics or level design of a particular game. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"Avoiding the 1ups" - Super Mario 64 videos

One aspect of a game that is never dwelled upon but is always appreciated is the allowance of artificial difficulty. This is basically the player making the game more difficult. This can involve things like trying to play through the game without using certain weapons or abilities. However when that isn't creative enough sometimes the mechanics of the game can be bent to create new challenges for the player.

In Super Mario 64 there are 1ups that can be found by climbing certain trees. Unlike 1ups found in boxes these tree 1ups follow Mario...everywhere. Basically the two guys in this vid trigger this special 1up and try to do the Red Coin challenge without allowing the 1up to get them. Aside from showing off some skilled playing the videos are hilarious and show off the incredible mechanics that made Mario 64 a game far ahead of its time back when it came out.

You've probably seen these videos before but if not you need to check them out here.

Friday, July 17, 2009

XBLA look: Virtual On Oratario Tangram

Here's another XBLA look. This time it's Sega's fantastic port of VO:OT. I really should be spending more time with this game but I dunno I've never been much of a "one game gamer". Rather than discuss my lack of commitment I recommend everyone going here to read about VO:OT.

XBLA look: Gunstar Heroes

Yep another look and this time it's Gunstar Heroes for Xbox Live Arcade. I'd really like to get into some more in-depth discussion on this game but I don't know where to begin. Regardless you can read the review here and let me know what you think.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

PS1 look - Gradius Gaiden

As far as the Gradius series is concerned this is my favorite entry. I'm not going to sit here and make up a bunch of reasons why I like this game more than all of the other titles. I think constantly comparing games to similar titles doesn't accomplish anything. I mean if that was the case why bother playing Gradius III when you could just play Gaiden and why play Gaiden when you could just play Battle Garegga? It's complete nonsense and I think it does gaming a huge disservice.

Gradius Gaiden is simply a great shooter. Unfortunately it's also more difficult to attain than most of the other entries in the series. It's available on the Gradius collection for PSP but unless you own a PSP and enjoy playing 2D shooters on it you're out of luck. The only other option is the import-only Playstation 1 version. If you haven't already I highly recommend seeking out an import or modded Playstation 2 console. Some of my favorite import titles like Shinobido Takumi and Earth Defense Force 2 are available on it. Unfortunately I should point out that stage 7 runs very slowly on the PS2. Not sure why that is and the rest of the game runs quite well but eh there you go.

This game is divided into nine stages and should take somewhere north of 40 minutes to beat. Each stage covers a different theme and is always side-scrolling. Some sections of certain stages can scroll vertically as well. Gamers familiar with other Gradius entries will recognize familiar themes. One stage is devoted to Moai statues(like the ones on Easter Island). There's a boss rush towards the end of the game. There's also a speed section in one stage with lots of narrow corridors, enemy cannons, and trap-doors. 

Unlike the other entries however this game offers four selectable ships. Series favorites Vic Viper and Lord British are available but they're joined by two ships known as the Jade Knight and Falchion Beta. Each ship has their own set of weapons. After selecting a ship the player can choose their own shield. Shields are a popular aspect of the Gradius series in that they can catch most bullets but they're balanced out by some negative aspect. One shield might allow the ship to take three hits but it's so large that simply flying close to a wall will cause it to disappear. One rather unique one actually makes the player entirely invincible for a few seconds. It's rather unfortunate that my favorite one from Gradius III doesn't make an appearance. This shield not only lets the ship take multiple hits but also shrinks it. I guess since it had no real weakness it was really unbalanced...oh well.

After selecting a shield the player can edit their weapon gauge. For those not in the know the Gradius series is notable for offering a twist on the traditional powerup system 2D shooters have. At the bottom of the screen all of the available weapons are arranged. By grabbing red powerups the player can cycle through these weapons. When the player gets to the one they want they can press the button to equip it. Usually this powerup system is arranged in the order of: speedup, missile, spread(a weapon that covers more ground), laser(a more powerful weapon with less range), option(adds a glowing orb that follows the player and adds more firepower), and shield. Anyway in the edit gauge mode the player can decide when the various weapons can be accessed. Not a fan of the missiles? Move them to the very back so it takes more powerups to get to them. Prefer laser to spread? Again just move laser forward and spread back. There are more than enough powerups to go and I'd always put the speedup to the front(you need at least one speedup to have a chance at survival).

While each stage is fairly short all of them are composed of interesting concepts that don't become repetitive or stale. Just when the player has gotten a handle on things the stage will end and the boss will appear. The locales will be familiar to long-time gamers like an ice stage at the very beginning of the game. The game throws a few curveballs and does some truly clever stages. Stage 7 for example is more or less a remake of the first stage from the first Gradius, with a basic array of rocks, volcanoes, and the standard mix of enemies. What's different here is that a black hole opens up just behind the player and sucks everything in. So all of those rock placements and volcanoes will crumble and fly at the player. Another stage has crystals everywhere. Aside from dodging them the player also has to contend with lasers that bounce off the crystals in a variety of angles. Despite the constant changes in concept the game still has a steady progression in difficulty and the challenge ramps up nicely thanks to a rank system.

When a shooter fan thinks of a rank system they generally think of an extreme example like Battle Garegga. This is all well and good but for a series like Gradius which doesn't rely on intricate scoring systems it's all highly unnecessary. Gaiden keeps it simple by merely having enemies fire more bullets and bosses gaining stronger attacks. Players who survive long stretches of the game without dying are also more likely to run into option-stealers. These guys hang out at the back of the screen for a few seconds before making their move. Since your options follow you wherever you go it's fairly easy to get them out of the way. However the option-stealer is more likely to show up in areas where you're already getting assaulted by enemies from all different directions. 

Compared to entries like Gradius III Arcade and part V, Gaiden is a fair bit easier. It retains the simplicity of the older games and at least on the normal setting is a fairly easy ride up until the final stage. That said there's still plenty of challenge due to harder difficulty settings and the fact that the game offers up multiple loops which substantially increase the intensity and ferocity of enemy attacks. 

Gaiden's greatest strength is in its variety. As mentioned before each stage has a particular theme and the enemies as well as the boss tend to follow suit. All of the bosses have unique methods of attack and sometimes survival is more about expecting something strange rather than dodging wave after wave of bullets. Couple this with the impressive level design and each stage becomes an experience that is incredibly well put-together.

The mechanics of this game are absolutely wonderful. Unlike most shooters where a stationary cannon can fire in any direction, the cannons in Gaiden will turn towards you before they fire. Larger enemies that move about the environment move so fluidly that you can approximate where they're going and react accordingly. Another important aspect is that the ship's hitbox is very reasonable. Weaving in-between bullets and getting through near-death situations is never a problem and collecting powerups that are close to walls is never a problem. 

For a game that frequently uses a variety of methods in attempting to defeat the player the proper combination of audio and visual cues are necessary. Gaiden does an excellent job of covering both of these aspects. Attacks that fall outside the range of mere bullets(like lasers of all flavors, pulse waves, etc) always give some visual or audio warning so the player knows what to expect. This is very smart game design.

Gradius Gaiden is basically flawless and very entertaining. It's shallow compared to a number of contemporary shooters but on the other hand it's more accessible. It shows creativity in both level and enemy designs but never runs concepts into the ground and keeps an excellent pace throughout. As far as I'm concerned this game is a classic and a necessity in every 2D shooter fans library as it has enough for everyone.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

AA Look - Capcom Classics Collection Volume 2: part 2

Magic Sword - This game is in many ways the spiritual sequel to Black Tiger. While the labyrinth-esque levels have been traded in for purely side-scrolling ones the gameplay is quite similar. Evil threatens again and this time two heroes have been set out to do the right thing. The game takes place over 50(!) stages though on average they tend to take only 30 seconds to over a minute to complete. The goal is to get the door while avoiding/killing enemies and finding food to keep your strength up and treasure to up your score.

The most interesting aspect of this game is the buddy system. Locked away behind various doors are allies who will add their powers to yours. While you have a handy sword that actually fires projectiles when fully charged it's not good for much when enemies attack from all sides at the same time. With a buddy at your side they'll fire off projectiles that cover more ground. By collecting red hearts they will also level up and grow in the strength. The catch is that they have health meters of their own and thus can be killed off, leaving you to fend for yourself. These buddies range from ninjas to knights to wizards and so on.

While Black Tiger isn't a very hard game, Magic Sword can be quite a challenge. Your health is constantly draining and enemies tend to hit pretty hard. While the game is possible to 1CC it probably involves holding onto a scroll power-up that dramatically increases the rate that enemies drop items(which leads to more food). I've never been able to pull it off myself and since there aren't reliable ways to abuse this trick it can be very tough surviving to the next point where a lot of food can be gathered. Furthermore there's an item that doubles points recieved so people looking to truly master the game will have to avoid the scroll. 

Despite having over 50 stages this game does a fine job of providing variety. While some sections and even a handful of bosses are re-used there are enough additions and changes to make these encounters fresh. Even when you visit a similar area you'll likely have a new buddy and the enemies will be tougher. 

As far as action-platformers go this game is excellent. Part of the challenge is finding that perfect route through each area and knowing when to swap items and buddies to cover difficult situations. Since health is constantly draining there's no good reason to stay in one area or to even stop moving, leading to some frenetic battles as enemies crowd around. I definitely think you should put some time into this game.

Quiz & Dragons - The quiz genre is actually very popular in Japanese arcades as there are hundreds of games for people to test their useless knowledge. In the US however these are quite rare with Quiz & Dragons being one of them. The story goes that there is a great evil and it must be vanquished. In order to do so the player must travel from board to board rolling a die. The spot where the player lands will usually lead to a battle. In these battles both the player and enemy have a set number of hitpoints. Answering a question correctly damages the enemy and the player recieves points for how quickly they answer. Answering a question incorrectly or allowing the time to run out will damage the player. All questions are multiple choice so the player is guaranteed a 1 in 4 chance of success even if they don't know the answer. If they get the question wrong the correct answer is pointed out and the player is given a new question.

There are four selectable characters and they each have a special ability that can make the game easier. One character will randomly do double damage to an enemy while another can reduce the number of choices down to two. This lends a bit of character to the adventure although playing as the Amazon can get annoying very quickly. She does this yell that was ripped from Grace Jones's character in Conan the Destroyer(it's some variation of "YEAH!") and hearing that all the time can get annoying very quickly. The title of the game "Quiz & Dragons" is also a takeoff of the popular "Dungeons & Dragons". It's kind of interesting that in a few years Capcom would put out a couple of D&D arcade games.

The questions in this game cover a large variety of categories and unless you play this game so much that the questions start to loop it can be pretty tough. I've even seen some questions about 90s television. They're really expecting a lot from players of this game cause even I have trouble remembering some of the characters from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Included in this compilation is a special version of Quiz & Dragons that is made up entirely of trivia about Capcom and their various games. This is a pretty neat addition although the questions loop far too quickly. Still it's fun to mess around with for a bit and you can even unlock cheats for the other games if you can answer five questions in a row.

The biggest complaint I have with this game is that it tends to drag. It's best played with a friend cause if you're going for a highscore or something you'll probably get bored with it after so long. It wouldn't be so bad if enemies required less questions to defeat but when many of them have between 8 & 10 hitpoints it can become very numbing.

Side Arms - This game is practically a sequel to Sector Z. You play as a super-advanced ship that turns into a robot. This dude is capable of firing in either direction when mashing the subsequent button. What follows is a bunch of horizontally and vertically scrolling stages filled with enemies and the expected boss at the end.

The biggest problem with this game is that the power ups tend to be frustrating. Your ship is capable of holding multiple weapons that can be swapped between with the simple press of a button. Massive lasers that cut through larger enemies, spreadshots for covering more ground, and so on are clearly marked and all have their uses. The frustration sets in when the power-up itself initially spawns. Like some other Capcom shooters the player can shoot the power-up to change it into different ones. These start off simply as POWs which raise the player's speed. Shooting them a couple times will turn them into an orb which acts as an option for one of the weapons. Continuing to shoot this same power-up changes it into all of the weapons you can collect before finally setting on a backwards POW(which lowers speed). 

How is that a good idea? Getting the power-up you want is easier said than done when enemies are coming at you from both sides and the screen is constantly moving. It's really too much trouble to sit there and focus on getting that one powerup you need. To add to the frustration after a couple speed powerups the Side-arms dude moves far too quickly. The only way to alleviate this problem is by grabbing a speed-down but good luck pulling that off. Enemy shots are fast and accurate so it's never good to sit in one spot for more than a second.

Mashing the fire button is also quite a nuisance. It's enough of a hassle in shooters where the ship only fires in one direction but here it just turns into an absolute pain. It's much easier on an arcade stick as the buttons are easier to mash but on a PS2 controller it just doesn't work well at all. All that said it's still a competent game but there are too many issues that keep me from enjoying it.

The Speed Rumbler - Here we have a unique game. In a lawless future that only Mad Max could survive in people are captured from small towns and held for ransom. You have 24 hours to complete the game while saving people, blowing up bad guys, and driving around obstacles and collecting powerups. Obviously for the sake of being a videogame the time limit in this game is actually 24 minutes.

The game uses an overhead view and in order to complete the stage the player must reach the goal. Standing in their way is a host of enemy cars, guys hiding in windows taking potshots, some really nasty large vehicles, and traps in the form of exploding barrels, landmines, and so on. Your car only fires in the direction your facing so a lot of the time it's more beneficial to focus on the road ahead and not on the enemies hounding you. There's also a considerable bonus for beating the stage quickly. Power-ups are easy to get as there are lots of hostages willing to hand them out provided you can rescue them after breaking them out of the various prisons located through each stage. In an interesting twist however these powerups can be lost very easily.

While your vehicle is pretty hardy it's certainly not invincible. Once your car is in a critical state you have to hop out and continue the fight on foot. You won't last long in this state though you can roll to dodge attacks and fight back with a cannon of your own while you wait for a replacement car to arrive. Thanks to the time limit and the bonuses that come with it there's not much of a benefit to getting a lot of cars destroyed. This isn't even considering that while your car has a fresh tank of energy it also has none of the powerups your last car had. While the point is not lose the car when so much is out to kill you it's always nice to have a last ditch method of survival.

While the concept is unique the gameplay is kind of mediocre. The car is rather difficult to control as it tends to behave closer to an actual car(well as actual as arcade videogame cars tend to be). The level designs are well-done at least and showcase a good amount of variety. Unfortunately with the way your car controls and the way enemy cars behave there's going to be a lot of clumsy bumping around and cars piling into each other. Still I guess with enough time & practice this game could become quite rewarding. It's not my kind of game though. 

Street Fighter & Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo - I'm not much for discussing fighting games on this blog and besides I'm sure everyone is well aware that one of these games is considered unplayable while the other is up there with some of the best the genre has to offer.

Strider - Through five stages our hero Strider Hiryu must kill some evil dictator and engage with a variety of bizarre forces including Amazons, Chinese Acrobats, and Air Pirates. Considered a standout action title at its time this game is imaginative, thrilling, and very difficult. While games like Black Tiger and Magic Sword provide a more traditional action-platformer this game is based more around putting the player through various scenarios that vary wildly from platforming to fighting to mixes of both.

The one constant in this game is Strider himself. His weapon is quite impressive and will cut through most enemies in a single hit(which is good because the time limit is very short and Strider can walk while attacking). His jump is forced to the point where you can't change direction in mid-air so absolute certainy is a must before making each leap. Strider can hang from climb both walls and ceilings and you can be certain this'll happen often. A crouch as well as a slide round out his limited but effective abilities. Power-ups take many forms and can give Strider more life, options to assist his attacking capabilities, a stronger weapon(temporary), and the rare 1up or two. Unfortunately holding onto these powerups can be quite difficult as the options are tied to his health and if he dies or takes enough damage they're gone. 

The levels of this game will require every ounce of Strider's ability because aside from the creative and constantly respawning enemies the levels are designed to the point where even the simplest mistake leads to the death. Jumping at the wrong moment, stopping or slowing down when it's necessary to cross certain gaps, or even just taking that wrong step will lead to death. Considering how situational the game is it almost feels like one of those Dragon's Lair games(except there's nothing telling you where to go to survive). The bosses are actually a welcome break as they tend to be pretty easy and go down in only a few hits. 

While there are only five stages they are nothing short of impressive. For example one stage takes place entirely on a flying battleship that will be destroyed at some point leading to a escape through the crumbling remains. For a game based on setpieces the developers certainly went all out on making them impressive.

The most frustrating aspect of this game is that trial & error rears its ugly head again. There are situations where you have to be standing in a certain spot or else you risk getting killed like a section where you have to dodge bombs while riding a small platform. To add to this there are even a couple areas where one is likely to get stuck. My biggest problem is towards the end where I have to face off against the 4th boss a second time. While I can avoid all of his attacks easily enough I end up running out of time before I can kill him. I'm not sure where exactly I'm going wrong either. Aside from that Strider is an imaginative and challenging action-platformer and it's a shame the sequel was handed off to different developers. The second game is more combat-oriented and the innovative level design of the first game was lost completely. 

Three Wonders - As the title implies this is not one arcade game but three and after inserting your coins(or simply pressing start in this case) you can choose your game.

Midnight Wanderers - This game is a run & gun shooter and features a unique art-style. Evil once again plagues the land and it's up to young men to set things right. The game takes place over a variety of locales but there are a few constants in play. Enemies regular approach from the sides or from various hiding spots, there are power-ups to gather that increase firepower or add an option that does additional damage, and there's a mid-boss as well as a boss to round things out. Both heroes are capable of jumping, firing, and performing a short dash by crouching and hitting jump. Like in Ghosts & Goblins the heroes are also able to take at least one hit before dying and like Sir Arthur they'll be in their underwear until they take that second hit or grab a magic lamp that restores them.

This game doesn't offer much that hasn't been done before and it's been bettered by more contemporary games like Metal Slug. Despite that it's still a worthwhile game as it nails the basics and crafts a fine-tuned game that plays fair while still offering a good challenge. Personally this is my favorite of the three games.

Chariot - The cast of Midnight Wanderers returns but this time they're all part of a side-scrolling shooter. There's a number of good ideas about this game as well as a really bad one. First I'll start with the good like the unique weapon system. As with most other 2D shooters you can choose from one of two powerups. Wide enables a weak spreadshot while Narrow provides a powerful shot with little range. The neat thing here is that you can collect options that act as one-use missiles. Depending on your main weapon this secondary shot provides the opposite effect. So if you have Narrow your secondary will be Wide and vice-versa. Options are replenished over time and when they're not used they act as a tail that can be manipulated slightly to block enemy bullets. The game also implements a time bonus for defeating the boss quickly. When you approach one a large point value is shown and starts to drop rapidly, giving you whatever's left when you defeat the boss.

The big problem with this game however is that the hitbox is simply much too large. Like with any other shooter one hit will end the player's life and aside from the option tail they don't have enough of a chance. Aside from both ships being rather large targets pretty much any part of them will lead to death if it's scratched with a bullet. Very rarely there's a power-up that grants an extra hit but the hitbox is seemingly increased in size so this is lost not long after it's picked up. The game is still well-made and shows some decent level design but the hitbox issue is too large to ignore. This game is not worth the hassle as far as I'm concerned.

Don't Pull - Why this game doesn't use the heroes from the other two games is beyond me. Instead you have a Rabbit and a Squirrel teaming up to eat fruit, smash dragons & blobs with blocks, and do stupid dances. With the name of the game being Don't Pull your goal is to wander through several overhead stages and destroy all of the enemies by shoving blocks at them. It's a simple concept though the game offers up a bunch of ideas to keep things at least semi-interesting.

The levels are pre-arranged in some manner and enemies spawn from manholes littered throughout the playfield. You can step on these manholes or push a block on top of them to slow down their spawn and try to regulate things slightly. When a block is pushed it'll slide across the screen and any enemies caught in its path will get smashed(as expected if you can line up more than one foe you get bonus points). Since blocks have a habit of doubling up when you push on a block sitting next to another one it gets destroyed. Some blocks hold powerups, others act as bombs that stun enemies, and still others are near-invincible and flash when placed to other blocks of the same kind(I'm sure this does something but I can't figure it out). There's also plenty of fruit that can either be found in some blocks or occasionally a giant fruit will spawn that must be touched multiple times to be "eaten" and thus gain the full bonus. 

Good luck with all of that though cause the enemies in this game are relentless. Aside from constantly seeking you out they also gain in speed over time and the dragons have the added ability of fire breath(though they can only attack horizontally...hmm). Arranging blocks to box them in is fine for awhile but these guys will start climbing on top of the blocks to get at you. While the playfield for each area is large enough a chunk of it is patrolled by rolling boulders. Stepping outside of this area could get you killed but enemies that follow you there can be victim to the boulders as well. It's handy for a lsst-ditch escape and not much else. After you've defeated enough enemies the couple that remain might try to escape. It's very clear that the developers were inspired by the Namco classic Dig Dug, as both games have a lot in common in terms of how enemies behave(two different kinds, one breathes fire but only horizontally, will cheat to get at you, they run away when there's only one or left).

While the scoring system in this game is sensible enough I'm not sure why a time bonus was included. In order to get the most points a stage has to be completed in less than 10 seconds. I'm really not sure how this is possible since it takes a few seconds just for the enemies to appear in the level. Sure if you die when there are only one or two enemies left you can respawn, kill them, and still get the full bonus but it just seems like a nonsensical addition. Otherwise I guess it's a fine puzzle game but since I don't follow the genre that often I couldn't really get into this game.

Tiger Road - This game was probably a classic when it first came out but today it hasn't aged well at all. Good guy has to kill the bad guys you've heard it all before, only this time it involves lots of weapon-swinging and running from left to right. Yeah this game doesn't have much going for it from the outset but it gets worse. The controls are fine but enemies have a habit of doubling up on each other. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the fact that you can only hit one enemy at a time even if it's very clear that your weapon is going through more than one. This leads to nothing but headaches as enemies will frequently gang up on you no matter what. This is further compounded by the terrible mechanics. You walk far slower than you jump. In order to traverse a lot of areas you have to keep jumping or risk getting further piled on by enemies. The bosses are awful as well. They're nothing more than really big guys with attacks that you can't see coming let alone dodge. The only way to beat them is to mash away at the attack button and hope that you drain their health before they drain yours. This game is a total mess and not worth wasting any time on.

Varth - In a future where computers control everything it's up to a couple of pilots in some antique planes to destroy an automated army and rescue humanity. I don't even know where to begin with this one. It's a vertical shooter that features some very unique ideas. First off like many other shooters the player has access to a cache of bombs. When a bomb is used up a little meter is shown and when it fills up a new bomb is given. The player can actually recharge this meter faster by moving around a lot. This would probably be easier with a stick though I can't imagine arcade operators being thrilled about that back in the day(imagine how many sticks got broken from people shaking the heck out of them). When you start the game you have a choice between two option settings. The first setting keeps options facing forward no matter the circumstance. Since bullets come from all angles it's not perfect but still suitable for most situations. The more interesting setting is free option. Here both options circle the player and automatically go after bullets that are close to your ship. This is handy yet somewhat unpredictable as some bullets will still get through as the option is busy catching others. 

This is actually a very good shooter that's held back by one very large problem. For starters read the forum post I put in quotes here. Yes I'm really not sure how anyone could think this was a good idea yet Capcom actually went with it. The worst part is that a lot of the levels have more variety and thought put into them than games that are less than a fifth in length. Maybe the developers could have split the game up into multiple paths like a Darius game or found some other way to pare down the considerable length of this game but as it stands I find this title hard to recommend. It's fun to play around with for a bit but for serious players they'll get bored of this one quickly as the bosses take too long to kill and there are just too many long stages. Throw in a ton of hidden bonus items and an additional bonus for not using bombs and it just becomes an exhausting game.

So there you have it. While there are indeed a couple games that are too flawed to be considering great and even a couple too awful to be considered competent there's still more than enough to justify picking this compliation up at a reasonable price. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

AA Look - Capcom Classics Collection Volume 2: part 1

Shortly after the release of Capcom Classics Collection Volume 1, Capcom/Digital Eclipse put out a second volume containing a number of arcade hits. I'll go ahead and say that this compilation is better than the last so if you picked that one up and liked it at the very least you're sure to enjoy this one. Along with Black Tiger and King of Dragons, this compilation includes a number of great arcade games though it contains a few stinkers as well. Anyway enough with the introduction let's get on with the games.

1941: Counterattack - Despite what the title implies this is actually one of the later 19XX games. The levels have undergone a bit of a change in terms of structure as they tend to involve lots of weaving in-between buildings and through enemy bases. What this means is that there are actually walls to contend with alongside the enemies and their many bullets. Touching a wall doesn't cost a ship or even a block of life. Instead the ship spins around and sends the player's bullets in different directions. This can be good for hitting enemies to the side and back of the player though it is rather frustrating in its mechanics. It'd be one thing if the player actively pressed against the wall to cause it to spin but instead they just have to get close enough. This can be very annoying when dealing with enemies that are ahead of the player but situated close to walls.

The weapon & health system is similar to prior 19XX games in that a weapon powerup usually has a time limit and the player can take multiple hits before dying. Sometimes however upon grabbing a powerup it will only be available for about 10 seconds, making it rather useless. I'm not sure how or why this happens but it can be quite frustrating. Also in order to get the optimal rate of fire you have to get a steady button-tapping rhythm going on. Simply mashing the fire button doesn't work. It's rather strange and can be annoying to get used to(especially if you mostly play shooters where you can simply hold the fire button). The player can access a loop that damages every enemy onscreen but the catch is that it costs a bar of health. Getting hit costs a bar of health though so I'm not sure what the point of the loop is. Furthermore if you get hit and then do the loop well you just cost yourself two bars.

Despite being able to take many hits and getting health restored in-between stages this is still a pretty difficult game. The game throws a lot of firepower and enemy forces your way and half the time your ship feels ill-equipped to deal with them. It'd probably be better if there were more weapons that offered a greater range of attack and while the walls can be useful in that respect they're not in every stage. Overall a decent enough title that's held back from greatness due to a number of quirks.

Avengers - This game isn't anywhere close to approaching greatness. This game is in fact outright horrible. I'm not sure what the genre is they were going for here. I guess it's like an overhead version of that classic game Kung-Fu. The sad part is it looks like the developers put forth a serious effort because the mechanics are sensible but the concept is just so poor and there's just no saving it no matter what. The idea should just have never been greenlit in the first place. This game is a curiousity and not much else.

Block Block - Fans of Breakout and Arkanoid will recognize this immediately. Bounce a ball off of a paddle to destroy blocks and get power-ups. This game throws in an interesting design decision that if you take too long to complete a level your paddle shrinks and then eventually breaks. Unfortunately this game wasn't designed for the control scheme in place. The original arcade game used a knob(sort of like the one in Cameltry) and without anything similar in place this port has to rely on the d-pad or analog sticks. Neither control method works well and most of the time the player will over or undershoot the ball, thus leading to many lives lost. It's so bad you'll be thankful to keep from getting outright killed, let alone being able to properly aim the ball to clear the stages quickly and get a lot of bonus points. Might be decent in another form but you may as well skip this version.

Captain Commando - While Final Fight is one of the most important beatemups ever made it isn't particularly great. This game is just one of the many refinements Capcom would make in their attempts to perfect the genre. Whether you play as the Captain, the Ninja, the Mummy, or the Baby you're in for a decent ride. The game takes place over several stages but the goal remains the same. Beat people up, occassionally grab a gun or some health, and then kill the boss. The controls are a bit more fluid than Final Fight and every character is capable of dashing. This game also introduces a unique mechanic in that by double-tapping up or down the player will dash in that direction. This can be handy for dodging attacks though for larger enemies it can still be frustating since they tend to have a wider than expected attack range.

The level design isn't anything special and loses some of the neat touches that added variety to the gameplay(like the fire in the Industrial stage of Final Fight). There's also not enough of a difference between the four playable characters. Some have only one unique move(like the Baby gets a pile-driver) and there isn't any variance in stats like health & speed to cater to different play-styles. 

One interesting aspect of this game is that it's rather gorey. When Mac kills an enemy the flesh is stripped right of their bones, the ninja decapitates most foes(even some bosses), and enemies that burn to death have certainly seen better days. It is sort of odd though how the attractive female enemies don't suffer a similar fate when you defeat them in this particular manner. Regardless this is a worthy beatemup and while it's not as good as later entries in the genre it shows growth and an understanding of quality game design.

Eco Fighters - I'm not exactly sure how this game warranted a release over the brilliant 19XX but ultimately it's still a worthwhile game. In a future where pollution runs rampant two pilots grab a couple of ships and take the fight to big oil, big lumber, and big robots. The game uses a dual-stick setup similar to Forgotten Worlds but there's no shopping or paramecium to be found.

The levels in this game are straightforward and rely more on swams of enemies and their bullets to cause player death as opposed to intricate structures and convoluting traps. The player responds in kind with a fairly unique weapon system. By collecting gems off of defeated enemies a power-up will float on-screen that switches between various "arms". Your current arm can be powered up to five levels but you can also choose from different arms that offer different attacks. Most of these arms can also be charged up to unleash a special attack which can be effective in the right situation. These arms can also catch bullets although only at the tip and really if you're going to rely on it you'll want the arm with the large tip as it'll cover more space. There are also secondary weapons that can be collected. These can be rather useful given the right situation.

Other than the unique weapon system this game doesn't offer much of anything new. Regardless it's competent and features no serious issues. I'd still prefer to have 19XX but eh oh well.

Knights of the Round - This hack'n'slash about King Arthur's trek for the Holy Grail is about what you'd expect of the genre. Seven stages of armored goons, horses, bosses, and even the occasional trap have been set between you and that elusive cup. Whether you're the well-rounded Arthur, Lancelot the quick, or the powerful Percival you're in for a pretty tough ride.

The basics of the game are simple enough. Hitting the attack button triggers a string of swings that'll clobber any enemy foolish enough to get close. A powerful swing can be accessing by pressing the attack button and then immediately pushing forward while a block can be done by doing the same but pushing backward. This is one game that offers rewards for understanding and applying the abilities but the penalty for failure is very high. A successful block not only leaves the enemy open but gives the player a couple seconds of invulnerability. A succesful power swing will knock the enemy down and possibly dizzy them, where the player can either capitalize or turn their attention to other enemies on-screen. This adds a layer of depth usually not seen in hack'n'slash titles. 

The enemy variety isn't the greatest but most of the bosses are exceptional and show off an impressive array of attacks that are not always evaded by either jumping or moving out of the way. A level-up system is tied to score which is actually handled very well. Levelups make the player stronger and refill their health. This game also allows the player to gain points from collecting food when they already have full health. This is a boon to masters of the game who can post some really high scores since they're not so worried about staying alive.

This game is certainly one of the high points in this collection and is a must-play for fans of the genre. I'm not a fan of hyperbole but this game is at least a hundred times better than Golden Axe. 

Mega Twins - Some people might be more familiar with the Genesis port that goes by the name "Chiki Chiki Boys". Anyway this game is a side and sometimes vertical-scrolling action platformer. The game is split into five rounds though the 4th consists of many areas that each end with a boss. I'm not exactly sure why they went with five rounds when it feels more like nine or ten but really it's not that big of a deal. Your main attack is a sword swing. Normally this attack requires that the player be very close to an enemy but occassional a sword swing will deliver a more powerful attack that offers increased range. The levels are short but they're filled with respawning baddies, powerups(including rare ones that up the player's weapon and energy levels), and coins. 

This game offers up a lot of coinage. From hidden spots in the stage to fountains of them when a boss is defeated this game goes all out. Unfortunately the coins are only good for score. In the Genesis version you can actually go to a shop in-between stages to upgrade your gear. I miss this feature in the arcade version even though it didn't really add anything. 

The biggest pain about this game is that when a player is near death an obnoxious clown horn starts blaring. Since it only takes one or maybe two hits to reach critical health that means a lot of terrible noise. It's so distracting that either you've gotten killed or you've killed yourself just so the sound will go away. I'm really not sure why the developers just didn't include some sort of visual indicator. Then again this could be just an issue with the sound emulation. Regardless it's simply not a good idea. Other than that there's really not much to this game. It's playable but unless you really take a liking to it you'll forget about it not long after your first playthrough.

Last Duel - This is a vertical shooter with a twist. Three of the stages are traditional stages that feel very similar to the overhead levels in Life Force while the other three having you racing a cyber-bike down treacherous roads. These bike stages have a time limit and you have to reach the end while jumping over cliffs and dodging/shooting your way through tanks, cars, and so on. These stages are really interesting but the regular shooter ones are mundane and dull not to mention they go by very slow. 

I'm disappointed that Capcom didn't pursue this concept further as the later stages showed some good ideas. The ice stage is particularly noteworthy in that it has patches of ice to slip on as well as crumbling cliffs to keep you moving. The jump is really neat too as it can be used to dodge bullets and even hop over most enemies. Why none of this was expanded upon is beyond me. Aside from half of the game being really neat there's also a damsel in distress with her breasts out. Kind of disappointing that the unlockable bonus art doesn't feature more of her. 

VC Look: Super Air Zonk

Sometimes you have to wonder. Just how hard is it to mess up a 2D shooter? Really all you need is a ship, some powerups, lots of enemies to destroy, and some bosses at the end of each stage. Thankfully there's far more to it than that and it's pretty easy to tell the difference between a good shooter and a bad one. It seems odd that Red Company(or Red Entertainment as they are now known) would put out a bad one like Zonk when they're more than capable of doing otherwise. I mean c'mon these guys made Lords of Thunder, how could they go wrong here?

The first time I heard of Zonk was way back when I used to read these Turbografx adverts. There was this new character who was like a cross between Bonk and Cyberpunk. There was a contest where whoever decided the best name for this new guy would win a Turboduo and a couple games. Yeah well I didn't win. While I think Zonk is a dumb name my idea was probably a lot worse(something like Super Lightning Bonk or whatever). Anyway instead of a platformer that involves much hopping around and bonking Zonk became a 2D side-scrolling shooter. 

The game itself is broken up into five stages with both a mid-boss and an end-boss. The fifth stage however mixes it up with three mid-bosses. The stages are fairly basic and feature little in the way of unique level-designs. Most of the variety in each stage comes from the new enemies that inhabit them. While they put up a fight sometimes the enemy is more concerned about doing a cute animation than trying to kill you, which can be rather annoying at times as it throws off the pace.

Zonk is really weak. He starts off with a pea shooter and his only other method of attack is the jump-jets that automatically fire when an enemy or destroyable object gets behind him. The jump-jets are very useful as enemies tend to come from all sides and a number of bosses do more than sit in the same spot and fill the screen with bullets. The pea shooter on the other hand(it even fires green pea-shaped bullets) is absolutely worthless and using it for any extended period of time will get you killed.

Thankfully as expected of the genre there are power-ups that increase Zonk's firepower. There are a rather large number of weapons to pick up but unfortunately they don't gain in strength if Zonk picks up more of the same. It's also very unfortunate that a lot of these weapons kind of suck. The biggest problem with most of them is that they're either weak, have no reach, or have no range. Sure you can't expect to pick up a weapon that does all three but many of these are just sad. One rare item to keep an eye out for is a giant smiley face with shades. Grabbing this summons a friend to assist Zonk(you can either choose your friend before each stage, have one automatically picked, or fly solo). At first all this guy will do is stick close and fire missiles straight ahead(they can also catch bullets and do damage on contact which is very handy). Unfortunately after a certain amount of damage they'll run away. Grabbing another big smiley will cause Zonk to combine powers with his current friend to turn into ship with great firepower and gain several seconds of invincibility to boot. Needless to say triggering this little number will make boss fights a breeze. Word of warning though, some friends are really poor.

Yeah I'm not exactly sure why it works like that but while fighting bosses power-ups continue to spawn. On one hand it's nice to have them but on the other hand they really shouldn't be there. Unfortunately with Zonk I guess it has to be that way because if you die you're back to using the pea shooter. Unless you're able to grab another powerup you'll be spending a long time on the boss and probably dying a couple more times. A lot of these guys fire lots of destructible projectiles. This is fine if you have a weapon to deal with them but with a pea shooter you can either destroy the bullets to keep yourself alive or aim for the boss to try to kill him, you can't do both. That's not even factoring in you still have to dodge the bullets that can't be destroyed.

I don't typically bring up technical issues in games because most of the time they don't actually affect the gameplay. While Zonk suffers from slowdown it's not something I'd make a big deal out of since slowdown makes it easier to dodge things. The bigger problem here is flicker. If you've never heard of flicker you should consider yourself lucky because it plagued a lot of early games. Essentially when too much is happening for the system to handle things tend to disappear. Things like bullets, enemies, and so on could suddenly disappear out of sight. Where this becomes a major issue is that these things don't actually disappear and you can still be killed by them. It's one thing if you know how these bullets and enemies work and can predict where they'll go to but there are usually a number of important things to deal with aside from focusing on invisible stuff(like not getting killed by the stuff you can see). 

The problems with Zonk come to a head at the final stage. While the game is only five stages long the developers really dragged this one out. Not only do you have to deal with two rival Zonks who you face independently before they decide to team up but you also have to face all four prior bosses again and eventually take on the final dude. Even if there was nothing else to the stage it would be overly long but the developers threw in segments of regular foes to contend with as well. 

Where it gets just plain ridiculous is that despite all of the deaths you're likely to get the bosses dole out so many bonus points you tend to get a lot of extra lives. Heck beating the first form of the final boss will probably leave you with 9 lives. Should be more than enough to finish the game right? Wrong. The problem with the final boss is two-fold. For one you can't get any powerups and two(this is the clincher) the boss fires these projectiles that don't harm you but catch about 90% of the bullets from your pea shooter. This means that despite the final guy being relatively easy he can still wear you down and eventually take all of your lives away. Most of his attacks are fairly easy to dodge except for his homing missiles. They're destructable projectiles but since your pea-shooter is getting blocked that means you can't destroy them, but of course they'll destroy you. I actually went through an entire stock of 9 lives against the final boss, that's just how bad it is.

Zonk offers I assume unlimited continues but they don't make any sense. I got a game over and continued on the first stage(don't ask) and I restarted with the initial stock of three lives. Well I got a game over on the fifth stage and somehow I ended up with six lives. I guess they tack on an extra one after each stage? Maybe the developers realized at the last second that the final stage is far too long(and why the 1ups are so generous). In any case it's obvious they goofed up pretty badly here.

So while Red Entertainment has a pretty good track record as a developer -- they've covered an impressive variety of genres from platformers to action to RPGs -- Zonk is for the most part a rather large mis-step. I won't fault it for its art direction or music as both are really good but the competent gameplay is marred by some insufferable design decisions and the weapon system really needed some kind of overhaul. I can't recommend this one at all.

Monday, July 13, 2009

VC look: Pulseman

One of the few games that never reached Western shores during the time of the Genesis was a platformer by the name of Pulseman. Released in 1994 by the guys at Game Freaks(who go on to release a cult hit known as Pokemon) this game has finally reached both the United States in Europe via the Wii's Virtual Console.

The story to Pulseman is rather odd. This is taken from Nintendo's Virtual Console/Wiiware press-release: "When noted 21st-century scientist Doc Yoshimaya fell in love with one of his C-Life artificial-intelligence creations, he uploaded himself into his computer, where her program core merged with his DNA, and half-human/half-C-Life Pulseman was born. Doc Yoshimaya's mind twisted as he emerged back into real life, and he became evil Doc Waruyama." Yeah I don't know what to make of it either. This is part of the reason why I tend to ignore storylines when I look at videogames.

Anyway Pulseman is a unique individual in that he can harness electricity to progress through seven stages that all end with a boss. Each stage is divided into many areas that jump between the "real world" and cyberspace(with the only difference being that cyberspace tends to have trippier backgrounds). Along the way Pulseman will find power-ups in the form of S-balls(get 10 to get a 1up), 1ups(get 1 to get a 1up), healing items(Pulsey dies if he takes three hits or falls in a pit), and Electro-balls(which keeps his Volteccer constantly charged for the entire area).

Without the volteccer Volt-head isn't much of a platformer-hero. He has an impressive jump that is easily controllable, a chop that serves as his main attack, a crouching kick for the handful of enemies that stick close to the ground, and an upwards flying kick for enemies directly above him. However by either running across the ground for a short distance or by performing a dash(double tap either left or right) Volts will gain a burst of energy. This burst can be used with the chop to create a Flash Arrow projectile which is great for killing distant enemies but not much else. By pressing the A button though Pulseman will unleash the Volteccer where he will form into a bolt of pure energy that moves him in an upwards 45 degree angle. After a short distance he will revert back to normal form and he'll have to recharge to use the volteccer again. While volteccing Pulsey can bounce off walls which will also keep the burst charged and thus allow him to travel up through narrow shafts and other similar areas with little trouble.

Aside from bouncing off of the walls the volteccer can also be used to travel across electro-paths. These are designated by a line and the colors on the tips match your current health status(blue, yellow, or red). These can be used to progress and if two are close enough together Pulseman can hop between them. Thankfully the volteccer doesn't need to be charged so you can attach to them as long as you're close enough when you press the A button.

Since our hero is so effective with electricity it's only natural that his biggest weakness is water. Aside from draining his strength so that enemies require more hits, the volteccer and all of its abilities is rendered useless. In fact mere contact with water will stop Pulseman dead in his tracks. It doesn't do any damage but volteccing over a pit only to run into some water is an easy way to die.

The foes that Pulseman faces off against are fairly minimal. Cybernetic frogs, mice, birds, and other such woodland creatures are really not much of a threat. The bosses on the other hand are a different story as they require using Volt-head's powers effectively. Still though one will discover that most of the headaches in this game will come from the levels themselves. There are plenty of pits to fall in, lots of water-based traps(including jerks that home in on you), and one of the stages is actually a bit of a labyrinth where you have to find the right path or you risk repeating the area forever(thankfully it isn't that hard to figure out). All that said though this game really isn't very hard as you can quickly amass a ton of lives and death via taking too many hits is pretty rare.

The star of this game is the level design. While the first stage plays it fairly pedestrian the later stages feature vivid art direction and more importantly an excellent variety of traps and structures that make each stage unique as well as bringing their own challenges to the table. Not only does each new area offer something new but ithey're also well-designed to the point that they don't feel half-baked or out of place. Pulseman's volteccer ability also gives the player a ton of freedom in how they progress through the stages. Whether they use it all the time or sparingly the stages are for the most part suited to support both play-styles(though there are plenty of situations where the volteccer is either needed or can't be used at all). I think this aspect of the level design is exceptionally important since no matter what is going on the player still has full control of Pulseman and his abilities. 

One rare aspect is that this game actually has a well-done scoring system. It's nothing spectacular and there are no in-game rewards for achieving high-scores(though you do get 1ups after a set number of points) but it's certainly competent and gives players something to do after they've managed to beat the game with losing a life or even taking damage. In-between stages there's a bonus round where the player uses the volteccer in an attempt to destroy all of the blocks. It's sort of like Breakout or Arkanoid except it uses the game's mechanics and controls. Unfortunately these get very difficult very quickly but are essential for getting a good score. 

Another great feature of this game is that it has more than enough identity to go around. Unlike most other platformers of the 16-bit era this game isn't trying to be Sonic or Mario. The level design features sharp angles and is intentionally built for usage of the volteccer and so on. It's really unlike anything either of those other games is known for. To add to this Pulseman's abilities are very unique and have some interesting mechanics. His dash for example can also be used to pass through enemies and their attacks as well as cross small gaps. This is especially handy when the ceiling is too low to jump from platform to platform. 

In terms of faults I really didn't find anything noteworthy. I guess if you're the kind of person who feels a platformer should have over 50 stages and be several hours in length you won't like this game. It is a short title but considering it was designed to be played in one sitting and for a high-score it doesn't really matter. Oh sure it's also fairly easy but given the genre that's to be expected. Pulseman gives enough room for the player to try new things that'll make the game more challenging as well as providing entertaining gameplay that'll keep them interested long after they've seen the ending.

All in all I highly recommend this game and platformer fans would do very well to check this one out. Now if only Sega would do something about the lack of a localized Monster World IV...

Virtual On Oratario Tangram XBLA videos

Recently a 120-man tournament was held over the XBLA version of VO:OT. Some videos from it are posted here.

Very impressive stuff.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

PS2 look - Breath of Fire 5: Dragon Quarter

Dramatic changes in the core gameplay are very rare for a series and when they do happen they typically signify the death of a franchise. You may have played the prior Breath of Fires and/or read my thoughts on parts III & IV. Though the games have underwent a number of additions and changes none of them were all that significant. Progression was still tied to exploring an overworld, entering dungeons to further the story, and visiting towns to buy equipment and gather clues. For whatever reason Capcom put together something entirely different for the fifth entry in their only notable RPG series.

Dragon Quarter is yet another tale about Ryu and Nina. Ryu still has the soul of a great dragon inside him and Nina has her trademark wings. The similarities end there however as their storylines are completely different. The overworld we all remember is gone as well, this time it's an underworld where no matter where anyone goes they'll only see the ceiling when they look up. They're joined by a mysterious woman named Lin who is at least some percentage feline(though due to her outfit all that can be noted is her ears and tail). Between the three of them they must reach the surface and maybe see the sky. The usual combination of monsters, evil organizations, bitter rivals, and powerful foes bar their progress.

The most obvious change from just the brief story description is the lack of playable characters. Prior BoFs had many characters with unique abilities that could be swapped out at any time. Here you have Ryu(specializes in melee combat), Nina(offensive magic), and Lin(uses a gun). The game is also a good deal shorter than prior BoFs. Your first playthrough should take at the most 15 hours. If the developers wanted to they could have stopped here and created possibly a side-story that still used the basic gameplay but that simply isn't to be.

Since there's no surface there is essentially no overworld. There are no plains to cross, random encounters to get involved in, oceans to cross with boats or perhaps a whale, and so on and so forth. The game follows a fairly linear path with most of the side areas locked away for one very particular reason. There are a set number of monsters to fight in the entire game and once they're dead they're not coming back(until you start a new playthrough or retry a particular area). The towns have been truncuated into short paths where people merely complain about the state of their world and the usual shopkeepers to help you keep your wares stocked and equipment updated. There's little if any reason to go back to prior areas and your only goal is to push onward and upward. 

Exploration is handled from a third-person behind the leader view. Depending on who is currently the lead(Ryu, Nina, or Lin) they can access a handful of minor abilities. Ryu can swing a sword to open treasure-containing boxes or gain the first strike on enemies, Nina can also strike as well as use her wand to summon nearby treasure to her position), Lin fires her gun which needless to say has its own advantages. All three are capable of placing or throwing a myriad of traps. Some act as merely a lure while others can damage or even hit enemies with status effects. 

The dungeons are crafted of many rooms and hallways filled with monsters. These monsters can be seen wandering around and most will chase you down if they spot you. While not all of them behave the same way and require the same strategies to lure or avoid them effectively dealing with them is handled in the same manner. The goal is to approach these monsters and lead them into a position where you can not only handle a lot of them at once but also that you gain the first strike and possibly wipe them out before they get a chance to react. A great performance in battle is rewarded with more party experience(something we'll get to later). 

The battle system is also quite unlike prior BoFs. Instead of the standard turn-based affair the battle system in Dragon Quarter has undergone a complete overhaul. When a battle starts it takes place in the exact area you initiated the fight(by striking an enemy or getting ambushed) and the enemies are positioned as they were before the transition to battle. Here you are introduced to the AP system. Every action you perform costs AP. Moving to an enemy will cost however much AP it takes to get there and they'll be shrouded in darkness if you're not close enough to attack. All attacks and abilities are divided into three levels with the weakest costing 10 AP and the strongest requiring 30 AP. Once you initiate an attack you can either hit the enemy with another attack of a similar level or you can move up to stronger level and gain a small bonus to damage. This continues until you no longer have the AP to attack. It's simple enough to grasp and necessary for progress as well as gaining party exp. Using items costs no AP so healing/buffs are available as long as you have them. After making your turn your AP is replenished and any leftover will be added in, thus it's possible to have twice your total AP for a round. This is very useful for the later bosses. You can also change your equipment around if need be.

There's a lot of variety in the abilities the player has access to. While most attacks are simply for doing damage a number of them can add status effects, cause debuffs, or even move the enemy around. A common strategy early on is to employ a combination of Nina's trap spells and Ryu's kick that sends an enemy flying backwards. Kicking an enemy into a bundle of traps can wipe them out pretty easily. Furthermore getting a large group of enemies into a single spot is a great idea as certain attacks can damage them all at once. Enemies are effected by movement range and AP as well so they can do some brutal combinations or even be prevented from attacking if the player can keep them far enough away. This leads to a very rich and rewarding battle system as through careful planning and skillful manipulation of enemy behavior the player can rush through most battles with no trouble. The bosses are many in number and they all employ tactics that keep them above the oft-overused description of "guy with lots of HP that hits really hard". Some use the environment in unique ways while others have the assistance of others or use particular strategies. Every major encounter is fresh and exciting. 

The equipment and ability systems are unique in this game in that players don't gain new abilities from levelups. Instead these are found in treasure chests(which are opened with keys that are only gained from destroying monsters), bought from a store, found off certain monsters,  or tied to equipment. Once discovered these abilities can be affixed to weapons or shields(provided necessary slots are available). Though items don't cost AP they do cost inventory space and knowing what to carry is essential for progress. Since items are the only way to heal plenty of those are required but there are also a handful of buffs/debuffs and some very useful items(like one that raises exp gain) should be held onto.

If you've read about Dragon Quarter in the past you've heard of the controversial D-Counter. After a certain point early on in the game the dragon-power inside Ryu is triggered. While this opens up some truly powerful abilities they will eventually consume Ryu. In fact simply running will cause the D-Counter to rise(albeit very slowly). Once the D-Counter hits 100% the game is over. Using Ryu's dragon abilities or the D-dash(which allows him to rush quickly through enemy enemies) will cause the meter to rise at a rapid pace. 

I'm going to take this time right now to point out that the D-Counter is really not nearly as bad as some will make it out to be. On my first couple playthroughs my D-Counter was somewhere around 10-15%. This is due to the simple fact that I didn't need it. It's incredibly useful when applied properly as it can make short work of any boss but it can also make short work of a playthrough if abused. Some people are acting as if there's a strict time limit when really this isn't the case. It's a very well-designed system and perfectly blends the risk vs reward aspect.

With that out of the way there's the other major change Dragon Quarter introduces: The replay system. While this is a short game it introduces a number of sub-systems that may cause first-timers to fumble or a bad encounter that can end their game quite quickly. Furthermore the only saves that are readily available are of the temporary kind and bosses aren't always going to happen when you most expect them. Thus when the party is wiped out (or if the player simply "gives up") the player is given a some options. The player can choose to restart from the last save point provided they saved there using a token. All enemies/boxes from when that save was made and when the player died are respawned(this can be very useful) and the player retains their experience level. However for those who seek a fresh start they can go back and start over the entire game. This causes their level to drop to 1, everything to respawn, but they keep all of their equipment, abilities, party exp, and money. In terms of items only things that are kept in the locker are safely carried over to the next game. So it's always a good idea to put away all of your exp bonus items, certain extremely useful buffs, and others before you decide to restart, retry, or replay. It's a unique method of handling the initial and all future playthroughs.

Future playthroughs? Yep Dragon Quarter is an RPG with replay-value. The replay-value in RPGs typically comes from self-made challenges like beating the game at a lower exp level or going without certain abilities/equipment(though its not limited to just that). In Dragon Quarter the player is expected to play through the game at least a second time to see everything. Additional story sequences and new areas in dungeons that were previously locked away can be discovered provided the player has a high enough D-ratio.

The D-ratio is mentioned several times over the course of the story. It determines the rank of the citizen and that of the player. Starting from 1/8192 the player can eventually achieve the rank of 1/4(aka the highest a human can achieve). How this is done is through a very impressive and deep system. Rather than rate your performance in battles the game has already assumed you've succeeded in fighting and judges you on everything outside of that. This is split amongst seven categories and you must do the following to get the highest possible rank: 

1. Beat the game in 8 hours or less. Though you won't get lost in dungeons spending too much time goofing around or on a tough boss will kill your chances of achieving this goal. This is punishment for the players who rely too much on healing items to carry them through battles rather than through learning how to properly apply what they have.

2. Get 95 to 100% extra turns. Extra turns are acquired by hitting the enemy in a dungeon before they bump into you. How you accomplish this is obvious but like the time there's not one perfect way to achieve this goal.

3. Get 100% completion on the map. This one absolutely requires a second playthrough since in order to access the entire game you need at least a D-ratio of 1/128. This is also good for the players who don't want to go for that 1/4 rank but still want to see everything. The additional unlocked areas also house new abilities and interesting encounters, which help future playthroughs retain their freshness.

4. Open at least 42 Treasure boxes. Simple enough. Since merely walking into a room counts as "completing it" there still needs to be reason for the player to deal with the enemies. This game is masterful in how it implements balance and shows that no matter what the player does there are forces at work that keep them from abusing any aspect.

5. Don't use any save tokens. This requires ignoring the various savepoints in the game. There's still the temporary save as playing a game for eight hours in one sitting is a bit much. Besides if you're at the point where you're attempting a 1/4 playthrough then the bosses shouldn't be a problem. This is done to prevent abuse of the levelup system(since the player could simply retry certain areas to attain a ton of party exp to guarantee they're at level 50).

6. Must be at experience level 50. Note how this ties into the "don't use save tokens" goal. While it may very well be possible to reach level 50 on a regular playthrough most players will have better luck accomplishing this goal by retaining quite a bit of party exp. Besides having a higher level means fights go by faster and easier, which ties into everything else quite nicely.

7. Complete the secret dungeon. After a certain point in the game you can access Dragon Quarter's version of the Fairy town from BoF III/IV. However instead of fairies you control the fate of Antz. Yez I mean Antz with a z. They allz talkz likez zizz and itz realz annoyinz. Anyway through a lot of digging rooms are unlocked that can be filled with everything from shops to sound tests to tons of ways to make more money. It's not too complicated to figure out but on the road to 1/4 there's only one goal in mind. At the end of all that digging is the entrance to a secret dungeon known as Kokon Horay. This 50 level dungeon is quite a trek and as a bonus you start from exp level 1(hopefully you saved some party exp). This is best tackled towards the end of a playthrough as you have all of the available backpack space(found through certain treasure chests) and you can check to make sure you've satisfied the other six conditions to achieving that 1/4. 

However you prepare for this 1/4 rank is up to you but thanks to the retry/replay system you can gather all of the necessary items and party exp as well as fine-tune how you want to go about accomplishing it this task. It helps that every other facet of the game shows excellent design in terms of progression, level design, creativity in enemy behavior, and so on.

Needless to say your work is cut out for you but at least as mentioned earlier you don't need a 1/4 rank to see everything the game has to offer. It does offer an additional challenge and shows the great lengths that Capcom went towards to balance such a unique title. Sure there are critics of many facets of the game like the lack of a reward for not using the D-counter or items not costing AP but the rank system directly works with and against those. Using the D-Counter properly means difficult bosses that consume a lot of time are gone in a snap. Sure you can sit around and use up a ton of items but what does that accomplish? It's a waste of time and resources.  This is a game that is completely aware of every trick the player will use to master it and welcomes it all with open arms. It's a smart game that not creates something new but also gets it right the first time and doesn't need a sequel or three to fine-tune the elements...

...Which I guess is just as well since the only game that remotely qualifies as a sequel to Dragon Quarter is the Xbox 360 game Dead Rising which for the most part also seems to be handled by the same team. Dead Rising is another great game that was unjustly bashed for its unique system and approach. People picked that up expecting a basic zombie slashemup like they picked up Dragon Quarter expecting a basic RPG. A lot of the same ideas are present and the goal to mastering the game is not in survival but in how the player works with all of the various sub-systems and wisely uses their limited time. It's unfortunate that due to a number of factors there is fear among Dead Rising fans that the sequel will do away with the aspects that made the original such a classic.

Cause in the end if either Dead Rising or Dragon Quarter had nothing going for them(which they do as they are both excellent) they still retain their identity. They don't fall into the trap of being just another *insert genre here* game and are able to not only create something memorable but to also show immaculate game-design and are accessible to a large audience.

I'm disappointed in myself for ignoring Dragon Quarter when it just came out and I only got into it a short awhile ago at the low low price of $7.99(local Gamestop). If you haven't given this game some serious time and you consider yourself a fan of videogames I require that you check out. As I might have mentioned in the past, when I say a game is required that is the highest possible recommendation I can make for a game.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

AA & X360 look: Raiden Fighters Aces

This compilation of all three Raiden Fighters is a necessity for all fans of 2D shooters. If you haven't purchased it already then either you have better plans for that $20 or you live in Europe. For the unaware RFA is a compilation of all three Raiden Fighters games. These games date back to Seibu's first standout title Raiden 1 which at the time was one of the most popular 2D shooters in the arcades. After Raiden 2 and some arranged version Seibu went on to do Raiden Fighters 1, 2, and Jet. While based on the Raiden lore and featuring a number of the same ships & power-ups the gameplay underwent a number of changes. 

To start with while Raiden games typically only have one or two selectable ships, Raiden Fighters has an assortment of them all with varying speeds, weapons, and even bombs(the kind that make a big explosion and can be used to escape deadly situations). The stages in Raiden games are longer but less active, with a lower number of enemies and bullets flying around. Fighters condenses these things into shorter yet more intense levels, with a greater emphasis on scoring. Aside from these major changes as well as others Raiden fans will have little trouble adapting to Fighters as they share the same vertically-scrolling shooting & dodging we've come to expect from the genre.

The ships of Raiden Fighters have a standard shot and a secondary weapon. Grabbing an M(issile) or an L(aser) powerup will increase the strength of the secondary weapon along with the standard, giving most of the ships two different weapons. Some ships can actually powerup both M & L levels though it's necessary to reach the ship's optimal strength. Bombs are handed out fairly regularly as well and are good for either escaping or for scoring opportunities. Lastly there are the Slave ships which the player can carry two of at any time. These handy ships can take a bit of damage as well as dish out some of their own. Furthermore by grabbing certain combinations of weapon, medal, and slave powerups the ships will enter new formations(like homing in on enemies, firing at an angle, increased firepower, and so on). 

All three Raiden Fighters are very similar to one another in that they share various sub-systems and objectives though the level layout & design is quite different. The slight differences are usually attributed to how each game handles scoring and stage progression. The later games also have more to offer in terms of selectable ships but there's really nothing that makes one title better than the others(though gamers are free to have their own preferences). Though you only get three lives and no extras through hidden locations or score all three games are actually not too hard to complete(that is beating the game without continuing). Granted there are additional difficulties that make enemy bullets move faster as well as cause them to spawn bullets when destroyed but on a normal playthrough it's almost easy to complete this game(especially if you use the "slave ship" or the "fairy", which are easily accessible and combines small-size with heavy firepower). Since completion isn't an issue we can focus our attention on the scoring system as this is what makes the series work.

Getting a high-score is distributed through a large number of sub-systems that must all be exploited to their full extent. Destroying enemies is fine but bonuses are handed out for destroying larger enemies quickly as well as destroying certain enemies at near the same time. Medals(the "coins" of 2D shooters) are constantly appearing through destruction of ground targets as well as flying enemies. Not only can these be collected for points but they can also be chained for an ever-increasing bonus as long as none slip past the bottom of the screen. Last but not least is the existence of hidden micluses(a Seibu mascot..who is playable in RFJ) and fairies. Micluses dole out tons of medals while fairies dole out bombs(you can also collect the fairy for massive points but don't shoot her!). Learning where these critters are and how to trigger them is another essential aspect to scoring. If that wasn't enough all bullets that don't destroy your ship but get close enough to scratch it lead to points. Throughout all of this you still have to be aware of the fact that you're more likely to be killed since you're focused more on scoring than survival, which is where the challenge really sets in.

The structure to the first two Raiden Fighters is rather unique. On the third and sixth stages the player must contend with a massive bossfight(like a battleship, a train, a huge ship, and so on). This puts a bit of a spin on the traditional vertically scrolling stages and can lead to the player essentially circling the huge bosses while seeking out various points to destroy. It's nothing drastic but can take a bit of adjustment since enemy placements are more likely to come from behind or the sides. This does however show off one of the many great features RF employs. Though the game scrolls vertically the player can move the screen a short distance to the right or left. Enemies at the sides will become hidden and while you can still hit them(for the most part) they won't fire upon you. It's also good that if you're on top of a cannon it can't hit you(this is necessary to uncover some micluses actually) and if you're playing on expert mode suicide bullets won't spawn if you're close to an enemy when you destroy it. Unfortunately despite all of this the developers forgot to note that same stages make it difficult to see enemy fire. All bullets are a yellowish color and tend to blend in with like-colored backgrounds. Furthermore some stages have foreground effects(like clouds) which can make some deaths rather frustrating in a "I didn't see that!" kind of way. This is somewhat dealt with by being extra cautious in those situations and it also even helps to pay attention to the announcement that the player has speedily destroyed an enemy. Why this announcement is important is because it lets the player know that they destroyed an enemy before they could fire a shot. Needless to say this can be very useful. Regardless of the issues the RF games are really short(about 20 minutes apiece unless you can trigger RF2's second loop) so memorization of the basics of a level shouldn't be too much trouble.

Simply put all three of these games feature phenomenal gameplay. If you're the kind of person who likes taking five minutes to kill a boss while dodging an endless deluge of pink vomit this isn't your game. Raiden Fighters moves quickly and most bosses go down in less than a minute. Course on that same note you can hold back your attack and attempt to get some extra points by letting bullets scrape your ship but that can be risky as RF bosses toss out more and faster bullets as time passes(before they ultimately self-destruct to prevent milking). The pacing of these games is excellent and you're never left without something to destroy or get destroyed by. Even if you're able to attain the highest possible score you still have other ships to play as, giving further reason to continue playing. There's certainly quite a bit of depth but it's all very accessible and aside from possibly requiring an FAQ to find those micluses/fairies there's no overly complicated sub-systems that'll require you to adapt to some bizarre and overly unique style of gameplay. Probably the most confusing at first is triggering the X-medals in RFJ(which is extremely important for scoring). Once you get over that hump however it's fairly smooth sailing though.

If your experience with Raiden Fighters is limited to an emulator you're doing yourself a severe disservice by passing on Raiden Fighter Aces. This port knocks it out of the park with an absolutely insane number of options. Aside from the previously mentioned difficulty settings there are video options that handle multiple resolutions and even framerates(yes there is a noticeable difference between playing these games at 54 and 60 fps). To add to this there are additional modes such as a Boss Rush and a score attack(try for the highest score in a short amount of time). The leaderboards are absolutely impressive in that they account for every possible ship, difficulty setting, and mode. There's more than enough content to justify for the completionist and with three of the best shooters ever made there's hardly a reason not to pick this up(unless of course you can't).