Saturday, 19 August 2017

Pastel Muses (Saturn)

There's a lot of iteration in the world of puzzle games: one game gets popular, and other developers try to replicate this success by taking the core mechanic of that game, and adding to it, or changing it in some way. Sometimes it might be the same developer, like how Taito tried to repeat the success of their Puzzle Bobble games by taking those games' ruleset and applying it to an Arkanoid-alike when they made Puchi Charat. Softoffice, developers of Pastel Muses and no other games before or since, took the "shooting coloured bubbles at each other" concept from Puzzle Bobble, and moved the target bubbles from the top of a well to the bottom of a small valley.

To clarify, like Puzzle Bobble, Pastel Muses has you control a cute character firing coloured bubbles from a device, with the aim of matching sets of three or more to make them disappear. The difference is that while PB has you at the bottom of the screen shooting bubbles upwards, PM has you on the left of the screen, shooting them to the right. That is a little unfair of a description, though, as there's a big difference in how the two games control, too. In Puzzle Bobble, the test of your skill in in precision aiming, like a sniper: your job is to point your gun in the exact right direction to make the bubble go where you want it to, and the bubble will travel in a straight line in whatever direction you shoot it. In Pastel Muses, however, the direction in which your gun is pointing is pretty much irrelevant, and instead, your task is to determine the power with which your bubbles are fired, determined by how long you hold down the fire button. Furthermore, Pastel Muses' bubbles don't travel in straight lines, but arcs, reliant on how much power you use to shoot them.

Another twist is that the playing field is on a hill, with the player at the top and the game ending when a bubble reaches them. So, if you pop bubbles near the bottom of the hill, those above will roll down to take their place, causing traditional puzzle game chain reactions. It all takes a bit of getting used to, but after a few plays, you'll pick up the knack of instinctively knowing just how long to hold the fire button down to get the bubbles to go where you want.

There's a few different modes of play based around the game's basic idea. There's a mode directly lifted from the Puzzle Bobble games where you play various sets of preset puzzle stages laid out in a branching alphabetical path, there's a kind of survival/time attack hybrid mode where you clear stages as fast as you can against the time limit, with a small amount of extra time being added after each stage, and there's a more traditional survival mode where the bubbles keep gradually advancing until you can't keep them back any more. The time attack is probably the best of the three, feeling more urgent and more arcadey, it's a shame there aren't more puzzle games with a similar mode.

Pastel Muses is an okay game. If you really like puzzle games and the satisfying feeling of slowly mastering a slightly unintuitive control method, then it's worth a shot. Bear in mind, though, how much I mentioned Puzzle Bobble in this review, since it's so incredibly derivative of it that it'd be a lot more difficult to describe without mentioning its inspiration. So if you're a stickler for originality, it might not be for you.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Space War Attack (PS2)

When I first started playing Space War Attack (also known as Simple 2000 Series Vol. 78: The Uchuu Taisensou), I had planned to liken it to a videogame version of an Asylum movie. But as I played it more, I realised how unfair that was: as much as I love The Asylum, the name conjures, in most people's minds, an image of incompetence and lack of imagination. Now I'd say that's unfair as a start, since The Asylum have made plenty of legitimately enjoyable movies and TV shows and it'd take a tedious snob to deny that. Actually, Space War Attack IS like an Asylum film in videogame form: it takes a simple concept and a low budget, and combines them with a shameless kind of creative enthusiasm to create something that's a ton of fun.

Anyway, it's a 3D action-oriented combat flight sim-type thing, in which you fly around, firing locked-on missiles at enemies and so on. The hook, though, is the enemies themselves: while most stages will have a squadron of enemy fighters getting in the way, which look a lot like organic fighter jets (kind of like the ones in Space Harrier II), your main target enemies are a bit more exciting. There's bigger fighter/bomber aliens, which look kind of like the Toho kaiju Battra, there's giant scorpions and snakes, meteors, enormous flying mechanical starfish, and so on. A lazier person would sum it up as being "Earth Defence Force in a fighter jet!", but though there's a lot of undeniable similarities, the atmosphere and feel is totally different, in some vague, hard to describe way.

I think special note should also be made of the settings for the stages. Though it does partake in the traditional Simple Series cost-saving trick of reusing maps at different times of the day, those few maps are really great-looking. In the stages I've played so far, I've seen, among others, a city in the middle of the desert, a series of super-futuristic solar/hydro power plant facilities in the ocean, and a bigger city that's built on a concentric series of artificial islands surrounding a huge volcano emerging from the sea. It's all very futuristic, and more importantly, with its gleaming cities, blue skies and apparent commitment to renewable energy, it is as the Overwatch slogan goes, a future worth saving.

In my review of Savage Skies, I compained that a common problem I've had playing this genre is that you often end up chasing a little arrow pointing to the nearest enemy off the edge of the screen. I don't know how the developers did it, but that's not something I've had much of a problem with in Space War Attack, and it's even better when you unlock long-range lock-on missiles a few stages in. It seems that the developers Bit-Town are responsible for a few other PS2 flight sims, and I may well seek them out at some point in the future, so high is this game's quality.

Space War Attack is a great game: a cool setting, and a ton of fun to play. The downside is that it's a good game from the Simple 2000 series that got a PAL release, which means that copies are hard to get hold of, and as such, there's currently none of them on Amazon, and the cheapest on Ebay is about £50. You might have better luck looking for the Japanese version, though.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Curiosities Vol. 13: CD Battle - Hikari no Yuushitachi (PC Engine)

I'm sure anyone reading this blog is probably aware of the Monster Rancher games, especially the first one on Playstation, that did some kind of scanning thing to music CDs you put in and turned them into monsters you could train to battle other monsters. CD Battle: Hikari no Yuushatachi is essentially a kind of primitive ancestor of that game. So primitive, in fact, that it's barely a game at all.

You load the game up, then insert two CDs, which are turned into RPG parties of three members each. The two parties then fight in front of a fantasy backdrop. There's not much in the way of balance, and some CDs will generate a party member with masses of HP that can just steamroll the entire other team solo. Also, though the boxart promises robots, dragons and other cool stuff, all I ever got were archers, fighters and (very rarely) magic users. I guess the point of it is that two players put their CDs up against each other, then pass the controller back and forth, commanding their parties, to determine through combat who has the best musical taste.

It's a shame there's no kind of single player content, like a quest to send your party on or something, but as I played a few times, I begun to realise why there wasn't much to the game (and also why a game with such simple graphics requires the Super CD Rom RAM card). I noticed that to change the backdrop for your battles, you had to reset the console and load the game up again, and that's when I realised it: once the game is loaded up, you never have to put the game disc back into the console. So clearly, the entire game is loaded into RAM before you start.

I haven't been able to find any information regarding this game's price on release, but I really hope it was a budget title, since there's really nothing to it at all beyond a few minutes' mild amusement. You can find copies online for only a few pounds now, though, if you're interested. (I haven't tried to play it on an emulator, but it seems like it'd be more hassle than its worth.)

And in case anyone's interested, the CDs I used in the making of this review were Blind Guardian - Beyond the Red Mirror, Cradle of Filth - Bitter Suites to Succubi, The Offspring - Americana, Rhapsody - Rain of a Thousand Flames, and Arch Enemy - War Eternal (which defeated every opponent put in front of it).

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Devil Zone (MSX)

Since I've recently been playing more Famicom games, I've grown a strong affection towards the single-plane beat em up, as a genre. The nice thing about the genre is that it's so simple at its base that developers only need to have one or two mechanical additions to make for an interesting and worthwhile entry. The one positive thing I can say about Devil Zone is that its developers definitely weren't short on ideas, and they were actually ahead of their time in some ways! Unfortuantely, not only are the ideas they had not particularly great, they weren't really very well executed, either.

So, as expected from the genre, you walk from left to right, kicking monsters in the head, until you reach the stage's boss. Now, I have to admit that I only had the patience to get as far as the second boss, but in my defence, this is a game that relies a lot more on luck and patience than it does skill. The main ideas that the developers added to the skeleton of the single-plane beat em up are magic items and a weapons shop. The magic items can be stored until needed, and have various different effects, like invincibility, killing all onscreen enemies, stopping time, and so on. The weapons shop itself has enough weird idiosyncracies surrounding it that it gets a paragraph all of its own.

Firstly, you can access the weapons shop at any time. Secondly, the currency you use (red stars) is, like the magic items mentioned above, randomly dropped by enemies. The third, and strangest point about the weapons shop is that there's another set of randomly dropped items that cause the prices to fluctuate when collected. There's three orbs than can appear: a green one that reduces the prices, a red one that increases them, and a blue one that returns the prices to their defaults. Such a strange idea! Anyway, the weapons are completely essential to defeating the bosses.  More specifically, the last three weapons are projectile weapons, and without one of these, you'll face extreme difficulty in fighting the bosses. The best one, oddly, is the second most expensive one, while the two cheapest weapons are melee weapons, and are so slow that they'll probably get you killed rather than help you in any way.

So, to sum things up, what Devil Zone brings to the table are two things you've seen me complain about many times before: skill/weapon shops, and an emphasis on luck over skill. Another thing that kills it for me is that if you do save up enough stars to buy a decent weapon to fight the boss with, and you die, you lose your bought weapon, and with no weapon and slim chance of building up a stock of stars to buy a new one before you get back to the boss, you've probably gotten as far as you're going to get on this run. Needless to say, Devil Zone is not a game I recommend seeking out and playing yourself.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Parasol Henbee (Game Boy)

So, this game is based on an anime I've never seen, and had never heard of before playing the game. And I wouldn't have even heard of the game itself had it not happened to be one of the 66 games built into some models of the excellent Game Boy Color clone, the KongFeng GB Boy Colour. So what kind of game is Parasol Henbee? It's a platform game with an incredibly sedate pace and feel, akin to going out for a leisurely stroll.

You play as the eponymous Henbee (or possibly Henbei, depending on the romanisation), and you literally just got from left to right on each stage, avoiding enemies and hazards until you reach the end. You do have an attack, but it's awkward to use, and it depletes your health almost as much as getting hit by an enemy does. You start out with pretty low health, though there is a reason for that: your walking speed and the height/length of your jumps has a correlation with the state of your health bar, and there's lots of little items floating around that increase your health a tiny amount. Of course, this means that in later stages, when the platforms start getting smaller, and the gaps between them bigger, if you take a few hits, finishing the stage becomes basically impossible. And there are points in those later stages that require military precision to avoid touching the enemies.

There's not much else to say about the game, mechanically speaking. There's no bosses, very little variety, and you can get through most of the game without feeling any sense of progress or achievement. There are some interesting things to say about it aesthetically and thematically, though! Firstly, Henbee looks like a Mr. Saturn from Earthbound, though this game and the series on which it's based is older than that game. Also, the first couple of stages, which are set in what's clearly supposed to be a friendly Japanese suburb look more like a feral city, left to rot by uncaring corrupt politicians, as the streets are lined with piles of uncollected rubbish and populated by packs of wild dogs and cats. Maybe I'm wrong, and the creator of Doraemon did make a series that was a biting social commentary that somehow got a licensed Gamy Boy game made out of it, but I'd be very surprised if that were the case.

I don't recommend Parasol Henbee. It's not interesting enough to bother hunting down, and even if you do have a GB Boy Colour and no actual cartridges to put in it, there's plenty of much, much better games on the built in list you can enjoy while waiting for your ebay-purchased carts to arrive.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Iblard Laputa no Kaeru Machi (Playstation)

It's another one of those ~aesthetic~ Playstation games, like previous Lunatic Obscurity entry Kaze no Notam, and while Kaze no Notam was vaguely inspired by the work of artist Hiroshi Nagai, Iblard Laputa no Kaeru Machi is explicity and specifically based on the work of artist Naohisa Inoue, right down to his paintings appearing in some stages as clues.

Besides being an artistic showcase, Iblard is also a first-person adventure game featuring simple puzzles, which are mainly solved by using the right item in the right place. It's actually a lot like a version of Yumemi Mystery Mansion, but set outside and with realtime 3D graphics instead of prerendered FMV fakery, and it is actually from the same developer as both Mystery Mansion games. There are seperate stages, and each one only includes a few items to use and a few items to work with, meaning that all the puzzles are very easy to solve: even if you somehow don't figure them out, it won't take long to get through with trial and error. Another nice thing is that though there's some text and spoken dialogue, there's very little, and you don't need to understand any of it to get anywhere (at least, not in the few stages I've played through).

A quick image search for "Naohisa Inoue" brings up lots of paintings of incredibly idyllic fairyland gardens overflowing with flowers, and those are the environments you'll be exploring in this game. Although there are some minor hazards, they're both easy to avoid and very unlikely to kill you, and they seem to be there simply as some kind of token gesture towards being a traditional videogame. The visuals and music and lack of real threats combine to make a very safe-feeling environment, and everything's very cosy and dreamlike. If you've ever been in either a very verdant garden or a very overgrown bit of forest on a sweltering hot summer afternoon, this game's got a similar feel, to the extent that you can almost feel the pollen going up your nose.  I think the low-poly models and low-resolution textures really help that feeling, and that this would be a very different game were it made at any other time in the advancement of videogame technology.

Iblard Laputa no Kaeru Machi is a game that's completely devoid of excitement, and isn't interesting mechanically, either. However, it is a perfect example of how a game can still be good and worthwhile while not being "good" in any kind of traditional sense. It perfectly creates an atmosphere and the simple puzzles are in there for two reasons: firstly, they give you a reason to fully explore each stage, as solving the puzzles will mean going to each part at least once. Secondly, they create a (very mild) feeling of being a little bit lost in a nice, though strange, place, a feeling which is helped by the fact that the map works like an actual map: there's not movie "you are here" dot, and instead you have to look at certain landmarks on the map and then look for them in the stage to get your bearings. Though it might not be the easiest game to track down, I strongly recommend that you do.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Wiz n Liz (Mega Drive)

Videogames magazines of the early to mid 1990s had something of a strange vendetta against platform games. Even unquestioned classics like Gunstar Heroes, Contra Hard Corps and Alien Soldier would get average-at-best reviews from a lot of magazines, simply for looking like platform games. Obviously, this meant that there were great games that fell by the wayside, and since they never had the series or developer associations that those games had, they never gained the renown they deserved. Wiz n Liz is one such game.

Though it's a UK-developed game that was only ever released on home systems, it could honestly stand up alongside the best single player arcade games, as it is purely about going fast and scoring points. I'd even go as far as to say that with a different aesthetic, the game's design could totally be used to make a perfect Sonic arcade game! The main meat of the game is running arond the stages, which are only a few screens across, rollercoaster-like in design and looping (kind of like the multiplayer stages in Sonic 3), where you collect rabbits, which turn into letters. The first task of each stage is to collect the letters to spell a word at the top of the screen, once that's done, you just have to collect the rest of the rabbits (who now turn into clocks, fruit, and stars, all of which I'll explain shortly) and go to the exit as fast as possible, you have to do two or three rounds of this per stage, depending on the difficulty level. There's no enemies, other than very easy bossfights that occur every eight stages, and your only threat is the time limit.

You start the game with two minutes, and your remaining time carries over from stage to stage. When it runs out, you lose a life, but there are various ways to claw back the seconds. The main two are the clocks that the rabbits drop during the stages, as each one will give you three seconds back at the end of the round, and a glowing time orb worth thirty seconds that appears in a random place on the stage whenever you get down to lesst than ten seconds left on the clock. Now that the clocks have been explained, I should do the other two items, right?

The stars don't really do anything on their own, other than give you points, but with the aid of certain fruits and vegetables, they can do a lot more! The fruits and veg, you see, are spell components, and between stages, you put two of the food items in your posession into a cauldron to get various different effects. This is where the game hides and almost Bubble Bobblian level of secret stuff: as well as item shops where you can spend you hard-won stars on more fruit, extra lives and a few more precious seconds, there's at least three mini-games that can be played for more points, level skips, a fake game over screen and various other weird things. Though obviously, a player who wanted to maximise their score would go online to look up a list of all the recipes for the most useful spells, I would honeslty advise against doing this, as there's a lot of fun to be had in getting a different surprise between every stage, and of course, the world seems a lot bigger when you don't know exactly how much there is in it, right?

Obviously, Wiz n Liz is a game I completely recommend you go and play as soon as possible. It really is a double shame that it never got an arcade release back when it came out, and that it doesn't have the cultural cache to ever get any kind of remake or rerelease on modern consoles. It's a game that excels in pretty much every department and deserves to be much more famous than it is.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Heated Barrel (Arcade)

Heated Barrel is a pretty unfortunate case, as it marks the first time (as far as I can remember) that a game excels in almost all respects, but I can't really recommend it for one particular reason that represents a stupid and unfortunate set of decisions on the part of the developers.

It's a wild west-themed horizontally-scrolling shooting game, presented in a belt scrolly fashion that works really well. You play as a generic cowboy, and you go from right to left shooting crowds of various kinds of bad guys, as well as the occasional bear, bull, ghost or demon. It's very fast and smooth, and feels great to control and play in general. To an extent, it looks great, too. All the sprites are detailed, well animated, and full of personality.

There's not many power-ups or gimmicks to speak of, but the aforementioned smooth speed more than makes up for the lack of mechanical complexity. Repetition isn't really a problem, either, as each stage introduces a whole bunch of new foes to gun down, alongside the ever-present generic enemies. All in all, Heated Barrel is pretty close to being an excellent game, and I wish I was introducing you all to a forgotten, hidden arcade gem. But it's time to get onto that downer I've been alluding to.

The fact is, this game is super racist. From the first stage, a lot of the enemies are racist caricatures: Native American "savages", running around near-naked, throwing stone axes and so on, lazy, corpulent, hairy Mexican bandits with gatling guns and sombreros, and the midboss you fight in the middle of the third stage is a huge, grotesquely muscled black prisoner with a ball and chain and a face that looks like it was drawn by infamous neo-nazi cartoonist A. Wyatt Mann. The style of all the graphics shows that they were clearly trying to emulate the look of classic American animated shorts, the difference being that those shorts are from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, whereas this game was made in 1992. It sucks, but as good as this game is, I don't think that cancels out how awful it is thematically.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Curiosities Vol. 12 - Ultrabox 2 (PC Engine)

It's been a long time since I've covered any discmags, hasn't it? And this oone is especially unusual, since it's for a console, not a computer! Even stranger, it seems to have been aimed at more general audience than "people who really like videogames", being a mix of nerdy stuff with some sort of vaguely lifestylish content and some stuff that's just plain inexplicable. Let's look at each thing one-by one!

First up is Cast: Epitaph from the Pale World, some kind of non-interactive story told in a similar manner to the cutscenes in a lot of PC Engine games: fullscreen pixel art with voice acting and narration. Of course, I can't tell you a lot about it, other than that it's set in 1901, and seems to be about archaeology, UFOs and an alien invasion. An interesting item, kind of a super low budget OAV on a format that couldn't (in 1990 at least) handle any kind of recorded video format. I imagine that if you were a kid with a console in their room but no VCR, this could have been quite a draw.

Next up is Mission, probably the most bizarre item on the disc. What it is, is a database of school uniforms. You pick a uniform, and you're taken to another screen, where you can see that uniform's variations for each season, as well as hear comments from a guy (who I assume is the creator of the section) or a girl (who is different for each uniform). I don't know if the uniforms are original or taken from real schools, but each one also comes with a "data" page that suggests either the creator of this section has way too mcuh time on their hands, or that they are from real schools. Either way, the inclusion of such a feature is totally bizarre.

Third on our itinerary is Kamen Victor, a weird little top-down racing game, in which you play as a parody of Kamen Rider, and ride around collecting hearts and avoiding guys, trying to find the stage's exit before the time runs out. The stages are massive and labyrinthine, so I was only able to get to the third, and it took a fair few attempts just to get past the first. It's a very simple game, but I'm sure some of the more shameless publishers at the time were releasing stuff at full price that wasn't much more filled-out.

Next, there's another game who's title I couldn't read. It's a game in which you and your opponent take turns knocking blocks away from underneath little Darumas. You can knock away as many blocks as you like in a turn, but only from beneath one Daruma. The winner is the one to knock away the last block, and after a few games, I hadn't won a single one.

The next thing is also the biggest and most time-consuming! JJB is a huge gallery of various fan-submitted works, including four-koma comic strips, fanart, letters, a top ten list of what the compilers consider the best of the fanart, with voiceover commentary and what I think is some kind of videogame Q&A advice section. In case you're wondering, the most common subjects for fanart were Dragonball Z, Valkyrie no Densetsu, Ys and Ranma 1/2. For additional context, this disc was released in September 1990.

The last big bit of original content is something just called DATE, which, as you might assume, is a little romantic minigame. It seems to be themed around speed-dating, and there are three girls, who say things to you. Then you can pick from a list of responses, hoping to woo them. At the end, there's a section that I think has you trying to ask a girl of your choice out on another date. Obviously, all the text and speech in this is in Japanese, so I had no idea what I was doing and didn't get anywhere. Never mind.

Other than that, there's a database of available PC Engine games, which includes non-playable demos for the first PCE Ranma game, Ys III and some game that looks like it's based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and an "END" option which lists credits for the disc while playing a cute animation of the Ultrabox mascot dragon flying in front of a sunrise.

Ultrabox 2 is pretty different to other discmags I've seen before, and probably had a broader appeal at the time, though the series only went on until issue 6. They're all available pretty cheap if you shop around online, though, and if you can read and speak Japanese, you could probably have hours of distraction browsing all the content on them, as if they're all like this one, they're packed full of stuff.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Wizkid (Amiga)

I'm not sure if this game is really obscure. I think of it as one of the better-known Amiga games, but I've never actually seen anyone on the internet talking about it, and even the best-known Amiga games don't tend to have a lot of fame outside the UK. So I think it's safe. It's also a childhood favourite of mine, and it's pretty unique, too.

It's the sequel to a much-loved (though I never got into it) C64 shooting game called Wizball, and you play as Wizball's son, Wizkid. Like his dad, Wizkid is a floating orb with a face. He's tasked with defeating screens full of enemies by headbutting bricks in their general direction. If you run out of bricks on a screen, you move onto the next uncompleted screen, minus any power-ups you had. The power-ups on offer are a clown's nose (which lets you juggle bricks on top of your head) and dentures (which let you hold bricks in your mouth. There's also coloured notes that gradually fill spaces on a tune at the top of the screen. When the tune's filled, it rains money and the game completely changes.

First, you're taken to a shop, where you can buy an assortment of seemingly-random objects, like a newspaper, or some coloured glasses. All the items have uses somewhere, though a lot of them are very obscure (I think the developers must have realised this, since the game tells you when to use them). The big change comes with the exits from the shop screen, of which there are too: one that takes you back to being just a head, knocking bricks around, and another that gives you a body, letting you play the other half of the game.

That other half is a kind of simple adventure game taking place in the backgrounds of the head stages. Adventure games have a reputation for having their own logic at the best of times, but Wizkid takes this to extremes. For an example, I'll describe for you some things you can encounter in the first stage. You can ring a bell to summon a door, behind which hides an angry, barking dog. Post a newspaper in the door's letterbox and open it again, and the dog will be calmly sat on a toilet, reading, allowing you to go inside and solve a little weight/pressure pad puzzle. Alternatively, you could go do the well, where you'll find men's and women's toilets. In the women's toilets, you can sit on a toilet and make poo shoot out of a volcano, while in the men's toilets, you can flood the well by flushing a blocked urinal, or you can put a token in the condom machine, inflate the condom that comes out and use it to float away to a series of secret rooms.

And the whole game is full of weird nonsense like that. The point of the game is that you're trying to find a bunch of lost kittens to row a boat to the villain's castle and rescue your dad. I actually got to the "rowing the boat" part as a kid, though I never had enough kittens to get any further. There's one kitten on each stage, and they're hidden in different places, or sometimes you get them by clearing every screen in the head-only game.

Wizkid is a game I definitely recommend. There's nothing else like it, it's bizarre and funny and actually fun to play. Playing it now, though, it seems that I'm a lot worse at it than I was 20 years ago. Boo.