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.