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.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Ichigeku Sachuu!! Hoihoi-san (PS2)

In the year 20XX, the face of pest control is small robots with live weapons, just like in the 2000AD series Banzai Battalion, though unlike Banzai Battalion, this is a Japanese videogame from 2003, so the robot in question is a tiny maid. Anyway, I think the plot is that you're some guy who's bought one of these robots and set up a small business for himself hiring it out to kill the insects in his neighbours' houses, since Japan is a warm, humid country and therefore, full of huge insects with no respect for human privacy.

It's nota very good business model, though, since the fees he collects for this task barely cover the cost of ammunition for Hoihoi's guns. You will be able to afford the best melee weapon after only a few stages, and that coupled with a mastery of sneaking up on the bugs that like to run away, will save you a lot of bullets, and therefore money.

I haven't really explained the game at all yet, have I? It's a 3D third person shooter, that's very much from a bygone age. We've all complained about how a lot of modern 3D games feel very similar, due to them all using near-identical control schemes where the left analogue stick moves your character, and the right moves the camera around them. Hoihoi-san is from the days when a lot of developers hadn't really figured this out yet, so while the left analogue stick does move Hoihoi around, the right stick does nothing at all, the player's only control of the camera being the L1 button putting it directly behind Hoihoi. If you're wondering about aiming your guns, well that's all automatic: if you're near an enemy, a red crosshair will appear on it, and you can shoot them.

The incredibly dated controls aside, this is a pretty good game! It's nothing special, but it looks alright, it's cute, and smashing bugs is very satisfying. Another thing to note about the bugs is that having them be normal-sized and shrinking the player down to their level is far creepier than the typical videogame approach of having normal-sized protagonists and giant bugs. And though all the characters and the stages are cartoony, the bugs are fairly realistic-looking, making them even creepier. The stages are obviously all rooms in people's houses: living rooms, basements, kitchens, etc. You can tell that you're in a different person's house on different stages, though, as different people have different sets of belongings and tastes in decor, which is another nice little touch.

Though it isn't a bad game, I can't really recommend playing Ichigeku Sachii!! Hoihoi-san. Like I've said, it's incredibly dated, and it's also pretty frustrating at first, until you get used to all its little idiosyncracies, and there just isn't anything about it that's interesting or exciting enough to get past its faults.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Penky (Arcade)

It's a tragic thing, when a game has an interesting concept, but poor execution, and Penky represents one such tragedy. The base concept is actually pretty cool, and so simple and obvious that I'm surprised I haven't seen it done before: You walk around painting the floor, like in the old ame Crush Roller, but rather than just avoiding enemies and trying to paint the whole floor of the stage, you are instead competing with another floor painter to have most of the floor yur colour when the time runs out. I guess it's also a little like Splatoon too?

Unfortunately, Penky is a product of Yunsung, a Korean developer whos games have been featured on this blog before, pretty much exclusively in reference to their habit of making poor-quality knock-offs of Compile games. So it might not be an original concept at all, but just stolen from another game of which I'm not aware. All the typical hallmarks of poor games from mainland Asia are in full effect, though: stuff happening onscreen for no reason, low quality sampled music stolen from other sources (including at least one track from the excellent Mega Drive shooting game Thunderforce IV), ugly characters that look like depressing poundshop toys, and a general air of cheapness.

The negativity isn't just confined to the game's presentation, either: it also plays really badly. Now, the aim, as I've already stated, is to make most of the floor your colour before time runs out. So fast movement should be key, right? And there is a power-up that makes you move very fast for a couple of seconds. The problem is that there's also a bunch more power-ups that don't seem to do anything at all, and a lot of the time your character will be slowed to a crawl, or even just randomly stopping to do a stupid pose, both with no obvious reason or explanation. Also, during the matches, other characters will sometimes appear and wander around, clearing both player's colour wherever they tread. All this adds up to a game that's competitive in concept, but completely down to random chance in practice, making it a useless waste of time.

There's other problems too, like how, if you're playing single player, you'll just fight the same opponent over and over on different stages, no matter how many times you beat them. But really, talking about Penky any longer would just be flogging a dead horse. All you need to know is that it's awful and you shouldn't bother playing it.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Curiosities Vol. 11 - Tarot Uranai (3DO)

Although they've been around since at least the mid-80s, you'd think that tarot computer programs would be pretty useless to anyone. If you don't believe in cartomancy, then any kind of tarot, digital or otherwise, is a total waste of time, and if you do, then you'd also presumably know about the various taboos and traditions regarding the touching of cards, and how they're meant to come into the posession of the reader, and so on. But they do exist, and I'm pretty sure they're still around on things like the soon-dead X Box Live Indie Games marketplace, and on mobile phones and the like, too (Though I haven't actually checked, it seems like a safe bet).

Tarot Uranai has something over any of the other tarot programs I've seen, though: production values! Every other example I've seen has either been a very low-fi pixel art dealy on 8-bit formats like the MSX or Game Gear, or maybe even just a secret mode in a proper game like the Playstation port of Puzzle Bobble 4. But Tarot Uranai is on the 3DO, and of course that means FMV and pre-rendered CGI!

So yeah, there's a nice, short CGI intro showing some trees, and then you're presented with a room with three doors, representing three different options. The left door has a cross on it, and takes you to a traditional kind of reading, where a bunch of cards are drawn and laid out in a specific pattern. The middle door has a kind of magic circle design on it, and takes you to a big crystal with the works love, money, business and health. You pick one, and the cards are shuffled, then placed in a big circle, from which you pick one, which I guess reveals your future in that aspect of your life. The final door has a book on it, and contains a little tarot database, where you can look up all the cards and their meanings and such. Whichever option you pick, everything is presented and explained by a Japanese woman with a scarf covering her face speaking in front of bluescreened-in CGI backgrounds.

Like I said earlier, Tarot Uranai is a program with no real utility to anyone, especially people who can't read or understand Japanese. But it's not completely worthless! It does have a great aesthetic that perfectly marries early 90s CGI and a kind of vague pseudo-mysticism in a nice way, that feels like it could have been used as part of the plot-of-the-week in something like the live action Eko Eko Azarak TV series.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Action Hollywood (Arcade)

A derogatory term that's popped up with regards to modern open-world games is "tidying up games", referring to the fact that they're all mostly the same mechanically, and that they all give you a large, open playing area and a checklist of things to go and "tidy". They're very popular games, though, since while they aren't particularly exciting, they aren't really bad, either, and until a player cottons on to the fact that they aren't being excited or stimulated, they can be both addictive and time-consuming.

In many ways, Action Hollywood is a kind of forbear to those games, though purely by coincidence, since this game was never popular enough to have influenced anything. Not only is it completely inoffensive and unexciting, but it's a game about walking around maps tidying them up. Well, you're walking on floor tiles to change their colour, rather than picking things up, but mechanically speaking, it's the same thing. There's also lots of extra points items hidden in the walls, and enemies roaming around.

You can't say they didn't at least try to get a bit of excitement in there,  since there's a slightly Bubble Bobble-esque thing regarding the enemies. When attacked, they fly away from you until they hit a wall. Any enemies they hit along the way are killed, and killed enemies drop points items. You can also kill enemies by hitting while they're dizzy next to a wall. Its' still not enough, though, as there's just no satisfaction in doing it.

The "Hollywood" theme is an excuse for having stages with different themes: jungles, medieval, gothic horror and sci-fi, and you can pick which one to start on. An odd thing to note is that a short sample of the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme repeatedly plays during the castle stages. They all play exactly the same, though, other than different graphic sets (including different spprites for the player character, which is something, at least).

In summary, Action Hollywood is an incredibly average game that is neither good nor bad, it simply exists and takes up time. If it was a game that came packaged with a computer's operating system like Solitaire, that'd be fine, but it's an arcade game, and the makers expected people to pay to play it, which is practically an insult.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Crest of Wolf (PC Engine)

So, Crest of Wolf, which is also known as Riot Zone, is a port of the arcade game Riot City. Wikipedia says that the reason for all this is that while Westone owned the rights to the game itself, while SEGA owned the title and all the characters. I don't know how true that is, but since it sounds like the arrangement that lead to the altered PC Engine ports of the Wonderboy in Monsterland games, it seems plausible.

Anyway, it's a pretty average beat em up, of the kind that sprouted up in their dozenns in the early 90s, following the release of Final Fight. It doesn't do anything particularly interesting or innovative with the forumla, with the characters only having pretty basic movesets, and there aren't even any weapons to pick up and use. To make things even worse, this port of the game doesn't even have a two-player mode, which is a particular shame, since I was looking forward to playing this co-op when I eventually got round to getting a multitap and another controller for my PC Engine.

It does have something in its favour, though: its aesthetic and presentation! The usual beat em up influences of Hokuto no Ken, The Warriors and Streets of Fire aren't so present in Crest of Wolf, and in their place is something a little more interesting. The game takes place in a very chinese-looking lawless island city that's reminiscent of the real-life Kowloon Walled City, which was in the process of being demolished when this game came out in 1993. Another possible inspiration that came to mind when I saw the mouldy concrete, rotting brickwork and general dilapidation of the locales seen in the game is Jademan Wong's comic Oriental Heroes, specifically the late 1980s incarnation that got a run translated into English.

It's not only original, but also really atmospheric, even with minimal animation. There's one part in particular that really caught my imagination: near the start of stage three, you fight in front of a seedy mahjong parlour, with people crowded round small tables, sat on stools and chain-smoking as mice scrurry back and forth across the floor. The boss of the same stage is an evil acupuncturist who you fight in his office, with diagrams on the walls and so on. I don't know why more games haven't used a similar setting.

So yeah, on a purely mechanical level, Crest of Wolf isn't anything special. It's not bad, but it's not a lost gem of the genre or anything, either. I think the setting and the atmosphere more than make up for that, though, and it's a game that's definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Loopop Cube Loop Salad DS (DS)

Like Binary Land, I also received a physical copy of this game as a kind gift from a patreon subcriber, this time Justin, of the excellent (though sadly seldom updated) site, Tinpot Gamer! This time, it's a cute puzzle-platformer that was ported to DS from the Playstation. Unfortunately, I haven't played the Playstation version, so I can't tell you how they compare. I can only tell you about this version on its own terms.

Anyway, the biggest thing that will hit you about this game is the presentation: there's lots of art in the cutscenes and on the title screen and in the backgrounds of the stages by prolific artist Izumi Takemoto (who has appeared on this blog before, back when I reviewed the Saturn adventure game Dinosaur Island). I don't think any of his work in any field has ever been released in English, though if I'm wrong, please tell me. As well as that, each set of stages has a theme, like cake, medicine, sleeping, and so on, and the player character has a different sprite for each theme! And that's not all, either: each set of stages has its own background music, with not only vocals, but also karaoke lyrics on the bottom screen!

It's already the third paragraph, and I haven't even mentioned how the game plays yet! Each stage has various differently coloured cubes that you can push around. They disappear when three or more are touching, and the aim of each stage is to get rid of them all. Like you'd expect from a game like this (that doesn't hide it like certain other games that have recently been on this blog, rassum frassum), your movement and jumping is all very precise: jumps always reach the same height and cover the same distance, and you always move one block's width at a time.

The problem with a lot of these games is that they're either so easy as to be a boring timewaster, or so hard that I get a few stages in and give up. Loopop Cube is a rare case that falls somewhere in the middle! I've gotten slightly stuck a few times, but I've managed to get over thirty stages in so far (out of 120) without totally giving up yet, so that's pretty great.

In summary, Loopop Cube Loop Salad DS is a very cute, well presented game, that's also alright to play. Obviously, it doesn't have the kind of superfast action I usually crave, but as the ancient philosophers said: a man cannot live on bullet patterns alone.