Sunday, October 11, 2009

Nothing This Week.

I'm sure it's expected, but I completely underestimated the amount of work that goes into these applications. Luckily, I started early.

I do, however, have two games that I plan to review this month. I just hope I can make it to them. Sorry again guys, but once I'm done with this task, I'll get things back on track.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Visions and Voices

It has come to my attention that keeping Retro Treasures' current schedule may not be possible for the month of October. This is due in part to the fact that I'm organizing my applications to grad school, but more importantly, it's Halloween, which is a huge holiday for my family. As a result, most of this month will be spent either working on applications or decorating the old family home. So, for the month, I'm going to try shifting the updates to Friday in the hopes that that will free up some time. This may not solve the problem and more than likely I will still miss a couple, but it does place the updates on one of my days off, which should help. Now, on to the real topic.

Visions and Voices was the game I mentioned having played while I was away. In essence, it's a simple 16-bit J-rpg made in RPGmaker with an active time battle system and a dark story line. And although I don't want to talk too much about it, I do want to share a few thoughts on the game.

For one, it looks exactly as one would expect of a game from RPGmaker. Its rather a simplistic yet clean look that excels through the use of setting and atmosphere far more than it does through some of the choices in sprites. Take Telia's sprite for instance, which, without context, looks like a young school girl. This clashes harshly with the fact that not only is she a bard, but that she's also sexually active and a con artist, which are both mentioned enough to get ridiculous. Not to mention that Elena, the female warrior, looks like a stereotypical dancing girl.

The story in the game is slightly non-linear as it's up to the player to find clues and determine where they want to go next or even if they wish to follow up on them. But the main thread of the plot is that the Wanderer, an ex-con, has journeyed to Montfort village in order to investigate the rumors that people have been disappearing and that those that don't are losing their minds. When the Wanderer arrives, he runs into his old acquaintance and bed mate, Telia, whom is being chased by a man that is at that particular moment growling trying to murder her. After killing him, Telia offers to join the Wanderer and help him on his quest to uncover the secrets of Montfort.

As I mentioned earlier, the game is like a JRPG, except that there are pretty much no levels. After a good number of fights a stat just might go up, but this happens so rarely and battles are so dangerous at first, that grinding just simply isn't feasible. As a result, choosing the correct stats at the beginning of the game to suit your play style is crucial.

The stats are also different from most RPGs. Rather than having stats like Strength and Speed, Visions and Voices has stats like Bravery and Perception. Bravery, for instance, influences how hard your player can hit with a melee weapon. However, it also determines how well they defend against a melee attack, as well as how often they are targeted by the enemy. Perception, on the other hand, influences how hard you'll hit with ranged attacks, how well you'll defend against ranged attacks, and how fast you are.

Of course, having no levels, one might be groaning at the thought of fighting group after group of enemies for no reason, but that would be a misconception. There is something gained by defeating the enemies. You get to survive. Thinking about this game as a standard jRPG is doing a disservice to the uniqueness of the game. It is in essence a survival horror RPG. Managing the finite materials in your inventory and picking when you fight the on screen enemies are every bit as important as those choices are in a Resident Evil game. The better you manage your inventory and pick wothwhile fights, the more you can explore, and the more you explore, the stronger you may be able to get.

The game does have issues though. Having a character with low perception means having a character that is almost too sluggish to be useful, espceically early on. Seeing as I chose the standard warrior class at the start of the game, my Wanderer was slower than Christmas. In fact, Telia could often almost attack twice before the Wanderer would even get to choose what to do.

The characters are also a bit juvenile. Not really in who they are or how they came to be, but in how they are occasionally written. More often than not, they will make direct statements to facts about themselves that most characters would probably allude to or not just flt out say. Some times, this comes off as feeling fresh, but other times it just feels silly.

On the whole though, the game is definitely an enjoyable experience. It's unique and different enough that it's worth playing despite some off putting moments with thecharacters and a few quibbles with the battle system. And besides, it's hard to beat free.

Monday, September 28, 2009


I spent the majority of last week in Arizona, which has left me jet lagged and woefully unprepared for a Retro Treasures post. We shall return to our regularly scheduled posting next week, but at some point during the week, I shall share a 16-bit styled RPG that I did play while I was gone. Enjoy your night, and I'll see you in a few days.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


To a kid, there's just something insanely cool about robots fighting. When I was young, cybernetics and robots were always fascinating subjects to play with in my head, which more often than not led to a combination of Mega Man and RoboCop And yet, for some reason, I never learned about mechs. It wasn't until Toonami began airing Gundam Wing that I even learned the term existed. Which is a shame because I just know the younger version of myself would have just gone crazy over the notion of giant, bipedal, robotic tanks. But unfortunately, I had no idea that such a thing existed, which is why Konami's 1993 game, Cybernator, completely passed me by. So is the game everything a robot loving kid could ask for or does collapse under its own weight.

The story is about as typical as can be. The world's supply of fossil fuels is running out, which leads to an outbreak of war over not only the remaining supply but also territory rights to the moon. You play as Jake Brain, an AS pilot on the Aerial Cruiser, the Versis. Most of the plot is told through mission briefings, but there are occasional bits of dialogue occur during the levels, which unfortunately halt all the action. They're short, but annoying none the less.

However, despite the over done plot, there was one thing that did stand out. In the opening scenes, narrated by Jake, he makes it a point that he's not fighting for any grand reason. He's not seeking justice or fighting because he's patriotic. No, he's solely fighting to survive and nothing more. He doesn't even paint his his own country as anything but selfish. In a time when most games have clear cut good guys and bad guys, it's refreshing to see a game that's decidedly neutral.

Visually, the game looks great. Jake's Mech is bulky and sturdy looking, as if it had evolved from attaching legs to a tank and then making it humanoid. As a result, the mech feels much more like the powerful, heavy weapon in its design than how they are portrayed in some Animes. Although, it's not a clear cut departure because it definitely took a lot of design choices from the Gundam series.

The enemies are also very nicely stylized and animated. From the other bulky mechs and robots to the humans that scamper about, everything you come across looks right for a mech series. The boss fights in particular are massive and interesting, save the subterranean, robot worm battle, which is mostly just annoying and ho-hum.

The levels themselves are nice as well, ranging from the interior of a space colony and a mobile base hidden in a meteor to the capital city of the enemy country. Every locale feels fresh and distinct from the last. The backgrounds are also nicely detailed, such as the vaguely D.C. looking appearance given to the buildings in the enemy capital. There is no denying that the game looks pretty good, but how does it play?

For the most part, the game plays like you would expect. The player jumps and guns Jake's way to right through waves of enemies and a boss. To help him out, Jake's mech is capable of dashing for a short distance, hovering for a time, or bringing up an impenetrable shield that will block all enemy fire, even if it's coming from behind. This, of course, begs the age old question, "Why didn't they just build the whole thing out of that material?"

There are also several weapons, including a hidden one, at Jake's disposale. Each of the weapons work a little differently. The Vulcan Cannon is one of the starting weapons and the player's standard choice if they want rapid fire. The punch is the other, and though it doesn't look as useful, there are certain situations where it will come in handy. Other weapons include a missile launcher and a laser beam which can be found in other levels. The extremely powerful napalm gun is the games hidden weapon, and can only be acquired by beating the first level without shooting anything except for the boss.

As I've mentioned before, it's all a bit standard, but Cybernator does add something to spice things up. All of the weapons are upgradable, which not only increases damage dealt, but often changes how the weapon reacts. Take the Vulcan Cannon, for instance. When the player first begins, the gun is simply a pure rapid fire gun. It's fast and little more, but add a weapon level, and the bullets begin to ricochet. When the third level is reached, the reload time is cut to almost nothing.

These little tweaks go a long way toward making Jake's mech feel like an unstoppable killing force, which is heightened even more if the player gets the napalm gun. However, getting the upgrades isn't so simple as picking up a quick power up. To upgrade a gun, the player must collect p-chips. The number required to upgrade is listed beside the weapon's energy bar. And though p-chips are plentiful, they disappear fairly quickly, which means the player has to be paying attention or they might miss them.

The game's greatest weakness, though, is in its feel. Jake's mech is heavy and slow to move, which makes the game feel sluggish. In my opinion, this adds a feeling of weight to the mechs and makes it feel more like I'm piloting a powerful mobile suit. But for others the sluggishness, will annoy them as more often than not, it makes dodging much more difficult than it would be in other action games.

On the other hand, the games greatest strength is its willingness to vary its gameplay enough to keep it feeling fresh. The first level of the game is your standard run and gun segment, but the second starts off like a horizontal shooter and finishes in a section of zero gravity, which allows the player greater freedom of movement. There are other sections, though these are the weakest, that have the player's mech rushing across the ground at rapid speed, fighting off enemies and dodging traps. Though they're not all created equal, the varied structures of the levels do a good job of not allowing any one section to grow stale.

Musically, the game is truly great, with its large sweeping songs that are both enjoyable to listen to and very fitting for the theme. The sound effects are also quite good, with the sounds of the heavy steps and landings adding a great sense of weight to the game. The weapons also sound suitably powerful.

In the end, enjoying Cybernator depends on whether the controls feel right to you or not. If they feel sluggish and cumbersome, the player will not enjoy much of their experience with the game. However, if they feel like they fit the setting and add a sense of depth and weight to the game, then one will have found themselves an enjoyable game.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Final Fantasy VIII: Beating the System

September 9th, 1999 was a fantastic day to be a gamer. It was the release of Final Fantasy VIII, Square's followup to their breakthrough (In America) title: Final Fantasy VII. But it was also the release SEGA's swan song, the Dreamcast, a system that would endear itself in the hearts of SEGA fans and still be spoken of to this day as a system that was ahead of its time. I made one hard rule when I started this blog. I would only look at games from systems whose generation has passed. With the Playstation 2 still actively receiving new games, the Dreamcast can't be reviewed yet. However, I still wished to commemorate that day, and I could do so by looking back at a game I didn't understand and despised it for that, in order to see if time and understanding would change my perception. I am, of course, referring to Squaresoft's divisive classic, Final Fantasy VIII.

I'm not going to go into detail about the plot or the characters. Most people already know who Squall is and the problems he has, and any insight that I could offer has probably already been discussed much more eloquently than I am capable of. Instead, I want to discuss the Guardian Force system, the core that all of the gameplay is based on and how it can be used to create a game that plays exactly as the player wants.

The Guardians are Final Fantasy VIII's summons, except that instead of solely being the characters big magic attacks, they are the source of all their powers. Without a GF equipped, the only thing they are capable of doing is attacking. Once a GF is equipped though, there becomes a whole range of options for the player to chose from. At the start, these include the magic, item, GF, and draw commands. Three of these commands can be added to your character at any time, and there are others that can be unlocked later, which allows the player to customize how each character approaches battle.

For what I want to discuss though, draw is probably the most important of the skills available at first. That's because magic in Final Fantasy VIII isn't determined in the normal way. A spell doesn't require a certain amount of magic points out of your total pool in order to be cast. Rather, magic in this game is a consumable, which means that as long as you have it, you can use it.

When the character draws a spell from an enemy, it can be either cast or stocked to a maximum of 100 spells. If the player wanted to, he or she could draw all 100 of those from a single enemy. Lets say 100 fires were drawn. Now the player can do one of several things with that group of spells. The most obvious use is that they could be cast on enemies, but that's, sometimes, not the best choice.

Take junctioning, for example. Junctioning, for ease of contemplation, can be thought of as a complicated equipment screen. The Guardian Forces act as the main piece of equipment, each of which comes with different attributes and characteristics. They have skills like ATK-J or HP-J, modifiers like MAG +20%, commands like 'defend' or 'card', skills that effect the summon itself, and some that grant useful skills for inventory management. Some of these skills are available at the start, while others must be learned by gaining AP.

But what we are concerned with, at this moment, are the ATK-J type skills. What these skills allow the player to do is junction a group of spells to the stat it names. So, if the the Guardian Force that a player has equipped knows ATK-J, then one becomes capable of junctioning magic to it. So, if we junction 100 fires to ATK, then that character's attack will increase by 10 points. If we junction 99, then it's 9 points. 85 would be 8 points. And if fira or firaga were junctioned the increase would be even greater. Now, the player is stronger than before, but the trade off is that there is a penalty for using those spells.

At first, this only allows the player to increase the characters stats a little beyond what they should be capable of, and as one would expect, the game is slow to dole out enemies with more powerful spells for the characters to draw from and draw points, special spots on the map where magic can be drawn, are not a good source of magic. However, for the patient, that is not a problem.

The inventory management skills I spoke of come into play here. By learning certain skills, the player is able to refine items into magic. The M-stone piece could be used to make fire magic for example. The Magic Stone could create fira. While the Wizard Stone could be turned into firaga. By refining items into magic, it is possible to gain a large number of powerful magics early in the game.

However, one might think, and rightly so, that collecting these items would require a lot of battles, which would raise the party's level, defeating the purpose of junctioning all that magic because you've already grown stronger. That is only half right, and there are two reasons for that.

The first is that the game levels with you, so as the character's levels grow higher, the game becomes more difficult to compensate. So if the player is the type of person that likes to grind until they are more powerful than his or her enemies, they are actually doing themselves a disservice.

The second reason is that the player does not have to gain EXP for their battles. With the use of the Card command, any monster can be captured and turned into a card. This grants the player everything that came from winning the battle except the EXP. With the use of this command, it is possible for the player to control their level, and by that, the difficulty of the game.

These cards can then be put to an even better use. By acquiring a skill called Card Mod, the player can refine cards into items, and those items into spells. The Card and the Card Mod skills are taught by one of your first Guardian Forces, as is a skill that will turn five low level spells into a mid level spell. For those who want to, it is possible, very early in the game, to create spells beyond what one should have.

What this does, and why this is so amazing, is that it places full control over the game in the hands of the player. If one wants the game to be more difficult, he or she can increase the characters' levels and lower their junctions. If one wants it to be easier, then Card or run from fights to manage your levels and create high level spells to junction.

I used to hate Final Fantasy VIII, and that's because, for the most part, the tutorials explaining the game were horrible. There are a lot of things, such as the game scaling with you, that weren't even explained outside of a SeeD Test. I played though most of the game lost and struggling. And I still hold the game responsible for that. However, going back and figuring out what was actually going on, I was able to find a deep and engaging system that required the player to grind intelligently rather than by simply hitting stuff over and over again until the characters had bigger muscles. And that is what makesFinal Fantasy VIII so fun.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day

Been a hectic week, and unfortunately, I didn't have time to review a game. So, I'll see you guys next week. Happy Labor Day.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Uniracers-SNES-DMA Design

One of the genres that I have grown to love more and more as technology has increased is racing. Back when I was younger, I rarely had much to do with them unless I was visiting a friend. As a result, my experiences were limited to games like Mario Kart and Virtua Racing. Both were fantastic games, but only scratch the surface of the experiences available at that time. So I was excited to pick up DMA Design's (who would later go on to become Rockstar North) 1994 game, Uniracer. So does Uniracers keep up with the pack or does it lose its balance at the starting line?

Visually, the game is colorful and pleasing to look at. The tracks are brightly colored and look much like a candy cane. Similarly, the unicycles themselves are all vibrantly colored and do a great job of remaining distinct from the background. Unfortunately, there is very little to see while one is racing. The backgrounds are particularly bland, often being made up of repetitious shapes and colors. Yet, as a result of this, it is able to keep a strong sense of speed with little to no slowdown.

The mechanics, likewise, are simple to learn and difficult to master. Pressing left or right on the d-pad will send the living unicycle hurtling in that direction. The should buttons cause them to flip in the air, while pressing left and right rapidly while in the air causes them to twist. The Y button is the breaks, though one will hardly ever need to use it, while X and A both perform different tricks that are useful in the trick challenges. In any other situation, a flip or a twist is preferable because they can be preformed quicker. Seeing as boost is earned from landing a trick successfully, the quicker one can be pulled off the better.

There are eight different cups in the game (Four of which are unlocked from the start). Each cup has five races and three difficulty settings. The first difficulty level is bronze, followed by silver and gold. To move up to a higher difficulty, the player must win all five races on each previous difficulty level of that cup. Unlike Mario Kart, though, the new difficulty levels do not change how the races play out. There are no changes in speed or variations to the track that will help keep the game feeling fresh. Instead, the computer character becomes almost infallible, often times beating the gold rank that has been set on the time trials. This requires the player to preform perfectly in most situations. And seeing as a jump can be bungled by landing at just slightly the wrong angle, some races can become quite frustrating.

At the start of the game, the player is allowed to choose one of 16 differently named and colored unicycles, or if one is so inclined, he can go to the options menu and rename them. Every medal earned, will be saved to that specific character. Unfortunately, the game does not record beating specific races, so if the player beats four of five challenges, the progress will not be recorded. Even so much as leaving the screen would cause all four victories to be wiped.

As I've stated, each cup is made up of five races. These are usually made up of two lapped races, two race to the finish, and one trick race. These races usually have symbols by each which will inform the player a little about each race. A straight arrow generally means that the player will be mostly heading in one direction, while a hook usually means the race has large jumps. A circular arrow generally denoted a lapped race.

As frustrating as the game can be, controlling the unicycles is a breeze. As there is no slowdown even at high speeds, there is no delay between button presses and the action. This helps as more often than not, the player is required to make split second choices where any mistake could doom the round.

As I mentioned, the games environments are nondescript, which makes it difficult to tell exactly where one is during the race. Being a side-scrolling racer, the player is not able to see what is ahead of him. Luckily, the game color codes the track so as to help one know what's coming up. Blue and red generally mean that a sharp hill is coming and not to jump. An orange and yellow set of track always comes before a trap that must be jumped to avoid. Paying attention to these can spell the difference between victory and defeat.

Musically, the game is fantastic with a rocking, upbeat and fun tempo that matches the breakneck pace of the races. The sound effects, on the other hand, are almost non-existent. Other than the chime that plays when a trick is landed, the racing is extremely quiet. There is a muted sound to the jumps, but none for the landing. There are other things that make a sound, such as the wheels peeling off at the start, but for the most part it's a fairly silent in the sound effects department.

Uniracers is a simple game. It's equal parts frustrating and fulfilling. When you're wining or at least in contention, the game is a blast to play, but if you make a mistake, it becomes almost impossible to catch, especially up in the later difficulties. It's an archaic game that feels awesome. I can't personally say that I loved the game, but I didn't hate it either. It's a well made game, just don't go in expecting a perfect, or easy, race.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Jurassic Park-Genesis-BlueSky Software

Kids love dinosaurs. It's almost an undeniable fact. There's something about the that is absolutely fascinating, something that causes the mind to latch on and run wild. Perhaps, it's because that period in time was so fantastical and yet so real. Regardless, kids loved them. I loved them. So, it's not surprising that during several of my trips to the rental store as a child, I'd come home with BlueSky Software's 1993 Genesis version of Jurassic Park. And I loved this game when I was younger. I would play it all the time. So is this a game worth reanimating, or should it just stay buried.

Graphically, the game is hard to judge. Everything about the game looks grainy and fairly ugly, but as a result it also looks grittier and more realistic. Likewise, the main character and enemies look good. Grant, though lankier than his film counterpart, looks impressively realistic, and for the most part animates very nicely. The raptor, as well as the other dinosaurs, also look impressively real for a genesis game. That's because Grant's actions and movements were based on recordings of one of the developers movements, which was then digitized, while the dinosaurs were created using stop motion photography.

Unfortunately, although the models look very good, there is a bit of a disconnect between them and the background. At times, this disconnect can be extremely helpfully as it makes the enemies stand out against the business of the background. On the other hand, it never really looks like the characters and backgrounds exist in the same world. This is especially noticeable when the T-Rex shows up. Luckily, the graphics are pleasing and do a good job of creating a feeling of danger.

It's just too bad that the gameplay is really only capable of capturing the feeling of the latter. The game is broken up into two distinct and very different modes of play. When the player reaches the menu screen, they are given the option of selecting to either play as Dr. Grant as he flees the T-Rex Menace or as the Raptor, who for some reason has decided that Grant has to die.

As Grant is the default character, we will begin by discussing his game. Grants game is a survival platformer. By this, I mean that most of his game is based around scavenging for health and items. The player is given three lives with which to beat the level, and checkpoints are often few and far between, with many levels having none at all. Death at any point in a level, means redoing the whole section.

This difficulty, combined with the fact that Grant takes damage from almost anything, forces players to remain on the lookout for health items and other useful defensive weapons. I call them defensive, because Grant doesn't collect pistols and shotguns in his quest to escape the island. No, he collects tranquilizer darts, flash bangs, and sleep gas grenades. The only damaging weapons that Grant gets are a set of explosive grenades and a rocket launcher, both of which, though extremely powerful, are fairly rare. As a result, the game maintains this feeling that one is escaping, rather than fighting back. This feeling gives Grant's game an extremely interesting motif.

The Raptor, on the other hand, plays out more like a standard platformer. Where as Grant must scavenge for weapons in order to survive, the raptor is in itself a weapon. With the ability to bite, kick, and stomp its enemies to death, the raptor has little to fear from a lone enemy. Unfortunately, the majority of the raptors five levels will put it in situations where it must either fight multiple enemies or large numbers of enemies. Luckily, there are bits of meat and small dinosaurs around that can be eaten to refill the raptor's health. The raptor is also much more mobile than Grant, capable of preforming a lunging bite or a high jump, if the situation calls for it.

Despite the inherent differences in the game, Grant and the Raptor often move through the same areas, which makes the two modes feel interconnected. Despite this, Grant has more levels than the Raptor. These levels generally play out slightly different than the shared ones, such as the waterfall level. Grant's third level has him descending a waterfall via boat. This level is one of the more frustrating in the game as it's the first to really feel like trial and error is the only solution. Yet, even when Grant and the raptor move through the same stages, the differences in how they are controlled and the slight differences in how the levels are laid out, causes the stages to feel fresh and new.

Unfortunately, the game has some flaws. The first being that the game is difficult. The first time the player will pick up on this is when he or she is exploring the caves at the end of the first level. Until the player knows were to go, it is almost impossible to get to the end without dying. That's because the caves require the player to go down toward the exit, but also toward the instant death water. At first it is not difficult to make it down safely, as the screen will shift when down on the d-pad is pressed. However, once the player nears the bottom, it stops doing that, which means the final drop must be done blind.

The controls are also stiff and a lot of jumps require the player to be very precise in order to grab ledges or to climb ladders and rope. This problem is much worse as the raptor, because it is a larger and much clunkier character. Finding the appropriate spot to jump from so that not only does the raptor not hit something and stop dead but also to grab the exact spot required for its stubby arms to catch can quite hallenging.

Perhaps the biggest problem the game faces, though, is something that doesn't really become apparent until the player is already a ways into the game. That problem is the extreme trial and error based later levels. More often than not, in those levels, enemies will attack you as soon as or before they are even on the screen. The first time through a level is often a slow death by degrees as the player is pelted by range attacks and falling traps that they didn't even know were there at first.

There is, however, one concession that the game makes for its difficulty: passwords. While it is not new for a games to have passwords as a way to keep one's progress, this game takes it a step beyond. Not only does the game remember the password a player put in before starting a game, it will also auto-input the password for the last level the player made it to. As a result, the game sort of has infinite continues. It's just that one has to select password to continue.

Musically, the game is well served by a soundtrack that helps to create the feelings of tension and danger that the game seems to be trying to create. However, they're not songs that will stick with someone long after he or she have finished playing. The sound effects in the game are quite good. The convincing grunts and screams from Grant and the roars from the dinosaurs are all quite good.

In the end, the game is no where near as good as I remember, and that's a real shame because the game feels like a collection of great ideas that were just poorly implemented. It's not a horrible game by any stretch of the imagination, but it is frustrating. However, if you're a fan of the movie or just want to stomp on people as a raptor, you'll probably end up having an enjoyable visit to the park.

Monday, August 17, 2009

No Update This Week

Sorry, guys.

I had an absolutely exhausting week, and a friend is moving to Iowa on Wednesday. As a result of my tiredness and the work I am putting into a different project, I didn't get started on reviewing a game for this week, and the essay I had penned up to replace it just isn't cutting the mustard.

The friend moving to Iowa is why I will be busy tonight. So as you already know, there will be no Retro Treasures review this week. I will see you all again next week.

Have a good one.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Steel Empire-Genesis-Flying Edge

Occasionally, there would be games I'd rent that, despite getting very little actual play time, would live on in my mind as a sort of mythical lost opportunity. Flying Edge's Steel Empire was one of those games. Though, I barely touched it when I was younger, its steampunk zeppelin and biplane became etched into my mind as classic images of what a horizontal shooter should be. So, is this 1992 Genesis game as awesome as I had made myself believe it was or is it merely rusting iron?

The story is, at its most basic, a steampunk retelling of World War 2. This time it's the Motorhead Empire that has swept across the world, conquering every nation that dared to stand against them-- except one. Only the Republic of Silverhead has the power and technology to stand against Motorhead's domination. It's a simple story, but the setting makes it feel fresher and a bit more imaginative than it would had it been just a retelling.

Graphically, the game is very attractive and the steampunk helps make it feel unique. From the flickering opening story scene reminiscent of early movies to flying battleships held in the air by propellers, the setting exudes a unique strangeness that keeps the player intrigued. The only real problem is the abundance of slowdown that appears during most of the boss fights. It's never so much that the player loses their rhythm, but it is definitely noticeable.

Steel Empire follows the same basic rule that most other shooters have adhered to over the years: if it moves, shoot it, even if it doesn't move. The game plays as one would expect. The player controls either a biplane or a zeppelin and holds down the shoot button until everything on the screen is either dead or gone. If it is needed to for the player to accomplish that objective, there is the standard screen clearing bomb that can be used by pressing the A button. However, rather than just exploding, this bomb summons bolts of lightening. It's a bit silly and impractical, but extremely charming.

Steel Empire does differentiate itself from other shooters in several key ways. One is that it allows the player to not only shoot forward but backwards as well, and it is as simple as switching from the C button to B. This gives the player a greater feeling of control over the environment.

Each aircraft also comes with a secondary shot unique to that ship. The zeppelin launches depth charges which arc up before falling, while the biplane drops bombs at a downward angle. These sub-weapons add nicely to the notion that you are flying the most hi-tech weapons ever designed while still fitting the unique style of the game.

The sub-weapons are not the only difference between the two aircraft though. The biplane, as one might expect is, fast, nimble, and small. It's able to weave through enemy fire with ease. The zeppelin, on the other hand, is slower and larger but more powerful, capable of destroying enemies much quicker. It's also more resistant to damage.

That is probably the biggest difference between Steel Empire and other shooters: neither of the two aircraft are shot down from just one hit. In fact, each plane has a life bar that can not only be refilled, but also increased over its starting value by collecting health refilling items.

Items don't drop from destroyed enemies, either. They are carried in either sacks attached to small helicopters or large, red drop ships that release a ring of them when shot down. The smaller bags will only drop one item at a time, but have the potential to drop many different types, ranging from simple money orbs (points) and bombs to extra lives, more health, or twin aircraft that fly along side you. The ring of items though, always holds a random combination of 6 item tokens that are either money or experience.

Experience as one might have guessed is used to level up the players aircraft to a possible level twenty. For the most part, it simply increases to the amount of damage that the player's weapon deals, but it will occasionally change the number of shots fired by the sub-weapon as well. So, by the end of the game, the zeppelin is launching six depth charges as opposed to one. It is important to note that unlike the players point total, levels and experience are not lost when the player gets a game over. As a result, players are able to go through levels that bested them slightly stronger.

These changes in power and weaponry can be a huge boon when battling the games many bosses. Like most shooters, the bosses are many times the size of the player's aircraft, however, unlike most shooters, they are also several times the size of the screen. The majority of these fights involve the player skirting around the edge of the boss, trying to destroy as much of it as possible, which more often than not, simply means knocking all of its many weapons off until you reveal its last set of defenses.

The music in the game varies from awesome to merely good. The soaring and beat heavy first level theme fits the high flying nature of the game perfectly, and energizes the player. While the second level's theme, on the other hand, (an underground level), fits thematically with the area the player is flying through, its muted tones and soft notes fail to leave much of an impression. The sounds effects are equally nice, with a distinct difference between when an enemy is hit and when the player takes damage. With such a need for dodging, the auditory clues are a big help.

Steel Empire is a great game. Its setting is unique and interesting, its action is frantic but not overly so, and most importantly, its fun. It has held up well over the years and validated my own preconceived notions. It has its share of flaws, such as the lack of a two player mode, but I would have no problems recommending it to anyone that loved shooters, steampunk, or a frantically good time.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster Busts Loose-SNES-Konami

As a kid, I absolutely adored Tiny Toon Adventures. It was one of my favorite shows during the time it was on the air, and the kind I'd rush home to see. I'd curl up in my chair and watch the fun filled shinanigans of Buster, Babs, and the rest of the cast. One episode was never enough. I always wanted more. Thankfully, the NES game and the frequently rented Genesis one filled the gap. However, there was always something missing. I didn't own a SNES. As a result, I was unable to experience Konami's 1993 release of Buster Busts Loose. This created an air of mystery around the game, as I tried, through reviews and screen shots, to piece together what the game was like. What I imagined was a game very much like Buster's Hidden Treasure but better. So, is Buster Busts Loose anything like I imagined it, or was I a little loony?

The story of the game is actually fairly charming. Rather than being a grand adventure like in Hidden Treasure, Busts Loose is actually a collection of episodes that the characters are filming. Each level, usually, opens with a small scene of Buster talking to one of the other Tiny Toons cast members. These short snippets inform the player of the setting and give a little bit of background information. As the level is the episode, the conversations feel more like one that actors standing around a set would have before filming.

As one can tell, one of the biggest additions to Busts Loose over the other games is that this version actually manages to capture the charm of the show. As a result, many of the scenes have a humor that the other games were lacking. The dialogue is the most obvious place this shows, but one can't forget the facial expresions, which closely mirror those of their drawn counterparts. During the opening of the Western Level, while Max is ranting about how he's the star, the camera pans to show the disgusted faces of Plucky and Buster.

As one can tell, the game is very attractive. The colors are bright and vivid. The sprites are detailed and well animated. Even the enemies have changing facial expressions depending on their actions. The levels (Acme Looniversity, the wild west, a horror level, a football game, a sky stage, and a space opera) are also extremely attractive and are all varied and distinct.

Of course, beautiful games can still be lacking when it comes to gameplay, but I'm thankful to say that the controls are spot on, at least when it comes to movement and jumping. Buster handles exactly like one would want him to so the player is rarely left with the feeling that a death was caused by bad controls. On the other hand, unlike Hidden Treasure and most other platformers for that matter, Buster has an attack button. When the X or Y buttons are pressed, Buster will either preform a short hop into a drop kick if he's on the ground or a flip kick if he's in the air.

This is a bit jarring at first, because it feels unnatural. Whether jumping on an enemy or kicking them, Buster is still landing on said enemy. Drop kicking also has the added handicap of taking control of Buster away from the player until he lands on the ground. Though Buster is invulnerable during this period, I have had a few untimely deaths due to attacking an enemy near an edge, which caused me to plummet to my death. Thankfully, this is rare and there are mercifully few times that the inability to move actually hinders the player.

Another of Buster's abilities is that he can dash by pressing the L or R buttons. This move allows Buster not only to perform long jumps but also climb walls and extend the reach of normal jumps. The dash drains a meter at the top of the screen, so it can't be used for long. Luckily, it can be replenished by either collecting Gogo Dodo status or just allowing it to slowly refill.

As I stated, most of the levels are slightly different from each other, which causes there to be some variation in quality. For instance the train section of the wild west level would be an awesome section of platforming greatness except for the fact that the level auto scrolls, has jumps that one must already know about in order to make correctly, and will kill you if you fall too far behind. Not only that, all three of those points combine into a couple of frustrating jumps late in the level.

On the other hand, the football level is absolutely excellent. Playing out like an actual game of football, the player is charged with marching Acme Loo down the field in order to score one last touch down before time runs out. There are two plays that can be called: pass or run. The run play is exactly as one would imagine it, while the pass play tasks the player with actually catching the ball before dashing off. As Buster makes his way down field he must either go over or under the other team as they charge, leap, or hop in order to stop him. Making a huge gain in this level is an awesome minor victory, one which is rewarded with stars.

Stars, much like coins in a Mario game, grant the player with an extra life for every hundred collected. There are other collectibles as well, such as silver and gold carrots that refill Buster's health as well a diamond one that increases his life bar by one.

At the end of each level, a roulette wheel is spun to see which of five mini games the player will attempt in order to gain extra lives. In most of these, the player will actually control a different cast member. Plucky catches the balls in a game of bingo. Sweetie (The pink bird) plays a game with scales where the player must assign characters to be weighed. The winner is determined by the heaviest. Hampton runs, slowly, along a path in a sliding tile puzzle in order to collect apples. Furball plays a game of racket ball. Babs, though, has probably the most enjoyable of the games. Her's is a Pac-Man-esque run through a maze to free her friends. Players are almost guaranteed to earn a few lives in these minigames, which will come in handy during the final sections of each level.

Not every level ends in a boss fight. Some like the Sky and Western levels end with challenging bits of platforming, which are fairly frustrating until one knows exactly how to proceed. The boss fights, though, are a treat to play. More than just a one on one show down to see who can hit the other the most, the bosses usually require alternate methods to defeating them, such as stuffing them full of food or knocking the metal bolts they throw back into a machine. This keeps the boss fights inventive and slightly challenging, while also being extremely nonviolent.

The music in the game is good, but unfortunately, it is themed to match the levels. As a result, each song sounds derivative and are completely forgettable. It does have the theme song and a few reimaginings of it, which are nice. The sound effects are good, but the sound the game makes when Buster hits an enemy is a little muted compared to the others.

In the end, Buster Busts Loose is a fantastic game. It does something things a little awkwardly, and it is, unfortunately, short, but it's definitely the best of the 16 bit era Tiny Toons games.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck- Genesis- Sega

I grew up watching the Disney Channel, and didn't even know thatt Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network existed until I was nearing ten. So, it should probably come as no surprise that I played a lot of Disney games during my youth and especially anything that offered the ability to play as that cantankerous duck in a sailor suit, Donald. It just so happens that Sega's 1992 World of Illusion offered me such a treat, and I was quick to be in line for that magic show. So is the game as magical as I remember or did Sega drop the deck mid shuffle?

The story is fairly simple. Mickey and Donald are practicing their magic act, when Donald is startled by one of the tricks, causing him to fall backwards through the curtains. This leads the two to discover a magical disappearing box. Donald, deciding that it'd be great addition to their act, hops in and immediately vanishes. Mickey, worried about his friend, begins to search for the trap door in the box when he too vanishes. As the two plummet into another world, they hear a voice telling them that besting him in magic is the only way he'll allow them to escape from his domain. Now, Mickey and Donald must traverse this world of magic and illusion if they ever want to see home again.

Visually, the game is gorgeous with detailed spirits and fluid animations. The world is as bright and cheerful as one would expect from the House of Mouse and Sega, and the levels exude that charm that is all but mandatory in a Disney game.

Though there are only 5 levels, each seems to to send the player to a multitude of various locations. From the forests to the mountains and under the sea, Donald and Mickey will be whisked to several beautiful and whimsical areas, and that doesn't even cover the stranger stages like a giant study, a world of cookies, or wonderland itself.

The enemy sprites are either pulled straight from various Disney movies and shorts, or they are made up of common characters that have been tweaked to make them fit into the theme of the level, such as Tweedledee and Tweedledum being redone as poppers for the Christmas Tree level.

The gameplay is fairly simple. The A button runs, B attacks, and C jumps. Though simple, the layout controls feels a bit awkward, especially as I like having the run button close to jump. Luckily, the controls are fully customizable, and it seems that their is no difference between a walking jump and a running jump.

As the game was meant for children, the action is of a nonviolent nature. The attack button cause Donald or Mickey to swing out a magical cape, which transforms their enemies into harmless magical items such as a dove or a card. Whether that is a worse fate than death, I'm not entirely sure.

The game is also very short. I was able to beat the game in about forty minutes the first time through as Donald, in about thirty as Mickey, and in about an hour during the two player mode. World of Illusion isn't a game that would last a seasoned platformer very long, but it's the perfect length for kids.

Luckily, though short, the game does have a good bit of replayability, due eniterly to the fact that each character has a unique segment in each of the five levels. The levels follow a specific pattern by starting the characters in a shared environment before sending them to their own section, which is followed by another shared section, which ends in a boss battle.

It is my opinion that the differences between each characters levels replaces the difficulty options. For example, during the third level (an underwater level), Mickey is able to crawl through a small gap and ends up in the belly of a whale. Donald, on the other hand, can't fit his large rump through the gap and is forced to double back and swim to the surface for a more challenging platforming section. Of course, if the game were being played by two players, than Mickey would be able to pull Donald through the gap, which would send the pair to either Atlantis or a bizarrely dry version of King Triton's Palace.

That leads us to probably the best bit about the game. It is not only a two player game, but an actual cooperative game. The players must work together to not only overcome enemies but obstacles as well. They can stand on each other's shoulders to reach high platforms, lower ropes, and help push a handcar through a collapsing mine.

Each of the cooperative sections are more challenging (due to the cooperative nature) and often more inventive than the single player sections, except for the final one. Where as in the single player game Mickey or Donald explore the area behind the mirror or a hedge maze respectively, in the cooperative mode, the two end up in a room of doors, each of which takes them back to an already explored area. Seeing as the game is only an hour long, the section ends up feeling extremely tedious.

The bosses, unfortunately, are no different between the various modes, meaning that they are even more simple on the two player game. Most bosses take about five hits to bring down, and when two players are working in tandem there isn't really any strategy required.

After each boss, Mickey and Donald are granted a tome of magical knowledge, which will grant them a spell that will get them through the next level. These spells are mostly just varying modes of transportation, such as a magic carpet, a bubble that allows them to breathe underwater, and a teleportation spell. Even the spell that allows them to control cards does little more than create platforms. Though these spells don't change the gameplay up to drastically, they add to the magic of the game and are still enjoyable if only because hearing Donald say "Alakazam" is always amusing.

The music is definitely the highlight of the game. It covers a wide range of styles and almost all of them are pleasing even if they aren't terribly memorable. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about the sound affects, though most are passable, some, such as the sound of swimming in the bubble, are grating to the ears.

All in all, World of Illusion is a well made game. It's beautiful, and the music is wonderful. However, it's simply too easy to be played multiple times by someone good at these types of games. Yet, if you have a kid that has a friend, than this game would probably be right up their alley.

Monday, July 20, 2009

No update this week.

I apologize for the lack of an actual review these past two weeks. I have been out of town and have only just returned at which point I discovered my cat has gone missing. The original plan was that I'd write up another essay, but with my cat being gone, I will probably spend today looking for him.

I'll be back next week with a new review. I hope to see you then.

Thank you.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Defying the Odds: Power Fantasies of the Single Player in the Current Generation

We've all done it at some point, whether it was as children or last Tuesday while on the drive to work. We've all had those little moments where the mind begins to walk its own path, separate from both reality and logic. In those moments, we envision scenarios for ourselves in which we become a larger than life persona, a sort of superhero . We become powerful, confident, and content. We leap from the roof tops, win miraculous court cases, fend off armies, or win the love of that model on that particular billboard we always pass. But all too soon, logic breaks through to our little safe haven and pulls us back to life, leaving a part of us that feels silly that we allowed ourselves to get so taken in by our delusions of grandeur. And yet, there is another part, the part that holds onto our childhood dreams like they were fragile, ceramic Legos, that already misses the fun and the rush of the imagined world.

That little vestige of our childhood is what the single player mode in video games reaches out to. The single player, or story mode, does not target the same emotions that a multiplayer mode would, nor the same that can be found by playing board games or card games. That is not because there is some inherent difference in how each one is a game, but rather, it is due to a difference in the stakes.

The prime reason for this is competition. In games where the main mode of play is that which pits a person against against a varying number of others, all the combinations of skill and luck that can exist between come into play. In a game like Go Fish, it is hard to know who will be asked for a card or what that card may be. Likewise, one never fully knows what word someone may play next in Scrabble, or if an opponent will rise over the hill in Halo to interrupt ones ambush. As a result, though winning does feel good and accomplishing something difficult feels great, it is rare to have those moments where one gains and maintains that feeling of absolute dominance over one's surroundings that are required in a power fantasy.

Story mode though, in many cases, is custom tailored to create that feeling. Often, the player controls either the sole person capable of saving the world or a small group of heroes capable of defying the odds. So, while playing, one becomes the sole deciding factor between not only the player's own life and death, but also almost everyone else on the planet's. And through the characters, the player becomes so central that the weight of a world is on their shoulders. It does not mater that others have experienced the same victory. At that time and in that place, it is all on that particular player.

Over time, the core group of players that stuck with the hobby have improved, which makes games seem to have gotten easier. There are a combination of factors at play here besides just increased player skill, but for the experienced player there is only one important thing. The weight on their shoulders is little more than than the weight of a a baseball.

It's a pressure so minor that one could dance underneath it, take risks, and reap huge rewards. And yet, it is a weight that is still constantly present. The difficulty reminds the player that it exists, but it never actually impedes ones progress. It's a carefully crafted and balanced experience designed to never frustrate. As a result, the player begins to feel super human, as enemies capable of destroying armies during a cinematic collapse easily under the weight of the player's onslaught.

In Gears of War, the player takes the role of Marcus Fenix, a man freshly freed from jail. As it turns out, the war against the Locust that has been raging while he was inside is not going well. Luckily, Marcus is just the sort of hero that is required in a situation like this. Under his leadership, a squad of four are able to punch through enemy lines and deliver, what the player and Marcus believe at the time, to be crippling a defeat to the Locust. Of course, the need for a sequel negates the force of the ending a bit, but the point still remains. The player does what millions of men could not, when he or she drives back the enemy. Hope springs again in the hearts of man because of the actions of the player and his or her squad.

It is the kind of situation that would seem ridiculous in life, but on the screen and in the game, that very ridiculousness only increases the effect. We can easily turn off the brain as we pick up the controller, and become the kind of hero that we've always dreamed of. And when we put the controller down and turn the system off, we can return to reality without the feeling that we might be a bit too silly, because not only have we saved the world, but we've also driven back the boredom in our lives.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Gex-PSX-Crystal Dynamics

Childhood favorites are always the hardest games to write about. I got Gex for the Sega Saturn back in 96, while a friend got it for the Playstation. I must have played through the game countless times, enough that I could almost remember every level in detail of Crystal Dynamic's little gem. However, like all things, coming back to it years later has brought the nostalgia crashing into the reality of the game. So is Gex as good as I remember, or is it just killing my TV?

The story of Gex is a bit convoluted. Most of is only revealed in the manual, and never mentioned inside the actual game. The manual discusses Gex's adolescence in Maui, Hawaii. Raised by his mother while his father worked his job at NASA, Gex lived a rather idealistic life, hanging with friends, surfing, and throwing poi parties. Until one day, his mother receives a phone call. Gex's father had been killed when the rocket he was to be piloting blew up the launch pad.

Rather than dealing with his problems like the rest of the family, our lizard friend bottled up his emotions and began to focus all of his attentions on the television. When Gex's addiction grew problematic, the family tried to intervene by moving to California and leaving the TV behind.

The loss of his TV caused Gex to run away from home. He lived on the streets for several months, until one day, his family found him again. Due to the death of his father, Gex, as well as the rest of his family, had inherited a massive fortune. With his share of the money, Gex bought a mansion back in Maui and a giant TV, where he wastes his days away. That is, until Rez pulled Gex into the Media Dimension. Now, Gex must destroy televisions in order to escape.

There's actually a slight bit of pathos to the story. More so than most heroes at the time, Gex had real issues and had taken refuge from them in a very humane way, especially considering he's a lizard. But not only that, there's a slight air of condemnation for the sedentary life that Gex is living. The player is constantly being reminded by Gex that he doesn't have a life and that the only way to escape the Media Dimension is to kill your TV.

Oddly enough, little of this makes it way into the actual game. Without reading the manual, the only thing that the player will know is that Rez has pulled Gex into the Media Dimension, and now he's got to escape. The interesting thing about this is that it grants an interesting story to the gamers that want it, while never forcing it down the throat of those that don't.

Regardless of the story, Gex remains the wisecracking hero that was so prevalent in the 90's. Unlike Bug though, Gex's jokes and banter serve as a way to strengthen the character and draw the player deeper into the game. This is in part because because Gex was voiced by the comedian Dana Gould, who was able to deliver the quips and commentary in a much more pleasing way.

The game is actually rather simple. The player must guide Gex through five themed worlds (A sixth is hidden), in his quest for freedom. Each world is made up of a small collection of levels and a boss battle, and new levels and worlds are opened up by finding the remotes that are hidden in each one.

Though the structure is simple, actually accomplishing the objectives in Gex can be a bit of a challenge. Near the end of the game, the jumps, traps, and enemies require more than just a little bit of finesse to bypass. Thankfully, Gex is quite talented in both combat and navigating terrain.

In combat, Gex has a standard tail attack that can defeat most enemies. The only problem is that getting so close to them leaves Gex vulnerable. As there is a bit of a delay between when an enemy is struck and when they no longer cause damage, this is not always the safest path. The tail bounce is a much safer decision if the player wishes to fight in close, as the bounce after landing on an enemy ensures that Gex is well out of harms way.

Additionally, Gex can eat special orbs that contain flies. These orbs grant the lizard several different special abilities. A red orb allows him to shoot fire. A dark blue orb allows him to shoot ice. A yellow orb lets him fire out a spread-shot of lightening. These orbs grant Gex with an almost unfair advantage over his enemies, but that power is lost if Gex takes damage.

These powers also stack. Eating three fire bugs gives Gex not only three extra slip-ups before the powers are gone, but also three extra hit points. Combine that with the orange orbs that increase Gex's maximum health for the duration of that life or level, and it becomes not uncommon for a skilled player to possess nine hit points at the end of some levels instead of three.

There are other orbs as well: an orb that increases Gex's speed for a time, one that increases his jumping abilities until he takes damage, one that creates a wind shield that protects Gex from damage, and simple ones that restore health or grant extra lives.

Early on the player will likely eat every orb they come across, hoarding as much power as they can, but later on the game becomes much more tricky. Sometimes all one wants is a health refill, but all that is available is a speed boost. Luckily, by attacking the orb rather than eating it, Gex is able to take that speed boost orb, or any orb, and turn it into health.

To move through levels easily, Gex can climb walls, ceilings, and certain backgrounds. When combined with his ability to tail bounce off of most enemies and several obstacles this grants Gex a freedom of movement that not many other platforming characters have.

Unfortunately, the game is neither that long nor that difficult. In my mind, I remember Gex as a lengthy and challenging platformer that defeated me forever. And in a sense it was.

Though few in number, most of the levels are actually rather long, and many have branching paths and up to four or five checkpoints to keep one from having to go back too far. The later levels are also rather challenging. Deaths can come suddenly from instant death pits or slowly from a simple onslaught of traps and enemies.

So what makes the game so easy? It gives out lives as if they are M&Ms. The first time I played through the game again, I reached Rez with 96 lives, and beat him with 82. Lives are gained so frequently, that despite the game offering a feeling of danger and tension, it never really matters much. In fact, many of the most difficult sections are proceeded by a checkpoint and several lives. It's not uncommon to gain lives by dying at certain points.

And other than Rez, the bosses are extremely easy, due to their patterned nature. Thankfully, they are at least interestingly varied. Ranging from superhero with super-gas to a snake-like monster that Gex must race up a mountain, each boss manages to remain unique. Even the battle with Rez boils down to simple patterns. Fortunately, Rez changes up so often and actually damaging him is so difficult that most players will lose a life or two to simple human error.

Musically, the game is nothing amazing. Each area has three music tracks: one for the world map, one for the levels, and one for the boss. Though a little banal, these tracks do manage to fit the theme and the B-movie vibe of the game very well. The sound effects are excellent, every attack carries a snap and auditory punch that makes the world sound alive. Gex's quips and the little bit of Rez's dialogue are well delivered, even if Gex does tend to repeat jokes extremely frequently. Some of the jokes have also become dated, but a good number are still funny today.

Gex is a fantastic game, but it's not without its faults. The controls are slightly slippery and the challenge is a bit uneven. It's also a little on the short side and predates memory cards. So it'd be a good idea to have some paper and a pen ready. However, if you can endure a couple over used jokes and are looking for a PSX or Saturn platformer, Gex will be sure to amuse until he escapes the Media Dimension.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Kendo Rage-SNES-Seta U.S.A.

Part of the fun of writing these reviews is walking into a retro games store and leaving with a few games solely based on how ridiculous their names are. And while Kendo Rage may not be the strangest name I've seen, it does possess its own unique ridiculousness. A quality that shines throughout Seta U.S.A.'s 1993 adventure. But does Kendo Rage possess the violent beauty of the martial arts, or is it merely an enraging experience?

You play as Jo, a girl in love with kendo and the martial arts, who was sent by her parents to Japan for the summer. There she has enrolled in Honest Osaki's Kendo School and Used Car Sales, to be trained by one of the greatest Kendo masters in Japan. Once Jo arrives, Osaki finds her a quiet mountain cabin six hours from school. While rushing to school on the first day, Osaki surprises her and informs her that she can call him Bob, and also that she must crush the rotten evildoers that are along her path to school. He then gives her a talisman from the great wizard Hiundai, which protected the great warrior Farratti as he did battle with the evil General Moto's legions in the battle of Detroit. The charm grants Jo the magical powers she needs to defeat evil and reach school in time (more or less).

I mentioned already that the game is ridiculous, but I failed to mention that the game revels in its goofiness. From the pun heavy story to the beyond groan-worthy level opening and ending quips, the game takes great delight in making the player laugh at just how bad some of the jokes are. This lack of seriousness is a definite plus for the game as it gives Jo, Osaki, and even the bosses a quick shot of character and personality.

Everything about how the game was crafted visually bleeds charm as if the designers had been cut with a knife made of orange tuxedos. Every level is drastically different than the last. Ranging from the predawn mountains to under the sea. Each one maintains a striking distinction from the last that, and more often than not, makes the player wonder if Jo's gotten lost.

Even the enemies are more goofy than they are troubling. From pink ghosts and bears to snowmen ghost and effeminate salary men, the air of ridiculousness pervades almost every design. The bosses are especially odd, being both giant and super deformed, two qualities usually at odds with one another. Even Jo's magical girl outfit is humorous in its gaudiness.

That ridiculousness also makes its way into the gameplay as well, but unfortunately, it's a bit less endearing there. Like in the Prince of Persia, the game's clock is constantly ticking, demanding that Jo complete all seven levels before it is time for school. This keeps the pace of the game fast. However, the controls are just not tight enough for that.

This is due in part to the fact that Jo accelerates slowly. Like Sonic, it takes Jo a moment to get to her normal movement speed, a speed that she can, also like Sonic, surpass when running down a hill. The problem with this is that, unlike Sonic, Jo's not restricted by inertia, but a slight stutter step that she takes every time she starts moving. This creates a slight feeling of lag between when the player moves and the character complies. The slight frustration of this is exacerbated by enemies that simply appear in front of Jo.

Luckily, Jo is no slouch when it comes to combat. Much like in a shooter, her standard attack can be augmented by three elemental powers. The fire element grants a sword with longer reach, while the water element creates a crescent of energy. The wind element, probably the most useful in terms of pure combat abilities, summons a flurry of thrusts.

Each strike can be additionally enhanced by allowing the PSY meter to build, which does so as long as Jo does not attack or get hit. Once the bar is filled at least halfway, the next strike will have an added effect: A beam of flame, a spread shot of ice, or a greater flurry of thrusts. These magical strikes can help swing a battle back in Jo's favor.

Unfortunately, the manner in which Jo selects which element she wants to use is unwieldy at best. Jo must attack a specific enemy that appears at certain points in the level. As the creature flits around the screen, the orb in its possession alternates between four colors. Attacking the enemy while it's holding the red, green, or blue orb will net Jo the effect of that element, but will not power up her attack if she picks the same element as it would in a shooter. The fourth color, yellow, allows Jo to take one extra hit by creating a shield in front of her when an attack comes near.

The elemental system is a nice idea as it grants a slightly deeper element of strategy to the bosses. The first boss is easier when fought with fire, while the second boss is simpler when fought with wind, and so on. The problem is that the orb-carrying enemies appear so suddenly, that the player is likely to attack one as soon as it shows up, which more often than not, results in having the wrong element for a boss fight. This can become extremely frustrating, especially as once that mistake is made, the player has no choice but to use an ineffective element and probably waste a life.

This is the game's greatest flaw, especially near the end when enemies are darting in on all sides. The player grows so used to attacking everything before Jo's sluggish controls become a problem, that the elemental power up carrier seems just like any other enemy. And as the red element becomes too sluggish and narrow focused to really hold up to the onslaught, there becomes a greater possibility of death if the wrong element is selected.

Beyond that, Jo possesses a dash move that causes her to surge forward surrounded by energy, destroying any enemy that gets in her way. However, as this move takes almost a fourth of her health and only has slightly more range and power than her fully charged attacks, it ends up being more costly than effective.

Oddly enough, the game's soundtrack might be the best thing about the game. It's a bumpy and energetic collection of songs, reminiscent of the early Sonic games. It's a good indicator of the effort that Seta U.S.A put into creating the game.

In the end, though, Kendo Rage is just a mediocre action-platformer. It has charm to spare and wonderful music, but that doesn't make up for the frustration caused by how the elemental powers are delivered. If you're looking for a quirky, Japanese game with a goofy localization, Kendo Rage might provide some silly fun. Anyone else should just let this rage pass them by.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


I haven't beaten Bug!, and I probably never will. Even as a kid, sitting around waiting for the next Sonic game, I never really tried. This is probably due to the fact that even though I played it often, I hated it with a passion. Bug! was, to my young mind, Sega's replacement for Sonic. After all, his game was the platformer available near the 1995 launch of the system, while Sonic was nowhere to be seen. But that wasn't the total reason that I hated the game. I genuinely thought that Realtime Associates had created a poor game. However, I never actually thought about why. So, when I recently bought a Saturn from a friend, I was itching to go back and find out if Bug! was as bad a game as I remember, or if I was just bugged that Sonic was nowhere to be seen.

The main character is the titular Bug, a small, green insect whom just prior to the start of the game struck it big in the movie industry with a blockbuster hit. That one film earns him enough money that he's able to rent out an entire tower for a birthday bash that lasts several days. I'm not entirely certain why that was pertinent information, but it was in the opening. Now, his apparently demanding public wants more, and Bug must return to the set to film his next smash hit, an action movie in which he rescues his girlfriend and various family members from the nefarious Black Widow. Whether said family members are the girlfriend's or Bug's, I'm not sure.

Placing the entire game on the sets of a movie was a nice touch of creativity, however, the actually game makes little use of this. There are no hanging lights, no wires to hold the set up, no backdrops. The only things that even possibly hint towards this are the occasional 2D props used to show grass or a rock, the invincibility item that summons in the Stunt Bug, points being money earned by the film, and small cut scenes that play between areas.

Those simple scenes show Bug walking from the just beaten set to the next. And that's it. With so little of the actual game referring to the movie aspect, the bits that are included feel a bit like window dressings, desperately put in place once the developers realized that a hook was needed. And while it seems a bit disingenuous, it succeeds in giving the game a much needed charm and a way to explain some of the poor design decisions.

However, while the setting itself is charming, Bug, the character, is not. In all honesty, I can't think of any other character that matches Bug in the act of being annoying. In that aspect, he reigns supreme.

Oddly enough, that crown has nothing to do with his design. Bug is a fairly standard, cartoony mascot character, and Less offensive in design than his buddy, a brown spider with a pimp hat, gold chain, and humongous lips. Rather, it is Bug's constant stream of stupid one-liners that make make him detestable. These quips range from the mildly annoying "BUG JUICE" that he sings out every time he picks up that particular healing item, to the "What a slobber head" that he screeches out after killing an enemy. Bug drips a forced bad attitude and wise cracking personality that is so far off the mark of what actually makes a good lead that he'd make a better henchman than hero.

Bug is such an awful character that I can actually understand someone forming a negative opinion about the game just from him alone. In fact, I spent most of my first few play sessions begging for him to shut up. Luckily, that was actually a feture included in the options menu, which is a good thing, because Bug is not all that bad of a game.

Graphically, the game has aged fairly well. Rather than using the blocky polygons that often made up the characters of that time, Bug and his baddies were created by circles and rounded curves. This allowed them escape from looking like the standard hodgepodge of boxes and blocks that creates such a dated feel.

Even the levels the, with their unmoving backgrounds and small, blocky pathways that hover over oblivion, have managed to run past dated and into a surrealistic, quirkiness that actually manages to look good thirteen years later. Part of this is due to the simple aesthetics of the level. The game has little ornamentation to adorn the pathways save the occasional two dimensional wallpaper of a rock or grass that is placed on invisible walls.

The gameplay also transitions well. Being one of the earliest 3D platformers on consoles, the developers made a good choice by creating, for all intents and purposes, a 2D platformer in a 3D space. By this, I mean, that Bug! rarely, if ever, requires the use of all three dimensions at once. Bug is only able to walk in four directions, and there are hardly ever any jumping sections that must be preformed either away from or towards the stationary camera. A good choice when dealing with players unaccustomed to the third dimension.

Speaking of jumping, Bug controls well in the air, which is one of the most important aspects of a platformer. Perhaps the only qualm I have with Bug's jumping abilities is that he doesn't jump high enough to effectively fight enemies on a hill. As a result, Bug must either lure them away from their spot or take damage to move past them.

Of course, taking damage will become second nature to anyone that plays this game. It's not a game that wants you to win, nor is it a game that wants you to die. No, Bug! is a game that wants you to suffer. With a suspect hit detection, enemies that simply appear right in front of the player, and traps that lack a clear distinction for when they won't cause damage, making it through the levels becomes a fight for survival, especially during the later levels when traps are placed on jumps or on corners.

Luckily, Bug does have some tricks to help even the odds. Beyond simply impaling enemies on his stinger, Bug is capable of finding several other power-ups. Zap allows him to arc lightning between his antenna, which is able to take down even the toughest of enemies in no time. The other is a spit attack, which allows bug to lob globs of poisonous spittle at his enemies. Unfortunately, these power-ups are few and far between, so more often than not, Bug will have to make do with the power of his rear.

For a platformer that does not focus on the collection of items, Bug is extremely exploration based. Often times, there are several different pathways through a level that will vary drastically in their requirements. Some of them will have challenging jumps, while others will be full of traps like rolling boulders or just an absurd number of enemies. This allows the player to determine how they would like to tackle the levels. There are even hidden pathways that, while dangerous to access, offer greater rewards in lives, health, power-ups or a combination of all three. This helps keep the game feeling fresh and rewards the brave or crazy for trying out different tactics.

Each area is composed of three stages and a boss fight. All of which border on the needlessly long side. Bosses in particular take far too long to fight. This is especially annoying when one adds in the questionable hit detection. The first boss has five phases and after each one, the player must hit it an increasing number of times. As the phases pass, the boss grows faster and faster, requiring that the jumps become more precise. Normally, that's not a bad thing, but when one must hit a boss close to thirty times before it falls, it becomes a rather tedious experience.

The music is ok. It accentuates the action rather well with a jazzy, schizophrenic nature that plays to the strengths of the odd design and quirky setting. However, it never manages to be memorable. The voice acting, on the other hand, is very memorable if only for how horrid it is. Bug's quips serve more to annoy the player than to make them smile. The sound effects never grate, but there's only so many times one can hear a jingle of picking up a gem before they all tend to blur.

In the end,"Bug!" is a game that's as easy to enjoy as it is to despise, and it's better than I remember it being. It's a competent platformer with a lot of charm and good controls. In some ways, it has actually improved with time due to players growing more accustomed to maneuvering in a 3D space. However, it is still plagued by a terrible lead and frustratingly cheap difficulty. If you've got a Saturn and love platformers, give it a go. It will test your skills better than most. But, if you're new to the genre or just looking for a quirky romp in a whimsical land, don't let this be the bug spray that kills your interest.