Monday, April 27, 2009

Run Saber-SNES-Hori Electric

I'm going to be honest. I was extremely busy all last week, so I wasn't able to sink as much time into Run Saber as I would have liked. But I do feel I have enough of an understanding to talk about it. Developed by Hori Electric and published by Atlus, it was released in 1993 for the SNES. Now, one of my greatest flaws as a retro gamer is that I have yet to sit down and play Capcom's Strider for more than a minute or two, but even I can tell that this game has been heavily influenced by it. But is this game worthy of being called flattery, or is it just a pale imitation?

Well, first lets discuss the story, which is not even hinted at in the actual game, except for a few still shots if you allow the game to sit at the title screen. In the future, humanity has allowed pollution to ravage our world, creating an almost unlivable environment. This, as you may well have guessed, causes humanity to begin colonizing space. Fortunately, one scientist has a plan. He will launch a rocket into the atmosphere, releasing a gas that will counteract the effects of pollution. Unfortunately, that was all a lie. The scientist actually released a mutagen which quickly transforms the remaining humans into monsters ready to serve in his army for world conquest. Earth's last hope rests on three cybernetic warriors, called Sabers, to save the day. So, of course, one goes rogue, and it's only natural that the remaining two must stop both the scientist and the other Saber. Typing that out, I feel it may have been for the best that the story was pretty much left out of the game. It's a bit ridiculous and could be simplified a good bit. Thankfully, the story doesn't really effect the game much.

Graphics are much more important, and they aren't bad, just very unremarkable. When I got to this section of the essay, I had to go back and replay the game for a bit, because I felt like the game had pretty good graphics, but I could not for the life of me remember them. I was able to remember that the game takes place across five levels: a military base, a futuristic Asian city, a jungle, another future city, and finally a cavernous area on a newly created island. But other than a few bits, none of the levels really stood out.The enemies, and even the player characters themselves, are very much the same. They serve their job, but aren't very memorable. However, the game does animates really nicely, and most of the movements look very fluid. The only animation I take issue with is the running animation, or lack there of, and that's only because there are some many actions that are animated distinctly.

While the presentation and story of the game are fairly lack luster, the game play itself is definitely above average. You pick one of two characters: Allen or Sheeva. The only difference I could find between them were the angles of their attacks. Allen's blade slashes out horizontally, while Sheeva's slashes upwards right in front of her. The real difference comes in the area of effect. Sheeva's attack can hurt enemies in front of her in a wide angle, while Allen, on the other hand, attacks straight out. To balance this, his slashes are able to effect enemies directly above him as well.

The choice of characters effects how you approach enemies, but not how you approach the level. Both Allen and Sheeva are capable of climbing walls and on the ceiling. This gives the player a greater feel of mobility, and it is really easy to grab onto either when one wants. Unfortunately, it can be a bit tricky to get off the ceiling once you're there, especially if you are trying to do it quickly. The positive side of this is that the levels are large and sprawling. The downside is that sometimes, the levels force you to follow a specific path. To explain what I mean, imagine an upside down 4. Rather than allowing you to go down and to the side, the game will occasionally force the player to go farther down and double around an area arbitrarily. And even if you reach where you are going early, the game won't let you move forward.

Annoyances with the level design aside, your characters definitely feel like high powered cybernetic ninjas. Besides the standard attack, which can be powered up by finding the sword orb, your characters are able to preform a jumping spin attack by pressing up and jump, or by doing a drop kick by pressing down while in mid air. Much like the bomb in a schump, pressing the X button on the controller summons an elemental attack unique, in look, to each character. Allen summons a lightening dragon, while Sheeva summons blades of ice. No matter how it looks, the effects are the same- all enemies are damaged. Health is a little different in this game. The player starts out with three points of health, but can gain up to seven by collecting rare health drops from enemies.

Of course, other than bosses, damaging your enemies is not a hard task. Most take only one hit before dying, while others take at most three. And although, there are a good number of enemies, a patient player will have no trouble with them. The challenge of the game comes from the bosses, and there are several in each level. When approaching a boss the music will change and 'ALERT!" will flash on the screen.

The bosses are fairly challenging until you realize that there is generally a spot where the player can stand and simply hack away without being touched. The final boss of the second level is a good example. Initially intimidating, this undead bride summons fire which scorches the bottom of the screen and laser beams that bounce around. But if you jump on her hand and shift a bit so that the character is standing on her wrist, you can whack away undamaged by the fire and finish her off before the beam reaches you.

The game has been called a Strider clone, so perhaps it is fitting that the music reminds me of a Mega Man game. The music is very fast paced and very rocking, but like most of the other parts of the game, it is fairly unmemorable. The sound effects aren't bad, save for the constant yelling the player character does once their weapon has been upgraded. It's mildly annoying at worst, but worth a mention.

So is the game more than just a Strider clone? Unfortunately, I can't answer that. Some day, I plan to be able to, but for now all I can do is say that Run Saber is a game that is very forgettable. It isn't bad, but there is nothing to really latch onto and say 'this is great' about. It's fun, it has co-op, and controls very well, but I know that as soon as I finish this, I'm going to forget it all again.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Mohawk and Headphone Jack- SNES-THQ

I won't lie. I picked this game up entirely due to how ridiculous the name is. Prior to seeing it in my local game store, I had no idea it even existed. And with a name like that, you would think that it was with good reason. Created by D. Scott Williamson and Black Pearl Software, this 1996 game has probably one of the worst names to ever be thought up. There is, however, more to a game than just a name. But does Mohawk have anything going for it, or is it just a game that tries to sell itself by the strangeness of its title?

As always, I'll start with the game's graphical presentation, which just oozes 90s. Mohawk, himself, is almost a laughable caricature of 90's culture. He is huge and masculine, neon yellow, with a green Mohawk that runs down his back, and completely naked except for a pair of RayBan sunglasses and his CD player. He would be an amazing mockery of the 90s if he hadn't existed right in the middle of it all and felt designed as strong mascot platformer.

The levels, on the other hand, are fairly varied, ranging from jungle ruins and caves to some sort of factory and an industrial complex. Unfortunately, they are pretty boring in their design, and predominantly made of very similar colors. The first level, for instance, is just a vast expanse of gray. The walls are gray, the floor is gray, the wire mesh is gray, and even some of the enemies are gray. If Mohawk wasn't bright yellow there'd be stretches of the level without any variety of color. The samey feeling of the first two levels does not do much to endear itself to the player, however, it never actually becomes an issue as distinguishing the floor from the background is as simple as it should be. And a platformer without the ability to determine where the floor was would be very nearly unplayable.

It would also be nearly unplayable if the controls were terrible. Luckily, that is not the case for this game. Mohawk controls easily and responsively, and there will be very few occasions where he does something that the player did not intend for him to do. The actions the player can take are, for the most part simple. By pressing either A or B, Mohawk can jump. By pressing Y, Mohawk will curl into a ball and will remain in that state until either the button is released or enough time passes. X makes Mohawk explode. Thankfully, it doesn't kill him or even damage him, it just hurts all the enemies on screen. The number of times Mohawk can explode is shown by the number and balls in the upper left corner, while Mohawks health and lives are shown in the bottom left.

In the lower left corner are the CDs that Mohawk must collect throughout each level. Once he has enough, a warp gate will open, shown as a red X on the map, which will transport him to the next level. This is where the game begins to break down a little. This is a platformer with a map, and that map is necessary to even begin to comprehend where to go after level one. Because not only are the levels massive, but also there is no set in stone up in this game. Levels spin around Mohawk so that it always looks like he's standing right side up. Becoming disoriented is a common occurrence in this game.

Even more so because the game plays like a combination of Super Mario Galaxy and Sonic Rush. By that, I mean that the game is made up of the standard pathways, bits of floating rock, and ceilings, and each of these has their own gravitational pull that can jerk a jumping Mohawk towards them, which causes the screen to flip. Sometimes, that gravitational pull comes from a good distance away, which is a rather jarring experience, especially as it always seems to happen right when you were finishing a tricky platforming section, interrupting your victory because you jumped a hair too far to the left. However, I can't say the gravity controls aren't fun. Flying through the air, only to orbit a small sphere, be grabbed by another, and be hurled elsewhere has a very visceral thrill.

Like Sonic, Mohawk is very fast. Also like Sonic, he has a strange hair cut that runs down his back and kills enemies by rolling into a ball. Mohawk's speed is the only thing that keeps the experience even semi-sane. As I said before, the levels are sprawling, and distances that look like they'd take forever to traverse, actually only take a few seconds. On the other hand, the player has to be paying constant attention or they will run right into an enemy that appeared a fraction of a second before. This is alleviated slightly by a feature called lookahead, which causes the screen to shift towards whatever direction the player is pressing on the D-pad. The problem is that it creates a really shaky camera, especially in the moments where gravity is flinging Mohawk all over, which only adds to how disorienting the game can be. And on more than one occasion, I found myself feeling slightly nauseous, which is not something one can say for most 2D games

Every two levels, there is a boss. This boss guards the warp that goes to the next area (and by this I mean jumps in setting). Unlike the standard enemies, which are rather boring, such as the random small ball or the large slinky-like worm, the bosses, or at least the one I've seen, exude a goofy charm. The first boss is a smiling yellow ball with mecha legs, and it was actually quite challenging as it had several different attacks, such as missiles, guns, and a flamethrower. Choosing your time to strike wisely and making judicious use of the explode ability are necessities in these confrontations.

The music in the game is interesting. Not in the sense that it is good, though. The music is made up of mostly generic 90s rock tunes. Though they aren't bad by any means, they just have this feeling of already been heard before. Now, what's interesting is that there aren't actually level tunes. There are simply collectible songs, in the from of large CDs, scattered through out the game. Once the player discovers one, the game automatically jumps to the new song, and at any time the game can be paused and a new song selected.

So, the question still remains, is the game good? And the only real answer I can give is that it is awesomely bad. There are flaws to the game in spades. Cheap deaths happen often. The shaky camera is awful, but can thankfully be turned off. And that's not even mentioning the wonkiness of the gravity at times. And yet, the game feels so much like it was ahead of its time that I can't bring myself to truly condemn it. While it looks bland and ridiculous, it feels like it was really striving to accomplish something great. And even though it fell very short of that goal, it still managed to create a very unique experience unlike any I would have played at the time. If you can find it for cheap, and don't mind putting up with some major annoyances, you might walk away with one of those games that inspire some people to curse the heathens that just don't understand.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Zombies Ate My Neighbors-Genesis-LucasArts

Perhaps it may be difficult to remember, but there was once a time when LucasArts created more than just Star Wars cash-ins of varying quality. Of course, that's not to say there were no Star Wars games during that time, but this was when they were on the top of their game, creating iconic classics of the gaming world, such as Monkey Island, The Fate of Atlantis, and Maniac Mansion. It was during this period, 1993 to be exact, that Mike Ebert and LucasArts released a forgotten classic on the Genesis and SNES: Zombies Ate my Neighbors. Published by Konami, This was one of those games that I actually owned as a child, and the game that I still claim to have achieved my greatest gaming moment: making it to level 46 with no game overs.

The games story is a simple one. Monsters, such as zombies, werewolves, martians, and giant babies, are out to kill everyone. And, of course, it's up to Zeke and Julie to stop them. There's a crazy doctor named Dr. Tongue involved in this somehow, but really it doesn't matter. There are people to save, and monsters to destroy.

The story is minimalistic, but really, the actual plot of the game is so unimportant, that you'll never find yourself actually thinking about it or the final confrontation with Dr. Tongue. Instead, you'll find yourself solely focused on each level's story, if that, told to you exclusively by the level's title and the monsters present inside. The game is 54 levels of goofy monster movie spoofs just waiting to be survived.

But just because the game has a sense of humor doesn't mean it's not hard or that there are no tense moments. The game is a free roaming top-down shooter, and like any game set with that camera angle, you will be attacked from all sides. Luckily, you don't have to defeat all the enemies or even make it to a specific location to end the level. Unfortunately, to escape, you actually have to save all the people that you can before the door to the next level opens. And you have to be quick, because if an enemy reaches one of the neighbors, they will die, and there will be one less neighbor to save on the next level. If they all die, it's game over. Racing an ax wielding doll towards a panicking soldier, builds a certain kind of tension

Of course, you could, if you are able, simply off the doll with one of your many weapons. But this isn't a gritty game. There are no pistols or shotguns to be found. Starting off, the player will only have access to a water gun. but it shouldn't take long to build up an arsenal of creative weapons like soda can grenades, silverware, tomatoes, fire extinguishers, and bazookas. And that's not the only thing they have. There are also items like clown punching bags, med kits, and various potions that will give the player that much needed edge. With a little strategy, these weapons and items will help Zeke and Julie overcome the odds and save their neighbors.

Of course, all of this is moot if you don't have what it takes to play this game correctly. No, not an itchy trigger finger and a sure shot, though those will definitely help. No, Zombies Ate my Neighbors requires the player to have a brain and to prioritize. Not every enemy needs to be defeated. Nor must every drawer be searched as the player moves through the level. And for the love of all that's holy, save the victim first then get the bazooka.

There's even strategy involved in the combat. Most enemies are more susceptible to damage from specific types of weapons. The water pistol works wonderfully on the zombies, but you'll want to use a soda can grenade on the mummies and silverware on the werewolves. I'd also recommend you save those red potions (drinking one of them will turn either Zeke or Julie into an invincible monster) for level 20. You'll need them.

As I've mentioned, each level has its own story. This is set up by a title written in classic 50s B-movie blood font and the occasional goofy blurb. As you move through the levels you will hop from zombie infested suburbia, to haunted castles, mummy filled pyramids, hedge mazes with loving chainsaw maniacs, and football stadiums willed with undead tackles. And there is no clear distinction of where you are heading next. This makes the game feel more like a spoof than a solidified story, and that works very well for this game. The constant jumping from area to area randomizes the enemy types and never allows the player to lay down a consistent plan of attack. It also allows you to restock weapons you may be running low on as weapons that are more useful in the factory may not be needed in the shopping mall.

The game is playable cooperatively, which is a nice touch. Although, it does not really change the game all that much as both players must remain on the same screen. So, there is no diving the ten victims up into equal chunks as one heads east and the other west, which is a real shame. This can also be a hindrance if both players aren't on the same page or in constant communication. But as you would be sitting in the same room as the person, you are playing with, you should be able to discuss strategy.

The music and sound effects are pure B-movie melodrama, the posses that feeling of striving to add tension but going just a hair too far and ending up ridiculous. One shot from the water pistol causes a zombie to explode, loudly, into clouds of dust, and the piercing shriek of a dying victim sounds the same no matter what gender.

Zombies Ate my Neighbors is a blast to play. The goofy nature of the game will keep any little kid from becoming scared, while the satirizing of a genre of movies will keep those willing to think a bit deeply about things amused. The game is easy to pick up and play, and a convenient four digit password system will checkpoint your progress after every few levels. The game has its flaws. Switching weapons and items by holding A and pressing the respective button can become a bit cumbersome when hunting for something desperately needed, but if you can put up with that, you will find an enjoyable zombie romp that no horror buff should dare pass up.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Aladdin-Genesis-Virgin Interactive

The final game, for now, in our jaunt down the classic cartoon to games line-up is the Genesis version of Aladdin. The specification that this is the Genesis version is important this time because unlike most multi-platform games, the various ports are all vastly different, due in part to the fact that different companies designed the different games. While Capcom and Shinji Mikami created the SNES version, it was Virgin Interactive and David Bishop that did the work on 1993's Genesis edition. This version of the game was so good that it was awarded Best Genesis Game and Best Animation by the late, great EGM. So, does it hold up to this day?

Well, as it was awarded Best Animation, lets start with the graphics. The game is gorgeous. End of story. The areas through which Aladdin travels are mostly varied, except for one instance of overlap, and even then it is a completely different level, it is just set, for the second time, on the streets of Agrabah. The sprite work is, also, superb. Everything in the game is fluidly animated down to the guards hopping up and down while clutching their feet if you lead them across burning coals. The presentation simply oozes character and the feel of the movie.

The story is told through text and still images in between each level. These bits of dialogue are entirely skipable, though doing so will cause you to miss some rather good pixel art renditions of the classic characters. Now, this is generally where I would explain the plot, but really, if you don't know the story of Aladdin, shame on you. Go youtube the songs at least and then come back.

Now, where was I? Oh yes. Like last week's game, this was one of the gaming staples of my renting career. I can't say how many times I rented this one over the years. Probably enough times to own a couple of copies, but in all those rentals, I never beat the game. And I only made it past the carpet ride once or twice, which is ridiculous considering the game points where you should go. So, it came as a complete shock to find out just how easy the game is.

However, it's not stupidly so. The game is a simple platformer at heart. Your job is to guide Aladdin through the various locations to the end of the level. Some of the levels require you to beat a boss, while others require you to find an item, and all of them require you to jump and fight your way through hoards of traps and enemies to do so. But Aladdin is no slouch. He comes armed with a sword, several apples, and his acrobatic prowess. The sword is your close range melee attack, capable of dealing high damage, but putting Aladdin in dangerous situations. The apples, which you collect throughout the level, are your weaker range weapons. It's important to recognize early that neither of these attacks are better than the others, and this is due to how fights with the enemies play out.

It is entirely possible to brute force your way through the levels using only the sword, check points, a few lives, and a lot of luck, but that defeats what makes the combat interesting. And that is that each of the enemies has a specific method that should be employed when fighting them. The large sword wielding guard should be attacked with apples because he will parry your sword. The knife throwing guard should have his knives reflected back at him by your sword due to the fact that he will slice your apples in twine. This creates a slight strategic air to the combat that makes it feel as if Aladdin is actually outwitting his opponents rather than defeating them, which is more in line with his character from the movie.

The music in the game is a combination of new song and those taken from the movie. On numerous occasions, I found myself actually singing along with the songs, despite not having heard them in years. And the created songs aren't bad either. Though not quite as good as the movie tracks, they capture the feel of both the area they are paired with and the movie as a whole very nicely. The sound effects aren't bad either, ranging from short vocal samples for Aladdin and Abu to cracking pots and clanging swords. None of which sound silly or out of place.

Of course, the game isn't perfect. In the third and fourth levels, I found a few spots where the edges of a ledge didn't seem to want to catch me, luckily none of these were over anything perilous, so it was just a minor annoyance. However, I did run into a glitch in the fourth level that resulted in a quick game over. After defeating the Golden Ape statue and riding the carpet, I reached a check point before some semi-tricky jumps over some water, which I, of course, died on. Luckily, or so I thought, there was a checkpoint right before hand, so I'd start right back at the beginning of the jumps. Unfortunately, when I respawned, the ground didn't want to catch me, and I ended up falling to my death over and over, losing all nine of the lives I had collected in a matter of seconds. Now, I've died there before, many times actually, and that was the first time I've encountered that glitch, so it doesn't seem like that should be a major complaint, but it is there.

In closing, I feel that EGM was correct with their praise of the game. The only downsides to the game are a couple glitches and the length. A competent gamer can beat the game in about an hour and a half, which isn't much bang for your buck, I admit, but it's a really pretty bang that's fun to look at while it's still around.