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.