Saturday, September 20, 2014

C-C-C-Computer Games

Lots of stuff to report in this brief update! First, my new computer case arrived in the mail this morning, and I spent most of the day taking the guts out my yard sale PC and transferring them into it. I'm pleased to say that the operation was mostly a success... the Frankensteined system works like a charm, although I do have a few quibbles. First, I don't know what the hell to do with the USB 3.0 port, which this motherboard evidently doesn't support. Second, there are a couple of metal tabs that weren't properly tucked in when I inserted the motherboard, making it a little tougher than necessary to use the network port. Finally, the motherboard doesn't seem to natively support case fans, so I'll have to plunk down a few dollars for an adapter. Still, this is a very good start! I just need a graphics card and maybe some memory and this bad boy should be ready to rock.

There's surprising attention to
detail in this game, including these
grazing cows and the smoking
holes left by your bombs.
(image courtesy of
Let's see, what else? After many years, Raiden II has finally been decrypted and is running in the latest build of the MAME arcade emulator. This was a tough nut to crack, with encryption that refused to be broken even after the CPS3 hardware and its frustrating suicide battery was foiled by hackers. While it's true that you could play a pretty accurate conversion of Raiden II in the early Playstation release The Raiden Project, players at long last have access to the real thing! Special thanks to Frank Cifaldi for breaking the news on his Tumblr page.

Okay, onto the next thing. Sony's currently selling a bunch of Playstation games from Capcom and Square-Enix Europe for reasonable prices, and upped the ante this weekend with a sale on various racing games. None of those titles were Burnout Legends or Dominator, unfortunately, but Need for Speed Most Wanted is available for both the PS3 and Vita for only five dollars. The game didn't hook me at first, but it's slowly winning me over with its emphasis on outwitting a small army of relentless police officers.

It's jury-rigged as all hell, but it works!
I'm sure there was something else... oh yeah! That Rhythm Heaven Fever controller I talked about making earlier is finished. After the buttons I ordered from Hong Kong arrived in the mail, I slapped 'em on the body of an eviscerated arcade joystick and connected them to my Wii light gun, using the cable from an old 2600 joystick. The end result is a perfectly ghastly, but perfectly functional controller designed for exactly one game. Bashing those big buttons makes the game more cathartic (and noisy!), but it hasn't made me any better at it. Oh well... as a friend astutely observed, I could always use it to play Dive Kick. Or maybe Track 'n Field...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

By Our Powers Combined: Building a Gaming PC

First, I just wanted to let you know that Street Fighter Alpha 3 Max is available on the Playstation Store for just three dollars. If you've got a PSP, or better yet, a Vita, I would suggest you jump all over this deal like a starving wolf on a steak. I thought I preferred Street Fighter Alpha 2, but the high energy presentation and wider character selection of Alpha 3 is really winning me over. I already had Alpha 3 on the Game Boy Advance, and while it was an admirable effort, the PSP game is a whole lot closer to the console versions.

Okay! With that out of the way, let me tell 'ya 'bout my plans for the immediate future. I'll be flying south for the winter in a couple of months, but before that happens, I'd like to take the computer I bought from a yard sale and turn it into a high-octane gaming PC, on par with the recently released Xbox One and Playstation 4. I've already got a ton of Steam games from past Humble Indie Bundle sales, and if I can be devastatingly honest, I'm just not interested in this console generation. I suspect I'd have a lot more fun with a machine with an established library, which can be used for more than just video games.

I've done some research, and here's what I'll need to finish this project:

Phoenix image courtesy of
I've got the computer, of course, and the case on the top right should arrive from TigerDirect in about a week. I would have been happy with the computer in its original case, but its size and reliance on a weak, proprietary power supply greatly limited my expansion options. The Cougar mini-tower on the top right has room for both a standard power supply and larger video cards, which will ultimately save me money and headaches in the long run. If I don't short out the motherboard or improperly connect peripherals during the case swap, anyway. (gulp)

After that, I'll need a video card and probably the maximum eight gigs of RAM this computer can handle. The memory can wait, but the video card is a must, as I'm eager to run emulators for the Saturn, Dreamcast, and Playstation 2, and there's no way that can happen without one. Folks have recommended the GeForce GTX 750 ti for its performance, price, and low power consumption, but I'll probably slum with the vanilla GTX 750 because that one's even cheaper, and the performance hit is negligible.

Once I get all the parts in place, I should be set for gaming... for a few years, at least! Wish me luck, folks.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

And I'll Form the Head: Terra Cresta... and Friends!

It's Shmuptember, and in honor of the occasion, I thought I'd take a look at one of my favorite titles from the past. Terra Cresta was released in 1985, and capitalized on the rising popularity of both the recovering video game industry and futuristic Japanese toys like the Transformers. It also raised the stakes for shooters in the 1980s, giving the player a small army of ships while competing games were satisfied with one. If you were really good, you could merge all five fighters together and burn your adversaries to ash with a flaming phoenix!

Here now are reviews of eight games either directly related to the Terra Cresta series or heavily influenced by it.

Arcade/Super NES

The eyes have it.
Moon Cresta was an inauspicious start for the series; closer in spirit to the glut of Galaxian clones available in the early 1980s than the brilliant vertically scrolling shooter it would become. In this game, it's your mission to gun down an assortment of abstract aliens, which fly in unpredictable, often frustrating patterns. Succeed in clearing the screen of hairy eyeballs and atomic piles (hee hee!) and you'll get a chance to dock with another ship, increasing your firepower. Here's the catch, though... you only get three ships, so if you lose one, you can't combine it with the others. Complicating matters is that each of the ships in your arsenal is more powerful but also larger than the last, turning what seems like an upgrade into a dangerous liability.

I'll give it to you straight... there were dozens of games like Moon Cresta in the early 1980s, and a large chunk of them were more entertaining than this. GORF builds on the success of two other classic shooters to great effect, and Astro Blaster serves up tension by the truckload with its tight time limit and devilish enemy formations. If you insist on playing Moon Cresta, the version of the game in Nichibutsu Arcade Classics for the Super Famicom is your best bet, as it's got an enhanced version with the same cacophonous sound effects but more polished graphics. Curiously, it still congratulates you with terms like "Far Out!" and "Right On!," which must have seemed crusty even in 1980, when the original game was released. I guess Nichibutsu couldn't be expected to update everything!


The Phoenix, the Winger's ultimate
form and a recurring character
in the series.
Oh yeah, now THAT'S the stuff! Terra Cresta sent Nichibutsu soaring into the late 1980s with a clever reinvention of Namco's ground-breaking shooter Xevious. Instead of flying solo with the Solvalou, your tiny but formidable Winger can merge with up to four other ships, turning it into a fearsome flying juggernaut. Its strength can be further boosted by splitting the component ships apart, choking the screen with firepower but leaving the Winger unprotected.

With more variety and without jarring pauses in the action, Terra Cresta's fleet of ships is a far more exciting play mechanic than the docking in Moon Cresta. Beyond that, the concept couldn't have come at a better time. Video games were slowly making a comeback after the crash of 1983, and toys like Voltron and the Transformers were red hot. Kids of the '80s were hungry for Japan's giant robot culture, and Terra Cresta scratched that itch in a way no other video game could.

Terra Cresta was successful enough to inspire a dozen sequels and spin-offs. It was also given a surprisingly faithful conversion on the Famicom, although the game took its sweet time reaching America. By the time it hit the NES in 1990, players had already moved on to 1943 and Life Force, with a lucky few graduating to the shooter-heavy libraries of the Genesis and Turbografx-16. It may have arrived a little late, but Terra Cresta was at least worth a rental for fans of the genre who hadn't yet stepped up to a 16-bit game system.


There are three different UFOs,
each with their own signature
If Terra Cresta dipped its toe in the sea of Japanese mech culture, UFO Robo Dangar dived into it headfirst. Rather than a phalanx of five ships that combine into one, you're put in the driver's seat of a towering android armed with fist missiles. Survive the relentless assault of your enemies and you'll be awarded a power capsule that gives your already mighty robot a hand cannon. Persevere for even longer and you'll discover a flying saucer which boosts your firepower to devastating levels.

Beyond the aesthetic changes, UFO Robo Dangar is largely the same game as Terra Cresta. Ships pour out of the edges of the screen in mesmerizing patterns, and you blast them while weaving around their bullets. You can split your mech into three ships and fan out your shots with a tap of the Formation button, but it's a temporary solution, and could end in tears if your lead ship is destroyed.

Aside from the robot motif, there's one other thing that distinguishes UFO Robo Dangar from Terra Cresta. On rare occasions, you'll stumble across a black hole which takes you to a world with a creepy bio-organic look. That art style would later resurface in Armed Formation F, a distant cousin of the Terra Cresta series.


Is that decayed brown building on the left
Nichibutsu headquarters?
Terra Force takes the same "two games for the price of one" approach as other late 1980s shooters like Life Force, with both horizontally and vertically scrolling stages. However, it's a move that distances the game from its predecessors, turning it into an experience that's pleasant, but quickly forgotten. Terra Force gives you a single ship with a chance to collect two escorts, but you can't combine the three fighters into one bullet-spewing behemoth. Instead, you're given power-up panels that increase the strength of your bombs and lasers... a depressingly predictable move from a series that usually strives for better.

You can change the game's perspective from top-down to side-scrolling and back by flying into specially marked tunnels, but Terra Force feels more like a genuine Terra Cresta title when played from an overview view. It also gives you more room to dodge the waves of non-descript aliens, and makes your bombs a little less useless. That last sentence was dripping with the same lack of enthusiasm that went into this game's design, so I'll just close by saying that Terra Force is a respectable shooter that's kept grounded by its low aspirations.

Commodore Amiga

It's not Terra Cresta, but a remarkable simulation!
Out of all the video game gadgets, gizmos, and geegaws in existence, I don't think I've ever wanted one more than the Commodore Amiga. First released in 1985, the Amiga was a personal computer with a heavy focus on multimedia applications. For Commodore, that meant dazzling business presentations and professional video editing. For me, it meant only one thing: awesome video games.

The Amiga delivered exactly that, dropping jaws with killer titles like Ruff 'n Tumble, Turrican III, and the headliner Shadow of the Beast. This side-scrolling action game doesn't hold up under close examination, but when you're a fifteen year old video game addict playing the demo in a computer store, it makes a big impression. It also made it awfully tough to go back to that crusty old NES...

Anyway, on to the game! Many Amiga titles were European riffs on arcade favorites, and Hybris is no exception, doing its best impression of the Terra Cresta series. You're still piecing together a heavily armed battleship and splitting it apart to spread out your firepower, but this time, you'll be doing it to a catchy Eurosynth beat, and dropping bombs to clear the screen when the action gets too frantic. 

Hybris's only major malfunction- aside from plain graphics that sometimes camouflage the bullets you need to avoid- is that it's a three button game that has to settle for a one button joystick. This happened a lot with Amiga software... even Mortal Kombat was playable with one button, if you can call that "playable."

Arcade / PC Engine

The Insect Stage is guaranteed
to make your skin crawl.
Armed Formation F borrows heavily from the Terra Cresta series, but it's not a true game in the series... more of a black sheep in the family, like Irem's R-Type Leo or Konami's Xexes. Its biggest departure from Terra Cresta is that the Constructicon angle has been completely abandoned. You've only got one ship, along with two sidecars called Armers. The Armers lay down a spread of horizontal fire, and can either be sent behind your ship or in front of it by tapping the Formation button.

Using the Armers isn't as fun as merging and splitting ships in the Terra Cresta games, and the narrow playfields leave the player with less room to dodge the bizarre creatures in each level. Despite all that, Armed Formation F is still a fairly diverting shooter, as long as you stick with the arcade game. The PC Engine conversion loses a lot of the original's charm thanks to overly tiled backgrounds and smaller, less detailed monsters.

PC Engine

A triumphant comeback for the Terra Cresta
series. Uh, better make that an adequate one.
The long overdue sequel to Terra Cresta suffers from being a pretty good shooter on a game system that's home to a whole lot of better ones. You've got to put on one hell of a show to compete with the likes of 1943 Kai, Blazing Lazers, and R-Type, and Terra Cresta II can't meet those high standards.

Having said that... for fans of the series, it's good enough. A game as inherently Japanese as Terra Cresta is a comfortable fit for the TurboGrafx-16 hardware, and the gameplay has evolved in subtle but welcome ways. Ship pieces are now held in metal capsules, and shooting them causes the ends to pop off, destroying anything they touch for a huge point bonus. You can also design formations for your fleet of ships, an idea first explored in the NES conversion of the first game. Finally, the music stands as some of the best you'll hear on the TurboGrafx, with rich, complex tracks that add tension to the action.

There are issues, of course. The game doesn't put up much of a fight, with enemies quickly falling to your overpowered guns. There's also not much to distinguish one stage from the next beyond themed wallpaper. One level takes place over active volcanoes, and another sends you into the ocean to blast spinning turtles. There are no truly iconic moments, like chasing after pagodas on tank treads in M.U.S.H.A., or one of the many wild boss fights in Paradius. Nichibutsu could have done so much more with this game, but a pretty good Terra Cresta sequel is better than none at all...

Sega Saturn

Your Saturn can do better than this.
Much, much better.
There are plenty of great shooters on the Saturn... but I'm not reviewing any of those. Instead, I'm stuck with Terra Cresta 3D, the unfortunate end to the Terra Cresta series. This Saturn exclusive (to the great relief of the Nintendo 64 and Playstation) was released at the worst possible time, after Nichibutsu had abandoned action games for nudie mahjong, and during gaming's awkward transition from two to three dimensions. It's not a change that serves Terra Cresta well... the number of ships you can combine has been dropped from five to three, and the action is largely forgettable, with a sluggish pace and bland level designs. 

Things go from bad to worse during the boss battles, which are fought from a behind-the-ship viewpoint that adds only superficial depth and leaves the action disconcertingly cramped. The game's got competent orchestral remasters of the themes from the original Terra Cresta, but even they're not up to par with the music in better Saturn shooters (read: nearly all of them). Even if you're as attached to the Terra Cresta series as I am, you're better off flying right past this tragic conclusion.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Full Disclosure

Jenn Frank, a respected video game writer who was recently forced out of the business by the more fanatical members of the "GamerGate" movement, was kind enough to give some press to a Game Boy Advance version of GORF I'd written a few years ago. I welcomed the coverage and was deeply grateful for it.

Also, gamers have kind of been acting like a-holes lately, and I'd like to see that come to a screeching halt. Everyone's got different opinions and it's very easy to let your enthusiasm get the better of you, but the bullying and the doxxing and the death threats and the rape threats (!?!) have got to stop. Don't give me any of that "it's all been faked" crap, either. It's like claiming you haven't raided the cookie jar while brushing the crumbs out of your beard. Come on, people, you're better than this. (I hope.)

(image courtesy of Springfield Files)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Fourth Time's The Charm?

From the makers of the Nintendo 3DS... and the Nintendo 3DS XL... and the Nintendo 2DS... it's the brand new Nintendo 3DS FX-U! This latest model of the popular handheld includes a faster processor that delivers astonishing special effects, just for you! 

Want the second analog stick the system probably should have had in the first place? FX-U! Want to play great games like Xenoblade Chronicles that were almost impossible to find on the Wii? FX-U! Craving 3D you can see without being completely motionless? FX-U! Interested in our upcoming Skylanders rip-off Amiibo figurines? FX-U! That's right, all these features and more will only be available in the new Nintendo 3DS FX-U, coming in 2015 to obsolete the system you bought last week! 

Why yes, I AM annoyed by Nintendo's latest game system! Other players are excited about the New 3DS, perhaps mesmerized by that new toy smell. Personally speaking, I've never been fond of stopgap consoles like this one. I didn't appreciate the Sega CD, was enraged by the 32X, and felt that the Game Boy Color was a cop-out, mercifully retired by the far more impressive Game Boy Advance just a few years later. 

Maybe Nintendo is feeling the pinch of the 3DS's admittedly wimpy processor and wants to close the technology gap between it and the Vita. That battle's already been fought and won, though... the Vita is no longer a threat to the 3DS even in its current form. Besides, the system is already capable of great things even without the speed boost. Have you seen Super Street Fighter IV or Kid Icarus Uprising? I'm just not sure it's necessary for Nintendo to drive a wedge in the 3DS user base by releasing yearly hardware updates and designing software that will only work with the current year's model. This isn't Apple we're talking about... although lately, you wouldn't know it from looking.

Three 3DS models were plenty, Nintendo. You should wait for the system's true successor for any significant improvements.