Friday, May 8, 2015

The Great GameStop Haul, Plus!

Did you know that GameStop still sells PSP games? I don't think they're supposed to, but the one in Nogales still does. They had dozens of titles just ripe for the pickin', and I managed to find some gems hidden amidst the rubble of extreme sports challenges and licensed dreck. Here's what I took home, in order of personal preference. As a bonus, I'll throw in a review of an exceptional import title that I obtained from, ahem, other sources.


"Hey, now that you've gotten off the
Tilt-a-Hurl, maybe I can interest you
in a spicy tuna roll! Uh, where are
you going...?"
Hammerin' Harry is one of those games that sits on the hazy edge of my childhood nostalgia. I remember popping a couple quarters into the arcade version at a miniature golf course near Lansing. I was amused by the enthusiastic battle cry of "Let's Get BUSY!" at the start of the first stage... and frustrated that I couldn't reach any of the other stages. After ten minutes of Harry getting impaled by pick axes and crushed by construction equipment, I moved on to a different machine, and Hammerin' Harry was quickly forgotten.

Forgotten by me, but not so much by its developer Irem. It turns out the Hammerin' series is a popular franchise in Japan, with a handful of sequels on the NES, Game Boy, and Super NES. The latest entry in the series offers crisp polygonal backgrounds while abandoning Irem's past attempts at localization. The lead character, now named Gen, romps through a variety of Japanese locations, putting the hammer down on the thugs of a sleazy real estate tycoon. If his carpentry skills can't get the job done, Gen can adopt another blue collar profession, with its own unique abilities. Want to serve up some wasabi-flavored pain as a sushi chef? You've got that option.

Nothing about Hammerin' Hero will blow the drive door off your PSP, but it's a well designed and fairly distracting platformer with its heart firmly set in the arcades of the early 1990s. If you're looking to relive that experience (aggravating one hit deaths and all), Gen certainly delivers.

Sony/Level 5

The most fun you'll have with a
schizophrenic martyr.
This strategy RPG retells the story of Joan of Arc, with just a few creative liberties. The English army are allied with demons, the duke of Bedford is a dark sorcerer rather than some nutter obsessed with parakeets, and Jeanne regularly transforms into a heavily armored warrior straight out of the cartoon Knights of the Zodiac, but beyond that, it's totally faithful to 15th century French history. Heh.

But seriously, ladies and germs. If you haven't already had your fill of turn-based strategy with Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Disgaea, I'd suggest giving this a spin. Not only does it look nice, with your heroes battling on detailed polygonal playfields, it adds a few new wrinkles to the genre. Densely packed clusters of heroes form a "unified front," strengthening their defense, and soldiers armed with spears can either safely strike from a distance or skewer two adjacent foes with a single stab. Your enemies hit hard and the objectives for each mission can be demanding, making it critically important to plan each move carefully and conserve resources, especially Jeanne's tide-turning transformations.


Hey Etna, while we're looking for your panties,
you can always wear one of these!
(Gets punted into the next county)
I like this game, despite its best efforts to turn me away. It just bleeds passive aggression, from the maddening difficulty of the levels to the way it replaces your hit points with diapers if you dare ask for mercy to some of the most incredibly obnoxious characters you'll find on the PSP. You play as the Prinny, a legion of glassy-eyed, leet-speeking penguins, and it's up to you to recover the panties of the barely pubescent demon queen Etna. You'll scour six different stages for the missing unmentionables, slicing through monsters with your twin blades and bounding over pits with a handy double jump. When a Prinny dies, a new one is deposited at the last checkpoint you reached. Burn through all one thousand of them before your mission is complete and Etna will be very, very unhappy. (If you don't know your Disgaea, this is not a girl you want upset with you.)

Prinny 2 wears its love for 20th century platformers on its sleeve, taking much of its inspiration from classics like Ghouls 'n Ghosts and Castlevania. It also pushes the limits of 21st century handheld technology with silky smooth animation and eye-popping special effects. When Prinny leaps into the air to rain hot death on its enemies, the camera rotates slightly for a more dynamic view of the carnage. Prinny 2 is packed with these little details, making you eager to feed penguins into its hungry jaws even as it taunts you with abusive level designs and a sense of humor so warped, even the title characters seem mystified by it.


How does he manage to stand
with such a huge head?
Reunited and it feels so good! I had Mega Man: Powered Up back when it was first released, and I'm thrilled to have it in my collection once again. This game takes the very first installment in the Mega Man series and gives it a Playskool makeover, replacing its gritty metallic graphics with bright colors and comical characters. Adding to the toy box feel is a construction mode that lets you create your own stages, provided you find items hidden in the standard ones.

But wait, there's more! There are two new stages, one hundred optional challenges, a dozen playable characters (including all the bosses!), and three difficulty levels which make profound changes to the layout of each level. The take home is that there's a whole lot of content packed into this disc. Curiously, there's also a lot of slowdown, but even the occasional frame rate drop can't tarnish the appeal of this abundantly generous remake.


Watch out boy, she'll chew you up.
Don't you just hate it when some jerk starts raving about a Japanese game you're never going to play, acting like it's the grand sum of human achievement in electronic entertainment? 

Well, today I am that jerk. And the game I'll be praising to the heavens is Grand Knights History, a role-playing title developed near the end of the PSP's life. This game was almost, almost brought to the United States, but the publisher got cold feet when Sony announced the PSP's successor, the Vita. Luckily, some talented hackers knew a good thing when they saw it, and translated the game to English themselves.

Hey Greenie, catch!
Whoever you folks are, THANK YOU. Without you, I would have missed out on this gorgeously drawn and enormously addictive fantasy game. Grand Knights History borrows from a lot of other Japanese hits- you'll notice everything from Culdcept to Etrian Odyssey in its DNA- but ultimately finds its own unique identity. The combat system deserves special notice... it's crammed with strategic possibilities and moves at an exhilarating pace, with turns ending in a matter of seconds. Vanillaware's exquisite artwork adds to the thrill... your band of knights walks on a slightly curved trail in their search for adventure, and monsters directly confront the heroes, crushing them in a death grip and even swallowing them whole. A majestic soundtrack by Basiscape adds authenticity to the medieval setting, and is the last ingredient Grand Knights History needs to elevate it from merely great to a masterpiece.

Look, I've played my share of RPGs and adventure games on the PSP, because heaven knows it's got plenty of them. Most are very good, but I don't think any of them can top this. There have been some concerns expressed about the game's online component, but I've played Grand Knights History for hours and haven't found it necessary. Don't let it stop you from experiencing one of the high points in the PSP library.

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