Saturday, September 29, 2018

Oso Terrible

Bryan Ochalla from The Gay Gamer brought this article about the Japanese launch of the Sega Genesis (aka Mega Drive) to my attention, and it's morbidly fascinating, in the same way a fifteen car pile-up or the crash of the Hindenburg would be. While the Genesis had a fairly successful launch in the United States, with Thunder Force II and Ghouls 'n Ghosts available right out of the starting gate, things did not go so smoothly for its Japanese counterpart. One of the first games available for the Mega Drive was Osomatsu-Kun: Hachamecha Gekijo, a thoroughly unremarkable side-scrolling platformer based on a popular comic book series.

Somewhere in that nightmare of peach and
magenta, there's a Kit Kat bar. You can tell
it's a Kit Kat bar even at that size, so at least
they got the product placement right.
Hastily thrown together to make the launch of the Mega Drive, what modest aspirations Osomatsu-Kun had were dashed by a ROM shortage, cutting its size to 256K and leaving the game with just three stages. The game was the headliner for the Mega Drive launch event, and while the system's designer Hideki Sato doesn't come right out and say it, he heavily implies that early titles like Osomatsu-Kun doomed Sega's chances of competing with the Super Famicom, years before that system was even released!

I've played the game in an emulator, and while Osomatsu-Kun doesn't quite live down to its reputation as a system killer, it ain't good. Levels scroll in just one direction, and the game's extreme linearity is clumsily balanced by paths that loop back onto themselves if you take the wrong exit. The control (although not as "floaty" as the MD Shock article suggests) is passable at best, cheap hits are frequent, and Osomatsu's sole means of defense, a sling shot, is short on range and speed until the second stage.

Osomatsu-Kun creator Fujio Akatsuka reportedly
flung an ashtray at one of the game's designers,
eerily mirroring this outburst from another
crabby cartoonist on The Simpsons.
(image from Frinkiac)
Despite its colorful, cartoony graphics, Osomatsu-Kun has the feel of a middle of the road NES release that arrived one generation too late, and it's not the first impression anyone wants to make with their freshly released, cutting edge game console. If you ever wondered why the Mega Drive struggled in vain to compete with the Super Famicom in Japan while the two systems were evenly matched here in the United States, this is exhibit A. 

Thanks once again to MD Shock for publishing this enlightening article, and to Bryan Ochalla for telling me about it.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Rest in PSPeace

Alas, the Vita is dead... Boing Boing (Boing... Boing?) reports that Sony will stop manufacturing the system next year. However, my love for its predecessor, the PSP, still goes on! Here now are reviews of five games I've recently played on Sony's most successful handheld.


This was a freebie, generously supplied by a member of the Cheap Ass Gamer forums. Now I've gotten free games before, but it's rare for one to get its hooks in me the way this has. I've been compulsively playing Pangya since I got it in the mail two weeks ago, and have spent a total of twenty four hours with it so far. That's a straight day of gaming! I don't have the attention span to spend a straight day doing anything! No wonder the Pangya series was such a hit, both in its native Korea and abroad!

Oooh, witchy woman...
(image from Moby Games)
Between two entries in the Hot Shots Golf series and nearly a half dozen Tiger Woods games, golf is pretty well represented on the PSP. However, Pangya delivers an experience its competitors either can't, or won't offer. Unlike Tiger Woods with its tight focus on realism, Pangya is approachable and full of quirky personality. Instead of an endless expanse of rolling green fields, you get vibrant beaches, perilous cliffs, and even the set from a Rankin-Bass Christmas special, complete with frozen water hazards. The characters are likewise far from ordinary, with a junior pirate, a shapely naval officer, and a love-struck, out of shape cop all in constant pursuit of each other. Things get really weird when a resurrected dark lord and a polar bear enter the fray...

Pangya isn't the only PSP golf game that's not afraid to get silly, but I find it's easier to pick up and play than Hot Shots Golf. You can advance through the meaty story mode, tackle one of the many license challenges, or just play a few practice holes in any of the game's nine courses. When you're done on the links, you can use the "pang" you've earned to buy better equipment and new outfits for your characters, or gamble for one of three daily prizes at the Papel Shop. There's loads of content, which is what kept people coming back to Pangya when it was an online game and what's kept me glued to my PSP for the last two weeks.

Sadly, Pangya is a couple of strokes from a perfect game. The information you're given about wind speed and club strength can be misleading... you'll be informed that your next shot will send you straight to the pin, only to discover that it fell far short of the mark. Putting can be a hassle, since it's hard to read the dots used to mark the topography of the green. Finally, computer opponents in the story mode can either be nearly unstoppable or mind-blowingly stupid, falling just short of the cup in easy putts and even aiming directly at trees and other obstacles in a doomed attempt to take a shortcut to the green. That lighthouse isn't moving for your ball, Scout. Either take a detour or learn the stinkin' curve shot.

These are minor gripes, though. For my money- all zero dollars of it- Pangya is the best golf game on the PSP. It's fun to play, there's a ton of content, and hey! What other recreation of the sport lets you perform a tomato hook, turning your ball into a cruise missile? A-

Ghostlight/Icon Games

This easily missed European title claims to be the sport of the future, but what you're really getting here is Marble Madness in 3D. You guide a silver sphere through stages largely comprised of sphincter-clenchingly thin platforms, hoping to reach a goal before time expires. The margin of error is as slim as the catwalks you'll roll across, with unforgiving time limits and a five second penalty if you plummet into the void below. It's something you'll do distressingly often, thanks to the mounting stress. You're probably better off skipping the arcade mode entirely and just playing the career mode, which lets you finish levels at a more leisurely pace, and without the nagging from an announcer who clearly overestimates her helpfulness. "You're running out of time!" THANK YOU, Ms. Data.

It's a long way down.
(image from the Sony Playstation UK store)
Without the constant pressure of a timer, Spinout is a competent maze game. The controls are surprisingly tight with the PSP's single analog nub- and believe me, you'll need that precision- and the graphics have a futuristic sheen, with towering skyscrapers and gleaming metal platforms set hundreds of feet above the planet's surface. If you're acrophobic, you probably don't want to play this. If you're not acrophobic, this game will give you a healthy fear of heights after a few rounds.

On the downside, quirks in Spinout's design conspire to prevent you from earning medals in the career mode... and will stop your progress cold in the arcade mode. The behind-the-ball perspective sometimes conceals your path to the next checkpoint, and the boxes strewn through each course can't be destroyed by rolling into them... they just scatter from the point of impact, possibly plugging up holes that lead to the end of the stage. At least the bowling mini-game offers some relief from Spinout's frequent frustration, letting you take your aggression out on a set of pins waiting on the far end of a skybound alley. C

Sega/Planet Moon

This game is ostensibly a spin-off of Sega's Afterburner series, but it could just as easily pass as a sequel to other flight combat games from the 1980s. Take MACH 3 by Mylstar Games, for instance. That arcade hit spooled aerial footage from a laser disc to bring a photo-realistic edge to your dogfights and bombing runs, yet somehow, Afterburner looks even better. The ice floes you'll skim over and the tight canyons you'll squeeze through are drawn in real time and seen from behind your ship, bringing you into the action in a way MACH 3 couldn't.

You won't reach the danger zone until six
or seven missions later.
(image from Emuparadise)
Structurally, the PSP version of Afterburner resembles Blue Lightning, a showy flight game released for the Atari Lynx at the tail end of the 1980s. Rather than limiting itself to white knuckle combat, that game offered various missions, each with different goals and targets. Black Falcon builds on this by letting you earn cash, which can be invested in new jets or improvements to the old ones. Each fighter feels distinct from the others, with the wispy AV8 dodging enemy missiles with ease and the larger, less maneuverable A10 proving its worth during bombing runs. The game recommends a specific jet for each mission, but you're free to color outside the lines and choose your personal favorite.

Black Falcon improves on earlier flight combat games, even its namesake, but it shares their critical flaw... it's kind of mindless. Missions don't change much aside from the terrain and the targets you're expected to blast, and battles boil down to tapping circle when you see a green crosshair on the horizon, and square when blue crosshairs poke through the clouds. The action also gets chaotic in later missions, with constant explosions and volleys of missiles making it tough to catch the power up crates you'll need to survive.

But hey, if you wanted a thoughtful storyline and strategic combat on your PSP, you'd be playing Tactics Ogre. This is Afterburner! You want gorgeous graphics, speed that will ripple your cheeks, and a rock soundtrack that would bring a tear to Kenny Loggins' eyes. Black Falcon delivers all that like a payload of missiles to an active volcano. B


It's probably not a point in a game's favor when you have to force yourself to play it, yet that's exactly what I have to do with Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins. I wanted the game, I paid for the game, and I'm glad it was released for the PSP after the series went into hibernation for fifteen years. Despite all that, I don't actually want to spend any time with it. Yes, the infamous difficulty of the Ghouls 'n Ghosts series is a factor, but there's more to it than that.

Wow, this is starting to look creepy in all
the wrong ways.
(image from Emuparadise)
A friend of mine, another games writer who parlayed this silly hobby into a successful career, pinpointed what makes this particular entry in the Ghouls 'n Goblins series so repellent. As brutal as they were, the challenge was always above board in Arthur's previous adventures. If you couldn't make it through a scene, it was probably because you hadn't learned how to overcome the challenge... what to anticipate, when to jump, and where to throw your lances. Scenarios that seem impossible at first blush can be beaten if you know the trick.

Sometimes that's how things work in Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins. But sometimes a magician will appear on a whim to turn you into a chicken! Sometimes your greatest enemy is distraction... you'll get swept away in a wave of blood or plunge to the bottom of a ghostly corridor while fighting three or four monsters at once. Sometimes you seem to be magnetized to that damned bubbling cauldron in your path, and sometimes strange things happen that you're at a loss to explain. What do most of these items do? Why did this set of armor slow Arthur down when the other ones don't? Why was he suddenly turned into an obese milkmaid? Why, why, why?

There are some things I appreciate about this game. Each level has tons of hidden prizes tucked away in the nooks and crannies, making it feel a bit less flat and a bit more full-featured than its predecessors. Unlike my friend, I think the dark-tinged graphics are fine... they're creepy, they're spooky, and they're altogether ooky, which is exactly what you would expect from Ghouls 'n Ghosts. They're just not as conceptually sound as they were in previous entries. One level starts with Arthur riding a cloud through a dark pit littered with melting clocks, and ends with a tunnel of dried grass, culminating in a fight with a stingray made of pollen. The logic, if any, escapes me.

That's my biggest problem with Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins. The game raises far more questions than it answers, including why a series which used to pride itself on carefully designed levels would stoop to leaning on RNG to artificially inflate its challenge. Some entertainment can be had if you brute force your way through the game in the novice mode, but the earlier Ghouls 'n Ghosts titles were fun even without that crutch. C+


Last year I bought the Nintendo DS version of this game for a couple of bucks at a pawn shop. More recently I snagged its PSP counterpart, still shrink-wrapped, for a couple more dollars at a Saint Vincent DePaul. This means a comparison is in order! Unfortunately, it also means that I'll have to turn on my 3DS after avoiding it for months. Even looking at this miserable thing sours my stomach after Nintendo closed Miiverse, but this review just wouldn't be complete without looking at how the two versions of the game measure up, would it? The things I do for you people...

Glowsticks and recreational drugs not included.
(image from Video Games Museum)
Anyway. Regardless of the format you choose, Space Invaders Extreme abstracts itself from whatever plot the original may have had. The aliens are little more than targets to be shot, and the only threat they present is to your score and your progression through the game. Nailing four like-colored invaders in a row earns you a power-up that makes your ruthless extra-terrestrial slaughter more efficient, while rainbow-colored UFOs take you to a bonus stage that unlocks "fever mode," if you're fast enough to finish it in twelve seconds. As you play, techno music and geometric patterns pulse in the background, making the action feel more like a rave than a fight for human survival.

The PSP and DS versions of Space Invaders Extreme play to each system's strengths. The Playstation Portable's powerful graphics hardware means more dazzling transitions for the bonus stages and polygonal invaders that gracefully swoop into the playfield at the start of each round. The twin screens of the Nintendo DS more closely approximate the vertically oriented playfield of the classic arcade game, and while that extra screen is often wasted on a heads up display crammed with information, it's wisely used in the boss fights, including one battle where the invader is under you and you have to fire shots at his shielded minions, sending the blasts downward. The PSP tries to reproduce this by setting the boss above you and having your shots deflected sideways, but the fight is a lot less memorable and a lot more tedious.

Ultimately, and I can't believe I'm saying this, I'd have to give the edge to the DS version. They're both good games, though, and among the better entries in the long-running Space Invaders series. B

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Toad vs. Chode

And in video game news today..., maybe it's better you don't know.

One thing you should know is that Sony's taking a swing at the mini-machine market, releasing the Playstation Classic at the end of the year for about a hundred dollars. There's no word on what games will be included or what hardware it will use (hell, maybe Sony just threw their unsold Playstation TVs into a spiffy new shell), but consider me intrigued. 

EDIT: Guess I jumped the gun on this post! We DO know that the Playstation Classic will contain twenty games, including Jumping Flash, Rrrrrridge Racer, Tekken 3, and Final Fantasy VII. Seems pretty Namco and Square heavy, but then again, so was the original console, so it fits.

I suspect we'll also be seeing Tomb Raider, WipeOut, and Medieval in this machine, since those games helped define the Playstation experience in the late 1990s, and because Sony or one of the third parties already contributing to the PS Classic owns the rights to the IP. I would like to see Bloody Roar 2, Intelligent Qube, and Street Fighter Alpha 3 included with this system, but while I'm dreaming, I might as well ask for a unicorn.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Crap, Crap, Mega Man Crap

I just finished the Mega Man 11 demo. If the finished version is anything like what I just played, I think I'll find a smarter way to spend my forty dollars. Like a cheese grater I can scrape against my knuckles, or a roll of poison oak toilet paper.

I can't say it's worse than Mighty No. 9, but I didn't come into that game with high expectations. However, Mega Man 11 was supposed to be the genuine article... a revival of the blue bomber for the latest generation of consoles, with graphics that demonstrate the power of today's cutting-edge hardware. And the graphics are, well, they're certainly authentic. Despite the transition to 3D, the characters have the cartoony look the series has sported since Mega Man 2, and the backgrounds are crisp, with mock Aztec architecture in the far distance of outdoor scenes.

But then you get to the gameplay, and it's a blend of the stale (ooh, falling blocks! I never Dust Man saw that Junk Man before) and the senselessly infuriating. There's one particularly sadistic scene which I lovingly call the rat maze... you're trapped on a conveyor belt with instantly fatal grinding blades on the left, and labyrinthine structures dropping on the right. The trick is to blast the vulnerable stone columns and charge through the openings you've created. Unfortunately, sometimes the blocks are tiny, forcing you to slide through the gaps they leave behind, and sometimes Mega Man would rather get ground into blue dust than weave through the twisting passageways you've blasted open for him. I lost a half dozen lives to this section of the stage, and that was on Casual, a difficulty setting apparently designed to insult less skilled players rather than accommodate them.

By the way, forgive the crappy quality of this image, which was taken with my phone because taking snapshots on the Xbox One is a sick joke. Unlike the Playstation 4, where a quality picture is just a touch of a key away, you have to press the guide button, then the Y button to record a still image. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it brings up a pause menu, which is most likely not what you were hoping to save. Yes, I tried voice commands as a workaround. No, that doesn't work either, and as an added "bonus," you have to talk to Cortana, who should have been named Miss Interpret for all the luck she has understanding you.

I got through the rat maze on my second playthrough... and another one later in the stage, because the design team wanted to make it clear that they not only hated making another Mega Man game, but they hated the player for making them make another Mega Man game. Just to drive home the point, they included a gauntlet of falling blocks and conveyor belts in a section close to the end of the stage. Although getting hit with a block isn't instantly fatal, the collision will lock you into a lengthy hit stun, forcing you to lose your footing and possibly plummet into a pit at the bottom of the screen. Gee. Fun.

Mega Man 11 isn't completely devoid of good ideas. I'm not in love with the "double gear" system, but it does add a new dimension to some very familiar gameplay, and the slow motion comes in handy... provided you don't let it run for so long that Mega Man overheats. It's especially useful against the robots trapped in metal hamster wheels... you can squeeze your shots into a small gap in the wheel, but the Speed Gear is the only way you can reliably exploit this vulnerability. There's also a Power Gear ability which strengthens your shots, but it doesn't seem to juice up your standard blasts all that much, and doesn't do anything to your special weapons that couldn't already be done by charging them in the Mega Man X series.

I was trying to find good things to say about this game, wasn't I? Okay, the Rush Coil has been given its own button, which is a time saver. Also, the voices are passable... Mega Man doesn't sound like a prepubescent wiener, which is a blessing after the dreadful performances in Mega Man 8. Beyond that, I'm struggling to come up with anything in Mega Man 11's defense. It's just a demo and the full game isn't available yet, but what I've seen so far makes me think I'd be better off sticking with 20XX, or a previous Mega Man release. Lord knows I have enough of those already.

Oh yeah, one other thing before I go. If you're in the market for a Playstation TV, I've got sour news for you. The price for Sony's failed micro console has gone into the stratosphere, selling for one hundred dollars or more on auction sites. What explains the sudden demand for a system Wal-Mart couldn't give away two years ago? Maybe it's the Henkaku Enso exploit which has made the entire Vita line open to homebrew apps. Personally, I think there's a certain kitschy appeal in owning the one Sony console that was an unqualified disaster. It's the same reason the Virtual Boy, which gamers wouldn't touch in 1998, is such a big hit with collectors twenty years later. It's weird, it's rare, and it's profoundly uncomfortable for the company that made it.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

I Feel Like Tekken Tonight

I don't usually have an appetite for Namco's highly technical and somewhat clunky fighting game series, but that changed thanks to some fresh additions to the cast. Street Fighter's Akuma and Fatal Fury's Geese Howard both make appearances, and to my surprise (and relief) they actually feel like they did in their native games. 

You remember how in Street Fighter X Tekken, all the stars of the latter series were heavily modified to make them feel more familiar to Street Fighter players? The gameplay was sped up, there were chain combos like the ones in Marvel vs. Capcom, complicated multi-stage throws were changed into more easily executed super moves, that sort of thing. 

That didn't happen in Tekken 7... aside from the slightly leaden movement that's a series trademark, Geese and Akuma were largely unchanged. All of their moves are still there, triggered with the same half-circle and z-motion inputs, and they even have super meters which let you double the strength of their attacks! Since the newcomers are armed with fireballs and the other Tekken characters have no long range attacks worth mentioning, it tilts the odds rather heavily in their favor. Not that I'm complaining, mind you... I've always been pretty terrible at Tekken and will happily take any handicap the designers give me.

While I'm on the subject... is anyone else slightly confused by the tone of the Tekken series? On the surface it seems it's played straight, with a grim storyline about long-running family rivalries, punches and kicks that look like they could shatter concrete, and intense music that straddles the fence between heavy metal and techno. Then you jump into the main menu and you're given the option to customize your character with goofy hats, frying pans, and a health meter covered with adorable cartoon frogs. I guess that's just how Tekken rolls, but it's still a little jarring to hear an announcer gravely inform me that "Heihachi Mishima is dead," only to see him two games later, alive and well and armed with a giant salmon.

Oh yeah, one other thing before I go! Nordic Games, or THQ Nordic as they're currently calling themselves, bought the rights to Free Radical's TimeSplitters and 38 Studios' Kingdoms of Amalur. I've never played the latter game (it's still rotting away in my backlog), but I'm told that's good news. I have played TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, and I'm thrilled at the possibility of the game finding its way into the Xbox One's ever-growing list of backward compatible titles. I'm not great at first-person shooters, and Future Perfect is one of those rare games in the genre that shows less skilled players a little mercy, rather than swallowing them whole the moment they press start.

Imagine that... THQ, a respected game developer! If I had told me that twenty five years ago while I was suffering through the Super NES version of Pit Fighter, I wouldn't have believed me. Either that or I would have asked why I used the gift of time travel for something so trivial. One of those.