Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Cosmic Spacehead

System(s): Mega Drive, NES, Game Gear, MS-DOS, Amiga, Master System

Genre: Adventure/Platformer

Developer: Codemasters
Publisher: Codemasters

Release Dates:
North America - 1993Media:GamePro US 036.pdf
Europe - 1992


Note: Screenshots are taken from the Mega Drive version


Budget gaming is not something likely to rouse too much enthusiasm in the current days of expensive, complex video game development, but up until the end of the 16 bit era, game development was undertaken by much smaller teams at lower cost. This resulted in a large number of interesting budget titles that otherwise flew under the radar and were picked up by unsuspecting consumers in bargain bins. One of these particular games was Cosmic Spacehead's Cosmic Crusade. Cosmic Spacehead was the sequel to Linus Spacehead, a game featured on the Codemasters NES cartridge collection Quattro Adventure that also featured much loved mascot Dizzy, a happy-go-lucky anthropomorphic egg, who was as beloved a character as Sonic or Mario in the computer loving regions of Europe such as the UK, Codemasters country of origin.


Sadly, Linus was not a flagship mascot or a character remembered by many people. While his original adventure featured tough platforming and was confined to the NES on a four-in-one cart, Cosmic Spacehead added point and click gameplay, a rarity on consoles at the time, as well as the offbeat humour that so often accompanied that style of game. In addition, it got a graphical update and a release on the Mega Drive, as well as home computers such as the Amiga. Some later versions also featured a 2 player mode called 'Pie Slap' that involved two spaceships throwing custard pies at each other.

The plot of Cosmic Spacehead follows the first game, but no knowledge of it is required. Linus is back on his home planet of Linoleum after having escaped planet Earth, but nobody believes he has been there or such a planet is anything but a myth. Linus' goal is to find a spaceship and return there with a camera to take photos and prove he was really there. It's a simple concept, and really just serves as a McGuffin to set you off collecting items and avoiding hazardous enemies. The level design is okay, and although there is some expected oddity to the scenery, nothing is too outrageously 'alien' about planet Linoleum. Some inspiration was obviously taken from real civilisations on Earth, as Linus has a cousin Linochev from Linograd, an obvious parody of Soviet Russia, although the scenery in Linograd features upside down pyramids as a reference to the fact you literally dug through a hole from the other side of Planet Linoleum to get there. Cosmic Spacehead is not lacking in subtle humour, in addition to some of the more offbeat wackiness.

The gameplay is simple enough, you start in the point and click sections, but moving off screen to a new area will trigger a platforming stage. Naturally, controlling Linus during the point and click stages is a bit stiff with a controller, but it's something you pretty much just have to get used to. Cosmic Spacehead uses a variant of the SCUMM engine, so you have your usual commands such as 'Look at', Pick up', 'Give' and so forth, leaving you to figure out how best to collect and use the items you need to progress. It's not as tricky as many other similar style games, and in fact is comparatively pretty easy until you get to the last stage, which is just a large space station. To be honest, it's a bit of a boring, empty and disappointing final stage lacking in character, considering the rest of the game is so full of it.

The puzzles and game engine also lead to some funny moments, such as choosing the 'Talk to' command when confronted with the 'Big Scary Monster' in the wilderness area, prompting Linus to tell us "He says Rrrrrroooooar." Really Linus? We would never have guessed.....but it gets better. Give him a helium balloon and the monster will float off into space, appearing on the map screen floating above the surface for most of the game. As you can see, some of the puzzles are strange and the solutions obtuse, such as using a bag of sugar to cross a frozen pool. To be fair though, it's not something you wouldn't find in any other point and click adventure game.

The platforming stages are more traditional. You jump from one side of the screen to the other to avoid pits and enemies while collecting chocolate bars. Manage to collect all ten in a stage and Linus will get an extra life. This can be tricky, and often they are placed in areas that are just as likely to cost you a life. Worse still, Linus can't jump very high (his cape obviously isn't very aerodynamic) and can't change direction in mid-air. This makes certain 'leap of faith' jumps utterly terrifying. The enemy design is what you would expect from a generic, run-of-the-mill Amiga or NES platformer, although there are one or two more creative designs, such as the Q-Bert lookalike that explodes in a shower of debris. Overall, the platforming is probably one of the weakest elements in Cosmic Spacehead.

There are a couple of neat surprises in Cosmic Spacehead in the form of the aforementioned 'Pie Slap' multiplayer mode and the in-game section that most likely inspired it. At one point in the game, Linus needs to enter a competition to win a bus ticket to Detroitica, surely a fabulous prize by anyone's standards..... but to do so, he needs to enter a race. This race features four cars competing, but they all control like manure, so it naturally leads to a fun and tense race with cars slipping and sliding everywhere. There is also a wall that periodically drops to form a shortcut, although it is a risky option. I felt this was one of the most enjoyable portions of the game, and the fact it's radically different from the rest of the game helps it stand out.

Graphics are the one area that really sets the 16-bit versions (Amiga, MS-DOS and Mega Drive) apart from the 8 bit versions (NES, Master System and Game Gear). The 8-bit versions have their own style to cope with technical limitations, and early cover art mirrored that style very well. Releases on 16-bit systems, however, dramatically changed the art style, including the box art and title screen, to accommodate the greater capabilities of those systems, but in doing so, I feel like it lost some of the charm the 8-bit version had, although I will say the 8-bit map looks awful. The 16 bit versions look like something from the Cartoon Network, so it has it's own style. The animation and graphics are surprisingly decent for the 8-bit versions and the yawning animation Linus does when the player leaves him idle for too long manages to be both cute and condescending. The graphical limitations also make Linus look more like he's wearing pyjamas than a jumpsuit, which actually adds to this effect. Ultimately it's a matter of preference which version is better as they did a masterful enough job that the 8-bit versions don't feel too different.

The music varies, particularly during some of the point and click areas. Music during these segments can either be headache inducing or catchy as hell. The platforming music seems to be mostly consistent though. Again, the 8-bit versions are surprisingly competent, but I suppose you could expect that when they were the original platforms the game was built for before they were ported to 16 bit systems.

It's unfortunate that Cosmic Spacehead is such a short game with a lacklustre ending stage. I enjoyed a great portion of the game, but the imagination couldn't last once Linus left his home planet. Cosmic Spacehead is a good way to spend a few hours if you enjoy point and click games with a wacky style and humour, but apart from the multiplayer mode it won't hold your interest for too long.


Summary

+ Amusing dialogue
+ Eclectic mix of gameplay
+ Car race and multiplayer are simple, but great fun

- Too short
- Minimal replay value
- Platforming can be frustrating
- Loses steam toward the end


Overall Score

5/10

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Rise of the Robots

System(s): Super Nintendo, Mega Drive, Amiga, Amiga 32CD, CD-i, Game Gear, 3DO, PC, Arcade

Genre: Beat em' Up

Developer: Mirage, Data Design Interactive
Publisher: Acclaim Entertainment

Release Dates:
Worldwide - December 1994



Note: This review primarily used the Super Nintendo and Mega Drive versions.

It seems that the video games industry works in cycles. Some generations will place importance on power or graphics, like the infamous 'bit wars' of the 90's. The same could be said of this generation and last, with big budget games like Call of Duty. Often though, technological and visual superiority isn't necessary in order to make a best-selling or well-loved console or even great games. The PlayStation, PlayStation 2 and Wii are all proof of that, as well as numerous successful games that don't push the hardware and focus on fun factor or deep gameplay mechanics, such as Elite, Tetris or Pokémon.

Unfortunately, despite all the evidence that makes this obvious, many gamers, developers and publishers haven't quite gotten this point. The following review is a cautionary tale that I hope will raise awareness of the dangers of focusing on flashy graphics above everything else. That tale begins in 1994, in the run up to the release of a game called Rise of the Robots. I feel like it's my duty as a gamer who has been playing since the late 80's (barely out of nappies at the time), to pass down this story to younger generations unfamiliar with it. Experiencing games like this are almost a painful right of passage, like having your heart broken by someone you love.

Ah 1994. Such exciting times. Sega was no longer keeping up the transparent marketing façade that they did what 'Nintendon't'. The Super NES was beginning to show its' quality with games like Donkey Kong Country. New CD technology and Full Motion Video were being touted as the next biggest thing and there were still multiple console competitors selling a few million consoles rather than just two electronics titans dominating. Arcades were still around, although entering their final years. Something else, arriving that year that made 94' so exciting was a 2D tournament fighter showcasing extremely pretty 3D character models. If you opened a gaming magazine in 94' there was a good chance you got swept up in the hype hurricane created by Rise of the Robots. And a destructive hurricane it was.

The plot of Rise of the Robots is based on a cyborg called 'The Supervisor' contracting a computer virus and going rogue, killing humans. The company who built it have managed to quarantine the threat, but not before The Supervisor infected every other robot in the facility, with only a single exception - your avatar. This robot is unaffected by the virus due the fact it contains fleshy organic material, making it a true cyborg and also making this the most unfulfilling and boring one-on-one fighter ever. This sets up one of the biggest of the many disappointments this rancid dogs' dinner serves up. 

Tournament Fighters are normally considered exciting for primarily two reasons. The first is the eclectic array of assorted misfits and madmen to choose from, allowing for some truly strange and unique character designs that always looked like the designers let their imaginations run amok. The second is the dazzling array of moves you can pull off that are unique to each fighter, including some bone crunching or wince-inducing special attacks. Rise of the Robots has neither of these. You control only one uninspired humanoid cyborg with few distinguishing features - yes, that vanilla, offensively inoffensive 'mascot' on the cover.

The other robots in the game look moderately well designed, as though pulling off moves could be an absolute blast. You think about just how entertaining this game could have been. The plot says hell no. No chance. Not content with basically ripping off the Terminator franchise's concept of machines turning against mankind, the limited nature of the plot demands you control this one character only. Not even an option to unlock the others. It's almost as if gameplay was just an afterthought. In other fighters, playing the game multiple times is expected because doing so with each character gives you a unique ending and sometimes unlocks new fighters. This would be redundant in Rise of the Robots due to the plot, backing the gameplay into a corner. 

As if to tease you, there is a training mode that lets you play as other robots, but since the moves are the same but just look different due to the designs of the robots, it's pointless. It gives you a glimmer of hope and then fails to deliver. You'll notice this is a common theme here. Multiplayer allows you to play as the other robots too.....but only one of the players. Someone has to be the cyborg from single player. There is absolutely no reason why. Maybe they wanted to give the other player the feeling that they were role playing The Supervisor and its merry collective of terribly programmed fighters, but if you wanted that feeling, you would be better off playing a board game like Dragon Strike or Hero Quest. Besides, after five minutes of playing this, would you even admit to a friend you bought this game, let alone invite them over to play multiplayer?

I could have been willing to overlook this so long as there was at least some fun moves to play with or some interesting strategy needed to win. This, however, was wishful thinking on my part. This cutting edge, flashy game with FMV that at one time was getting people drooling over some magazine still images in anticipation boasts exactly two moves. TWO F*CKING MOVES. But wait - there's more! Two moves is really a luxury. It's the game being generous. Really, who needs the bother and hassle of pressing more than one combination of buttons over and over? That's right: the entire strategy for this game revolves around kicking after backing your opponent into a corner. The A.I on occasion has insane reach and damage, and yet still doesn't respond to your attack intelligently, in spite of the 'adaptive A.I' the developers promised.

Rise of the Robots was ported to anything and everything available at the time. It was, after all, 'cutting edge', with FMV cut scenes and 3D polygonal models. Every system should prepare for the inevitable march of progress, right? Well, this game should really have stuck to CD based systems like the PC and Panasonic's 3DO, as they look stunning and animate well and movement is fluid. The full FMV sequences are on a par with many of the PlayStation games that followed. Unfortunately the relentless focus on technology backfired massively, which is quite fitting considering the plot is about technology going bad and becoming the downfall of humanity. When porting to older home consoles like the Super NES, much of the FMV was lost and immense amounts of space on the cartridges taken up by the FMV results in messy, choppy frame rates. The Game Gear version is undoubtedly the worst of the bunch though. The A.I is the complete opposite - relentless and unforgiving. No version seemed to get the balance right.

As for the music, the title theme is the only interesting song, some nice guitar twang followed by an orchestral score. Nothing amazing, but gets the job done. The Mega Drive version though, just sounds like white noise. Besides this, the music is mostly forgettable repetitive techno. Brian May was advertised on the cover, yet due to delays his music was cut from the game apart from a few seconds of guitar from the aforementioned title theme.

As well as the amazing few seconds of Brian May's guitar making this game go from an abomination to worthy of platinum status (hahahahahahahaha no really), reference is also made on the box to the cartridge size, as though consumers were supposed to think "wow, there's a lot to this game.....32 MEGS!? AWESOME." In reality, unlike Capcom putting Resident Evil 2 on the N64 with FMV's intact, which was a significant technological achievement and a great game to boot, it really adds nothing but a sound bite in an era where marketers were obsessed with these kind of technical specs. Even the back of the box is full of meaningless marketing speak. Morphing characters? No, one, not multiple - the end boss. Also, to this day I have no idea what Ray-traced graphics are. It might be a stupid way of saying motion capture. But really who cares? All I know is, it doesn't stop me wanting to flush this turd down the toilet.

Perhaps fittingly, the 3DO as a games console shares many similarities with this game. Aggressively marketed, limited choice, largely seen as some kind of showcase for the future of gaming, using technology too far ahead of time and emphasising raw power and sound quality over, well, everything else. Not to mention being poorly received by both critics and consumers. It's like they were made for each other. Yuck. I hate to imagine the poor sap who bought both, still convinced by the infamous adverts throwing Sega and Nintendo consoles in the bin that the 3DO was an adult console. That whoever was in such a situation might have cried themselves to sleep each night is not beyond the realms of possibility.

To be honest, I intended to do this review a month ago. I just really really really didn't want to have to play this, preferably ever again. Rise of the Robots is like being offered the most mouth watering cheesecake all evening in a restaurant only to see it thrown in the bin and getting bitch slapped hard in the face for daring to ask for a piece while the waiter refuses a refund. It makes Peter Molyneux and his hype of Fable look like a storm in a teacup by comparison, and I think demonstrates my point that the industry is doomed to fail to learn from, and therefore repeat, past mistakes, unless the mark left by this stain on the games industry is always remembered. It gets a one out of ten for existing, and even that is being generous.


Summary

+ Look pretty for 3D graphics in that era

- Forgettable music
- Only one character in a tournament fighter
- Only two moves
- Advertising on the cover blatantly misleads
- A.I is awful and the difficulty lacks any balance as a result
- Frame rates are terrible
- FMV sequences aren't even in full on every version
- Unoriginal plot that wasn't even needed

Overall Score

1/10

Friday, 9 October 2015

Painters Guild

System(s): PC

Genre: Simulation

Developer: Lucas Molina
Publisher: Lucas Molina

Release Date:
1 September, 2015

Steam Greenlight is now a massive source of new indie titles. There are literally thousands being approved and made for Valve's digital distribution platform. Most have, unfortunately, been little more than clones of other popular games such as Minecraft, Day-Z, pixelated retro 2D platformers or RPG's in the style of Ys or Final Fantasy. Once in a blue moon, however, a unique, quirky game like Painters Guild comes along.

Painters Guild is a one man project, a labour of love. Its relatively low retail price reflects that. You play a Renaissance artist, painting for clients, creating masterpieces, doing works for the church and training apprentices through your guild. The game progresses from the beginning of the Renaissance until 1620, during which time painters will make a name for themselves, make money and die, passing the mantle to new generations of painters.

The gameplay is very simple, but addictive. You start with your painter, whom you can customise to your satisfaction - male or female, bearded or un-bearded, with hat or without. If you want, you can even make that character gay. Obviously that is something that will potentially come into play later given the time period it's set in. You then pick one of three Italian cities that will give you different bonuses. Clients then shuffle over to your guild at a steady rate, as you assign your avatar to paint, after which a meter comes up showing his progress. Most of your time will be spent watching those little meters fill up for nearly every task, and managing your tasks effectively. Once the painting is finished, an arrow appears, you click and you get money. You also have to keep an eye on your paint levels, and will need to periodically mix paint to ensure your supplies don't get too low. That's not all - your painters will get tired, and you will need a bed to rest them in from time to time.

Painters Guild has a bit more depth than simply earning money, thankfully. Your job is made more complicated by skill levels of individual artists. By hiring apprentices, you can then teach them (and your original painter) to increase the number that represents their skill level. Your main artist will usually be quite competent, allowing you a fair start, but each apprentice you hire will require a great amount of training. When hiring a new painter you can pick from three apprentices instantaneously in your local district each month if you're low on cash. Early on, this will be your main source of new painters. If you have a little more, you can spend 250 gold and wait 50 days searching a little wider, or spend double the money and time searching to get the best available in the country. When a painter becomes skilled enough, they will become a 'Journeyman' and will go soul searching on a trip, which costs money, but will make them a better painter. Once they come back, they can attempt mastery by painting a masterpiece, giving mostly the same effect except it's much more like painting for clients.

Periodically, historical geniuses like Leonardo Da Vinci will crop up, allowing you to hire them for your guild. Painters have their own personalities and strengths or weaknesses, as well as their own styles they paint in. Clients will request a particular style, so it pays to have multiple painters with differing styles to meet demand and maximise profit. Every once in a while your artist may get into trouble and require financial assistance to get them out of it, as well as being potentially infected by disease or persecuted for homosexuality by the church.

Your guild building can also be customised with furnishings that will have various effects, like a larger bed to fit more painters, a desk to increase skill faster, models, and also décor and even a prettier building that will boost prestige and give you richer clients that pay better. Every once in a while you will get a request to paint a mural for a church building, known as a 'great work.' These are often slightly more lucrative, but result in your painter being absent for a few days. You can assign multiple painters to some of the bigger great works, although some sections of the building will require a particular style of mural.

Although before playing Painters Guild I felt like the pixelated art style had been done to death on Steam, I must admit it grew on me in this game thanks to some elements of the presentation. The setting largely helped me get over my initial scepticism, and a great deal of love and care obviously went into making the historical setting believable. The music is charming and very strongly sticks to the renaissance style. It's just a shame that there aren't more locations to see. The only real way to see any different scenery is to start a new game in a new city.

Some other noticeable strokes of genius include the pixelated versions of classical paintings, like Da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' or Michelangelo's 'The Creation of Adam' and the way great works reflect the reality that the most lucrative contracts made by artists at the time were commissioned by the church. I did feel like there could have been a bigger reward for this though, as it only made slightly more in-game than individual paintings, especially given great works only crop up every few months and sometimes require multiple painters, leaving you with a virtually empty guild.

Overall though, Painters Guild has plenty to keep you busy. Its a very addictive style of gameplay, and will probably keep you entertained for some time while you juggle various tasks. Unfortunately, it isn't particularly deep beyond continuing the cycle of making money, expanding the guild's size and prestige and hiring new painters. In that sense the game isn't really that unique in its approach, as the game ultimately doesn't lead anywhere, something many games with this style of gameplay also have a problem with.


Summary

+ Unique setting that is faithful to the time period
+ Plenty of customisation
+ Great music, art style and presentation
+ Rare good use of pixelated graphics on Steam

- Gameplay, while addictive, does get repetitive quickly
- Very little variety of locations
- Great works could have been reflected better with more prestige and money


Overall Score

6/10
 

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Oniken


System(s): PC

Genre: Action/Platformer

Developer: JoyMasher
Publisher: JoyMasher

Release Date:
5 February, 2014

In case you have been living under a rock for the past few years, I just wanted to let you know that retro is in. In a big way. Something about the 1980's just refuses to die. I wouldn't know where to even start with how much of the 80's is still being regurgitated for consumption by a willing audience. Fashion, music, nightclubs - Doc Brown did get one thing right about the future in Back to the Future Part 2 - there are plenty of 80's nostalgia places, but not done right. It seems that for all the appropriation of 80's culture, and the short amount of time since the 80's was actually the present, authenticity is still lacking. Steam, for example, is full of pixelated games that are all style, no substance, merely copying the primitive visuals of classic games. It seems easier just to go back and plug in a classic 8-bit system instead.

Fortunately, if you are still looking for authentic 80's action gameplay but have exhausted all possibilities on your original systems, Oniken is here to save the day, thanks to Brazilian indie developer JoyMasher. It seems odd to call a small team making an 80's platformer 'indie' when most developers during the 8-bit era were usually in groups of ten or less anyway. But I digress.


Oniken bares more than a passing resemblance to games such as Ninja Gaiden, Kickmaster and Shadow of the Ninja. That's no coincidence, and its inspirations are clear. A martial arts using, sword wielding badass mercenary with a murdered father and a mission to save the world from darkness. It's pretty much standard 80's action fare. Fans of 80's action and martial arts films, as well as 90's anime will find a lot to like here. The atmosphere is dark and dystopian, the hero single-minded in his determination and the gore is plentiful. One scene sees our hero punch a villain's face so hard his head explodes. The bosses are a wonderful array of biomechanical weirdness, and some fights genuinely feel like an epic one-on-one duel rather than some bloke with a sword versus an unstoppable killing machine. Actually, the storyline does its best to make it seem the other way around. It makes the protagonist feel like another John Rambo or Snake Plisskin (although I heard he was dead), triumphing against seemingly impossible odds and yet barely breaking a sweat.

Most stages are split into sections, completing one then starts you at the next one with full health. Die three times though, and it's game over. Combat mostly involves jumping on platforms and slashing enemies with your sword. Inside containers you will sometimes find a sword upgrade, increasing its strength and reach. The downside is that it has a power bar with a maximum three units. Get hit three times and it's gone. You can also use the power up by initiating Berserk mode, which makes you temporarily invulnerable with a red glow and makes your sword even more powerful. This will quickly drain the power bar of your sword until depleted, so it's best to use it only when you're in a really tight spot, and you will usually want to save this for bosses. In addition to the sword upgrade you can also find grenades. They can be tough to aim at times, perhaps due to the desire to emulate classic gaming a bit too faithfully, but their vastly superior firepower makes them useful against bigger foes. Their throwing arc can take out enemies your sword can't reach.  The controls are fairly sharp playing on a controller, although I wouldn't recommend playing on a keyboard (although let's be honest, it was never meant to be played with a keyboard anyway).

This is no game for pushovers. For those convinced that modern gaming is just too easy and holds your hand too much, Oniken is a godsend. Thankfully, challenging in this case does not mean cheap. Your deaths are always self-inflicted, and there is none of the 'bullet hell' found in games such as Contra. Its all about learning enemy patterns and figuring out the best strategy to proceed. This means that the difficulty probably isn't even close to games of such legendary frustration as Ghosts n' Goblins or Battletoads. The fact it was designed with modern hardware and without the tricky limitations gives it a distinct advantage over 30 year old games too. No sprite flicker, no bugs or glitches and few re-spawning enemies. Realistically though, Oniken is not going to be for everyone. There is a good chance that those unused to this retro style will probably hate it. It was very much designed for those seeking a nostalgia trip.

If you do manage to beat the game, Oniken also features Steam achievements (including ones for
finishing each level without dying once), high scores, a hardcore mode with only one life and there are also secrets to be found in each level and a hidden stage to unlock. To be honest, though, unless you plan on tackling hardcore mode the game will probably last you only 3 hours if you are an 8-bit veteran. In that regard, perhaps it's a little too faithful to the classics. That being said, someone less familiar with this style of gameplay might spend double that time trying to get though it so it really depends on your skill level.

The action, while tough, can also be exhilarating; Oniken definitely deserves praise for its level design. Beating a level gives a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. One level involves jumping obstacles on a bike and picking up grenades to throw at a polar bear chasing you through frozen wastes, only for it to turn into a cyborg after taking enough damage. Another sees you dodging a death star-style super weapon in between taking out enemies. Oniken is full of these kind of neat ideas that complement the gameplay as well as giving it a wow factor.

Oniken is, by 8-bit standards, a good looking game. It manages to retain that classic pixelated style without overdoing it and staying clean enough that you can always tell what's going on. Some of the environments could probably use a bit more detail and variety though. The cut scenes are entertaining enough to make them more than just something annoying to skip over, and this is where the quality of the graphics is at its best. The soundtrack fits nicely with the action. Most of the tunes are catchy and the boss music creates plenty of tension. It's not quite the level of, say, Ducktales, Journey to Silius or Mega Man 2, but that's more down to the overall style of the game and the music definitely plays a key part in the overall stellar presentation.

Oniken is probably the closest that anyone besides Capcom has gotten to recreating an 8-bit game faithfully on modern hardware. It has the benefit of better hardware than the games it takes inspiration from, resulting in few glitches compared to the sprite limits and frame rate drops on the NES and Master System. However, even disregarding that fact, the level design makes it comparable to some of the very best available on those systems. While the difficulty will put some people off, it isn't up with the toughest games, and I can definitely recommend it to anyone interested in retro platforming gameplay.


Summary

+ Fantastic level design
+ Faithful homage to 8-bit classics
+ Controls fluidly
+ Presentation is excellent, especially the cut scenes
+ Good value for money

- Not as difficult as some might suggest
- Short, lasts only around 3 hours
- Some environments look a bit too similar


Overall Score

8/10

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Complete Onside Soccer

Onside (Complete Onside Soccer).jpg
System(s): PlayStation, PC

Genre: Simulation

Developer: Elite
Publisher: Telstar Electronic Studios

Release Date:
Europe -  June 1996
Japan -  January 1998



It's hard to believe in the current days of yearly FIFA and Football Manager releases dominating the football game market, but during the 16-bit era there were many rival football franchises. Most never made it beyond one or two games and few strove for anything approaching realism. Arcade-style fun and the ability to pick up and play was the order of the day. Aside from Kevin Keegan's Player Manager on the Super Nintendo and Premier Manager on the Mega Drive, football management sims were mainly for PC only. However, by 1996, the popularity of the PlayStation combined with 3D graphics changed this, and soon management sims started to appear on consoles.

Complete Onside Soccer was the first of these efforts. Even compared to the by then seriously outdated Kevin Keegan-endorsed SNES game and Premier Manager, this was never, "the most realistic management simulator ever", as the sound bite on the front cover says. It's hardly a fair comparison to make, most others by then still had the old league structure before the English Premiership had formed and were relegated (if you'll excuse the pun) to text only affairs. But this new game boasted up to date squads and 3D graphics! And it was on the Worlds Most Popular Console™ so it had to be a winner, right?

Wrong. Onside tries to woo us with the promise of flashy, cutting edge 3D graphics, but ends up being a blocky, ugly mess, like so many early 3D titles. To be fair, you can't really blame the developers for that one. The controls on the match engine are the equivalent of Sunday League 'hoofball.' It really isn't worth your time and effort. Mercifully, you can skip this stuff if you choose a management career right off the bat.

This is what the majority of the game is built around, and there are numerous options, like a 'Finance' screen to manage ticket prices, a 'Physio' screen to check up on injuries and fitness etc. Then there are Tactics, Transfers, Training and Matches. It seems like a fairly comprehensive list of options at first glance, backed up by some interesting, almost cartoonish static backgrounds. The best thing I can say about Onside is the ability to create a custom league from Italian, English, French and German top division teams from 1996-7.

The most unfortunate thing about Onside is it's difficulty. It's punishingly difficult, and in most management games unless you pick the best side in the league you'll rarely last a season or two before getting sacked. Particularly if you forgo the match engine in favour of skipping results, as you fear the ugliness of the graphics engine might actually one day make you blind. It reminds me of Sensible Soccer in the way groups of opposition players just swarm towards you, except the controls are much less refined. From the speed the players move at, to the way passes only work in a rectangle or otherwise miss their intended target, none of it feels like it should. Had it been more enjoyable in this respect, there would have been a reason to keep playing, but you'll likely get fed up of it quickly.

What makes this game seem so frustrating is threefold. Firstly, the transfer market is broken. I mean fundamentally does not behave like a transfer market should. I have witnessed this to lesser degrees in other management simulations (*cough* Premier Manager 64 *cough*), but the majority of players available at the beginning not only seem to be overwhelmingly Goalkeepers, but are the worst available in that league. Occasionally you will find better players crop up later on in the season, but by then poor performances mean gate receipts are down and even if you have the cash to spare, it will do little to arrest the slide anyway. 

It wouldn't be so annoying if the transfer market actually allowed you to sign foreign players, but it takes several weeks before they appear. Anyone playing as Derby County, for example, dreaming of getting to the point of signing players like Bergkamp, Cantona or Del Piero are better off playing a fantasy football game of the kind you used to get advertised in the back of magazines. There is little feeling of actually making solid improvement to your team.

Teams are massively shortened from their real life counterparts, with only 16 players allowed, which leads to some arbitrary exclusions. They couldn't even fit both Phil and Gary Neville into the Manchester United team because they only include surnames, not even the first initial is used. I'm still wondering to this day just who the mystery Neville in the starting line up is.

An odd thing I noticed is that Goalkeepers in general have a very low rating, always under 70, more often just under 60. This means that England's first choice goalkeeper David Seaman is considered less valuable to Arsenal than Ian Selly. Meanwhile the best strikers in the game barely make it over 80. It's a weird system that makes little sense. Not that the evaluation of outfield players is accurate either - I'd be hard pressed to say that John Scales, Mark Wright and Phil Babb are better overall than Jamie Redknapp Jason McAteer and Steve McManaman, but Onside seems to disagree.

The second thing making Onside so tough is the fact your players abilities deteriorate over time. You can deal with this by training them. The problem with this is that rather than something vaguely resembling football training, like passing drills or running around a track, this involves the aforementioned hideous match engine, in a tedious, boring 5-a-side game. Having to do this after every game will make you want to go outside and have a kick about instead, with jumpers for goalposts. At least it can be said this particular video game won't stop getting kids exercise.....

Lastly with regards to difficulty, the 'skip to final score' option just appears to be totally random and unrealistic. I've seen score lines of 8-0 after winning 4-1 the previous game. This uncertainty and high element of chance leaves you with no idea of how to gauge your teams progress and how your team selection, tactics or transfers impact on games. Player positions are basic, so there are no sweepers or fullbacks or wingers. It's purely Midfield, Defence etc. and the formations appear to be nothing but numbers on a screen you can change at the press of a button, at least as far as simulating the match goes.

The music is forgettable, so much so I'm surprised they even bothered having music at all. It's pretty difficult to notice it anyway with the obnoxious referee's whistle that chimes every time you click a button, even at the company logos at startup. Mimicking that feeling of getting sick of hearing the ref blow his whistle is about as realistic as Onside gets.

Although this game came out in 1996, it's very easy to compare it to other games of the genre on the  PS1, such as LMA Manager. Despite being released a couple of years later and only featuring English teams, LMA somehow feels a whole console generation more advanced due to it's graphical presentation and huge number of players. There are so many more features it would take half of this review to list them all, but Onside has none of those.

Peter Schmeichel famously vomited on the pitch after witnessing the tragic and painful career ending injury suffered by Dave Busst. It would be tempting to suggest appearing on the cover of Complete Onside Soccer might be the second lowest moment of his professional career, after the Busst incident. If he ever played this game then a similar reaction is certainly not unlikely. It says a lot about the lack of advanced features when the original Football Manager on the ZX Spectrum, a game written in BASIC and released in 1982, is more advanced a simulation than this. Playing Onside non stop is quite possibly the perfect ironic punishment for greedy overpaid footballers and agents when they suffer for an eternity in the fourth circle of hell.


Summary

+ Can play or manage in one of four top European leagues and customise your own

- Horrible sound effects and forgettable music
- Transfer market feels very limited
- Match engine is ugly to look at and boring to play
- Fails to do anything new and gameplay is very basic
- Far too challenging unless you are a glory hunter and always pick the best
- Skipping matches seems to almost always result in defeat and unrealistic scorelines
- No Spanish leagues

Overall Score

1/10



 

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Total War: Attila

System(s): PC

Genre: Strategy

Developer: Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega

Release Date: February, 2015









"The wind whispered and the earth grew cold with death. And I beheld a black horse. And he that sat on him had a pair of scales on his hand."

Thus Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God was born....

The Total War series is Creative Assembly's flagship IP, and has been going strong now since Shogun: Total War was released in 2000. After the series came full circle with the release of Total War: Shogun 2, which was well received by critics, CA experienced a strong backlash from fans with very high expectations after the disastrous, bug-filled launch of Total War: Rome 2. Numerous DLC packs, glitches, problems with the AI - it wasn't until the release of the Emperor Edition that some fans began to accept it as the sequel to a game so lauded for its battle engine it was used in a television series, BBC's Time Commanders.

Following on from the original Rome came the Barbarian Expansion, which changed the setting to the terrifying migration of Germanic and Nomadic steppe peoples rampaging, sacking and looting across Europe, bringing the dying remnants of the Roman Empire to it's knees and plunging Europe into the Dark Ages. Total War: Attila is the spiritual successor to this expansion, except this is a stand alone title that doesn't require Rome 2 to play. After the disappointment of Rome 2, CA has taken feedback on board and attempted to change a number elements for Attila.

On launching the game I have to admit I was awestruck by the presentation in the title screen. Total War has always been blessed with good cinematic sequences, and Attila lives up to this reputation. Tuvan throat singing from the Mongolian steppes can be heard as the background music, while shadowy, smoothly animated horsemen stampede with bows outstretched. The eventual birth of Attila himself is announced with a dramatic cut-scene that will leave non-Hunnic factions quaking in their stirrups. The graphics are much improved but quite honestly the optimisation is poor, and if you have an AMD processor, I would turn around and go back the way you came, as Attila did upon entering Rome. Your system will struggle.

4E3290DD80EA1FCF11C8A3969D9E3A7B07645384 (1920×1080)The changes to the user interface are really a mixed bag. The UI has been altered to reflect the decay of the once mighty Roman Empire, with crumbling marble lining various windows, which is a nice touch. The strengths and weaknesses of particular units are the main stats highlighted in the box when hovering over unit cards now, but long running fans may not appreciate the hacking away of information previously found there. The unit cards' art style have been altered, and although many people disliked the Greek black-figure pottery style unit cards in Rome 2, I found myself pining for them in Attila, as many of the troops look generic and even more difficult to tell apart. The same also goes for buildings.

The units on the battlefield no longer have the classic Total War banners but instead have generic coloured boxes with symbols denoting whether the unit is cavalry, ranged etc. While this is a nice idea, the boxes are too small and clicking on them or hovering to determine the unit's morale is more difficult than the old banners as a result. On the plus side, there is a neat little feature that allows you to draw coloured lines on the battlefield, indicating where you want units to go, which also serves a purpose in multiplayer co-op battles.

8447250B9EDD49D257062AA054181722C2E029E7 (1920×1080)The battle AI is certainly much smarter than in previous games and battles no longer consist of swarming enemy units with everything but the kitchen sink. Greater strategic awareness is needed here, especially if you choose one of the Roman factions. The campaign AI on the other hand is still ludicrous. Opposing factions will still spam agent actions every turn and the game world is filled with one region factions with two full doom stacks. What should be an easy means of expanding is made pointlessly difficult, and often these factions will remain for a long time despite their small size. New factions also seem to emerge frequently due to the AI liberating them, something that seems wholly unrealistic and historically bankrupt.

One of the new features is the glorious return of the family tree. Credit has to be given to CA for listening to their fans. Along with this the political side of things has also been expanded to make things more interesting. Marriages to other factions, adopting generals as sons - many of the classic elements are here. You can now carry out a slew of actions that also affect loyalty of statesmen and generals, or promote people to offices in a way that is visually represented on the family tree screen. Gone are the days of having to check bonuses in the politics screen just to figure out the political ranks of your generals. In addition, you can increase influence of generals and family members by appointing them as governors.

The return of family trees also helps make generals and other characters seem important, as though they can have a genuine impact if they die. One other interesting feature that has been expanded since Rome 2 is your generals and family members can now equip armour, a weapon and one member of your retinue. This makes it possible to add a number of bonuses to customise your generals. It certainly improves upon the utterly forgettable generals in Rome 2, the death of whom felt anti-climactic. One thing I feel should be here that still hasn't been brought back was the ability to send troops without the need for a general. On the one hand, it adds a strategic element that makes the game tougher, but much of the time it was needlessly limiting and didn't reflect reality. Not every military unit should need to be accompanied by a general. On the whole the politics side has been improved but if you were looking for the family tree of old, you'll be disappointed.

C1E5F5169BB87E3DA544C292C5F71FC7722C00B6 (1920×1080)
If there is one major new feature since Barbarian Expansion, it's that hordes can actually grow and act as miniature settlements on their own. You can build improvements with them and use them to recruit units, making them truly terrifying. When attacking settlements you can also choose to raze them, leaving huge areas barren and costly to occupy and rebuild. I found the AI a bit trigger happy with razing though, with half the map razed to desolate wilderness within 30 turns.

Another concept which is inspired by history is the abrupt climate cooling that caused mass crop failures and piled on the misery for the European population. Such changes in weather will quickly lower the fertility of lands, bringing an extra layer of strategic planning into the mix. This perhaps becomes a bit too limiting later in the game, as huge swathes of land become increasingly barren. That said, this game is billed as a survival game, not strictly an empire builder like it's predecessors. An example of just how much tougher the game has become is Imperium. Imperium now works based on technology as well as province ownership, leading to the player faction potentially having huge diplomacy penalties, even if they only have one province with no armies.If you felt that the previous games in the series didn't offer enough challenge, then you'll be happy with the difficulty of Attila.

77E5A8F7922559CE1C3196F4135C5120B6B43951 (1920×1080)The faction rosters are a big disappointment. There just isn't enough variety. The Picts, Caledonians and Irish use Norse rosters while whatever powers survive in Western Europe are either using generic Roman or Germanic units. In theory you could spend hours beating down stacks of the same handful of units. Thankfully, CA has at the time of writing, announced a DLC pack that allows you to control Celtic factions to counterbalance the fact that nearly everything is Germanic at present. It's just a shame they couldn't have included these with the game to balance the diversity a bit. The DLC faction packs are so far of much less value than the previous two games. Most factions play similarly. Nearly all start with the exact same units and have only one or two unique units, while in Rome 2 even the numerous Hellenic factions felt different and had different units available. The only way to get a truly diverse and versatile army is to hire mercenaries, which is probably best if you are a horde faction. The mobility of hordes makes this style of play much more enjoyable. The base game is probably not worth playing full price for given the similarity of many of the factions and the DLC policy that has been steadily getting more aggressive since Shogun 2.

I wanted to love Total War: Attila, and in many ways I do, as the gameplay has improved, battle AI is smarter, family trees are back and the presentation is of a very high standard. Attila is ideal for those who want a greater challenge than Shogun 2 or Rome 2, since merely surviving is the aim for most of the game, and in this sense Attila gets the setting spot on. Unfortunately, in spite of having the trouble free launch its predecessor was missing, the similarity of many factions and units combined with an incremental DLC-heavy approach to improving the game mean that all but the most die hard Total War fan will feel a little aggrieved and I would recommend waiting until the price goes down or a newer edition with more content is released.


Summary

+ Improved battlefield AI
+ Excellent presentation
+ New ideas that build on Rome 2 and the earlier Barbarian expansion's hordes
+ Much greater challenge than other Total War games
+ The chaos of the campaign game makes it feel like the end times, as people did in Late Antiquity

- Poor optimisation
- Doesn't represent good value for money
- Many of the factions and units feel identical
- UI changes feel like a step back
- Campaign AI is still cheap, even more so with razing




Overall Score

6/10

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Resident Evil 0


System(s): Gamecube

Genre: Survival Horror

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom

Release Dates:
Japan -  November 2002
North America - November 2002
Europe - March 2003
Australia - February 2003


Note: This review is for the Gamecube version only

Back in 1995, the 64DD, a disk drive peripheral for the Nintendo 64 was announced. It was then that Capcom came up with the idea for a prequel to 1995's Resident Evil. Unfortunately, poor sales meant that the 64DD wasn't to be released worldwide, and Capcom instead stuck to cartridges. Momentarily, Capcom's attention turned to Resident Evil 2, which was ported to the N64 on a whopping 512Mb cartridge that pushed the boundaries of cartridge based systems and proved once and for all that the N64 was capable of rendering full motion video.

Despite being very expensive to produce, it was a massive success and Capcom set about creating the prequel as an N64 exclusive in 1999. The real-time "partner zapping" system used to switch between the main protagonists was designed to take advantage of the console's unique features and strengths, namely the lack of load times that plagued optical disc based consoles such as the PlayStation and Sega Dreamcast. Zero was very nearly finished by July 2000 but was moved to the Gamecube due to a lack of storage space on cartridges for the size the game had eventually become. As a result of a deal with Nintendo, Capcom released a remake of the original Resident Evil in March 2002, with Zero finally seeing the light of day in November that same year.

The RE series had seen a number of releases up until that point, but what was special about these two games was the massive graphical overhaul. Both games truly showcased the raw power of Nintendo's little purple cube. The pre-rendered backgrounds look amazing and are to this day considered some of the best looking technical graphics of the era. The atmosphere is dark and moody, the environments are littered with grit and debris and it truly continues the spirit of the RE series. One area sees you enter a large church where a giant bat crashes through the roof, and the train in the beginning, used to ferry top Umbrella employees to the various facilities, looks fantastically decadent and luxurious. Some of the other locations include a rather forgettable water treatment plant area and an Umbrella Corp. training facility, which looks eerily similar in design to the mansion and contains a few memorable rooms like the chess room, and a torture chamber. There are also some familiar locations for those that have played RE 2.


The game begins when S.T.A.R.S Bravo Team prepare to enter the Arklay Mansion to effectively serve as fodder for all manner of nightmarish creatures. The opening cut scene gives you a shot of all the faces of Bravo team looking pensive in the helicopter, and that's before they suffer engine failure. If you have played the first RE, this scene has a poignant feeling of nostalgia and sadness, as you just know these men aren't going to make it out alive and will come to a spectacularly gruesome end. When the helicopter crashes, they find an overturned vehicle with dead soldiers along with the mansion. Working on the presumed likelihood that their prisoner had murdered them, Rebecca is sent to look for him while the others check the mansion, leading her to a train. From then on, she seems to get further and further from the mansion.

The setting and plot are generally well done considering they had to stretch a missing prisoner pretext into a whole game and get Rebecca back to the mansion in time to get rescued by Chris Redfield. Which, incidentally is something that bothers me constantly about Rebecca Chambers. She is the youngest S.T.A.R.S member, can handle firearms as well as most other team members, has extensive medical training and at 19, must have been some kind of child genius. But what she can't do is avoid the traditional 'damsel in distress' gender stereotype. She still frequently relies on male companions to save her, but the reverse never seems to happen. But that aside, there is a lot of backstory in Zero and it sheds light on how the T-virus was created and how the Arklay Lab outbreak occurred. Some favourites such as William Birkin and Albert Wesker also return, and they are just as perplexed by the situation as Rebecca and Billy.

James Marcus is a thoroughly likeable antagonist, betrayed by his Umbrella colleagues and left for dead. It makes him seem more human as a monster than he was when he was as a man, if you like some poetry to your villains. As usual there is an unbelievable, wacky B movie campiness to the plot and dialogue as fans have come to expect but the backstory to the characters more than makes up for that. Umbrella really come across as a ruthless organisation of complete bastards. Billy also has an interesting backstory as a wanted man framed for a crime he didn't commit, then thrown into the midst of a zombie outbreak. As if life couldn't have gotten worse.

The gameplay for Zero is along the lines of all early RE titles. The "tank" controls that are the Marmite of the gaming world, causing a huge rift in fans of the series, feature for the last time here. I admit to being a fan of this style of gameplay, as the purpose of survival horror is to scare you witless, not make you feel like an overpowered, buff 80's action movie badass. A single enemy could spell the end for you if it catches you off guard. Slowly opening doors, static camera angles and slow moving characters enhance the feeling of terror about what is around the next corner. Still, even compared to other contemporary RE releases, Zero feels painfully slow.

Aside from the typical item swapping puzzles we have come to expect from the series, Zero, like RE3: Nemesis before it, makes some major changes in an attempt to address some of the issues that this gameplay style poses. These are the ability to drop items anywhere and pick them up again, and the character zapping system. The item dropping was an attempt to deal with the unrealistic nature of item boxes, which would always have the items you left in them even if it was another box in a totally different area of the game. There are colour-coded flashing dots on the map screen to let you know just what category of items have been dropped by you and where, and you can get more detail at the push of a button.

Unfortunately it seems to be two steps forward and one step back, as although it sounds convenient, it brings a new set of issues. There is a limit to the number of items you can put in a specific area, so if you save healing items or ammo, you still have the problem of both spreading things across two or three rooms and backtracking to ferry items to the next area. I had this problem every time I left the training facility, and it just became frustrating as there was no need to be there except to pick up magnum ammo that I didn't even get to use until much later. The camera also hinders picking things up again when items are cluttered in one spot, as it can be hard to see exactly which of the many items you are taking. In the attempt to make Zero more realistic, they just made it more frustrating.

As for the character zapping, this feature was invented for a cartridge based system, and despite the best efforts of Capcom, using discs has meant that the game pauses a moment every time you switch. It's less of a zap, more of a lurch, and it frequently gets annoying. I can't help but think they should have dropped it and maybe introduced a co-op mode instead. Speaking of which, I believe this game was the inspiration for RE5's co-op. Rebecca is slightly physically weaker than Billy, so you will likely end up using Billy for combat, with poor Rebecca relegated to serving as a pack mule for carrying the extra items that Billy can't. Things really can't get any more humiliating for her, in spite of her youthful pep.

In theory the puzzles should be much more interesting with two characters, but nothing particularly stood out except the part when Rebecca had to be rescued from a hole in the floor and you had limited time to get there and grab her hand. It reminded me a lot of the mission to cure the poisoned Richard Aiken in the first RE. Unfortunately the AI is a little too trigger happy at times, which is not ideal when you are trying to save ammo. You can set them to 'idle' mode but it's not handy when there are enemies around, so you're caught between saving ammo or health. On the plus side, you are free to split both characters up if that's the way you want to play, so that negates the issue somewhat, and having two characters doesn't make the game any less creepy.

Although RE Zero is a solid game, it's difficult to compare it favourably to what came before. Nemesis set out with all the aims to refine the gameplay of RE that Zero did, but made a much more successful job of it. The one thing to be said for Zero is that the monster designs are very creative. The leech zombie performs a similar role to Nemesis, with unique tactics required to dispatch him. There are of course the usual zombies, dogs and hunters, but there are a few enemies only found in Zero. Eliminators are essentially zombie monkeys, which sounds ridiculous, but they are a smaller, faster version of hunters, and large groups can quickly cause you problems. The other major new enemy are the Plague Crawlers, which are resistant little buggers that need a little more than a handgun to take out. The plot reasons that these strange additions to the RE bestiary are the result of yet more failed attempts at creating non-human B.O.W's. Thankfully this game lacks the super fast Crimson Head zombies that the REmake had, because that would have made this game infuriating. The scorpion boss makes quite an entrance, collapsing the entire roof of the train, with rain lashing down into the carriage as you're backed into a corner. The typical cinematic flair is certainly still there.

The music is up to a high, creepy standard, with the leech zombie appearances evoking a sudden swarm of disgusting insects. The majority of the soundtrack consists of the usual RE style of slow, haunting ambience intermixed with typical suspenseful, heart pounding danger music. It continues the tradition of high quality music found in other RE titles and wearing a second pair of underwear is recommended. The final boss music is some of the most epic boss fight music I have heard in an action game.

The replay value of Zero is enhanced considerably by the usual RE series unlockables, in which you obtain a closet key that gives you two new outfits for each character (including a somewhat raunchy leather biker outfit for Rebecca - no guesses who that was made for). The other big bonus besides the usual unlimited ammo weapons for beating the game with a high rank is the 'Leech Hunter' mini game, where you collect blue or green leeches throughout the training facility while dodging or killing enemies to a time limit. The more you get the better the prizes for use in the main story. If you have played the 'Mercenaries' mode for Nemesis or Code Veronica's 'Battle Mode' you'll know what to expect and it certainly won't disappoint. These type of games have always been a high point of the series, and even the more recent, action oriented RE games have included them.

Ultimately, Zero is a very good game by most standards, but unless you are a fan of the series, chances are it's not going to set your world on fire. It has more of the absolutely gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds that REmake had, a series of very interesting backstories and some creative critters that will leave fans purring but unfortunately the changes to the gameplay hinder rather than help. It's not the worst of the RE series (RE 5 & 6 have a lot to answer for) but it is second worst of the classic RE series, above Code Veronica. Zero would have done well to learn from the example set by Nemesis, which introduced new gameplay ideas without making the game clunky, such as the gunpowder mixing and live selection. If you do happen to be an RE fan, by all means you should explore what Zero has to offer, both in terms of backstory and a classic survival horror experience. If not, you may well still enjoy this game, but if you're looking to see what the fuss is all about, REmake on the Gamecube and Nemesis on PS1 are better choices.


Summary

+ Gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds and character models with cinematic cutscenes
+ Creepy, atmospheric soundtrack
+ Classic survival horror with extensive backstories and lore
+ Unlockable costumes and game modes make it worth replaying

- Character zapping system feels very sluggish
- Rebecca's role as a heroine reduced to carrying items and being rescued
- Item dropping brings new problems rather than fixing old ones


Overall Score
7/10

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster Busts Loose!


Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster Busts Loose! Box FrontSystem(s):
Super Nintendo

Genre: Platformer

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami

Release Dates:
Japan - December 1992
North America - February 1993
Europe - June 1993

Tiny Toon Adventures was a popular children's cartoon that aired from the late 1980's until 1992, as a series based on the lives of younger protégés of Looney Tunes characters attending university. A number of cartoons and toy franchises made the leap into games in the heyday of the NES and SNES, such as Bucky O'Hare, Captain Planet, Chip n' Dale Rescue Rangers and Monster In My Pocket. What was different about Tiny Toons though was it's enduring legacy. It was so popular that it spawned many games across multiple systems right up until 2002, and some of them were pretty good as far as those type of games go. It was also the first collaboration between Warner Bros. and legendary director Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, which would also produce Animaniacs and Freakazoid. Tiny Toons captured much of the humour and tone of the original Looney Tunes but with a new generation of fans to enthral.

Readers of previous posts on this blog (all five of you) may be aware of my paranoia about licensed material being used for video games. Tiny Toons certainly had very mixed results as a video game, and unfortunately Buster Busts Loose! epitomises this trend.

Released in 1993, after the show's original run on television ended, Buster Busts Loose! is a platform game but with a couple of unique innovations to distinguish it from the crowd. The biggest difference between this and most platformers is that you can use the shoulder buttons to dash, which will send you running up walls to reach important items and solve puzzles. The second stage in particular makes heavy use of this feature, and you can move pretty fast across levels, so you have to be careful when using it not to bump into enemies. You can attack while dashing by pressing down on the control pad, but this attack can be risky. Standard attacks are done by pressing the Y button, which causes Buster (sadly the only playable Toon in this game) to do a somersault kick.

Stages are subdivided into sections, and every one of them has a theme. The plot is very simplistic, and most stages are based on popular films like Star Wars or Back to the Future Part 3 that were referenced in specific episodes of the series. The various themes mostly keep things fresh and interesting. What's more, in between each stage is a roulette that grants you the chance to play a mini game for extra lives. Another high point is that, in the middle of all this jumping and dashing (although with zero context given), there is a stage which sees you playing a brief game of American Football in order for Acme Looniversity to beat their hated rivals, and besides the runaway train in stage two, is the most exhilarating part of the main story. I found myself going back to this level using passwords just because it feels so fresh compared with the regular challenges the game offers.

Buster Busts Loose! is a very short game, and won't last more than four or five hours. There are three difficulty modes, although in true Konami style, the easiest mode is a bit pointless as it removes both bosses and the ending. If you want to experience the game properly, normal difficulty or higher is recommended, although it's not particularly taxing anyway. There is also a password system where you match up three characters from the show, although you will rarely need it except to access mini games.

The most unusual thing about Buster Busts Loose! is that the most entertainment to be gained is from the mini games, each one represented by a character and colour on the roulette. These include a maze, sliding puzzle, bingo, squash and an odd game where you have to outweigh your opponent. The bingo and scales games just boil down to luck and aren't much fun. The sliding puzzle is decent, but nothing special, and the maze game, as much as I enjoyed it, is far too difficult as there are three enemies wandering around, two of which move quite fast. If you get hit by any of them it's game over. The highlight is Furball's squash game, in which you rebound the ball against the wall. After a certain number of hits it will give you a one-up, but also make the ball speed up, making successive on-ups harder to achieve. Other characters will appear, and hitting them will give you power ups or additional one-ups. There is a password that let's you access these games without having to finish a stage and it says quite a bit about the game that I probably used that password most often.


Buster Busts Loose! is a colourful and gorgeous looking game, with detailed backdrops, such as the art room featured on
the first stage. The character sprites look exactly like their cartoon series counterparts, and a generous number of characters make an appearance, from series regulars Shirley the Loon and Hamton Pig to more minor characters like Bookworm and Montana Max's buff bodyguard, Arnold the Pitbull. Most characters are unfortunately relegated to bit-part roles, either as antagonists or NPC's. The soundtrack is not the most memorable but the animation is top notch for a 16-bit SNES title.

Overall, Buster Busts Loose! is a pretty short game, and it's over before it really gets going. It's a shame, as it draws from it's source material extremely well, and would benefit from a couple of extra stages and an extra playable character. The mini games and football stage do give it some extra replay value. If I was going to recommend a Tiny Toons game, it would probably be it's 8-bit NES counterpart, the not-so-imaginatively titled Tiny Toon Adventures. It may not have the enjoyable mini games, but it does feature more than one playable character and a greater challenge.


Summary

+ Quite faithful to the cartoon series
+ Mini games are a lot of fun
+ Some good variety in the levels
+ Gorgeous character sprites and backgrounds

- Very short game
- Lacking in challenge
- Platform gameplay could benefit from more than one character
- Saying it has a plot would be generous


Overall Score
6/10



Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Adventures of Bayou Billy

System(s): Nintendo

Genre: Action Adventure

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami

Release Dates:
Japan - August 1988
North America - June 1989
Europe - January 1991








I'm sure I'm not the only person who, upon seeing Bayou Billy for the first time, thought it was a Crocodile Dundee knock-off. My first impression based on cover art alone was that Konami had somehow failed to secure the rights to the franchise and resorted to playing copycat instead. It seems too much of a coincidence that Crocodile Dundee was at the peak of it's popularity. Perhaps there was some inspiration from the Australian hero, but the Louisiana setting, pitting Billy against a gangster known as Godfather Gordon "the gangster king of Bourbon Street", attempts to make this game stand alone. And stand alone it does.


Bayou Billy was a budget game on release, for all intents and purposes, but a decent one at that, and better than a licence game would have merited anyway, if the relationship between NES games and movie licences is anything to go by (I'm looking at you LJN!). It features three distinct gameplay styles in one game, being subdivided into side-scrolling beat em' up, driving and light gun sections. The main menu has game modes "A" and "B", although only leafing through the manual gives you any clue as to what the difference is. This certainly doesn't make the game feel like it's aged well. I mean, when was the last time anyone actually had to read a manual to figure out a game? But I digress. The difference between the modes simply boils down to using the controller only for "B" rather than the light gun for the shoot em' up sections, in case you don't have a light gun (or can't be bothered/forgot about plugging it in). Why they didn't just make this a separate menu screen literally asking you if you wanted to use the gun or controller, I have no idea. Maybe they ran out of data for the cartridge?

The action in Bayou Billy was and still is known for it's difficulty. This is supposedly because there was an error in the international versions, making the enemies 1.5x faster and giving them more hit points. At least I hope it was a mistake and not a means of making the game last longer. Bayou Billy is a short game, so this sort of trick wouldn't surprise me. At any rate, the beat em' up stages can be frustrating as a result. Enemies feel a bit cheap and they can be damage sponges, soaking up hits while they corner you three on one. Health is also pretty scarce and continues few. This is unfortunate because these stages are pretty fun otherwise. Apart from the crocodiles. Oh these crocodiles.....having to kill them is tedious and takes way too long, which could be said for most enemies in the fighting stages. To get past these crocs you either wade in and time your punches perfectly and get REALLY close, or stand on dry land and kick from a distance, which is tedious in the extreme.

These stages do give you a variety of weapons like bullet proof vests, guns, two-by-fours and best of all, a whip. The whip is the most fun I've had in a NES game with a power up. You can kick, punch and use a jump kick, but I found the punch mostly worthless, as it requires you to get in very close. The jump kick is useful on occasion but as soon as you get your hands on a weapon you'll really want to use it. You also get some bosses thrown in for good measure, although thankfully they are reasonably slow compared with regular foes. The boss music is particularly good too, as is the beat em' up stage theme.

The shooting stages of Bayou Billy are the most fun I had with the game. I actually played through the game anticipating the shooting stages, and every time one of the others appeared instead, my heart sank a little. I think that's a good indication of how engrossing this part of the game is. You contend with bazooka enemies hiding in the swamp, who
occasionally drop nifty power ups like more bullets, or stars that destroy all enemies on screen at once. Also out to take you down are machine gun wielding thugs that drop down from seemingly nowhere. They can be a pain, as they will run across the screen back and forth before stopping to fire. It does add to the tension though. There is a very nice non-swamp gun stage as well. The action is engaging enough, even if it doesn't last too long. It's a pity there are so few stages, most of those to be found in the game are the beat em' up variety. More shoot em' up stages would have given this game a whole lot more replay value. The bosses here are probably the more memorable ones in the game besides the final encounter and the pressure during the fights is enormous. You start back at the boss when you die but it's probably just as well as going all the way back would be a nightmare.

Finally, you get two driving stages. There's not a whole lot to it, you basically dodge rocks and blast other cars, while firing grenades at planes and helicopters, all while trying to manoeuvre your way along tough bends and beat a time limit. It's probably a good thing there were only two of these, as they were probably the least memorable stages in the game, and a little simplistic. It can ratchet up the tension a bit when you are dodging rocks, destroying jeeps and blowing up planes all at once, but there is very little else worth mentioning. The controls of both the driving and fighting stages are pretty poor, and with a NES controller, is a sure-fire way to give yourself hand cramp.

Bayou Billy looks very good given the limitations of the NES. There are a variety of enemy sprites although the first enemies look a bit boring and have a bit of a strange colour palette. Shocking pink is more likely to draw laughs than anything else, so you have to wonder what they were thinking making the tougher of the standard enemies pink. Most enemies' toughness is denoted by colour in this way, so it's standard 8-bit character design.

There really aren't a whole lot of locations in the game to be honest so it's good that they fill the space between stages with cut scenes featuring Gordon. Between levels he will taunt you, with stereotypically distressed damsel Annabelle tied up helplessly beside him, thankfully not tied to any railroad tracks. It's a nice touch to have these scenes. One highlight is at the end of a fighting stage where you come across a truck driving away with Annabelle's screams heard from inside. The game over screens show a similar dramatic flair in spite of the limitation of the technology. They show Billy lying in the mud, arm outstretched toward the player, and during the gun portions Billy's hat is flying off while he clutches at a bullet wound in his chest. It really feels like you've failed the poor guy. As if the frustration of failure wasn't enough, you have guilt to add to that too. The narrative is a towering strength of Bayou Billy. There was originally an amusing alternative ending in the Japanese version, but unfortunately that was left out in subsequent releases.

Bayou Billy is a passable attempt at a very diverse action game, where the shooting segments stand out as the core strength of the gameplay. It probably would have been more acclaimed on release had the street fighting not been made more difficult in the worldwide release, and the driving stages are mostly forgettable filler. Bayou Billy PAL/NTSC fails to feel like an epic quest to save Annabelle, because it's too short, but is also inferior to it's Japanese counterpart, Mad City. It's not a game I would recommend easily, although anyone interested in playing one of the few games that used Nintendo's Light Gun peripheral well but not exclusively might want to pick it up.


Summary

+ Most fun I've had with the Light gun since Duck Hunt
+ Great narrative for an 8-bit game
+ Some fun weapons
+ Gameplay gives people some variety, even if all parts aren't equal
+ Nice graphics

- Inferior to the Japanese version
- Very short
- Fights can feel cheap
- Driving stages forgettable
- Not enough of the one thing that kept it going - the shoot em' up stages
- Confusing title menu
- Most stages have poor controls

Overall Score
5/10