Monday, July 21, 2014

Editorial: Mega Man Legends 3, 3 Years Later

The following is an open letter to all readers of the Facebook page "Get Me Off The Moon: 100,000 Strong for Bringing Back Mega Man Legends 3", and will be reposted there.

Dear friends, Servbots, Beckers, and other miscellaneous netizens,

As I started writing this, it has been three years to the day since Capcom took the inexplicable step of killing development of Mega Man Legends 3.  And let me tell you, my faith in humanity has never been the same since.  As far as I’m concerned, Capcom has joined the ranks of such Western-based publishers as EA, Activision, and King, who eschew creativity and good will in favour of short-term profits.  “Revive a unique series that’s lain dormant for over a decade?” they seem to say.  “That’s not what the people want!  You want us to rehash the same niche-interest versus-fighters and a former survival-horror series!”  And I’m thinking, that’s gotta stop.

To this very day, Capcom -- and when I bring them up, I am referring to their Japanese headquarters -- has not directly given a valid reason for their actions.  (And for the record, I choose not to count that Capcom Europe tweet.)  Until such rationale comes to light, I have no choice to blame Capcom’s ill will with Keiji Inafune.  And for the record, I do harbour some ill will of my own towards Inafune-sama; after all, if he hadn’t left the company so early, he might have been the insurance policy necessary to see Legends 3 to completion.  (But that would be like blaming the Jews for World War II.  The problem wasn’t that they existed, but that someone reacted poorly to them.)

But despite not yet having reached our ultimate goal of bringing Legends 3 back to the public, a lot has happened to our fandom among these past three years.  Our cause has brought together fans from all corners of the world.  (Seriously, we’ve got people from the likes of Malta and Bahrain.)  We have produced fan games galore, and even launched a model rocket in its honour.  A comic-book serial starring Mega Man has been launched -- and a thumpin’ good one, I’d vouch.  Mega Man himself has also been honoured with a playable crossover appearance in the upcoming Super Smash Bros. 4 games (so renamed because screw this business of recycled titles).  I myself have snuck countless references to our cause on my own blog, the Strawberry Dragon Project, which you are reading right now.  It would seem that Mega Man’s 25th anniversary was celebrated by literally -- OK, not really, I’ve become conscious about the overuse of the word “literally” these days -- virtually everybody except Capcom, who holds the keys to the licence itself.

Perhaps chief among all our accomplishments would be the successful kick-starting (in more ways than one) of Mighty No.9, a new IP bestowed upon us by no less than the co-creator of Mega Man himself, Keiji Inafune.  I don’t know about you, but having viewed this development in the context of what Legends 3 could -- nay, should -- have been, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with getting this in its place.  It’s like getting a consolation prize on a game show.  But when considering the big picture, the story of Mighty No.9 is, in essence, about a force for creative individuality (Inafune-sama) pitting himself against a giant bureaucratic entity (Capcom) and the souless stasis it enforces.  So yeah, I ended up backing it in the end, and I regret nothing.

But if anything brought closure to this matter, or at least the next best thing, it would be the news that not one, but two of the fangames are attempting to re-create what Legends 3 could have been.  One seeks to incorporate the story and some gameplay elements of the equally-cancelled Legends 3 Prologue into classic 2D Mega Man gameplay.  And one is a straight-up, full-3D reconstruction of the game.  Who knows how far that last one will get, but just announcing it with whatever progress they've made thus far is a heartwarming achievement in and of itself.  If you have not already done so, I invite you to watch their (currently Japanese-only) trailer, the intro of which really hits me in the feels.  But now I feel I am at a point where I can let this whole ordeal free from my soul.  I'm not going to un-Like the Facebook page or anything like that, perish the thought; it's more of an emotional thing, you know?

In conclusion, to those reading this letter, I offer two pieces of advice.  First, don’t obsess over this matter.  If you let this cause cloud over your mind, you’ll never think a happy thought again, and you’ll never get to enjoy life.  Even if it’s just another cause to obsess over, like how Hayao Miyazaki’s farewell masterpiece The Wind Rises got snubbed for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, simply because the jurors respected animation so little as a serious art form that they couldn’t be arsed to do their job properly.  ...Fat lot of good that did, then.  Of course, don’t forget about our cause completely; come back to it once every couple of months or so, and make a positive contribution.

And to that effect, my second advice is: know your enemy.  We need to direct our focus onto the top-level management of Capcom in Japan.  It’s all well and good to score interviews with Inafune-sama and other such people who wanted to make Legends 3, but I think it would have been even better to land an interview with Capcom’s CEO or somesuch.  That way, we’d be asking the right questions to the right people.  As I learned from the villain in a James Bond movie (brownie points for guessing which one), “the key to a good story is not who, or what, or when, but why.”  Only by knowing the “why” of all parties involved, and acting based on them, can we make true progress in the world.

Legends never die,

Kevin M.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

History of DDR: DanceDanceRevolution (2010)

Previously on the History of Dance Dance Revolution, there were DDR X2 for the PlayStation 2, and DDR Hottest Party 3 for the Wii.  I thought little of them at the time, and still do, but their announcement earlier in 2009 came with promises of more advanced titles for the PS3 and XBox 360.  Those, of course, never came to be... at least that year.  But the following year, the seventh-generation consoles were finally* with Dance Dance Revolution games to call their own: the simply-titled DanceDanceRevolution, which released first for the PS3 and Wii, with an XBox 360 port following shortly after.

And it sucked.

...

I assume.  Yeah, as with the previous entries, I've yet to play this one, because it's not doing a heck of a whole lot to interest me.  First of all, let's start with the title: no number, no subtitle, just "DanceDanceRevolution".  I'd like to state for the record that I hate when people recycle a title with little to no changes when making a sequel to some form of media.  I hate this practise so much that I might even write a top-ten list on the subject.  To be fair, it is just one word in CamelCaps this time around, unlike the 1998 arcade game, its home port for Japan, and the 2001 home game which used a somewhat different engine.  And yes, I guess they did it to ring in a new console generation...  Oh wait, there was the DDR Universe series!  ...Oh wait, that was an XBox 360 exclusive.  Never mind.  Meanwhile, over in Europe, the game was blessed with the subtitle "New Moves" on the PS3 and 360, and "Hottest Party 4" on the Wii.  And I'm like, why couldn't you have done that over here!?  *sigh*  As it stands, I shall collectively refer to the new games as DDR 2010.

So enough about the title, what's the game itself like?  Well, speaking at least for the "New Moves" versions, the interface colour scheme is dominated by reds and blacks, and the music-select screen brigns back the 5thMIX-through-SuperNOVA2 "music wheel" layout.  Oh, and the rating scale is once again brought back to the old 1-to-10 standard.  But not well, mind you.  For example, the Basic chart for "Let's Get Away" is ranked a 4, but it's really more like a 2, 3 tops.  After playing second-banana to the Guitar Hero / Rock Band duumvirate for some years, DDR 2010 attempts to incorporate some features from those games.  "Groove Chains", or short sequences of notes that offer bonus points when completed without error, and "Groove Trigger", which you can activate at full health to get bonus points, both borrow elements of the Star Power/Overdrive systems from those rival games.  In theory, I do admire these embellishments as attempts to liven up gameplay which has for the most part remained stale since 2001 (when they invented Freeze Arrows).  But the execution leaves something to be desired.  To use Groove Trigger, for example, you have to press Up and Up-Right or Up-Left immediately after, or flick the right analog stick on a separate controller.  And the game still tallies the bonus points earned from these gimmicks separately from your base score (out of 1 million), so in the end it's kind of pointless.


Club Mode in the PS3 version.
DDR 2010 game lacks a Nonstop course mode in the traditional sense, but it does (the PS3 and 360 versions do, at least) feature a Club Mode, which has you playing a random selection of 4 to 20 songs without breaks, and is the primary method of unlocking new songs.  The only problem, at least for experienced players, is that it always starts you out on Beginner-level charts.  The "Hands and Feet" mode from the later PS2 entries has been reincarnated as "Step and Move", which uses the dance pad along with the Move camera and wand (PS3 only).   This time around, there are targets on all four corners of the screen, and you use your wand to trigger them for the appropriate note markers.  From what I've seen of this mode, it has an unfortunate tendency of forcing you to twist your upper body at odd angles to hit the right markers, as if you were playing high-speed Twister with no tactile feedback.  And you know that 8-panel mode that was teased in the 2009 trailer?  Yeah, it's still in this game -- the new dance pads finally have eight panels, after all -- but like the Shock Arrows in DDR X, they're only used for a scant handful of Challenge-level charts.  Meanwhile, the Wii version has carried over the Balance Board-supported Choreography Mode from Hottest Party 3.


Choreography Mode in the Wii version.
But if you were to ask me, and by reading this blog you implicitly did so, the make-or-break feature for any music game is, duh, the music.  And it is in this arena that DDR 2010 sucks a fat one.  Of the licenced songs chosen for this game, which would I characterise the whole thing with?  "Hey, Soul Sister" by Train.  "I'm Yours" by Jason Mraz.  "Battlefield" by Jordin Sparks.  And "Need You Now" by Lady Antebellum.  You see the problem, don't you?  If you're not familair with those songs, I'll give it to you straight: they're too slow and dull for a dancing game!  Oh, and you read that last one right: there's now a country-western song in a Dance Dance Revolution game.  A really good country-western song mind you, but not something I'd want to dance to.  Okay, to be fair, there have been slow songs in the older games which I didn't mind, but those were Konami originals for the most part.  And there are more... active choices in this game -- I guess I'd highlight "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga, "crushcrushcrush" by Paramore, "Rio" by Duran Duran, and "Venus" by Bananarama -- but the damage was done by the lower end of the quality spectrum.

As for the Konami originals, well, I guess they're okay; they're pretty much going through the same motions by now.  For the bosses, there's another level-10 happy-hardcore song, and another "Evolved" song.  Also "MAX 300".  Oh right, I forgot to mention, there are 5 revival songs in this game, the other four being "Afronova" from 3rdMIX, "Sweet Sweet Magic" and "Tsugaru" from MAX2, and "Hana Ranman (Flowers)" from SuperNOVA.  Plus, there are even more songs available as downloadable content: 30 songs across 6 packs, all revivals spanning the classic through the SuperNOVA eras.  This arguably makes for the most interesting material in the game, but if that's so, it's pretty sad when you think about it.  For one, you have to pay extra for the best content, and two, the best content is stuff you've already seen before.  So is the 2010 DanceDanceRevolution the worst game in the series?  It'd be hard to say that for certain, what with all those pint-sized spin-off releases Japan got back in the day, but at least among the full-budget, worldwide (at least for more than one region) releases, it'd be easier to make that accusation.  And for what we were promised in 2009, it's easily the most disappointing.

Next episode is on both an arcade and a home game...  I do hope this next installment of History of Dance Dance Revolution will bring something more interesting to the table.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Shooter Month: Star Fox Assault


Star Fox Assault
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Namco
  • Release: Nintendo GameCube, 14 February 2005
  • Genre: 3D Action
  • Players: 1-4
  • Save: Memory Card, 5 Blocks
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$15-30
Star Fox fans just can't catch a break, eh?  Considering how rarely new games come out for this series, you'd think Star Fox 64 is its only entry.  There's the first game on the Super NES, which runs about as well as a car with square wheels, so we might as well forget about that.  Five years of waiting for a follow-up to SF64 left us with Star Fox Adventures, Rare's swan song as a second-party developer for Nintendo, took so many pages from The Legend of Zelda's book that it apparently lost its identity as a Star Fox game.  No, I'm sure it's still a good game!  I haven't actually played it, but I'm just trying to foster some understanding here.  So let's just skip ahead to the next entry, 2005's Star Fox Assault.  This one promises a return to form, to the spacecraft-based combat it popularised, only to dilute the experience with generic third-person shooter stages.  So the more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.

In the time since the end of Adventures (I guess), the foxy female... fox Krystal has replaced Peppy Hare as one of the four pilots of the Star Fox team, but apart from that, everything is just as SF64 left it.  The first level starts in medias res, with Star Fox and allies fighting a successor to Andross's armies from the old games, only to discover a new threat in the form of the Aparoids: an insect-like alien race prone to corrupting other ships in some capacity.  Thus, Star Fox's quest to quell the Aparoid menace serves as the plot over Assault's ten levels.  That's a step down from the total of 15 in Star Fox 64, and instead of that game's branching-path system, Assault lays them out in a more traditional linear fashion.  However, you can also re-play specific levels at will, instead of having to start a new campaign, in case you're attempting a medal run on a specific level.  And besides, the stages are considerably longer than those of SF64, most featuring two or three objectives each.  I may have had the same problem with Goldeneye: Rogue Agent and 007 Legends, but with stages lasting generally no more than 10 minutes apiece once you know what you're doing, I guess I can let that slide.


Get bonus points for finishing off groups of enemies,
or larger targets like these.
Of the ten stages, only four take place solely in an Arwing, set in an automatically-scrolling corridor.  As before, you score points by shooting down enemies, with bonuses earned for taking down large targets, or multiple enemies with one shot, all in the hopes of earning enough for a medal.  The mechanics here are much the same as in SF64, including the charged lock-on shots.  The other levels take place in more stationary environs, as an evolution of the "All-Range Mode" levels from SF64.  It's here that Assault seems to have garnered its bad reputation.  Think about it, it's the first "true" Star Fox game in eight years, and it tries to limit the amount of time spent on the gameplay it first became famous for.  But you know what?  I actually found the on-foot segments as fun as -- or even more fun than -- the Arwing stages.  Yeah, fire in the hole, man.  Maybe it's because shooter games (not the scrolling shoot-em-up variety, mind you) have over the past few years gone so far in a direction inconsistent with my tastes that I'm just playing Assault to cleanse my figurative palate, or I just got bored with Star Fox 64 so long ago that the same has been done automatically, but long-winded excuses aside, the all-range levels felt fast-paced and -- most importantly -- fun.

Whilst traversing outside a vehicle, Fox McCloud is armed with his trusty blaster, which can do automatic fire by lightly holding the R button, or charge up a shot by holding the trigger all the way.  It's a shame certain larger enemies are shielded against everything but explosives and charged-up blaster shots (and even then, it takes multiple of those to take them down).  In these and other cases, you'll want to seek out alternate weapons, like the easy-to-use Machine Gun which is, again, useless against shielded enemies, the overpowered Rocket Launcher and Sniper Rifle, and the generally useless Grenades and Sensor Bombs.  As opposed to the Arwing corridor stages, bonus points are awarded by taking down enemies in quick succession.  In doing so, you'll continually seek out targets to keep your combo meter full, which does wonders for the pacing of these sections.

Even the Landmaster was fun to use in these levels; its cannon can overpower just about any enemy's shields, and the extra protection from its shields is just icing on the tactical cake.  Compare that with how the Landmaster (and the Blue Marine, thankfully absent from Assault) was handled in SF64: basically slower and stiffer versions of the same Arwing experience.  It is ironic, in that sense, that the Arwing sections of Assault have a slower feel to them.  Another thing that disappointed me about the Arwing stages is that whereas in the original Star Fox and SF64, pressing and holding the fire button would launch a burst of four or so shots before (in SF64) charging up a lock-on shot, in Assault, pressing the A button only fires one shot before charging.  So if you want to fire a rapid stream of lasers, either break out a turbo controller or your best rapid-tapping technique.  May your controller stay intact after the final mission.


I liked taking the Landmaster for a spin now that
I have complete control over it.
The musical score is comprised mostly of tunes from Star Fox 64, albeit re-recorded with a full orchestra.  As much as I would cry foul about the use of "recycled" material, let's face it -- for whatever reason, video game soundtracks over the last decade or so have lost the memorable appeal of the 8- and 16-bit eras.  So you might as well update something that already works, I guess.  The voice actors have also been re-cast since SF64.  Whilst I will forever associate the series' characters with their old voices, and even after the re-cast Slippy is still as un-endearing as ever, I will admit these new guys are far more capable of emoting properly.  And certain moments in the story, like when the Star Fox team must ally with their rivals Star Wolf and shoot down their Aparoid-corrupted commanding officer in the same mission, are certainly a step above the emotional bar set up by previous games, so it's nice the actors are able to handle that material.

I can understand the disappointment associated with Star Fox Assault.  Entries in this particular series are few and far between, and not one of them has seen fit to perfect the formula pioneered by the original -- scratch that, the N64 one.  But I'd be willing to vouch for Assault, even -- scratch that, especially for its all-range stages.  Because I realised something while playing them: it feels like a spiritual successor to Jet Force Gemini, only a lot more fluid.  Yeah, it would have been nice to get two separate, full-sized games, one for each style presented therein.  (Obviously, one of those two games would be retooled as a full-on sequel to Jet Force Gemini.  ...Hey, a guy can dream.)  But for what we got, I ain't complaining.

Control: 4 out of 5
Design: 4 out of 5
Graphics: 5 out of 5
Audio: 5 out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Shooter Month: Star Fox


Star Fox
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Argonaut Games
  • Release: Super NES, March 1993
  • Genre: 3D Action (Flight simulator)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: N/A
  • Rarity/Cost: Common, US$10-20
Thus far in Shooter Month, I've focused on the top-down, 2D variety of shoot-em-ups.  But in an effort to spice things up, I'm taking this special feature in a new direction -- and an extra dimension.  And it's not just any 3D shooter I'm showcasing this time around.  Flight simulators have employed simulated 3D graphics for a long time now, but 1993 proved to be a banner year in this field.  It was the year in which Nintendo, courtesy of third-party developer Argonaut, brought polygons to one of their home consoles in the form of Star Fox for the Super Nintendo.  We all know that the Super NES can do some amazing things with 2D graphics, thanks to techniques involving "Mode 7", but certainly the calculations needed to handle polygons in three-dimensional space would be out of its reach, right?  Well, that's why Nintendo and Argonaut  developed an additional sub-processor called the Super FX chip, which was built into every copy of the Star Fox Game Pak.  I suppose we should be thankful that they went down this route, as opposed to developing an expansion console, like the Sega CD or 32X for the Genesis.

In a word -- a solar system, rather -- populated by human-like animals, an army led by Andross, the emperor of the planet Venom, is extending its reach across the rest of the system -- the hard way.  The only force who can stop him is Star Fox, an elite fighter-pilot team consisting of four motley members and their space-capable ships, the Arwings.  And that's where you come in.  Before starting a new game, you get to set up your control scheme, which includes the option to switch the Up/Down controls.  I guess it was pretty neat for them to have thrown that in as an option; perhaps fewer Super NES owners were familiar with flight simulators at the time.  After that menu, you choose which of three paths to take in your game, which also serves as a difficulty setting.  Each path contains five or six levels, and lasts an hour or less.  It's a more linear version of the branching-path system later employed in Star Fox 64, but I like it here.  There's more to each of the difficulties than the quantity of enemies and how much damage they take or dish out; but rather, each difficulty is a separate experience.  And since there's no medal system, you don't have to play through 6 other levels you've already got medals on just to replay that one level you need.

But then the game proper starts, and all your expectations are shattered by the first frames of animation.  Look, Mr. Super FX chip, if the best you can render in real-time is twenty or so flat-shaded, non-patterned polygons per object, I'm okay with that.  But if it takes so much effort that you can only manage that at ten to twenty frames per second, then why even bother?  What I'm saying to the rest of you is that the choppy frame rate makes Star Fox painful to look at in motion.  And painful to play, too: for some reason, the frame rate makes the movement controls feel a little sluggish and imprecise.  Just be thankful they weren't able to fit more obstacles on-screen, or getting through unscathed would be akin to threading the eye of a needle with a car driving on ice.  That said, I am genuinely impressed by what they did manage to throw in.  For example, one of the bosses can make duplicates of itself and leave after-images of itself in its wake, and one of the later stages forces you to dodge blocks falling from the sky or even forming in mid-air.

The Arwing spacecraft utilises two weapons: a blaster and a limited supply of smart-bombs.  The blaster can be upgraded with certain items, adding a much-needed boost to the spaces covered by your shots.  Trust me, you'll appreciate the extra coverage, because aiming is a chore.  Since most levels lack a targeting reticule, the only way to aim your shots is to adjust based on the last shot you fired.  Some levels take place in outer space instead; and in these levels you can press the Select to switch the camera angle in and out of your Arwing's cockpit.  Enabling this first-person view displays an aiming cursor, which is a big help for aiming.  Except you can only do this in the space stages, not on the planets.  Riddle me this, Star Fox: why would you add a convenience which addresses what I'd dare say is a major flaw in the game experience, but only apply it to a select few portions of yourself!?  Oh yeah, and it's also possible to break one or both of your Arwing's wings, in which case your blaster goes back down to the base level, and all upgrade items get replaced with wing-repair items.  It's bad enough that these upgrades are rare enough as it is, but having to take another such step before I can even re-start the process suchs even more.



I do take other, smaller issues with Star Fox, that not even the best of graphical upgrades would address.  For example, you share the skies with your wingmen -- Peppy the rabbit, Slippy the frog, and Falco the bird.  Their radio dialogue isn't accompanied by true voice acting, but looped chattering sound effects which, combined with their relatively uncommon rate of occurrence, aren't nearly as annoying as they could be.  But all the same, what little interaction they have with the player doesn't offer them a lot of characterisation.  Occasionally they will find themselves chased by a bogey, which you must knock out at your leisure.  But my problem with that is: what's my motivation?  And then there's the scoring system: when your points are tallied at the end of each level, you can earn extra lives at certain milestones.  But instead of absolute point values for shooting different kinds of enemies, your scores are represented by a percentage of enemies shot down.  And I'm pretty sure I've gotten 100%, or an otherwise high percentage, even after having missed a fair number of targets.  Are there certain things you're not counting and not telling me, Star Fox?  Work with me, please!  (Apologies for attempting to reason with an inanimate video game.)

Out of all the relatively sparse entries in the Star Fox series, I'd estimate that the majority of the fans' attention is focused on the follow-up Star Fox 64, and with good reason.  I mean, the series' last activity to date was a remake of SF64 on the 3DS.  And I cry foul on that account: if any entry deserved a remake on some halfway decent technology, it would be the original.  Star Fox 2, its would-be sequel, may have been the most high-profile cancelled video game until Mega Man Legends 3 came along -- or rather, didn't come along.  But let's face it -- Nintendo was right to focus on the Nintendo 64.  Star Fox may have served as valuable experience for Nintendo in working with 3D graphics, but the finished product just wasn't ready for prime time.  Let me put it this way: I'd give it an A for effort, but a D for execution.

Control: 2 out of 5
Design: 3 out of 5
Graphics: 2 out of 5
Audio: 4 out of 5
The Call: 55% (D+)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Shooter Month: Summer Carnival '92: Recca


Summer Carnival '92: Recca
  • Publisher: Naxat Soft
  • Developer: Kid
  • Release:
    • NES, 17 July 1992 (Japan only)
    • Nintendo 3DS, 5 September 2013
  • Genre: 2D Action (Shoot-em-up)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: N/A
  • Rarity/Cost:
    • NES: Very rare, US$300-1,000
    • 3DS: DLC, US$5
You know when a new video game console comes on the market, but its predecessor still has a good deal of life left in it?  That can lead to some awkward, even unfortunate, moments.  For example, Shantae has been cited by some as the best game ever made for the Game Boy Color -- I believe I may have implied something of that nature.  The problem was, by the time it was released, the Game Boy Advance had been on the market for a year, so for the sake of putting their resources where the hip new thing was at, Capcom made only a limited production run of the game.  Oh wait, this was the same Capcom that cancelled Mega Man Legends 3... okay, bad example.

Let's move on to the actual subject of today's review: Summer Carnival '92: Recca, a shoot-em-up released only in Japan for the Nintendo Famicom, but two years into the lifespan of the Super Famicom.  From what I've read, Recca was made for an annual shooting-game competition, something which apparently was all the rage in early-90s Japan.1  So, it's sort of like Nintendo World Championships '90 and those other multi-game challenge carts, right?  Not exactly; it has a fully-featured single-player campaign, albeit a short one, and it had its own production run, with a box and everything.  A very limited production run, mind you; a hard copy of the game will either cost you hundreds or even thousands of US dollars.  Or you could visit nesreproductions.com and see how you could get a copy made out for around $20.  Thankfully, that all changed in 2013, when Nintendo offered the game on the 3DS eShop for a mere $5.  But even at that low price, is Recca worth it?


Letting go of the trigger button
charges a bomb.
Recca offers three modes, all designed for one player: a standard campaign consisting of four stages, a Score Attack mode where you have two minutes to score as many points as possible, and a Time Attack mode where you have five minutes to score a million points.  No matter which mode you select, your ship has a main weapon which can be changed and upgraded with blue-coloured items, and will thankfully auto-fire when you hold the B button.  But let go of B, and an energy meter at the bottom of the screen will fill up.  Press B again when it is full, and you launch a bomb which lingers on the screen for a few seconds.  Furthermore, you can pick up red-coloured items to gain and power-up a secondary helper gun, which fires when you hold the A button.  Think the Option modules from Gradius or R-Type and you've got the idea.  But these extra turrets offer more than just added firepower.  Recca has a peculiar scoring system: in addition to earning points for shooting targets, your score increments automatically -- as long as you're not firing your main weapon.  So while running through the levels with B held down and guns blazing is a perfectly acceptable strategy for survival, it would not have won you the tournament this game was made for.

And your skills would need to be of tournament-ready caliber in order to thrive, nay, survive in Recca.  As I said before, there are only four stages in the main game, each of which last five to ten minutes and host at least two bosses, so it's not much for length.  (Unless you beat the game and reset, in which case you get to play a second campaign, like The Legend of Zelda's second quest.)  But what it lacks there, it more than makes up for in challenge -- specifically, in its pace.  Enemies fly onto the screen from all directions at a tremendous rate, so there will be many, many ships and bullets for you to dodge.  And you lose all your power-ups every time you get hit.  A lot of games do that, so I'm not gonna single out Recca on this offence, but still, I'm never a fan of this decision.  If our ship's gonna be a one-hit-point-wonder anyway, why not let us keep our upgrades until we continue?  Or maybe I'm just not good enough to appreciate this game, whatever.  Ironically, most bosses tend to be easier than the stages leading up to them, since you only need to drop a few bombs on them to win.  Which is why I feel no shame whatsoever in sharing with you an infinite-lives cheat.  Ready?  Here it goes: Hold Select during the opening Naxat Soft logo.  This will open a menu where you can change the score target for Time Attack mode.  Before leaving this screen, press Start whilst holding A, B, Select, and Up.  Start a game in any mode and you will have infinite lives.


Recca employs various background effects and doesn't often slow down.
Summer Carnival '92: Recca is a well-put-together shooter, don't get me wrong.  But for some reason I just couldn't connect with it.  Maybe it's the visual aesthetics; the colour pallette seems to focus on reds, blues, and violets, making for a somewhat monochromatic affair.  And even though I will give credit to the graphics engine for employing special effects to the backgrounds every once in a while, and only suffering slowdown in rare, specific instances, the combination of warping backdrops and limited colours makes the visual action hard to make out, or at the very least a little ugly.  Maybe it's the soundtrack; it seems to be going for a house/jock-jam feel, with intricate beats and lots of sound-effect samples.  It's impressive in theory; you don't see, or rather hear, many NES soundtracks emulating real-world musical genres.  But it suffers a similar problem I had with 1942 in that with the NES's sound hardware, it just isn't rendered in a pleasing manner.  I don't know, maybe if this soundtrack got a remake with some real production, I'd like it a lot more.  Or maybe I'm just the type of gamer who demands a difficulty curve on which I can ride a game to the end without relying on cheat codes.  Oh well, practise makes perfect, I guess.

Control: 4 out of 5
Design: 3 out of 5
Graphics: 4 out of 5
Audio: 3 out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

1ZZZ. "Recca".  Hardcore Gaming 101.  21 April 2007 http://www.hardcoregaming101.net/recca/recca.htm.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Shooter Month: Super Spy Hunter


Super Spy Hunter
  • Publisher: Sunsoft
  • Developer: Tokai Engineering
  • Release: NES, February 1992
  • Genre: 2D Action (Shoot-em-up)
  • Players: 1
  • Save: N/A
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$20-30
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed the NES port of Spy Hunter.  And it was... okay.  But it turns out, the NES also plays host to a pseudo-sequel titled Super Spy Hunter.  Is it any good?

Let me state for the record that I'm not of the mindset that a sequel should slavishly follow whatever concepts were established by its predecessor.  I believe my Zelda II review made that perfectly clear.  But try telling that to general public.  For some reason, sequels that stray from what is commonly perceived as the original formula are forgotten at best, and shunned at worst.  For example: what comes to mind when you think of Spy Hunter?  You drive a car that can shoot machine guns to disable other cars, and you pick up special weapons like oil slicks, smoke screens, and missiles from weapons vans.  Actually, our new game's still got all that.  But Super Spy Hunter throws so many little changes into the mix that it develops an identity of its own.

When you press and hold the B button, your car shoots bullets from three directions: one from the front, and two from a turret on the roof, which you can change the angle of by holding A.  I suppose this offers a degree of versatility, even strategy, to gameplay, but I for one just found it an unnecessary encumbrance.  I had an easier time finding one of the power-ups that automatically sets the angle to lock-on to enemies, but I guess your mileage may vary.  Just don't pick up another one of those items, or you'll lose the ability again.  Which brings me to my next point...

The weapons vans make their return appearance, in concept anyway.  Instead of driving into them, you shoot them up to release whichever item they're holding.  The red ones offer upgrades to your weapon power, fire rate, maximum health, etc., and the blue ones hold special weapons and other miscellany.  Curiously, special weapons are triggered with the same button as the one that rotates your turret, so if you haven't found a lock-on item yet, enjoy spending a precious extra second resetting your angle.  Unlike in Spy Hunter -- and indeed many shoot-em-ups of the time, I'm not singling out its "predecessor" or anything -- you don't go down with one hit.  Instead, you have a lifebar, which can be refilled or even extended by picking up certain power-ups.


I found bosses considerably harder than their preceding stages.
Also unlike in Spy Hunter, the structure of this game follows a more traditional format of levels and bosses.  Unfortunately, the difficulty curve can be a little schizophrenic.  With the right upgrades, the main stages are a breeze, except for the occasional environmental trap (for example, the deep water in Level 1 and the quicksand in Level 2).  The boss fights, on the other hand, are disproportionately tougher.  They all absorb many, many hits, and from Level 3 on, include instant-death lasers in their arsenals.  And when you do get taken down, your upgrades get taken down a peg as well, making your next attempt that much tougher.

Super Spy Hunter ups its game in more areas than just gameplay, though.  As a game made for a console which found itself in the shadow of a successor product just a year earlier, it had to stand out in some flashy way in order to have any hope of decent sales.  To that effect, Super Spy Hunter employs some innovative graphical moments for its time.  On certain levels, the road will curve to the left or right, and the screen scrolls along with it.  True, this effect chugs the frame rate something awful, but for the NES in 1992, I appreciate the effort.  Other memorable moments include sections of level 2, where you dodge quicksand pits in the desert, and level 4, where you go off ramps to take monster jumps, and attempt to land on the road again as it zooms in from the background.  And as further homage to the original Spy Hunter, later levels have your car transform into a boat and even a plane.


Super Spy Hunter employs impressive, if technologically taxing,
special effects by the NES's standards.
So many changes...  How did this happen?  Well, it turns out that Super Spy Hunter was first sold in Japan in 1991, as the Famicom game Battle Formula.  But when it came time to sell it in North America and Europe, publisher Sunsoft apparently slapped the Spy Hunter brand on the game.  You may also remember that Sunsoft did the NES version of the original Spy Hunter.  Perhaps they were on good enough terms with Midway that they borrowed the licence that way, I don't know.  What I do know is that apart from the title screen, Battle Formula and Super Spy Hunter are identical.  Even the Peter Gunn theme, made famous by the original Spy Hunter, is used in both versions of this game.  So if I had to guess why Super Spy Hunter's been left by the wayside of history, my only conclusion would be that no one from the original team was involved in its production.  But don't let that be a reason for you to pass it up.  It's original among 8-bit shooters and holds up well to this day.  Yup, change can be a good thing.

Control: 4 out of 5
Design: 4 out of 5
Graphics: 4 out of 5
Audio: 5 out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Shooter Month: 1943 (NES)

  • Publisher: Capcom
  • Developer: Capcom
  • Release:
    • Arcade, 1987
    • NES, October 1988
  • Genre: Shoot-em-up
  • Players: 1-2 alternating (Arcade), 1 (NES)
  • Save: Password (NES)
  • Rarity/Cost: Common, US$10-30 (NES)
Previously on the SDP, I reviewed 1942, one of Capcom's earliest arcade games.  And it sucked, at least the NES port.  Well, it turns out that its sequel, 1943, also got ported to the same system, so have its developers learned some new tricks?  Well, not exactly, if only because the 1942 port was developed by Micronics, whereas Capcom did the 1943 port themselves.  But regardless, is it any good this time around?  Read on.

As can be assumed from the game's subtitle*, "The Battle of Midway", 1943 returns gamers to the Pacific theatre of World War II.  There are only 16 stages to the 32 in 1942, but this time around, most of them are split up into two parts.  They start out high in the skies, where you have to make your way through aircraft of all sizes, the usual fare.  But then you spot what looks like a small flotilla of ships in the water below.  Before long, what do you know -- you've entered the second phase of the level, where you strafe those ships, taking out their turret guns in addition to fending off the usual planes.  At the end of this section, you'll encounter some sort of boss ship, named after one of the Imperial Japanese Navy's own ships for that added touch of historical accuracy.  Oddly, you don't have to destroy the boss completely; rather, you have an unseen time limit when fighting these bosses.  When "time" runs out, you'll either move on to the next stage if you've destroyed enough of its weak points, or be forced to re-play the section if not.  I don't see why they have to complicate matters so, but whatever.

*Fun Fact: The Japanese release of 1943 instead carries the subtitle "The Battle of Valhalla".  So much for facing up to their past...
In addition to evasion loops, the A button can unleash screen-clearing super attacks.
The level progression format isn't the only thing 1943 shakes up from its predecessor.  As opposed to having a set number of lives and losing one each time you get hit, you instead have one life and a "fuel gauge", which depletes with damage, and also slowly over time.  For some reason, you'll never crash by automatic fuel loss alone, you'll just stay with a sliver of fuel until you get hit or find a replenishing power-up.  I suppose I should be thankful for taking yet another time limit out of the equation, but that annoying warning music is holding my tongue on that affair.  (Still better than the NES 1942's music.)  Speaking of power-ups, you can equip several unique weapons by picking up other items.  There's a wide-reaching 3-way shot (which, by the way, is way over-powered in the NES version and I love it), a thumb-saving auto-cannon, and a slow and generally useless shotgun.  Notably, unlike in most games of this type, you can shoot power-up items multiple times to change their type, which I guess is better than having fixed types, or worse, items that change type automatically.  (And I thought you were perfect, Raiden Project...)  And just as before, you might even chance upon the item which gives you two wingmen for that little bit of supporting fire.


Certain plane types are coloured
uniquely for better visibility.
Of course, 1943 got a port on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but considering the failings of the first game's port, is 1943 any better?  Actually, yes.  In lieu of trying to render the same realistic colours (for the time) generated by Capcom's up-to-date arcade hardware,  The music's far, far less of an earsore, although you could chalk that one up to the original version for having better music anyway.  Although the "danger" music, which plays when you're at low fuel", wears just as thin as the one song from the first game.  On top of the aesthetic trappings, the NES version adds two notable changes to gameplay.  One, you can hold the fire button to charge up a high-powered shot.  Sure, you won't be able to do it with the turbo switched on, but hey, that's why you can turn off the turbo on those special controllers.  Second, by shooting at certain secret spots in each of the levels, you can reveal upgrades for your plane's stats.  It's still easy to die, but hey, it's (based on) a coin-op game; gotta keep that turnover rate high.  Like 1942, the home version offers infinite continues, and this time around there's even a password system which saves your progress and upgrades.  Anyone who's taken the time to write down longer passwords for games like Metroid, Kid Icarus, and Metal Gear will be happy to know that these codes are only five letters long.

In short, 1943 offers the same stripped-down appeal of the original 1942, but with a number of twists on the formula to keep things fresh.  And for once, they didn't mess up the experience on the NES.  In fact, it's worth trying both of them out, as they provide unique takes on the same concept.  If you want to check out the original, you can get it as part of Capcom Arcade Cabinet, a download-only title for PlayStation 3 and XBox 360.  But if for whatever reason you wish to stick with the NES, you can sleep soundly with its interpretation of 1943.

Control: 5 out of 5
Design: 4 out of 5
Aesthetics: 4 out of 5
The Call: 90% (A-)