Sunday, January 30, 2011

Game Review: Mischief Makers

Mischief Makers
  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Treasure
  • Platform/Release: Nintendo 64, 1 October 1997
  • Genre: Action, Platformer
  • Players: 1
  • Save: Battery, 2 files
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$5-15)
On the day I started writing this review, I learned a surprising fact: video game publisher Enix had their North American branch office closed from 1995 to 1999.  The reason for this was that their previous works for the NES and Super NES, including the Dragon Warrior (now known by its international name Dragon Quest) and Actraser series, were selling too poorly in the US and Canada to warrant further business in the region.  So, you can imagine how well their 2003 merger with Squaresoft helped them.  Anyway, this story surprised me because there was one game released during that empty period which I have always associated with Enix: Mischief Makers for the Nintendo 64.  Their name is prominently displayed during start-up, even in the American version, so they must have published it, right?  Nope, turns out Nintendo sold it in North America as well as Europe.  It's not the first time they saved a game from not being released, and it wouldn't be the last.  But are we really lucky to have it on the market after all?  Let's take a look.

Mischief Makers is a 2-D action-platformer developed by Treasure, known for theirwork in action games like Gunstar Heroes and Ikaruga.  You play as the Ultra-Intergalactic-Cybot G Marina Liteyears...  Yeah, I'm not gonna bother you with that.  *ahem* You play as robot girl Marina and must repeatedly rescue her creator, Professor Theo.  Way to give us a gender reversal from the norm.  After the professor gets captured the first time around, Marina goes after her and gets thrown into the middle of a war involving the Clancers, the lifeforms of the planet Terran.  On her way to the bosses who kidnapped the professor, she must search for warp stars which taker her from one level to the next.  While the environments fall into the cliched climates like the plains, volcano, and snowy mountain, more than once in a while you'll be thrown a curveball by the contents of the levels themselves.  In one you're climbing up a tower constantly swaying left and right, in another you have to ride a missile to the end gate, and one of the levels is an athletic festival, with the professor as the prize.  Yeah... have fun with that.

50% of what you'll be doing in this game.1
Marina's main gimmick lies in how she attacks enemies and interacts with objects.  It's not like Mario, where you jump on baddies to bring them down, no.  The only way to defend yourself is to pick up things, then shake or throw them.  You can bet the game is loaded with puzzles designed around this mechanic, as are the bosses, which aren't always the most intuitive affairs.  Your biggest aid during boss battles is a blinking, beeping cursor which shows up for only a second at a time and tells you what to grab, but you might not know what to do with it, unless you really, really pay attention to the hints you can purchase a couple of stages beforehand.  Mischief Makers' control scheme is unique for the Nintendo 64 in that it doesn't use the Control Stick in any way, shape, or form.  Nope, you'll have your hands on the left and right handles, moving Marina with the Control Pad.  Double-tapping a direction on the Control Pad fires up her rockets which boost her in that direction, but it's much easier to use the C buttons for the same purpose.  A tip of the hat to Treasure for giving us that workaround; just be aware it's less effective at times, especially during the aforementioned athletic festival.

3D capabilities get their time to shine.1
The visual style of Mischief Makers is... well, as weird or weirder than everything I've described thus far.  Almost everything that isn't nature-made sports the hollow face of the Clancers, which in turn was inspired by the Haniwa pottery style of ancient Japan.  If you were freaked out by the hills having eyes in Super Mario World, you may not get any sleep after playing this game: it's kinda like that, only potentially creepier.  (So do what I do and just don't think about it.)  Nearly everything drawn on-screen is a pre-rendered CG sprite; 3D objects are used tastefully sparingly.  As for the sound direction... it's even weirder than the graphics.  While the melodies themselves evoke 80's songwriters like Phil Collins - and coming from me, that's a good thing - the instruments they chose to play the tunes are all squeaky and silly.  Let me help you picture it better: it's like they threw a Fuzzy from Yoshi's Island at the N64's sound card!  Given the game's Saturday-morning anime aesthetic, this decision sounds like it could work in theory, so the soundtrack is more of a love-it-or-hate-it affair.  Occasional voice clips pile on the camp even further, should that even be possible.

If the fans' reactions are anything to go by, Treasure has some high standards attached to their brand name, but for the most part Mischief Makers meets those expectations.  It's weird, sure, but don't let that scare you off; it plays well and provides a fair bit of challenge.  While the individual stages are short, there are over fifty of them, and you'll get some replay value out of this game if you choose to invest your time hunting for Gold Gems or scoring A-rank times or better.  While I shouldn't - and won't - reflect it in my rating, Mischief Makers deserves props for being a 2-D platformer, a rarity for its generation.  As such, I don't think Nintendo of America is praising themselves for choosing to bring this title out of Japan, but that's where we gamers come in.

Graphics: 4 face blocks out of 5
Audio: 2 face blocks out of 5
Control: 4 face blocks out of 5
Design: 5 face blocks out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

1Mischief Makers. Hardcore Gaming 101. Ret. 2011-Jan-30

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Game Review: Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers

Note: Box and cartridge art may vary.
Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Banpresto
  • Platform/Release: Genesis, 1994
  • Genre: Fighting
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$2-10)
There's nothing else like the Power Rangers franchise.  Each series of this kids' action show is a partial adaptation of another series, Japan's Super Sentai.  Rather than a direct dub, they used fight scene footage from the Super Sentai shows, while more or less rebuilding the plots by shooting new footage.  The first and most memorable incarnation of the former, Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, aired from 1993 to 1995 and was based on the 16th season of the latter, 1992's Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger.  While the heroic team of Zyuranger consisted of five tribal members from the time of dinosaurs, the Rangers from Mighty Morphin' were random teenagers skilled in martial arts and involved in community service.

With a property as hot in its day as Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, there were obviously a whole mess of video games made based on the show.  As a matter of fact, given the glut of consoles and handhelds at the time, there were five different titles bearing the exact name Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.  Some were good, like the versus-fighter for Game Gear.  Some were bad, like the interactive movie stylings of the Sega CD title.  But what about ones for the more popular consoles, like Sega Genesis?

This version, like the one for Game Gear, is a versus-fighter.  In the one-player story, you play as any one of the five (six after you unlock the Green Ranger) Power Rangers, who face off against the monsters created by villainess Rita Repulsa and her crew.  There are five stages (the enclosed instruction book incorrectly states that there are seven instead, which is true of the Game Gear port), each except the last consisting of one on-foot battle and one giant robot, or Zord battle.  Unlike in other fighting games, these fights aren't best-of-three: if you drain the enemy's life once, you move on.  And if you lose, you have unlimited continues, but doing so from a Zord fight takes you back to its corresponding regular fight.

Contrary to more popular fighting game series like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, this game only uses two buttons; one for light attacks and one for heavy attacks.  Given that the Genesis controllers have 3 or 6 action buttons, this feels like a huge waste of potential.  It makes me think that the Game Gear version was the original game and the Genesis version was the port.  Having only two options for basic attacks means you'll use them a lot less than the Rangers' and Zords' special attacks, and as a matter of fact, the CPU opponents seem to think the same way and tend to spam their specials.

A meter below each player's life bar builds up when the character takes damage; the higher up this meter is, the more damage specials do, but in practice it's not much of a difference.  Then again, some special attacks are far, far more effective than others.  For example, the Black Ranger's Spinning Axe attack will frequently land three hits in a row with no window between hits to block.  (SFII's Chun-Li and her thunder kicks would like to say hi.)  Even the Zord/monster fights are cheap: a good way to win is to play as the Megazord and land a string of heavy sword attacks, each knocking the opponent down.  If you can keep your timing perfect, it's possible to do this the entire length of the match for a flawless victory.
Special moves (and not much else) set the Rangers apart.
The special attacks for each ranger are built around the weapons they use occasionally in the show; i.e. the Red Ranger's sword, Black Ranger's axe, and Pink Ranger's bow.  All of them also have a weak laser gun attack, conveniently mapped to the same command (↓,↘,→,A or B) as the world famous Hadoken of Street Fighter fame.  It's a good thing their fighting styles are so different, because colors aside, it would otherwise be way hard for players who don't watch the show to tell them apart.  The sprites of all the Rangers are colour-swaps of each other, except the Pink Ranger's, since her costume is the only one with a skirt built in.  No, seriously, they all have the Red Ranger's helmet and everything!

The presentation tries,
but doesn't leave an impression.
Don't expect to be floored by the rest of the presentation, either.  In between bouts are cutscenes starring animated cutouts of the characters, which are honestly well-rendered, ignoring the washed-out colours.  The music is the typical bass-heavy fare which represents 95% of all the music from every Genesis game ever.  Yes, they did include Ron Wasserman's imfamous theme song, but being dragged through the Genesis's sound processor strips it of all its cheesy charm.  There are even occasional voice clips during the matches, but they sound nothing like the Rangers uttering them.  The Yellow Ranger's "Tiger Crash!" is especially cringe-inducing.

It's funny that the Rangers are based on dinosaurs, because this game plays and feels like a dinosaur compared to its fighting-game genre peers.  Despite having come out a couple of years after its competitors in the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat series, it fails to live up to not only those standards but the standards of any other fighting game worth its salt.  Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers on the Sega Genesis, while certainly playable, is a bland and unbalanced mess.  If you own a Game Gear, on the other hand, you're much better off tracking down the version for that platform, because its big brother proves that what's acceptable on a handheld won't always fly for a full-fledged console.

Graphics: 2 morphers out of 5
Audio: 1 morpher out of 5
Control: 3 morphers out of 5
Design: 1 morpher out of 5
The Call: 40% (F)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Product Review: NES Advantage & Super Advantage

There used to be a huge discrepancy between arcade video games and their home console ports.  Not only were the graphics capabilities different, but the control interface was a whole other animal.  There are some gamers, myself not included, who can't deal with anything but a huge joystick and buttons.  Fortunately, there are a number of arcade-style joypads available on the market for all matter of systems.  I am going to take a look at the one that started it all, as well as its spiritual successor.  Ladies and gentlemen, the NES Advantage.
The NES Advantage.
The NES Advantage controller for the Nintendo Entertainment System was manufactured and sold by Nintendo in 1987.  It has an 8-way, ball-top joystick replacing the Control Pad, and has the same A, B, Start, and Select buttons from the controller.  The color scheme roughly matches that of the NES control deck and controller, being mostly off-white with some use of black, red, and dark gray.  Unlike on most controllers, two controller plugs come out of the device at once.  This precludes any simultaneous multiplayer modes, but most NES titles with multiplayer capabilities, especially earlier ones like Super Mario Bros., had players take turns, so we get a switch to pass control between players 1 and 2.  It works out if you've lost your second controller and need to do special functions, like manual saving in The Legend of Zelda, but it's way hard to tell which plug goes in which port, and if you mess that up, the controller may not work correctly even if you set the switch the opposite way.  In terms of construction, the only complaint I had is that the A and B buttons won't go in or may even get temporarily stuck if you press them on the edge.

The special features on the NES Advantage are the Turbo and Slow switches, which to my knowledge were pioneered by this mother.  Turbo works when you hold a button, and the controller rapidly sends the input signal as if you were tapping the button faster than is humanly comfortable.  Unlike the one-switch-fits-all turbo capabilities on most other third-party controllers, the A and B buttons each get their own turbo switch, so you can leave one on and the other off at the same time.  In another rarely-seen function, there are also two dials which control the rate of either turbo input.  Some of you may wonder why anyone would want to set their auto-fire speeds at anything less than maximum, but for old shooter games where you can only have so many bullets on the screen at once, it pays to experiment.  And yes, it is fast enough for Track & Field II.  The slow switch, on the other hand, rapidly and automatically presses the Start button to simulate slow motion.  It only works on games that use Start to pause, and works best if doing so manually freezes the game instead of taking you to a menu.  The problems with using this is if you press something while the game is paused, it will not register, and in an admittedly minor complaint, you may sometimes turn off the slow function and the game will remain paused, since it was in its paused state when you turned it off.

The Super Advantage.
But what if you want to play a game's sequel on the Super NES, or you have one of those 2-in-1 Famiclones which use SNES controllers?  You think you'd be out of luck, but no: they made one for the Super NES as well.  It's called the Super Advantage, and technically it's not manufactured by Nintendo, but by Asciiware.  The device is larger than the NES Advantage, and mixes the visual styles of the American SNES console (the two-tone grays and the non-functioning purple "buttons" near the top) and its Japanese/PAL region counterparts (multi-colored buttons instead of two-tone purples).  Unlike its spiritual predecessor, the Super Advantage has only one controller plug attached to it and is intended for one player.

The turbo and slow capabilities are carried on to this controller - and then some.  Each of the six buttons (A, B, X, Y, L, and R) have a corresponding 3-way turbo switch and fire rate slider (as opposed to a dial).  Not only can each of the buttons be set to Turbo, firing repeatedly when you hold the button, but Auto, which sends the input command automatically.  Meanwhile, the slow function has its own slider, so you can control how fast the Start button input is fired.  Pretty much the only major drawback for some is the button layout.  The L and R buttons are placed on either side of the main cluster (A, B, X, and Y).  For games like the Street Fighter II series, which use two rows of three buttons each, this may be a hinderance, especially considering the fact that the new Sega Genesis controllers of the time used that 2x3 layout.  This is far from a deal-breaker for me, though; I'm more concerned with the stiff construction of the buttons themselves, which, again, don't go in if you press them on the edge.

The used price for either of these controllers should be around US$20.  They're real lifesavers... okay, thumb-savers for games which normally require quick button tapping, like shoot-em-ups that pre-date auto-fire.  It could even help you with the obstacle course in Double Dare, where you have to press Left/Right or Up/Down rapidly.  Both of these controllers have their construction flaws, but I highly recommend you get them if you can find a good enough deal.

The Call:
NES Advantage: 80% (B)
Super Advantage: 90% (A-)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Travel Tips: Japan

I'm breaking from my usual topics to share with you some knowledge which should make certain parts of the world less scary and more interesting.  In May 2010,  I traveled to Japan for a week (just to get away from Shrek: The Final Chapter, I joked).  Being as excited as I was, I researched the heck out of everything I expected to do and everywhere I expected to go.  Still, there were things I was not prepared for that struck me as interesting.  So before I forget too much, I would like to impart my wisdom onto you.  If you are planning to travel to Japan in the near future, good for you; if not, I hope I have inspired and/or encouraged you to do so.

Money & Shopping:
  • The currency of Japan is the yen.  For the best rates, exchange your money at a local bank before you go.
  • Both the international symbol (¥, written before the number) and the kanji (円, written after) are used to represent an amount of yen.
  • Expect to use a lot of coins.  The highest-value yen coin is worth ¥500, similar in value (as of January 2011) to US$5 or €5, both of which use bills in their respective markets.
    • Make sure not to confuse the ¥1, ¥50, and ¥100 coins, all of which are silvery in color.
  • When making purchases, most cashiers put out a small tray in front of them.  Put your money here.
  • If you need to stock up on food for a day or a couple, try shopping at a convenience store.  There are many chains in Japan, some found elsewhere and some not.
  • Don't buy disc-based movies and video games, unless you're sure you have the hardware to run them.  Besides, the prices are typically higher in Japan than for similar products in America and elsewhere.
    • Sometimes value differs greatly from one region to another.  For example, one disc of the anime Hetalia Axis Powers sold in Japan would cost about US$25, and only contain 7 or 8 episodes (35-40 minutes).  Meanwhile, the sets sold in America cost roughly the same amount but have the whole season on one disc (130 minutes).
    • This may be the reason why individual anime DVDs are so expensive even in America.  They're sold for about US$25 in Japan, but they don't lower the price in other markets to be fair to the Japanese.  ...Or something.
  • Games in video arcades, commonly known as "game centers" in Japan, typically cost  ¥50, ¥100, or ¥200 for games that would cost 25¢, 50¢, or $1 in America.  It may seem more expensive, but having a game cost ¥25 to play in Japan would be counter-productive since there is no ¥25 coin.  (It is theoretically possible, but you would either have to use two types of coins, or five of the same.)
  • Japanese is the only official language of Japan, no surprises there, but over the past 10 years, the use of English has increased greatly due to the number of visitors from America, Australia, and etc.  Chinese and Korean are also common, or at least in the airports.  You are more likely to see English the closer you are to the cities.  Highway destinations signs are also written bilingually.
  • If you know the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, but only a few kanji, then you can get pretty far.  For example, if you know the kanji for minute (分), hour (時), and yen (円), along with katakana, you should be able to tell if a sign is for a business or service, and maybe even what the business or service is.
    • Speaking of which, the Japanese use 12-hour (AM / PM) time and 24-hour time more or less equally, as opposed to always using one or the other like in America (12-hour) or Europe (24-hour).
  • If you see the the same kanji often, those would be good ones to learn.  You should also be able to recognize the kanji of places you visit often.
  • Even if you don't know the finer points of the language's grammar, spoken Japanese is an easy language to BS your way through.  The reason I'm thinking of is what would be considered sentence fragments in languages like English are perfectly acceptable in Japanese.
    • For example, "shinjirarenai" is understood as "unbelieveable" or "I can't believe it" even though it literally translates to "cannot believe".  Breaking it down, "shinjiru" is the verb "belive", and "-renai" is a suffix meaning "cannot".  Yet somehow Japanese speakers are used to filling in the blanks.
  • To get in from America, you will probably take a plane and arrive at Tokyo Narita airport, which is an hour east of Tokyo by road.  Options to get into the city include limousine buses (~¥3,000) and trains(~¥1,000-1,200), but try to avoid expensive taxis(~¥10,000-30,000).
    • There is another much closer airport serving the area, Tokyo International or Tokyo Haneda Airport.  It currently only serves Japan and other Asian countries, but that is about to change.  Direct flights from New York JFK, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Vancouver will begin in February/March 2011.
  • In the cities, expect to take the local trains and subways to get between places.  They are often the cheapest methods available.
    • Perhaps the most useful train line in Tokyo is the JR Yamanote line, denoted by a light green color.  It runs in a loop, hitting most if not all of the major districts of the city.  Fares range from ¥130 to ¥250, with the maximum length between stations being about 30 minutes and 10 miles/17 kilometers.
    • To buy tickets, look for a row of ATM-like vending machines with train line maps above them.  In Tokyo, at least, the stations have maps with Japanese and English place names side-by-side.  Find your destination on one of these maps; it will have a number next to it.  This will be your fare in yen.  Put your money into a machine, order a ticket worth the fare for your stop, and take the ticket and (if applicable) change.
    • REMEMBER to keep your ticket intact and on you during the train ride.  You will need it to get past the turnstiles at the other end.
  • The Bullet Train, known as Shinkansen (新幹線), is an option for crossing large distances in style, but it is expensive.  A one-way trip from Tokyo to Osaka, the length of the Tokaido line, takes up to 3 hours and costs over ¥14,000.
    • There are three classes of Shinkansen trains: Nozomi (のぞみ, express), Hikari (ひかり), and Kodama (こだま, local).  Kodama makes the most stops and will, of course, be a little cheaper.
  • Yes, bowing is everything in Japan.  You might have to bow when you greet someone off the street, but in casual cases like these, it's just a little more than a slow nod.  More formal and/or intimate situations require a deeper bow.
  • You will have to take off your shoes if you go into a traditional Japanese building.  You can tell you have to do so if there are straw mats (tatami) about.  In these cases, you will instead walk in your socks.  If you can pull your shoes off without untying them, that's great.
  • If you're staying at a place with an onsen (hot springs) nearby, try it.  It may just knock you out for a good night's sleep.
    • You will have to be naked to take a public bath.  No one seems to pay attention, so neither should you.
    • As such, it should go without saying that, if applicable, you should make sure go in the correct baths for men (男) or women (女).  We wouldn't want a mess-up like the one from Love Hina!
    • Clean up in the shower stalls before soaking in the actual bath.  In the more modern places, these involve hand-held shower heads and stools or upside-down buckets to sit on.  Soap, shampoo, and/or etc. are provided.
    • The water temperature of the baths is at least 40° Celsius (105° Fahrenheit).  It's so hot that I, for one, could only last five minutes at a time.
  • Traditional Japanese restaurants use chopsticks for utensils, so practice with those before you leave home.