Thursday, 29 August 2013

NES Duck Tales

With the recent and upcoming (depends on your system) version of the original game Duck Tales, I thought it’d be nice to go back and take a look at the original game and see it for what it really is. Though I have to admit I was never a fan of the original cartoon series, something about the whole setup and Disney association has always left an odd taste in my mouth. I don’t think it’s because I blew Walt himself either, though a lot of people do when they shell out cash for dross like John Carter and most of those straight-to-DVD, bullshit, cash-cow, milk-spunkings. Enjoy that lactose delivery for your weaker grade crap, people.

Rant aside about the delivery of home movie weaker grade substitution, I’m here to discuss games and not the plight of standards in the animation industry and this is fast becoming an unwarranted rant I’d rather not delve into at this particular time, though maybe later to do a series of reviews in a month on film->game games, or animation->game games.

NES Duck Tales, at least begins with the 8bit synthetics of the original theme tune which despite my reluctance to watch, remains firmly locked in the brain thanks to its ear-worm properties and memetic contagion levels. Even more thankfully, there are different audio tracks for each of the levels within the game and it’s refreshing to take a step back and realise someone in the industry didn’t want to blast the player with the theme tune non-stop. Not that it’s a bad rendition either, but on a console where some games had no audio deviation at all, it’s a welcome addition.

The game is your standard platforming affair, guide old boy ducky around to leap, dodge and avoid all manner of nasty things that are dangerous to touch while also using a pogo stick to swipe rocks, boxes, chests, or use it to bounce upon the enemies and spiked floors to avoid sustaining damage. (Personally I’d take steel boots and a shotgun, but whatever works...). Bouncing on the pogo stick causes Ol’ Quacky to elevate himself higher and makes him immune to spiked floors and most enemies; it’s also a key form of attacking. As a control method it takes a little getting used to with having to jump first, then down and pogo to initiate the pogo and keep pogo steady with the button while moving around. You’re not immune to attacks from the side or above so low ceilings present another issue. Releasing the pogo button immediately starts a descent, stopping you from going too high and adds another element of control for those with fast enough reflexes and gives enough of a shit to try it.

Each level has a different series of routes to follow, some involving teleportation, some involving secret walls you can walk through, some involve jumping up into the status bar and climbing ropes you can’t quite see for that added element of “oh fuck where’s the guide” to the game, especially if you want to get the bonus ending and the extra treasures but the game is still enjoyable enough to play without knowing all the secrets. Enemies are usually themed to the level, so undead things in the vampire castle, duck-eating plants in the Amazon... yeah that derailed fast didn’t it. But the enemies do come with variety at least. From small bees to large mummified ducks with their bills sticking out and such.

The bosses... I have found to be rather a letdown for the game. While yes there are bosses for each area and a final boss and chase, the patterns become easily identifiable, the methods to kill them become quickly recognised and the health they have is all too low for the boss to be a substantial threat and given that some of the levels are rather labyrinthine at times, the boss does seem to be a weak dribble of a climax by comparison. Kind of like waiting all year for the bike you wanted for your birthday but instead you get a cheap knock off scooter that your dog shit all over before your parents wrapped it up. Just not something you had hoped for nor want.

The game can be rather brutal with bottomless pits making no sense in places as the layout of the levels has rooms above rooms but falling down a hole in that room, won’t lead to the next, it just kills you but a ladder and a scrolling later and you’re in that room and clearly can see it’s NOT A TRAP ROOM. But oh well, platform games almost always will have problems with bottomless death traps and knowing where and when they are unless there’s a fuckoffingly huge sign saying “DO NOT FALL IN” but even then, some dick designer is going to hide the secret bonus down one. Another huge step back.

Occasionally there’s situations where the player has to traverse across death-traps like runaway mine carts or over slow moving objects to avoid spiky foot death related injuries and key to these solutions are fine reflexes, or having more health than would kill you by just running your Ol’ Quacky arse through the pain barrier.

Thankfully the game doesn’t rely too heavily on the brand itself as a focus of the game, rather than there being the necessity to have seen the show or know anything of the back story, the game could very easily be “Rich pogo man recovers his millions” and with a face paint change it’d be the same game, no Disney license, same mechanics and different music. Which begs the question, would it have done as well?

If Disney and Ol’ Ducky Mc Dickens-Ripoff hadn’t been used in this game, would have still had the popularity it has now and warranted a remake? Would it have been as successful back in the day either to spawn a sequel? Would it have raised enough interest for a kick-starter (not the bike, I did that joke recently already) to remake the game? Or for anybody to have the interest in saying “Hey, you know what needs to be remade for the new age, that game on the NES... you know, Rich Pogo Stick Man”.

I doubt it.

I could argue many a case against this but that’s not what I’m here to do today... Looking at this game, as a game, it is good overall. Personally I find it a little too easy but then it’s another platformer with the gimmick of a pogo stick thrown in upon an anthropomorphic duck. It’s done very well however, controls are responsive and usually an error resulting in loss of health or life is the fault of the player, except in rare circumstances where the knockback causes you to fall down one of those bottomless holes.

With this game, Disney was fortunate that a good solid game was made; their marketing for the game would have helped spread the word of the game’s release but the fact that it was good and executed well, would have boosted their sales and achievements through word of mouth. Without the Duck Tales trademark stamped and burnt all over it, it would have still been a success though not as much of one as it has become today.

I still prefer a shotgun over a pogo stick though, especially for bouncing on.

Monday, 26 August 2013

arcade: Violent Storm

The scrolling beat em up has been a staple type of game for arcades for decades. Renamed a few times to brawlers and such to distinguishing itself from the standard beat em up with the likes of Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter etc, the Brawling games ushered in most noticeably by Double Dragon, popularised with other titles such as Final Fight, Streets of Rage, Golden Axe, Alien Storm, to name but a few. Further games developed based upon franchises would push the systems to go from 2 players taking on untold armies to 4 players with games like Teenage Mutant Ninja (or Hero, depending on your censor) Turtles, The Simpsons, Bucky O Hare (guns... ok...), Dungeons and Dragons games, X-Men to name a few. (bonus points for Simpsons having a model where 4 players could all sit on individual seats while watching a HUGE TV modelled on the Simpsons actual TV)

Some of the games had the brawl focus just on a 2D plane, such as Bad Dudes vs Dragonninja and 2 Crude Dudes (what a day...) while others had that pseudo 3D movement but didn’t adjust the size/shading of the sprites to show just where in the planes the characters really stood, making hitting bosses and enemies a little more awkward. Most of the 4player games were fairly rudimental in having an attack button, jump button and hitting both usually did a special move that did bonus damage and in some cases, cost some health to do it. Simpsons, TMNT and a few others didn’t but when you want to get people to pay up, you dropped life for it like in Final Fight.

Brief history lesson aside, I’m talking today about Violent Storm as one of the latter sprite based brawlers made by Konami (having already made Simpsons, Bucky O Hare and TMNT, so you know they’ve got a thing going on there for this kind of malarkey) which was rather more advanced than games like Final Fight (and with 4 years to improve, you’d damn well hope so too). A short comparison aside, Final Fight revolutionised brawling as much as Double Dragon made it break through as a genre. Final Fight had multiple chars to choose from with various characteristics, your fast light hitter, steady all rounder and the big slow powerhouse. Fast and light could jump off walls and generally killed everything anyway, all rounder was for those that didn’t get the fast one quickly enough and the big slow powerhouse was for those that thought it could tank the game and beat up people with slow hits. NO... IT DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY. Throw in the usual attack and jump, double button special and throws, and you’ve the mechanics for the fight. A few items to pick up for points and weapons to hit people and the game is there save for a few colourful enemies and bosses.

Violent Storm takes all of this and goes overboard.

The controls initially are the same, hit, jump and both for a special. However, back and hit does a back attack, down and hit does a low attack that sweeps enemies or hits them while they are down (not a common feature in these games), down and jump did a charging attack while jumping, direction and attack mixed up the types of flying attack and a few chars could also jump while grappling for bonus optional attacks. Try pile driving a bad guy through several others from the other side of the screen for extra chuckles.

The “Story” is simple and lifted straight from Final Fight; a girl is kidnapped by someone for someone else, go beat up most of a city. I’d personally go straight for the asshole that stole her and prevent them dying with repeated daily beatings then healing them back up a little for more. Might be why nobody tries to steal from me... But I digress. So your 3 characters (and in some arcades ALL 3 at the same time) punch, kick, sweep, pile drive, throw, uppercut, charge, barge, roll and generally make a nuisance of yourselves, through several levels with some of the most insane bosses and enemies to grace a brawling game at the time.

Digitised sound effects and music with actual lyrics, voice samples and such add to the experience and the taunts from the bosses themselves are golden (Mr Julius being the best example as a statue turned real, body builder mocking you with quotes such as “Beauty’s Power” after flooring everyone while wearing just a loin cloth in a casually off-camp manner). A ninja-turtles wannabe best described as a bald git with metal bowls on his chest and back, a muscle bound geek wearing what looks like most of the Aliens Power Loader on his arms and back and a green skinned skinny Blanka-lookalike form a hilarious part of the boss ensemble. While the sack-headded fat man (Biggyman? No.) Large neanderthal wrestler and the hunchback train conductor, are rather more run-of-the-mill for mention. The last boss makes for an amusing send up.

Picture this, you’ve fought your way through countless enemies (unless you’ve a pen and paper handy), battered bosses that taunt and mock you most of the time (anyone met a polite boss? There’s likely a few out there but someone saying “terribly sorry” in a Hugh Grant voice while kicking your teeth out would make my day now), smashed your way through the big-bad final level and beat up the very guy that stole the girl in the first place, only to meet the “Oops, here’s another boss” boss. A small, high-pitched voice, squeaky kid, who immediately displays magical powers and then transforms from brat to Brick Shit House at 9ft tall and casts spells like it’s going out of fashion on Labour Day.

I’ve seen that WAY too often in games but even here, it’s still funny to watch. What’s not funny, however is that bosses have far too much of an invulnerability phase after being knocked down (except the first boss, who is just a tough standard fight) and can combo bigger moves that need to be special’d out of or suffer a large slap of damage to the old HP bar. There’s better ways of being cheap and in this game, boss life bars seem to vary as the health goes down, getting tougher to specific attacks just to eke out a few more moments of life damage and coin gulping for the machine.

The biggest downside to this though, is that there’s a lot of game to get through just for the few moments of humour that it does have, given the huge fights from level one onwards with some enemies becoming rather more difficult as the game progresses such as the fat chump things that can be thrown with difficulty to the Legion of Doom wrestler piss-take enemies that seem to take priority in their attacks whenever they so choose to do so and just batter your health at a mere whim.

The game suffers from having a lot to show but it will take quite the determined mind to see it all and only the hardcore are going to a) play that far or b) afford it (without emulators at least). The game though is not without its charm however, just a little too late to the game to be noticed and recognised for the advancements it had back in the day. Or for those that want to just blitz through it, slap in infinite coins and just keep spamming the special move, but that style could be used for almost any brawling game that doesn’t limit continues or reset you when the characters die to the start of the level.

There’s enough variety in the game to keep enthusiasts exploring and investigating through the fight mechanics and the game’s engine, but much like Dungeons and Dragons games, it’s only going to appeal to those that will take the time to play to those depths, and even then, there’s not that deep a pool to explore for Violent Storm.

It does however remain a favourite of mine within the genre because of its quirky humour and over the top setup with specific bosses and as such, makes it all the memorable for me. But truth be told, it’s still the same brawling game as Final Fight with a more complicated paint job over it.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

C64: Kick-Start 2

Nope, it’s not about a game where you raise cash for an old franchise to try to breathe so-called new life into it while keeping true to the roots and then realise the new game is just shit and you’ll never recapture the nostalgia with hundreds of thousands of other people’s cash. This game is about motorbikes. (Though I might start a kick-starter for that making a kick-starter game)

Back in the early 80s in the UK there was a television show about motorbikes, involving people riding bikes over dirt tracks, up huge barrels and obstacles to compete for the fastest times. Basically an assault course for motorbike riders, much like the last event in Gladiators, Krypton Factor and a whole host of physical based game shows that had people running like pricks through a meat grinder, only on motorbikes.

The game, much in the same vein as the former, has the player controlling a bike from a side-on view, using the joystick to increase and decrease speed with left and right, wheelie with upwards directions and jump with the fire button. Simple, effective and all that needs to be done in this game. Each level has a selection of ramps, jumps and obstacles the like of which were never in the TV show and thank god for that, we’d have had more dead kids.

For every obstacle the rider must drive over it, jump it, ride it or stay within specific speed limits upon the item. Some obstacles like the wooden bar cannot be ridden over quickly or landed on (but you can jump from it) some items have no speed limit at all but cannot be landed upon, while others cannot be wheelie’d upon (yes that’s a word now). Some items cannot be ridden on slowly or too quickly depending on the item, some will slow you down like mud and rough ground, water always makes you fall if you touch it and fire will make you explode.

Falling off, getting blown up or just crashing will make your rider dismount in an odd but often amusing digitised scream and the faster you bail the further they’ll be launched and the bigger the scream. The game then scrolls the level steadily until there’s a safe enough point to get back upon the bike while the time counter speeds up, effectively incurring a time penalty just like the show would have for riders dismounting or falling off things. So in some respects the game sticks to the TV show but the TV show never had ski jumps over flamethrowers and thankfully the game does.

A little extra variety comes in the guise of ice levels that make accelerations and deceleration more difficult and longer to achieve and night time levels are just hard to identify most things (except fire and you can expect fire on almost all of those levels).

The game is always split screen, whether single player or two player. Two player games are a simple affair of picking levels through selection of keys A-X, one level per letter, or going fully random for 5 levels. The winner will be the player with the fastest overall time of those 5 levels. In single player mode, there will be an AI rider who will travel each and every level in exactly the same way thanks to the algorithms used. They sadly will always balls up on the same place, at the same time, in the same way, they never jump off items earlier than they can so if you can jump over a log that would force you to be slow and land safely past it, do so. The AI never will do that. So there’s easy ways to beat the computer unless the level can be run at full speed from the start and only easy jumps, in which you can only pull a draw as they computer will never screw those ones up. Oh and its transition in speed will be flawless, unlike yours because you’re a berk with slower reflexes than a pixel perfect AI. Some levels you cannot win as a result.

So the real fun is in the 2 player mode you might think. Well yes, and no.

The biggest and best aspect of Kick-start 2, is the custom level designer. A fully functioning level designer is built into the game where players can create their own levels and throw in their own courses and traps. Bunny hops before fire? Do it. Brick ramp up and grass ramp down? Why not. Step jump up 5 steps to a ski jump ramp over water and flamethrowers to bounce on a series of springs before landing on mud just to MAKE the player fail? Laugh your arse off the whole time while you’re setting that up. There are almost limitless possibilities and combinations you can pull off that are not only playable but fit within the game’s maximum course size, you can even add items within items for odd set ups where a ski jump will have gaps in the middle and you’ll have to bunny hop the ski jump ramp just to get to the end of the jump where it leads into a ramp leading to another spring that will bounce you over several barrels (or make you crash.... actually quite likely make you crash but you can still make it).

In fact you can make a whole assortment of tricks and traps that were not in the original levels. Of course you could also make a level that screws up the AI straight away and leaves you to win the game while the AI is forced to travel slowly to the very end for maximum time penalties, if you want to win cheaply.

The key focus of the game of course, is the multiplayer and the level editor. Back in the day most of the levels could be made and used in the main game, over writing the original levels until the game was reloaded but some people could save the files to disc/floppy (5.25” for those with the age and memory, no... not the size of anything else)

The music, does stick rather faithfully to the original show’s theme while playing on the courses/tracks but after a while it gets painfully repetitive and dull though thankfully you can switch the music off and just have the sound of low buzzes for engines, screaming descending riders and the occasional pops of exploding bikes on fire. The other music used in the menu screen and level editor is a rather neat and inspiring composition that doesn’t wane as quickly as the original theme tune does.

As quickly...

For a game programmed back in those days, have multiplayer on screen at the same time AND a fully functioning level editor, was considered a rarity for such games. If you’re not careful, you could end up losing a lot of time tweaking, playing and testing the level you’re making instead of seeing the other levels already on offer or playing with a friend/against the AI. Nowadays though, the potential exists to have online gaming, with file sharing of pre-made levels like most other games of similar ilk.

Sadly though there’s other motorbike based games already doing that, with more elaborate set ups and stunts, in that pseudo 3D they call 2.5D (bullshit, it’s 3D and played on a single plane, let’s not make things complicated) such as The Trials series but if you’re interested in looking back to the very humble origins, you’d do well to re-visit Kick-start 2 and see how it was done right and some 25+ years earlier.

For now, I’m going to ski jump onto a telephone box just to see if I can land it.

Then later play kick-start 2.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Dreamcast: Power Stone 2

The realm for the 4 way fighting game up has had some interesting attempts over the years to either define it, or participate in the genre. Your usual standard of fighting game effectively borrows from martial arts and boxing matches, one vs. one in a clearly defined physical arena. Though thankfully, video games like to spruce things up quite a bit.

The majority of fighting games were your Mortal Kombat and street fighter affair, 2 opponents kicking punching and battering each other silly in a 2D arena until one hit the other enough times to cause them to fall over and not get back up without more money or pressing continue. Sometimes games would take a 2D fighter and put it in a 3D arena, going back as far as Battle Arena Toshinden, other games following such as Soul Blade, Dead or Alive, Bloody Roar but very few took the game fully into 3D and with more than one other opponent. Ergheiz managed it with a full 3D arena involving interactive elements and a key focus on the combat itself but remained with just one vs one combat.

The problem with 4 player combat was that it could get hectic, fast. Street Fighter Alpha 3 on some of its various console ports had a 3way fight mode, 2 vs. 2 if both players were on the same team. Thrill Kill/Wu Tang: Taste the Pain managed 4 way combat in an arena in a focused battle environment though the arena was just a barrier to prevent further movement.  While Super Smash Brothers took the 4 player into 2D combat in large open 3D but moving on 2D planes. Power Stone however took the game fully 3D, and Power Stone 2 took it into four players and went mad.

The premise is simple enough, put 2-4 combatants in a fully 3D arena, combat is based on attacks, jumps, picking things up and grabbing items, you attack towards the nearest character automatically unless you’re manually aiming things and picking up 3 of the 7 available power stones allows you to free base PCP and become a super powered THING (some of the transformations are odd... Dinosaur, Dragonball Z ripoff, a walking carosel) where upon you get a short time limit to do huge damage with power moves to your opponent(s) before you transform back and the Power Stones are gone.

The first game brought about a mechanic of being able to use the background and scenary to aid in attacking characters. Pressing grab while pushing into various objects could pick it up, slide it along the floor at them, run you up a wall and bounce off them, pick up something and hit them if you’re the ‘heavy’ type or perform some mad acrobatic feat for attack. The second game has moving levels which invariably involve a chase of some sort before landing in a final arena for the last of the fight. Taking an example, starting on a flying airship where a few gun turrets could be used and throwing opponents into the giant rotary fans is highly recommended. Leading to the ship falling apart and everyone freefalling for a short while players try to grab umbrellas to slow their fall or cakes and food items to heal up. At most, 2 players will land safely on the floating castle while the other 2 take damage before the rest of the fight involves a midair river, tanks turning up to be jumped into and shooting the other players and catapults on the high walls to hurl rocks at your enemies.

That’s just one fight. Sadly, of five. With a bit of victory and fortune you can however unlock bonus areas in which to fight but these are stationary arenas with none of the dynamics of the main levels, particularly not when you’re comparing Temples a la Indiana Jones with giant boulders chasing you mid-fight, Space Elevators with huge alien monsters at the top waiting to fight you, alternating submergences of submarines arriving towards a giant glacier and a burning pagoda with a temple at the top containing secrets and a giant bell. There is a lot going on in them, lots to be done but you’re left wishing there was a little more choice in the number of levels.

Throw in 2 boss fights against giant sized enemies in the single and 2 player modes and you’ve a lot of fun to be had taking pot shots against giant 4 legged sphinx walkers or huge zombified looking tea-drinkers that pukes bees at you.  The game doesn’t take itself seriously at all and despite this (and it being Capcom probably helps) there is a solid combat system here made all the more complex by the item system.

Oh boy, the items.

Power Stone 2 boasts a whopping 128 bonus items to be found and used within the game. During a fight large chests (heh) turn up containing a random item. Initially there will be the basic Bazooka, Shotgun, Sword, Axe, a few basic food items and so on. However, while playing the game, any item you pick up, you keep in your bank of items to mix up in the shop after the game. There’s also many cards to be found that add elements or change outcomes of the mixtures. So a Sword mixed with a flame thrower could produce a flaming sword (new item, more to collect and play with) or a sword with another sword with a flame card, could also produce a flaming sword (or a mess that’s worth Sweet F. A.). After enough planning and mixing, and there’s several ways to make most items, 128 items can be obtained and dear god you’ll want to use them all.

3 Way shotguns? Sod that, give me a homing laser rocket. Fire sword? Give me the Dragon Slayer from Berserk, or the Legend Sword that heals when I swing it. Grenades? No thanks, I’ll take the fire cracker, or meteor shower, or the lance that rains fire on enemies. Skateboard? Could do but there’s also rollerblades, motor-scooters or instead of mantraps give me a beehive, portable warp holes, kittens that attack, dragons that breath fire, tigers that attack harder. Fire dragon no good? Give me the two headed lightning one. Light Sabre too showy? Ok take the frozen tuna instead and batter them to death with piscine icicle. Megaphones, gatling guns, morning stars, umbrellas, rods, bamboo seeds, wedding cakes, medusa shields, typhoons and a magazine of the game itself, can all be used to assault your enemies. With the addition of a profile on a memory card, you can set up a bonus five items to be loaded into the game JUST for your character to open (not collect though).

Though it can be too much of a lottery waiting for the right item, missing it, dropping it to fade away faster so the next chest spawns again and some items are far too unbalanced in the game where they can slaughter an opponent in one or two hits. The homing laser can launch people skywards where the next 6-7 shots can each hit too before they land and in the higher damage settings, you’ve won half the fight.

Further unbalance comes from the 14 characters and their stats. Some can double jump, some can’t. Which means any holes or pitfalls will claim them 9 times out of 10 while the weaker but faster characters will avoid most attacks and steadily wear down their enemies. A few of the specials are rather one-sided with one character launching some 30 homing missiles, while another fires a few easily dodged swords. Another launches a giant fireball a la Dragonball Z and while hitting him will cancel him out of the move, his alternative attack is almost instant and pretty much guarantee’s full damage (incidentally this char is almost entirely ineffective against the final boss’s heart where the Ball attack hits the head and damages and redundant damage point, and the combo move only works on enemies that can be launched upwards and here the heart stays still). Another char’s special rains rocks down around himself but not the whole level AND he’s slow moving.  The balance either wasn’t tested or just not checked thoroughly enough that there’s a clear and obvious tier issue.

The game is very short for a single player experience. However it’s an incredibly good multiplayer game and one I feel should be remade for the next, or this, generation of consoles or ported just for the online aspects. Ensure the online latency issues won’t be a problem and the random number generates the same string of numbers for each player, it could easily work if Capcom allow it. But this doesn’t draw away from the fact that there’s only five main levels and you’ll play three of them on each run through the game. Once you’ve beaten the game, there’s only the items really left to get, unlock the 2 secret chars and the 3 secret levels and that’s it. No career mode, no huge adventure with stipulated limits like “use only dairy products” or “Level 1 weapons only” i.e. the weak stuff. I can understand this given the arcade origins of the game but take Soul Calibur 2 from arcade and give it the Weapon Master Mode for home consoles, why not do the same for Power Stone 2 and add some longevity to it for all?

A good, fun, off the wall (sometimes literally) crazy game that falls apart on its brevity and dependence on multiplayer to make the most of it.