Saturday, January 30, 2010

All we gotta do...

... Is just be friends.

This song is super-catchy. And it's totally available on iTunes if you want to buy it. But you don't want to buy it, do you?

Friday, January 29, 2010

An unpublished Gurumin review

For the first time ever, my previously unpublished review of Falcom’s Gurumin on PSP, originally written for The Gamer’s Qaurter. In an attempt to mimic the surreal style of Digitiser’s Mr Biffo, I wrote it as a stream-of-consciousness piece. Written in 2007, and looking back on it, it’s either excruciatingly awful and maybe a little offensive, or possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever written. I can’t help but feel that, under all the nonsense, there is a sentiment which rings true for nearly everything today.

I mainly ramble a lot, so scroll way down if you want the review.

This was originally written for the unpublished Gamer’s Quarter Issue 9, but since it never materialised, this never went beyond the draft stage. For the record, I think TGQ was incredibly ahead of its time, perhaps a little too much so. It was, in my eyes, an attempt to replicate Reader’s Digest for the videogame world, where instead of the usual print format of news, previews and reviews, it was all features. If you want news, you go to a website. For reviews you visit Metacritic. But features aren’t easy to come by. They also pioneered footnotes in games publications. The UK’s NGamer later copied this idea, and when I suggested it be used on Retro Gamer during my tenure there, I was shot down: We can’t do that, you idiot! Everyone will think we’re copying NGamer!

Well what about every university paper that’s been written for the past few decades? The games magazine world is a strange place, full of misguided and blinkered people, and so good ideas will often die in the gutter. Footnotes was one of them. The opportunity to incorporate them was missed, and now I think only TGQ and NGamer will have the legacy of having used them.

But anyway, Gurumin. I’d actually previewed it for PSPGo, a short-lived PSP magazine in the UK, where I’d requested a switch-around: instead of one page on the godawful Xyanide, and half-a-page on Gurumin, how about we move them around? It made no difference to my commission, and I relished the chance to talk about Falcom which, as I pointed out, used to be one of Japan’s tripartite RPG developers. Sure Climax, Sega and Nintendo dabbled in RPGs to varying degrees, at various times, not to mention the plethora of undocumented Japanese computer developers, but for sheer quantity, quality and breakthrough into the console market, Falcom stands alongside Square and Enix. Over the years their relevance has diminished, but from what I’ve heard they seem like a decent company run by good people – they’ve even freely released some of their older games!

The preview is below.

Sadly my comparison to Zelda was a little overzealous, and the final game was mostly boring. Still, as an unrepentant Falcom fanboy, I did and will continue to buy their games regardless.

All images taken from GamesPress and IGN (who actually took them from GamesPress most likely).

ORIGINAL TGQ DRAFT – unedited, uncut and faaaar too long:

Apr 2007

Murdering Piggies

A nostalgic dissection of Falcom’s Gurumin on PSP

I was out in a Wrothendelshire farmer’s field with my Spanish friend, Pablo Gonzales, and we were murdering pigs by asphyxiating them on custard-cream cakes; which, I must add, were purchased, not stolen, from Tesco – while we might be porcine killers, we are not thieves. As was tradition, we chatted about everything and nothing on these excursions - mostly videogames - and on this occasion, the topic was the PSP and Falcom’s Gurumin.

“So Pablo, no love for Falcom’s Gurumin?” said I, with a cheeky glare in my eye.

“Sí señor,” said he, with a moustache that made women blush and men envious.

“But why not Pablo?”

“Una palabra, señor. It ís $40. It ís muchos expensive.”

“But it’s by Falcom, Pablo. Remember all the fun we had playing Falcom games over the years? Remember Legacy of the Wizard? Popful Mail? Ys? Faxanadu… No, wait, forget Faxanadu, that was terrible, and it was actually done by Hudson, or some jazz.”

“This is true, señor. It was terrible. But the others? We loved them. We were so carefree back then, señor.”

“But a Falcom game should be fun, and worth the price of admission, right? I mean, there’s not been a console-based Falcom we’ve ever not played, right?”

“Silence señor, I am hunting thee pigs,” he blustered, wrestling one of the said pink roley poleys to the ground and smothering a custard cake over its face until the muscle spasms stopped.

The origin of our strange hobby dates back to a birthday party we were invited to as small children. During its course, one of us, and we cannot remember whom, threw a custard cake at a Piñata pig (Viva!), after which we promptly burst into hysterical laughter. The other children backed away, many in tears, fearing for their lives. But we only continued to guffaw. Realising the joy in such behaviour, we decided to repeat it each year. Over the years though, we needed to increase the intensity of the act in order to get that same original high; this is why at two in the morning we were standing in a maize field, naked, with those same custard cakes, and a fresh set of momentarily living pigs.

But I was determined to pursue the issue of Gurumin, revealing to my European friend, “I picked it up because I try to support Falcom whenever I can. You should too Pablo… It has awesome things in it!”

“But señor, you don’t really like it. Do you see?” he crowed, as the sky behind him exploded into a spasmodic kaleidoscope of undulating winos and hard rock music.

His question and this vulgar display flummoxed me. Looking in the mirror I would say that I liked it, but did I really? It’s true that while holding the package, having spent closer to $60 on it due to importing, I was initially pleased with the cover art. It looked authentically Japanese, meaning Mastiff must have done a good localisation. Obviously a good sign, seeing as we only had to wait two decades, from the NES era, for companies to follow the example set by Working Designs and actually do things well. Still tasting the bitter tears of Working Designs’ unfair collapse, my mind was filled with thoughts of Popful Mail, Lunar, Dragon Force, and other games of such ilk. Gurumin had to be excellent. It was Falcom for goodness’ sake!

I had loaded it up, feeling re-assured by the accompanying Japanese cry. So far, so good. It then did some stuff games do, which I forget right now, and then at some point there was an awesome animated intro with Japanese theme song. Damn, I can still remember the era when I first heard Japanese theme songs. It was during the Turbo Duo days, warm-happy-safe-warm days.

Finally I was about to play… But wait, let’s reload and hear that song again. With feeling this time! Wait for it. Ahh, there. Good, wasn’t it?

Playing it felt intuitive since, after all, third-person 3D action games are not new. But I kept telling myself this was good, since it meant Falcom didn’t need to cut its teeth on a new concept. Refine and polish I hummed, refine and polish.

The main character, Parin, wandered about an idyllic town before making friends with some Mr-Men styled monsters – oh those wacky Japanese, copying the Yorkshireman Roger Hargreaves like that. This had to be a classic. Then there were the superfluous details as she ran around, which showed that true effort must have gone into the game. When Parin jumped she would perform a short unbalanced animation. Then, when she ran past NPCs, their heads would turn to follow her.
But there other things which made take pause, to think about. NPCs would say words like “Cool” and “Sedgewick” and “Gin-soaked-balls!” when you performed special moves near them. Well, maybe not the last two, but you get the gist. They talk to themselves. Enemies also talk. There are these dancing puppy-cubes, which look like little cubes with legs, except they behave like puppies and have small hearts floating above their heads, and they talk to each other. Until you attack them, at which point they get upset and their icon-based language changes from hearts to… some other symbols. Then they attack, leaving you with only one option: murdering puppies. Murdering lots of puppies. There are other enemies too, which talk amongst themselves, and you will witness lover’s spats, double-dealings and friendly arguments. Until they attack. But, these enemies aren’t just any enemies, they have a slightly Hayao Miyazaki influence to them, making for some genuinely (visually) impressive fights. The boss fights in particular are great fun. Surely any game which reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki has to be awesome, right?

So, I’ve killed some jive-talking puppies, bought some cookies, befriended some monsters, and then I’m going through some dungeons. Legacy of the Wizard had some astoundingly cool dungeon designs – at least that’s what my memory tells me – and so the hopes, they were high. Metaphorically. Except, actually playing the bulk of the game proved hideously repetitive. It was an exercise in pure tedium, with the sole object being to run through a linear stage while smashing every encountered pot (basically a box by another name) and defeating every enemy (basically a box by another name, except a bit more dangerous). Smashing every box in a stage results in a medal, and several medals can be exchanged for masks, which in turn improves your chances of smashing all boxes and also enables you to do it faster.
So, looking at the facts, Gurumin is basically a game where you just break loads of boxes, and it encourages you to do this task faster and more efficiently, in order to be able to break more boxes. Still, the level layouts are cool, right, because this is by Falcom. Right? Well, the levels are stiflingly linear – which makes every journalist who compared this to Zelda a crazy fool (oh wait, I did that, in a preview for another mag… damn). And while being linear, they also repeat. After a couple of hours of playing, the levels are reversed and the box locations remixed to create entirely new levels. Except, they’re not new levels, if you think about it. Take five minutes to do so. Back? Good. But I can forgive Falcom, because maybe they were busy, or doing cool things that Japanese people do, like eat ramen, smoke cigarettes and play Dance Dance Revolution. Maybe they HAD to cut corners with the level design. If you ignore this, it’s not that bad. It’s ok. Well, there’s this whole crappy MacGuffin section where you have to find a mole, to open a gate, to get at more boxes, but after this it’s cool. Actually, I really have no idea, since the clock rang 9 and I knew it was time to meet up with Pablo for our annual pig hunting. The game could wait until afterwards. But even so, my reality was slowly disintegrating.

As I went to the rendezvous point I had to remind myself: just keep thinking of the jumping, and moving heads and the enemies who talk. It’s not that bad, it’s fine. The moving heads makes up for the repeating linear levels and boring-as-hell mole hunting. See? Twenty more minutes and it’ll be over, and I’ll be back in the village, watching those wonderful turning heads which Falcom programmed. I had that. I had to stick to that. It’s a Falcom game, you owe it to them to stick with it, remember how good it was before, playing Falcom games? Remember Popful Mail? Remember Ys?

Now… Where could that daft mole be hiding? Hunting moles is a lot like hunting pigs I thought, and then suddenly I remembered that I had forgotten about Pablo, in the field! Except, I was still there, simply enjoying a flashback of the game, and yet, at the same time I am typing these things down. Strange, isn’t it readers?

I tried explaining all these thoughts to Pablo, but I could feel my enthusiasm waning. So in a disturbing moment of self-realisation, I asked him, “It’s not much fun, is it Pablo?”

“No, señor. Asphyxiating pigs is not much fun anymore. I do not know why we keep doing it. Perhaps we are trying to relive that same moment from our youth; chasing a near-forgotten memory of bliss in this bitterly miserable world. We keep going through the same motions, trying to tell ourselves it was as good or even better than before, but… But señor, these days it feels so empty, and I feel so alone.” He then began weeping into a silk shoe he had stolen from a nearby motel.

I looked at him. “Pablo, I was asking about Gurumin.”


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

French retro stores

Following on from the entry on retro stores in New York, I take a look at a selection of stores in France.


Situated in Fontenay le Comt, France, is an interesting videogame store with an excellent collection of retro games. Although Fontenay is about an hour’s drive from where I live, it’s always worth the trip just to browse. Although the storefront says Dynamite Games, which appears to be an independent chain in the area, the owner’s business card says Destock Games (though he was keen to point out the website is still under construction and nowhere near complete). Whatever the name, you don’t find stores like this very often.

Though a little cramped, there is a tremendous amount of stock on display, both old and new. They also stock an inordinate amount of anime DVDs and VHS videos, figurines, T-shirts, plus videogame and anime Original Soundtracks at excellent prices (I previously picked up the Dracula X soundtrack for €10, though annoyingly passed up the Panzer Dragoon Saga soundtrack and found it was sold when I next visited).
As for games, he’s got pretty much everything covered. Japanese PS2 rarities, PS1 imports from the US and Japan, the same with the Saturn, plus Dreamcast, Sega 32X, Sega CD, Master System, N64, SNES, NES, the whole Game Boy range, and even really obscure stuff like the Amstrad GX4000. Most of it, especially the rare stuff, is in very good to mint condition, though there’s the customary collection of unboxed cartridges at lower prices. Plus of course accessories and other miscellanea. He also has an excellent range of obscurities, from mint condition RPGs and a healthy range of Saturn titles, to import shooters and games you won’t see stocked elsewhere.
There was far too much to photograph all of it, and looking back over these photos I don’t think it’s conveying what was available. I mean, he had Probotector (Contra Hard Corps) in mint condition for only €30 (eBay has mint boxed copies starting at £60 BiN), a dizzying array of Japanese PS1 titles which I didn’t even recognise, plus PC-Engine games and other early 1980s stuff. For a European such as myself, it’s also worth pointing out that he had a good mixture between PAL and NTSC stuff for the 16-bit games (one of the small plastic shelves at the front only had American SNES in it for example).
You don’t see this range of diversity very often these days, and even less so outside of big cities like Paris – Fontenay is a comparatively small town.
The owner is also really cool and speaks good English, so is happy to chat. I asked about import games for the current big three systems, and he said that while he does try to stock it, there isn’t a wide enough range of regionally exclusive titles, outside of Japan’s RPGs, to make it worthwhile these days. Most titles are soon localised and released. And of course RPGs aren’t the most import friendly – though he does stock a few English-only RPGs, which is nice.

I’m pleased that most of his PS2 titles are stocked spine-outwards. In UK stores like Gamestation they tend to be stacked forcing forwards, forcing you to go flick through each one individually (though technically they no longer stock PS2 titles). If I had to raise a criticism it’s that this store isn’t physically big enough for all the stock, and older titles are stacked back to front to conserve space. I always feel a little conspicuous standing and flicking through a shelf of games. Business must be doing well though since he has staff on hand, eager to unlock glass cabinets and answer any questions.
Pricing was also a pleasant surprise. These guys clearly know their games, so rare items are priced accordingly, but nothing is priced prohibitively or to a silly degree. Aimed at collectors, this stuff is on display with the obvious intention of selling it on. Whereas other stores will sell boxed 16-bit titles at triple figures, the collections here were priced close to the figures you’d find on Euro eBay – sometimes a bit a less. Which, considering the need to cover store overheads, and the fact that you can inspect the condition for yourself and then own it right away, is a really pleasant change to what you’d find in a lot of other stores. I certainly wouldn’t mind paying €30 for a mint condition, rare Mega Drive title which I really wanted. This is an important point to mention, since it makes the store a genuinely viable place to pick up specific rare titles you’re after, without having to blindly trawl garage sales, or resort to eBay which forces you to use PayPal and place trust in someone sometimes the other side of the world.
Unboxed older titles meanwhile are also very reasonable, especially if you’re trading stuff in. Stock changes quickly and is dependant on trade-ins. While he’ll take in most items, it’s only for store credit not cash. But if you’re keen to maintain your playing collection this is a cool way to cycle through titles, and you’ll get more than if you traded it in for cash at a place like EasyCash or Cash Express. Other stores have also started cutting back on their retro titles, leaving him as the only dedicated store I can think of.
New games for current systems are priced at €50, which is in stark contrast to nearby supermarkets such as CarreFour, which stock PS3 and 360 games at €70 a piece (I saw Cross Edge and other recent-ish PS3 titles for €50, and I’m fairly sure they weren’t second-hand).

Overall a really cool place to visit, though as luck would have it I often pass up something I want, only to return a week later and find it sold. If you’re in the region it’s worth taking a look.


These are a couple of cash converter style junk stores near me, and while I’ve bought a lot from them, they’re far too random to be relied on. They’re also dirty, poorly staffed, with terrible condition stock (most PS1 cases are broken) which are adorned with massive price stickers that never come off. I also wouldn’t dare step foot in them with a camera to take photos. They’ll buy unboxed games off you for about €2, and then sell them on for anything from €4 up to €40 for some things – and the prices seem to be randomly applied. Items which go for three times as much you’ll find for only €5 (I made a killing by buying up their entire stock of Goemon 2 cartridges), but some games, like Metal Gear on the NES, are priced at €40 unboxed.

Most of this happened when they changed management. At one point I bought a Game & Watch for only a couple of Euro, but now they’ve got a glass cabinet with Game & Watches in it and most are close to the triple figure mark.

Cash Express is also on my bad books, because I went in to get prices for things, including a Saturn peripheral which they said they’d buy for €12, so I went to the car, collected my box of stuff and went to trade it in. So the guy rings everything up, takes my address and photocopies my driver’s licence, then hands me a receipt stating how much I’ll be paid and asks me to sign it. Suddenly the peripheral is only worth €3. I point this out to the guy and he looks dumbfounded, before trying to talk his way out of it in French. He claims the total value for everything he gave me was €12, and that I somehow got confused and thought it was just for the peripheral. I point out that the receipt he gave me values the total for all my items at only €10, so if what he says is the case, then he still screwed up. He pauses and then starts rapidly talking in French and I decide to call the whole thing off, at which point he flies into a rage because he has to cancel the transaction on his system which, apparently, is a huge pain the ass. Well, not as inconvenient as being screwed around is. So I don’t shop there anymore – though I did see Sword of Etheria on PS2 for only €9, which seemed like a good deal.

I’ll concede that these places are a necessary evil, and you will, on rare occasions, find a really good bargain as a result of incorrect labelling, but I always feel kind of unclean after walking out the door.


This a weird one, and kind of shows the audacity of the UK’s chain of Game stores (which also owns Gamestation, it’s worth pointing out, which gives them a monopoly on UK videogame chain stores). France has its own chain called Dock Games, though I’ve only recently noticed that the UK’s Game has started to muscle in on the scene. Amazingly, in one town near me, both Dock Games and Game are sitting side-by-side each other (no photo sadly, since I forgot my camera last I trekked out there). Presumably Game is staffed by French-speaking locals.

Dock Games used to stock retro stuff, though the last time I went in all of it had been relegated to a single bookshelf around the back corner to make room for current generation stuff. Which is fine, I guess, if you’re really into your current gen games, but the majority of it ends up being old copies of FIFA traded in, and whatever else is mainstream and temporarily popular. You know, the kind of crap which sells for about a tenner on eBay six months after release, but is still listed at half its RRP second-hand in-store. Anything of obscure merit, such as Senko no Ronde or Cross Edge, is nowhere to be found.

And that about covers what I’ve seen locally to me – though it’s worth saying that I don’t make much effort to visit to research all the local stores.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How to not make me play your game

Congratulations Sega, you've done it:

It's pretty simple how this was accomplished too:

1. After selecting Story Mode, they thrust me into an unskippable intro movie.
2. Followed by an unskippable "in-game" cutscene and another unskippable movie.
3. Which is then followed by another unskippable dialog scene. At this point it already feels less like Phantasy Star and more like Sakura Taisen.
4. Alright, I can finally start slashing! Oh what do you want now little girl? YES, I KNOW HOW TO FREAKING SLASH, THE GAME HUD ALREADY TOLD ME THAT.
5. Yay, I'm slashing things! Gah, why did the game stop again?! Okay, apparently Sega's tutorial and HUD designers never talked to each other when they were developing this.
6. Oh great, a dialog scene right when we're in the middle of a dungeon (did I mention it was unskippable?). Really great place to have some idle chit-chat which might alert the monsters' presence to our location. Brilliant writing there, Sega.
7. After several minutes this going off and on during the dungeon, we finally get to the boss, which was beaten without much of a problem and disintegrated in a puff of purple smoke. I SAID DISINTEGRATED IN A PUFF OF PURPLE SMOKE. Dear God, Sega's terrible at writing.
8. Oh great, another unskippable CG cutscene. And... hey, this is the same video that played if you let the Corporate Logos fly by after the game boots up. Except you can't skip it this time!
9. Then they started talking some more after this video, and around this point, I kind of gave up. I'm also giving up on providing screenshots for the game at this point to show you how tired I am at doing this.

If this is part of the result from Sega announcing that they're going to be an animation studio, then I have one message I'd like to say to these guys:

Leave this crap on your anime, not in your games.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Retro Game Stores in the NY/NJ area

Retro game shopping can be a pain in the ass. Most of the time you're stuck delving through forums or mucking around with eBay. Unfortunately, for most people, it's your only bet, because retail stores that carry these sort of products are pretty rare. Gamestop stopped stocking NES, Genesis, SNES and Playstation stuff within the last five years or so - really a mercy killing, because by that point, there was nothing worthwhile left on the shelves - while the average independent game store looks at any old game, arches their eyebrow and goes "Wow this is old, let's sell it for a lot!" without any clue that there's an actual marketplace for this stuff. Thrift and pawn stores occasionally work, but their stock and quality is completely inconsistent unless you want to scrounge through them on a weekly basis. It constantly depresses me that walking through a Japanese used game store is almost like a minor epiphany, yet there's nothing in the USA that has really even come close to that.

There are some that try, though. Out here in the NY/NJ area, there are a couple of stores that actively concentrate on retro game stuff - Video Games New York in the Village in Manhattan, NY, Digital Press in Clifton, NJ, and Next Level Games in Blackwood, NJ. Let's take a look at them!

Video Games New York
202 East 6th Street, New York, NY 10003-8205

This used to be called Multimedia 1.0 a few years back, when it was located on St. Mark's Place and had tons upon tons of stuff shoved into a cramped hallway. They moved a few blocks over and reorganized everything a bit, although the decor still vaguely resembles someone's basement. For new games, they're pretty good, and a nice alternative to Gamestop - they're well stocked, stock import stuff at cheaper prices than the places in Chinatown, and they tend to break street dates, too. The retro stuff? Well, I'll let this picture from Gamespite speak for itself:

Why yes, that IS a boxed copy of Secret of Mana going for $100! And Super Metroid for $90! So yes, there's a huge stock of stuff, but nearly all of it is exorbitantly overpriced. On one side you have all of the common 8 and 16-bit cartridges, ranging anywhere from $10-$20 each, in varying conditions of completion, all haphazardly arranged. The Playstation, Dreamcast and Saturn section isn't much different - I don't think they realize that you can't take some random Saturn game and ask $20 for it. There's a ton of old Saturn and Playstation import stuff in case, but they're all stocked in a way that's impossible to read them or tell the price. I'm not sure I'd want to.

Video Games New York also hits up the anime convention circuit, and fellow HG101er Vysethebold found a Japanese copy of Resident Evil: Survivor for $9.99. He figured it was a good deal, considering it had the light gun support that was taken out of the US release. Then he takes it to the register, and the owner says, oh, there's actually a smudge on here, it's actually $99.99. Not even jokingly. I checked on Amazon Japan marketplace and the going price there is, no fooling, a single yen plus shipping. Obviously no one in the US can actually get there due to their shipping rules, but realistically, there's no way they should be charging more than $10 for this. It's really absurd.

They actually do have a good stock of complete NES, SNES and PSOne games, but those too, are ridiculously overpriced. A complete Final Fantasy VI runs about $100! You can find one of these online, without very much effort at all, for about $60. Racketboy did an interview with the owner awhile back (embedded later down) about how you can price this stuff higher, because people like being able to hold the object in their hands. He's right to an extent, but no one in their right mind outside of naive fools are going to pay double the going price for that experience. A lot of stuff seems to be stocked more for street cred than anything you'd actually want to buy. But these aren't even particularly uncommon or rares games though! They're just popular ones.

Since it is so well stocked, and does have a nice museum of Game & Watch and other really old, weird stuff, Videogames Newyork is the store that probably closest replicates the Japanese retro game store experience, but unless you're willing to dig through the stuff - which people have been doing for years and have probably all dried up - it's not a place I'd ever advise spending money at.

Tour courtesy of Racketboy:

Next up:

Digital Press, Clifton, NJ
387 Piaget Avenue, Clifton, NJ 07011

This one opened up about four years back. It's in an easy to get to place on Route 46, a minute off the Garden State Parkway around exit 153. It's run by Joe Santulli, the guy behind the Digital Press website and associated price guides. The practical upside is that, since this guy literally wrote the book on video game values, most stuff is pretty well priced. The average loose NES/Genesis/SNES cart costs between $3-$10, with in more demand titles hitting about $20. Some of the really rare stuff does get into the stratosphere - I saw them selling Dragon Force and Magic Knight Rayearth for the Saturn, complete, for $100 each, which feels a bit too high - but it's never quite as ridiculous as Video Games New York. In addition to those, there's occasionally some random older import games that show up, although not many. They also stock for pretty much every system, even if the selection is small. This is the only store that sells old PC games, usually pretty cheaply. There's also occasionally some cool books, comic books, preorder trinkets and artbooks, and random other stuff, usually for cheap. There's a ton of old strategy guides (usually priced at $6 each across the board, except for newer stuff) as well as a selection of old video game magazines. These are a bit too pricey - $20 for an issue of DieHard Game Fan? Hmmm. There are a couple of arcade cabinets, including a Playchoice-10, a Neo Geo with a few games, and a nicely stocked MAME cabinet. You'll also find some old retail kiosks and a museum in the back of the store with random not-for-sale stuff.

The downside to having such a knowledgeable owner is, obviously, that you'll rarely find a really good deal. There is a bargain bin in the back full of disc-only games for about $2 each. I like this part a lot even though there's rarely enough worth that much. It's a much larger and spacier store - the big advantage of having a store in suburban New Jersey instead of Manhattan - although I still somehow feel like they have less stock. Their new game selection isn't particularly big, and they do stock an occasional import, but a good chunk of the store is focused on retro stuff.

Maybe it's just because I've been a consistent visitor over the years, but the Digital Press Store does highlight one of the dilemmas of running such a business - namely, it feels like it's really picked over. When you run a store that based on used stock, you need to depend on trade-ins - and if no one's trading in good stuff, you can't get good stuff.

Because of this, I don't know if it's just me not finding what I'm interested in any more, but it's rare that anything really interesting pops up. It feels like a huge percentage of the stock has been sitting there since it opened, and what's more, they're all marked at the same price or higher. I may be imagining things, but it almost feels like sometimes they're getting more expensive. If no one bought that copy of The Adventures of Lomax for $18, they're sure as hell not going to pay $22 for it. Since the stock rarely seems to cycle, I don't really find it a good place to visit that often. If the stock's not moving, then why not put them online, and use that capital to buy more, new stuff? They have an active account on eBay, but it's weird - they sell really shifty lots of random PC Engine games, where you'll spend like $50 to get 10 games of the seller's choosing, which seems like a lousy way to pawn off lots of useless 50 yen dating sims.

Also, the employees outside of the owner are really young and some don't seem all that informed. Awhile back I brought my PS2 in to play The King of Fighters XI, and one of the employees laughed and was like, that game looks SO OLD. Really? REALLY? You work in a retro game store, dude.

On the plus side, they hold monthly meetings called NAVA (North Atlantic Videogame Aficionados) where folks get together for video game tournaments and trade meetings. It's hard to actually trade much of anything, because there are usually just random boxes strewn around, and tracking down their owner can be difficult. If anything you'll usually find the most interesting stuff here.

Obviously if you're not from the area you won't find the store as worn over as I do, though, so don't let that deter you if you're interested in checking it out. It's still way, way better than Video Games New York.

Anyway, here's one of the only clips I could find, interviewing the Angry Video Game Nerd, part of a huge series:


Next Level Video Games - Blackwood, NJ
1031 Little Gloucester Rd
Blackwood, NJ 08012

This is store is way out of the way as a North Jerseyan - it's actually much closer to Philadelphia, about 10 minutes off exit 3 on the NJ Turnpike. I don't get to check it out very often, but it's a pretty nice store. It feels like an offshoot of the Digital Press, with similar stock and pricing. It is quite a bit smaller, so it doesn't have quite as much stuff, plus there's no bargain (outside of old sports and Xbox crap), magazine or PC section.

What I do really like is that they stock more offbeat items. There's always a small stash of PC Engine, Famicom and Mega Drive games, among other imports for the Saturn and Playstation, usually around $15-$20 each, which isn't too bad a deal. They seem to have rarer items in stock more often too, and for a decent price - last time I was there they had a complete copy of Persona for the PS1 for $60, which is about the going rate for it. They used to sell small figures and other gashapon, although unfortunately they don't seem to anymore.

There's a couch in the back and an older TV, and every time I'm there, there's usually someone playing some old TG-16 or SNES game. They also hold South Jersey Classic meetings similar to NAVA, although they don't seem to be nearly as crowded, probably due to the location.

The same problem persists with Digital Press - it is kinda picked over, with lots of junk that won't move unless it's really priced to move, but since I only make it down there once a year or so, I usually end up finding a few things I want. Also check out the Siliconera post.

Official Video Tour:

These are the major stores I know of. Newark apparently has a few, but I try to stay out of that place if I have the chance. There's Cash 4 Games, which is a terrible name for a store, and their web page is (literally, it seems) from 1999. There's also apparently a place called Gamming 4 Life, but all I've seen are crappy ads on Craigslist toting overpriced crap, and quite frankly, I'm not shopping at any place whose grammar is so overwhelmingly appalling.

PS1 on PSN: Kyuin / キュイーン

I waste money on Japanese PS1 titles so you don’t have to! A review of the fairly awful PS1 shmup Kyuin, recently released on PSN.

One of these days I’m going to learn to stop buying every action based, obscure Japanese PS1 classic on PSN which I don’t recognise. They’re normally obscure for a reason. I’d recently bought Rapid Angel off PSN, which makes me think of Guardian Heroes despite being absolutely nothing like it. It’s alright, and deserves a write up. But, more recently is Kyuin (pronounced “Kin” by the vocal song), a shmup incorrectly listed on Wikipedia as Kyujin. And you, the HG101 readers, need to be warned.

Looking at the PSN screens made me think it might be like Harmful Park. Perhaps it would be a forgotten classic? There was also no information on it online, either by searching with the English romaji, or the Japanese Katakana ( キュイーン ). No one talks about this game outside of download sites, and there are no youtube videos. The Shmups forum had one obscure reference to it, but nothing more.

Anyway, it is diabolically awful, and nothing like Harmful Park.

EDIT: I've just discovered that GaijinGamer made a post regarding this. It's an extremely positive post for a game which is a travesty and an insult to the genre. I don't care it reaches Kizuna levels of price on Yahoo auctions. It's a sucky, sucky game, and a waste of money. Maybe if it's the first hori shmup you've ever played you might glean some satisfaction from it, but if that's the case then HG101's crack-team of commandos will probably be abseiling through your window RIGHT NOW in order to re-educate you on what makes a good shmup. I don't know what brand of Single Malt GaijinGamer was quaffing when writing that entry, but don't be fooled. Japanese PSN funds are too precious to waste on a shmup which doesn't even reach mediocre on the "PSX shmup tree".

The story involves a kid vacuuming his house and then deciding to read his sister a fairy tale book, at which point the two go flying off in vacuum cleaners to shoot the hell out of various fairytale characters, like Snow White, The Big Bad Wolfe, Frog Princes and so on.

Visually it’s washed out (possibly the result of my HDTV), with only 2 layers of parallax scrolling. Harmful Park, by comparison, is rich and detailed and totally gorgeous. Kyuin’s sprites are a mixture of cheaply drawn generic fantasy characters (birds, angels, gnomes) and some of the worst 3D renders I’ve seen. There’s a few nice special effects, and some sprite distortion, but overall it looks cheaply made. I’ve seen Net Yaroze games that look more professional. The music is lacklustre and seems totally disconnected to the gameplay. It also starts and stops in awkward places, like it’s a bad ISO rip.

Which is fine. I play shmups for a good challenge and clever mechanics. But this is instantly forgettable (or at least it would be, if I hadn’t wasted 600 Yen on it). You’ve got your standard array of power-ups: weak homing, powerful slow lasers, triple-V shots, etc. None of them stack so once you’ve got your favourite you can ignore all others.

It’s sole unique poinr is its Super Bomb attack. You start off with 3, and using it unleashes a conical beam of energy which destroys everything it touches, while enveloping you in a protective shield. The interesting thing is you can recharge this attack by vacuuming up enemies. Most smaller foes, and most projectiles, can be sucked which recharges your guage. When full you get another attack. This also makes the vacuum nozzle a kind of roving shield, a bit like R-Type. Most projectiles coming straight at you will get absorbed, same with enemies, but angled attacks will damage you, same with if you’re jittering around. Getting hit loses your weapon and the nozzle, so you can’t get more power attacks until you’ve collected a medkit which restores the nozzle.

Dying results in you restarting a few screens behind an invisible checkpoint, meaning it’s possible to beat a boss, die, and then restart before said boss. There’s also a simultaneous 2-player mode, which corrects this checkpoint problem, and makes the game considerably easier.
This all might seem like a clever set-up. Unfortunately everything else with the game is terrible. There are 2 modes, easy and hard, and even on hard the opening levels are a cakewalk. Later on though they verge on impossible - there is of course infinite continues, but why you'd be so eager to see the end is beyond me. It’s not because the game itself is difficult in the usual sense, but rather because they screwed up the collision hit box.

Kyuin uses a very tall, very awkward vertical hit box, and there are many occasions where it’s simply not possible to manoeuvre between oncoming projectiles. This forces you to reach said point in perfect condition, with the expectation of either losing your nozzle, or your entire roster of Power Attacks in order to generate a shield. Thing is, some bosses don’t take damage from the Power Attack, so you’re basically screwed. One boss, a Giant Wall, can only be damaged by regular fire, and you have to fight him twice in a row. He regularly shoots out a wave of bullets where the gaps between them are too narrow to slide between, and they move too fast to suck up. I fixed this by controlling a second player and alternating between them to use the combined might of 6 power attacks.

The designers realised this problem with the hit box though, since some levels which require careful movement through a maze of enemies, actually show you your hit box (which I’ve highlighted in green). It’s like they’re saying: yes, we realise this sucks, and we know the whole thing is unbalanced, but rather than fixing the design we’re just going to steam on ahead. GANBAREMASYO!

Keio’s Flying Squadron had a vertically aligned sprite, but the hit box was customisable and a lot more generous. Also, despite being on the Sega CD, a system technically inferior to the PS1, it had better sprites (proper sprite work, as opposed to crude 3D renders which are then turned into sprites ala Donkey Kong Country), better animation, infinitely better parallax scrolling (simultaneously horizontal and vertical) and better music. The pattern and rate of enemies also made for more exciting gameplay. Kyuin in comparison feels like a cheap product made to cash in the popularity of the genre, and it rightfully sunk without a trace until now.

If you want a hori shmup specifically with a vertically aligned main sprite, get Keio. If you want a hori shmup on PSN, get Einhander, or hell, pretty much anything else. Even Gaia Seed is better. Kyuin should be avoided at all costs, and is also one reason why I hate digital downloads - there is no rushing to eBay to recoup my losses!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Chinese PC version of Suikoden

I used to spend my college days randomly wandering around New York City's Chinatown, for it was one of the only place in the areas where you could find any number of Asian imported stuff. They had (and probably still have) racks and racks of Chinese RPGs, all for Windows, most of which I'd never heard of. A long time ago, I did remember seeing a version of Konami's Suikoden, but being a college student and therefore poor, I passed on it. But with the Suikoden article posted last month, it flooded back in my mind, and I tracked down a copy.

Although China has a reputation for bootlegs and hacks, this is in fact a legit product, and was also released in Japan. I'm not sure who ported it but it was definitely published by Konami, or at least under their license. It's a strange, strange port too. Instead of just directly porting the PSOne version over, they totally built it and designed it around the Windows interface. The main window is where all of the action takes place, and runs in the same 320x240 resolution as the PSOne game, so it's pretty small. Everything else - the dialogue, the menus, the battle commands - each take up their own window, where you can select them via the mouse. You can also move your character with the keyboard or by pointing and clicking. I'd heard rumors that the graphics were redrawn in a higher resolution, but this isn't true, because the visuals and even the sound are more or less identical to the PSOne game. (Please forgive the gibberish in the pictures - I have Japanese language support installed but not Chinese.)

There also appears to have been a Windows port of Suikoden II. I found an ISO of it, but I couldn't get it working on my computer. It is official - Konami logos are everywhere - and it must be pretty recent, because it requires DirectX9.

Anyway, I've also taken the opportunity to tweak the Suikoden article again, which was admittedly a bit messy when it was initially published. It's probably still not perfect, but at least it's better.