Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A series of eroge topics yields something worthwhile

Many events occurred recently which encouraged me finally to play Princess Maker 2. Pleasantly I’ve discovered it’s not at all perverse as some might think. Most of this blog post though probably is, so don’t read further if you’re at work. WARNING: there is discussion of mechanical beards within.
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Somewhere in my memory it seems I was browsing SelectButton’s forum around the time I felt disenchanted with E3 coverage - despite Japan having several interesting pieces of work it could showcase, the offerings in America seemed very much geared solely towards Western tastes (with the exception of El Shaddai, which looks astounding and universal). Even Platinum’s next game was full of space marines. But anyway, this Americanisation of software the Japanese wish to show us was covered far more interestingly in the latest WAHP podcast, which if you’re interested in Japanese games is essential listening.
So inside my mind, the feelings of alienation at Sony’s obsession with Killzone and that stupid neon-balled magic wand, plus my brain-baulk at Kevin Butler’s vapid speech, all curdled together with a strong desire to play something unashamedly Japanese. I still dig the style of Japanese things, games or otherwise - and damned be the Neo-Jaffe heretics who criticises me for that. Now, either before or after this desire for Nippon, I discovered the recently bumped topic of TORUMASUTA’s, regarding Sengoku Rance.

I’m going to quote forum user Chevluh, since he explains he succinctly.
Rance is a series of porn games, actual games with gameplay (and interesting, too) and not just VNs or groping simulators, about a chaotic rapist warrior in a med-fan world, who ends up repeatedly saving the world even though he's really just trying to f**k everything female in existence. The series stands at the zenith of eroge, and the protagonist was constantly voted the best eroge character until they made the competition female-only. Usually the games are RPGs, but two of them are strategy games, including this one, Sengoku Rance, which is a parody of the warring states era (ie if you've played Dynasty Warriors you're gonna recognize a few names). If you haven't got anything against porn games and can palate the set-up, it's well worth a try, as the whole thing got a translation patch recently.

I’ve sometimes said to myself: if I win millions on the lottery, along with funding the development of a mechanical beard attachment to enable world conquest, I would use my new-found ability to waste time in my life to cover eroge / hentai-soft / h-games and put the hardcore back in Hardcore Gaming 101. Because whenever I’ve stumbled across titles in the genre, such as with Night Slave (pictured above), they surprisingly have solid gameplay behind the aesthetics - much as was said with Sengoku Rance. A lot of such games would work really well without the perversions, but it’s an easy way to boost sales I presume, hence why it happens. In the meantime though I’d rather spend my limited leisure time reading the research of other such pioneers.
The Sengoku Rance topic, and TORUMASTA’s in-depth playing, reminded me of another fascinating foray into the world of digital erotica - namely Takashi’s topic on PC eroge management sim, MxS Combat de Reines, where he used Anime Games Text Hooker along with a machine translator from Toshiba called ATLAS to play through it. It was an ingenious set-up as he attempted to work his way through the game with regular postings. I salute the man’s effort to document such a thing.
I’ll quote him directly:
MxS is a shop simulation game by Abogado powers, a bit like Pia Carrot series. Except instead of serving sweets you serve whipping. And get some. Here's the thing. Abopa was known for its pretty high end bondage stuff, they did Pigeon Blood and D+Vine Luv and you can check around for that. MxS however, is a bit different. Unlike those games, it's really, really happy. Both slaves and mistresses are people that accept their sexual tastes without being kindaped/lost their mind and everybody has his own personality (that reflects or not into their ‘stance’) in the game. Yes, you will see bondage. For most of the game you maybe get some boob, maybe a funny CG and some underwear shots. Most of the game will make you scheme how to make the girls happy (some more than others) and balance the customer satisfaction rating. Only in the end you get some bondage action, and you still have to [play a fairly difficult management section with satisfaction bars] beforehand.

Both were examples in the grand pantheon of Japan-exclusive games, specifically adult titles, which I wouldn't have the chance to play in a convenient manner, but could live vicariously through the words of those who document them - and both should be applauded for doing so, because such titles seldom are written about in the west.
Of course these weren’t at first the types of games I was thinking of when yearning for something Japanese. Truth be told I’ve been playing Folklore (PS3) and Fragile Dreams Farewell to the Moon (Wii - expect a write up sometime, maybe), so I could have just focused more on those after my E3 disenchantment. Except they’re a little too neat and clean. Niche and underloved, certainly, but not because they're in a maligned genre. Though separated by nearly half a decade, they’re both Japanese highlights for this generation with extremely high production values.

At the same time as all of the above was fermenting in my sub-conscience, I was reading commentary on the recent US release of Deathsmiles on 360, a game in a genre I love (shmups) which I will never play unless either ported to PS3, or I have that mechanical beard implant mentioned earlier (thus implying I have money to waste on a 360 purchase). Deathsmiles has been receiving some criticism aimed at the art direction - a style which I thought was fine, to be honest, it's no worse than a lot of stuff you find floating around in public view. But it made me think, there’s still a feeling of embarrassment among self-conscious gamers when it comes to some styles of design, especially anything risqué and anime. (for those interested, the latest WAHP has commentary on the sequel, Deathsmiles 2)

I absolutely fail to understand the hostility some have to the aesthetic - what I personally found uncomfortable in comparatively sane non-gaming circles was the pile of Marie-Claire et al magazines in my ex’s bathroom (and many, many other women’s bathrooms, for that matter). If a woman who is classified as ‘socially normal’ can be preoccupied over pointless beauty products and the FRANKLY STRANGE things covered in those mags, which I don’t even think Kurt would allow me to repeat on this blog, plus have cupboards which seem destined to eclipse Imelda Marcos’, and yet she won't become a pariah - then you can damn well play decent 2D shooters with goth-lolitas and not feel awkward about it.

And then I thought to myself: I need to play something which mainstream gamers regard as trashy / unacceptable / too strange. If only for a day. Something to make people put palms to faces and decry that I had finally taken my obsession with anything obscure, weird or niche too far - that I was one step away from creating a fire-fighting simulator using ticker-tape and punch-cards where the final stage actually involves setting the paper alight, just to say I’d explored the outer limits of gaming esotericism. I needed to find that edge.

I didn’t feel like a strategy game though - especially one with a Nobunaga setting such as Sengoku Rance. At least not now. And I lacked the motivation to attempt Takashi’s technical wizardry with a computer and try a graphic adventure. I was initially tempted by the English release of Sakura Wars on Wii and PS2, which was an easy option for something Japanese and quirky - especially after reading some posts in this topic. But unwilling to go down the Wii route, and preferring to have the original Japanese voices available in the PS2, I was concerned at the fact that it was dual-layered and my PS2s were all PAL. Disc-swapping wouldn’t work, and my Messiah FATSYSTEM was like a shaky old dog waiting to die. I also didn't feel like buying an NTSC slim.
But then I was reminded of another quirky Japanese game, one labelled as perverse by so many people, many brandishing images of bondage queens. And I recalled it ran on DOSBOX.
Yes, I was reminded of Princess Maker 2, which was localised for US release on DOS but never materialised.

The thing is, contrary to what little I’d heard about it, Princess Maker 2 is not trashy. It’s actually narratively quite elegant and, furthermore, is a rock solid and extremely good GAME. If you enjoy menu-based management simulations, such as Football Manager, or anything where you need to look after a virtual creature, such as Nintendogs, Pokemon, Tamagotchi, and so on, then Princess Maker 2 is one of the best such titles available.
As a demon-slaying hero you’re given a divine being to raise as your daughter, with you needing to decide what she learns at school, what part-time jobs she takes, and which kind of monster hunting adventures she goes on. Think Wonder Project J2 crossed with Dungeons & Dragons and you’re maybe there (I’ve only seen videos of WPJ2 - but with translation patches available for both, you should check 'em out). It all culminates in one of over 70 endings. Admittedly your daughter can end up in unsavoury professions such as the aforementioned bondage queen, or a cabaret dancer, but this would only be a reflection of the person playing. It’s actually a very sweet story overall, and I think a game which could appeal to a lot of women - if you want your daughter to eschew fighting orcs, she can read books and work in a salon. It's an everyman game.

Contentious content aside, the game itself is a joy to play, since it can be approached from innumerable angles. Although there are RPG overworld maps (which yield exclusive rare items) for you to explore and battle turn-based enemies on, these can be avoided entirely for a more pacifist approach which relies solely on menu-management.

Hard to believe, but the simple act of menu clicking to watch tiny animations as a series of numbered bars go up and down, is SUPREMELY SATISFYING, especially with such a well-balanced and inter-connected system. Working on a farm builds constitution, strength and pays well, but reduces her beauty level (called charisma in-game). Sending her to science classes meanwhile raises intelligence but reduces her faith in God. Everything affects something else and it encourages tinkering with the options to see what kind of results you get. Also, the elimination-round coliseum contests are AWESOME.

The game was sadly never released in the US, and the painful saga is recounted HERE, with the guy behind it (Tim Trzepacz) making comments about press headlines which unfairly deemed it sexist. As I said, anything negative pertaining to the game would be a reflection of the person playing it or commenting on it. On my initial playthrough, my daughter ended up an eloquent, highly intelligent artist, aptly mirroring the person who (virtually) raised her.

Interestingly, Tim Trzepacz later went on to work for Working Designs, a company renowned for bringing cool Japanese games to masses. On his SoftEgg website he asks for people to stop pirating the game, and I can understand why - despite good intentions he saw no rewards for his hard efforts, which culminated with a rather touching scene where he gave a specialised English copy of the game to the Japanese creator, as way of apology. Whether you trawl abandonware websites to try the game or not, there is a (slim) chance I’ll be giving this game the full HG101 treatment in the future. Because a game of such quality, and such tremendous fun, and which wasn’t even officially released, doesn’t deserve the added burden of risqué controversy.

All images stolen from various internet people.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

3D Dot Heroes Competition Reminder



Just a reminder about the 3D Dot Heroes competition, where we challenge you create your own video game character, and potentially win a copy of the soundtrack CD. Further details can be found here.

Since I've been bad about putting up this reminder, we're going to extend the deadline a week to July 5th, 2011, so at least any US entrants get the long weekend to finish working on it. We've got some pretty cool stuff so far, and look forward to seeing what else you guys can submit!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Deadly Premonition – for Japanese players on PS3


With the fantastic Deadly Premonition only available in English region locked for American 360s, there are those considering the Japanese PS3 version, which is region free and £20 on eBay from Korea/Hong Kong. But without any knowledge of Katakana there will be some sticking points. Well Zach, do you think we should help them? Yeah, me too Zach, we just have to be sure not to spoil anything.
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A lot of people have complained about needing to drive everywhere in DP, despite there being an item in Chapter 2 which allows fast-travel. It’s entirely in Katakana though, so I’ve done a quick translation chart to make life easier if you’ve imported the Japanese PS3 version. If you just want that, scroll down, but if you want to hear me rant about Heavy Rain and explain why everyone should play Deadly Premonition/Red Seeds Profile, keep reading.

For me, after hearing the Simon & Garfunkel style guitar music with vocals (I've searched Youtube and found NOTHING on this), an opening scene debating the sadomasochistic relationship of Tom and Jerry, and then a car crash ending up on a lonely road surrounded by forest, with the objective being to walk that long road to town, I knew Deadly Premonition was something special. It wasn’t playing by anyone’s rules but its own, and the sheer scale of things was impressive, even if the texture mapping on the trees was not. I felt isolated and cut-off from the rest of civilisation.
Seldom in over 20 years of gaming have I seen a game so divide people. The METACRITIC page attests to that. My reckoning though is, those who criticise it the most are probably younger reviewers still struggling to grow real MAN BEARDS like myself and Francis York Morgan have. Anyone from back in the day who played the games of Kenji Eno, from the 32-bit era onwards, should take a liking to DP. It’s also comparable to some of Suda 51’s works. Both of these men created games brimming with interesting, non-conventional design and story ideas. They were almost always heavily flawed as a result, and barely playable in the case of some of Eno’s work, but they were always interesting enough to persevere with and I ended up loving everything their studios created. SWERY of Access Games, the guy behind DP, is definitely a worthy successor to Kenji Eno’s legacy, now that WARP is dead, and DP follows a similar route of being conceptually and narratively really interesting, but without the expensive production values to back up the ideas.
DP has the same kind of bent appeal that D2 on the Dreamcast had – even down to almost Dreamcast era visuals in places. You need to eat, you wander vast expanses, and the story gets increasingly crazy. DP though has much better characterisation, perhaps the best I’ve seen in a game. Which leads me on to Heavy Rain.
Jim Sterling not only gave DP a perfect score of 10, he also said it was better than Heavy Rain. At first I thought his tongue-in-cheek piece was trying to get people to notice DP through gross exaggeration – but the more I play it, the more I think he was absolutely right, at least in terms of scripting and character development. David Cage tried so hard, too hard in fact, and HR ended up a pretentious, sophomoric overworked mess which telegraphed what it expected you to be feeling long before the fact. I loved it, but not for the reasons anyone else did. All the characters suffered from overwritten flaws: the grieving father. The drug addict. The rape victim. The prostitute mother trying her best. The psychotic bad cop. And so on. They were all surreal, exaggerated pastiches of characters from cheap films. Though extremely entertaining, none of them felt sincere to me (“oh Shaun, SHAUN, I LOVE YOU SHAUN! Hey, Maddison, want to have sex? My finger’s a bit shorter and I just killed a man, but that won’t affect my performance, honest.”).

This is SWERY, the guy who made Deadly Premonition... I think... I found the picture on Insert Credit.

In contrast, the character development of Emily Wyatt and the professional relationship between her and York (especially over improvised meals) is played out beautifully and subtly. When first discovering George’s secret I was moved far more than the personal troubles the characters in HR had. Every single DP character has such a colourful history, all of them portrayed with convincing subtlety, that it was a joy uncovering them through the side missions. Oh, and DP is also bloody hilarious in a lot of places.

I’ve not finished the game, I’ve not even reached the areas people have described as being the best, but there’s a charm and richness here which I seldom see in games. And contrary to the criticisms people make, the gameplay isn’t quite a deal breaker. I enjoyed the combat. At worst it’s a boring though easy obstacle, at best it’s some mindless fun (get the flamethrower for the Wall Woman by collecting all 7 bones on the map and giving them to Brian - it makes things much easier).

What I did especially like though was needing to eat food and buy gas and sleep. It reminded me of STALKER. In fact I wish you needed to eat more often, and that you couldn’t simply get a new refuelled car using the flares. I wish you had one car, and when it ran out of juice you had to walk to the gas station or catch a lift. I also wish the driving sections played like Tokyo Bus Guide, with penalties for not using your signal lights. And when you reload your gun, wouldn’t it be cool if any bullets still in your current clip were lost, forcing to think about reloading? I think SWERY could have taken the realism to even crazier heights.

Furthermore, DP isn’t an example of a game held up only by its narrative – it simply wouldn’t work as well as a book or a film. Frank Cifaldi aptly put it when he said: “the game tells you its story in the interactive way that only a videogame can.” DP works so well because it is a game, where you can choose to speak with characters and explore the expansive game world at your leisure. If you’re impatient, then acquiring the radio and the infinite machinegun via side-quests (plus selecting easy mode) should make the game much easier and quicker.

BONUS: WAHP podcast episode with SWERY interview.


TRANSLATION HELP

The main sticking points in the Japanese version are the radio item, and using the map, since both require Katakana reading ability. This also affects side quests, since while the objective is often spoken in English, actually finding the people can be tricky when using the map and side-quest list. Hopefully this translation table makes things easier (CLICK it for a bigger version).
Once you’ve acquired the radio from George in Chapter 2 (make sure it’s the first thing you do), you can select it via your items menu. Places you’ve visited are added to the list over time (though not always), so it continues to grow. It’s easy if you can read Katakana, since the script is used for foreign loan-words in Japanese. If you can’t, then it’s a case of trial and error. This probably isn’t a full list, since I’m only up to Chapter 13, but it’s good enough to ease you in and get to most important places. If you’re REALLY keen, you can also use the above list when reading the in-game map, which is also in Japanese.
Make sure to grab this Greenvale map too, which has everyone’s house name in English on it. Thanks to the guys on GameFAQs who put it together (I think it was Sinister XIII and some others).

There’s a FAQ on GamesFAQs, and also THIS forum topic for quests, and THIS forum topic for getting all the cards. With a little help and perseverance, DP is one awesome ride.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

President of Nintendo Say What?

Well, I totally wasn't expecting Iwata to interview these guys.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Hydorah and other free shmups

Despite trying to work through a rather large PS3 backlog, my time has been taken up by three extremely excellent free 2D shmups of late (well, one excellent, one very good and one OK shmup)– read on for links and boobs!
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The only real criticism I had with the recent EGM relaunch issue is its lack of obscure Japanese coverage, and lack of indie/doujin coverage. Indie games have never really been properly covered in the mainstream press, because whether they are entirely free or charge a small fee, none of them generate PR freebies or advertising revenue from publishers. And this stoic lack of coverage is a travesty because it means the public won’t hear about great games, such as Hydorah, unless they trawl forums and obscure blogs for snippets of info.

Does anyone else have the uncomfortable feeling that they’re missing out on hundreds of wildly awesome and free indie/doujin games, simply because no one talks about them? Yeah, me too.



HYDORAH
A tremendous labour of love, Hydorah took Locomalito three years to develop (with help for music). Nearing Cave Story-levels of time and dedication, the effort put into this shows. The production values are some of the highest I’ve seen for a free game – the level of detail in the pixel art (which is a dying art in the commercial world) and animation of sprites is astounding. Ignore those who say the art style is boring – later levels’ bio-mechanical armada is stunning. The few screens shown here don’t even remotely convey the beauty of the game in motion. Furthermore, the soundtrack by Gryzor87 is pretty-damn catchy in places, with some really cool 1980s-style synth. Plus there’s the insanely awesome vocalised music tracks (in what I presume is Spanish), and voiced power-ups! Special mention must go to the brief snippets of voice acting, which have Spanish accents. I love the idea that Spain would amass a giant space armada to defend the human race – it’s a refreshing change from the America/Japan centric story many shooters have.
I’ve always felt that hori-shmups, as opposed to overhead, are a little underrepresented in the overall shooter genre, so it’s nice to see Hydorah take a side-on approach. It’s very much a throwback to older-style shmups like Gradius, Axelay, Keio’s Flying Squadron, and so on, before hardware started allowing for near-infinite projectiles and increasing numbers of shooters adopted the danmaku (bullet curtain) approach. Someone on another forum aptly described Hydorah as an adventure – there are 16 stages laid out on a map with branching pathways (not quite Darius, but an appreciated effort) with 30 bosses of which I’ve only seen a fraction. This is coupled with a selectable weapons system where new weapons are unlocked in each stage, and all require levelling-up RPG fashion. Each stage has its own story and architecture to navigate, plus numerous clever ideas (even if some are borrowed), and overall it does an excellent job of balancing good shooting mechanics with ambience and story.
So many shooters in recent generations have had rather banal designs, focusing on complex patterns and score mechanics, but totally lacking that sense of exploration you feel, for example, when first penetrating the Bydo ship in R-Type. There are some great moments in Hydorah, such as flying above a planet surface during a sandstorm, which affects control, before delving deep into a forgotten enemy factory, or traversing a space graveyard populated by flesh-eating insects.
What I especially like is that Hydorah only has one difficulty level, ensuring that everyone has the same experience and that people’s skill with the game is easily compared (as opposed to discussing one’s ability spread over 3+ difficulty levels like most shups). This presents Hydorah as a singular, unified experience. I’ve heard that the difficulty actually augments itself depending on how well you’re playing, but I’ve faced bosses both fully powered and without anything, and their attack patterns seemed the same to me! Please correct if I’m wrong in this assumption.

In years to come I’d like to think that Hydorah will be a regular placement on those “essentials” lists for indie PC games that crop up on forums, alongside titles like Cave Story and Spelunky. It’s not as easy, but it’s an essential file to download. My only disappointment is that some areas of the internet have made trivial sniping criticisms about both the game’s art style and mechanics, all of which are unwarranted. There is a growing internet culture to criticise good things, especially when given away freely. Considering this cost me nothing to experience, I’m going to evaluate it in a totally different frame of mind to something which does cost money. Sincere creative love was put into this game, and despite being a very strongly and obviously influenced homage, there are moments of genuine, original genius.

Check out it out here



HEROCORE
Super Metroid meets Dropzone in duotone is the simple analogy for this one. You’re tasked with exploring a maze inside a giant asteroid filled with bio-mechanical enemies in order to stop an immortal war machine. The plot is pretty damn awesome, and pleasantly melancholy in the end. Increased map exploration is facilitated by acquiring ability-boosting items from defeated bosses. Lesser enemies are merely a hindrance and should be ignored, making it something of a boss-rush with added corridors to navigate.
What’s really awesome about this is that the different difficulty levels actually present different level structures, encouraging repeat playthroughs. As the author states:
“The Normal difficulty is about as tough as the first Hero, while Hard features a different game world and enemy patterns that will tax even the veterans.”

The minimalist graphics and super catchy chiptune audio all add up to a very retro-feeling shooter which is also tremendously fun. Plus it’s free! What more could you want?

Get it here.



STRIKE WITCHES
While listening to the entire back-catalogue of the uncomfortably excellent Warning! A Huge Podcast series, Shidoshi mentioned a Strike Witches game for the 360 and, seeing as I had been taking notes to later look things up, went Googling for more info. Turns out there were a lot of Strike Witches games either released, or in development. I also stumbled across a very old post on Sankaku Complex (definitely NSFW) detailing two doujin releases of SW for PC. The Hori shmup is too crudely made to interest me, but the vertical one has reasonably high production values.
The plethora of characters are mostly redundant, the game is extremely easy if you exploit the weapons and shields available, and the scoring system is impenetrable – I also still haven’t fully worked out the controls. But it reminds me of Axelay and has an awesome distortion effect. It’s also a lot of fun - especially if you have a biased predilection for anything shmup-based - with several neat ideas.

Get it here (be warned, site contains NSFW images)

You’ll need to click on the download link on the far left (second from the top).

Controls taken from elsewhere:
A - Shoot
B - Magic Shield (usable with the gauge at max, replenishes naturally, faster when not firing).
L - Speed up while button is pressed.
R - Speed down.

There’s also a button to activate some kind of score multiplier thing, but I’ve not used it much.
I just wanted to throw this out there because I’m sure it was mostly overlooked and is now forgotten amongst the THOUSANDS of free PC games available. It could probably do with an article, looking at the entire Strike Witches franchise (chicks as anthropomorphised battle planes, eh? Kinky!), but I’ll damned if I’m not too lazy to do it.




Thursday, June 10, 2010

Songs of the Moment - Castlevania and Contra Rebirth Bonus Tracks

The highlight of Konami's Rebirth line has been its arrangements of their classic 8 and 16-bit tunes in the style of their arcade games circa the early 90s. A few months ago they released an album that had the full soundtracks for Castlevania and Contra Rebirth, which seemed redundant considering music rips had been circulating around for months. (Buying both games together is also cheaper than buying the CD itself - Japanese CD prices are still absurd.) But they did feature two tracks, dubbed "Another Medley"s, with two bonus songs each.



So technically the Castlevania Rebirth game is based on the first Gameboy game, The Castlevania Adventure. That game was terrible, but at least it had an awesome soundtrack. Sadly, the Rebirth game features absolutely none of the music from it. (It did feature a track from its sequel, Belmont's Revenge, which was quite welcome.) This medley makes up for that venial sin by including Battle of the Holy, the first stage theme from Castlevania Adventure. The second song is Lost Painting, from Symphony of the Night. It is a bit strange to here a song essentially downgraded to FM synth, but it still sounds quite classy. They really should've ditched the fifth billionth remix of Vampire Killer for this Battle of the Holy theme, but I'm not sure where Lost Painting would fit in this arcade-style game - it doesn't even really work as an ending theme.



The theme on the Contra medley is the first level theme from Contra Force, which is strange considering it was never released in Japan. (It was tentatively developed under the title Arkhound.) The character select screen in Contra Rebirth is also taken from Contra Force. The second theme is the ending from the Gameboy game, Operation C. That game was comprised almost entirely of remixes from other Contra titles, except for this ending, and the stage 2 theme, which also ended up in Contra Rebirth, for the level with the robot ostriches. If they really wanted to go obscure they should've done a remix from C: The Contra Adventure, the not-so-great (but not terribly abysmal, contrary to popular opinion) European-developed PSOne game, which actually had some great music.

GET BONUS:

Before Konami released their own official version, amazing internet remixer Otobeya did his own version, also in the style of their arcade music. See which one you like better!



His webpage is a must visit, as it includes dozens upon dozens of MP3s of classic video game music redone on other synths. There's tons of Gradius and Castlevania in there. I rather like the Ys 6 and Origin songs done on an MSX, or Metroid's Brinstar theme on a Master System, or Final Fantasy III (FC)'s battle theme as done on the SNES. The coup de grace is the My Neighbor Totoro theme done in the style of a Romancing SaGa battle theme.



Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Do you want Boku no Natsuyasumi 3 diary entries?

Having recently received several packages all at once, I now stand on an even bigger pile of games/films/books which I will at some point be experiencing. The question is, do you want me to write about Boku no Natsuyasumi 3 on PS3?
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When the second in the trilogy went platinum on PS2 I bought it online for less than £20, but only managed a few hours before deciding to sell it. My Japanese ability has faded over time and while I liked the premise of a lazy summer-time game, it seemed like too much effort to enjoy. I ended up getting £2.50 for it on eBay.

Months later I read Nick des Barres review in PLAY magazine – please have a peruse of the scan above. Nick normally writes pieces which I would describe as very important, since he tends to document things which would otherwise go unreported, or even if they are covered elsewhere, are covered by people without the Japanese language ability or insight to do so properly. His Folklore review in PLAY, for example, expertly described the international situation that videogames are now in, with Japan being ignored in favour of western games despite still being able to produce such high-quality titles. Nick correctly predicted that few would appreciate it. Three years after release I am still in awe of Folklore, both for its majestic beauty and its substantial combat mechanics with plethora of attack options. In terms of visuals, story and gameplay, I took as much satisfaction from Folklore, if not more, than I did from Uncharted 2.
Which reinforces my belief that contrary to what the world is saying, Japan is in fact doing just fine in terms of creativity. She’s still making great stuff, but we in the west are defiantly stamping on her still-breathing face declaring, not so much with mourning but rather a demented schadenfreude, that she is at last dead and irrelevant. The Eastern serpent is slain, long live the devout Western followers of his Holy Roman Emperor, David Jaffe. And the more I hear it, the more confused I feel, because I have more cool Japanese games to play than I have time for – and I don’t even own a 360, which has several exclusives. It’s sad, when you read about Japanese companies like Marvellous Entertainment on the brink of bankruptcy, despite having been involved with numerous excellent titles, such as Muramasa, No More Heroes, Little King’s Story and Red Seeds Profile (yes, Deadly Premonition is excellent). Long-time localiser Jeremy Blaustein summarised western attitudes quite aptly in an interview I did with him.
But back to Boku no Natsuyasumi 3. Nick’s exquisite write up encouraged me to keep an eye out for it, so when a forumite I knew was selling it, along with the Japanese guide book and bonus diary booklet, at a very low price, I had to have it. This is probably not the game to prove my statement about Japan’s continuing ability, and based on my impressions of the second this is very much an acquired taste (you need to be into playing foreign RPGs), but as the review states: games don’t always have to be about guns and tits. And while I won’t be able to appreciate the implied nostalgia factor it’s aiming for (I wasn’t a child in Japan circa 1975), I’m very curious to imbibe the historical and cultural snapshot which it provides. Hey, maybe it should be recommended playing for Western University students studying Japanese anthropology?
I won’t be starting BnN3 for a number of months still, but I wanted to gauge interest to see if people would like daily diary entries, in much the same way your character in the game writes them. I once wrote a Seaman Diary (for the Dreamcast title), and while I won’t replicate the Mr Biffo/Digitiser style of that, my hope is that regular entries should motivate me to play the game more than I did the second title on PS2. There’s every likelihood I’ll get distracted after 3 entries, but hey, maybe it encourages me to go the distance for the game?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies – Wii

Already out in Europe and due out in the USA on 27 June, and no doubt covered in US mags by now, I thought I’d share my early Euro views on this stunning gem from Treasure. (also, check out that awesome reversible cover art)
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Despite owning the cartridge I wasn’t able to play the original Sin and Punishment on the N64 until it was released on the Wii’s virtual console. When I did it was an incredible experience, reinforcing my belief that Treasure is one of the best developers in the industry, with an incredibly precise understanding of good game mechanics.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when I saw a UK advert for the release of Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies on Wii, where for a rare change Europe received something nearly two months before the USA (well, there’s also Disaster and Another Code R – but it’s not a common occurrence).
Being a proper, old-fashioned shooter, mixing on-rails with 2D hori gameplay (think the original Starfox meets Forgotten Worlds), a lot of people on forums have commented on wanting to wait for a price drop. Personally I traded in some games to buy it at full price and show support for such a maligned genre – games like Uncharted 2 and Modern Warfare, with their slick production values and 60+ hours of gameplay, receive more than enough first-week sales, and it’s sad to think that this, which is technically very accomplished, is likely to be overlooked not just because of the hardware it’s on but also its genre.

NARRATIVE

The story is basically: alien Girl with a tail (Kachi) is hounded by flying Bad Dudes (elite human soldiers called the Nebulox), while being protected by unnaturally powerful Boy (Isa – formerly a Nebulox henchman sent to kill Kachi). Throughout there are several semi-romantic interludes between Girl and Boy, which are interrupted by the Bad Dudes, whereupon Boy promptly saves Girl, until eventually Girl ends up inside Boy... Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound quite right.
My manual was in French so I lost all the backstory, but it’s set some time after S&P on the N64, with Isa being the adult version of the boy you protect on the New York subway train in stage 3-3’s 10-years-in-the-future-flash-forward, who turns out to be Airan and Saki’s child. Kachi in the Wii version doesn’t seem to be directly related to either Kachua or Achi from the first game – though presumably is a similar alien entity to Achi. Who knows?!
Stylistically and thematically the game is extremely reminiscent of the Panzer Dragoon series – and not just because of the on-rails comparisons. Taking place on Earth IV, the world is described as having been ruined by mankind, and is now roamed by synthetic creatures which act as the planet’s immune system, wiping out perceived threats. Stage 1 is a decayed city infested with swarms of flying creatures, and crab-like animals scuttling over buildings amidst human survivors. Stage 2’s underwater tunnels meanwhile are strongly reminiscent of the Ruins of Uru, Stage 4 is like Zwei’s forest stage, while Stage 5 has you flying over a desert highway battling mutated creatures. Stage 6 actually seems like a homage to the Lava Stage in Konami’s Axelay – which might or might not be a cute reference to the two companies’ former connections.
I’ve often read people saying that with a shooter story is unimportant – but I don’t like this view. Although the story doesn’t impact the gameplay mechanics, which has always been Treasure’s strong-point, the company has also always done very enjoyable videogame stories. Take the Love Love Dancing scene from Gunstar Heroes, or the silliness of Dynamite Headdy’s theatrical stages, or the complexity of Radiant Silvergun’s time-travel shenanigans. These are always cool. Although never essential, a Treasure game just wouldn’t be a Treasure game without a funky story (which is why I absolutely hated Bangai-O Spirits).

MECHANICS

Move character, move cursor, jump, shoot, charge attack, melee, dodge and manual lock-on – these are your controls. You’re able to control either Isa or Kachi, which alters the cut-scenes ever-so-slightly. Isa has a powerful charge shot, while Kachi has an auto-lock which proves more hindrance than help, and instead of a splash-damage charge shot can manually lock on to multiple enemies by charging. Both can dodge, which renders them immune to enemy fire, and both can melee attack which cancels out most enemy projectiles and rebounds several of them in the direction of your cursor.
At the time I thought the N64 iteration’s controls were sublimely intuitive, but after clocking the sequel the original seems clunky and barely playable. You can use either the Wiimote/Nunchuck, Classic Controller, Gamecube pad, or Wii Zapper. The Wiimote allows for some very fast and precise cursor control, since it acts like a lightgun, but I also found that some bosses benefited from using the GC pad (my preferred control method throughout). The game allows you to switch between them mid-game, though, which is awesome.
What I love about this game is that it’s not just pure into-the-screen shooting, and like many Treasure games mixes in other genres. In several stages the game switches to a side-on-view with you able to fire in 360 degrees, as well as into the background, giving it the feel of old scrolling shmup Forgotten Worlds. Other stages directly copy Senko no Ronde/Psychic Force’s floaty melee combat, while one later boss suddenly turns into a 2D Street Fighter-esque beat-em-up with you handcuffed to your opponent.
In many instances there’s a beautiful dynamic between aiming and shooting at background elements, while at the same time dodging and melee attacking enemies in the foreground. Needing to concentrate on two separate planes of gameplay keeps the gameplay intense, and it’s tremendously satisfying when you hit the zone, dodging, rebounding missiles and tearing stuff up with a massive score multiplier and not a lick of damage on you.
There are 6 stages, but each is very long with several checkpoints and, assuming you play a perfect game, offer several hours of content. Though if you like the genre you should expect and enjoy replaying stages. Different difficulty levels alter various aspects of a stage – for example in Stage 3’s floating factory, you have to manually shoot the mechanical laser barrier at the halfway mark on normal difficulty, in order to protect yourself, whereas on easy it moves on its own.
Normally when playing a shmup I view it as being either a score attack game, aiming for the biggest number as quickly as possible, or one of survival as you attempt to 1CC it. I normally ere towards the latter, even if means I end up with a very low score, which is probably a cognitive throwback to wanting my arcade money to last as long as possible. I had a bit of a score competition with a guy on a forum who clocked 84 million before dying on stage 4, and I was rather pleased to get 94 million by Stage 6. After someone told me they’d got 270 million by that same section, I decided to forgo score-attacks and return to my 1CC attempt.
There are opportunities for some really insane scoring through. Each time you hit an enemy your score multiplier goes up, seemingly slowing down after 10x, but with so much background fodder it’s easy to quickly hit 10x and then not too long after 16x (my highest, on stage 2). The trick is not getting hit, since this knocks it way down. But if you can finish a stage unscathed, you’re looking at potentially much higher than 30+ million (my highest was about 27 mill on stage 2).
Several sections in Sin and Punishment 2 are extremely reminiscent of Panzer Dragoon. Stage 2's underwater tunnel for example, reminds me of PDS' Ruins of Uru areas.

Another cool thing is the medallion system. Doing certain things on different difficulty levels will reward you with a medal worth 200k (normal). For example, shooting the stage 1 boss in the face with a full charge at the outset will net you a medal. The points though are only given if you get the medal and survive the stage, and the score isn’t affected by the multiplier, so it’s mainly for personal satisfaction, but it makes for a lot of fun trying to uncover.

CONCLUSION

There are infinite continues from the outset (making it easier than the original). Using one resets your score and takes you back to a previous checkpoint, which forces you to improve your skill at that section before being allowed to move on – which, according to one forumite’s comments, is better than Gradius V’s system of rewarding continues for prolonged play, which then act as invincibility and allow progress regardless of skill. Even so, you can credit feed Sin and Punishment and see the ending in a few hours.
For many this will incline them towards that price-reduced purchase – but if you like classical shooters, or Treasure games in general, it’s essential to experience and worth supporting. Personally I have so many games to play through, I don’t mind that I can practice and totally rinse it in a week of playing. It’s fun, challenging, and filled some really incredible set-pieces which you’ll want to replay. My favourite was Stage 5’s desert bike-ride, which sees you hurtling along at high-speed, passing explosive gas canisters by the roadside. The trick was to frantically attack nearby enemies while waiting for precisely the right moment to fire a single shot at the canisters, thereby taking out an entire swarm of fodder and boosting your multiplier.

The final boss disappointed slightly, turning into Fantavision, and the ending typically leaves things unanswered, but I still want to go back and clock it again. Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies is a triumphant hardcore hurrah for a system which is dead to the people who would appreciate it. A PSN/XBLA port is unlikely, but if it happened, I’d buy it again.
For further reading, let me recommend Tim Roger’s ActionButton review, which I think is one of the best things he’s written and full of panache. Also, check out this video interview with the extremely talented people who made the game. In a world where development teams are in the hundreds, I love how they proudly claim to have started on S&P with only 4 members of staff.

To finish off, I’m going to quote pieces of Roger’s text which, as he aptly put it, should really be on the American release’s back-of-the-box.

“. . . a veritable monster pancake stack of delicious, sticky frictions.”

“. . . the crunchiest, stickiest, most frictive game we’ve played in ages.”


“. . . graphical effects so freaky you’ll forget you aren’t wearing 3D glasses.”


“. . . the most fun we’ve had with our Wii since the News Channel.”


“It took Treasure to make a Treasure game.”


“Nothing short of masterpiecely.”


“. . . the “Sin” is breathing, and the “Punishment” is death by gunshot wound to the head-equivalent.”


“You are a guy with a gun.”

“The shit in this game gets way too real way too quickly. Get over yourself, and use the fucking Wii remote.”


“ABS: Always Be Shooting.”


“Brilliant”.


“. . . pulls no punches . . .”

“. . . the scariest kind of straight-ahead run-and-gun shooter. . .”


“. . . the most teeth-grinding type of perfectionist boss parade. . .”


“big set-pieces . . . hearty, chunky, soup-that-eats-like-a-meal progression.”


“We love this game.”

“Huge Fun.”

“A pretty great game.”

“Very real, and not at all tenuous.”

“A desperate struggle of two dumb kids with laser guns against all manner of supernatural freakbeasts or bad-science robots.”


“Probably the first foundation building block of the Monument of Games to Come.”


“A bizarre, virtuosic, mishmash-collision of great ideas and terrifying filth, to be later lauded as a turning point in the creative development of some great figure to come.”