Still Here!

Well, doesn’t time fly? Didn’t realise it had been quite so long since I last posted!

I shall publish some fresh posts very shortly, but in the meantime I just wanted to share the word on a guy who is ruining prices for rare videogame imports, especially in the PCB market.

If you are an eBay regular, or just use eBay from time-to-time to satisfy your retro fix, then please think twice before buying from the seller “arcadetower”.

More information behind this guy’s rather unpalatable practices can be found here: http://blog.system11.org/?p=1174

There’s also more information to be found on shmups.com – http://www.shmups.com

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Stahlfeder

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During the mid-1990’s there were two shoot-em-up’s released which had, for reasons lost on my good self, a rather Germanic theme to them, and both were released exclusively for the Sony PlayStation.
One was produced by the highly respected, and influential Square Soft (they of Final Fantasy fame). This game was critically acclaimed, rather stunning, and, is this writers favourite all-time horizontal shoot-em-up – Einhander.
The other Teutonic release came from am obscure developer called Santos; and the game was the rather critically un-acclaimed, and equally as obscure, Stahlfeder:Tetsukou Hikuudan.

Released in 1995 for the Japanese market only, Stahlfeder is a vertically scrolling shoot-em-up with a style much borrowed from contemporaries such as Raiden, Strikers 1945 and the 194X series by Capcom. You take control of one of four different fighter planes, each with his/her own strengths and weaknesses as you set out to defeat the enemy before you over six stages.

As with most shoot-em-ups the plot device is pretty much superfluous, however, in this case it really needs to be unless you can read Japanese. There is no plot reference in-game and so only the actual manual advises of the plot over two very brief pages, and it is all in Japanese; and there is little to no additional information to be found on the web. Yes folks, Stahlfeder is that popular.

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Gameplay is a rather straight forward affair, each ship has two shot types, a weak wide shot type and a more powerful concentrated shot, and a bomb. The three attacks are spread over three buttons on the controller, ship speed is dependant on the player ship selected, as is the strength of your shield. Hit box is quite large, so bullet grazing is not recommended, and every time you are hit you lose a chunk of your shield bar. Once the shield is totally depleted it’s game over. Along the way you can collect additional bomb stock, power-ups for your two main shot types and also energy pick-ups to replenish your shield.

Scoring is as basic as it gets. There are no extra points for destroying scenery, there is no milking to be had, no chaining and no medal systems or ranking to be concerned with. At the end of every stage you will be rewarded for the amount of remaining shield you have and the number of unused bombs left in stock; so technically I suppose you could hinder your scoring opportunities if you select one of the ships with a weaker shield. Collecting shield items when the bar is full only adds score, it does not increase your shield capacity.

Enemy attack patterns, are, for the most part, not particularly challenging. Basic attacks seem to be Toaplan and Seibu Kaihatsu influenced, and bosses can be generally defeated without any reliance on bomb stock with the probable exception of the final boss who throws out near impossible to navigate bullet patterns where you’ll need bomb stock to cancel them out. In fact the game recognises this strategy by allowing you to pick up a quite healthy supply of additional bombs just seconds prior to the final confrontation. There is no second loop.

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One area where Stahlfeder did break new ground, at the time, was that in the options menu you can select the colour of the enemy bullets to suit. The rest of the options are a distinct let down though, with even the difficulty setting only affecting how many credit continues you have at your disposal and not the enemy attack patterns. So, if you’re gunning for the 1all, you’ll bounce this straight on to “normal” knowing that the game will be pretty much no more challenging than when set to “easy”. The “hard” difficulty setting ups the ante by making the enemies slightly more aggressive, removing the end  of stage shield top-up, and powering you down if you get hit; it also does reward with greater end-level bonuses though.

During the mid-1990’s there were many games that mixed sprite and polygon visuals, and Santos took this approach with Stahlfeder, using a combination of 2D and 3D. The player sprites are each well drawn, but lack detail, and the enemy craft is generally rather generic looking and does not differ much between stages. In the early years of the 32-Bit era, as developers got to grips with the new technology and shift from 2D to 3D games, many early PlayStation and Saturn games had rather crude 3D visuals, and as a result have aged rather badly. Stahlfeder is no exception. The 3D rendered bosses look rather basic in form and animation, the final boss in particular is very poor, and rather unimaginative, especially compared to some of the earlier boss encounters. The backgrounds are generally dull, uninspiring and lacking in any great detail.

Sound is par for the course for a shoot-em-up and the rock infused soundtrack has a few good tracks but does little to help drive the action along, and could be generally summed up as unremarkable.

That, ultimately, is the best word to describe Stahlfeder – unremarkable. The game is neither good, nor dreadfully bad, but it is rather bland, bordering on dull, and you’ve really got to want to play it to get anything out of it.

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Santos will undoubtedly be an unfamiliar name to many, but they actually have a rather interesting history:
Founded by Takeshi Tozu, Santos also had on board Akio Inoue, who was the founder of Aicom, the developer best known for the classic Neo-Geo game Pulstar.  In late 1996, with funding from SNK, Aicom and Santos were merged to create Yumekobo, who are now best known for Blazing Star and Prehistoric Isle 2 on SNK’s Neo-Geo hardware. Sadly, when SNK collapsed in 2001, Yumekobo folded along with it and the team disbanded. With only a handful of dedicated Japanese shoot-em-up developers left by the turn of the Millennium, it would be interesting to find out what happened to some of the Yumekobo team, but as yet I’ve not had the time to see if any names crop up elsewhere.

Overall there is little for me to really enthusiastically recommend to anyone about Stahlfeder, there are so many better examples of the genre out there, not only on PlayStation, but on just about any system of the era you care to mention. During a time when shoot-em-ups were developing into much deeper affairs than just “point-your-ship’n’shoot”, Stahlfeder delivered a back-to-basics package so unremittingly dull that it would seal its fate as nothing more than an early PlayStation curio.

Stahlfeder: Tetsukou Hikuudan

Version tested: PlayStation (NTSC/J)
Also available on: n/a

Gunbird 2

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By the late 1990’s Psikyo had released sequels to all its early shoot-em-up titles, so it was probably not too much of a surprise to finally see a follow up to 1994’s Gunbird hit the arcades in 1998 as the mid-90’s shoot-em-up revival was reaching its peak.

As with the first game the plot revolves around the characters the player can choose trying to track down objects that will ultimately grant them a reward while despatching the enemy who is trying to obtain the same, ultimate, goal. Whereas in the first game you were fighting for pieces of a broken mirror, in Gunbird 2 it is three bottled elements that you are fighting for. Players can choose from seven characters in total, five of whom are immediately playable and two extra characters that can be unlocked with a code (these two extra characters are automatically unlocked in the Dreamcast port).
Only Marion from the original Gunbird makes it in to the sequel, although a few of the characters are similar in personality to those from the first game, and through the cut scenes and various endings, the anarchic and rather adult humour is also retained from the original.

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Gunbird 2 can be approached in one of three ways – one player only, two player simultaneous, or the player can select a partner mode. In the latter mode, you pick two of the selectable characters and alternate between them as you lose a life – for example, choose Valpiro and Marion, and when you lose your first life as Valpiro you will respawn as Marion. Although each character has different attributes, from my experience there isn’t one particular area where one character excels over another, so this feature does not lend itself to suiciding to change character. Also the extends are every 600,000 points, which cannot be racked up that quickly to replenish life stock should you feel the need to suicide again to switch back. However, this mode does add some additional dialogue to the story scenes between stages, and I believe the character endings are different in this “co-op” mode as well.

Each character has slightly different attack patterns and strength of attack as well variations in their speed. They all have three forms of attack – standard shot which can be powered up by collecting icons, your standard smart bomb that will cause damage and clear enemy bullet spray, and a power-up shot attack which has both a long and short range depending on how you implement it. This third way of attacking enemies is governed by a meter in the bottom left corner which increases every time a normal shot hits an enemy. The higher the gauge the more often you can implement the attack or power it up for a more powerful attack (which obviously depletes the gauge quicker).

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So, we’ve chosen our character(s), on to the main event – the core gameplay. However, this is where it is likely that game will quickly polarise players. Gunbird 2 is very, very hard, especially on the higher difficultly settings. The Dreamcast version has seven difficulty settings ranging from “Baby” to “Hard”, and settings from “Very Easy” onward are likely to challenge any shoot-em-up veteran, and substantially so once you hit the “Normal” and above settings. I usually start with a game I’m not familiar with on “Normal”, but I had to quickly abandon this with Gunbird 2 and rank down to “Child” to start getting a grip on things!

Bullet patterns are dense, can feature different sizes of projectile, and bursts fired at different speeds. This game really does fall into the danmaku category, seriously so, despite not looking like one on the face of it. However, if one begins with one of the more manageable lower difficulty settings, learn the game’s mechanics and level layouts, it is possible to progress through practice. Taking this method, I have actually 1CC’d the game on the lowest difficulty settings, and it certainly helps when moving up to a more challenging setting.
You can credit feed if you want to take that approach, but you loose all your power-ups when you continue, your power gauge resets to zero and so does your score. The game also feature two loops, whereby you’ll play the random stage not played on the first loop at Stage 1, but, on the lower difficulty settings the game ends at 1-7.

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As with any self-respecting late-90’s shmup, there are strategies to building up bigger scores, if you can distract yourself for long enough from keeping your character alive. Certain enemies will leave coins behind when destroyed, worth between 200 and 2000 points each, depending on how you collect them. They are worth their maximum as they “gleam”, but timing the collection of the coin and dodging all the oncoming bullets is a skill all in itself. Collect gleaming coins in a row and you’ll start a chain multiplier for big points, but it really is easier said than done given the onscreen action.
In addition, hidden in a spot on every level is a “Gem Head”, a floating urn with a face on it, that when shot repeatedly drops large gems that help to boost score, but again you have to balance collecting the falling gems with dodging enemy bullet spray. There is a small element of boss milking present, but using this strategy will not substantially increase your score.
What appears to be a multiplier appears on screen every time you release a smart bomb to protect yourself from imminent death, however, it does not appear to have any direct effect on score despite it suggesting so. Odd, but that sums up large parts of the game!

As with the original, the graphics have a very anime style to them, with bright bold colours, lots of detail and superb animation, even with the smallest of on screen sprites. Each of the characters, both player and enemy Pirates, have their own distinct personality and style, and Psikyo do a great job of bringing these guys to life both within the game and the confines of the brief cut-scenes between levels. The Queen Pirates are very entertaining, and Shark (the leader of the Queen Pirates) is rather eye catching I must say (from a purely male perspective I’m afraid!!).
Sound is good, if largely unremarkable, cheery tunes that fit in with the cartoon style the game carries, but not really memorable. Options on the Dreamcast port are fairly limited, but there is at least a TATE mode so you can enjoy the proper arcade display if your TV or monitor allows for practical rotation of the screen.

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Gunbird 2 first saw a home port to the Sega Dreamcast in 2000. Published by Capcom and featuring two additional characters, Aine & Morrigan (from Capcom’s own Darkstalkers series), the Dreamcast version is a very faithful port of the arcade hardware and the release formed part of Capcom’s late 1990’s shoot-em-up push through both the Dreamcast and arcades. Gunbird 2 was released on Dreamcast in all three of the major format territories, and later on appeared with its predecessor in a compilation for the PlayStation 2.

Despite the fact I almost resent the steep difficulty curve in Gunbird 2, it is still a well polished and enjoyable game to play, and both the player and enemy characterisations give it a certain charm that raises it above many of its peers. If you’re a Psikyo fan, or just enjoy challenging shoot-em-ups, then you’ll want to track this down, but for the more casual player, or those looking for a more forgiving entry into the “bullet hell” genre, there are better options out there that will suit your playing style.

Gunbird 2

Version Tested: Sega Dreamcast (NTSC/J)
Also available on: Sega Dreamcast (PAL; NTSC/UC), PlayStation 2 (PAL; NTSC/J/UC), JAMMA PCB

Battle Garegga

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Finally got some time to myself, in what seems like an absolute age, to update the blog with a new entry, although part of the issue with the delay in posting this has been the game I’m going to talk about – Battle Garegga. I have actually owned the game for a few years now, but only recently have I actually sat down with it and tried to learn and understand its many intricacies.

During the 1990’s shoot ’em ups under went something of an evolution in arcades with strategies being needed to be more adhered to rather than just blasting away at whatever it was that was in-front of you. Mechanics were put in place to not only make you figure out the best ways to survive, or defeat a boss, but also on how to amass the highest scores. Toaplan’s Batsugun began the trend of creating bullet hell shoot ’em ups, a style that Cave would go on to embrace after Toaplan’s demise, and a technique Raizing would also implement, but with a different style to Cave.

Battle Garegga was originally launched into arcades by Raizing in 1996, before being ported to the Sega Saturn two years later. Garegga was Raizing’s fourth release and is probably the game it is most well known for after Armed Police Batrider. Sadly, Garegga was Raizing’s last shoot ’em up to get a home port (Sōkyūgurentai was released on the Saturn in 1997), yet the mark this game has made can not be underestimated. Today, Battle Garegga is revered by many shoot-em-up fans and frequently can be found at the top of “best of” polls; but it also alienates many with its complex rank system and “invisible” bullets.

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The game plot mumbles something about two brothers who start producing weapons for the mysterious “Federation” before they realise the mistake they’ve made as the weapons are turned against the world; and they then set out to stop the Federation and its dastardly plans. You, and a friend in two-player. if you’re that way inclined, get to choose one fighter from a set of four to go out and free the world and kick Federation-ass over 7 stages.

Garegga employs a mechanic known as “rank”. From the moment you begin playing, the game starts to calculate your fire rate, how many power-up’s you are using, how many options you are employing to assist you, how many bombs you have, how many lives you have, and it starts to adjust the aggressiveness of the enemies accordingly, and thus the difficulty level. For example, go into a boss fight with all guns blazing, powered up to the hilt, you are going to face a barrage of heavy enemy bullet patterns that will inevitably end in death. What can make things annoying for some is that there is no way of measuring your rank – no meter, no gauge, no warning. However, there is a way of managing your rank. The obvious methods are collecting less power-up’s, holding less bomb stock and not having auto fire constantly engaged. The other, slightly more “dramatic” way of controlling the rank, and the method that made the game controversial at the time, is to die. Deliberately.

Yes, in most games you not only want to achieve as high a score as possible, but you also want to complete the game on 1cc and no lives lost. In Battle Garegga it can pay dividends to die, and in certain areas is part and parcel of a successful strategy to overcome the enemy. I cannot say I’ve got suiciding down myself yet, but it definitely helps to get the job done.

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The rank system is not the only part of Garegga that gets flak. Raizing chose to have enemies fire “realistic” looking bullets rather than the bright pink and orange bullets that were starting to become the rage during the mid-nineties shoot ’em up boom. However, occasionally enemy bullets can get lost in explosions or in the background and you’ll end up dying (unintentionally). This has happened to me a few times, however, I would say that more often than not, I do not get caught out by this so I do not see it as a major flaw in the game by any stretch of the imagination. The Saturn port allows you, through the options, to change the bullets from “normal” to the “energy” type, although not all bullet patterns are converted.

Outside of controlling the rank and dodging bullets, there are countless opportunities to earn huge high-scores, and many of these are hidden or are initially subtle. There is a medal system which increases in value every time you collect one that is dropped, provided you keep a chain going. Miss a medal and system resets back down to the smallest value and you have to build the chain back up again. Medals are also hidden in the scenery, which can be destroyed with your bombs, and collected accordingly. Other ways of clocking up high scores include shooting flamingos (early in Stage 2 if you know where to look), and boss milking; but for the latter you first need to understand how the boss’s attack you and how to counter attack rather than just blast the living daylights out of them. Indeed, Battle Garegga is a very deep and complex shoot ’em up, but very rewarding for those who choose to learn it. There are many other hidden features, and you can even unlock four additional fighters to use from Raizing’s Mahou Daisakusen series; there is much longevity to be had in fully exploring all Garegga has to offer.

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The graphics are well drawn and the animation highly detailed with their World War 2 like appearance, and this holds up well today despite the game’s age. The pallet used is perhaps a little too dull and military at times, but I do not feel it detracts terribly from the overall experience. The soundtrack is great, and the arranged version for the Saturn port is one of the best shoot ’em up soundtracks I’ve heard to date. As with most Raizing games I’ve played, the presentation is superb, they clearly thought highly of their product.

Battle Garegga received a direct sequel in 1999 called Battle Bakraid, and although generally well thought of, it does not receive the attention of Garegga; I would assume the lack of a home console port being a major contributing factor and that the PCB is difficult, and expensive, to obtain. Garegga also has strong connections to Raizing’s own Armed Police Batrider, and Cave’s 2004 release Ibara, both of which had Shinobu Yagawa as lead programmer.

If you are prepared to put the time in and learn Battle Garegga so that you can play it how it is intended to be played, the game is immensely rewarding and I would highly recommended it to any shoot ’em up fan looking for a challenge. If you’re more into shoot ’em up’s as a casual player, Battle Garegga is probably best to be avoided as you will not get an awful lot out of it, and neither the Saturn port or original PCB are particularly cheap these days. Personally, now I know more about how the game’s mechanics work, I really enjoy it, and I shall endeavour to put more time into it, and then hopefully, one day, I might actually be half-good at it!

Battle Garegga

Version tested: Sega Saturn (NTSC/J)
Also available on: JAMMA PCB

Welcome To Last Week… The Last Of Us: Left Behind

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I would not usually plan to cover DLC within my blog entries, but for The Last Of Us: Left Behind, I will make an exception.

Many regular readers will no doubt have read my enthusiastic embrace of the original PlayStation 3 release from a few months back, and as you can imagine I was rather keen to download and play the additional one player content Naughty Dog released on February 14th. Left Behind is set up as something of a prequel to the main game, and while part of its story is set prior to the events of primary story, the bulk of this chapter actually plays out in a time frame set during the main story, albeit quite late on. One really needs to have completed The Last Of Us before embarking on following the story of Left Behind, and if you have yet to play main game, or have not yet completed it, you may wish to stop reading now as there are some minor spoilers ahead!

The Last Of Us: Left Behind is essentially split in to two stories, which flash backward and forward as you play through. One part of the story explains the events of how Ellie is propelled to prominence within the main story; and the second part tells the story of how Ellie cared for Joel in the immediate aftermath of his near fatal incident at the University of Colorado. The two halves of the game fall into two contrasting styles of play, but neither will be unfamiliar to those that have played the main game – the story strand focusing on Ellie and her friend Riley is a fairly pedestrian affair, whereas the strand focusing on Ellie’s care for Joel is very much action based.

As you play through, the game flips back and forth at intervals between the two settings, and although the two stories are not directly related for the purpose of the overall game, they help contrast the flow of the action with that of a more character driven experience. The action based scenario sees you trying to find a medical kit for Joel’s injuries while holed up in a shopping mall, avoiding Infected and Hunter’s who do not take kindly to your presence. Those of you who have played Ellie’s strand in the main game will be instantly familiar with the gameplay, and in essence, nothing is remarkably different. However, one interesting element is that in areas where there are both Infected and Hunter’s, you now have the opportunity to play one off against the other, or eliminate both as you see fit. Sending a pack of Clicker’s running into a team of Hunter’s is most satisfying, and the end result will lead to less work for yourself – handy when ammunition is at a premium, and bearing in mind that Ellie is not particularly strong with melee attacks.

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The other scenario showcases Naughty Dog’s story telling talents to the fore, carefully crafting out the relationship between Ellie and her best friend Riley and cleverly showcasing the life a young teenager would be expecting to lead in this dystopian future. While you control Ellie throughout, this strand is all about the dialogue and the interaction between the two friends. To go into more detail would probably ruin the story for those who have yet to experience it, but look out for the film references that perpetuate around the shopping mall.

This new mini-chapter in Joel and Ellie’s primary tale is certainly worth experiencing, and has all the production hallmarks of the main game. However, at approximately two-half hours gameplay (at the most), I felt that charging £11.99 for the privilege of admission to be veering into the unreasonable. Sadly, from a purely cynical point of view, I dare say Sony are riding on the coat-tails of the main game’s success and thus justify their premium for this DLC. Ultimately, I feel it is definitely worth downloading, I just do not feel that it is particularly good value for money given its length.

Left Behind is most likely the only additional extension to Joel & Ellie’s adventures, and so the waiting commences to hear if Naughty Dog decide to release a sequel on PlayStation 4 at some point in the future. Naughty Dog have proved they can produce quality sequels with the Uncharted series, and so I am confident that the sequel when it comes will not disappoint, but I am not expecting a release anytime soon!

The Last Of Us: Left Behind

Version Tested: PlayStation 3 (download only via PSN)
Also available on: N/A

Aliens

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Over the last twenty years Twentieth Century Fox’s Aliens franchise has become a much sought after commodity in the gaming world, with some of the games released bearing the brand name polarizing feelings amongst gamers and hardcore fans of David Cameron and Ridley Scott’s cinematic visions. Obviously, from a pure action perspective, it has been Cameron’s 1986 blockbuster Aliens that most developers have sourced inspiration from in bringing the franchise to our homes, in an effort to not only scare us witless, but to also give us the satisfying opportunity of unloading heavy artillery into marauding hordes of hostile xenomorphs.

I have to say I am a big admirer of both Alien and Aliens, and have always looked forward to playing a game based on the series, and have been fortunate enough to play the many of these titles over the years, some of which I will revisit for the purposes of this blog. Around the time of Aliens original cinematic release in 1986 there were two games, both published by Electric Dreams, that tied in to the film; one of which was a rather tense first person view affair, and the other a rather crude looking top-down game which I have yet to have the pleasure of playing, but I recall the press at the time lauding it as the better game (it tended to be referred to as Aliens: US Edition for reasons that escape me now).

Moving on a few years, and, around 1990, Japanese arcade developer Konami, probably at that point best known for Contra and Metal Gear, released several arcade games based on high profile film & TV licences – The Simpsons: The Arcade Game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Aliens.

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Konami’s Aliens was the first foray into the arcades for the franchise, and was also pretty faithful, in setting, to the film. Split over six levels, you take control of Ripley, fighting through waves of Alien’s, armed with your trusty Smartgun until you reach your final battle against the Queen Alien on-board the Sulaco. A simultaneous two player option is also available, whereby Player Two picks up control of one of the marines, presumably as Hicks – the characters names are never mentioned and the likenesses are altered from those of the original actors.

The level settings are faithful to the film, are well drawn, and recreate many locations that will be instantly recognisable to fans of the movie. The Alien’s are well animated and Konami do a good job of creating some additional Alien foes not seen in the films, but which clearly add much needed variety to the proceedings here. Some fans may take exception with the artistic licence Konami took with these enemies that are not true and accurate to the film, but to be fair to Konami, the game would be pretty dull if you just shot at wave upon wave of Alien drones. Fans should take delight in the appearance of the Power-Loader, including a final battle with the Alien Queen (should you get that far) that pays excellent homage to the original movie.
The sound effects are spot-on, with Alien screeches and Smartgun sounds all recreated perfectly from the source material, and although the music used is not ripped from James Horner’s brilliant film score, it fits in with the action nicely – the opening sequence at North Lock features a great composition that really sets up the entire game.

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The game is challenging, even when set to “Easy”, and although not quite what I would class as a “quarter-muncher”, it does takes practice to get really good at it, which isn’t a bad thing of course as it brings you back for more plays! As with Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, opportunities to grab items to replenish energy are considerably few and far between, meaning any carelessness will usually be punished with loss of a life. Along the way you will come across cases that will spill out weapon power-ups, however, if you die you will lose your power-up and revert back to the default Smartgun. The Smartgun is fine against most standard enemies but will make tougher opposition all the more challenging to overcome. The game play is very old school, and unless you grew up with this style of side-scrolling action game, or have got into them at a later date, I would imagine that gamers used to modern gameplay mechanics would find it a chore to play through.

The JAMMA PCB is getting much less common now than it was a few years ago, and the version to buy is the board with the World ROM set. There is a board with a Japanese specific ROM set but it omits parts of the game – namely the sections where you ride in the APC. The great shame is, of course, that Konami never ported Aliens to home hardware. My hopes of a home port were raised when both The Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles received ports to XBLA / PSN download services in recent years, but as yet, no sign of Aliens. As the current video game licence holder is Sega, it is unlikely we will see a port anytime soon, and if Fox want big money to award Konami the licence again, it will not be economical to port. Nevertheless, for those who do not have a Supergun or home arcade set up, both ROM sets were dumped on MAME many years ago, and so can be easily accessed for those who want to.

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Aliens is a great example of early-90’s scrolling arcade run-and-gun games with big bold sprites, a range of weapons and atmospheric music.  The game is, for whatever reason, one of the few stand-out memories I have of playing video games in arcades when I was on holiday as a kid; and it was also the first arcade game I ever completed… and it wasn’t cheap to do it either!
No self-respecting Aliens video game fan should live their life without trying Konami’s take on the franchise at least once, and for me it will always hold heady memories of family summer holidays, sea-front arcades, and a fistful of ten pence pieces… “Game over, man! Game over!” indeed.

Aliens
Version Tested: Arcade (World ROM set)
Also available on: n/a

Time Crisis 2

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Walk into any decent arcade, bowling alley or Quasar during the late 1980’s through to the late 1990’s, and before the Dance Dance Revolution machines started to take over, and you were guaranteed to find at least one gun game taking up a few square feet of floor space. Operation Wolf, Beast Busters, Alien 3: The Gun, Virtua Cop, Area 51… and that’s just naming a few of them! Konami, Sega, Atari, Taito… all the major arcade developers were churning out a light-gun shooter of one variety or another. One such arcade developer to jump on the band-wagon was Pac-Man producer, Namco.

Namco were on something of a roll in the mid-90’s and hit commercial and critical success with 1995’s Time Crisis arcade machine which took the now tiring gun game genre and added in some refreshing new mechanics in the way of the “duck” feature, tight time limits to clear area’s (and build scores), and the blowback feature of the actual hand-gun the player wields during play. A successful port to Sony’s PlayStation followed in 1997, accompanied by an all new light gun peripheral – the Gun-Con 45 – a very accurate and balanced light gun, that very much helped bring the arcade experience of Time Crisis into your home.

Namco were not shy on recognising the success of their IP’s during this period, and among the sequels to Tekken and Ridge Racer that were hitting the arcades and Sony’s PlayStation, they also launched a sequel to Time Crisis into arcades in the Spring of ’97.

Now with an all new two-player simultaneous option, Time Crisis 2 offered alternate positioning and views during repeat plays, a feature to occasionally upgrade your handgun to a sub-machine gun, and the battle environments were much more bold and varied from the first game –  you fought through city streets,  down a canal on a speedboat, on a train to name some of the situations the game presents. The plot is a wafer thin affair about your typical CEO megalomaniac who has managed to get hold of a nuclear armed satellite, and it’s your job (and that of your partner if you’re  going two player) to stop him and his henchmen before time runs out.

Time Crisis 2 is set across three well paced and action packed stages, each having its own boss fight at the end. Standard enemies follow a similar pattern to the first game with blue suited soldiers rarely firing on target, white suited soldiers being a little more accurate and red suited soldiers being deadly accurate. There are also soldiers with machine guns, RPG’s, knives, swords and grenades… basically you’re not very popular with the opposition and they want you dead any which way they can. Time is also against you, and if you cannot complete stages within the allotted time then it is game over for you. So, the more accurate you are and the quicker you dispatch your foes, the more likely it is you’ll get to toward the end. Again you must press a foot pedal to duck & reload, a feature which needs to be used quickly and wisely if you’re going to have any sustained success.

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At a casual approach the game is entertaining enough, and if you’re good enough, or have access to enough continues, you’ll be pleasantly occupied for the 15 minutes or so it takes to complete the game. However, if you play for high scores then this is where some of the game’s more subtle mechanics come into force; it’s one thing to complete the game quickly, but this may not necessarily grant you a place particularly high up the score board. No, to get high scores you need to score multiple hits on enemies and then chain those hits to the next enemy, and so on, while combining in an effective reloading technique so that you do not break your hit chain. These techniques are what brings the game its tremendous replay value as you not only try to improve your chaining, but also try to cut your time down to get the best score/time ratios. Time Crisis 2 really is more than just your average light-gun shooter.

Time Crisis 2 was ported to the PlayStation 2 in 2001 and brought with it not only compatibility with the brilliant Gun-Con from the PlayStation, but also introduced the even better Gun-Con 2 controller. The port not only gave you a graphically enhanced version of the arcade game, but also carried over the two-player option (either on a split screen or via console link, which obviously required extra copies of the game as well as two Gun-Con 2’s), allowed for one-player dual gun use and added in several sub games and challenges to keep players entertained once the main arcade story mode was exhausted. The graphics and animation are very good, and even today the PS2 port has not aged badly at all, tied in with an excellent score to drive along the action in the background, and you have yourself another competent Namco release.
Time Crisis 2 came packed either on it’s own or in a box set with a shiny new Gun-Con 2 light gun; and the PS2 port has kept me entertained pretty regularly since its release, indeed, so much so, that I have bought additional Gun-Con 2 controllers over the years in case one packs up!

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For any self-respecting light-gun game fan, Time Crisis 2 is a must have, and even those who only have a passing interest in this type of game will find it supremely entertaining. Along with the simultaneous two-player mode, there are a plethora of additional options that can be unlocked to sustain the titles longevity as mentioned above. Pick the game up with the Gun-Con 2 and you’ll also allow yourself to fully enjoy Namco’s other arcade light-gun ports of the late ’90’s early ’00’s such as direct sequel Time Crisis 3, the loosely related Crisis Zone, Vampire Night, and if you have an import console, the PlayStation 2 exclusive GunVari Collection – a Japanese only port of the Point Blank trilogy and the original Time Crisis. Oh, and for those of you who may be fans of Sega’s seminal Virtua Cop games, the Gun-Con 2 also works with Virtua Cop: Elite Edition!

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Time Crisis 2
Version tested: PlayStation 2 (PAL) with Gun-Con 2 light-gun
Also available on: PlayStation 2 NTSC/J & NTSC/U/C, Arcade

Harmful Park – Sony PlayStation

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The late 1990’s saw a slew of shoot-’em-ups hit both the arcades and home consoles, some good, some bad and some truly awful. The Sega Saturn is renowned for its comprehensive shoot-’em-up library and saw many of the era’s best arcade shmups successfully ported over. The Sony PlayStation also saw some of these arcade titles ported, but, by-and-large saw more in the way of exclusive console only titles to pack out its shmup library, arguably the most famous of which is SquareSoft’s one and only foray into the genre – Einhander.

However, Einhander benefited from securing a release in both North America as well as Japan, ensuring that it did not just become another Japanese only curio for hardcore gamers to “discover” later on down the line. Still, many of the PlayStation’s “exclusive” shoot-’em-ups do fall into the category of a Japan only release and have thus fallen into general obscurity. Mentioning games like Stahlfeder, Two-Tenkaku and Air Grave will probably bring blank responses from many a gamer, as will bringing up Sky Think System’s 1997 release – Harmful Park.

That’s right, that Japanese powerhouse of arcade action Sky Think System, the geniuses behind games like Harmful Park, and, um, Harmful Park. Okay, so they released a couple of obscure puzzle games prior to this, but otherwise Sky Think System’s legacy kind of begins and ends with Harmful Park, which is a damn shame really considering how good Harmful Park is. For what appears to be, on the face of it, Sky Think System’s one and only foray into shmup territory, this is really up there with Einhander as a truly awesome one-hit shoot-’em-up wonder for any given developer.

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Harmful Park is split into six stages, with each stage representing a different area of a large theme park which has been invaded and taken over by a mad-scientist type. Each stage is filled with a variety of wacky enemies to shoot down, with some stages having a mid-stage boss, before reaching the main boss fight for that particular level. There is an incredible number of different enemies that will approach you on your quest, many with their own unique way of attacking you, and each superbly animated and drawn. Some of the larger enemies are very well presented, and very memorable. You certainly won’t forget fighting the giant gorilla, eating bananas, riding on the rear of a train which looks like a cow in a hurry!

To help you defeat the weird and wonderful opposition thrown at you, your character comes armed with no less than four different weapons – a potato gun, a jelly gun, an ice cream laser and a gun that throws pies. No, I am not making this up. Honest.
At the beginning of the game all four weapons are set at level 1 power, and each will level up to a maximum of four when you collect on screen power-up icons. Each weapon must be levelled up individually, adding a bit of strategy into the mix, and if you die the weapon you were using at the time will reset to level one, the other weapons not affected. Each weapon also has its own smart bomb, each of which has a different effect, again adding to the strategy element of the game.

One of the nice things about Harmful Park is its simplicity. You can play for score, there is a score multiplier for chaining successful enemy hits, plus a hefty end of level bonus if you clear 100 per cent of enemies for that particular stage, and there are also green gems and hidden icons to pick up to increase score too. Alternatively, you can just play for fun and enjoy the amazing detail of the sprites and backgrounds while the cheerful background music plays. The only on-going strategy you need to employ is deciding which of the four weapons you wield and how you wish to power them up. After each stage a small animation plays detailing your progress through the “story”, but sadly this is all in Japanese, so I have no idea what they’re saying!

The game defaults to easy difficulty setting, upon which most proficient gamers will glide through the game on a 1CC; however, once you up the difficulty the game starts to bite back, and on the harder settings Harmful Park presents a stern challenge. I quite enjoying playing on easy, it’s an entertaining challenge (nothing more), and it gives you more opportunity to enjoy many of the site gags and little quirks that have been lovingly programmed into the game rather than having to focus on dodging waves of bullets. The sound is of a good quality too, sound effects are spot on with the action unfolding before you, and the background music fits each stage’s area character perfectly.

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In many ways it is a perfect shmup for the more casual shoot-’em-up fan, but the high price for the PlayStation original is likely to shut out this type of gamer, leaving the game to either more hardcore fans of the genre who don’t think twice about dropping big bucks for good games, or the collector who is just going to buy it to fill another space on a dusty shelf. There are, of course, many “rare” and “obscure” games out there that are expensive for just being one or either of those two descriptions, and the games themselves are far from enjoyable to play. Thankfully Harmful Park does not fall into that category, because all though the price of admission is steep, it is worth every penny. However, if you happen to own a PlayStation 3 and can get your hands on a Japanese PSN voucher, you can download Harmful Park from the Japanese PlayStation Store for next to nothing – comparatively of course!

Once you have finished with the main game, there is an in-game option to go back to play for score, and there are also three mini-games also thrown in aimed at multiplayer competition, including support for Sony’s four-player adaptor. Sky Think System certainly try and give you plenty of game for your money!

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Overall this is a cracking horizontal shooter, which is very often, and sadly, overlooked when people look back on the late ’90’s era of shmups. The level of sheer detail, not only in the main on-screen sprites but the backgrounds as well, oozes a quality rarely seen in late 90’s 2D shmups; the love and affection with which this game has been created is very evident, and the gameplay is there to go with it. From my own recollection, this is easily one of the most detailed 2D games I have seen outside of a Neo-Geo game. I would certainly rate Harmful Park above and beyond many of the games it is often compared to such as Konami’s Parodious series, and even the excellent Star Parodier on NEC’s PC Engine CD-ROM.

Harmful Park is easy to get into and enjoy, it will present a good challenge when the difficulty level is cranked up and I would highly recommend it to any fan of the genre if you can look past the price tag.

Harmful Park
Version tested: PlayStation NTSC/J
Also available on: PlayStation 3 (PSN download – Japan only)

Welcome To Last Week… The Last of Us

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PlayStation developer Naughty Dog was once best known for its part in foisting the PSX’s answer to Sonic The Hedgehog upon us with the Crash Bandicoot series of games. While not being my thing, the Crash games were well produced, sold well, and generally received favourable reviews from critics back in the day. However, in the last 5 or 6 years Naughty Dog has somewhat reinvented itself as a developer of high quality cinematic action adventure games with the critically and commercially successful Uncharted series on PS3.

The Uncharted games certainly provided a very good reason to consider buying a PS3 over the Xbox 360 at retail with their exclusivity to Sony’s console, and to my mind, while there are some good 360 exclusives out there, Microsoft’s console never really came up with a serious rebuttal to Nathan Drake’s modern-day take on Indiana Jones. Nevertheless, I do not think that Uncharted alone would have been the tipping point in most gamer’s decisions over which console to pick up, assuming one was initially ambivalent over which of the seventh generation consoles to buy. I had already long bought a 360 by the time Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released in late 2007, and while I admit that it looked quite good, and sounded promising from the coverage I caught in Edge at the time, I wasn’t tempted to break out my old flexible friend and pick up a PS3 for this alone. However, you cannot deny the quality of production values that Naughty Dog have been injecting into their PS3 releases and the impressive way they have moved away from pseudo-“kiddies” games like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter to the mature content of the releases we’ve seen since (and including) Uncharted.

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In the Spring of 2013, with the next generation of consoles only months away from launch, Naughty Dog delivered what could be rightly described as the PlayStation 3’s swan song – The Last of Us.

The back drop to the game is nothing that we haven’t seen before.
A global pandemic has all but wiped out modern civilisation, and those that have survived are living in heavily fortified zones protected by the military. Outside of these zones are other remains of humanity, pocketed in small areas of once thriving towns and cities surviving to live amongst the decay and detritus, but away from the order laid down by the military. The virus that has wrecked humanity starts life as spores getting into the brain and then developing into a fungus that turns the host into violent zombie. Over time the fungus grows deforming the head and other parts of the body, and there is no cure. These poor souls are referred to as the “Infected“, and there are a lot of them still out there looking for fresh victims as the virus can also be spread by being bitten.

After a short prologue to the main game, which sees the last hours of our world before the virus begins to spread, you take control of one of the survivors, Joel. Set twenty years later, Joel has become a smuggler of guns and pharmaceuticals with his partner, Tess, and through a twist of events get involved with a resistance movement called the Firefly’s, whereby they are entrusted to escort a young girl, Ellie, across country to a Firefly stronghold. As the game progress a strong relationship between Joel and Ellie forms which helps them drive forward, against the odds, to their ultimate destination.

The action elements are formulated of confrontations either with hostile human opponents, or the Infected. Weapons are not available in abundance, so fortunately Joel can look after himself, and many enemies can be dispatched by hand in ways not entirely dissimilar to what you would expect in Uncharted. Weapons that are available come in the form of small arms and cruder weapons such as shiv’s or baseball bats. To make matters more interesting not only are bullets in short supply, but non-ballistic weapons can only be used a few times before they will break and become useless. Therefore scavenging becomes a key part of the game process when not engaging in combat or avoiding enemies. You will find yourself searching high and low for the parts to make a shiv or Molotov cocktail, if you’re lucky you may find some bullets, but you’ll search everywhere for items so that you can survive.

The game requires you to think, and in many cases will allow you the opportunity to squirrel yourself away to one side while you consider what the best plan of attack will be, if indeed attack is a genuine option. Early on in the game, when ammunition and weapons are probably at their most scant, if you decide to become a one-man zombie-Terminator you are going to come unstuck very quickly indeed. As in real life, you use your intelligence to pick and choose your battles. Do it wisely and you’ll progress; the alternative usually results in death or making the next encounter ever the more tricky. The computer AI is excellent, and you will be quickly hunted down should you even accidentally give your position away. There are a few battles where a direct approach is required, but they are few and far between, and thus generally the action is of a cerebral variety as you eliminate those that block your path. The game is not easy, and there will be plenty of deaths before you pass certain areas. Indeed, some encounters really crank up the tension as you potentially face being overwhelmed if you do not enact a suitable strategy or respond quickly enough.

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Of course the action is not entirely the primary driver of the game; it is the narrative and the relationship that forms between Joel and Ellie, and the action constantly plays second fiddle to the story being told. This cannot be highlighted more than in the dying minutes of the game where you would be rightly expecting one thing to happen, and your resilience is rewarded with something else entirely. In fact the game’s concluding minutes are very clever and I applaud Naughty Dog for taking the route they took to bring the story to a close.

The graphics are of the highest quality, well drawn, everything has character, and the lighting effects are just beautiful. The animation is some of the best I have seen, with lots of detail in facial expressions bringing the characters more to life and further enhancing the relationship building that goes on between them and between you and them. Sound, both music and audio, is first rate as you would expect if you’ve ever played any of the Uncharted games. Technically this must be pushing the PS3 to its limits, and it’s doubtful we’ll see anything of this quality launched on the system again now that the PS4 is centre of Sony’s attention.

The Last of Us is not perfect (criticisms I do have are all very minor), but within the genre that it sits in, it comes as close as one can get to gaming perfection in my opinion, and it will be interesting to see which developers try to copy or surpass the game, within its kind, as time moves on.

One developer who should take note of The Last of Us gameplay and narrative is Capcom. In many ways Capcom have spear headed the zombie genre’s rise to prominence in modern media with the Biohazard (aka Resident Evil) series, but they have lost their way considerably since the brilliant Biohazard 4, and perhaps ever more so since Biohazard 5 as Biohazard 6 is just a complete mess. Biohazard 5 has many redeeming qualities for me, even if it is not as good as its predecessor. I cannot say the same for the abomination that is Biohazard 6. If Capcom can extract just some of the essence of The Last of Us, combine that with the characters and story strands of Biohazard, and refocus on the one player element instead of fixating on the need to pander to multi-player, then they may be able to inject some credibility back into the franchise. After all, Naughty Dog have gone on record as saying that Biohazard 4 was a big inspiration to them during the development of The Last of Us.

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With the cost of PS3 hardware now plummeting as retailers look to clear their shelves for additional space for PS4, there has never been a better time to pick up a brand new PS3 on the cheap so that one can play this game. While it may seem a bit extreme, the investment will be worth the experience that will unfold and you can then of course take in many of the other PS3 exclusives like the aforementioned Uncharted, plus Gran Turismo and others. I have no idea how many individual video games I have played since I was born, but there aren’t that many I really wanted to sit down and play through again immediately after completing them for the first time. With The Last of Us I did not get that feeling. The feeling I got was sadness, I was actual sad that I had completed the game, that my journey with Joel and Ellie had come to an end and there was no more story left to tell. I do not think I can say that about any game I have ever played or completed before; and I think that, more than anything else, that sums up the emotional impact of the thoroughly good story told by The Last of Us.

I shall, of course, be returning shortly to experience this epic once more, and I look forward to the forth coming single player DLC. I can only hope that if Naughty Dog decide to continue Joel & Ellie’s adventure, that the game is every bit as good as this; they have left themselves a mighty high mountain to climb… indeed a part of me would like to see the game as a stand alone title. Alas, I am sure commercial pressures will dictate otherwise. Still if any developer can trump their previous lofty achievements, on their record so far, it would be Naughty Dog.