Tagged: Capcom

SNK NEO•GEO CD

The Neo-Geo CD was first introduced in 1994, four years after the release of the cartridge based Neo-Geo home console – the Advanced Entertainment System (or AES). The idea of the Neo-Geo CD was easy to understand – as awesome as the Neo-Geo AES cartridge hardware had been, the cost of the cartridges was always going to limit its contemporary user base.

In the UK, new AES releases would run anywhere between £200 – £300, and in the early 1990’s that was a huge amount of money to pay for any videogame. The story was the same in the USA and Japan where the AES had the bulk of its modest sales success. The cost was due in part to the use of ROM chips, which were expensive to produce back then, and the fact you were basically buying a full and proper arcade game for your home.

Samurai Spirits 2 pack

So, the concept of playing SNK’s eclectic range of Neo-Geo arcade games at the same price point of a PlayStation game was clearly going to be appealing to gamers – on paper at least. The hardware was still expensive, $399 / £399 (dearer than the PlayStation and Saturn), but now the games were priced at around £45 making Neo-Geo software on a par with the mainstream consoles of the day.

Contemporary writers have criticised SNK for releasing the Neo-Geo CD, and its price tag, in the same year as the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, and despite the Neo-Geo’s impressive 2D handling ability, the hardware specs of SNK’s new console were no match for the new 32-Bit powerhouses.

Doubtless the intention never was to compete directly with either Sega or Sony’s new consoles, but to make the arcade experience of the Neo-Geo more accessible. Bearing in mind that many arcade games, especially beat’em-ups and shoot’em-ups, in the mid-late ‘90s were still using 2D graphics, the Neo-Geo was still well placed to serve. And besides, if you weren’t a fan of beat’em-ups why on earth were you buying a Neo-Geo home console anyway?!

Why the Neo-Geo CD hardware became such a ham-strung compromise may forever remain a mystery. The technology certainly was available at the time to make the data management on the console a whole lot more tolerable than it what it became. Implementing this may have led to increased hardware costs, but the machine was too expensive anyway, and both Sega and Sony had long since realised that you do not make money on the hardware – you make it on the games.

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The original MVS arcade hardware had been a huge international success for SNK, and by 1994 I am more than confident in saying that they had made their R&D costs back for developing the platform and then some.

While I do not know how much the Neo-Geo CD cost to develop, in the grand scheme of things I would wager very little. The hardware is still Neo-Geo, but instead of ROM cartridge as the delivery medium for the games it became CD-ROM. A major mistake was fitting a single-speed CD drive to the unit, and the late 1995 release of the Neo-Geo CDZ did little to improve things. Some hardware improvements saw loading times speed up, but there was still no progress in improving the way the system handled in-game data delivery of the King of Fighters series or others with large meg counts.

So, are the loading times so appalling that the Neo-Geo CD isn’t worth bothering with?

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No, far from it. Some of the earlier games load in one hit, making loading times moot, and many of the later games with relatively modest meg counts carry, fairly, unobtrusive loads between stages.

Sadly, some of the later releases are just not worth bothering with, as the loading times completely ruin the flow of the gameplay. These games are usually post ’96 releases with high meg counts. A good example would be Metal Slug 2 whereby there is at least one-mid level load per stage (excluding the first stage). It’s a real shame, as, from what I can see, it’s identical to the ROM cart versions, with the bonus of CD quality audio.

The King of Fighters ’95 through to ’99, inclusive, are almost unplayable as SNK intended. Each bout is broken up by loading the next character, and the loading on KoF ’99 is really excruciating due to the huge meg count. Single play is just about tolerable, but King of Fighters is not supposed to be pure 1-on-1 fighting, it’s all about the team play!

Some late games are not as bad as you would perhaps think. Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers is more than playable on Neo-Geo CD, with relatively quick loads between stages, making it, arguably, one of the best brawlers for the CD system.

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The original Metal Slug is eminently playable, largely, due to the fact the game is under 200 Megs. There are loads between stages, but you get a nice map showing your progress, there is no in-level loading, and there are other exclusive bonuses such as the Combat School.

Bonus material like this, is definitely one of the Neo-Geo CD’s strongest assets. Besides the CD quality soundtracks many of the games carry, there are a number that have features not found anywhere else.

Big Tournament Golf has a full extra course, many of the King of Fighters games have art and character galleries, Ninja Masters has extra game modes, Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer has a vocal soundtrack not found in the AES/MVS version; and there are the Neo-Geo CD exclusive games as well.

Neo Driftout: New Technology, Ironclad, Puzzle Bobble, Futsal, Zintrick, and Samurai Spirits RPG are just some of the titles that only officially appeared on the CD unit as published by SNK for Neo-Geo home hardware. Some were never officially released on MVS either!

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With a catalogue of just under 100 titles to choose from, there is plenty for the Neo-Geo enthusiast to play, and with the exorbitant prices of AES cartridges on the used market nowadays, the Neo-Geo CD may well be the better buy for the casual fan to get involved with, if you don’t wish to get into MVS gaming.

Nevertheless, be aware, that in recent years, games collectors have started to move in on the potential of the Neo-Geo CD as a collector system. The system’s lacklustre showing at retail in the 1990s resulted in many titles only receiving very small print runs, making some games very hard to track down, and in certain cases making the games expensive to buy as well.

If there’s any solid advice I can give, it’s to stay clear of the titles published in English for the US and European markets. Print runs for these titles were ridiculously low and to pick up some of the games, complete, if you can find them, will run serious coinage. Most Japanese titles can be bought for comfortably under $100.00 US, including some of the more sought after titles if you have the patience, and look in the right places (i.e. not eBay). It’s certainly worth me mentioning that all Neo-Geo CD software is region free, but remember: PAL hardware will only run the games at 50hz (letterboxed) no matter its region.

Hardware prices are modest, a loose Neo-Geo CD top loading model (the most common unit) can be picked up for under £150.00 with hook ups and a controller. Only the CDZ is still holding value, especially if it’s boxed, largely due to its short, Japanese market only, production run. Expect to pay north of £250.00 for a CDZ – and the loading isn’t that much quicker, honestly.

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The Neo-Geo CD was one of many follies to be borne out of SNK during the 1990s; the Neo-Geo CDZ, Neo-Geo Hyper 64 and black-&-white Neo-Geo Pocket being the others. One cannot help but think that these hardware failures all contributed to weakening SNK financially, hastening its sale to Aruze, and thus the beginning of the end for the business in its original, and much loved, form.

The Neo-Geo CD could have been so much more, but remains another footnote of how SNK had the potential to really impress and entertain, but fumbled the opportunity by producing hardware that simply could not deliver the gameplay experience needed. Some observers have argued that CD technology for gaming was still in its infancy at the time, but I disagree. NEC had proven since 1988 that the CD-ROM format could deliver great games beyond ROM cartridge limitations; Sega’s Mega-CD (1991) had the potential (Final Fight CD / Sonic CD) to impress as well (it was just badly marketed and supported); and with Sony developing the PlayStation during the same period, its baffling to see SNK get the hardware delivery so wrong.

The Neo-Geo CD hardware was quietly abandoned in 1997, with the final official game being published in December 1999. Ironically the final game was one of the most unplayable on the system due to its high meg count and therefore ruinous loading – The King of Fighters ’99.

I’ve always had a soft-spot for the Neo-Geo CD, and it’s disappointing to hear some of the vitriol the system receives. SNK’s short sightedness with the hardware certainly is deserving of criticism, but the machine still has a place in any hard-core SNK fans heart, and is still worth checking out for those who don’t want to pay AES prices, and don’t want to suffer with emulation. I just hope that software prices do not begin to spiral too far out of most gamers reaches.

SNK Neo•Geo CD
Produced: 1994 – 1997
Models:
Neo•Geo CD (front loading limited edition launch unit) – Japan only.
Neo•Geo CD (top loading unit) – Japan / USA / Europe.
Neo•Geo CDZ – Japan only.

Please note that prices are based on UK perspective and do not including any shipping or import duty costs that may be applicable. Price estimates correct at time of publication.

Street Fighter II : Champion Edition

What can be written about Street Fighter II that has not already been said by someone else previously? This was the first thought that entered my head when I decided to write this review of the classic Capcom brawler.

Since it first entered arcades in 1991, Street Fighter II has had countless column inches devoted to it and its many revisions and sequels. As far as ports go, most of these articles have focused on either the Super Nintendo / Super Famicom games or the Sega Mega Drive / Genesis versions.

However, as impressive as these ports were across the main 16-Bit formats, there was one port which really stands out, for its technical achievement if nothing else. That is the 1993 PC Engine release of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition.

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An initially surprising fact about this particular port is that Capcom used the PC Engine’s HuCard format for the release rather than utilising the CD-ROM. By the time Street Fighter II: Champion Edition was launched, HuCard support had started to seriously dwindle, with most new games coming out on the CD-ROM format, taking advantage of the additional capacity and CD quality audio. In 1992 just over 30% of the games released that year in Japan for PC Engine were in the HuCard format. By the end of 1993, the year Street Fighter II was published on the PC Engine, there had only been an additional 10 HuCard titles published, including Capcom’s Street Fighter II.

As with the Mega Drive versions of Street Fighter II, the PC Engine was initially at a disadvantage with the control system. At the time of its release in June ’93, NEC had just launched the PC Engine DUO-R, but that, like all its predecessors, only had two action buttons on its control pad (the later DUO-RX was bundled with a six button pad). Fortunately, just as Sega did, NEC released a six button controller; and so did Hori, who released the superb Fighting Commander PC. The game can still be played with a standard controller, but this does stunt the gameplay somewhat.

There is, sadly, one major drawback with the PC Engine – a solitary controller port. Now, why, given the number of different versions of the PC Engine produced between 1987 & 1994, none of the revisions ever addressed this deficiency is anyones guess. But, most Street Fighter II veterans will argue that no matter how well you’ve mastered your favourite character, to put your skills to the test, and to get the most satisfying experience out of the game, you need to play against a human controlled opponent.

Therefore, not only would you need to buy the game and two six button controllers, you’d also need to pick up a multi-tap as well. Not a particularly cheap proposition back in the day.

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One of the great thing about the game being on HuCard is that it is, like all other HuCards, playable on both the PC Engine GT (aka Turbo Express) and LT. Despite having the disadvantage of just two action buttons, on the GT Street Fighter II is still incredibly playable, and I found it quite easy to adjust my style to pressing the “select” button to toggle between “punch” and “kick”. In the early ’90s, to have been able to swank around with a GT and such a close port of Street Fighter II must have been something else!

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As with the Super Famicom and Mega Drive Street Fighter games, Capcom handled the PC Engine port in-house and therefore content wise, it matches the original coin-op. All twelve fighters are selectable, along with their alternate colour palletes, each character’s special moves are there, along with thier individual stages, theme tunes and the bonus stages.

In fact, there’s very little that is missing. The opening sequence with the two fighters outside a sky-scraper is absent, and the character animations on the continue / game over screen are also missing. Inevitably there are some frames of animation missing, but they’re hardly noticeable. Whereas in some ports to less able machines background animations tend to be the first to go out the window, in this port all the background animations of the 12 stages seem to be intact – from the bustling street scene in China, to the tiny drops of water in E. Honda’s bath house.

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Where the game would certainly of benefited from the CD-ROM format is in the music. While many of the game’s tunes are faithfully replicated here, there are a few that suffer from the HuCard’s limitations, particularly Sagat’s stage. Still, the voice samples are nice and clear, and all present, including the announcer.

I’m not going to go into any detail over the gameplay, you’ve heard it all before, and then some. I am sure most of you know where I am coming from when I say the gameplay is pure Street Fighter II; it is indistinguishable from the arcade parent or the later ports on more advanced hardware. Yes, you will need a six button pad, but if you’ve got a Mega Drive, you would have the same issue.

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There is no denying that Street Fighter II is still a highly playable game, that some 25 years on from its original release it is still one of the definitive one-on-one fighting games, and the PC Engine version holds up so well it is still worth picking up. The really nice thing is that it won’t cost you the earth either, with average eBay prices in the £25.00 range, sometimes less, for a boxed HuCard.

So, if you’ve got a PC Engine and you’re a fan of the Street Fighter series you owe it to yourself to pick this up and a six button pad. Even if you’re not that much of a fan, it’s probably worth picking it up to just see what the humble HuCard, and PC Engine, were capable of in the right hands.

Street Fighter II : Champion Edition
Version Tested: NEC PC Engine
Also available on: Sega Mega Drive / Sega Saturn / Sony PlayStation / Sony PlayStation 2 / Sony PSP / Microsoft X-BOX / Sharp X68000 / JAMMA PCB (CPS1 system)

Resident Evil HD – PlayStation 3

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Following on from the hours lost at Christmas to Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (see my last blog post), I’ve continued rekindling my relationship with the Resident Evil series by importing a copy of Biohazard HD (aka Resident Evil HD) for PlayStation 3.

For those unfamiliar with the earlier entries in the series, in 2002 Capcom completely re-engineered the original 1996 Resident Evil by using the then new technology provided by Nintendo’s Gamecube to not only update the graphics, but to subtly expand the original game and storyline so that it encompassed some of the plot elements of the sequels. Capcom did a fantastic job, the game had all the hallmarks of the original in a new package, and the release was met with universal critical acclaim.

In the lead up to the release of Resident Evil: Revelations 2, Capcom have published a HD update of the Gamecube game.
The HD update has been nicely done – graphics are crisp and show great detail, and the lighting has been improved adding further character to the environments. One thing that struck me is actually how well the game has aged visually. The 1996 PlayStation game is coming up for twenty years old now and while the graphics are still palatable, they do date the game. For what is, essentially, a 13 year old Gamecube game, the visuals on the HD remaster are really good! Obviously they do not quite have the depth of detail of a modern video-game, but you could certainly mistake it for a game that was a little more contemporary than 2002.

Outside of the HD enhancement, the game remains identical to the original Gamecube release. Capcom have added a few extra alternate costumes that were not previously available, and have added in trophies to help motivate the completists`amongst you all.

I won’t engage in a full review here, but I will post a full retrospective on the 2002 release soon.

For those who missed the original Resident Evil: REmake when it was first released on the Gamecube then I highly recommend picking this up. The game is still highly entertaining, and will remind many of the great roots this series has, and what Survival Horror really meant before things went slightly awry with Resident Evil 5, and then totally derailed in Resident Evil 6.

Resident Evil HD is available to download now on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. Physical copies are available through Japanese import, exclusively, for PlayStation 3 (where the series goes by the (much better) name of Biohazard).

Now, if only Capcom would do a REmaster of Resident Evil 2….

Resident Evil HD
Version tested: PlayStation 3 (NTSC/J)
Also available on: Xbox Live Arcade / PlayStation Network

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis

bio3x

A Happy New Year to you all, and I thought I would start the New Year with a fresh look at an old favourite of mine, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. I actually spent a large chunk of my spare time over Christmas playing through the game (again), so that I could finally fully complete it – a feat that has taken me the modest period of a mere fifteen years…

Through the late-1990’s Resident Evil was fast becoming one of the most anticipated series on home-consoles. The zombie and mutant infested tales of Raccoon City’s legendary Special Tactics and Rescue Service’s fight against the corrupt Umbrella Corporation were gripping gamers everywhere. While recent entries from Capcom have divided opinion starkly among fans, between 1996 and 2000 four Resident Evil games were launched, and all were well received, firmly establishing the “survival horror” genre.

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RE3 is set around the events of Resident Evil 2, and sees you picking up control of S.T.A.R.S member Jill Valentine as she tries to escape the now zombie infested Raccoon City. The game essentially splits its story into two parts – action set before the events of RE2, and then action set immediately after RE2. However, throughout both segments you will encounter the infamous Nemesis – a bio-engineered assassin from Umbrella who will stop at nothing until all S.T.A.R.S members are eliminated.

Along the way you will meet up with Carlos, a member of Umbrella’s Biohazard Countermeasure Service – a team of ex-mercernaries Umbrella has assembled under the guise of an evacuation force for the remaining human survivors of Raccoon City. Not that you’ll come across many survivors. Zombies are now the primary inhabitants of Raccoon City’s streets; and you’ll also come across the familiar giant spiders, zombie dogs, Hunters, and the occasional new mutant.

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Controls are not immediately different to the previous two RE games, save for three exceptions. The first is the introduction of the “quick turn” feature. On the GameCube, simply flick the C-stick and Jill will perform a quick 180 degree turn, a move that is a god-send to improving the “tank” controls of the playable character(s). The second, more minor change, is that you now no longer have to press the action button to climb stairs – you do so automatically on approach. The third feature is a “dodge” manoeuvre, whereby pressing the R button just prior to attack will see you evade your attacker and allow you to ready for a counter attack.

The “quick turn” and climb features make the controls a lot smoother over the previous two games, however, the “dodge” feature can be a bit hit and miss, and I certainly wouldn’t rely on it to survive any given situation.

Another new element to the game is the ability to craft ammunition. Using various gun powders found around the game areas, you can create everything from regular bullets to explosive incendiary grenades and high-powered magnum ammo. Additional weapons do still need to be sought out, and you will only start the game with the standard hand gun. If you’re brave enough to take on Nemesis at the points he attacks you, and you put him down (temporarily though that will be), he will reward you with some pretty helpful weapon upgrades. Whereas ammunition conservation was very much the order of the day in previous outings, RE3 does all it can to insure you’ve got the tools to complete your mission.

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Graphically I don’t feel the game has aged too badly considering this title is sixteen years old now. The pre-rendered backgrounds do their job, and the character graphics are pretty good for a game developed for 32-Bit hardware. I’ve certainly experienced worse (I recently took a look back at Tomb Raider 2 on PSN, and the graphics are horrible). The animated cut scenes are showing their age somewhat, but given the original hardware specs the game was designed to run on, they’re still watchable.

The scripting is as cheesy as ever, but it wouldn’t be a proper Resident Evil game without a good dollop of cheese laden dialogue. Music is good, sets the atmosphere well, but is fairly unmemorable, while the sound effects do their job.

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Despite its relatively short length, (once you’re familiar with the game, it can be easily completed in under 4 hours), there is stacks of replay value. There are in-game extras to be unlocked when certain criteria are met, a challenging set of Mercenaries campaigns, and the game will rank you on your performance (based on completion time and in-game decisions taken); and there are multiple ways you can tackle in-game decisions and routes to completion. There’s also plenty of stuff hidden around the city to find if you’re inclined to look – it’ll certainly take a few play throughs before you find everything Capcom has thrown in. For fans of the series there are also eight different epilogue endings, each one giving a brief update on individual characters from the Resident Evil series helping to pre-empt the story lines for Code:Veronica and RE4.

I have been a big Resident Evil fan since the launch of the original on the Sony PlayStation, and while the first game and sequel always seem to be fondly remembered, there never seems to be much time given to the third instalment. Perhaps its release was slightly overshadowed by the (then) prospect of Resident Evil: Code: Veronica on Dreamcast, but for me it is a worthy edition to the series and still seriously good fun to play. For those who prefer their zombie action over the puzzle elements and slightly slower pace of the previous games, then Resident Evil 3: Nemesis is a real treat.

 

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis
Version tested: Nintendo GameCube
Also available on: Sony PlayStation, Sega Dreamcast, Sony PlayStation Network, Microsoft Windows

Undercover Cops

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Through the very late ’80’s and into the early ’90’s there probably wasn’t a single major arcade manufacturer who did not publish a scrolling beat ’em up of one kind or another. Double Dragon, Altered Beast, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are some of the releases that roll off the top of my head, and of course there was Capcom’s seminal Final Fight and the slew of games that followed, both in the arcade and on home consoles, trying to emulate its success and format.

It’s easy to credit Technos’ 1987 hit Double Dragon as the game that really kick started the demand for scrolling beat ’em ups, and Double Dragon certainly was innovative for its time, but it is Irem’s Kung Fu Master that can be seen as the first landmark title in the genre. Nevertheless, Irem never really pursued the scrolling beat ’em up further, instead generally relying on a steady stream of high quality shoot ’em ups to make its name, (chiefly through 1987’s R-Type).

Released on the powerful M-92 hardware, Undercover Cops hit Japanese arcades in the Summer of 1992 in what would become one of Irem’s final commercial successes before their arcade division was wound up, and their penultimate scrolling beat ’em up (their last being the obscure and imaginatively titled Ninja Baseball Bat Man).

Having more than proved themselves capable of doing a decent shoot ’em up, could Irem work their magic on a scrolling brawler, in the face of the high standards already set by Capcom?

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The premise of Undercover Cops is as flimsy as just about any other scrolling beat ’em up from the era – in the year 2043, New York City has become over-run by crime, and the mayor and city officials have called in three specialists, dubbed “City Sweepers”, to come kick ass and ask questions later. Thus the scene is set for you and your character, plus a friend in two player co-op, to go in and defeat the minions of the evil Dr Crayborn.

With credits inserted you have the choice of three playable characters each with their own individual strengths and weaknesses. So, as either Zan Takahara, Matt Gables, or Rosa Felmonde, you will punch and kick your way across five stages to save the City and win the day. Each character has your standard punch and kick moves, plus two desperation moves which help you out in the tighter situations you find yourself in. However, as with Final Fight, pulling off either your desperation or super-desperation moves will cost you a chunk of your character’s remaining energy bar.

A novel feature that helps to encourage plenty of direct action against your enemy is that at the end of every stage you  get rated for your performance in disposing of your enemies. Surpass your “finesse” (spelt “finess” in the game) target score and you can benefit from bonus energy and additional lives, plus a better score. The action itself is pretty text book – punch, kick, repeat to defeat your foe. Each playable character has their own move set and animations, with your enemies having a limited set of responses to try and stop you. The five stages are each of a decent length, but as the game wears on, the enemy doesn’t vary greatly and you tend to have the levels loaded with the same enemy creating a degree of repetition, which in many respects is a staple issue of scrolling beat ’em ups, but it feels more or a chore than usual with Undercover Cops when compared with either Final Fight or Streets of Rage 2. Both Capcom and Sega’s efforts cleverly break up the monotony of the minion enemies, but by Stage 5 of Undercover Cops a stagnation begins to set in which takes the sheen off the game.

The sprites are excellent. The three protagonists are each individual in their appearance, well drawn and distinctive. Thought has also gone into the enemy the sprites as well, making them stand out well against the usually less creatively styled enemies of other scrolling brawlers. The stages are well drawn but they are not particularly original in concept, although the end of stages 1, 3 and 4 are well executed with some original features. The final stage is a bit of a let down, with the majority of it set on-board a giant helicopter; that is, sadly, rather blandly drawn inside. On some stages, the first in particular, there is still the Irem trademark of high detail in the backgrounds, but across the game not to the level as seen in Gun Force II or In The Hunt. Indeed, the first stage is arguably the best stage of the five – the backgrounds have plenty going on, there’s lots of detail,  and there are plenty of items to pick up and utilise against the enemy along with a decent end boss battle. From there on in, the subsequent levels fail to match this for some reason.

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While it does try its best to do things differently, Undercover Cops fails to do anything particularly original. The enemy attack patterns become repetitive after a while, there just isn’t enough variety within the stages, although credit has to be given to the end of stage bosses. This is where the game becomes memorable and at its most challenging. All five bosses are very original in appearance, drawn to a high standard, well animated and given plenty of creative character. They’re also pretty cheap with their attacks, with only Parcs and Balbarotch relatively straight forward to dispatch.

As one comes to expect with Irem’s late efforts, the graphics are highly detailed sprites with excellent animation as I have already alluded too. The music is good, but not particularly memorable. The game is challenging, but generally enjoyable; a worthwhile addition to the roster of scrolling beat ’em ups if for nothing more than its highly distinctive style to help it stand out from the crowd.  I would say it is definitely worth a play if you want an alternative to Final Fight without feeling you’re playing a total clone of the same (for example SNK’s Burning Fight).

The end sequence suggests room for a sequel but none was forthcoming before Irem stopped releasing arcade games in 1994. In late 1993, and exclusively on the Nintendo Game Boy, an RPG based on the game, Undercover Cops: Hakaishin Garumaa, was released. This was also, fact fans, the second-to-last game Irem release on Nintendo’s hand held.

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The original arcade hardware comes in World and Japanese rom sets. An original Japanese M-92 board-set will be neither cheap or easy to acquire; the World board is a lot less desirable because of changes made to the game, and although not terribly common, it is cheaper than the Japanese board. There is also a third PCB release known as the “Alpha Renewal” version, which is a “fixed” version of the World rom set which restores the features from the Japanese ROM set.

Unfortunately outside of a now very expensive 1994 Super Famicom port by Varie, Undercover Cops is not available for play in any other format save for emulation. Unless you are either a big Irem fan, or simply a connoisseur of the scrolling beat ’em up, you would do better by spending far less money on Final Fight and Streets of Rage 2. Undercover Cops is an above average effort that could have been something exceptional if it weren’t for a few details that let it down. As it is, Final Fight, Streets of Rage 2 and Aliens Vs Predator are all superior entries into the genre. Undercover Cops is good, but it could have been great.

Undercover Cops
Version tested: PCB (Japanese ROM set)
Also available on: Nintendo Super Famicom

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

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.