Tagged: gaming

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.

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Metal Slug 5

Let’s not mess about here, Metal Slug 4 was awful. Sadly its development was caught up in the turmoil of SNK’s collapse and its re-emergence as Playmore (later to be SNK Playmore). Out sourced to a little known Korean developer called Mega Enterprise, Metal Slug 4 was a patched together effort which resembled more of a Mugen-style hack than a professionally accomplished product.

After the grandeur of Metal Slug 3, Metal Slug 4 was nothing short of disappointing.

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At 13 years old, the tried and trusted Neo-Geo MVS hardware was starting to show its age, so it came as pleasant surprise when Metal Slug 5 was announced, and launched into arcades in late 2003. The question was though, who was programming this new Slug game and would it do the series justice, unlike its predecessor?

Fortunately, Metal Slug 5 was programmed jointly in-house and by Noise Factory (the Japanese developer behind the brilliant Sengoku 2001 and Rage of the Dragons). Therefore, most of the features introduced by Mega Enterprise are removed and the game looks and plays in a considerably more polished manner than Slug 4.

Which is a good thing, as this was the last Metal Slug game to be released on the Neo-Geo hardware, and not only did it get the standard MVS and AES releases, SNK Playmore also provided the game in a very nice JAMMA kit and produced home ports for the PlayStation 2 and X-Box.

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The story is a bit thin, but gives us a reunion of our favourite Slug characters, meaning Player 1 and Player 2 can choose to play as either Marco, Tarma, Eri or Fio (Nadia and Trevor from Slug 4 aren’t mentioned – no great loss there). Then it’s straight into the action as our heroes battle against the Ptolemaic Army who are generally up-to-no-good and have stolen plans for the Metal Slug super vehicle.

Gameplay is straightforward run-and-gun, and anyone familiar with the previous games will feel instantly at home. Each credit gives you three lives, and it’s still one-hit and you’re dead. As standard you’re armed with a pistol with infinite ammo, and ten grenades, but there are plenty of power-ups to collect on the way by destroying certain enemies, or, in the main, rescuing hostages. If you get killed during a level you’ll lose all the hostages you’ve saved up to that point. Get to the end of the level unscathed and with plenty of freed hostages and you’ll get rewarded with lots of bonus points.

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Although there is some re-use of previous Metal Slug backgrounds, it is nowhere near as blatant as Slug 4’s use of old graphic assets, and is usually fairly brief. The enemies have been redrawn and it’s refreshing to see opponents who aren’t part of General Morden’s army or alien invaders. End of level bosses are typically large, and well animated, guaranteed to give your reflexes a workout.

A new “slide” move is introduced (pull down and press B) which is useful at times, and actually necessary in a few places, and the dual machine-gun power-up returns. There are no new weapons to find sadly, and the flame-shot is missing altogether. “Big” mode is here somewhere, apparently, but I have yet to activate it. The useless “Monkey” mode from Slug 4 has gone, as have all the rather naff Slug variants introduced in that game.

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And what about the Metal Slug? Our trusty Super Vehicle 001 makes regular appearances through the levels, along with the Slug-Mariner, Slug Flyer and the all new Slug Gunner. The Slug Gunner is a great addition, very well animated with some nice features, one of the best new Metal Slug variants since the Slug Flyer was introduced in Metal Slug 2.
There’s also the really neat looking Spider-Slug and the Slug Car – which looks like a Fiat 500 with a cannon strapped to it. I was a bit disappointed there were no “animal” Slugs this time, the Camel, Elephant and Ostrich were always really amusing (as well as useful) and added to the style of the earlier installments.

One of the great things about Metal Slug X and Metal Slug 3 were all the little nuances, like the Elephant Slug, “Thunder Cloud”, Allen O’Neil’s demise, suicidal mummy, the explorer, Hyakutaro Ichimonji… I could go on for ages. Little elements like this provided the series with a much-loved charm. Lamentably, there are no little features to look out for in this episode, which is a real shame.

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Music is good, a selection of rock infused tunes that suit the game very well, but I can’t help but miss the soundtracks of composer Hiya! who scored the first three games in the series. Sound effects are great, though largely re-used from previous games.

The story, as presented through the game, is not particularly cohesive or fathomable, and although this doesn’t overly detract from the fun in playing the game, it does make the experience feel a little random. However, not long after the game was originally launched, some fans found a number of unused sprites and other game assets hidden in the game’s code, heavily hinting that the game was not finished properly and the release rushed.

Given that MVS releases soldiered on for another 6 months after Slug 5, it’s a shame SNK Playmore didn’t release a revised edition of the game with the missing content programmed back in… a Metal Slug 5 Special or Metal Slug X2 if you like. But, in retrospect, there probably wasn’t the time to do so.Metal_Slug_5_(insert)The game is not as large as Metal Slug 3 with its numerous branching paths; but nevertheless, it’s got as much action and longevity as the first few installments, and Slug 3 was always a bit too big for my liking. As a huge Metal Slug fan I found Slug 5 to be readily enjoyable, and a massive improvement over the dire Mega Enterprise effort.

Metal Slug 5 is a worthy entry into the series, and whilst it does not quite reach past glories, it’s a very playable, and fun, run and gun affair that no Neo-Geo owner or Metal Slug fan should be without.

Metal Slug 5
Version tested: SNK Neo-Geo MVS (JAMMA)
Also available on: Sony PlayStation 2 / Microsoft X-box / SNK Neo-Geo AES / SNK Neo-Geo MVS (cartridge) / Microsoft Windows

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)

Shopping for Games: 1985 – 2000

WH Smith old logo

For those of us old enough to remember, shopping has changed a lot in the last thirty years. Some of the experience is still the same, but gone are the Wednesday’s of half-day closing, nearly everywhere is open on a Sunday (albeit at slightly reduced hours), and shops can stay open as late as 8pm during the week, all to satisfy our diverse lifestyles and thirst for consumer goods.

One area of retailing that has changed significantly since the mid-1980s is the experience of purchasing the humble video game. I recall, as a kid, being able to pick up a new Spectrum game almost anywhere, even my local newspaper shop could supply me the latest Joe Blade game for £2.99 or the newest shovel-wear to escape out of Codemasters. Oh yes, I didn’t need to scroll down the information super-highway, oh no, long before the mass accessibility to the internet, it was a stroll down the local high-street to get my gaming fix. WH Smith and Boots were brilliant for games in those days, and my town even had a very good independent just outside the town centre – Software City.

Software City was a goldmine. Not only did they stock all the latest releases at prices competitive with the major chains, but they also had some of the less recent titles at really good prices. I regularly walked up to their shop from Sainsbury’s car park whilst my mum did the weekly shop, and more often than not walked away with a purchase. I’ll always remember going in with my mate and seeing Ocean Software’s The Biz compilation (R-Type, Double Dragon, Operation Wolf and Batman: The Caped Crusader) on the shelf for a mere £4.99… it was supposed to retail for £14.99! Software City was a mecca to me for a good few years, right through until about 1992/’93 when more and more retailers were jumping on to the home console boom as gamers switched to Mega Drive’s and Super Nintendo’s and ditched the Amiga and Atari ST as gaming formats. Today, Software City is no more, their presence long since replaced by a hair salon. How the times have changed…

Whilst 8-Bit computer titles were an easy score twenty five years ago, console games were not. In the late 1980s video game consoles were very expensive compared to the popular Commodore, Amstrad, Atari and Sinclair home computers, and nowhere near as popular.

In the Christmas of 1988 I was very fortunate to receive a Nintendo Entertainment System Deluxe pack (the one with R.O.B the robot),  to which I was delighted, and played it constantly over the Christmas holidays much to the annoyance of my parents. However, two factors that did not particularly endear me to the system soon came to light. The first was availability. There was nowhere local that stocked NES games, the nearest place was Toys-R-Us, and that was a good forty minute drive away, assuming I could persuade my mother or father to take me there in the first place. The second issue was price. In 1988 / ’89 the average full price title for one of the 8-bit computers was £8.99, and for those who had an ST or Amiga between £14.95 and £19.95. Now, back then £10.00 for a game was a lot of money, and you didn’t want to spend that and then get home and find out it was a load of pants. NES games on the other hand were usually priced between £29.99 and £49.99 – an eye watering amount of cash for a video game back then and over £100.00 in today’s money!! Subsequently, my NES collection was very modest (at best), and I pretty much gave up on it within a few years as it was just too expensive and inconvenient to shop for.

I believe it was a copy of Mean Machines that I picked up at random one day that first altered me to the imminent arrival of the new, and powerful, 16-Bit home consoles from Sega and Nintendo. In the previews section I looked at the first screenshots I had seen of Super Mario World and Capcom’s port of Final Fight, and my jaw hit the floor at the stunning graphics. I eventually picked up a Sega Megadrive for cheap off a friend at school, but by now consoles were moving into the main stream and I didn’t have to travel to the other side of the county to buy games.

Software City stocked the latest PAL Megadrive and SNES games, and a new competitor shop, A R Computers had also opened selling console titles. The high street retailers had also jumped on the band wagon, with Dixons, Woolworths and Argos all stocking the major 16-Bit formats in the UK. I stayed loyal to Software City, other than when they didn’t have the game I wanted. I think the last title I got from them was Street Fighter 2: Special Champion Edition if I recall correctly. They closed down a short time later.

Later with the Playstation I finally got fed up with stunted PAL conversions and six-to-twelve month lead times to see the UK version of a new release, and so bought a NTSC/J Dual Shock Playstation package from Another World in Stoke-on-Trent. This heralded the last of the real games buying experiences for me.

Between 1997 and 2001 I would regularly go into Another World to see the latest import offerings, and they would generally not disappoint. It was a great shop, hidden at the back of a rundown shopping arcade in central Hanley and just a few doors away from the legendary (and by then defunct) Console Concepts store. The downstairs was tiny, and filled with comic related stuff, but go up the narrow wooden stair case and you entered import heaven!  All the latest Playstation and Saturn games from Japan, and the odd US title as well, plus some Neo-Geo and PC Engine stuff too. It was a great place, I really miss its musty smell and grubby building it sat in (now demolished). I really hate to think about how much money I spent there, but, you can’t take it with you, right? At least that’s what I tell my wife nowadays.

Do you remember Tottenham Court Road Computer Exchange? Today they’re better known as CEX, but in the late 90s they had some brilliant shops in London, stocking all the latest import games for all the formats you could think of. I remember going into their, sadly, short lived retro shop and seeing the display of Neo-Geo AES games – I had never seen so many in one place before, and the price tags were wallet busting back then too (comparatively to today).

As we moved into the Playstation 2 and Gamecube eras, the international release dates for major titles began to standardise, and letterbox PAL games were replaced with proper full screen releases, and the import market started to rapidly contract. Who wanted to play the latest Resident Evil game in Japanese when you could go to Game and pick it up cheaper and in English?

As the sun has set over the Twentieth Century and the New Millennium marches on, the internet dominates the way we buy our games today. While some of the great names of ’80s gaming like Boots and WH Smith still permeate the Great British High Street, they have both abandoned video games retailing; Game has had some very serious issues and downsized considerably; and the independents have all but disappeared. CEX has changed beyond all recognition, almost becoming like a personal electronics (only) version of Cash Convertors peppered with a smattering of Xbox 360 & PS3 titles.

While video game nostalgia may only be a quick eBay click away, it could never replace cherished memories of going into WH Smith and picking up my copy of Elite’s Paperboy, the buying experience today is just so soulless. 

Welcome to last week: Alien: Isolation – PlayStation 4

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Well the title will be a give away that I am now a PlayStation 4 owner, but I shall leave that to another post. Right now we are looking at Sega’s latest attempt to gain some credibility with the use of the Aliens franchise licence that it acquired from Twentieth Century Fox.

Many will no doubt remember Sega’s last Aliens release – the much maligned Aliens: Colonial Marines. Released in early 2013 to much anticipation, the game was by and large classed as a “train wreck”. While I personally would not go quite that far in criticising the game, Gearbox certainly did not give the game the justice it deserved and should have got their backsides royally kicked by Sega.

The huge fallout from the release, especially over how it fell drastically short of what had been expected based on promotional material, is well charted across the gaming community, so I’m not going to drag it back up here. Eighteen months on and Sega are publishing Alien: Isolation and in the attempt no doubt try to gain some credibility of their custody of the licence. Programmed by the Creative Assembly, the game is played in first person, but it is not a FPS like Aliens: CM.

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Set 15 years after the events of the first film, Amanda Ripley, daughter of Nostromo survivor Ellen Ripley, is looking for closure after the disappearance of her mother. Amanda is told a report has been received stating the flight recorder for the Nostromo has been recovered and is being held at a remote space station – the Sevastopol. Accompanied by two Weyland-Yutani employees, Amanda sets out for Sevastopol and upon arrival quickly finds things have very much gone awry. And so the game begins, first with trying to establish what has gone wrong, and then trying to escape Sevastopol itself.

Ammunition is in short supply, but the game is very much about stealth and avoiding combat, than any outright action. This is more of a first person Metal Gear Solid than Resident Evil. The Alien itself cannot be killed, but androids and hostile humans can all be dispatched if required. Missions are task based affairs requiring you to either collect something from a certain area or to just survive from point A to point B. Weapons can be complimented with some homemade devices intended to distract or disorientate which are “crafted” from parts found lying around Sevastopol.

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If I were to give Alien: Isolation only one note of praise, then it would have to be for the environments that make up Sevastopol.  Should you have ever only shown some interest in Ridley Scott’s original Alien film, you cannot fail to be impressed by how well Sevastopol mimics the environments of that film. Apparently the programmers studied original Alien set designs by the legendary Ron Cobb, and the faithfulness to this is evident throughout thus creating a strong bond to the original material the game is trying to lead on from.

There are some issues with the game, however. When looking down at the floor, Amanda’s feet are not very well integrated with the environment and it looks like you’re walking on air – very odd. It’s a minor gripe, but it really should not be there. Another occasional problem is clipping. In one area I defended myself by attacking a woman who was about to shoot me, clubbing her around the head with my wrench, I expected her to fall down dead. Instead I must have hit her that hard that her body vaporised, because it just disappeared!!

Another minor irritation is the inventory management system, which is fine early on in the game when you only have, literally, a few items, but later on as your choice of weapons and aids has expanded, choosing the item you want can be cumbersome with getting the appropriate icon highlighted for selection. I actually found many of the crafted items redundant, but I guess it depends on your own strategies to survive.

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The Alien’s dogged persistence in staying in your area, even though it has not seen you (but knows you’re there), can be hugely annoying. Some times you feel as if you are stuck in your bolt hole for far too long before you feel confident enough to move off to a safer area… and if you do stay in the same spot for too long the Alien will find and kill you. The game is tough enough as it is, and I felt that a little more breathing space should have been granted if the Alien decides its prey has evaded it and moved on. I felt this also hindered my desire to explore Sevastopol further. Once you know the Alien is nearby, it immediately puts you on edge (which is a good thing for the game), and deters you from exploring rooms you’ve not yet accessed. Sevastopol is huge, and there is so much to explore, but with the Alien on to you half the time, you just want to make it from A – B as quickly as possible… or to the next nearest save point!

Indeed saving is an important part in progressing. I had read several reviews underscoring the requirement to save, save, save! Personally, if I could give any tactical advice on getting through the game, it would be to follow the mantra of “save, save, save” as much as possible. Especially after any encounters with the Alien have been passed.

The sound is excellent, and very much forms part of the game. Creative Assembly have been allowed the use of many musical cues from the Alien film, and they use these to create atmosphere, build tension and to warn of impending danger. Being a big aficionado of the first film, I was very impressed with the way the cues are implemented while you explore, it felt like I was in the film at times. Sound also plays a big part through noise. Very rarely will you walk through a section of Sevastopol without some kind of clanging going on, a klaxon going off, or rattling of some kind emanating from the corridors. This of course puts you very much on edge as you try to keep composed. I really do not recall playing a game where the sound has played such an integral part in building the game’s atmosphere since the original Silent Hill.

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Overall the game is very well put together. The graphics are brilliant, the lighting top notch, the sound is fantastic and the game is a good length; making this by far the best Alien game of recent years, and arguably the best game to use the main film franchise to date. The game will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Some will lament the lack of any full blown action, the slow narrative pace, and no doubt the tension / suspense created by encounters with the creature will not be to all tastes. Yet, I feel that it fulfils the brief Creative Assembly set out very well and they are to be commended for their efforts in bringing the Alien world so effectively into our homes. Alien: Isolation is not perfect, but it is very, very good.

If only Aliens: Colonial Marines could have had production values like these…

Alien: Isolation
Version tested: PlayStation 4
Also available on: PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3.

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

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

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