Tagged: retro gaming

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)

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Die Hard Trilogy

Time seems to have flown by since I last spent some time with this blog, but it’s been a pretty hectic 12 months to say the least and procrastination runs deep with this writer…

However, there are still lots of video gaming musings I would like to share with you, and so without any further hesitation let’s plunge straight into having a look back at Fox Interactive’s Die Hard Trilogy.

Most of us have probably had the benefit of wearing “rose-tinted glasses” from time-to-time. Looking back on a game we haven’t played for years with much fondness and then getting the urge to track it down again to relive the experience we thought we had all those years ago.

I remember buying Die Hard Trilogy over the Christmas period of 1996 for the Sony PlayStation, and I’m sure I recall enjoying the first two episodes of the game. Fast forward 20 years, and I’m pretty certain I should have left those memories as they were – memories.

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Die Hard Trilogy, as the name suggests, is based on the first three Die Hard movies (Die Hard 4 was a long way off happening back in 1996), and is correspondingly split into three separate games which you’re free to tackle in any order you choose.

The Die Hard game is a run-and-gun 3D shooter; Die Hard 2: Die Harder is a shooting game in the mould of Virtua Cop / Lethal Enforcers; and Die Hard With a Vengeance is a driving game.

The first part of the Trilogy has you running round Nakatomi Plaza, killing bad guys, rescuing hostages and trying to stay alive. You’re armed with a hand-gun with unlimited ammo, but you can pick up various machine guns and shot guns (all with limited ammunition) as you go around the levels.

Each level is populated with X-number of terrorists, and you do not progress until they are all eliminated. There is no time-limit to this, but once the floor is cleared of bad guys you only have 30 seconds to make it to the elevator for the next floor before a bomb goes off.

You have a life gauge, shown as McClane’s police shield and a terrorist and ammo counter along with a map of the game area showing the location of terrorists (red dots) and hostages (blue dots).

The map is very useful. Each floor is pretty large and the terrorists are generally well spread out. In addition the draw distance for the graphics is very short (one assumes due to hardware limitations) so your view is restricted to  your immediate location. Terrorists do not usually fire on you until they’re pretty close, but for your own survival strategy the viewpoint can be a hinderance at times.

There’s plenty of action to be had, each floor has a more than healthy supply of goons to dispatch, and some of the scenery can be shot and destroyed for added effect. However, the control system is cumbersome, health items are few and far between and McClane will only take a few shots before being carried out in a body-bag.

Weapon power-ups are also in short supply, which is annoying as most of your enemies carry automatic weapons. Grenades are fairly easy to come by, but you need to be careful where you throw one, as you’ll die if you get caught in the blast. As each level is covered in tight corridors, this mistake can be easily made, and, repeated.

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So, to the second game on the disc – Die Hard 2. This plays as a straight forward rails-shooter like Virtua Cop. This is about as generic as it gets, if you’ve played any of Virtua Cop, Area 51, Time Crisis etc, the gameplay will be instantly familiar, and sadly as this segment offers nothing new to the genre, it’s rather forgettable.

As per the film, the game is based in and around Dulles International Airport, with you, as John McClane, taking out terrorists while trying to avoid innocent people. Along the way you can pick up temporary power-ups like machine guns, pick up health packs, and add additional rockets and grenades to your arsenal.

On the PlayStation Die Hard 2 can be played either with the controller or PlayStation Mouse, but, the Saturn version not only supports the controller and mouse, but also the Saturn light-gun used for the Virtua Cop ports. The game is not particularly playable with a pad controller, but works okay with a mouse to move the aiming reticule. Unfortunately, as of writing, I have been unable to play Die Hard 2 with a light-gun, however, I doubt that this would elevate the game much beyond mediocre.

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Last, but by no means least, we have Die Hard 3. Once more we move genres, and this time to a driving game. The last game in the “Trilogy” is an arcade style driving game in a rather crude vien to Sega’s Crazy Taxi. You have a set time limit to get from point A to the location of a bomb at point B. If you don’t get there in time the bomb goes off and you lose a life.

The final segment is probably the best of the three in terms of presentation (not surprising as it’s rumoured that the whole game was supposed to be Die Hard 3 before Fox decided to tack on the first two films to broaden the package). However, the time limits are really strict, there’s no map (just a compass that gives you a vague notification of which direction to head in), and there are lots of obstacles to slow you down. Right down.

You have a limited number of turbos available as well, but I’m really not sure if they’re a help or a hinderance. Even with a few Chase HQ elements thrown in and different vehicles to drive as you progress, it feel like a chore to play.

This final chapter courted a little controversy back in the day as you could, if you wanted, mow down innocent pedestrians Grand Theft Auto style. The visuals are so basic by today’s standards that you wonder what all the fuss was about… it’s hardly graphic violence. The time limits will also prevent you from going on any mass execution sprees if that’s your thing.

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So there you have it, three games in one package and all the John McClane action you may ever need. Unfortunately, this game is more Dynasty than Die Hard.

Across the entire trilogy, a major annoyance is the lack of an auto-save feature. None of the games have continues, so, get to the last level and lose your last life and it’s straight back to the very beginning if you haven’t been saving regularly. Strangely there is no extra-life feature either. You get three lives, and that’s it.

The length of all three games is commendable, if you’ve got the patience to play through all three segments then you’ll be happily tied up with Die Hard Trilogy for some time.

Die Hard Trilogy is definitely a game that hasn’t quite stood the test of time either in gameplay or graphics (well, certainly not the graphics). I could forgive the aging graphics if there weren’t so many annoying gameplay flaws.

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Aiming in the first game requires you to be in front of the terrorist to get a hit, but the controls are so clunky they don’t allow for precision. The levels are large, but full of rooms and obstacles which are too easy to get caught and trapped on – this can be hugely annoying when you’re trying to get to the elevator before the bomb goes off and you don’t make it because a door held you up.

The second game is useless playing with a control pad, and not that much more satisfying with a mouse. Why there was no light-gun support for PlayStation is anyones guess.

The third game is so unforgiving it’s irritating. The difficulty curve is far too steep; which is a general issue with the whole game given the size of each individual game within the Trilogy.

I do think it would be interesting to see a remake of the title on current gen hardware backed by a reputable programmer. So long as they get someone who doesn’t sound like Garfield doing a Bruce Willis impression. Could be a lot of fun…

Overall, the original Die Hard Trilogy is one Die Hard game to which this writer is saying “Yippee-ki-nay.

Die Hard Trilogy
Version tested: Sega Saturn
Also available on: Sony PlayStation / PC

 

Shopping for Games: 1985 – 2000

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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. 

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

Time Crisis 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harmful Park – Sony PlayStation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Metal Slug X

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When discussing SNK’s powerful Neo-Geo hardware, several titles will inevitably crop up in the conversation – King of Fighters, Samurai Spirits and Metal Slug will undoubtedly be mentioned. Having had an AES console in the distant past I have become pretty familiar with the titles in these three series and many of the other games that appeared on the system during its run. I was never a particularly big fan of run-n-gun games of the Contra mould in the past, although I did enjoy Data East’s Midnight Resistance when it came out.  Yet, when I first started playing Metal Slug I fell in love with the detailed and well animated sprites, the cartoon style action and superb music and sound… oh yeah, and the gameplay was pretty good too!

As I recall it was around 1998 when I first got introduced to the Metal Slug series and became a keen follower of the series up when it pretty much went off the rails with Metal Slug 4 in 2002. I have devoted much time to the first three Metal Slug games over the years on AES, and other formats, but the one game in the set that has received the most love is Metal Slug X.

Metal Slug X  (MSX) was released in the early spring of 1999 on the MVS arcade hardware and a little later that year on the AES home console system (both in the USA and Japan).

For those not totally familiar with MSX, the gameplay is good, old-fashioned, run-n-gun. You have four characters to choose from at the start (although you can change character at any credit continue point), and then you battle your way through six action packed stages as you attempt to defeat series regular, the evil  General Morden and his allies. There are hostages to rescue, a variety of different weapons to collect, vehicles and animals (yes, you read that right) to utilise, and numerous different enemies to defeat. Even for its time it wasn’t a particularly original premise, but the sheer quality of the game is what sets it apart.

MSX is also a re-tooled version of Metal Slug 2 (originally released the previous year), and to the cynical, and/or those who do not know what they’re talking about, “is MS2 with the slowdown fixed”.  Yes, sadly, MS2 does suffer with slowdown. Not horrendous slowdown, nor even protracted slowdown, but there are a few points during the game where there are basically too many sprites on screen. From memory, there is an issue on Stage 1, an issue toward the latter part of Stage 4, and at the end of Stage 6 when you fight the end of game “boss”. Those three examples are not meant to be exhaustive, and MS2 is still an eminently playable romp even with the slowdown, but some people just do not like it because of this issue. MSX does a lot more than just address the slowdown, and while saying “it’s a totally different game to MS2” would be stretching it a bit (a lot actually), it is significantly reworked to warrant being praised as a release in its own right. I guess you could call it the “Director’s Cut” version of Metal Slug 2.

So what is it that I like so much about it? Well, aside from the classic Metal Slug gameplay, it is the sheer detail that has gone into this game. A lot of time has been spent adding tiny details in, that on a casual play through, you would just not notice, or perhaps think to notice. There are obvious differences between the 2 and X as well. Although the Stages are the same in setting, some are set at different times of the day, enemies can be more prolific in number or a different type entirely, and some of the bosses have been altered, and on some levels a mid-Stage boss is also included. Remixed music, new weapons, new Metal Slugs and a different end-credit sequence are also thrown into the blend.

There are a lot of, new, hidden, elements in MSX for scoring opportunities, especially in the first few levels, and if you like playing for score or you’re trying to rescue all the hostages, you need to find out where these items are, because many are well hidden. In fact it took me ages to find many of the hidden point collectables and hostages, and I’m still not certain I’ve found them all on every level now! The backgrounds and sprites are highly detailed, the sprites in particular have a number of different animations unique to each character. Clearly a lot of time, and love, has gone into crafting this game and to make it stand out from its predecessor, and I, for one, am highly appreciative of this work as you just do not see it often enough in sprite based video games of this kind. In many ways, it is sad, that after Metal Slug 3 was released, the later entries in the series seemed more of a cynical way of generating cash from the name of the franchise rather than building on the quality that was laid down here.

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Many of you will already know that on home cart Metal Slug X can cost an arm and a leg such is the collector demand for Metal Slug AES titles. The MVS cartridge can be picked up loose for reasonable money (complete kits will not be particularly cheap), and the game has been ported to several mainstream home consoles over the years including PSX, PS2, Xbox and more recently Nintendo’s Wii download service – Virtual Console.  Having been thoroughly disappointed with the emulation used in the Wii version of Metal Slug Anthology, I was very pleased to find that the Virtual Console port is spot on and plays great with the Wii Classic Controller. So, if you haven’t got the Monopoly money required to purchase the AES version, nor a home-Jamma set up needed for MVS, then I would highly recommend the VC port whole-heartedly.  Put simply Metal Slug X is run-n-gun at its finest and most enjoyable.

Metal Slug X
Version tested: Neo Geo AES
Also available on: Neo Geo MVS, Wii, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, PlayStation, PlayStation Portable, PC, iOS, Android

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Who needs PG Tips when you’ve got soup, fags, and Metal Slug X???!!!

Read All About It!

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Times they are a changing. Go back 15 years or more, and if you wanted up to the minute news, reviews and previews of everything that was going on in videogame land then you would have to wait for your monthly rag of choice to either drop through the front door or land at your local newsagent or WH Smith. Now we can access everything at the click of a button either at home or on the move. However, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who still read videogame magazine’s; and probably just as many who have been regular readers of the various tomes over the years that have adorned news racks across the country; and fondly remember some of those that are no longer in print.

My first foray into gaming magazines was back in March 1988 when I persuaded my mum to pick me up a copy of Your Sinclair while we were in the local newsagent’s. US Gold’s conversion of Rolling Thunder was the featured cover game and amongst the games reviewed were Karnov, OutRun, Gryzor (aka Contra), IK+ and a good number of other well known titles.

Your Sinclair (YS) was witty, irreverent, and above all, entertaining. While they may have had their own unique content, neither Sinclair User nor Crash, came close to the continuity of quality and amusement YS provided. Pssst, Slots of Fun, Future Shocks, Trainspotter Award, Tipshop, I looked forward to reading them all; even Programme Pitstop (and I had no interest in BASIC whatsoever!).

I pretty much faithfully stuck with YS for over two years, buying my final issue in late 1990 before unceremoniously abandoning the Spectrum era in favour of that of the Atari ST. However, I never really settled on a dedicated ST magazine. I picked up the odd copy of ST Format and ST Action, but neither were as enjoyable as YS in terms of overall content and “feel”. Fortunately, salvation was at hand in the form of Zero.

As some of you may remember, Zero was launched by ex-Your Sinclair staffers, (no surprise as both were published by Dennis Publishing, although YS was later sold to Future Publishing), and was very much in the YS mould, but aimed at the newly burgeoning 16-Bit home computer scene.

Zero had the irreverent feel that YS so successfully conveyed, yet managed to keep its own identity and distinctness rather than just being a 16-Bit clone of the 8-Bit classic. Cleanly presented, with some very memorable content, Zero was once the UK’s best selling 16-Bit magazine, won an Indin Award and very kindly gave me a free copy of Robocop 3 for my Atari ST when I finally decided to fork out for my first ever magazine subscription! With regular pieces from Dave Excellent, Black Shape and the Zero ST; contributions from the likes of David “Whistlin’ Rick” Wilson, Jane Goldman, David “Macca” McCandless, Duncan McDonald, Mike Gerrard et al; plus articles and interviews on all that was relevant to the Amiga, PC and ST gaming scene in the early 1990’s, it seemed Zero could do no wrong.

Sadly, Zero was not to have the longevity of its legendary 8-Bit progenitor, despite its awards, droll style and well written copy.

Videogame consoles had never been overly popular in the UK during the 1980’s. The scene was dominated by the Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC; and consoles like the Sega Master System and Nintendo Entertainment System were seen as niche, probably due to the cost of the games (£30 – £40) and in-part, poor distribution (only a select few stores stocked these consoles & games back in the ’80’s). However, with the launch of the Sega Megadrive in late 1990, and an aggressive marketing campaign for the system, home computers started to lose ground to this new breed of home entertainment and its “arcade” quality graphics. Plus, at £199 it was cheaper than the 16-Bit home computers of the day and, it has to be argued, did offer an experience closer to the arcade than any home conversion the Amiga or ST could muster.

With the shift in games moving from home computers to home consoles came a shift in our reading habits, and with the UK launch of the Super Nintendo, the year 1992 became something of a watershed moment for videogame magazines in the UK.

After 55 issues, ACE was discontinued by EMAP, and the first magazine to really embrace the 16-bit home computers of the late 1980’s faded into history during the spring of ’92. My beloved Zero was axed in the Autumn to be replaced by Sega Zone and, the now Nintendo only, Game Zone. The brilliant Mean Machines, (launched by Julian Rignall), which really captured the new 16-bit home console and early ’90’s import scene so well, was also axed; replaced by Mean Machines Sega and Nintendo Magazine System.

Ironically, while all this upheaval was going on, Your Sinclair soldiered on to the Autumn of 1993 when Future decided to finally put the legendary Spectrum mag out to pasture after a run of 93 issues.

1993 also saw the launch of Edge. Intrigued by the plastic bag masking the magazine within, Edge was very different to the other videogame magazines about at the time. With an almost industry like slant on its editorial, clean precise presentation and a mature style Edge was a videogame magazine for adults, and I loved it! With the 32-Bit era dawning, Edge really captured the exciting technological changes superbly, as we said “goodbye” to sprites and “hello” to polygons. Perfectly encapsulating the end of the 16-Bit era, the swift arrivals and departures of the CD-32, Jaguar and 3DO, while showcasing the rise to dominance of the Sony PlayStation and Sega’s fumbling of the Saturn. Those first few years of Edge were brilliant, and make a fascinating read today of the rise to prominence of the 32-Bit machines and how videogames became more culturally acceptable and not just the domain of children and nerds.

With the launch of the PlayStation in the UK in 1995 I started reading the Official PlayStation Magazine (OPM), but my interest with this tailed off as I started getting more and more into importing. OPM was a good read, and the cover disc was always useful for the demo’s included, but it catered strictly for the UK domestic market, and to be honest, I completely lost interest in the magazine the moment the Japanese PlayStation scene became more important to me.

OPM was the last (to date, anyway) dedicated games magazine that I’ve read on a regular basis. Edge continued to be pretty much my staple read until 2012, when, after a 12 year subscription, I reluctantly cancelled my sub and stopped reading the magazine. Edge was, and still is, a very well written magazine, but for me the articles were either becoming too heavily industry focused (in a way I just did not find interesting as I, sadly, do not work in the games industry), or were becoming re-hashes of themes and articles written years previously. Too often I was finding myself just flicking through the pages and then tossing the magazine to one side until the next issue arrived in the post. A great shame really, but for me, editorially speaking, Edge’s heyday was the mid-late nineties where by it covered the games scene in a way that no magazine had really done before, or since. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me, but, it’s only an opinion and I do hope Edge goes on for another twenty years or more!

Today, print media is slowly becoming a dying trend. Why wait once a month for the latest videogame news and reviews when you can go online and get it now? Still, I look forward to the postman bringing me my monthly dose of videogame retrospectives from Retro Gamer, and with the console market entering its eighth generation, there’ll be no shortage of games and systems to cover as Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Gamecube and Xbox all now qualify for “retro” status.

All I got for Christmas was…

Another Christmas over and done with! I hope “Santa” brought you all you hoped for, I was certainly quite pleased with my modest “haul” of games this year.

Playing catch up with Xbox 360 and PS3 and I managed to snag The Last of Us, Uncharted 2 and Killzone 2 for the latter, and Gears of War 3 for the former. I’ve felt that the release line up for Europe this Christmas has been a little lacklustre, but undoubtedly the whole industry has been overshadowed by the launch of the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. I’m sure a lot of you have been enjoying Call of Duty: Ghosts, but, to be honest I do not go in for the whole online multi-player thing, and I find the one-player campaigns to be fun but generally uninspiring… I think once you’ve played one COD, you’ve pretty much played them all. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I even bothered to complete last years Call of Duty: Black Ops II

I hope those of you that picked up or, better still, were bought PS4’s or Xbox One’s for Christmas are enjoying their new consoles, and I look forward to joining you some time into the New Year when the software line ups are a little stronger than they are now.

Anyway, more importantly are the Christmas retro additions, and to that end along with the previously mentioned Salamander Deluxe Pack for Saturn, I’ve also seen in the arrival of Arkanoid 2000 R and Super Pang Collection for PSX. That will most likely mark a hiatus on all things fresh into the household for the time being, but that certainly will not mean a dearth of new topics for me to over!

Retro Gamer Inspired

Well, it probably won’t come as a surprise to many reading this that I am a regular reader of Retro Gamer magazine. I have been inspired to make several purchases over the years from articles published in some of my regular video-gaming reads, and this months copy of Retro Gamer (issue 123) has certainly had an effect.

I am a big shoot-’em-up addict, and although I have not been a big fan of Konami’s Gradius series, I have long had an interest to try out its distant cousin – Salamander. With Salamander featuring on the cover of this month’s Retro Gamer, (with a very good article to go with it inside), I finally decided to pick up the Saturn version of Salamander Deluxe Pack; which then promptly arrived on my desk from Japan the other day. More on Salamander Deluxe in a future post.

This month’s Retro Gamer also has an excellent feature on classic late 80’s software publisher Cinemaware… I loved Rocket Ranger back in the day, and have long been interested in seeing how it still plays all these years later.

So, last Sunday, after it has sat atop a wardrobe at my parents house for nearly 20 years, I decided to recover my once faithful Atari ST.
I have long toyed with the idea of bringing the old girl back to life, but procrastination has often got the better of me. However, with the idea of playing Rocket Ranger buzzing around in the back of my mind, and also keen to revisit the classic Carrier Command, I finally dusted off the Atari (literally), and went scouring in the loft of the garage to find what was left of my ST back catalogue.
Soon, with a handful of diskettes and my old ST, I was back at my own house, into the Games Room, and hooking the ST up to the TV. To my pleasant surprise it fired straight into life; and using a copy of Activision’s Ghostbusters 2 as a tester, was even happier to see that the machine seemed to be working fine.
I will report more on my re-established connection with the world of Atari later on – need to find a joystick, and waiting for a new mouse to arrive courtesy of eBay. One thing that did put a smile on my face during all this was, amongst a small wad of loose diskettes, I found a copy of Jeff Minter’s seminal Lllamatron! No copy of Rocket Ranger though… looks like that’s going to be another eBay job!