Tagged: video games

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. 

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

Gunbird 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gunbird 2

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

Battle Garegga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle Garegga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Of Us: Left Behind

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

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)