Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Kunio-kun Begins: Renegade (arcade/various)

Renegade (Arcade, 1986)

A while back I had an itch to play some Final Fight - the superior Sega CD version, of course - it occurred to me I should re-visit the Double Dragon series first, that defining example of the beat-em-up genre. But wait! Double Dragon wasn't the first beat-em-up! That would be Renegade. But Renegade didn't get to that point on its own - Kung-Fu Master, which I don't really consider a beat-em-up, nonetheless played an integral part in the genre's formation. But wait! Wouldn't be it better to start with other arcade and Atari games? After all, it was games Pitfall! and Defender that really started the whole side-scrolling thing... but wait! We might as well start with Pong...

I guess what I'm getting at is that, while it's important to have a good feel for the development of a genre if you want to be serious about writing about a key game, but it's not necessary - certainly not necessary to take it to such absurd lengths. Still, Renegade is an important game. The fundamental difference between it and, say, Gradius or Donkey Kong is that it's not very fun. True, I, and most people, consider it to be the first real beat-em-up. It offered 8-way directional movement - a key mechanic in the genre, in my opinion - and enemies who take multiple punches and/or kicks before being defeated. Sure, it only scrolled the length of two screens, but those screens were prototypical of the urban environments the genre would be associated with in years to come. And it continues the Kung-Fu Master tradition of plowing through gangs of thugs in order to rescue the hero's girlfriend, using only your fists (the ability to pick up weapons wouldn't become a genre staple until Double Dragon, a year later).

But like I said, it's not a very fun game to play today. It's cheap and primitive - and this is a genre that's considered by its detractors for being cheap and primitive. What really makes it stand out - and more frustrating - is the wonky way the controls are implemented. Instead of a separate button for kicking and punching, you're instead given a button for attacking left or right. If you're facing right, then pushing the right attack button will punch in that direction, while pushing the left button will kick behind you. When you face left, these actions are reversed. Though I really like the way you can attack behind - enemies will surround you - the control scheme is still bewildering and unintuitive. Maybe I'm a scrub, but I couldn't get used to it. At all. Combined with the fact that dying resets the level's progress (every level is just a series of goons before the boss jumps in), and it's a downright cheap, frustrating experience.

I don't mean to underestimate the importance of the game - it really was the first game of its kind, and even if its controls undermine the experience (oddly, they would later be used again in the arcade version of Double Dragon II), it's still a fine looking, well-animated game. Though this is fairly irrelevant to American gamers, it's also the first game to feature what would become developer Technos' mascot, the character of Kunio-kun (more famous, perhaps, for games like River City Ransom and Super Dodgeball). I say it's irrelevant because the game was vastly changed for its US release. The US release would cement the genre's "inspiration" of the film The Warriors, in which one or a few heroes brawl their way through urban environments, usually for revenge or to rescue a girl. Though they play the same, as far as I can tell, the US release featured entirely redrawn sprites and backgrounds. I don't really lament this so-called "whitewashing" because I like the classic '80s brawler set-up, but the Japanese version is certainly more interesting. Here, Kunio-kun is teaching some schoolyard bullies a lesson, with his hands and feet - an opening cut-scene shows them beating up Kunio's friend and running off. Apparently he fights his way through other students, gangs, and eventually the yakuza - though I never made it that far.

Clearly Technos couldn't predict what a hit the game would be - especially in the west, where the genre ruled the arcades until it was supplanted by Street Fighter II and its fellow fighters, because later games in the series (and genre) would have less of a Japanese flavor from the outset. The game's immediate successor, Double Dragon, was clearly developed to be more 'American,' including its original Japanese release. So aside from, you know, essentially creating an entire genre of games, Renegade is also one of the more interesting cases of localization.

(NES, 1988)
(Sega Master System, 1993)

I say the arcade version is bad, and I mean it - and its Sega Master System port, sourced out to Natsume and published by Sega themselves, was even worse, with slippery controls and poor hit detection. But I was surprised to find myself enjoying the NES port. While the game retains the same control scheme (pressing both buttons to jump), I found it more manageable. Maybe it's because the sprites are smaller, the environments bigger - there's more room to maneuver, and less enemies on-screen, so it's easier to keep your enemies on one side of you without having to fuss over which direction you're facing. The game even throws in a not-terrible motorcycle level, just for the hell of it I guess. The final stage is its undoing, though - a series of rooms in a big building with trap doors that can reset your progress. That's when I threw up hands up and told myself I've played enough of it. I'm not sure I can think of a reason to recommend playing it, unless you're really interested in seeing the full evolution of the genre - especially when there are a handful of superior beat-em-ups on the NES - but that doesn't make it a bad game, if you're into wandering the city streets and punching people out.

The above two shots from NES

All screenshots are my own; box art from GameFAQs.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Confessions of a chronic Vega user: Street Fighter IV (PS3/PS4)

Street Fighter IV (PS3/360/Arcade, 2009)
Super Street Fighter IV (2010)
Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition (2011)
Ultra Street Fighter IV (2014)

Stretching back to the 16-bit days of Street Fighter II and its various iterations - or whichever one that allowed the player to use the four boss characters Balrag, Sagat, Bison, and Vega (yikes, who can keep up with all the SFII releases?) - my main character of choice has always been Vega. Clearly something is wrong with me - Vega, while quick and agile, has a terrible defense and an offense that actually can be downgraded halfway into a match (when he loses his claw after so many hits). There's a reason he's ranked so low among the character tournament tiers - he's deeply flawed.

The thing about any charge-move character is to remember the golden rule: always be charging. This is something finally became a natural instinct for me with Street Fighter IV, especially in the past few months as I've been 'practicing' in anticipation of SFV's release (never mind the fact that they completely changed Vega's moves to quarter-circles and dragon-punches); when I say practice it's more like a jelly-armed bookworm stepping outside to shoot some hoops by himself, but that doesn't mean he enjoyed it any less (he just gets tired sooner). I never really knew how to play competently as Vega, though - I just liked his absurd one-note vanity, his flashy style, one of the few SF characters to use a weapon, and his very unique moves. The central component in the basic Vega strategy is to keep the opponent off-guard by constantly changing sides with the Flying Barcelona and Sky High Claw attacks, and using Vega's speed and range to keep the opponent at mid-range. Spoken like a true student of the game! Nah, that theory is all well and good, but the truth is that I can decimate a weak opponent and then get utterly owned by any player with a competent anti-air game.

See, I never really got to practice much with older SF games. Sure I've owned them over the years, but playing with a limited number of players can only take you so far, and as for arcade mode... well, you get to the point where you cruise through it or hit a wall, feeling like the game has become insurmountably cheap. Street Fighter IV changed that, for me personally, because it had a mostly-smooth online component that (during its peak years, at least) offered an endless series of matches against a vast range of player skill. The same could be said for any fighting game, really, but playing in this way was a big step in forcing me to think about new strategies other than wall-jump-spamming and other cheap tricks. It also revealed, on the rare occasion I would face another player using Vega, just how downright annoying the character can be. Naturally this increased my love for the character. Vega has a weak close-range defense, but he's a master at agile keep-away, and you don't have to be skilled to drive an opponent nuts with that tactic. Needless to say I got my ass kicked most of the time - but I still enjoyed it, weak Vega be damned.

Which isn't to say that a skilled Vega player couldn't make quick work of any challenger. Alas I am not a skilled Street Fighter player. That's the beauty of the series, though - it doesn't really matter how skilled you are, as long you're not terrible; the series is so immediately accessible and simultaneously deep that even scrubs like me can enjoy it on a regular basis. Street Fighter IV was a comeback for the series. Just because SFIII's bold changes - and massive roster overhaul - put the series out of the public gaming consciousness for a few years, it wasn't like Capcom was resting on its laurels. In the years between SFII and SFIV, Capcom released the excellent prequel series, SF Alpha, which culminated in the masterpiece Alpha 3; they experimented in the 3D realm with games like Rival Schools and Power Stone; they pushed new and unusual 2D experiences like Darkstalkers and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure; they practically created a new sub-genre of fighting with their over-the-top Marvel fighters. But when SFIII left most players - except the hardcore fighting fans who could appreciate the deeper mechanics and new roster - feeling cold, Street Fighter IV is the game that brought the series back to the forefront of the genre; the defining fighting game of its generation.

All screenshots are my own. SFIV screenshots taken from the PS4 port of Ultra Street Fighter IV. Box art from GameFAQs.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Electric Seaweed: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (NES, 1989)

Ah! The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES 'trilogy' (not really a trilogy, but whatever). These are the kind of games parents would buy for their children, and so that child might feel loved, or something. It's the late '80s and Turtle Fever is in full swing; what started as a simple black and white parody comic somehow morphed into something with even less creative integrity that managed to become the focal point of obsession for kids like, well, me, and probably you too. There's a reason we like to say that Michael Bay ruined our childhood or whatever; I bet the fans of the original felt that way when it became a Saturday morning cartoon or a comic published by Archie Comics. But I guess when you're busy starting comic grant foundations or marrying would-be porn stars (which is pretty much how creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird spent their time after getting some of that Hollywood money), you're bound to lose sight of your baby. Or just cease to give a shit.

What I'm trying to say is that you might recall the first TMNT game on NES with some fondness, and that you'd be a fool to do so. It is, simply, an abomination, only a few steps removed from The Uncanny X-Men. That game was such a heinous crime against games and comics and humanity that we can easily joke about it; even our younger selves were aware of just how truly awful The Uncanny X-Men was, and so our opinions are not tainted by nostalgia.

Not so TMNT! Even I have fond memories of this game, and I loathe it. The kid who could make it past the water level? A schoolyard legend. The one who could make it past the rooftop levels? A man among boys (or maybe just a liar). Did you even know anyone who could make it to the military base, let alone successfully navigate that large series of sewers and warehouses? Playing this game years later, when I discovered the magic of emulation and save states (and porn-ridden ROM sites; ah, to be young), I was astounded how much more game there was that I wasn't even aware of. Not that it throws anything interesting at you later on, but it's still a surprisingly lengthy adventure.

I give Konami credit for two things: the game's ambition, and its audio-visual faithfulness to the source material (mostly the cartoon, in this case). But ambition also means the game throws so many enemies on screen at once it can cause absurd amounts of flicker and slowdown - so the game's 'ambition' causes its presentation to suffer quite a bit. In which case, revision: I give credit to Konami for thing: the game's ambition.

The game starts in an overhead map style. I guess I'll go to that sewer - christ, I just got run over by a monster truck. I vaguely remember disliking Zelda II, you say to yourself, and this vaguely reminds me of that. Strike one. You can switch between the four turtles at any time, which is nice, but the differences (reach, speed, power) are fairly negligible, so it basically amounts to having four life bars. The controls feel responsive, but the physics are so wonky - which is a problem when the game demands some exacting platforming later on, and not in the good Batman kind of way either. I'm talking about walking to the edge of a building ledge so that only the minimal amount of heel pixels are touching the ground, and even then it might not be enough. Or having to tap the jump button just so, or else you'll hit your head on the ceiling and fall through the gap below. Which might kill you, or it might just drop you down below, forcing you to work your way through the entire level again, with Ninja Gaiden-style respawning enemies and cheap, downright cruel enemy placement. Or you might enter a building, fight your way through cramped corridors with enemies coming at you every which way, make your way to the dead-end, only to find - a single slice of health-restoring pizza. Did I mention you have to fight your way out of the building again? Or that there is no save or password function? Or that I'm merely describing the game's first few levels?!

Of course, not many people have seen beyond that point, because of this:

Electric seaweed. I remember beating it on occasion, but after that my turtles would be so depleted that I wouldn't last long. Mostly, though, I remember getting to the dam stage, then recalling that the water stage came next... and deciding to turn the game off before allowing these bastards to demoralize me again like that. Here the controls are unresponsive, the obstacles are punishing, and to disarm these six bombs, you have to beat it in under 2 1/2 minutes.

People call this game "very difficult," which is nostalgia's way of saying "$%#@$%# impossible and frustrating." It's sort of amusing that we look back at such "difficult" and view them through the rose-tinted spectacles of our glorious youth and we call it "old-school challenge," as if we've somehow forgotten what obsessive little brats we were, with the time and dedication necessary to memorize these layouts and develop absurd reflexes, and that most of us, with meager allowances, didn't have access to a huge game library, or maybe we just didn't give a shit because HEY IT'S A TURTLES GAME. You've lost your Metroid saves, you've worn out your traffic-cone-orange light gun, your brother has a girlfriend now (gross!) and doesn't want to play Contra with you anymore, and you just can't seem to get that dust out of your copy of Blaster Master no matter how you blow into it. Hell, what else am I going to play? What, like I'm going to visit that kid down the street? That weird kid whose parents don't let him eat peanuts or drink milk or ride a bike, who owns a Sega Master System and is gonna make watch him struggle through Zillion again?

And so these are the circumstances in which I imagine no less than four million suckers bought this game. That puts it in the top 10 of NES games sold. And it doesn't get much better after that water level, either - the platforming gets more tricky, and it would be hard even with perfect controls and physics that weren't so wonky. The game keeps throwing more and more enemies at you, and half the time it gets bogged down in technical issues and image cut-out. The enemies get stronger, and you don't. Levels get longer, your options open up, but what's the use? Half the time, beating a level means backtracking to the entrance. I played with Game Genie codes on, and I still had to the map the quick save/load functions to my actual controller, and it was still one of the most frustrating games I've ever played. The final walk to Shredder is a long, narrow corridor, with no room to jump, and fast enemies requiring at least two hits to kill. Except there is not nearly enough time for that before they hit you first. If someone could make it there, and survive it (perhaps with the use of the Ninja Gaiden-style projectile pick-ups), Shredder gives you the final middle finger - an instant death attack that shrinks you down to a little turtle.

A bad game is a bad game, but I would only harp on it if showed some promise. Like I said, the game is ambitious. You progress between levels on an overhead map, where eventually you'll gain access to the Turtle Van. Roadblocks will impede your progress, and so you must seek out missiles inside a warehouse to progress. Or hunt down some rope to make it past the impossibly large rooftop gap. Hey! There's some merit in this. It's not a proper Metroidvania, but it's not entirely linear, either. The final stretch presents a massive maze of sewers and underground passages that must be navigated in the correct order. All of which would be great if this game was actually fun and not controller-throwing cheap! Instead, TMNT is something closer to misery. Don't let your memory tell you any differently; you can't trust it.

All screenshots are my own; box art from GameFAQs.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Shmup Diary 3: Ryu Jin (Arcade)

Ryu Jin (Arcade, 1993)

In my quest to experience the newfound world of shmups, it's easy enough to seek out and find the major franchises of the genre - Gradius, R-Type, whatever. But the reason the genre has always been so daunting to me is because of the vast number of more obscure gems (in an already obscure genre) - many of them exclusive to Japan - and hardcore shmup fans tend to swear by these type of games even more than those major franchises. But I wanted to dive in to the genre! An endless series of Gradius and the like would become a bit stale no matter how good they might be. Where to start?

Luckily Racket Boy's Shmup of the Month Club took care of that for me, because, a few years in, the already hardcore-shmup fans are nominating all sorts of stuff that a genre noob like myself have never heard of. Case in point: Ryu Jin, an arcade, Japan-exclusive, Taito-published shmup from the early '90s. But it's also a little bit random - certainly seems obscure even to genre fans - which means I might not be able to fully contextualize it. But who cares about all that? We're all just shooting shit down in a lone spaceship, right?

Well, yeah. See, I don't know if we should call this a bullet hell - it doesn't feature those massive pattern-waves of enemy fire that I associate with the genre, but it's way too manic and intense to lump in with other genre standards. An in-between game, then, which is exactly what someone else in those forums labeled it. All I know is that was pretty damn hard - hard is one thing, but dying restarts you at the beginning of the level, and that's pretty brutal. In each life you have a health bar - 3 hits, upgradeable to 4. But the problem with this is how little impact a hit seems to have - enemy fire is everywhere, and there's no major audio indication, and there's very little grace period either (just barely enough time to mutter a curse under your breath - or scream at the screen, as the case might be). I understand the need to up the difficulty by restarting the level upon death, but I would have preferred the 3-hit health system to be a little more forgiving. But that's just me - I'm a scrub.

Visually, it's a nice looking game and plays butter-smooth, though its aesthetics didn't impress me much. I sort of suspect this is a problem in the genre in general, but visibility became a concern after a while - like enemy fire colored closely to match the background, or your ship's huge charged attacks. The real hook of the game, if there is one, is that by holding down the fire button you can charge your ship's attack into a bigger one - a little too big, as it obscures too much of the oncoming enemy fire. So the central crux of the game is getting into the right rhythm - when to use a charge, when not to. It's necessary to take down enemies with it, which is another small problem I had - balance issues with enemy health. There are way too many enemies who can take two (or more) fully charged blasts, and at that point it begins to feel a little tedious.

But I won't dwell on the game's shortcomings too much - in the end, it left me hungry for more of the same - in a better package, if it's on the menu.

All screenshots are my own. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Hidden Gem: Air Fortress (NES)

Air Fortress (NES, 1989)

When I first discovered the joys of emulation some 12 years or so - before Nintendo, Sega, and other publishers really got into the compilation/Virtual Console game - the first ROMs I always hunted down were the games from my childhood, having since been sold. One of them always eluded me... some weird little game that combined shoot-em-up and platforming... with a great soundtrack and moody graphics... and unique gravity-based physics... except I couldn't remember the damn name.

It was a while before I rediscovered Air Fortress on NES, and there's a reason for that. You won't find it in any list of the console's greatest, nor in many "hidden gem" type lists; and that's a shame, because it truly is one of the best overlooked NES games. The premise is simple, as laid out in the game's Star Wars-style text crawl: you play as Hal Bailman, a last resort in a desperate fight against the titular fortresses. The gameplay is not as easily defined.

Each level starts with a shoot-em-up segment, as Hal approaches each Air Fortress in a ship that looks sort of like - well, it looks like a dude riding a spaceship. That's because that's exactly what it is - at the end of the shooter segments, the ship automatically lands, and Hal jumps right off, taking an elevator down into the fortress. I'm no shmup expert, but even I can tell you these levels are bog-standard - no power-ups other than rudimentary stuff like kill-all bombs and invincibility, and no upgrading your weapons, either. That doesn't make them bad, though; they're really just designed as an extended intro to the meat of the game. Along the way, you'll be picking up "E" and "B" power-ups that don't do anything just yet - not until you hop out of your ship and drop down on foot into the fortress.

This is the real meat of the game, except here the game differs from the average NES action game. One button fires your gun, and the other fires the more powerful bombs (the "B" power-ups from the shooting segments); there is no jump. Instead, pressing up will let you fly (more like float) the entire length and width of the screen, indefinitely. Movement is slowed to simulate the low-G physics, and the recoil from firing either weapon will push you back a pace. I'm no game historian, but I've never played anything else that handles similarly so early in the NES' lifespan - and certainly not as intuitively. It handles so smoothy, and plays so naturally, that it doesn't take long to get acclimated.

The goal of each level is to find the fortress' main power core and destroy it. Upon doing this in the first, fairly linear level, the lights go out, an eerie song replaces the excellent chiptune music, and you'll find your ship, not outside the fortress where you left it, but just on the other side of where the power core used to be. It's only in the second level where you'll find that destroying the power core is only half the story. Once the lights go dim, you're tasked with finding your ship within a time limit, hidden somewhere within the labyrinthine stages. The time limit is purely visual: the screen gradually starts shaking with flashes of white until it finally explodes if you don't reach it in time. There is zero logic as to why your ship is not where you left it outside, but that's retro gaming for you.

These segments are tense - with the menacing atmosphere and music, the empty rooms (most enemies don't respawn), and the impending destruction of the fortress, they're in stark contrast to the peppy, almost heroic feeling of the earlier parts. They also give the player a reason to explore the fortress and make a mental note of where your ship lies before taking on the power core. Which is easier said than done - those "E" power-ups you picked up in the shooting segment turn out to be your health, which also doubles as an ever-decreasing air supply. The first half of the game is pure 8-bit joy, a brilliant combination of playstyles and unique mechanics.

I say the first half - not because the second is bad, but because that's when things get hard. You know you're in for a long ride when you start racking up tons of "E" bubbles on the shooting segment - it just means the fortress is going to be that much bigger than usual. Enemies get tougher and more numerous, but the real challenge is in finding your ship. The massive levels in the second half get a little too ambitious for their own good; finding your way to your ship can be a frustrating experience. And then later on, even if you know the precise route to take, it's such a long path that you will be required to fire your gun backwards, using the game's unique physics, just so you can push through the levels that much more quickly. The 6th fortress (out of 8) feels like it might have been the game's final stage; it probably should have been.

Which doesn't take away from the unique pleasures of the earlier stages. On top of the excellent, mood-appropriate music, the game is a real treat for NES sprite fans. The game uses the console's limited color palette to great effect; metallic greys offset by rich blues or moody turquoise or discomfiting yellows, all colored over impressively intricate background textures. The game's unique physics aren't so unlike to when the titular star would blow up and fly in Kirby's Adventure (NES, and there's a reason for that: both were developed by HAL Laboratories. Except that game, one of the finest looking games on the system, was released in 1993; Air Fortress came out in the US in 1989. That would be impressive enough, but consider that it was originally released in Japan in 1987, and it becomes one of the finest looking Nintendo games of the '80s.

Never mind the game's unwieldy difficulty in later stages or its slightly unwelcome extended play time. The game's fantastic visuals and music, and unique combination of playstyles, in another world, might have let history remember it as an NES classic. Instead, most people have never heard of it, making it truly one of the console's hidden gems.

All screenshots are my own; box art from GameFAQs.