Thursday, April 24, 2014

Double Dragon II: The Revenge

Naxat Soft
Super CD-ROM

As it patterned itself after the NES version of the game, PCE Double Dragon II doesn't go the typical brawler route of assigning a particular attack-move to each button. Instead, a press of I has your character lash out at foes to the right, while a push of II unleashes fury on brutes to the left. Should you be facing your assailant, your attack will take the form of a jab; otherwise, a kick will be delivered. It isn't a completely sensible system--had I been required in real life to do an about-face each time I wanted to boot a hard-charging enemy, my victories-in-combat total wouldn't be nearly as high as it is. The counterintuitive setup can be gotten used to, though--and a pleasantly easy-to-perform spin-kick can be utilized if there's no time to be devoted to directional considerations.

Little strategy or technique is needed to dispatch most of the hoods you'll come across. It's easy to draw the jump-kick-happy variety into launching an aerial assault before stepping aside and hammering them when they land on the spot you left unoccupied. You can grab a stunned hooligan and pulverize him or simply toss him off one of the many conveniently available ledges-leading-to-nowhere. Whatever methodology you go with, the controls should serve you well until you come across one of the out-of-place and quite-unnecessary platforming sequences.

Though those leaping gauntlets could be considered "changes of pace," DD2's designers should've realized its gameplay is far too simplistic and repetitive to be stretched over nine boards (even if the last merely comprises a bout with a cheap boss who puts on a disappearing act).

Granted, there are lots of different environments to "explore," including cities, jungles, temples, and subterranean factories. But you come face to face with the same few small-sprite thugs on just about every battleground.

The game tries to provide incentive for making multiple trips through all those areas by including three different ending sequences (each of the available difficulty modes has its own).

But while the separate epilogues are indeed very different from one another, the story behind the adventuring is unlikely to prove interesting except in its odd endeavor to be as silly as possible. Plot elements as absurd as the heroes busting through brick walls and hanging from the landing skids of airborne helicopters are relayed via coarsely sketched artwork.

The goofiness extends to the in-game visuals, as caricatural characters and bright backdrops give the game a cartoony look that, while not wholly unappealing, seems inappropriate for a title that would have benefited from an added dose of grit. The penultimate level is populated by large foes and full of neat surprises, but there's little drama to be enjoyed up to that point. Weak sound effects and a low-key soundtrack plagued by ill-chosen vocal elements don't help establish atmosphere that would be suitable for a rough-and-tumble 16-bit beat 'em up.

PCE Double Dragon II is a game caught between generations. It looks nicer and plays more smoothly than its NES forebear, but it certainly isn't as memorable or impressive as the likes of Final Fight or Streets of Rage. It's pretty good, but it's also pretty expensive--and thus hard to recommend except to players in desperate need of a two-player brawler for their Duo.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Forgotten Worlds

Capcom / NEC Avenue
Super CD-ROM

Already a veteran of the enjoyable (if somewhat emasculated) Genesis version of the game, I was familiar with the unusual manner in which Forgotten Worlds plays by the time I sat down with the Turbo CD rendition. I knew I'd have to determine the direction in which my airborne soldier would fire by rotating him as he'd soar through enemy lines. Those familiar with Macross 2036's boss battles will find a title here that takes a similar approach to blast-'em-up play. 2036, however, allows its players to turn in either direction without ever having to stretch clumsily for the Run button, while FW makes no such allowances except for those who acquire the original PCE bundle-release that includes an Avenue Pad 3. Being forced to reach for Run actually doesn't prove too terribly annoying--and the system is hardly the smoothest regardless of which control scheme one goes with.

Even with an Ave-3 in tow, players will likely find PCE Worlds a great deal tougher than its Genny counterpart. Enemies here are faster and stouter and typically fire many more projectiles. Those overwhelmed by the missile-heavy action won't be able to bring an ally along to make matters easier, as no true two-player mode is available (though a second person can assume limited control of the lone soldier's option pod via a bit of code-inputting).

That it fails to offer two-warrior play is no minor issue, but Turbo FW does employ red book audio to deliver fantastic renditions of the game's predominantly dark tunes (though to this day I'm not particularly happy about Stage 5's sinister theme being rendered "poppy"). It's also far superior to the Genesis version visually, as its enemies are generally larger and its zones are more colorful--virtues certainly worth citing for a game that strives to create an aspect of bizarreness by presenting unusual creatures and environments. Enormous ogres poke their heads through the clouds; super-fast serpents inhabit pretty pink sky-forests; and sorcerers drift about desolate territories that harbor ice-encased mammoths. The title seems to forget the benefits that come with diversity during a mid-game stretch of "pyramid-themed" boards, but it still ultimately attains a compelling "lost-land" feel.

Two of its atypical areas (one a small-scale throwaway tomb, the other a Terraforming-esque volcanic region) and a pair of its boss fights are among the noteworthy items that were not included in the Genesis version.

The post-stage still-shots, on the other hand, are quite similar to the cartridge's intermediary scenes and amount to nothing that a CD title should boast of, though there is amusement to be derived from the accompanying lines of text.

As enemies tend to attack in droves and from inconvenient angles, memorizing their flight patterns and spots of origin will be of great use in getting through the game. A little strategizing is to be done as well, as cash for purchasing health restorers and gun-fire upgrades isn't made available in abundance (though good players can stick with a certain hard-hitting, available-early-on devastator until late in the affair, when the best blaster of all can be acquired).

Come up with a sound set of strategies, keep the habits of your foes in mind, and develop proficiency with the game's unusual controls, and you'll in all likelihood find Forgotten Worlds both beatable and fairly enjoyable. Again, it never quite feels wonderful, but it always feels interestingly atypical--and perhaps that's why I've found it to have greater replay value than plenty of its good-but-not-excellent peers.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Mahjong Clinic Special

Naxat Soft
Super CD-ROM

Disregard the "Special" part and you'll find that this game's title provides a good idea of what it's all about: you roam the halls of a clinic and play mahjong with the patients, workers, and loiterers you come across.

It should come as a surprise to no one that only girls are to be encountered in this clinic--and that said girls aren't hesitant to strip in the presence of a mahjong-playing mate.

Options are occasionally presented, and the selections you make determine just how much skin you'll get to see.

None of the images are particularly naughty or racy, however.

All of this is typical PCE-mahjong-game nonsense, but the triteness isn't particularly problematic. The real issue is that there's nothing random about the tiles you're dealt in any given match. The game provides preset hands that are often tough to work with. Of course, if you stumble around enough, you'll eventually become familiar with all of those hands, and then the title becomes a puzzle game of sorts--figure out how to win with the motley assortments of tiles you're given.

Even if you take the most direct path to the end, you'll run across plenty of hand-repeats. You can see me defeating two different girls with the exact same playing-piece arrangement in the following screens (notice that the matches proceeded in identical fashions right down to every last discarded tile):

Of course, once you've sussed out the correct way to proceed with each hand, you can systematically thrash your rendered-helpless opponents.

The bits of story that link these all-too-predictable matches are largely negligible, but the game won't hesitate to toss hands that can't be won with at those who stray from the "proper" path in order to "nudge" them towards the characters it wants them to deal with.

The real shame here is that a couple of good tunes, not to mention commendable usage of said tunes, are utterly wasted. Each contest commences with a pleasant, loungy track that's replaced by a much more intense number once a player calls reach. The switch really did increase the game's level of excitement the first time I experienced it and made me believe I was in for some fun times and exhilarating matches. Man, was I wrong.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Janshin Densetsu (Quest of Jongmaster)

Aicom / NEC Home Electronics
Arcade CD-ROM

Quest of Jongmaster is an RPG that has you defend a town from a death dragon, the world from spacecraft-piloting invaders, and your own hide from all sorts of frightful things.

Of course, to do away with your multitudinous adversaries, you'll have to defeat them in mahjong matches.

And of course, the wicked beasts and horrifying creatures eventually reveal themselves to be silly anime girls who possess very little clothing.

If your interest has somehow been piqued by all this but you have concerns about the possibility of a language barrier, have no fear: it's very easy to figure out how to keep your character in good health and well equipped (with most articles enabling you either to win matches more swiftly or to hold out longer while you receive a pummeling).

The adventure is as linear as they come--you can't stray from the correct path to travel even if you want to, and the "mazes" are hilariously simplistic in design.

Questing and labyrinth navigating were never meant to be the title's most enticing elements, though. Sure, the story has its interesting moments...

...but any fun you manage to have will likely come from meeting the strange beasts/wild ladies who inhabit the land. The designers came up with lots of nice girl and monster designs...

...but were unsuccessful in their endeavors to provide quality in-game graphics, as the charm of the funny-looking, large-headed sprites fails to offset the blandness of the environments.

Dull field visuals are hardly the title's most significant problem, though. The matches play out slowly; and for all the "thought" your opponents put into their moves, they simply aren't very good at mahjong. I do realize that the designers didn't want players to have to experience a high number of draws and defeats with so many random matches to play through, but easy victories don't make for fun, rewarding gameplay in the long run.

As the adventure is far too simplistic to appeal to RPG fans and the "battles" are too slow and easy to prove worthwhile for mahjong aficionados, I don't believe there's really much of an audience out there for Jongmaster. The naughtiness factor prevents me from recommending it even to the many little kids who are looking for a good mahjong RPG, which is quite unfortunate.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Jantei Monogatari 3 Saver Angels

Super CD-ROM

Jantei 3 starts off in sobering fashion. Its opening cinema details the deaths of three girls, with one sequence depicting the suicide of a ten-year-old. We're talking some relatively heavy material here.

But then a cool musical track starts playing--our sign that it's time to move on from that serious stuff and play some mahjong.

The adventure proceeds in the style of a digital comic, with bits of pointing and clicking necessary every so often. Thankfully, Jantei 3's artwork and animation are far superior to those of its predecessor.

And 3 is much wackier than 2 (and most other PC Engine games at that). It features a roster of deviants that includes a crazed centaur, a not quite fully armored (but quite perverted) knight, and a gargantuan school principal.

You'll engage these nutjobs in mahjong warfare and likely find them to be worthy (but not infuriatingly prescient) opponents. Some of them refuse to buckle even after suffering numerous defeats, so to speed things up, you'll probably want to spend points you earn for wins on "techniques" that enable you to cheat your way to quick victories.

Dispersed among the comic-style festivities and mahjong festivals are strange mini-games. You'll have to fend off a team of volleyball-playing maniacs and outmaneuver a wrestling-proficient cat-girl.

Fans of the game's immediate predecessor will be happy to discover that some old friends and foes play important roles in this episode. And said fans will hardly be surprised to learn that this chapter provides a substantial quantity of bare-skin shots.

Actually, Jantei 3 goes so far out of its way to be naughty that the panties-based gimmickry eventually wears out its welcome. While I hardly consider myself a PCE-playing prude, the gratuitousness reaches such absurd extremes that it really doesn't sit well with me, especially since it's juxtaposed with such a weighty opening. But the only other way in which the game proves irritating is in presenting a string of drawn-out mahjong-battles towards its conclusion. On the whole, it's well made and highly entertaining.