Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hawk F-123

~ HAWK F-123 ~
Pack-in Video / Make Software
Super CD-ROM

Hawk is more of a, uh, "normal" shooter than Deep Blue (Pack-in Video's legendary underwater blaster and greatest hit). I'd say it loosely compares in feel to Aero Blasters, which is certainly normal (and very good at that). But Hawk doesn't look normal, as almost all of its sprites are extremely flat. Your craft is flat, your beams and projectiles are flat, your enemies are flat, and everything is pretty darn small at that.

But the backgrounds are a much more impressive story. There's plenty of parallax to be found here, and while not every level looks gorgeous (Stage 4's sea and sky are as plain as can be), Stage 3's dark clouds and Stage 5's twilight city are nothing short of beautiful. It's too bad that most of these nice backdrops scroll by so slowly, making the game feel less intense than it really should; but hey, I always get psyched up when Stage 6's subway tour suddenly picks up speed at its halfway point. The mostly upbeat soundtrack does a better job supporting the action than does the slow scrolling, as it features a jazzy tune to back the aforementioned city sequence and a title-screen track strangely reminiscent of the Castlevania series's "Beginning."

So Hawk makes up for squashed sprites with attractive parallax and catchy music, but then, a lot of people don't mind the graphics and music in Deep Blue either, citing gameplay as the area in which DB "stumbles." Well, Hawk will keep you on your guard, to be sure. Enemies attack from every direction: bombs rain down on you from above, ship cannons target you from below, choppers glide in from behind, and standard craft utilize the old-fashioned head-on approach.

Be warned that your weaponry may seem fairly meek at first. If you're to succeed (and have fun with the game), you'll have to find armaments you're comfortable with and strengthen them while making good strategic use of your auxiliary equipment (especially the somewhat-rare shields, which not only protect you but also allow you to plop your craft atop enemies [even bosses] and quickly demolish them). Once my laser reaches maximum strength and I grab some homing missiles along with an option or two, I'm pretty much unstoppable--and I'm also having a lot of fun. The only grievance I have at that point is that the stages are a bit too long.

There are sure to be some folks who give up on Hawk quite quickly because of the small, flat sprites and initially weak weaponry. Those who persist long enough to turn their craft into an aerial wrecking machine should discover action, music, and background art that'll make the game worthwhile. Another warning--the last stage is very tight and very tough. But at least we get a "real" ending, which isn't the case in a certain other Pack-in gem I can think of.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bonk 3: Bonk's Big Adventure

RED/Hudson Soft - 1993 - U.S.A.

Long before Air Zonk led the TTi flagship as the TurboGrafx/Duo mascot, there was Bonk-- his slower, prehistoric cousin. Bonk's Adventure was a smash hit (no pun intended), a coveted honor its two TG-16 sequels failed to attain. It's hard to pinpoint a precise reason for this, as both were fully competent games and did plenty to cement the series as a milestone in video game history and spawn two further sequels on the Super Nintendo. If I had to venture a guess, it would be that Bonk's Adventure possessed a certain "magic" that was simply impossible to duplicate. All that said, Bonk 3: Bonk's Big Adventure is unquestionably the superior game of the three, and also happens to be my favorite.

I've observed over the years that there are two distinct schools of Bonk fans: the "Revenge (Bonk 2) is best" crowd and the "Revenge is worst" crowd. I fall into the latter category, personally, although part 2 is not a bad game by any means. Some folks in the latter school tend to favor Adventure, and others such as yours truly will stick by Bonk 3 through thick and thin.

Bonk 3 was an interesting animal, released in the later years of the Duo's life in the US. To confuse matters further, it was given releases on both on cartridge (HuCard) and CD. The CD version featured a fully redbook soundtrack (goodbye chiptunes) and more bonus rounds.

Bonk 3: Bonk's Big Adventure does quite a bit to live up to its name; honestly, the game is huge, almost to a fault. Levels are very large and quite dynamic in nature. There is so much to see and do, although not every nook and corner need be explored in order to complete the game. There are many secrets to find, tons of points to be scored and lots of fun to be had in the process. I was delighted to discover the bounce-enemies-on-your-head-for-major-points trick is back after being curiously omitted from Revenge. Also, the spin jump is once again easy to control after, again, being broken in Revenge. By far the biggest change to the gameplay, however, is the addition of candy that when eaten will allow you to change the size of Bonk to facilitate being able to reach otherwise unreachable areas. This feature is seemlessly integrated into the classic Bonk gameplay, done so without the slightest slowdown or flicker when Bonk is big and taking up 1/3rd of the screen. This concept stuck for following entries, and was even taken a step further in the 5th game in the series ("Super Bonk 2" on the SNES) with powerups that change Bonk's phyiscal shape, akin to the morphing in Air Zonk.

There are advantages to being both big and small.

There are plenty of secrets to find if you know where to look.

Back again are the bonus rounds, of course, better than ever. Some of the rounds in Bonk 3 take a little more skill to master than those in earlier adventures, and that's no bad thing. You'll find seven all new bonus rounds here, as well as one from Revenge that makes a return, with a twist.

After beating every boss, you get a chance to "pay-to-play" bonus rounds for bonus points.

Bonk 3 doesn't hesitate to inform you when you suck.

Level design is certainly a strong point in Bonk 3. Aside from the aforementioned sheer size of the areas, locations are varied and interesting throughout. You start the game in a familiar area (to anyone who has played Revenge) of the Dinosaur Kingdom, but quickly venture into uncharted territories. Of note are the intruiging Underground Pyramid and Giant's Room stages, the latter of which apparently inhabited by super-sized humanoids whose offspring you'll encounter en route.

One of the biggest complaints I hear regarding Bonk 3 is the recycling of enemies from past Bonk episodes. What isn't mentioned is that just as often the enemies you encounter will be completely new and original: the best of both worlds. One thing I really love in video games is when the developers show the gumption to develop an enemy or character for a one-off use. There are plenty such instances in Bonk 3, which makes the journey just that much more interesting.

This guy will swallow you up-- your only recourse being to make short work of his innards.

In general, the bosses in Bonk 3 live up to the Bonk standard with memorable, creative designs. "Snippy," the mechanical crab and "Angela," the snail-squid icognito are a couple personal favorites.

You can't argue the fact that from a technical standpoint, Bonk 3 is the best the series ever looked on the Duo. A large part of that aforementioned "magic" in the first episode had a lot to do with the artistic style of the graphics, an aesthetic I find has not aged very well, especially compared with part 2 and 3. Bonk 3 carries over the graphic engine from part 2 with a few minor improvements.

The soundtrack follows the rest of the game's standard of excellence, and features one song I consider to be the best in the entire series. Also of note is that the Bonk 3 soundtrack is composed of entirely original numbers, whereas parts 1 and 2 shared a few tunes. Despite the competency of the music here, I'll actually go out on a limb and say the soundtrack in Bonk's Adventure is superior, but only just.

There is just so much to do in Bonk 3, it's virtually impossible to take it all in in one playthrough, thus upping the replay value. I go back and play Bonk 3 a couple times a year and occasionally I'll even discover a new secret or something I didn't know about before. Sometimes I'll just go on a high score run to see if I can clear it and beat my previous record. Another aspect that shouldn't go unmentioned is a brand new simultaneous 2-player mode, a first for the series. Again adding replay value, this mode is just fantastic for tackling the game with a friend. It works so well, it's a real shame the prior two entries didn't have a 2-player option. It's a pity picking up the game proves to be so cost-prohibitive, but if you've got a JP->US adapter, JP system, or region modded console you can always pick up the JP version instead for a reasonable $20.

To be frank, really the only problem with Bonk 3 isn't with the game itself-- it's the price it fetches on the used market. You'd think a game that came out on both mediums would be plentiful in supply. You'd think wrong. I was lucky enough to pick this one up back in '93 when it first came out for a bargain price of $40 USD. Today, in '09, you'll be lucky to pay under $100 for the game, as a loose cart or disc. It's no small wonder people berate the game as "not being worth the money." Would you pay $100 for a loose Super Mario Bros. 3 cart? Yeah, I didn't think so.

Naxat Stadium

Naxat Soft

Regardless of its rarity or nature or alleged level of quality, a PC Engine game joining my collection is always an occasion of celebration for me, especially when said game is a freebie, as Naxat Stadium was. Of course, that doesn't necessarily indicate that hours of good times with the title lie ahead. In fact, I felt inclined to toss NS into a pile of HuCards I considered useless just seconds after powering it up. My already-low expectations sunk lower upon viewing the pitcher-batter screen, which resembles the pitcher-batter screens in about seven hundred other old, generic baseball games. It probably didn't help matters that I happened to pick the team with the ugliest home park in the history of our nation's pastime. The revolting infield looks like a big, brown shit plateau.

Thank goodness that in addition to that slop-tundra the game offers ballparks that come without diamonds of defecation. More importantly, it actually plays much better than the oldies it initially seems identical to. The fielders here have rifles for arms, so there's none of that "seventeen infield hits a game" bullshit that must be endured in plenty of said oldies and even in some quality titles like World Class Baseball. And while your computer-controlled opponents aren't all that great at the sport, they at least manage to avoid making some of the boneheaded blunders that AI clubs in many other ancient baseball sims commit, such as throwing to uncovered bases. The controls are rarely cause of grief, and the arcade-style action is always fast and fun.

So while it may not be challenging and certainly isn't pretty, Naxat Stadium is an unlikely winner thanks to its gameplay. Imagine that.

NS is primitive, but it's still got personality. Runners turn into angels and rise up into oblivion when called out, while fielders turn bug-eyed upon committing an error.

And then there are the seventh-inning cheers. GO TEAM D!

Diving plays may look ridiculous, but they're still fun to make.

Only one of my players seemed capable of hitting the ball out on a regular basis. But man, could that one guy crush 'em...

Check out stats and the loser's expression of disgruntlement during the post-game display.

You can play a 130-game season in Pennant Mode if you'd like. I stuck with a nice, brief ten-contest schedule and then participated in the best-of-seven Japan Series.

You can guess how that went.