GAME REVIEWS

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Image Fight

~ IMAGE FIGHT ~
Irem
HuCard
1990

What I ended up getting with this vertical shooter in regard to action style was actually quite a bit different from what I'd anticipated. I'd read numerous articles that compared the game to R-Type, so I was expecting it to be relatively slow and methodical. But it really isn't like that at all.



Image Fight isn't Spriggan-fast, but it certainly doesn't plod along in the manner I'd expect from a shooter often classified with R-Type. For its first four stages, it feels somewhat like a Star Soldier game that grants the player nifty red pods to control (more on these in a moment). The "organic" fifth stage does remind me of R-Type with its large snake-type creatures, but throughout the early and middle stretches of the affair, reflexes take priority over memorization. It isn't until the last three boards that knowing the level layouts and strategizing for enemy patterns and vulnerabilities really become key. Even then, progress plays out more like it does in the excellent Sinistron, where you hammer away at segment after segment as you gradually make it further and become more comfortable, than it does in R-Type, where a little memorization allows you to charge through the first six levels as if there's no opposing army at all.



The red pods I alluded to earlier are Image Fight's hook. You can grab standard blue options that simply flank your ship and shoot straight ahead, but the red guys are much more interesting. You control their bullet streams by flying in the direction contrary to where you want them to fire. There are similar armaments in a number of other shooters, but few of them are as integral a component in their respective games as the red pods are here. You must not only master the direction-based firing but also consider ways to utilize the pods defensively.



Indeed, most of the later boss fights are all about ship positioning and pod placement. The early-level skirmishes are no cakewalks either, however. All of the bosses are cunning and can really make you panic with their attacks; and of course, panicking is the worst thing to do. The enemy leader in Stage 3 shoots long, shot-blocking lasers that crisscross the screen; if you decide to run around like a chicken with its head cut off, you won't stand a chance.



Oddly enough, your final opponent can be destroyed incredibly easily if you simply determine what the best weapon is to bring to the fight.



The bosses, as well as the regular enemies, look quite cool, but the level graphics are ho-hum at best. It's not that anything's particularly ugly about 'em, but there's nothing really eye catching about any of the environments, from the forest to the bases.



The music is nice, though, particularly the surprisingly soft numbers, and there's a cool Ninja Spirit-style sound test.

One more thing I must mention is the penalty zone, an extremely difficult area that serves as your punishment if you fail to obliterate a significant chunk of the enemy legion during the regular levels. I'd never been there until I swallowed my pride and missed shots intentionally so that my hit percentages would plunge below the border, so it's a fate you shouldn't have to work very hard to avoid. If you're wondering if it's worth taking pains to visit the zone just for the experience, well, I sure as hell don't think so, and there's practically no reward for overcoming the extreme difficulty and making it out of there alive.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Cardangels

~ CARDANGELS ~
Fujicom
Super CD-ROM
1994

Cardangels has you take on a troop of anime girls in four different card games: blackjack, poker, speed, and babanuki.



Blackjack and poker are... well, blackjack and poker, with no real surprises held therein (except for the fact that the computer makes some extraordinarily dopey decisions in blackjack). Speed can be the most enjoyable of the four, as it actually allows you to stay active instead of having you sit there staring at a hand, but it can also be frustrating: you'll have to fiddle around with the I, II, and Run buttons just to plop your cards onto the correct piles, while your adversaries can toss their own cards out incredibly quickly; and once the computer gets on a roll, there's pretty much no stopping it. An unfair round of speed is still preferable to any sort of experience with babanuki, however, as the latter has you and your opponent blindly, tediously picking cards from each other's hand, with both sides simply hoping to avoid the joker.



Once you've defeated a given girl... SURPRISE! She undresses for you!



I bet you didn't see that coming.

As predictably perverted as Cardangels is, it's still a high-quality product. Its artwork is nice, its music is listenable, and it offers up forty-five girls to play against, meaning you probably won't finish it off all that quickly. I must mention that while you earn points for your wins, you never actually make any bets, so the "thrill" that comes with placing a huge wager in most casino-type games is nowhere to be found here. That's all right with me, though: girls over gambling anytime, I say.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mahjong Sword: Princess Quest Gaiden

~ MAHJONG SWORD ~
Naxat Soft / Tomboy
Super CD-ROM / Arcade CD-ROM
1995

When I finally decided to learn how to play mahjong, I felt as if a whole new wing of the PC Engine library had become accessible to me. My initial choices were limited, though, as Mahjong Sword was the only mahjong title I owned at the time. I'd bought it mainly for its cool art and perceived rarity, but never being one to let a PCE game go unplayed, I decided to go ahead and learn the ins and outs of mahjong itself. The going was a little tough at first while I was still picking up on the mahjong basics, but before long, I was tearing right through my opponents...



...and tearing right through their clothing as well.



Yep, this is an "adult-targeted" game featuring scantily "armored," mahjong-proficient warrior-women.



The victor in a match utilizes her mighty weapons/powers/creature-buddies to unleash a massive attack on the poor loser. Of course, said loser's clothing suffers all the damage, ultimately leaving the whimpering anime girl in a near-nude state. Don't get too excited though, fellows: Mahjong Sword is not a very naughty or revealing game, and even a mild affair like Dragon Knight II shows a little more than what you'll get here.



But hey, it was enough of a hook for me, though the fun of the mahjong itself is what was really keeping me up super-late at night. The quest elements helped a bit too. You encounter the mahjong amazons as you jaunt about a small world map. Money is earned with each victory and can be spent on items for use mid-match.



The match gameplay is simply good, fast-paced, thrilling mahjong action and gave me nothing to gripe about. The song that plays during the end credits is very nice, and the girls themselves are certainly quite all right.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Downtown Nekketsu Monogatari (River City Ransom)

~ DOWNTOWN NEKKETSU MONOGATARI ~
Naxat Soft / Technos Japan
Super CD-ROM
1993

I like this game well enough. It's a decent duke-it-out sort of thing, a fast-paced little "brawler before brawlers really got good." But if you're gonna ask me if it deserves the ridiculous amount of hype it gets in its various incarnations, if it's truly the impeccable "cult classic" that droves of slobbering NES fans make it out to be, if it's worth the $100+ that this version typically goes for, then I'm gonna respond with a resounding "Fuck no." I guess I just don't find the whole "everyone is a big-headed hunchback with no neck" thing as adorable and charming as most people do.



There isn't much to do in Downtown, and I don't simply mean it's burdened with the usual brawler repetitiveness. The enemies at the end of the game are essentially replicas of the chumps who appear when the journey commences, but they block and swing a little more often and sport different "gang colors." All you do is go around town beating on the bums, occasionally taking out a "more important," slightly tougher bum.



Yes, there's a "shopping" element that fans will tell you was extremely innovative. Sorry, but I can't sit here in this day and age and pretend that my enjoyment of the game is enhanced by periodic strolls through malls and opportunities to purchase health restorers and the occasional "technique-teaching" book. In fact, considering Final Lap Twin features a fully realized RPG mode, I question whether this buying-in-a-brawler business is all that special even given Downtown's age. I will say that I like the funny little in-store animations, though.



The raw guitar-driven music is pretty cool and suits the game perfectly, but it hardly ever changes up (which, I suppose, is one of the reasons it suits the game perfectly...).

Again, there's nothing really wrong with the action; Downtown plays fairly well and makes for decent fun. But it's sorely lacking in "money moments." Its one truly exciting scene is a tribute to a contemporary, complete with the awesome old Double Dragon theme music.



It might've been a good idea to end things right there--but no, Downtown insists on concluding with an anticlimactic rooftop "showdown."



But hey, if you're one of the many people who are crazy about the NES rendition and you've got some cash to burn, don't let me be a party pooper. Go ahead and pick this thing up, and revel in all its no-necked awesomeness.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Legion

~ LEGION ~
Renovation / Telenet
CD-ROM
1990

Based on what I'd read about it, I expected Legion to be an amusingly awful game at best and a useless piece of trash at worst. As it turns out, I think it's a worthwhile shooter--and not a mere "kitsch classic."



Many people complain about its high level of difficulty, but it can't be all that hard if a Turbob Grafx rookie like me was able to complete it in a day. I acknowledge that its opening moments can be a bit discouraging, as you're at once forced to deal with relentless enemies who fire extremely fast bullets. But if you can survive the rough early going and power up a bit, you might just find that the game is beatable and enjoyable after all. Grabbing and strengthening the multi-way blaster and learning the layouts of the first two stages (and how to defeat their respective bosses) will lead to success in the long run. With a little bit of practice, you can reach the third stage with a full stock of lives and a high-powered gun that covers an enormous amount of space with its shots. Your craft won't seem helpless anymore, and you'll start obtaining shields to boot. Suddenly, the enemy armada won't seem so tough.



Legion does require practice, memorization, and strategy. But it's certainly not impossible, and the more you learn and the better you get, the more enjoyable the experience becomes. And the "getting better" process obviously shouldn't take much time. Before long, you'll have your once-hapless little ship soaring to all the right spots, reacting quickly to its speedy adversaries, and wreaking havoc with screen-spanning spreadshots.



The game is fair with just about everything it throws at you. But I'll concede that one level (the last if you travel the default path) is simply ridiculous, and there's little you can do but smash your way through it.



Legion's graphics, as you might have noticed, aren't very good, and its music is chip fodder. I like most of the tunes, though, and can live without fancy visuals in a space shooter if the action occupies my attention, which is the case here. And not all of the stages and sprites are write-offs.



So yes, I truly enjoy Legion. Sadly, I think I'm the only person who likes it. But I do recommend it to folks who want a decent challenge and won't give up if things seem rough at first. It's at least worth a shot, especially since it's cheap. With that said, I now refer you to a Legion review you're much more likely to agree with, a hilarious piece by my merry cousin Zigfriedolmevich.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Kaze Kiri

~ KAZE KIRI ~
Naxat Soft
Super CD-ROM
1994

Old martial arts sidescroller Kung Fu, which many NES veterans look back on fondly (if never wish to revisit), was more a display of primitiveness than an instance of effective concept implementation. The simplicity of the affair worked in the game's favor, as it gave the repetitive beat 'em up ("beat 'em up" used in the loosest sense) a certain charm that fancier visuals may have negated (try to paint a prettier picture of the third-stage behemoth and you'll wind up with a generic Final Fight big man, while the wily old magician may have seemed more laughable than elusive had he wielded "Mode 7 magic"). Most subsequent punch-and-kick affairs traveled the correct route by surrounding their violence with adventures that went beyond Kung Fu's "walk down the hall" layout; those that chose poorly and polished the surfaces of KF's remains are widely looked upon as fighting-game laughingstocks (think Vigilante). Naxat Soft's Kaze Kiri, a Super CD adventure that has wrongly garnered the reputation of being a Shinobi slayer, stands as the exception to the rule, advancing the premise of single-strip, platforming-devoid action with elements of speed, technique, and aural excellence.



Begin with what's old and reliable and build from there: human devastator Kaze invades his enemy's lair in order to rescue a typical damsel in distress. Forget those dusty wooden planks from Kung Fu, and erase all memories of Joe Musashi's goofy "jaunt through enemy lines in broad daylight" approach in Revenge of Shinobi; Kaze launches his raid in the pitch-black of a stormy night, quickly and quietly making his way through underground tunnels and torch-lit corridors, evading the core of the opposing force by sticking to rain-drenched ledges and neglected outer walls. Of course, the most brutal of his foes' ranks must eventually be confronted and annihilated in battles that will make Kaze witness to the fiercest and most bizarre brands of attack that old man Musashi never needed to face. The game has a suitably grim and gritty feel about it, even to a greater extreme than does its companion in elements of darkness and the supernatural, Ninja Spirit.



Kaze himself is portrayed as a scarred and grizzled warrior, an embattled champion who earns our confidence merely with his aura of "I've been through it all before." There's more to him than just cuts and bruises, of course. The man boasts incredible proficiency with blades and ferociously slices through his enemies with a sword that emits a cool-looking green arc in the spirit of Strider. Shuriken, of course, are part of his repertoire along with an array of leaping kicks and holds, flips and throws, slides and swipes--all of which he uses to batter his foes before bewildering them with his ability to vanish into thin air at a whim's notice. Watch him dart across the screen with phenomenal speed and grace, hand reaching over shoulder and gripping sword all the while. Realize that this is the one ninja who stands on equal ground with Shinobi III's super-slick Joe Musashi.



Unlike Shinobi III, Kaze Kiri actually forces you to master and utilize all of the wonderful moves at your disposal, as your enemies themselves are no slouches in combat. Sure, there are generic foot soldiers to be encountered, but even the meek are capable of parrying your blows, striking back viciously, and dealing a good strong foot-to-the-ribs when necessary. Slice through spear-wielders whose range of attack far exceeds your own; and step outdoors into the pouring rain, where shuriken hurlers board kites and soar through the storm to hunt you down. (Smack down their projectiles with a CLANG! That awesome sword you wield can be used for defensive purposes as well!) Archers remain at a distance and let loose with dead-on shots while armored, mace-wielding hulks do their damage in close, and a vicious tiger hungrily awaits your arrival. Things sure have come a long way since the "midgets and grabbers" of Kung Fu, haven't they?



Be warned that the competency of your opponents and their tendency to attack in groups can lead to lengthy mid-stage battles; it may prove frustrating to find yourself surrounded by four warriors who are all adept at parrying your slashes. Kaze Kiri is a long game extended by the fact that a certain number of standard soldiers must be beaten before a stage can conclude or a boss can appear. Reach the end of a strip without having defeated the requisite number of villains and you'll need to turn tail and enter the melee again. This can certainly be annoying after bevies of foot soldiers have already been slaughtered, but it's a necessary evil in light of the structure of the game and Kaze's ability to outrun and leap over many of his opponents.



Should the thrill of playing as such a skilled and speedy character not stand as sufficient reason for proceeding with the required ravagings, then the brilliant soundtrack will undoubtedly keep you hooked for a good long while. Kaze's music is of the same Asian essence as the tunes found in ninja-featuring brethren Shinobi and Ninja Spirit, although it shuns the sharp, intense riffs found in those games in favor of deeper, richer melody lines. Atypical for the sub-genre, this aural approach grants Kaze an aura of beauty that transcends the bloodshed while maintaining the dark (and sometimes mournful) atmosphere of the adventure.



Even with technique, speed, and quality audio in tow, Kaze Kiri's calling card is its end-of-strip boss battles. Wars await you when ordinary combatants have been left for dead and the chilling boss track kicks in. It wouldn't be overstating matters to claim that no other action game boasts a cast of level leaders that combine uses of weaponry, wizardry, and pure physical skill in such effective, intimidating, and magnificent fashions. An iron-clawed giant tears his way across the screen as a fire-spitting hawk bombards you from above. A sorceress beckons a troop of white monkeys and sends them slashing their way toward you; slice up the nuisances before the true threat rises up amidst the pouring rain and unleashes her own brand of burning storm. A huge, staff-twirling monk enters the fray, preferring to dabble in supernatural attacks should he have time to work his magic but all too willing to hammer you with his heavy weapon should you become overconfident in your melee abilities. Dodge the double-bladed sword wielded by a particularly fast female opponent and be constantly wary, as she'll wait for just the right moment to let one side of her tool fly toward you and ricochet back via chain, the return trip typically made in blood-soaked fashion. (As an aside, the abundance of female bosses in the game is an unexpected and admirable twist.)



Kaze Kiri stands as the near-perfect result of an intriguing project. Naxat Soft proved with this CD that an antiquated idea that wasn't particularly exciting even to begin with can evolve into something brilliant. Throw in some impeccable ingredients--in this case, speed, technique, solid enemy design, memorable boss fights, and aural and visual excellence--and even a dog as wrinkled and gray as Kung Fu can eventually have its day. But...



I'm sorry. I can recommend the game without being content with what it is. I can't simply praise something great if it had the potential to be something special. I especially cannot do this when the required elements for making such a leap were staring a company right in the face when it decided to wrap up work on its project. Consider the following:


As Kaze makes his initial raid on the enemy's fortress, arrows with blazing tips rain down upon him. It makes for a neat scene visually, but just imagine if those missiles could actually strike and damage our speedy warrior. Instead, they simply fly straight through him and bury their tips in the ground. Later, as Kaze makes his way through an underground tunnel, loose stones fall from the ceiling. They work to create a neat scene when, if Kaze actually had to fear and dodge them, they could've made for an intense one. The monotony that the game ultimately treads through might have easily been alleviated.


We're eventually treated to a brief interlude that shows Kaze tossing up a rope and scaling a steep wall. Why not allow us to play through this scene rather than having us watch it? Have some of those kite-riding foes assail us. Diverge from the standard run-and-slash action.


Throughout the quest, doors in the background leading to adjoining corridors and openings in the ceiling leading to goodness-knows-where are clear in view, yet we cannot enter them. These images simply reinforce the desire to indulge in a little platforming and exploration a la Shinobi III and secret-laden Aladdin. How about a labyrinthine sequence reminiscent of Musashi's late-stage exploits or a few simple puzzles along the lines of the ones that Joe is typically forced to solve? (Heck, even Kung Fu forced us to think a little when the magician seemed impervious to our attacks.)


Kaze must duel with one particularly crafty ninja numerous times throughout the game. Mightn't some intermediary cinemas serving to explain and heighten the rivalry between the two have made the confrontations that much more dramatic?

You had to tease us, Naxat! I can't let matters rest at "job well done" when you had already thought of all the ingredients that Kaze Kiri needed to become the greatest ninja action game ever conceived yet failed to follow through on them. I do recommend the game, though--even at the high prices it typically goes for. Duo fans deserve the opportunity to acquaint themselves with its highly skilled protagonist, revel in its gorgeous soundtrack, and take part in its memorable boss battles. It's got technique accompanied by attitude--beauty with bite.



(But it could have had more!)