Saturday, March 6, 2010


~ L-DIS ~

Sunny skies lend to the wonderful sense of freedom our two heroes experience as they break free of the bondage that is junior high. The final bell of the day brings limitless possibilities, homework a trifling matter when the weather is so beautiful and the trial that was the school day has been left conquered and forgotten. But youth goes hand in hand with recklessness, and in accordance with this proven rule, the newly freed students decide to shun the potential for constructive activity, instead opting to duck into a dreary alley and smear a complacent brick wall with all sorts of wacky illustrations.

And so they doodle away the late afternoon, taking pride in their ability to contribute to the neighborhood’s desecration, until a scrawny sorcerer comes along and brings their creations to life, transforming the products of their imaginations into ruthless beasts of destruction. Of course, the evil sketch-animator abducts the female member of the duo as well. You know what comes next. One’s woman must be rescued, and vengeance must be had.

What a way to spend a sunny day.

Recognized for the cinematic magnificence of Macross 2036 and notorious for the bodybuilding abominations known as the Choaniki episodes, NCS/Masaya cranked out another shooter for the Duo that has received substantially less fanfare over time. While 2036 represents their attempt at an intense Thunder Force-style blastathon and the Choanikis are simply, well, odd, L-Dis stands as the company’s foray into the world of cartoonishness. If the opening sequence detailing our heroes’ plight doesn’t clue you in on this, then the mere appearance of your ship certainly will: this tool of destruction resembles a piece of bubble gum plastered with eyeballs and roughly molded into the form of Fantasy Zone's Opa Opa.

Up to two goofy mechanical allies may accompany the heroic little craft and contribute their own distinct brands of firepower. Minuscule as the members of our fellowship may be, they sure can deal out some heavy damage, and they definitely do their jobs in interesting fashion. Human hands fly forward to pelt your enemies, women’s shoes drop to the ground and slide along the terrain, deadly missiles-with-feet soar to the top of the screen and dash onwards, a rubber egg of death bounces about the playfield, and a smiley-faced energy burst clears the path ahead. Just as lethal as they are unique (or should I simply say “weird”?), all of these weapons can be at your disposal simultaneously. And this conglomeration represents but one of many possible combinations.

Use that mighty weaponry to obliterate Stage 1's toy snakes and talking clams. Admire the personality that the enemy cast is imbued with--it’s typical for your larger foes to exchange a few words with you, and even the genre’s standard mini-cannons are granted cute mini-eyeballs.

The nighttime city scene that is Stage 2 boasts the type of super-fast scrolling that NCS/Masaya enjoyed flaunting in 2036. Your ship kicks into high gear, zipping past looming structures, tearing through cyclopean craft and speedy vehicles that act as the mini-cannons’ convoy, and slowing down only when confronted by a gargantuan egg of doom that flutters about the screen via the use of two tiny golden wings. Defeat this abomination and access the underground, where large rats lunge towards you by flapping their enormous ears and a silly, slinky, orange-hurling robot attempts to thrash you by utilizing its slithering body and citrus brand of weaponry.

And all along, you’ll be privy to the cute, catchy tunes that make up L-Dis' comforting, nostalgia-inducing soundtrack. The game has a distinctly old-school feel about it; there are no wailing guitars or pounding drums, just warm tunes that seem to welcome you back each time you power the game up. Similarly endearing are the “Pyoom! Pyoom!" sound effects that often substitute for flat-out explosions.

Oh, but you will hear explosions--large, thunderous explosions akin to 2036‘s beautiful ear-bleeders. And they will act as your first clue that L-Dis isn’t quite as warm and cutesy as it's initially cracked up to be.

In fact, this game crushed me repeatedly when I first obtained it years ago. I eventually realized that finding weapons you're comfortable with and making masterful use of the option pods are the keys to success. Memorization and reflexes won't get you through the game if you aren't competent with the auxiliary weaponry.

This isn't a very cute "cute 'em up," and I don't say that just because it's hard. Sure, there are some funny voices, a bubblegum-ball ship, and an end-credits sequence that's kind of like a cartoony take on Ys', but you're not traveling through a land of pastels and silliness. After the pretty twilight sky of the first stage, you get cities, sewers, and bases that Opa Opa wouldn't be caught dead visiting.

The sub-aquatic kingdom that is Stage 4 returns to the game's cartoonish roots, and its icy brilliance marks the adventure’s highest point, although the bullet-spewing octopi and stone-faced submarines let you know that the enemy forces are done being "cute.”

From Stage 4 on, things get downright tough. And that's fine. A cartoony answer to the likes of Gaiares and R-Type seems like a brilliant concept. There could finally be refuge for the shooter pro who has had his fill of standard sci-fi spaceships and aliens.

Sadly, when L-Dis decides to get tough, it also chooses to leave behind much of its cartoony charm. The flying rabbits of Stage 5 can’t offset the dullness of the ugly brown-and-purple structures we’re forced to navigate.

And Stage 6, while boasting a level of difficulty just below the tier of insanity, manages to bore us with laser-spewing robots and mundane “navigate the maze of moving blocks” sequences. The streams of lasers seem never ending, and the mazes are cleverly designed (the concept is typical but the block patterns are not); and any level that features twelve damn bosses (and we're not talking rehashes of earlier guys) definitely deserves some respect...

...but this just isn’t the same L-Dis that many players come to love early on. It’s like a novel that features a deep, clever conclusion--but not the conclusion that one was hoping for.

And that stands as the reason why L-Dis isn’t an elite shooter--but it sure as hell doesn’t mean that the game isn’t wonderful. The excellent music, comedic voices, and cleverly designed boss characters are indisputable signs that NCS/Masaya put a great deal of heart and effort into it. Throw in attractive visuals, an innovative weapons system, and a challenge that’s sure to last and you wind up with a game that any PC Engine shooter fan should be proud to own.

It’s a great way to waste a sunny day.

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