Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Final Blaster


Final Blaster is a maddeningly inconsistent shooter. It supplies you with a sweet charge shot that takes the form of a phoenix, and it gives you plenty of options regarding the management of your companion pods (you can utilize them as stationary frontal shields, have them trail or rotate around you, or set them off as smart bombs), but your craft's main gun blasts and auxiliary laser beams are not terribly interesting. The soundtrack scores winners with its Stage 2, Stage 6, and final boss themes (energetic, ominous, and chillingly dramatic, respectively) but wastes time with plenty of forgettable numbers as well. And while the last boss's cocoon-lined lair looks very cool, the generic space-and-base scenes that precede it do not.

Although the last level is the only one that makes a good impression visually, some of the others fare well conceptually, particularly Stage 5 with its gauntlets of mechanical pincer claws and rotating barriers and Stage 6 with its ancient ruins and strange sketch-beasts. Unfortunately, there's also Stage 3 with its tiny cannons that look like randomly etched lines and circles.

FB's erraticism extends to the lineup of enemies it sends at you. Stage 4 stars neat gun-toting robo-troops who leap from the backdrop into the fray, but they're accompanied in battle by lots of little riffraff villains that make no mark at all.

It's the same story with the bosses. Among the memorable ones are a multiform vegetation abomination and a duo of scythe tossers flanking a bullet-spewing, many-faced cranium; among the throwaways are a junk serpent and some cheap string-riding circle thing.

While the game obviously has many highs and lows, its "difficulty system" is ultimately what will make or break it for most shooter fans. The system judges your performance in one stage and then sets a new bar for you prior to the next, with as many as four variations for each board. Make it to the high road and you'll definitely have a challenge on your hands--an occasionally irritating one at that. Suffer a wipeout and your post-continue takeoff will see you back in easy land.

And that really pissed me off. The difference between the Level 1 and Level 4 settings is vast; get demoted and you'll find that your enemies have had all their speed, toughness, and aggressiveness drained out of them. I never want games to feature bullshit training-wheels systems like this one, and for players who do want to take it easy, there should be a traditional mode select presented at the outset. The Level 4 challenges are not insurmountable, but they do require practice, and it's hard to put in that practice when the game insists on treating you like a baby; such a system does not encourage learning and improvement. Nexzr, Tatsujin, and Raiden didn't knock me down to some Fisher Price kid setting when I first failed at them; they kept kicking my ass until I honed my skills and reaped rewards by conquering them the old-fashioned, true-warrior way. Final Blaster can be rewarding, but its stupid challenge-adjustment system makes it a bitch to stick with.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Emerald Dragon

NEC Home Electronics / Media Works / Glodia / Right Stuff
Super CD-ROM

I took on Emerald Dragon for the first time right after I'd finished my first playthroughs of Kabuki Den and Manji Maru. ED was in an unenviable position, trying to follow in the footsteps of two RPG legends and all, but it got off to a brilliant start, especially aesthetically. Its soundtrack features some great instrumentation, and its graphics are appealing and colorful.

Unfortunately, the more I played of ED, the more I realized that, while it was good in its own right, it couldn't measure up to those two Tengai Makyou episodes (or many other great PCE RPGs, for that matter). It certainly didn't offer as much adventuring as Manji, and its characters couldn't compare with Kabuki's awesome bunch. I also found that the key story elements in the TM titles were more memorable than the high points of Emerald's tale.

And that right there was the biggest disappointment: upon completing ED, I felt that the special climactic moment I'd been anticipating throughout the entire adventure never actually materialized. Sure, it has some shocking moments, though for all the blood and screaming it tosses out there, it basically indulges in one cinematic cliche after another with its "tragedies." And sure, it has some "touching" moments, though the sweetest one of all occurs during the first thirty minutes of the twenty-five hour ride.

So in a fashion, it has its share of surprising moments and emotional moments, but ED doesn't feature THAT moment, a moment that sticks with me, the sort of singular event that most elite adventure titles can boast of. Its cast is of no help, as the characters themselves do little to stand out or offset the cliches. The villain whom you'll spend a large chunk of your quest pursuing comes off as more of a clownish Drax than a sinister Phades, even though he looks pretty cool (in some scenes, at least...). And with the heroine spending almost every second of the journey in tears, I stop feeling bad for her after a while and start wishing she'd just stop blubbering.

I also wish the title featured more scenes like the one during which the hero scores a surprising early-game, blood-spattering slash on the poor man's Phades. And I wish the instance when that blade-wielding hero goes with eyes closed and face red and gives the heroine a tight, heartfelt hug weren't the only time I really felt anything from ED's tale.

What I got were acts of "heroism" in the well-worn forms of sacrificial leaps in front of arrows and magical bolts--sacrifices made by characters I'd come to know only as "likable enough" before they bit a bullet a la Adaon for a Taran they themselves were barely familiar with. This is truly a shame, as ED's cinemas are absolutely remarkable. The artwork is just fantastic, and the events, routine as they may be, are executed with aplomb.

And I suppose it's worth mentioning that, thanks to a cool and unique battle system that lets you run around crashing into creatures like "hell caterpillars" while the computer manages your allies (competently enough), ED is a lot of fun to play. Unfortunately, even the fun of fighting doesn't last the whole way through. Towards the end of the quest, there are some large locations where the frequent battles become very time consuming and nearly unbearable. Enduring the drawn-out fights and exploring said locations will typically earn you little reward aside from superfluous healing items. So while many great PCE CD RPGs really hit their strides with incredible cinematic moments during their last few hours, ED kind of sputters out and degenerates into a mess of irritating battles.

I sound so negative. I must reiterate that the in-game experience is enjoyable save for some of those last few labyrinth treks and that the amazing cinemas are always fun to watch even if the story they tell isn't enthralling. The first time I completed ED, I considered it a disappointment but a good game nonetheless. Lower expectations this time around allowed it to advance to "very good" status. Perhaps if I play through it another sixteen or seventeen times, I'll ultimately be willing to grant it that perfect score that many others have bestowed upon it. Until then, you can check out this fantastic review by one dude who did give it such a score.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Efera and Jiliora

Brain Grey

This one has been a favorite of mine for ages. I also love the Gude Crest anime (which features the two heroines), and if you're thinking about purchasing the game, I highly recommend that you acquire said anime as well. It'll fill you in on the basics of the plot, though the game changes a lot of things and actually tells a much longer and more intricate story.

This is an overhead-view action-RPG that allows two players to partake in the proceedings simultaneously and is quite reminiscent of Ys (more in perspective, pacing, and feel than in quality of presentation). You get to swing your sword here, but honestly, given the Ys-style pacing, I would've preferred bump-attacking. The hack-and-slash approach works well enough for the most part, but flocks of small aerial foes can be real hassles to deal with. You can learn techniques that'll grant you alternative methods of slaughtering (or simply evading) your enemies, but said enemies have magical tricks up their sleeves, and there are many environmental hazards to be aware of while battling. The gameplay can feel rough and tough at times.

E&J is very dark, both visually and atmospherically; the many grays and browns may really make you feel like you're on a trip through a bleak, dying world. The game is not only bizarre but also merciless thematically: two children lose their sibling, another youngster is crucified, a battlefield is littered with the bodies of dead knights, and evil cults perform odd rituals and murder/abduct your allies.

You can partake in the madness by butchering townspeople (for lots of experience points in some instances), but their friends will hound you and attempt to murder you in turn. If you're like me, you'll enjoy E&J's dark side; but others may find the game strange and ugly.

There's definitely a chance that the visuals will turn some players off immediately. Frankly, there's nothing pretty about the title. And the cinemas aren't typical PCE anime-style presentations; rather, they look sort of like scenes from a sidescrolling action game or, more precisely, a Loom/Beyond Shadowgate-esque adventure. Again, I like the distinct approach, but it certainly won't appeal to everyone.

The excellent red book material comprising the soundtrack should have mass appeal, however. One particularly sweet dungeon tune begins with a flutish melody that's quickly joined by a reverb-heavy bassline and eventually leads up to a wonderful sax solo. I wish there were a few more tunes, but there are enough.

There are also plenty of cool, impressive bosses. In terms of attack techniques, they beat the Ys bunch hands down.

I've played through this game many times, and I'm certainly not done with it yet. I love the story, the characters, the atmosphere, the music, and the bosses. But it clearly isn't for everyone, and I don't expect many other people to get as much enjoyment out of it as I have. There are sure to be players who decide to let Efera's world remain brown and dead. But for folks who aren't deterred by its visuals, E&J should make for an interesting experience and rate at least a "pretty good."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Rainbow Islands

Taito / NEC Avenue

I wasn't expecting all that much from Rainbow Islands when I purchased it. I do enjoy Parasol Stars, its acclaimed descendant, but not nearly as much as everyone else seems to, and the consensus has always been that RI is similar in some respects to PS but not quite as good. As it turned out, consensus had misled me. I ended up loving the game.

Its many levels scroll vertically and demand that you make your way to their peaks in relatively short spans. The race-to-the-top gameplay style appeals to me much more than Parasol Stars' bumble-around-in-a-box formula. At first, the boards called to mind Kid Icarus' similarly structured vertical stages, but with much more color, much faster action, and far less suckiness. And I immediately dug the general play system, the most appealing aspect of which is that you can accomplish so many different things with your rainbow weaponry, from killing enemies to nabbing items and building bridges.

The bosses are a charismatic lot, and the level themes, especially the ones related to other games (elements of Darius, Bubble Bobble, and Arkanoid are incorporated in particular realms), add a great deal of personality to proceedings that are entertaining to begin with. To top it all off, there's a sweet vocal number to be heard at the conclusion (if you prove yourself worthy of experiencing the best ending).

The one thing that bugged me about RI at first was how bloody difficult it can be to acquire the elusive hyper items, which endow the protagonist with some extremely useful abilities. You have to collect different-colored diamonds in the ROYGBIV order in each world, and as you can do only so much in attempting to determine the colors that appear, the process can prove extremely wearisome. But when I finally managed to get my hands on a few of these trinkets and realized how incredibly helpful they are, I understood why the game makes us go through such taxing trials to obtain them.

Rainbow Islands isn't the easiest game to come by, and $90 seems to be a common price for it these days. I was fortunately able to acquire it from a friend for much less than that a few years ago. Knowing now how enjoyable it is, I wouldn't hesitate to plunk down a substantial amount of cash for it if I had to, but I'd probably wait until I was presented with a price significantly lower than the going rate.

Friday, December 17, 2010

J.B. Harold Murder Club

Hudson Soft / Riverhill Soft

I was so into this mystery game when it first came out that, as I proceeded with my virtual investigation, I actually jotted down notes in the little black-and-white case booklet that came with the disc. It's a simple game to play, a point-and-click affair that has you go around town questioning people and looking for evidence to help solve a murder case.

But through a succession of bizarre twists and turns, the plot eventually evolves into something incredibly elaborate and intriguing. I bet it's more substantive than any mass-market mystery you can find at your local bookstore.

To this day, I have lots of fun playing through the game, even though I figured out long ago which character committed the crime. There's still a rush to be felt when finding a key piece of evidence or breaking someone down in the interrogation room. Things get surprisingly intense when a suspect is reaching his or her boiling point and you're on the verge of eliciting a confession.

Also, there's some nice jazz music to enjoy at the opening, ending, and "rest" screens. You don't have to sit through any crappy FMV, and you can leave the character voices off if you want. What might prove annoying is that you have to visit certain locations and talk to particular people over and over again. I could see why some players would consider the proceedings monotonous after a while.

While it seems like most folks who've played the game enjoy it to some degree, it really hasn't gotten much attention over the years. VideoGames & Computer Entertainment magazine praised it but also took it to task for a minor (and largely irrelevant) plot point involving a rape. It was overshadowed by Sherlock Holmes when it was first released, as Sherlock featured FMV, and while Holmes is still mentioned these days (mostly when people are making fun of it), Murder Club is just sort of out there. It's a great game to try if you're up for a little point-and-click mystery solving, and it deserves more accolades than it has received.