GAME REVIEWS

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Burai

~ BURAI ~
Riverhill Soft
CD-ROM
1991

I took a chance on this RPG for two reasons: it was inexpensive, and its cover flaunts some really cool character designs. When I powered it up for the first time, the kick-ass opening cinemas made me think I'd stumbled upon a diamond in the rough.



But moments later I laid my eyes upon the most primitive PCE visuals I'd ever had the "privilege" to be blinded by. Please note that I can tolerate bad graphics; it was the limited scope of the ridiculously small playfield (which occupies merely one-fourth of the menu-and-stats-dominated screen) that I found particularly appalling.



I concluded that the game was useless, as I couldn't even see enough of the surrounding landscape to have any clue of where I was supposed to go. And so Burai stood rotting on my shelf for years. Eventually, I decided to play it and finish it once and for all, if for no other reason than to finally clear it from my queue.



Well, its premise is fairly interesting. You have to play through seven mini-quests that involve wacky characters who meet up for one final adventure during which they search for legendary weapons and make a "dramatic" charge through the ultimate bad guy's castle.



And it all actually works thanks to the fact that the game generally makes life easy for the player. The mini-quests are short and straightforward: typically, you make your way to a nearby town where you hang around and power up, and then you venture out into the world to find a mazelike area (be it a tower or cavern or mountain path). You'll experience event scenes and fight bosses and mini-bosses during the proceedings.



Even when a given mini-quest diverges from that rudimentary pattern, affairs remain simple and fun. One young fellow needs to bust out of prison--not exactly a unique theme, but the mischievous rogue gets to free other "criminals" along the way, some of whom team up with him to pummel the guards.



The game does very little to annoy the player aside from the infamous playfield scrunching, and even that ultimately isn't much of an issue, as the overworld proves to be quite linear and the (first few) dungeons are far from tortuous. In just about every area, you can find enemies who regularly drop restorative potions, so you don't have to take many "inn breaks" during requisite leveling sessions. Most of your enemies can be dealt with fairly quickly, and encounters not only are spaced out so they don't become annoying but also happen at an amazingly consistent rate: you can usually tell when you're about to be attacked just by listening to the music, as confrontations occur at a particular part of the field tune nearly every time.



Speaking of the music, it does seem horrible at first, but play on and you'll get to hear some surprisingly nice field and town themes. There's also one particularly cool rock number that accompanies certain "showdown time" event scenes (it's worth noting, however, that poor acoustics make the track sound as if it were recorded in a grotto).



These nice things make the game playable but not necessarily memorable. But when your characters finally get together, the overworld really opens up, and the game ascends to another level. The final stretch covers a lot more territory than the mini-quests that precede it, but by the time you reach said stretch, you'll have a good handle on how the game works, and you shouldn't have much trouble figuring out the lay of the land. You'll suddenly have a whopping eight different characters to suit up, but enemies drop lots of equipment articles, most of which can be sold off for tons of cash. And matters become more interesting thanks to some really cool tasks that your party must complete, like butchering an ogre and then annihilating his persistent, "never say die" body parts.



You never know when you might find a secret weapon or be assaulted by one of the game's many mini-bosses. You could be stumbling along in a desert when you'll suddenly spot a remarkable blade lying in the sands. You might be jaunting along merrily when a giant gorgon or octopus or mammoth (with minions in tow) will decide to attack you.



Some of the last few dungeons are absolutely enormous, but unlike the large labyrinths in the abominable Last Armageddon, they never quite become drags, as Burai sticks to its roots of simplicity and convenience throughout.



When I finally decided to play this game in earnest, I pretty much promised myself that I wouldn't end up making it out to be some sort of Cinderella story if it somehow were to prove acceptable. Then I found myself staying up really late, pressing onward to see what kind of weapon I'd find or boss I'd fight or event I'd experience next. The secrets and dungeons and crazy characters made sure that whenever I put the controller down, I did so begrudgingly. I'm not sure there's any better sign of a quality RPG than that.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Farzyarth no Jakoutei (Neo Metal Fantasy)

~ NEO METAL FANTASY ~
Human
Super CD-ROM
1992

It's unfortunate that this game garners little reverence, as it's a fantastic old-school RPG that does practically everything right. Following the lead of the legendary Phantasy Star II, Neo Metal Fantasy takes a traditional tale of adventure and infuses it with science fiction elements. You'll still explore a green-field-dominated overworld, purchase shields and healing items, and visit caves and castles. You'll also pilot giant mecha, meet mechanical centaurs, and take off into outer space. NMF's not quite as atmospheric as the compellingly bizarre PS2, and it's nowhere near as challenging, but it proceeds at a faster pace and is even more enjoyable to play.



As you'd expect in a game that draws inspiration from PS2, the dungeons are extremely large. We're not talking about labyrinths consisting of pointless space and redundant corridors, though. This title offers variety in its location designs and plenty of good stuff to find via thorough exploration.



Well-constructed mazes aren't NMF's greatest asset, however. No, that would be its bosses, who are absolutely ENORMOUS. We're talking full-screen terrors here.



The artwork employed for regular adversaries is also very nice, and the fast-paced battles are handled with a neat system that makes you earn magic points by defeating your well-drawn foes.



Most of the good guys are pretty cool too, with centaurs and a little blob accompanying your standard warriors and sorceresses. Of course, wherever there's a little blob, there's bound to be comedy, and NMF delivers the laughs, especially during a sequence that sees your characters deck themselves out in cult garb to do some sneaking around.


Nope, nothing at all suspicious about those three...

The story delivers some drama as well. There aren't many cinemas early on, and the ones that are present occasionally stumble with awkward character depictions, but most of the later intermissions are exciting and well choreographed.



The music is another element that sees its best moments during the latter half of the game. The gameplay, on the other hand, is rewarding all the way through. Constantly entertaining and afflicted with not a single significant flaw, NMF can make a strong argument for a spot amongst the best 16-bit RPGs.


(Be sure to check out Justin Cheer's excellent NMF walkthrough here.)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Insanity

Aetherbyte - 2009 - U.S.A.
Super CD-ROM


Out of the depths of the Interwebs in 2009 sprang independent developer Aetherbyte Studios, bringing with them news of the first new TurboDuo game in five years. “New” here is subjective, however-- Aetherbyte’s Insanity is a port of the 30-year-old arcade/Atari “classic” Berzerk. As a kid growing up I was familiar with the game in the form of a port titled Clone Wars for the Kaypro IV running under CP/M. When my family got a PC running MS-DOS in 1991, I moved on to more advanced games and all but forgot about my two-shades-of-green monochrome childhood.

Only the color and speed of the robots differentiate one level from another.

To be honest, I was not expecting much from Insanity. I was not particularly excited about the game as even back in 1987 Clone Wars was only entertaining for so long. Expectations being as low as they were going in meant that I actually had some surprises in store for me. Gameplay is definitely faithful to the original, which is by far the game’s biggest detriment. Some enhancements to the gameplay would have worked wonders for Insanity; as it stands, the shoot-all-the-robots-in-a-room formula is dated and, let’s face it, boring. Room layouts are seemingly chosen at random from a pool, clearing a certain number of rooms advances you to the next “level.” Cheap deaths abound in Insanity as you’re often dropped into a room a few paces from an enemy who fires off a lethal shot before you’ve even had a chance to take a step. Levels are differentiated solely by the type (color) of robots roaming the premises, which brings up an important point: there is only one type of robot enemy in this game, palette-swapped from level to level. This is a prime example of an area just begging for improvement where a little initiative and creativity would’ve gone a long way. Also inexcusable is the lack of any sort of high score table. I mean, isn't the whole point of this type of game getting a high score?

Robot love?

Visually, Insanity is as its worst with the “room” graphics; these aren’t even palette-swapped from level to level. I find the color choices not very complimentary which gives the game a bit of a chintzy feel to it. As with the gameplay, a little variety here could have turned the general feel of the game upside down.

Spend too long destroying robots and you'll encounter a strange looking robotic face.

It might sound like I have nothing good to say about Insanity, but that’s just not the case. Starting a new game you’re given the choice of a PSG or CD soundtrack. Being the chiptune fanatic that I am, I eagerly selected PSG for my first Insanity run through. My
ears were met with an average sounding tune... that in mere seconds went from average to pretty damn good. New level, new tune, even better than the first. Before I knew it, I was honing my robot slaughtering skills so I could forge further just to he
ar the next tune. What Aetherbyte has done with the Turbo’s sound chip h
ere is impressive for what amounts to an independent developer’s first attempt; the tunes are catc
hy and seem to utilize good instrumentation. Insanity is no Batman or Dungeon Explorer aurally, but frankly doesn’t sound out of place next to the rest of the Turbo library. I find myself digging the chiptunes so much I haven’t spent a great deal of time with the enhanced CD soundtrack, although my handful of plays with it sounded good.


What Aetherbyte doesn’t provide in gameplay improvements they make up for with four different game modes. In addition to our standard mode, we’ve got Hyper mode, Arcade mode, and what is known as “Predator” mode. Of the other three, Predator mo
de proves most interesting while Arcade mode seems most superfluous.

Robots are invisible in Predator mode, only appearing as outlines every few seconds.

Arcade mode emulates the simplistic style of the arcade original.

I’d be lying if I claimed Insanity didn’t have a unique charm to it. Sadly, it’s difficult to get too excited about ports of 30-year-old games unless they’re really bringing something new to the table. That said, every developer has to start somewhere. With that in mind, Aetherbyte makes a promising debut with Insanity. You have to give them credit for the speed at which Insanity was developed: less than a year from concept to pressing. As of this writing they’ve already announced their next project-- a compilation of “enhanced” versions of more arcade “classics.” Unfortunately, the last thing the Duo needs at this stage of the game is more ports of three-decade-old snoozers. The Duo needs... DESERVES fresh blood. After sharpening their teeth on these musty old relics, I’d love to see what Aetherbyte could do with a fresh id
ea.