GAME REVIEWS

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Babel

~ BABEL ~
Laser Soft / Telenet
Super CD-ROM
1992

Poor, ill-famed Babel is a traditional-style RPG best known for having stupidly enormous towns. They're certainly larger than those you'll find in most of the game's contemporaries, but there's only one of truly abominable size. It's a ridiculous continent-sized metropolis split up into five sections, each of which consists of about a billion buildings, and said buildings aren't arranged in neat little rows. Heck, even the interiors of many of the structures are labyrinthine. This is a village so massive that the disc comes packaged with a map of it. And you'll have to spend a lot of time wandering its streets early in the game, looking for just the right person to talk to before you can get on with things.



For a while, there seemed to be no end in sight to the roving, but that isn't the only reason I was unhappy with how the adventure was going in its early stages. Some of the music is fairly good, but a lot of it really isn't. Some of the character designs are very cool, but many of them are not. Some of the towns look pretty decent, but the environments are dull for the most part. And while the cinemas aren't terrible, a lot of them are of the pint-sized Valis II variety.



That's mostly superficial stuff, though; the battles are a more serious matter, and a number of problems plague them initially. Enemy designs are overutilized and mostly uninteresting. Your characters' attack animations have to be loaded up during each fight, which causes the music to stop playing. And the encounter rate is way too high. It's relatively easy to flee from foes in most areas of the game, but the parts that make you buckle down and fight can be really annoying, particularly early on.


But "early on" doesn't last forever, and Babel gets better the further you get in it. Once you've done what you have to do in that big, silly town, the quest becomes much more focused. And you never have to dilly-dally around earning experience points or money. In fact, the game shuns XP entirely and strengthens your characters by itself at certain points, and you acquire plenty of items that you can sell off for good cash. After getting off to a rough start, everything proceeds quickly and smoothly. And aside from some early extended periods of seemingly aimless wandering, there were no points at which I found myself stuck. There are no stupid puzzles or secret warp spots to worry about. It's just mission after mission.



Still, Babel isn't a good game for novices, who'll probably never overcome the early big-town trial. RPG heavyweights, on the other hand, should be able to get through it without much grief (as long as they have this excellent guide on hand, that is). If you plan to acquire the disc, I highly recommend that you obtain a copy that comes with the map sheet, which features not only a sketch of the infamous town but also one of the entire overworld.

I like Babel's main characters, and I like how the quest keeps moving along. I also like many of the significant story scenes. There's some good, violent, exciting material here: bad guys take beam shots to the head, giant robots massacre villages, and innocent innkeepers get their brains blown out.


There are some awkward stretches, though. The game is split up into six chapters, and the fourth features a shitload of text with no actual gameplay. I felt like I was experiencing the second disc of Xenogears all over again. Also, the ending is a goofy cop-out.


But in between the slow start and the wretched conclusion, there's some good fun to be had.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Spriggan mark2

~ SPRIGGAN MARK2 ~
Compile / Naxat Soft
Super CD-ROM
1992

It's a shame that mark2 has virtually nothing in common with the fantastic Seirei Senshi Spriggan aside from serving up the same Game Over number and having the player pilot a mecha. The first Spriggan, a gorgeous vert featuring Aleste-style action, was built around an interesting fantasy-meets-technology theme that allowed its designers to run wild with enemy concepts. They took advantage of the opportunity by delivering a multitude of incredible beasts, magic users, and war machines. mark2 ditches the viewpoint and jettisons the fantasy elements, placing in sidescrolling context a crew of small, boring mecha and presenting very few adversaries of note. I don't particularly like SideArms-style gameplay to begin with; implement such a system and give me nothing interesting to shoot at, and your odds of success are very grim indeed.


While mark2 is seldom praised even by its fans for its action elements, it does garner some love for its visual effects, as it doesn't go easy on the parallax and frequently positions enemies in the background just for the sake of having them zoom into the fray from afar. This sort of flashy stuff is nice and all, but technical merits aside, most of the stage and sprite work is pretty freakin' ugly. And in a rare aural lapse, Compile coughed up an annoying soundtrack to accompany the graphical slop.


While their attempt was futile in my mind, mark2's developers obviously hoped to impress audiences with visual razzle-dazzle. Their efforts apparently did not extend to the main mecha's weaponry, however, as the option pods, homing missiles, and beam sabers here seem rather pitiful when compared with the mighty armaments available in the first Spriggan. Even with such meek weapons, decent shooter players will complete the game the first time they sit down with it.


At least there are some surprises in store for those who possess the fortitude to rethrash the enemy with the difficulty cranked up.


I was willing to make such repeat runs because I enjoyed mark2 more as it went along. I had some fun experimenting with the different weapons and figuring out precisely how to make optimal use of them. The experience on the whole wasn't torturous by any means, though it was definitely disappointing and forgettable.


There are those who'll defy a mark2 disparager like me by crying foul when criticisms are accompanied by comparisons of m2 with the very-different first Spriggan--such comparisons as I've freely made throughout this piece. But let's be honest here. The bigwigs responsible for the game's title, for the approach taken with the cover art, for the utilization of the familiar Game Over melody, knew exactly what they were doing: they themselves wanted mark2 to be associated with the successful and well-beloved Seirei Senshi Spriggan. They brought these comparisons on with their own machinations for making mark2 a hit. Sadly, if anything about my mark2 verdict would have been different had there been no such connection, it would simply lie in me considering the game an even less notable entry in the PC Engine annals.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bonk 3 CD

~ BONK III CD ~
Hudson Soft / Red / TTI
Super CD-ROM
1993

I wasn't particularly interested in Bonk III when it was originally released. I'd passed on Revenge because of the issues I have with its controls, and reports indicated that the third chapter had failed to bring back Adventure's smooth spin attacks. Also, from afar, B3 seemed to explore very little ground that hadn't already been covered by the debut episode and the first sequel. My tune eventually changed when I read that the CD rendition contains "Vs." mini-games involving wrestling and volleyball, side-stage activities the likes of which I never would've expected a Bonk title to offer. I was intrigued--and certain that I would eventually nab the disc without giving its card counterpart even a passing thought.

Well, I scratched that plan when it became clear that the TurboChip version would be the cheaper, easier buy. And upon tracking the chip down and giving it a play, I determined that the main game itself just wasn't for me. I had no love at all for its vast but largely empty and unrewarding levels, its gimmicky big and small Bonk forms, its goofy bosses, its not-much-fun bonus rounds, and its lounge-style pacing.

Of course, acquiring and playing the CD rendition meant I would have to deal with that crap all over again.


But hey, at least I finally got to try those mini-games I'd been interested in for years. This was a big deal for me, you understand. So, let's go to the mini-reviews and see how things turned out...

MINI-REVIEWS

This is wrestling, in case you couldn't tell. "Wrestling" in Bonk's time apparently meant "head-butting each other until someone falls off a cliff." I wasn't expecting WCW/NWO Revenge here, but this just isn't much fun.

And this, of course, is volleyball. The slow back-and-forth action is Pong-esque in its monotony and (lack of) intensity. Points tend to go on for ages. I wasn't expecting Kings of the Beach here, but this is even less enjoyable than the wrestling stuff.

CONCLUSION
Not the saving graces I was hoping for.

BUT... Bonk III CD ultimately redeemed itself (in my eyes, at least) with its red book soundtrack. The HuCard's tunes (which everyone else seems to prefer) are so dull that they typically leave me drowsy as I struggle to stay with the already slow-paced proceedings. The CD's tracks, on the other hand, are very lively and assertive--raw and dirty and rockin' at times. They actually get me a little more interested in exploring my surroundings and make the action seem a bit more exciting, whereas the old card numbers cause me to race to each goal post simply to avoid the embarrassing fate of dozing off mid-level. That being said, these are not great compositions, and they certainly wouldn't have been worthy of spots on earlier Bonk soundtracks. But at least they constitute an asset in their remixed forms rather than a detriment.

While neither version of Bonk III is particularly wonderful, I do get quite a bit more enjoyment out of the CD. Unfortunately, as alluded to earlier, the CD happens to be the much more expensive rendition (and the card is no bargain-binner to begin with, so we're talking lots of cash here). And I must reiterate the oh-so-minor caveat that I really do seem to be the only human being who prefers the red book tunes.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Daisenpuu Custom

~ DAISENPUU CUSTOM ~
Toaplan / NEC Avenue
CD-ROM
1991

Daisenpuu was a strange choice to receive the CD "upgrade" treatment, as it's an example of a game that simply is what it is. Its soundtrack was fine as performed by chip, so there was only so much that could be accomplished for the sake of the overall package via red book remixes. To make the project worthwhile, NEC would've had to stray from the original game's stubborn adherence to a tank-and-boat-stocked enemy lineup and perform major alterations on the dull stage designs. Tossing in a batch of new weapons wouldn't have hurt either. And if they were gonna go to such lengths, their efforts might as well have gone towards an entirely new game rather than a remake of something that never really had much potential anyway.


Well, they didn't quite go to the lengths I've described, and the result of this halfhearted do-over is just as mediocre as anyone who experienced the lackluster original would probably expect. We still get just one boring gun to do our damage with, and we're still opposed by a gaggle of cookie-cutter ground- and sea-based machines. There are some new/altered areas to fly over, but the "fresh" material is so generic that it's barely even noticeable except when one plays through the remake immediately after a session with the chip. And if you actually do spot the changes, you'll find that some stretches end up even duller than they once were due to certain bridges, bodies of water, and other such environmental embellishments being removed inexplicably.


The few new enemies that show up are as uninteresting design-wise as the holdovers, and they don't wield any cool weapons or utilize any well-thought-out attack strategies.


While the original game is no thriller, it at least delivers some nice tunes to carry us through its redundant doldrums of dirt. Custom's remixed numbers transform appealingly old-school fuzzy stuff into all-too-typical red book fare. However, being not very good doesn't prevent the music from blaring away in a laughably melodramatic manner. Actually, every aural element is presented in louder fashion this time, which works pretty well for the explosions but not quite as well for the now-annoying icon-grab effects.

We had an idea from the outset that the music wouldn't be much of a factor here (though it's still a shame that they screwed it up so badly), and we knew that "remaining faithful" to the original's theme and gameplay would limit the potential of the project. The least that NEC Avenue could've done, though, was provide a bit of flashy context for the in-game drabness. Unfortunately, there are no cinemas to be found here. Level breaks of the most boring kind are implemented, and the horribly unrewarding "ending" screen is identical to the original's.


As much as I've laid into Custom and its HuCard forebear, I don't consider them bad games. They're certainly "passable." But Daisenpuu should've been allowed to go its quiet humble way as a chip release instead of being shoved back out in ill-fitting CD-ROM attire. NEC Avenue demanded attention for a game that boasts not a single element worthy of shining a spotlight on. They themselves brought on the wolves, who'll never hesitate to point out the futility of this monotonous little game's unnecessary foray into the CD realm--a realm where so many superior products reside.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Daisenpuu

~ DAISENPUU ~
Toaplan / NEC Avenue
HuCard
1990

Daisenpuu is one of those old "World War II era" shooters, so you probably know what to expect from it: redundant dirt/field/water levels and plenty of tanks, boats, and jets. Actually, scratch that very last part. In a BIZARRE TWIST, Daisenpuu's enemy cast features not a single aircraft. It sure does boast lots of tanks, though. In fact, you fight tank after tank after tank throughout the whole game, with gunboats thrown in here and there along with the occasional large tank and large ship and large tank that turns into a ship.



I must say that the tank-laden makeup of the enemy legion makes no sense to me. I realize Toaplan was trying to work with a theme here, but some of the variations of "tank" they came up with are about as dissimilar to real-life armed-forces machinery as a Spriggan dragon mecha, so they might as well have done something interesting with the foes they presented us with. They also should've given us more than one weapon to utilize against said foes. A boring dual-stick shot that evolves into a just-as-boring plenty-of-sticks shot is all we get.


Well, one kind-of-interesting thing we can do is call in plane pods to assist us.


You get limited control over these brittle allies, who really lack any sort of punch with their artillery--but hey, I'll take an interesting idea wherever I can find one here. And to be fair, in a NEAT TWIST, the game lets you sacrifice your wingmen, either by ordering them to crash into your foes or by setting off a huge enemy-obliterating explosion. Calling for a group-suicide attack is generally preferable to having an ineffective band accompanying you, and really, when I'm under heavy fire, I go right ahead and give the kamikaze command without bothering with any team-tactic stuff. Had Toaplan went a less creative route and provided regular smart bombs sans the ally element, they would've come out even here.

There really aren't many of those "heavy fire" moments anyway. The bad guys in Daisenpuu rely heavily on projectile attacks, but the action never approaches Raiden or Kyuukyoku Tiger levels--it never becomes "manic" in style. It's never cheap, either, except in that our hitbox seems a bit wide. Checkpoints are employed, but they're never game killers.

And if you manage to avoid getting killed yourself, you won't be granted a break of any kind until you reach the "end"--at which point you'll simply be sent right back to the beginning, sans any sort of hoopla, for a tougher run.


There isn't much incentive to play through the second round. In fact, I played all the way to the sixth without anything particularly special happening. Thankfully, the music is nice in a well-done-8-bit-stuff sort of way and helped keep me interested. Not much else did.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Ravaging of Cosmic Fantasy

A beloved series pays an ill-fated visit to the other side of the tracks...

We game-playing nerds must be an amusing lot. We harbor unyielding allegiances to cartridges that relinquished their spots on store shelves decades ago, consoles that delivered their swan songs during epochs of gaming antiquity, developers who landed on skid row last millennium. The disputes we engage in for the sake of dust-covered relics and their long-forgotten creators can be heated, indeed; but friendships with other living, breathing humans are frivolous fodder when a beloved character or franchise must be guarded from attack. Various aspects of video games can hold special appeal for us, and once sentimentality enters the frame, a transcendental bond is formed; provide us with precious memories, and we'll maintain and defend your legacy.


Few other games have done as much to earn my reverence as Cosmic Fantasy 2. When I'm paying homage to the characters that have charmed me, the tunes that bring tears of nostalgia to my eyes, the plotlines that entrenched themselves in my video-adventure recollections via moving moments, it's a given that my old friend CF2 will receive more than just a small share of accolades. I've taken four trips through it--four trips through the Japanese version, that is. The US rendition has hosted over a dozen of my excursions. But Van, Babs, and Pico--2's lovable trio of heroic misfits--aren't the only friends I've made in the CF universe; I've also forged alliances with stars of the opening episode and the subsequent ones, as they and I undertook similarly delightful endeavors together. True, I never hesitate to express my displeasure with the first chapter of CF4, but that's because I care far too much about the series to let such an egregious misstep slide.


And I hope that my willingness to decry an ill-executed episode demonstrates my reasonableness when it comes to assessing the saga on the whole. There's no doubt that I'm ferociously loyal to the CF titles, but as I do with my other game-related associations of affection, I try to remain sensible and call caps on their perceived virtues. I am well aware that CF2 comes nowhere close to achieving perfection, no matter how much it means to me. Thus, while I'm always happy to provide discourse on its merits, I have waged few arguments over the years in support of it. In many cases, the criticisms that people level at it are indisputably valid. In numerous ways, the game could have benefited from additional polishing, from more effort devoted to refinement, prior to its release.

Its strengths made it worthy of receiving proper treatment. Unfortunately, it was released for the PC Engine as a product with clear (and, in some instances, perplexingly odd) flaws. It was eventually given a shot at redemption, but not in the comfortable realm of the PCE where the series otherwise resided.

Now, anyone who is acquainted with me, who has partaken in discussions on video games with me, who reads the blather I post on this site, knows very well that I am fiercely devoted to one console in particular:

The Genesis, of course.

And that's where Cosmic Fantasy took its act when the time came for some makeup work. To be more specific, the first two episodes of the series were redone and released on a single disc for Sega's Mega CD system, equipped with a fresh new moniker: Cosmic Fantasy Stories.


What was so wonderful about all this was not merely that a couple of my favorite adventures were being all shined up for an appearance on a machine I'm enamored with. The true blessing here was that the people at Riot responsible for executing the port ably identified the aspects of the originals that needed to be improved. They knew that the opening episode made for but a fair frolic through primitiveness and that the followup had been allowed to leave the developers' shop in incomplete condition. They committed themselves to righting Laser Soft's wrongs, to giving these quaint questing stories the overhauls necessary for them to take the form of true epic masterpieces.


The project surely was epic, but only in the manner in which it failed. Cosmic Fantasy Stories is one of the most unabashedly awful disasters I've ever experienced in gaming.

The horrors I'd endure at its hands were completely unforeseen at the outset. A mere moment is all it took for the dual-game release to get me all psyched up for the seemingly certain delights it had in store for me, as it opens with an extremely cool cinema set to a superb adrenaline-pumping number.


Disappointment did not set in once the game proper began. No longer does the first episode come off as a victim of graphical garbage-work. The field visuals it sports here are at an appreciably higher level, roughly on par with PCE CF2's.

Town Scenes
(Top: PCE CD CF; bottom: MCD CF)

Strangely enough, after but a short time spent exploring the first maze area, I felt wistful for the simplistic looks of the original's labyrinths. It would be hard to present any sort of technical argument in defense of my outlook (though what I would consider "odd" color choices had detrimental effects on all areas of Stories' visuals), and in any event, the new-look battles only came off as more and more impressive as I made my way through the back-to-back journeys. The screen-wide combat artwork here is far more pleasing to the eye than are the limited background portraits sported by PCE CF and gives MCD CF2 an undeniable advantage over its PCE backdrop-deprived forebear.

Battle Scenes
(Top: MCD CF2; bottom-left: PCE CD CF; bottom-right: Turbo CD CF2)

The enemy art does come off as sharper and better in the Engine renditions, however. This is not the biggest deal in the world. I'm more perplexed by Stories' omission of background art for boss battles, a move that, ironically enough, leaves the first PCE CF with the best-looking boss fights of the games involved here.

Boss Battles
(Top: MCD CF2; bottom-left: PCE CD CF; bottom-right: Turbo CD CF2)

Even if they had been augmented with backdrops (as they should have been), Stories' "climactic" battles would have ended up throwaways, as the bosses are absurdly easy to beat. Only a single CF2 fiend takes a respectable stand here; his cohorts all disgrace themselves by making the trip as lowly pushovers. (It should be mentioned in Stories' favor, though, that some significant confrontations that played out with regular enemies in PCE CF2 feature true bosses here.)

That these fellows are so easily hammered is not due to the fact that Stories' version of the first episode allows you to take more than two characters into battle--but this does bring us to another of Riot's improvements. While other characters tag along with Yuu and Saya for stretches at a time in PCE CF, the player is never allowed to make use of these allies during combat, which makes absolutely no sense at all. MCD CD remedies the situation by granting you control of your entire party when monsters approach.

This was a common-sense alteration. And Riot's remodeling crew no doubt felt they were making similarly sensible adjustments by eliminating segments of the PCE game that seemed to have very little purpose. Stories does away with required antics such as stumbling around a makeshift prison cell until a rescuer arrives.

Unfortunately, in some cases, Riot went a little too far in their endeavors to do away with time-wasting activities. A memorable PCE CF scene sees Yuu and Saya come under attack by an infinite number of mighty enemies. It's fun to see just how long you can hold out against evil's illimitable forces, but the outcome is always the same: the heroes end up battered in necessary defeat.

Stories dispatches with that "enemy forces" stuff, choosing instead to suddenly show the heroes as battered following an ambiguous, hacked-into sequence--which is really stupid.

And that's hardly the only instance of stupidity on Riot's part. In what was surely another misguided move intended to make life a little more pleasant for the player, certain dungeons here act as homes to not a single enemy inhabitant. Perhaps that sounds like a good thing, as such dungeons contain no random battles to button through. Unfortunately, there isn't much of anything at all to do in these large, labyrinthine sections of very-dead space save for trudging along, bumping into countless dead-ends, and finding unnecessary and unexciting healing trinkets. One wonders why these locations weren't simply omitted altogether.

Oddly enough, that same crew so hellbent on saving our time decided to redesign and enlarge certain mazes that really didn't require any sort of reworking. Yes, most of these locations contain random battles; but there is seldom anything to stumble upon within them save for dead-end wall after dead-end wall and the occasional worthless junk-item.

I can live with a few botched maze jobs, though. I have a harder time tolerating the "remixed" soundtrack here. Many of the PCE versions' tunes were reworked into cacophonous renditions of their old selves (with CF2's classic numbers the victims of especially offensive mutilation). A few wonderful tunes were removed entirely to make way for lackluster new tracks. Stories also puts us through misery via terrible sound effects.

But even with all the questionable decisions and unnecessary changes that were made in its creation, Stories' take on the first CF is tolerable except perhaps for an irritating cave maze housing horrible creatures that can turn your party members to stone with a glance. You're certain to experience a good bit of terror in that awful place...

...but just wait. It's a very small taste of what awaits you in Stories CF2.

You might recall that PCE CF2 left out status effects entirely, much to the chagrin of players who enjoy delivering diatribes regarding "lack of depth." Well, once you've had your fair share of run-ins with the countless paralysis-causing monstrosities in Stories 2, you won't want to know from another status inducer ever again. The effects that MCD CF2's merciless and terrifyingly powerful monsters afflict you with over and over again make what was once a wonderful role-playing experience into something unbelievably awful and annoying. Even more of a problem are the "super attacks" that enemies are granted (in both episodes, but they become far more of a concern in 2). Valiantly made progress can come to an immediate halt should irritable foes decide to stop your party members right in their tracks or wipe out most of their remaining vitality with single brutal swipes.

A few areas are inexplicably easy in Stories 2--"breaks," apparently. One of these areas is not the post-final-boss celebration scene. Yes... after the final boss... when you're just supposed to walk around and say your farewells to everyone...


...you will be ATTACKED. Repeatedly. Truly, this game establishes a new definition for "merciless."

At least, you would think, you have the traditionally wonderful Cosmic Fantasy cutscenes to look forward to for all your troubles. Yeah, you would think that. Stories actually DROPS some of the original cinemas in favor of text-based skits. Occasional improvements in animation hardly make up for such noticeable omissions; indeed, dropping cinemas from a Cosmic Fantasy game (good ones, at that) is simply unforgivable. This entire "effort," in fact, is an unforgivable maiming of material that I love.

Cinematic Scenes
(Top: PCE CD CF2; bottom: MCD CF2)

But let's have some fun (for once here) and take a look at how the Rim shower scene fares in Stories. Perhaps we should be thankful that it, unlike some of its fellow interludes, was spared from execution.

Shower Scenes
(Top: MCD CF2; bottom-left: PCE CD CF2; bottom-right: PCE CD CF Visual Collection)

Well, no surprise here. Stories doesn't even offer the best shower scene. It does give us this, though...


Nice. Not nice enough to earn my allegiance, though. Nor my forgiveness.