Wednesday, October 31, 2012

21 Emon

~ 21 EMON ~
NEC Home Electronics

Roll the dice, move around the board, and make some good cash--those are the tasks you're charged with in NEC's 21 Emon, which is something of a light, cartoonish rendition of Monopoly. Constructing (and subsequently upgrading) hotels is the main method by which you can amass your fortune.

Emon mandates that there be four participants in the goings-on, but all four can be of the actual-human sort if you have pals who for some reason are interested in playing such a game. They'll likely be repelled immediately by the assortment of "merry" tunes on offer, but perhaps you'll be able to lure them back with the prospect of selecting from three different playfields, one of which is stationed in the depths of outer space.

Clearly, the basic premise, unabideable audio, and limited options will "win" the chip nothing but detractors. Also of little allure are the simplistic mini-games that players must occasionally partake in, among which are whack-a-mole and a tile-flipping memory test.

Tossing additional wrenches into the mix are the here-and-there "pick-a-card" spots, which enable contestants to earn a fast buck or put a quick sledgehammer to their opponents' work.

As players are asked to do very little in it, the game is quite accessible even to those who can't read a bit of Japanese (though it's doubtful that anyone would actually want access to this rubbish). Some menu scouring will unearth "deeper" functions such as property auctioning, but taking advantage of such "features" is hardly essential to succeeding.

Ultimately, its general simplicity makes the game a repetitive bore, and while its graphics are quite nice and colorful, there is nothing particularly cute or crazy to happen upon, which is a bit surprising for a product with an unquestionably cartoony base. In fact, the Super Momotarou Dentetsu games, perennially the butts of jokes along the lines of "I got this chip for free but I was the one who got ripped off," are much deeper and far more endearing than this title. And considering that Emon often goes for over eighty dollars in complete form, I suffer no qualms in suggesting that people avoid it entirely.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Record of Lodoss War

Hudson Soft

This game has a reputation for being heavier on strategy than most other traditional-style PCE RPGs, but that's pretty much baloney. It's standard role-playing stuff with a battle system that has you view the action from an overhead perspective as your characters and their enemies run around the field--think Fang of Alnam or Emerald Dragon. Actually, the fights most remind me of the scrums that take place in old Ultima Exodus for the NES; so if that's your idea of good "strategic" combat, you'll probably have a ball with this. Just keep in mind that the battle graphics are ugly, each brawl can last an extremely long time, and you'll be rewarded with very few experience points for most of your hard-earned victories.

That doesn't sound very promising, but the game is actually pretty good. What makes the battles tolerable are the frequent item drops. It's fun to acquire pieces of special equipment and deck out your characters with them or sell them off for big bucks (which you'll often have to do, as gold is about as scarce as XP). And the names of all the weapons, spells, and items are presented in katakana, making the game a breeze to play--unless you can't read katakana, of course, in which case you'll have to put in a lot of time and experimentation to make efficient use of magic and equipment.

And you probably won't want to devote more time than is absolutely necessary to learning the game's fundamentals, as the Lodoss War expedition is a vast and lengthy one. This isn't a linear adventure, as there are many spots where you have a choice as to which part of the world map you'll explore next. There are also many secret paths to discover and certain entryways that either can't be accessed or don't even exist until you return to their respective areas at a later point in the quest. And some of the late-game dungeons are absolutely enormous, maybe too damn big in a couple of cases (but at least you can save your game whenever you want, and you'll typically come away from dungeon forays with lots of useful loot).

This is a long and hard game, and after all the trials and tribulations it puts players through, it comes to a very abrupt end, so some may not feel particularly satisfied when all is said and done. But I think most people who won't ultimately enjoy it will arrive at the realization very early on and quit before they've invested much time in it. The folks like me who'll dig the nonlinearity and equipment managing will find themselves spending plenty of long late-night sessions with the game. And fans of T's Music will want to check out the work done by the company for this title, although a lot of it isn't red book fare, and while it has its good moments, it has plenty of mediocre ones as well.

Lodoss War is a fairly dark game thematically, which is reflected in the field visuals.

The battle scenes also aren't particularly pretty, but they do give you a wide variety of foes to tangle with.

Few experience points are doled out to victors in randomly occurring fights, but you can earn lots by aiding certain people in completing special tasks...

...many of which involve taking down a tough boss.

Gold also is in short supply, but your enemies drop plenty of items that can be sold off in town marketplaces. You make your way around each town by selecting destinations on simply sketched maps.

There's no such easy way of navigating the oftentimes-enormous maze areas, however.

Sometimes, just discovering the entrance to a particular dungeon is difficult enough. If you can't read the in-game dialogue, you may not realize that a new route is available to you until you simply happen to stumble upon it.

The characters are a likable bunch, but they don't get to star in very many cinemas.

Windowed story scenes are effectively utilized to deliver most of the significant plot points. The game certainly doesn't lack exciting moments.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Mysterious Song

Frozen Utopia / Darkness Ethereal
Super CD-ROM

Sometimes there's value in having experience on the other side of things. The guys at Frozen Utopia undertook the project of remaking Darkness Ethereal's 1999 PC-based title Mysterious Song with a wealth of knowledge as to what makes role-playing games work, being veterans of many a 16-bit-era adventure themselves. They put their experience to good use in crafting a game that's remarkably sound mechanically, one that makes life easy and pleasant for the player. A dash button is provided so that trips to nearby caves or local shops never feel like arduous treks. Dialogue windows deliver their messages at once and can be dismissed just as quickly. The monster-encounter rate is quite tolerable, and when assailed, players can make use of a streamlined battle system to annihilate their foes. Party members gladly move on to new victims should the adversaries they targeted be killed by their comrades before their turns come up. And dungeons are purged of creatures that would be but mere nuisances once the heroes have demonstrated heightened levels of power by completing certain tasks.

It was hard for me not to favor Mysterious Song even before I had the opportunity to experience the aforementioned conveniences, as the title screen welcomed me with a wonderfully moody piano-dominated number. Most of the in-game tracks are of the atmospheric sort, and while they all sound good, some of the compositions are a great deal more effective than others. Among the winners are an extremely exciting boss tune and an intense bass-driven accompaniment to a late-game tower invasion. I could do without the animal noises mixed into the overworld theme, however; I don't want audio that makes me feel as if I'm in the middle of a jungle while my characters are traversing open plains.

That beastly cacophony isn't too difficult to deal with since the plains themselves are anything but eyesores. While they lack the sheen sported by those in some major PCE releases, MS's towns and fields boast appealing, distinctive looks thanks to solid tile work and effective utilization of interesting shades of green.

Even more impressive visually are the battle backdrops, some of which are of such high quality that they rival the best delivered by any other PC Engine RPG. The gorgeous backgrounds, however, are juxtaposed with enemy sprites that often bear promising signs design-wise but lack the size and detail that might have made them cooler and more sinister looking.

The cinemas, on the other hand, do come off pretty well despite some rough moments and the occasional awkward poses and expressions assumed by the characters. I only wish that there had been more to work with conceptually during these scenes; as it is, most of the cinematic material unexcitedly revolves around conversations between an often perplexed and whiny hero and a villain who enjoys speaking in musical metaphors.

The story on the whole is essentially a write-off, beginning with a typical "find out why there are monsters around" premise and building up to little of anything from there. Emotional moments are arrived at too quickly and occur too abruptly to make much of an impact. There are bits of amusing dialogue to enjoy, though.

Plot elements are not of the utmost importance here, regardless. MS is about grinding at its core, and thanks to the good work done in regard to mechanical aspects, players do have the wherewithal to make the most of what's on offer. And what's on offer is simple stuff, really. Spell and item lists are hardly extensive. Aside from an optional one, dungeons are a vanilla brand of maze, completely devoid of puzzles. The entire affair can be resolved in short order--a mere two or three hours should be enough for most players to reach and annihilate the final boss. There are some extremely cool unlockables to check out once said boss is defeated, however.

One of those unlockables is an "EX Game" mode, which features an enormous bonus dungeon. Some segments of this mega-labyrinth come off as pointless space; I was able to stick to one wall or the other while battering outclassed enemies for long stretches at a time. There is a puzzle to solve, though (and quite a good one at that), and the extra bit of story that's provided compares favorably with the specks of plot offered by the main mode. But I must mention that I encountered a game-halting glitch at one particular point. Perhaps it was a fluke, but due to the severity of the issue (there was absolutely no way for me to proceed), I must advise players to keep a save file around that enables them to resume questing at a point right before they delve into the bonus dungeon. The fact that I'd kept such a file handy enabled me to give the maze another go without beginning my quest anew (and thankfully, the glitch did not appear the second time around).

But had I been forced to start all over, I actually wouldn't have been all that irritated. Mysterious Song is made of such sturdy stuff mechanically that it truly makes it difficult for the player to stop playing. Granted, it'd be nice to see the title's many positive attributes placed in an epic context. But if taken as a short, fast-paced grinder that plays wonderfully and features some nice (at times great) music and artwork, the game can surely be deemed a success.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Color Wars

Coconuts Japan

Color Wars is something of a three-dimensional kinsman of Reversi. Main modes of play pit four participants against one another in a series of game-piece-capturing contests. The trinkets here are beads that are slid down a pre-positioned set of strings. Surround an opponent's bead (or line of beads) with two of your own, and the captured pieces are flipped to your side. You can rotate the playfield as you like to analyze each possible angle of attack.

All four play spots can be manned by human participants, but a lengthy Adventure Mode is available for those whose friends have other things to do. Your Color Wars "adventure" will consist of watching your avatar jaunt from one match location to another on a no-frills map screen and partaking in thirty-two battles of bead appropriation, each of which lasts a total of four rounds.

I was concerned coming in that I'd lose patience with the game, that the three other participants in a given match would pause to ponder each of their moves and that a great deal of time would have to be spent rotating the board. But none of my computer-controlled adversaries ever delayed matters for more than a second or two with their contemplation and field spinning. In fact, it was I who prompted complaints about taking too long.

But while the playing practices of my fellow contestants didn't bother me, the length of the adventure did. One hundred and twenty-eight rounds is more than a bit much, especially since the game just isn't very deep--we're hardly talking chess here. And I found that by sticking with some basic tactics, I could easily crush the first few dozen oddballs who faced me.

It wasn't until the fifteenth match--in other words, fifty-six rounds into the "quest"--that I finally encountered a player who seemed to have some idea of what he was doing. And at that point, just as the game was beginning to get challenging, I found myself sick of it.

I trudged on anyway, of course, as that's what Duomazovs do. My enemies did finally figure out that it's not a bad idea to go for top-shelf slots in the corners and bottom-row spots on the rest of the perimeter. Suddenly, I found myself involved in tightly contested matches. But even once I was forced to shake myself from my stupor and actually think about the moves I was making, the number of battles left to wage seemed ludicrous, especially since the level of difficulty was being raised in such minute increments. And some matches can feel not only superfluous but senseless, as chance frequently comes into play. If luck is with you, you may gain control of the perimeter at once and cruise to victory.

If it isn't, you could find yourself in a horrible situation before you've even had an opportunity to make a move. A computer-controlled player may have to decide early on whether to nab a piece from you or from another participant, and that one decision can have a huge impact on the way the rest of the round plays out.

And if the way things are playing out isn't sitting well with you, the audio and cinemas won't do much to improve your mood. The mellow musical tracks would be pleasant enough to listen to if they weren't so abrasive and repetitive. The cutscenes are neither interesting nor well drawn.

They are a sign, however, that progress is being made; so I suppose I should be thankful for their inclusion, as the barely noticeable ramp-ups in difficulty certainly didn't make me feel like I was getting anywhere. Fewer matches with a significant increase in difficulty from one to the next might've made the Color Wars adventure more enjoyable, rewarding, and endurable.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Bikini Girls

Excite Software

It's hard to give Bikini Girls even a semblance of serious treatment, as all who purchase it are aware it's a mere slideshow of sunbathers--an utter piece of detritus--and spend good cash on it solely for the sake of adding something relatively rare to their collections. It's hardly priced as a piece of detritus should be, however, and some of us with the collecting compulsion do hope to find at least a sliver of merit in every new piece we come across. As loathsome and unambitious as it is, Bikini Girls still could've been decent at what it does, and goodness knows most of us PCE-playing males aren't averse to the idea of browsing through pics of beautiful women. Having gathered over two hundred images for the BG project, Excite Software certainly gave themselves ample opportunity to get something right. With tongue firmly set in cheek, I heartily commend them for the "variety" of girls they served up to us, as the tough, the syrupy sweet, the active, and the chillin' all make our acquaintance.

Sadly, ridiculous poses and absurd attire often diminish the allure of the few good-looking women who somehow got themselves involved in this fiasco. Even more off-putting is the fact that many of the images are of such poor quality that the ladies end up looking like blocky bikini-clad monstrosities.

And then there are the portraits that are utterly pointless, "off-topic" shots undoubtedly tossed in by a wryly smiling jester at the Excite offices.

Bikini Girls is no game, but experiences with it are never devoid of challenge: sifting through dozens of horrific images for an undistorted photo of a decent-looking lady can be a grueling process indeed.