GAME REVIEWS

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Awesome Stuff... in Not-So-Awesome Games


I couldn't understand the allure of the Genesis back in the system's heyday. I seemed to have a propensity to acquire cartridges for it that were anything but console defining. While my Genesis-endorsing friends were getting their vertical-shooting fix via Compile's frenetic M.U.S.H.A., I was chugging along through Namco's slow-paced Phelios.

"What do people see in this machine?" I howled in bewilderment.

Phelios, of course, was hardly the sort of game that would make one realize the virtues of the system that hosts it. Its creators would have us believe they were effectively utilizing the mythological premise they selected for the title by employing the likes of a chubby fire phantom and an insect-like Cerberus. Players must eliminate such hardy creatures of legend via a play system that relies far too heavily on charge-shots; more time is spent filling a meter than doing away with demons. The hero's adversaries typically come traipsing along in neat rows and columns (seldom have I seen such a tidily arranged legion of fiends), seemingly setting themselves up for charge-shot-induced demises. The realms they so stringently patrol are largely drab and desolate.

There's little to inspire one to play the game once its enumerated-above faults become evident. But for an all-too-brief stretch, Phelios actually rises to the ranks of the incredible.

Via onscreen text that materializes during the opening phase of its third level, the game alerts those who are understandably unprepared for a transition into quality play that danger is on the way in the form of approaching griffin knights. A moment later, the warned-of blade-bearing evildoers soar into view and attempt to spear the suddenly under-siege protagonist.


The field scrolls along breezily while boasting bright visual work and impressive multilayer scrolling, but the action itself is the most commendable element of the sequence. The cutthroat chasers are relentless and erratic in their aerial pursuit of the hero, who must wend his way through claustrophobically narrow airways as he desperately tries to evade and outwit his assailants. Through fancy flying he can bait the surging attackers into slamming headfirst into the tubular walls of the speed course.

It's an extremely atypical, exciting, nice-looking segment of a shooter that at few other points can appropriately be described with such modifiers. And it made me wonder what other games are out there that shine in particular ways while coming nowhere close to inspiring awe with any other components of their makeups. Specifically, I sought instances of wondrousness in Turbo titles that travel unremarkable paths in almost every respect, concealed exemplifications of sheen and utter competency amid proceedings defined by dullness and inadequacy.


Indeed, the Turbo annals house a fair few idiot savants, rain men that boast on-their-own elements of excellence while bumbling along through otherwise non-notable existences. To be sure, not all of the titles to be discussed here are horrid; some are delightfully mediocre. But none excel generally or consistently. Each does, however, achieve a startling level of success in some manner--be it via an aesthetic merit, an inspired stretch of action, or some other remarkable aspect of its composition.

Note that this is not intended to be a mere exercise in identification. There is a tributary aspect to this piece, as part of what makes these instances of ingeniousness so interesting to me is the human element. Whether these are cases where a group of designers got their act together for a fleeting moment of glory or where a particularly talented individual contributed high-caliber work to a project crippled by the ineptitude of his cohorts, someone or some people deserve recognition for long-obscured brilliance. And as I am certain that every designer who ever had a hand in the making of a PC Engine game checks this site regularly and with great zeal, I am all too happy to give the heroes in question the credit they so richly deserve, to acknowledge their commendation-worthy contributions sans context along the lines of "What a shame that everything else in this game is so putrid." At least for a time, let's admire these displays of proficiency rather than lamenting their fates as aspects of generally abhorrent or lusterless products.

If you're game, we'll now commence our look at outstanding fare housed in unexceptional shells.

~ BASTED'S CINEMAS ~

While Basted can be viewed as an action-RPG, it really doesn't strive to be much of one. Rarely does it require players to partake in combat, navigate mazes, or step beyond the walls of a town they find themselves exploring a mere five minutes in. What it does do is present one incredible full-screen-occupying intermediary scene after another.


Stellar artwork is augmented by well-implemented and uncommonly utilized effects, making these sequences extremely impressive in a technical sense. But the true sign of their quality is their effectiveness in relaying the tale the game wishes to tell, one that involves significant shares of comedy, action, tragedy, and drama.


~ VALIS II'S MUSIC ~

There is only a single screen you need to visit in order to make optimal use of your Valis II disc:


V2 is a short, unspectacular hack-and-shoot game that is quite easy to tear through despite the clunkiness of its controls. Its soundtrack, however, is something special. The inspirational fanfare of the title-screen theme gives way to the beautiful piano-dominated phrases of the bittersweet first-stage tune. Later, an ominous number grants intensity to an obstacle course devoid of the sorts of challenges that could create extreme excitement on their own. Most memorable of all is the third-level tune, which commences with a burst of brightness and proceeds to induce nostalgia with its unabashedly treacly melodies.


~ DRAGON SPIRIT'S ICE LEVEL ~

Ploddingly slow and horribly ugly, Dragon Spirit wouldn't be worth a second of anyone's time were it not for a single level during which it somehow rises up and becomes worthwhile. The frosty sixth stage is actually rather pretty and boasts action a step above the simplistic slowness to be experienced throughout the rest of the unremarkable adventure.


The highly overrated soundtrack, which contains a host of forgettable numbers, bestows upon the board a tune actually worthy of adoration. Long, winding, and immediately catchy, the gorgeous track effectively injects emotion into what's a rather austere affair in general.

~ TV SPORTS FOOTBALL'S FIELD-GOAL KICKING ~

TV Sports Football comes off as a waste on both sides of the ball. It burdens players with a mess of an offensive system that renders running useless and passing an exercise in arm-directing absurdity, while its computer-controlled clubs are so lacking in sense that the choices one makes on defense wind up being inconsequential. As a youngster who had just expended a sizable pile of long-saved-up cash on the chip, I was highly distraught upon discovering its inadequacies. But I managed to find refuge in its field-goal-kicking system.


The close-up visuals are quite nice, but what truly makes TVSF kicking so cool is the manner in which it's handled. Taking the angle and distance of the attempt into account, you must decide exactly where you want your kicker to strike the ball and have the skill pull your plan off via a crosshairs-based system. Some of the kicks you can try are quite hard to make, and seeing the ball sail through the uprights as your kicker raises his arms in triumph brings about no small sense of jubilation.

~ BATTLE ROYALE'S CAST ~

There isn't much to the actual battling in Battle Royale: some slaps and kicks and an over-the-ropes toss constitute the respective skill sets of the featured fighters. Still, players just can't help but pick a favorite from the crew of likable-if-limited brawlers. BR's misfit wrestlers showboat and guffaw and romp around the ring--and never fail to earn themselves fans with their antics.


Just as wacky as the frenzied fighters are their odd-looking managers, who emit fearless boasts and laugh-evoking threats--when they're not participating in behind-the-scenes rumbles of their own.

~ FANG OF ALNAM'S BATTLE SYSTEM ~

Alnam's scrums seem to be of the typical overhead-view, turn-based type at first glance.


But the simplistic superficial aspects of the scenes belie the depth of the system at work. The heroes and heroines can do their damage by casting devastating magic spells, transforming into beasts and launching suitably fierce attacks, or collaborating with allies to perform unique tag-team maneuvers. Whatever your preferred method of assault, actions are carried out quite quickly, yet none of the fights unfold in helter-skelter fashion; strategy plays a role as "move points" (which each technique costs varying amounts of) are limited. And while extra incentive for participating in the enjoyable skirmishes is hardly necessary, money is paid at in-town cash houses for the sheer amount of slaughter committed by your party members.

~ LADY SWORD'S ENEMY DESIGNS ~

Lady Sword is a straightforward-to-a-fault dungeon crawler that attempts to entice the easily titillated by exhibiting digitized tits. This is rather paltry incentive, as there are far-better settings for sneaking glimpses of breasts--real life, for instance. Games Express would've displayed prudence by focusing instead on the incredibly vast variety of adversaries LS places in the paths of its players.


I couldn't believe how many different types of creatures I'd run into during a mere initial run through the dungeon's foyer. And these are no nondescript nuisances we're speaking of; rock-hewn behemoths, amazonian warriors, and bloody severed heads are among the fierce folk who'll make your acquaintance.

~ BALLISTIX'S REF ~

Ballistix takes the grand old game of air hockey, places it in a futuristic setting, and completely bollixes it up. While the chaotic nature of the gameplay would likely nullify any conceivable bolstering of the affair's aesthetic components, one still wishes that the game weren't so utilitarian in approach. The marvelously gruesome master of ceremonies is employed merely to announce the commencement of each match.


With a distinctly alien air about him, he would seem a more suitable villain for a Contra episode than a knock-hockey-based debacle.

~ LAST ARMAGEDDON'S MONSTER-EVOLUTION SYSTEM ~

It's pretty neat that Last Armageddon gives players three alternating groups of monsters to play with as opposed to the usual RPG fighter-wizard-archer-tokenchick crew. The irritating battles, broken play system, and sprawling-yet-devoid-of-anything-interesting labyrinths initially offset the positives of the premise, but persistent players eventually get to strengthen their beasts in a fascinating way--by having them take on certain characteristics of other monster breeds, creating mighty new hybrid creatures in the process.


It's always fun to acquire awesome abilities via this innovative methodology, but most of the enjoyment to be derived from the process lies simply in seeing what the resulting abominations look like.

~ ASTRALIUS' SHARK LEVEL ~

This is the most incredible, most astounding, least likely example of the "isolated amazing stuff" phenomenon I have ever come across. Astralius, a terribly painful-to-play atrocity of an RPG, becomes absolutely awesome for a single stretch of island hopping. The concept at work is unique and somehow rather adorable: friendly sharks poke their heads above water to create bridges for the party to travel over.


While most of the enemies you encounter during your quest are unapologetically brutal, the foes you face while galloping from one great white to another are worthy but fair-fighting challengers. And while most triumphs in battle land you criminally little reward, reasonable shares of experience points and cash are divvied out here. And while the soundtrack for the most part is a horrid mass of audible awfulness, the shark theme is so ridiculously catchy as to be absolutely unforgettable. It all adds up to a wonderfully fun jaunt in the middle of a journey during which almost every single step is accompanied by unimaginable pain.

Of course, mere instances of ingenuity typically don't suffice to offset such pain. And I suppose the time to pay homage must now come to an end, as it would only be natural for people previously unacquainted with these games to wonder if the cited examples of far-beneath-the-surface brilliance make their respective titles worth purchasing. Certainly, there are caveats involved with each and every covered case. The brutality with which Last Armageddon and Astralius treat those who set foot in their realms ensures that very few players will ever come to realize their merits. Basted's cinemas should be witnessed by all, but the disc can seldom be acquired on the cheap. And it's hard to imagine anyone at this point holing themselves up to indulge in lengthy TV Sports Football Practice-mode sessions--regardless of how inexpensive the TurboChip may be.

Then again, Dragon Spirit certainly has its fans, folks who would argue passionately against my claims that it sports a sputtering soundtrack and delivers uninspired action. Battle Royale has been known to be the focal point of many a five-player get-together. And I must play spoilsport in my own article by pointing out that Valis II actually tells a rather interesting and moving tale.

Yes, more than one positive may be detected in these titles. And of course, some may perceive virtues in a given clunker where others see only the least desirable of traits. It can be interesting and worthwhile to discuss unearthed bits of gloriousness, to see where people find beauty in products largely considered meritless. There's something poignant in the notion of a back-alley programmer/composer/artist striking gold while working on a project ultimately treated by the masses with disgust or indifference, hitting upon something at some point that would wind up meaning a lot to someone out there. And it's impossible to say when and where the winning ingredient will find its way to the player who will appreciate it.

Some folks have actually emerged from the woodwork to claim that Phelios has more than one good thing going for it.


And they just might be right.

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