A Thousand Words: Battle Circuit

Battle Circuit

One of the last arcade beat em ups that Capcom released in the wake of Final Fight, 1997’s Battle Circuit was obscure for many years until its availability in the Capcom Arcade Stadium collection. This is a shame, because of all the successors to that masterpiece, Battle Circuit is the best I’ve played.

The plot is simple: In a sci fi future, control one of five bounty hunters as they pursue a bunch of colorful villains. The quirkiness and silliness of the genre shows in both the heroes and villains. You can choose between Cyber Blue, a pretty normal anime hero, Captain Silver, a Plastic Man/Mr. Fantastic style stretch-armer, and three goofballs: Catgirl Yellow Iris, walking Venus Flytrap Alien Green, and the weirdest yet: Pink Ostrich, the titular bird with a girl riding on its back (it’s unclear who’s the brains). Similarly, the bosses are just as ridiculous. They start with a disco Elvis impersonator and go through such things as a woman and her giant mandril, an all-female biker gang, and a robot samurai riding some giant beast. The final boss can only be described as looking like an evil Santa Claus.

But what makes the game amazing beyond these characters and their beautiful sprites/animations is how it’s both easy and deep. Sure, it can be played like Final Fight. You can jump around, throw, and do sweep attacks that cost you health. But each character has a lot of moves, and they can be upgraded between levels if you’ve earned enough coins-which you get by landing lots of hits on enemies. Mastering each of these moves makes things a lot more fun. Especially as the characters have their styles, with Alien Green being the slow grappler a la Haggar and Yellow Iris being the rapid “Guy”. All can jump and power up with a special gauge, the effects of which range from gaining more power to recovering health to becoming very durable for a brief time.

There are a few snags. The first is that the characters are not exactly balanced compared to each other. Cyber Blue is the cheap easy mode character. Not only is he intuitive and strong, but his upgraded sweep attack damages everything on the screen. Bosses can be cheesed by just powering up (which increases his strength) and then spamming that move. Meanwhile, Pink Ostrich is very weak normally, only has a flight power of dubious use, and is hard to control. The others fall between those extremes. The worse one, I’d say, is that the segments between the bosses are kind of minimal and forgettable. There’s only a few enemy types and no real engaging set pieces. It’s not really bad, but it doesn’t have the spark the rest of the game does.

Also the third boss is a blander giant robot with very wonky hit detection that’s just frustrating and not fun. But hey, five out of six aren’t bad.

If you like any kind of beat em up, you deserve to check out Battle Circuit. It’s an amazing underappreciated game.

Review: A Killing Truth

A Killing Truth

Author DV Berkom, a self-proclaimed lover of thriller novels, begins her Leine Basso series with A Killing Truth. Short and sweet, the love of its author for the genre shows obviously. The negative side of this love is that this tale of a female assassin doesn’t exactly break much new ground or push any authorial limits. It’s firmly in the 51% middle of books of this nature.

But it’s also positively in the 51% middle. If you want a good cheap thriller, this is the book for you. Everything about this that needs to work does, and I had a great time reading. I look forward to reading more of Berkom’s work, as it’s clear that she knows what makes a thriller good.

And that’s two positives of loving the genre to one negative. I’ll take that.

Review: The Angola Deception

The Angola Deception

Because I’m crazy, I decided to check out a book by an author whose past series I was less than fond of. So I read DC Alden’s The Angola Deception, a cheap thriller about a super-conspiracy that wants to kill the bulk of the world’s population through an engineered germ. I believe there are at least four Jon Land books I’ve read with this exact plot. Blaine McCracken probably stops one bio-conspiracy shadow government in the morning and one in the afternoon each day.

The difference between them is of course that Land writes about monster truck chases and Antarctica exploding, while Alden writes about how one of the worst things about the evil Muslim conquering state is that it’s too feminist. Guess which book is a goofy fun romp and which is an axe-grinding, plodding, mess.

It’s not exactly a difficult question. There is every single New World Order conspiracy played completely straight here, but there are no minotaur-men. On top of that, the ending of The Angola Deception manages to be both too open ended (setting up the later series) and wrapped up too quickly (dealing with the antagonists of that specific book) at the exact same time. How does it manage that? I’m a little awestruck at how it does, but it does.

Suffice to say I don’t recommend this book. I might keep reading the series because I’m crazy and want to see just how crazy it gets (the Invasion series got pretty out-there, but not intentionally). But I don’t recommend it to others.

Review: The Han Solo Adventures

The Han Solo Adventures

Originally published in three installments from 1979 to 1980, the Han Solo Adventures by Brian Daley were the first books in what would become the Star Wars expanded universe. Star Wars fans tend to love them, and I’m one of them. Without restrictions or a desire to one-up the movies (I’m looking at you, Kevin J. Anderson), the books are a fresh fun romp through the Corporate Sector.

Daley can write everything from prison breaks to starfighter bouts to duelists well, and he does in these books. Every Star Wars fan, science fiction fan, or just fiction fan should read these.

A Thousand Words: Captain Commando

Captain Commando

Capcom, fresh off the success of Final Fight, made another arcade brawler called Captain Commando in 1991. I’m sure the title was just a coincidence. You can control the titular vanilla superhero, a ninja, an alien mummy named “Mack The Knife”, and, most bizarrely, a baby prodigy that controls a mech-that can ride other mechs. It’s like the walking robot version of a nesting doll.

Anyway, to call it a superhero version of Final Fight would be unfair. It’s more like a souped up superhero Final Fight. For instance, the second boss of Captain Commando is almost exactly like the final boss in that game (someone who jumps around with a crossbow). Only he’s much faster. As for the real final boss, it’s one of the cheapest in all arcade brawlers, and exists primarily to devour quarters.

For all this enhanced goofiness, it doesn’t seem as graceful or punchy as Final Fight was. The new move additions consist of the previously mentioned mechs (which are few and far between, and clunky enough to generally be more trouble than they’re worth) and dash moves that are both hard to do and rarely of that much use.

It gets the basics right, but if you have to choose, I’d say either Final Fight itself or one of the better successors. This is not one of the better successors.

A bizarre archetype

I’ve been playing a lot of beat ’em up video games (ie Final Fight), and I’ve noticed (and have not been the only one who’s noticed) a recurring enemy theme. Yes, you get the normal goons, the musclemen, the femme fatales, and the final boss who has the only ranged weapon in the entire game. And the people with very few hit points who run in, attack once, and leave. And big fat enemies.

But among the last, there’s one strange consistent theme. These portly foes breathe fire. Ok. I don’t know why, but somehow game designers thought “All right, let’s keep doing this.”

A Thousand Words: M. D. Geist

M. D. Geist

One of the most infamous animes of the 1980s, M. D. Geist was a crudely made original video animation that sank into obscurity. Or it would have if the head of western distributor Central Park Media hadn’t taken a liking to it and pushed it forward. Because of this, there’s been a backlash against the excuse-plot gorefest of a power-armored monster fighting through a sci-fi apocalypse that is M. D. [Most Dangerous] Geist.

That said, it doesn’t deserve to be listed as one of the worst of all time, as it too often is. Like fellow mid-1980s pop culture phenomenon We Built This City by Jefferson Starship, though lacking, there’s a lot worse out there. As cheesy fun it “works”. And that’s often what you need.

Review: The Cold Hand of Death

The Cold Hand of Death

Brent Towns’ latest Team Reaper thriller as of this post is The Cold Hand of Death. It can basically be described as the technothriller equivalent of gulping down an energy drink in a distorted physics chamber where time moves faster. It’s like the book never goes more than two pages without a shot being fired or something blowing up. There’s the usual world-in-crisis technothriller plot, but even this is warped up to ludicrous speed.

I’ve mentioned the previous installments as being fast-paced, but this takes them to a totally different level. It’s like comparing a fast propeller plane to an SR-71.

It just feels excessive. The writing is not bad. It aces the action scenes, and that’s what a thriller needs to get right. But the best action writers of all time would struggle to keep any book interesting if it had as many battles as this one. This is like a deep fried gummy candy. It’s not inedible, but it’s just not the sort of thing you’d want to eat/read lots of.

Review: Knee Deep In The Dead

Doom: Knee Deep In The Dead

You might think that a classic video game with a plot of “run around, shoot monsters” would be hard to novelize. Yet a writer by the name of Dafydd ab Hugh (which is the most Welsh name ever) gave it a try in Knee Deep in the Dead. This could have very easily been a low-effort potboiler. The author would just type out the blandest adherence to the and some filler, submit it, collect the money, and never look back. This has happened with many other visual media adaptations.

But not here.

Knee Deep In The Dead has a lot of running around and shooting monsters. But it also has this very bizarre style (that grew even more bizarre in its sequels, from what I’ve heard) that is nothing short of endearing. It’s one of those books that kind of has to be read to be believed.

Is it “good”? Not really. Is it readable? Yes. Is it fun? Oh yeah. Should you check it out? In my eyes, you betcha.

A Thousand Words: Final Fight

Final Fight

Capcom’s 1989 Final Fight was not the first “beat em up” video game. It wasn’t the first popular game of that type, with Double Dragon taking that two years earlier. But it was an instance where the genre was-dare I say-mastered. With an excuse plot of “save the mayor’s daughter”, ninja Guy, tough thug Cody, and the former wrestling star and mayor himself, Mike Haggar, go off to wallop street goons in a thinly veiled New York City.

An action sports star in political office of that nature has come true twice , with former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura becoming governor of Minnesota and, more recently and relevantly, heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko becoming mayor of war-torn Kyiv. But I digress. Final Fight either introduced or popularized a lot of beat em up elements, the first being playable characters on a speed-power spectrum from Haggar (slow, strong) to Guy (fast, weaker). The second was the moveset, combining normal attacks, throws, and an all-round attack that costs the player health.

It’s amazing how A: This feels natural and effective, and B: All of this was accomplished with only one attack button. The fighting is fluid and forgiving in ways that a lot of similar games-even those made by Capcom itself-are not. Everything from combinations to attacking enemies by throwing other enemies at them just clicks. The one sour move is the grab attack (where you just hold and beat an enemy), which is both hard to do and of limited use given how many enemies are on screen at once. But everything else fits into its niche near-perfectly.

The graphics are amazing for the time and still look good by pixel art standards over thirty years later. The music a mixed bag, but it has some catchy tunes and it’s a rare instance of an arcade game from that period with actually good sound mixing. Others will often have the music drowned out by the action, which is not the case here.

Final Fight is a classic video game. And it’s a classic for good reason.