A Thousand Words: High Seas Havoc

High Seas Havoc

Data East’s High Seas Havoc is one of the many 1990s mascot platformers. In fact, it was so generic at first glance that when I saw footage of it and wanted to look further, it took some effort to do so. Still, looking at it closely shows some interesting things and some that are very well-done.

The title character, a sailor seal (no, not that kind) has to save the damsel in distress and Macguffin Gem from an evil pirate lord. The opening part is a sort of semi-soft attempt to sort of, maybe a little, come close to Sonic. There’s slopes but not really any mechanics to take advantage of them. The base mechanics are a lot different too-most notably, you have a refillable health bar instead of anything like rings. Then the game gives up on that and goes back to being a completely traditional platformer. It also becomes a lot harder.

Though janky (the main character really needed to be able to use the sword he was shown as having in the box art instead of relying on an iffy flying kick) and having all the issues of a “B-list” game, this is never outright bad. Certainly it’s not a rushed absolute low-effort game like too many other trend-following platformers of this time. And this especially shows in the music. Emi Shimizu’s soundtrack is one of the most underappreciated ever, with my favorite track being “Cold Paradise“.

The level that song plays on, Frozen Palace, is also something to behold. It’s a variant on the typical “mechanical works” level, albeit with freezers and water instead of the usual molten metal. Combined with hovering meditating dogs (yes, really) as some of the enemies, it’s definitely the most unique stage in this game. The rest is more generic, but the graphics are still well done for the time.

There is some undeniable “inspiration” from Sonic and the game is in the same basic field, but it’s different enough thematically and gameplay-wise to not be considered a mere lazy ripoff. Probably the biggest issue besides “cartoon animals” is the gem Macguffin, and that’s small. And did I mention the soundtrack is amazing?

A Thousand Words: Super Mario Land

Super Mario Land

I remember playing Super Mario Land when young and being extremely unimpressed. Of course, this was after I played the (well-done) port of the original Super Mario Bros on the Game Boy Color. So a part of me goes “of course a launch title for a very low-powered console is going to be bad in hindsight”. But another part of me wants to judge it by the standards of the time, when having Mario in a portable form at all was an amazing feat. Certainly the game wasn’t objectively bad enough to be a flop-it was an amazing seller.

And yet with full hindsight, it’s little more than a downscaled Super Mario Bros with weirder backgrounds that feels jerky and unsatisfying. The most obvious example is the physics-fireball, but the rest doesn’t feel as charming as the console games. This isn’t the fault of the weird aesthetic, which I don’t have any issues with. It’s just aged badly.

A Thousand Words: Rocky Rodent

Rocky Rodent

It’s easy to dismiss Rocky Rodent as one of the follow-on Sonic The Hedgehog knockoffs. But looking at it and looking at the actual Sonic games makes for an interesting comparison to what something superficially similar just didn’t understand.

Judged on its own terms, Rocky Rodent is decent enough. The music is good enough, the gameplay is never outright bad, and the styling is legitimately quirky, both in the haircut power-ups (seriously) and general eccentricity (the first boss is an SMG-wielding mobster in a VW Bus being driven by a cartoon rat). However, beyond that it’s one of the best examples of copying the surface of something but not getting the points.

Part of this is the level design, but a far bigger part is that the game uses what’s essentially Mario’s damage system. You have a maximum of two hit points, power-ups increase them by one, and getting hit with a power up causes you to lose it. In areas where you HAVE to be powered-up to get past an obstacle, this means backtracking to get it again if you’re hit.

Compare this with the rings intentionally designed to give you a huge margin for error (so you can go faster with less skill) in the real Sonic series, and you see the problem. It’s less coherent thought and more just following the two leaders. Thankfully the visuals and competence of the game mean this isn’t more of an issue than it is.

In an era of lazy, outright terrible cartoon mascot platformers, Rocky Rodent can at least be successful gameplay-wise and a little distinct setting-wise.

A Thousand Words: Metal Slug

Metal Slug

SNK’s classic series Metal Slug takes the Contra-type “side scrolling shooter” game and adds an unforgettable art style to it. The excuse plot is you controlling a member of the elite “Peregrine Falcons” against the “Rebel Army”-and more weird enemies.

The art, from the goofy yet legitimately detailed sprites to the lavish backgrounds to the smooth animations, is consistently amazing. The music isn’t as standout (with a few exceptions), but is always at least serviceable. As for the gameplay, it’s both very good and inherently limited.

The action, weapon combinations, and controls are all excellent with the exception of a few clumsy platforming sections. The issue is the games are very short and were originally for arcades. So it’s either “be good enough at this very hard game to avoid deaths or just brute-force your way through with credits”. This probably couldn’t have been avoided, but it’s still a little bitter. That being said, this series is a classic for a reason and the games are well worth playing.

A Thousand Words: Shadow The Hedgehog

Shadow The Hedgehog

It’s time to recall a “fond” game from my childhood, the “classic” Shadow the Hedgehog, where a cussin’, gun-totin, “awesome” cartoon animal runs around. The 3D Sonic games have a bad reputation that I don’t think is entirely deserved. After all, for all the bad camera tricks, erratic controls, and other stuff I’ll get to, I managed to beat and unlock the Final True Canon Route on both this and Sonic Heroes. So they weren’t unplayable bad.

Just bad. Although there was the question of just why they were bad and how they got that way. I’m indebted to the Geek Critique series for finally offering a plausible answer-instead of just staying with the “run through the stage” levels and gradually ironing out the issues across games, Sega seemed insistent on adding all sorts of gameplay modes that just diluted them. They had the excuse to just ditch these here with only one playable character, but no. To get all but pretty much one route, you have to go through maze levels and search levels.

The second is that the game setting felt more and more and more like a bad fanfic of itself. Adventure 1 started the process by having it take place in a semi-realistic world, and the process just snowballed and snowballed until it finally (aided by a jump in graphics that only enhanced the uncanny valley) reached its “maximum” in the later Sonic 2006. For the subject of this review, come on. A have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too experience where you have cartoon animals but also GUNS and SOLDIERS and EXTREME ALIENS is exactly what an “edgy” fanfiction writer would make. (And I don’t know what it says or means, but Nintendo’s core games have almost never had this tonal problem).

This is made slightly worse by there not even being any attempt to smooth out the tone. Would it have been that hard to leave the cutesy-est characters like Amy and Charmy behind and try to make the enemies look at least a little “semi-realistic”? I mean, one of the final bosses in this “edgier” game is a giant slot machine.

The stages range from linear and somewhat fun to nightmares like the aptly-named “The Doom“. Even the better ones are made worse by the need to constantly replay them in order to get the true ending. As for having to redo the bad ones-well, that’s about as “fun” as you’d expect.

And, in conclusion, the silly tone is one of the few parts that actually made some internal sense. At least it had an intended purpose. Very little else does. Who thought a game series built on speed needed mazes? Who thought it needed to have every single franchise character, regardless of if they fit the tone or not? Who thought the padding needed to be this awkward? The 3D Sonic games were sometimes talked about as if they were total failures, which isn’t true or fair, especially for the earlier ones. But their bad reputation is deserved.

Review: Tales of World War III 1985

Tales of World War III: 1985

Looking back at the progression of this blog, I’m reminded a lot of the story of trying to make a cockpit design that could fit the “average pilot”, and then finding that no one actually met that criteria. I feel similarly when I look back at just how little anything actually met my stereotype.

Brad Smith’s Tales of World War III: 1985 series comes closest, edging out Larry Bond’s earlier work. It’s done by a wargame designer and thus features the wargame-friendly setting of 1985 Europe, with battles taking place in various parts of it. There’s a lot of technical description.

I don’t feel nearly as much negativity towards it as I would have and did in the past. Smith has sincerely tried to build characterization, even if the execution is still often clunky and the characters often Steel Panthers cameras in practice. And the wargaming at least takes the series above Ian Slater in terms of technical accuracy. But it’s still a 51% entry in a niche genre, the pilot who isn’t particularly good or bad but has the dimensions to actually fit well in the “average” cockpit.

A Thousand Words: Time Gal

Time Gal

The 1983 video game Dragon’s Lair pioneered a feature to get around the then-primitive graphics of the time. Animated scenes would play via laserdisc while the player engaged in what are now called quick-time events. One of the more memorable versions of this is 1985’s Time Gal.

First, it has legitimately good-quality animation, no doubt due to the presence of the big-time Toei Animation doing the work there. Second is its premise. Basically, someone stole a time machine and Reika, the game’s heroine, must pursue him throughout many times, from the far past to the far future. Goofy anime antics and quick-time events galore ensue. There’s a tiny bit more depth in that from time to time, the game will briefly stop and allow the player choices, only one of which will succeed.

One of the more bizarre coincidences of the game is the one that ties it to Fuldapocalypse. The “AD 1990” stage features Reika avoiding M1 Abrams tanks and an AH-1 Cobra helicopter on a battlefield. The closeness of the then-future date to the actual Gulf War is uncanny, especially given how pop-culture to outright wrong everything else is.

This is a goofy spectacle that was meant to be a goofy spectacle. For the voice acting to be technically “better” or the animation to be more recent and even smoother would ruin the experience. And while many “interactive movie” games were cheap bandwagon-hoppers, this is not.

A Thousand Words: Violence Fight

Violence Fight

The video game Violence Fight is a very, very strange game. It’s also very, very bad. One of the pre-Street Fighter II arcade fighting games, this Taito “masterpiece” only stands out for two reasons.

The first is its “story”, where, in the 1950s an underground fighting tournament is popular among (exact words) “mafia, reckless drivers and general businessmen.” This is a 1950s that includes a World Trade Center, a wannabe Mr. T, and multiple tigers for the player to fight. It’s weird, but this is an old video game, so it’s a little less weird in context. The second is the bizarre effects that occur with a hard blow, like “GOGON” and “BOGOON!”.

Otherwise, it’s not very good. The controls are multi-axis but bad, like Pit Fighter, another dud from the same time period. The graphics aren’t bad for the time, but that’s pretty much it. It’s a weird period piece and that’s all.

A Thousand Words: Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Coming on the heels of my last post about beat ’em ups, one of the more interesting examples came from Capcom. The 1994 Alien Vs. Predator arcade game is fascinating. As a game, it has the same beautiful spritework you’d expect from a Capcom game of this time period. Its mixture of enemies is not exactly a bunch of street punks led by a well-dressed man with a gun.

But what the most interesting thing is is that it does what an adaptation needs to do. Granted, in many ways the setting tone is kind of incompatible with the game-you aren’t an outmatched human facing horrific, inhuman monsters, you’re beating up hordes of them en masse. But in terms of the pure essence, it distills all the convoluted lore into one simple goal. Humans reluctantly ally with monsters who sometimes want to kill them against both monsters who always want to kill them and a government/corporate conspiracy foolishly trying to use the latter monsters.

And this is done so well that Capcom could put a bubbly-voiced kounichi in and have it work.

 

 

A Thousand Words: Yume Nikki

Yume Nikki

The early indie game Yume Nikki is, even by the standards of what this blog has become, a strange choice. It’s a cult classic art/puzzle game. There really isn’t that any plot or explanation beyond the surreal illustrations as a pigtailed shut-in named Madotsuki wanders around various dreamworlds. For an indie game, it has a distinct, memorable artstyle, and its early origin, much like Cave Story’s, helped it along significantly.

Of course, the other side of this is that it combines the type of low-intensity gameplay later referred to derisively as “walking simulation” with (barring looking it up online) often impenetrable puzzles. It’s definitely a cult classic, but it’s easy to see why it hasn’t become anything more.

There could hardly be anything less like the usual fare of Fuldapocalypse. Which is kind of why I selected this. A huge part of the appeal is in wondering what everything is and what it means-all the many, many, many guesstimates of who Madotsuki is, what happened to her, what all the monstrous dreams mean, and even the seemingly obvious ending, add to the appeal of mystery and uncertainty.

It would be ruined if there finally was a definitive, official explanation for everything.

And yet, in the technothriller and especially “alternate history as a genre” style of story, massive detail is a centerpiece. This could just be apples and oranges, but a thought that often comes across when I read such tales is “Is this detail really necessary? Would it often be better, or at least not any worse if it wasn’t spelled out so much?”

It’s good food for thought.