Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Punk is Dead - Suda51 - The rise and fall of an iconoclast.

In 1994 Goichi Suda announced his arrival in the world of videogames with a bang;
The unmistakable sound of a self inflicted gunshot to the head.

Super Fire Pro Wresting Special was a Japanese-only entry in this long running franchise.
The game sees your unknown protagonist ascend the ranks of sports-entertainment in the kind of story mode you just won't find in this kind of game anymore.

In fact, you didn't find stories like this at the time either - or before for that matter.

During the course of the campaign you are dogged by failure; your manager is mysteriously murdered, you accidentally kill one of your closest friends in the ring, your girlfriend leaves you just before the climactic battle - the build up for which see's your final opponent kill your tag team partner in the ring before announcing that it was he who murdered your coach too.

Bra-and-panties at Summer Slam this is not.

Ultimately, our hero is victorious, however, consumed by the emptiness of glory with no-one to share it with, he shoots himself 3 days after winning the crown.

This story was only Goichi Suda's second credit on a video game, but its tone and refusal to conform to expectations were a precursor to the values he would eventually bring to a worldwide audience.

For the ten years after his work on Fire Pro, Suda remained in the employ of Human Entertainment and directed three games in the Japan-only Syndrome series. He then struck out on his own with the creation of Grasshopper Manufacture, the studio to which he acts as CEO to this day.

At Grasshopper, Suda concentrated initially on the Japanese market with two idiosyncratic Playstation games; The Silver Case, and Flower, Sun, and Rain. The company then lent its services to the more mainstream appeal of two games in the Shining Souls series on the Game Boy Advance. Then came the first Grasshopper game to be released outside of Japan.

Michigan: Report from Hell was directed by Goichi Suda's contemporary at Grasshopper, Akira Ueda - and, despite an interesting premise, it was (and remains) a terrible game. As such it disappeared without a trace upon launch in Australia and Europe, and failed to secure a publisher in the United States.

A year after that, and 11 years after Fire Pro made his name in Japan, Goichi Suda directed his first international video game.

Killer 7 - conceived for Nintendo's Gamecube as part of the ill-fated 'Capcom Five' - was a game that divided opinion with the press and with consumers. Bewitching as many people as it confused, it had been branded with the (very nineties) 'cult classic' misnomer even before it was released.

Some believed it to be esoteric in the extreme, others complained of over simplicity.
Killer 7 was a game about culture, national identity, and east-west relations - as told via the analogy of undead suicide bombers, wheelchair bound assassins, multiple personality disorders, and chess playing deities.

To its fans it was mesmeric; a convoluted jigsaw puzzle of disparate pieces hanging together from a barely visible tread.  To others it was a nonsensical mess.

Killer 7 is clearly the work of an artistic mind - conceived and realised with complete creative control over every tiny detail. The result is a final product in which even the flaws seem meticulously planned. The gameplay and story are woven effortlessly through each other - rather than existing as separate, juxtaposed entities, as is the case with the vast majority of videogames.
Its mechanics represent a distillation of gameplay that verges on abstract. Everything unnecessary is stripped away to leave only your actions and their impact.

It was during the marketing phase of Killer 7 that Goichi Suda first expressed the motto of Grasshopper Manufacture: "Punk's not dead".

It was the perfect sound bite to accompany a game with such a fearless, anti-establishment identity from a creator who insisted on conducting interviews wearing a luchador mask. This was undeniably a gimmick, but one that nevertheless made a statement about the relationship between creativity and publicity.

‘Punk's not dead’ was a rebellious rallying call to those consumers who had tired of the relentlessly iterative nature of more mainstream videogames - particularly pertinent considering that, at the time, Killer 7 was still slated as an exclusive to a Nintendo console that was home to the 11th entry in the Super Mario series.

In the wake of mixed reviews and a limited marketing budget, Killer 7 was only a moderate sales success. Capcom had projected worldwide sales of £330k and, while sales in Japan were particularly weak, they were offset by better numbers in Europe and America.
There were a number of contributory factors to this, not least the collapse of the exclusivity arrangement with Nintendo, just a month after it was announced, that ensured the game released simultaneously on Sony's sales behemoth; the Playstation 2.

Extra sales were doubtless garnered through a degree of notoriety. When IGN's Dan Cassamina spuriously asserted in his review that the game featured "full-blown sex" it caught the attention of the videogames industries pantomime villain of the time - activist Jack Thompson. Thompson immediately demanded that, due to the sexual nature of the game, the rating in America should be increased to Adults-Only. Typically, he had not played the game or even seen it running, and I doubt he has to this day.
Nevertheless, the old cliche that 'there's no such thing as bad publicity' is more relevant in this medium than any other, and Mr Thompson's tirade played no small part in ensuring that Killer 7 eventually made its money back.

Grasshopper's next releases returned them to the Japanese market, with two anime tie-ins released in the year following Killer 7, Blood+ One Night Kiss, and Samurai Champaloo: Sidetracked were both released to mixed reviews but decent sales in Japan.
Following these was Contact, an RPG with a clever ‘forth wall’ breaking narrative device that was an early release for Nintendo's DS hand held system.

Despite a fairly positive reception in the games press, however, Contact was a sales failure. Disastrously released in Japan on the same day as massively anticipated Mother 3, it couldn't recover from this early loss of momentum.
None of these games, however, were directed or designed by Goichi Suda. He was working on a game that would be released early into the life of still another Nintendo platform.

No More Heroes is a video game about videogames. It's about making videogames, playing videogames, loving videogames, and - most importantly of all - hating videogames.

No More Heroes is, in this writer's opinion, the finest videogame that has ever been made.

It is the only example of an 'art' game that also manages to be enjoyable to play.
Its existential realisation of the players mindset within its game-world is seething with irony and introspection. It features representations of the games that players want, the games an artist wants to make, and the compromises they have forced upon them.
In its finale it insulates heavily that games and their creators are locked in an endless battle with no meaning, and that any attempt to add meaning will result in failure for both of them.

It's uniquely subversive; a complex game that bemoans the over simplicity of the audiences needs whilst itself hiding behind a mask of over simplicity.

There is a saddening bitterness to No More Heroes, it plays out like a response to a career where the best games have struggled, and the worst have thrived.

That No More Heroes is still the last game directed by Goichi Suda is of no small consequence. That I believe it might be the last game he will ever direct, is a monument to both the product and the man.

In a twist of painful irony, No More Heroes was a massive success.
As with Killer 7, slow initial sales in Japan were offset by good numbers in the West.
A HD re-release for both the Xbox 360 and PS3 was created and sold well, and then,
finally - most tellingly - a sequel was announced.

There are moments in No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, where the pen of Goichi Suda is evident but, sadly, in reality, he had very little to do with this pale shadow of the original. It's still fun to play and there are moments where a little introspection is clearly encouraged, but it is uneven, and unclear of vision.

Since No More Heroes, Grasshopper have revealed 5 games to be released to the full retail market. Desperate Struggle, Lollipop Chainsaw, Shadows of the Damned, Killer is Dead, and Lily Bergamo.

Each and every one of them has been introduced to the games press as the work of Goichi Suda. Each and every one of them, it has later transpired, has been directed by someone else.
These games each have their own merits and their own issues. Taking each in isolation, the quality is wildly varying. Their only consistency is the Grasshopper Logo -
the extravagant filigree butterfly wings, the flame haired face, the moto emblazoned somewhere nearby...

Ever since completion of his masterpiece, Goichi Suda has faded further into the background at Grasshopper, other than making an appearance at TGS or E3 to promote whatever game someone else at the studio is making. He and his partners seem well aware that his face and, more importantly his name, are worth their weight in column inches for any new release.
With the possible exception of Lily Bergamo, all of the above games were claimed to be under the directorship of Goichi until after their release. His name still appears on the credits in some supervisory capacity, and a couple of them do a fine job of mimicking the shallower elements of his approach to game design. But not one one of them carries the narrative genius of Killer 7 or savage satire of No More Heroes. They don't even match up to the power and subversion of Super Fire Pro Wrestling Special.

By the announcement of Lily Bergamo at E3 2013, Goichi Suda was no longer a visionary leader. He had become a trademark, a mascot. A name that once conjured up images of great auteurs from other mediums such as François Truffaut or Jean Luc Goddard, now brings to mind powerless figureheads like Paul McCartney, Muhammed Ali; icons robbed of their relevance and dignity, wheeled out for the masses to fawn over, to point at, and to remember when they were once great - all the while desperately trying to ignore the faded echo presented before them.

On January 29th 2014 Grasshopper Manufacture was acquired by Gung Ho Online Entertainment.
Their first action of consequence to the outside world was to take Lily Bergamo - the single player hack-and-slash game that Goichi Suda had announced at E3 2013, rename it Let it Die, and turn it into a free-to-play MOBA title.

Grasshopper Manufacture retained their name in the deal. It appears they also managed to keep all off their staff and the ownership of their existing IPs. This is great news for the employees in what must have been a worrying time. At the time of writing, and as far as I can tell, there is only one casualty of the take-over.

Punk is Dead.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

MAME Hidden gems - U & V are for...

Have you ever noticed how American TV shows tend to have 'themes' in each episode?
One entry may have every character, no matter how unrelated, dealing with issues regarding 'Trust', still another may centre it's weekly adventure around the theme of 'Death'.

Well, today's blog update is bought to you by the letters U and V and the theme of 'Detail'.

I wanted to included Vindicators in this selection. It would have provided the perfect opportunity for me to bang on about how I feel the layout I designed for my MAME cabinet’s buttons allows me to use the top four as a pseudo-dpad – facilitating great control for games such as Atari’s rather smart dual stick tank game.

Unfortunately, with multiple ports and re-releases under its belt, it’s just too well known.
Give it a look if it did manage to pass you by.

So instead I’ll begin with Undercover Cops, a brawler from Irem, the company most famous for the classic shooter R-Type.

Although the usual genre tropes are all present and correct (Three characters, walk right, pick up weapons, etc) Undercover Cops will immediately put anyone that plays it in mind of the Metal Slug games.
The style here shares that series’ distinctive, drab coloured, ultra detailed sprite and background design, so it was no surprise at all to learn, during a little research, that it also shares some creative team members with that series’ too. 

I’ve probably said before that with brawlers the inventiveness of levels and bosses is really brought to the fore.
The first level boss in Undercover Cops is a prime example of this. After you have knocked off about half of his energy bar he moves towards a giant stampy, crushy, factory machine thing - and attempts to get you under it. Brilliantly, if you turn the tables on his plan, you can terminate him in a single well timed attack. 

There’s only so much you can do with jump, kick, and an 8 way stick (hey, that rhymes!) but Undercover Cops shows just how much taking care of the details really makes a difference and elevates this brawler from just another Final Fight clone to a contender for best in genre.

Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer (I can’t stop reading that as Cow-gazer) is a fighter that excels with a single mechanic.

If you remember Bloodstorm, the game was marketed as a ‘Mortal Kombat Killer’ by Strata in 1994 you might also recall it’s one interesting feature – the Passable Power – whereby an ability could be taken from a defeated opponent and used by the victor.
Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer, an anime styled fighter released a year later, takes this idea and improves upon it – Mainly by implementing it in a game that isn’t utterly, utterly terrible.
It’s not the only reason to recommend Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer though. It’s a great looking game too, and one that benefits from not trying to re-invent the wheel with its move-sets.
It also retains a respectable level of balance, quite an achievement considering the aforementioned attack borrowing mechanic.

So we've had a brawler and a fighter so far - exactly zero-points for guessing what genre Viper Phase 1 comes from.

This V-schmup comes from the Raiden Stable is is pretty recognisable as such for anyone vaguely familiar with the series. 

As with all of my personal favourites in the genre, this is a game with a focus on shooting stuff first, and avoiding stuff second.
It gives you such beautiful stuff to shoot too. The intricacies of the designs are exceptional and, as you’d expect from a game with this pedigree, it plays like a dream.
It’s worth noting that there are two versions available. Purists might want to stick to the original but the imaginatively named ‘New Version’ features a better power-up system and, for me, that’s all important.

I’m going to squeeze in a quick forth entry with Violent Storm.

As I’ve already had a brawler that excels through its use of detail in this selection so I’ll be brief.
Violent Storm isn’t as pretty as Undercover Cops but a screenshot would never do this game justice even it was – because the music is completely amazing.
In true arcade style this is a game that must be played with the volume up.

During my brief research into the game I found this write-up from VG Junk – It’s a fantastic piece, and does the game far better credit than I ever could.

And, as I'm finished here for now, you can go read it.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Setting the size...

Did you ever make airfix models as a kid?

You'd open the pack and start glueing stuff together right away, ugly fingerprint smears of polystyrene cement all over the place, and half an hour later you'd have grey plastic aeroplane/tank/car with ugly ridges of glue and wonky wheels and maybe you'll paint it tomorrow?

That was me anyway. Only before I could paint them they'd always get stepped on out of clumsiness, spite, or nearsightedness by me, my brother, or my Nan respectively.

I knew, even then, that you were supposed to paint the pieces while they were still attached to the frame, to carefully remove them afterwards with a sharp knife (Under adult supervision). I knew this was the way you were supposed to do it but I just didn't have the patience.

I still don't. But with this project I'm somehow forcing myself.

Today I put the holes for the buttons in my control deck.

You may notice that's a slightly darker colour, more on that later.

If you saw the post I had on google+ regarding the button positions well, here you are; this was the winner.
Strange thing was, once the other holes were drilled this really was the only option - everything else just looked too cluttered.
Going to be a bit of squeeze with the wiring considering the angle of the deck but I think it'll be okay.
I'll probably put the 'Coin' on the right and the 'Start' on the left.

The temptation, at this point, to fit all the buttons, attach the deck to the skeleton cabinet, and play some Outfoxies was almost unbearable... but I managed... just.

I did this by distracting myself with the front panel.
Having unearthed my router from the bottom of the stash of my stuff that resides in the in-law's garage I set it up and tested using a scrap of MDF of the same thickness (10mm) that I'm using for the screen surround.

If you've ever used a router you'll know that setting the thing up is the most important step. Once you're all locked in with your blade height set and secured the rest pretty much takes care of itself - but it's still a little daunting when your MDF resources are oppressively restricted.

However, in this case, there was nothing to worry about.

I'm really pleased with how this came out, this is the kind of detail that will hopefully belie the cabinets meagre budget.
You may not be able to make it out on that picture but the router left a little lip all the way around.

As I set about sanding it down it occurred to me that I'd have to seal the edge somehow or it would look terrible when painted.

A little googling put me on to something called sizing, a mixture of PVA based wood glue and water that is used for the very purpose described above.

This small batch I knocked up had a ratio of about 5 parts water to 1 glue. There were all sorts of ratios recommended all over the internet, from 1/1 to 10/1 and everything in between. I settled on five because, well, it as good as anything else.

Then I went crazy with it.

There was just something in the way it looked that gave me total confidence that this was the right thing to do. I'll be giving it a light rub down, probably with wet-and-dry, before I put my undercoat on - which I'll need to buy first.

With both the front panel and the control deck nicely covered I left them to dry and that was the entire product of two hours work.

Probably going to do another batch and coat most of the unit next time out - but I need to check I have all the holes I need drilled and countersunk first.

Monday, 21 July 2014

MAME Hidden Gems - T is for...

Play Thunder Jaws. I'm not going to give it a slot here as any credibility I have left after recommending Pachinko Sexy Reaction would be lost forever. But yeah, play Thunder Jaws. It's like Russ Meyer and Ed Wood got together to make a rip off Rolling Thunder... neither having made a game before... Genius.


Tenkomori Shooting fuses v-shmup mechanics with the slightly mental quick-fire style of Bishi-Bashi Special - and if that sentence doesn't make you want to play it then I'm afraid we can't be friends.

The front end of the game has something to do with a monkey going up a tower and beating a Game of Death style challenge on each floor for some reason.

However, unlike a yellow jumpsuit clad Bruce Lee, your challenges are less about fighting ex-basketball players and more about achieving a high-score on a bite sized vertical shooting game.

There are Galaga clones and 1942 clones, there are games where you fire hearts at a singer and others where you fire arrows at apples, you will try to serve sushi and assassinate a Shogun, you will even have to blow up UFOs with fireworks.
Tenkomori Shooting is one of those turn-the-sound-up-and-revel-in-the-madness games and, for me, there is no higher recommendation.

I'm doing it again I'm afraid, Touki Densyou Angel Eyes is a game that is fairly well known in Japan.

It has had releases on the Saturn and the Playstation and is pretty common on the tournament fighting scene.
It is, however, pretty much unknown to the vast majority of western gameophiles.
Yes, I did just make up that word.

There's always a voice in my head telling me not to bother with listing fighters, they seem like a bit of a hard sell.
This example stood out to me initially for the quality of the characters and animation, and for the bizarre way it combines the 2D hand drawn sprites with pre-rendered 3D ones.

It's a bit of a jar at first, but when you start to play, the game's Street Fighter style controls come so naturally, and the games technicalities are so user friendly, that I could not fail to be won over by it.
I hope it does the same for you.

There have been a few games I've detailed in this blog that have put me in mind of Nintendo's classic StarFox, but none moreso than Thunder Ceptor.

A bit of a caveat to it's selection: The arcade cabinet featured an analogue joystick, as most MAME Cabinets tend to go for a 4 or 8 way digital stick it may be something to bear in mind if you're a stickler for the genuine arcade experience.
But, as I've said before, the vast majority of people use MAME on a PC controlled with an Xbox 360 controller, so there's no problem there.

Anyway, Thunder Ceptor is an into the screen on rails sprite scaling shooter. It has more than a little in common with Space Harrier and while it doesn't really do enough to move itself out of the shadow of Yu Suzuki's masterpiece (how could it?) it has enough differences to make it worth your time.

Principle among these is the fuel meter. Rather than having lives, Thunder Ceptor instead puts you on the clock, challenging you to complete the level before your fuel runs out.
This overtone of the racing genre if further supported by inclusion of an accelerator alongside the usual shooting controls. Fortunately, none of the levels have corners, so steering is not required, otherwise we'd be into full on SCI territory.

There is a sequel to the game that was released less than a year after the first game called 3D Thunder Ceptor II, it featured stereoscopic 3D and power-ups but little else to recommend it over this original version. MAME does replicate the display by splitting the screen but for me this is just another reason to play the original... unless it appears on Oculus Rift, that is.

There were a couple of other games I decided against this time out:
Typhoon is a game I remember playing back in the day but I couldn't really recommend it on nostalgia alone, and Twinkle Star Sprites is a fusion of shooter and two-player Puzzle Bobble who's mechanics just seemed to elude me, the limitations of single player weren't in it's favour either.
Give them both a look though, if only a cursory one.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Setting the viewing angle...

Okay so last time out I'd just done a rough cut on the side panels and was waiting for the glue to dry - obviously that has happened now so the next step was to take the screws out and fill the holes.
I don't expect anyone to remember that I had originally set aside £9.99 to replenish my two part wood filler.
However, as a knock on effect of managing to get hold of some MDF I won't need any more filler, and the little I had left over from my furniture experiments served very well for patching up these panels, with some to spare.

I've only done a quick sand down and shaping of the corners so far. I'll get out the wet and dry to give it a nice smooth finish - and get rid of the loose fibres from the MDF - when I have all the other elements ready.

With the sides as done as they need to be I turned my attention to the cross pieces needed to support the screen.

The one at the front was simple. It sits on top of the PC cabinet and I'd already used it to get the angle for the screen so it was just a case of screwing it in place.
There was the hint of a split developing so I've poured a healthy amount of PVA into the wood to try and prevent it worsening. Happily, the splits weren't in the structurally significant direction.

The back support needed a little more work.
With the tilt of the screen I needed to find a way to prevent it sliding backwards. I decided to keep it simple.

When everything is ready to be 'locked-in' I'm going to put screws through the side MDF pieces and into the screen casing to make extra sure it stays in place.

With that done, I've onto the front panel.

I only had one partial sheet of the 10mm MDF that I wanted to use, so after cutting it the right width (365mm) I decided to cut my window plum centre.
This gives me the most leeway for repositioning. I'm thinking that I probably won't cut it down until I have the control deck in place.
I measured out the dimension of the screen, allowing for a 5mm overhang all the way around.
After drilling a 28mm hole at each corner I broke out my trusty Stanley knife saw and cut out the centre piece.

A little finishing off with a bastard file and voilà. I'm going to put a 45mm bezel on it with a router eventually, but for now it serves the purpose of making me feel like progress is being made.

Next up is the control deck. 
You may have seen on Google+ that I've been finalising the layout plans with a little help from contributors on there. 

Next time out I'll putting their good advice into practice.

Friday, 11 July 2014

MAME Hidden Gems - S is for...

A quick run down of the nearly men before I get into the top 3 for 'S'...

Space Fury is a vector shooter in the asteroids style. It has a cool powerup system and looks great, but not only was it released as an unlockable on one Sega's myriad collections, but it also stops calculating the score after level 4, which annoyed me.
Suprise Attack is a game in the style of Rolling Thunder but set in space. Again it has some pretty neat power-ups but doesn't really do enough to stand out in the glut of this type of game.
Super Cross II is a very simplistic isometric motocross game, a little too simplistic to make the cut unfortunately. But it does offer a fun few minutes diversion and the sprites are impressive considering it's age.
Finally, Shock Troopers - 2nd Squad is another game that has seen fairly recent re-release. This evolution of the Commando/Ikari Warriors style shooter is definitely worth a look if you're unfamiliar.

Now, if you're anything like me you'll look at the screenshot below and think:
"That looks like a rather smart late 80's racer, got to be worth a look!"

This game is called Slipstream, just 150 prototypes were made by Capcom and it never entered full production.
According to the very helpful this makes it one of the rarest arcade machines of all time.

It's fast, fun, features three game modes and a neat boost gimmick based around staying in an opponents Slipstream. So what went wrong?

It was 1995.

To put it in perspective, that's a year after Sega Rally came out, 2 years after both Ridge Racer and Daytona USA first saw the light of day.

On the day it rolled off the production line, Slipstream was already old-hat. The spite scaling graphics rendering it an impossible sell to a market into which Sega and Namco were unleashing some of the most exhilarating driving experiences the arcades have ever seen.

However, playing the game now, unhindered by juxtaposition to such behemoths, its four brilliantly realised tracks, 9 cars, and OTT boost mechanic make for a game that has aged very well and is a joy to play.

When I played The Super Spy I didn't make it as far as this boss...

So I can't tell you if it's supposed to be a woman or a guy in drag, although looking at the size of those hands...

The Super Spy is an example of a lifeline that has helped me out of a spot with these entries more times than I can remember - A Neo Geo game.
There always seems to be something a bit mental about games on SNK's wildly expensive hardware, and that makes them a perfect fit for this blog.

This particular effort could lazily be described as Operation Wolf with fewer guns, but it reminded me most of the Aliens game released for ZX Spectrum, C64, Amstrad, and the like back in 1987.

As with Aliens, you control the movement from the first person perspective and move predominantly sideways, only occasionally being able to move 'forwards' through doors.
However, in Super Spy, you eventually come to a lift and entering it takes you, literally, to the next level. 

Each floor is crammed with an array of bad guys for you to despatch in a variety of ways.
You start with a pretty effective knife, however the power of this weapon reduces with each use.
You can also pick up a pistol that will despatch most enemies in one or two shots, but uses ammo very quickly. 
At some points a rescued hostage will even give you an insanely powerful but limited use machine gun.
The initial weapons, though, are you hands and feet. And this is what earns The Super Spy a place on this list.

The game features an incredibly in depth combat system that almost seems out of place alongside some of the other, somewhat rudimentary, elements.
It allows you to bob, weave, throw jabs, hooks, uppercuts, straight kicks, and knee bombs. It even has a timing based block mechanic.
It may not sound like much when described here, but when you take the time to fully understand the minutiae of the system it becomes immensely satisfying.

Luckily for me, following its arcade release Sōkyūgurentai made its way to some of the 6th generation consoles, but never outside Japan. 
Sometimes it feels churlish to be grateful that so few people have played these games - particularly when they s wonderful as this... but I'll get over it.

Often described as a spiritual successor to Rayforce, Sōkyūgurentai is a sprite based v-shmup that features a version of the lock-on mechanic that is synonymous with that series.

Considering the lack of true 3D the game has an incredible sense of depth. 
It's in view of this that the lock-on targeting system on each of the 3 available spacecraft is cone-shaped, each slight variation capturing all enemies that pass through it no matter their location on the pseudo 3D plane.

In the vein of the very best V-shmups, of which this definitely an example, the game features some deeply beautiful set pieces and some incredible boss battles.
During the latter, the unusual 4:3 display zooms far away from the action, just so that you can see the enormity of the foe you are trying to take down.

I understand if you're a bit burnt-out on schmups but this one is definitely worth your time. 
Moreover, if you prefer your shooters to be more about the shooting than avoiding a million brightly coloured bullets - then you won't be disappointed here.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

MAME Hidden Gems - R is for...

I had very high hopes for R – Looking down my list of candidates I made way back when I played through the MAME catalogue there was a good haul noted here.

A little research has decimated the field though.

I probably should have realised that Ray Force was the first in the popular series that went on to include Ray Storm and Ray Tracers, and re-releases on the Playstation and Xbox (among others) meant I had to eliminate the excellent top-down open world car shooter Rush and Crash (AKA Speed Rumbler) and Rohga Armor Force (AKA Wolf Fang: Kuhga) in which you assemble your own mech before piloting it into H-Shmup action.

All of these games are more than worth a play, but my self imposed selection criteria means that I’ve had to pick others from my list for this entry.

The second and third choices were easy, and probably would have been selected anyway, but up first is Rabbit, a fighting game that I have to recommend with a rather large caveat – The rom is broken.

The main fault is that there is no sound, but there are other issues too, most notably that sprites occasionally blink momentarily into invisibility.

Another point of note is that it just barely squeaks past my criteria – it is a game with a release on console, namely Sega’s much maligned Saturn. However, as it was a Japan only title, and one that happened very close to the launch of the machine, I’ll allow it. On the plus side, this means that if you fall in love with it on MAME you have the option of tracking down a fully functional version.

In it’s favour though, on MAME Rabbit retains a recognisable but innovative fight system and beautiful character art.

Each of the ten highly original combatants come with a 'familiar', a spirit beast that can be summoned and used in combat.
The great thing about this mechanic is that it has both positive and negative effects – A heavy beast might increase the power of your attacks, for example, but it will also slow you down and shorten your jumps.
It adds a dimension I've not before in the genre and, while it may lack the fireworks of others of the era, it has enough going for it to recommend a play to fans of 2D fighters.

Sega's X arcade hardware was most famous for Yu Suzuki's excellent Afterburner and Power Drift games. But it was also the basis for much lesser known Racing Hero.

If you spot the branching pathed map during the attract mode for the game you would be forgiven for expecting Outrun with motorbikes... and in truth there is an element of that when you start playing, but the USP on this one is the structure of the stages.

Each is broken down into 2 elements: The first is Outrun style, racing through traffic to make a checkpoint before the timer runs out.
Make the checkpoint and you're into the second section. The traffic and scenery disappear and are replaced exclusively by other racing bikes and traditional track markings.

At the end of the two sections you're given the choice of two locations to race next, this is why the map on the scoreboard has that classic Sega look.

I don't know if it was the intention to give the impression that you're running late for a race and the first section involves speeding to make it on time - but that's the feeling I get every time I play this game. It's fast and fun, it looks great and has the full on Arcade feel that only comes with Sega's best efforts.

You won't see too many Tetris style games as I run through the alphabet in this blog, but I could not resist the brilliant Risky Challenge - despite it barely squeaking part my criteria.

The game (under it's original name Gussun Oyoyo) was released on SNES, Saturn, and PlayStation and this could have instantly excluded it from selection - were it not for the fact that none of these releases made it outside Japan.

Using elements that will be familiar to anyone who has played either Tetris or Lemmings, you have to build your little egg shaped guy a bridge to the level's exit using blocks that drop in from the top of the stage.
Challenge is added as the timer runs down and the level fills with water, and also by your guy wandering around aimlessly and doing more to help than hinder as you attempt to save his none existent neck.

I don't generally believe that puzzle games are a good fit for the arcade format, but Risky Challenge is an exception to that in a big way.

Obviously S is up next time, none of you guys have heard of Street Fighter 2, right?

Thursday, 3 July 2014

MAME Hidden Gems - P & Q are for...

There are several excuses for why it has taken me so long to get around to writing this blog entry.

I moved house (quite unexpectedly)
As result stopped building my MAME cabinet.
I discovered my new boss has massive hang-ups about people using the internet at work.
I don't have a dedicated games room or even TV in the new house...

There are many sob stories and weak explanations I could offer but, when it comes down to it, on the three previous occasions in the past few months that I’ve tried to write this entry I’ve been stopped by a single unavoidable fact:

It may be where you'll find Pac Man and Power Drift, but the relatively unknown games in P and Q are rubbish.

This all means that you’re going to get just two games today; one for each letter, both of which are really interesting curios rather than fully fledged hidden gems. Both are definitely worth a look though. 

Pachinko Sexy Reaction is quite possibly the first game I ever played on MAME. I’m comfortable listing it as a hidden gem here but it does hold a relatively high profile and certain notoriety in the MAME community.

Pachinko is often described as Japanese pinball, which is nonsense. It’s a ‘game’ with far more in common with those coin waterfall things you find on every pier on the British coast – Pinball requires skill, Pachinko is entirely based on luck.

Rather than coins, Pachinko machines dispense a quantity of ball bearings to the player, who precedes to drop them in the top. From here they drop, hitting pins, bumpers, and scoring points on their way to the bottom. It’s a game as pointless as it is oddly addictive.

In a move that will delight anyone who buys into the spurious stereotype that all Japanese people are sexually repressed weirdos who buy used panties from vending machines during a grope filled commute to work on an overcrowded train… Pachinko Sexy Reaction aims to liven up the core game’s ‘mechanics’ by offering the player some soft-core hentai animation as a reward for achieving certain scores.

Now I can’t be sure if this was originally designed to titillate or amuse, but I can tell you that - through the sheer absurdity more than anything else - these scenes are very, very funny.
They are also surprisingly well drawn and animated.

It’s the comedy factor and surprising production standards that has lead me to recommend PSR here, as a game it is astoundingly limited. It is entirely likely that you will only play it once, spamming the credits button until you have witnessed each of the games bizarre cut-scenes. But playing it once is exactly what everyone (over a certain age) should aim to do with this game.

Quantum is a vector game designed to be played with a trackball – it should be a terrible candidate for MAME.

If you've never seen what vector graphics look like on a dedicated display you’re missing out. The pin-sharp lines and idiosyncratic mapping points are a stunning thing to behold.
When I first saw a Vectrex machine running at the Retroactive event in Leicester last year it went straight to the top of my Christmas list.

Then there’s the trackball. I recently discovered that this method of control is actually one of the cheaper input methods to add to a cabinet – but it should surprise no-one that the vast majority of people use MAME on a PC using an Xbox controller, rather than built into a purpose built cabinet.

So since it doesn’t look or control as it should then why is it here?

Mainly because it still plays great, with the limitations of the 1982 hardware the trackpad controls can be replaced with an eight way stick with very little loss to the fun-factor.

As for the graphics, if you’re playing on a CRT (As you really should for any game released before the turn of the century) they are still sharp and serve the purpose perfectly well.

But more than this, the number one reason for choosing Quantum is probably that it revealed itself to me as the likely inspiration for one of the first smartphone games I played that didn't feel restricted by the input method.

So this is not just a recommendation for Quantum, on MAME, but also a recommendation for Spirit, on Android and iOS (Not to be confused with also-good-but-contextually-irrelevant- Spirits).

Both games have the same central conceit; encircle the items on the screen with your reticule. It's a little like Qix has been set free from the restrictions of the lines.

It’s simple fun to begin with but as the screen gets busier and the types of enemy become more varied in their movements, both games become increasing challenging. Multiplier perks await those who capture multiple icons in a single ‘tail’ but the mechanics remain simple and the gameplay as addictive and any score chaser throughout the game.

Hopefully “R” will be a few days, rather than a few months, away. With the swathes of games I have starting with that initial letter I’m hoping I won’t have to scrabble around for nominations again!