Solaris Japan

Friday, 15 September 2017

Mega Drive Review - PowerMonger (Game 143)

When Peter Molyneux, the "God of God games" turns one of his finest works into a Real Time Strategy title the results should be wonderful. So what went wrong with ‘PowerMonger’?

Developed by Bullfrog Games

Published by Electronic Arts

Released in 1992

I'm not afraid to commit hours to a game; I couldn't love RPGs if I did.  Cumulatively I have spent over 350 hours playing games with 'Persona' in the title and my yearly romp through 'ChronoTrigger' typically will require a 30 hour investment. Alarm bells even ring if a Role Playing Game lasts less than 20 hours; these games demand a commitment. Over this lengthy play time a game should introduce new ideas slowly and not bombard you with too many play mechanics too soon. The best games start welcoming but end complicated when all the demanded actions are instinctive and second nature. I am not a fan of long introductory tutorials, I find them off putting. I don't want to have to spend ages reading a manual to know what to do when I press start. Worst of all I dislike games by designers too arrogant to think you might be alienated by their impenetrable game. This is why I am weary of 'PowerMonger'. Every 'Let's Play' I've seen on YouTube starts with bafflement; the player totally confused by what they should be doing. Archived reviews also strike fear into my heart. “It takes time to get used to the way this world works" suggested Amiga Format noting first experiences with the game are defined with "headaches and frustration". "Initially the game is rather confusing" Atari ST User Declared “‘PowerMonger’ doesn't have the same instant appeal of [similar games]". ST Action called it "complicated"; EGM called it a "very long daunting game". 

Game Pro even said you should "only look to ‘PowerMonger’ if you're in the mood for a long, slow pillage". This hardly seemed glowing endorsement for a game. Even ‘PowerMonger’s own creator the famous / infamous Peter Molyneux has said things that kill my enthusiasm. "[I have] an idea of the ideal game we want to write.’Populous' was the first step to writing this game, and ‘PowerMonger’ is further along that road. But our ideal game is yet to be written." Considering he went on to create 'Godus' which is presumably the intended destination on this development road, it's hard to muster enthusiasm to play an earlier stage in the creation process. While he has created sensational games like 'Syndicate', and 'Theme Park', Molyneux has also become known as a man who promises much but delivers little. He was even called a pathological liar by the cruellest of critics, in an interview that nearly prompted his retirement.  In keeping with this reputation he didn't hold back when promoting ‘PowerMonger’ back in 1990. "‘PowerMonger’ is essentially a war game. But unlike the traditional board or computer games of that genre, we've created something that exists in real time, where you can do almost anything you want."  

Friday, 1 September 2017

Mega Drive Review - NBA Jam (Game 142)

Despite there being a new NBA game every year, fans of basketball still flock to the nineties game 'NBA Jam'. In fact 2017 saw the release of a fan patch to change the teams to the current roster. But what is it about this specific game that continues to draw in players who don't even like basketball?

Developed by Midway / Iguana entertainment
Published by Acclaim
Released in 1993

As regular readers will have noticed, when playing a retro title I like to look at the reaction the game got from reviewers at the time. They naturally lack the hindsight that modern critics have, so often the first title in a franchise is greeted with excitement. Twenty years ago reviewers obviously didn't know what was to come, so very rarely will you see someone suggesting a sequel. They’re instead lost in the excitement of a new franchise, enjoying the first title for its own merits without the ability to compare it to the better follow ups. The world was a different place twenty years ago, so at times you notice reviewers making cultural references that are no longer relevant. But interestingly, now I'm the same age that many of the reviewers were, I've begun to appreciate their perspective more. When I first read the reviews I was a child reading the opinions of an adult. However, now twenty extra years of life experience has put me in the same mindset that they were in when they originally put critical pen to paper. This is probably why I laughed so much when I read Chris Buxton's 'NBA Jam' review in issue 27 of Total! magazine.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Mega Drive Review - Taz in Escape from Mars (Game 141)

When a bad game sells well, expect a sequel. But should developers ignore the criticism of the first game when they come to craft the follow up?

Developed by HeadGames Inc.
Published by Sega
Released in 1994

You'd think it would be an unwritten rule that if you're creating a game based on existing property you'll include the things that make the license recognisable. HeadGames Inc clearly hadn't read this particular rule book when they created a follow up to the 'Taz Mania' game. 'Taz in Escape from Mars' includes only the main character and everyone else from the 'Taz Mania' TV series have been left behind; indeed the titular location of "Tazmania" is hardly featured. Instead the game (initially at least) moves the action to Mars and designers have created their own story to somehow justify this. 

The game starts by showing Marvin the Martian capturing Taz for his intergalactic space zoo. But bars will not contain a Tazmanian Devil and Taz escapes; determined to get revenge on his captor. Naturally the story is very different to the first game which simply had Taz hunting for a large egg. While Critics all saw the bizarre narrative shift between the two games, they couldn't seem to agree as to why it had happened. EGM felt it was a conscious effort to distance the sequel from its predecessor as "The first Tazmanian Devil game wasn't all that hot". GamePro instead implied that the inclusion of Taz was to add gloss to a mediocre game that otherwise wouldn't sell."If it weren't for Taz, this game would just be another jump-n-bump adventure" they noted in a review. The problem is that 'Taz in Escape from Mars' is a "one step forward, two steps back" sequel. The original pretty ropey prequel still echoes through it despite the location change. As such hardly any of the first game's shortcomings are addressed. Instead even more problems are added since HeadGames Inc seem to have had a desire to shoehorn in as many game mechanics and level locations as possible.

Reviewers at the time were quick to notice that this sequel has been inspired by another Mega Drive title."'Taz in Escape from Mars' borrows heavily from a certain blue hedgehog's series of games" noted All Game Guide. Like 'Sonic the Hedgehog', 'Escape from Mars' is a fast-paced platformer with bizarre level layouts that you just move through without really knowing where you're going. However unlike 'Sonic' with its tight responsive controls even running and jumping in 'Escape from Mars' is hard to do. Taz was difficult to manipulate in the first game but if anything things are worse in this sequel. Like the first game 'Taz in Escape from Mars' has a three button control scheme; one jumps another performs an action like eating food and the last does Taz's iconic spin. As in the prequel this spin acts as his primary attack. In principle it sounds simple but it has been terribly executed in the game. Some may argue that in the 'Taz Mania' cartoon series Taz doesn't move very elegantly, indeed jokes are built around this. However what's funny in a TV show fails to amuse in a video game. A platform game quickly becomes an awful experience if it's hard to jump between platforms, after all that's what you're doing most of the time. This is clearly the biggest fault with 'Escape from Mars'; the basic controls are intrinsically broken to the point that every character movement is frustrating. It is all made worse when Taz starts spinning or moving quickly; something he seems to be programmed to do at every opportunity. Unless Taz picks up some rocks or drinks a can of petrol, the only method he has to attack is with his spin, but, as you'd expect, it's tough to keep him under control when he is spinning so recklessly.
You'll find you accidentally destroy helpful items, plummet off ledges and inadvertently backtrack through a level simply because it's impossible to control your character with any precision when he is doing what he is predisposed to do naturally. Again you could argue that it's true to Taz's character in the TV series so maybe these controls could have been a deliberate design choice. However when the developers seem to have abandoned everything else from 'Taz Mania' keeping the one thing that ruins the gameplay of your game wouldn't be a very logical design decision. To be frank, this game is almost un-playably frustrating and it's made worse by there not being consistency with the way the level environments behave. Pipes for example can be followed by a spinning Taz even if they run vertically up the screen, however the same feat of gravity defying can't be achieved with normal walls. 

It's a shame as there are some great ideas in this game, lost amongst awful jumping and frustrating design. For example, at times Taz can grow in size taking up most of the screen. When giant he can plough through walls with ease. Similarly he can also shrink, sneaking through gaps that would otherwise have been too tiny for him to enter.
This was years before Mario started munching on Mega mushroom, which Nintendo claimed was an innovation when promoting 'New Super Mario Bros' on the DS. Similarly when spinning around uncontrollably Taz can also burrow through some soft ground. It's a nice idea that has since been replicated in games like 'Drill Dozer' but digging is a headache rather than a treat. You can barely make out where Taz is under the Earth as only his eyes are visible. Another level sees Taz finding a Propeller device that allows him to fly. It's a section that actually plays like a swimming stage where holding the spin attack button causes Taz to rise in the air. The problem is letting go of this button makes him plummet and there's no way of defending yourself when in flight. Without luck on your side you can't progress as the only route through the maze like level sees you coming into contact with projectile firing enemies.
A later stage introduces yet another gameplay style where you race Yosemite Sam to the front of a moving cavalcade. Leaping from coach to horse to cow sounds exciting but the reality is it's just an endless stream of leaps of faith; jumping towards the edge of the screen hoping you'll land on something. Thankfully it's all over in a couple of minutes.  

 It’s to the developer’s credit that they're trying to integrate new ideas into the game but they're all so badly made. It feels like all ideas, regardless of how enjoyable they are to play, were included. Some things work better on paper than in practice and 'Taz in Escape from Mars' is a hotchpotch of ideas and most make the game feel needlessly gimmicky. However, excessively design ideas aren't limited to just the contents of the levels. The stage environments also feel the result of a design free-for-all.

'Taz in Escape from Mars' is a hugely deceptive title. Taz achieves this goal when he defeats a boss fifteen minutes into the game. At this point the game seems to go into free fall and there seems no logic to the level locations. After visiting a planet of Moles, Taz also pops along to a haunted house and Mexico. Of course there are hundreds of platform games that feature abstract and unusual level locations, but these aren't named after the first fifth of the game. There are parts of 'Taz in Escape from Mars' that feel like they belong in a different game; bodged into this title to make it last longer. At least the characters Taz meets in the varied locales hail from the Looney Tunes universe even if they're not from Taz's 'Taz Mania' series. It's always nice to see familiar cartoon characters but it seems like few fans would have bought the game just to see them, given that it was presented as an adventure on Mars. 

Despite the settings continually changing the game surprisingly doesn't look offensive, though it's not particularly incredible either. The main sprite is very similar to the one featured in 'Taz Mania' although it's slightly more detailed. At least this time all the frames of the run animation have been included. The end of level guardians are good and fill the screen, the problem is that with size comes slow down which rather dilutes the overall effect. The backgrounds are hit and miss.
Some have an impressive number of layers creating the illusion of depth, others are simply solid black. I find it amusing that critics seemed enamoured with the visuals at the time. "Graphics-wise, this game could only be better if it were drawn by Fritz Freling himself" Games Players magazine claimed. "The characters would fool your mom into thinking you were watching TV and not playing a game. " let's not forget that this game came out in 1994, after 'Gunstar Heroes', 'Sonic the Hedgehog' and 'World of Illusion'. It seems ludicrous that people would consider this attractive compared to these beautiful games. Electronic Gaming Monthly were more accurate in their appraisal saying "The visuals need some help as they are too simple, even [the ones] from the cartoon". 

Thankfully the awful audio that blighted 'Taz Mania' has been lost here. While 'Taz in Escape from Mars' doesn't have a soundtrack you'll listen to on your phone while riding the train at least you can hear the melodies over the jump noise. That being said it's a slightly odd collection of songs that all seem to have spacey alienesque undertones even when you're playing the Mexican levels. It feels almost as if the soundtrack was composed before the designers decided to throw every idea they had at the game. 

Video Games and Computer Entertainment had a slightly forgiving view when it came to 'Taz in Escape from Mars'. "So maybe this isn't 'Sonic the Hedgehog' But who cares?" They wrote. “It’s another pretty fun platform game". Considering this game originally retailed at close to £50 you would have to wonder who wouldn't care that they were spending so much on a game that was so sub-par. The All Game Guide Journal pointed out that 'Taz in Escape from Mars' was "not as lengthy or as clever as the 'Sonic' games". So considering it's also less attractive and infuriating to play it's pretty clear that if you want to play as an Animal that spins, your best bet would be sticking with a blue Hedgehog rather than a carton Tasmanian Devi. If nothing else 'Taz in Escape from Mars' shows that a bounty of ideas really is no good if none of them are implemented very well. It would be a much better game if the designers had just focused on getting the basic jumping and spinning mechanic working. 

When Head Games Inc. had a whole TV series to draw from its perhaps slightly unfortunate that the only thing they preserved from Taz's Nineties rebirth was the one character trait that simply isn't wanted in a video game character. An uncontrollable personality might be hilarious when watched in 'Taz Mania' but it really does make for a pretty poor game.

Where did I get this game from?
After ‘Taz Mania’ I certainly wouldn’t have chosen to buy another Tazmanian Devil game for the Mega Drive. Like most of my games ‘ Taz in Escape from Mars’ was chosen for me by the previous owner who sold all his games to me in bulk.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Mega Drive Review - Taz Mania (Game 140)

'Taz Mania' is yet another 16bit platformer. Is it fair that the game and the protagonist have been forgotten about today?

Developed by recreational Brainware 
Published by Sega / Warner Bros Inc.
Released in 1991

6 year olds have no idea who the Tasmanian Devil is; this was the conclusion I came to following a massively limited poll. I asked my daughter and her friend to give names to the cartoon characters I showed them. While Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy where familiar they had clearly never seen the Loony tunes characters before. Bugs Bunny was thought to be Judy Hopps from 'Zootopia', Daffy Duck was named Donald's brother and Taz caused one to cower because he was "too scary". This may all have been influenced by the fact we play 'Disney Infinity' so my informal polling had to go further. Neither my wife nor work colleagues mentioned Taz when asked to name cartoon characters they watched when they were younger. It may not have been scientific testing but the Looney Tunes characters and specifically The Tazmanian Devil seem to have been forgotten. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

Mega Drive Review - Streets of Rage (Game 139)

‘Streets of Rage’ is recognised as one of the finest franchises on the Mega Drive and a system seller for many. But why should Sega thank Nintendo for its success?

Developed by Sega
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

On October 29th 1988, the Mega Drive first went on sale but all was not well for Sega.  "The Japanese launch of the Mega Drive was low-key and poorly timed, coming just a week after the release of the NES title 'SuperMario Bros 3', one of the most defining games for a decade" Keith Stuart notes in 'Mega Drive / Genesis : The Collected Works'. After a year of mediocre sales the President of Sega Enterprises at the time was disappointed. "The Mega Drive was far inferior to the NES in terms of diffusion rates and sales in the Japanese market" admits Hayao Nakayama. 

According to gaming historian Stuart, things only got worse for Sega. Panic set it when Nintendo announced that a successor to the popular Famicom Console was due to launch within a year of the US Launch of the Mega Drive (known there as the Genesis). "The Super Famicom lurked on the horizon [and] there was little room for manoeuvre". there was also the collective belief that Nintendo was stepping on Sega's toes. "Sega's key strength was the quality of its arcade games. This was a golden era for the in-house amusement machines division" observes Keith Stuart. One of the most popular games in the arcades at the time was Capcom's 'Final Fight' and Nintendo declared that this game would appear on the Super Famicom within a month of the systems launch. Sega were by all accounts livid. After enjoying a lucrative relationship with Nintendo during the NES era, Capcom initially decide against creating games for Sega's Mega Drive. So if  Sega wanted a 'Final Fight' style game they had no choice but to create a rival game from scratch and they had to do it quickly if it were to be released before 'Final Fight' appeared on the Super Famicom.  

Friday, 21 July 2017

Snes Review - Lady Stalker (Game 138)

Calling a game 'Lady Stalker' could conjures up many an inappropriate image, but was the name the only reason the game didn't see a western release?

Developed by Climax Entertainment 

Published by Taito

Released in 1995

In Japan “the past century is a history of sexual distortion,” social psychologist Hiroyoshi Ishikawa told Time Magazine in 1983. “A small portion of young people in Japan are sexually very, very active, while the vast majority are sexually repressed.” Studying this work The Japanese Times found that the situation is actually getting worse. "Not much has changed in 30 years — except that the “small portion” grows steadily smaller" they noticed. "For the Japanese government, "celibacy syndrome" is part of a looming national catastrophe" claims the Guardian newspaper. Japanese young people are not only avoiding marriage, they are not having children since many have stopped having sex altogether. According to research by The Guardian "a third of people under thirty have never dated at all". Nearly half of women and a quarter of men surveyed "were not interested in or despised physical sexual contact" with most preferring "solo sexual pursuits". Decades of increased Alienation from the opposite sex have meant that many have sought gratification through other means, leading to a huge market for adult-only media. "Normal sexual desires for another person have been replaced by porn, and in turn this allows people to avoid normal sexual relationships" claims former dominatrix Ai Aoyama who now works as a Tokyo based relationship counsellor. As the years pass the content of this pornography gets more extreme and irregular; leading to tastes that the West find at least irregular if not repulsive. "When you have spent years watching hentai porn, your appetites for the normal are almost completely distorted as to be unrecognizable" claims Aoyama. 

During this time of increased interest in perverse video games it's hardly surprising that a game called 'Lady Stalker' would come to the super Famicom. As it wasn’t localised for the west, many (myself included) saw the title and feared the worse, especially as it was developed by a company called Climax Entertainment. But to my surprise and delight it wasn't the game I expected. Evidently the name was never intended to be salacious, it was simply factual. You play as a character called Lady who stalks the land looking for treasure. Rather than preying on women, you play as one. It's an unfortunate title that would certainly have been changed if the game were localised. 

Friday, 7 July 2017

Mega Drive Review - Land Stalker (Game 137)

Developed by Climax Entertainment
Published by Sega
Released in 1993

The Mega Drive is generally considered to be starved of good RPGs so is there a reason why 'Land Stalker' is so often overlook?

Ten years ago Sony published a quirky puzzle game called 'Echochrome'. It was released on the PS3 and PSP and gameplay involved the manipulation of a virtual environment to take advantage of optical illusions.  Spatial awareness was not required because if a platform looked like it was above another, characters would interact with it as if it were. Similarly, if discontinuous platforms appear, from the chosen camera angle, to form a continuous path, the character will traverse from one to the other. While it is complicated (and hard to briefly explain) 'Echochrome' was enjoyable because it took advantage of a player's limited understanding of a 3D game environment. It worked because our comprehension of a virtual world can be distorted by what we see. However the reasons it was enjoyable are the very same reasons that ruin 'Land Stalker'; a game that would otherwise be remembered as one of the finest 16bit RPGs.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Mega Drive Review - Rolo to the Rescue (Game 136)

‘Rolo to the Rescue’ is a 16bit game that may seem charming, but may actually be the most aggravating game ever to grace the Mega Drive.

Developed by Vectordean
Published by Electronic Arts
Released in 1992

You shouldn't judge a book, or a game, by its cover. This is advice that a three year old will not take; especially when the cover shows a cartoon elephant and each night she cuddles up to an animal called Toot Toot. For a few frustrating weeks my daughter would head into my games room and pull all the Mega Drive games off the shelf till she found 'Rolo to the Rescue'. She would then stare at the cover and the elephant it depicted, desperately asking me if she could play it, or at least watch me play it. I felt like a terrible Dad when I said no, as despite appearances, 'Rolo to the Rescue' is not a game a three year old should play. In fact, it's not a game for anyone who doesn't have an entire afternoon and patience to spare. 

For a long time, the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) recommended that a three year shouldn't watch TV for more than 1 to 2 hours per day. Put simply this isn't enough time to finish 'Rolo to the Rescue’; even an adult would struggle to finish a fraction of the game’s 70 levels in this amount of time. It's a platform game comparable in length to 'Super MarioWorld'. However while it has copied the world map that Mario treks around, unlike Nintendo's masterpiece 'Rolo to the Rescue’ doesn’t include a battery backup. It's doesn't even include a password system. For my three year old to finish the game she's drawn to, she will have to set clutching a controller for a very long time. Admittedly the AAP softened their stance in October 2015. Now, it encourages parents to keep screen time to a minimum, choose quality content, that focus on interaction, learning and strong positive morals. Under these newer guidelines the start of 'Rolo to the Rescue' doesn't seem too bad a choice. After-all the game certainly tells a story that is filled with strong moral decisions and actions.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Mega Drive Review - Alien Storm (Game 135)

Alien Storm is a brawler that has a lot of things in common with SEGA's other entries into the genre, especially those that started off in the arcade. But with a variety of gameplay styles why has this game got lost in the crowd?

Developed by Team Shinobi

Published by Sega

Released in 1991

Given that my youth was spent playing platform games and RPGs on the Snes I had no idea just how many different side-scrolling brawlers there were in the late '80s and early '90s especially on Sega machines. Like most gamers, I knew of the big franchises; 'Golden Axe', 'Double Dragon', 'Final Fight' and 'Streets of Rage'. I was also aware the genre was frequently used to create licensed games like 'Turtles in Time' and 'Batman Returns' but I had no idea there were so many other titles that are now frequently forgotten. 

As the name would suggest, 'Alien Storm' presents a classic alien invasion story. A generic city is under attack by swarms of foul beasts from outer space, led by a giant brain in a jar. Celebrity reviewer Julian Rignal in particular loved the foes featured in 'Alien Storm', to the extent that he spent half his allotted review word-count just listing some of them. "One alien has green arms inside its mouth which reach out and grab you; another farts noxious gases, one irritating type spits goo from mouths in its chest, there's a mutoid kangaroo which sprouts a disgusting proboscis from its pouch, a giant slitherer which opens it mouth enormously wide and leaps across at you, and there's also a which grabs you, turns you upside down and drops you on your head." Game designer Makoto Uchida took great delight in including these gruesome foes and remembers many more enemies that were not used.
"I spent a lot of time on the different attack styles. There are so many ideas that didn't get through the proposal stage but I think everything came out satisfyingly well. The company's female colleagues play-tested the game with their eyes shut complaining "[they] can't look at it straight it's so gross!"" The boss fights were also made deliberately huge and repulsive at the request of Uchida. "Getting the enemies right is 100% important. There is a formula in Hollywood that says a movie will be a huge hit if you manage to create an incredible villain. This applies in the same way to games".

Friday, 26 May 2017

Mega Drive Review - Buster's Hidden Treasure (Game 134)

Every 16bit console has more platform games than anyone could ever play in a lifetime, but this was one I wish I had known about in my youth!

Developed by Konami

Published by Konami

Released in 1993

Expectations are always hard to meet but this is especially true when they're coloured by nostalgia. Our brain has a habit of remembering the good so flaws are frequently forgotten. We distort the memory so it is always going to disappointing when the truth is once again exposed. While this is depressing for a retro gamer revisiting the favourite games of their past, what's perhaps worse is when a game is as good as we remember but muscle memory prevents us from enjoying it. A favourite game is likely one we played a lot in our youth and as a result we know all its nuances. We remember the shortcuts, the cheat codes and how to waltz past bosses with ease. Childhood familiarity means that a game is easy to beat even if we want to saviour the experience as an adult. This was the problem I had with the Snes game 'Tiny Toon Adventures:  Buster Busts Loose'. I remember loving this game as a child but when I replayed it a few years back the game posed little challenge (except for one infuriating stage). I longed for there to be more levels to challenge me, new experiences to be had, but within a few hours I had beaten the game on its hardest setting. Fortunately for me, extending the experience is possible but I'd have to turn to the Mega Drive. Even better, the Sega based 'Tiny Toons' game is much less varied. While this may sound a short coming the Snes 'Tiny Toons' game was a rather hit and miss affair. Though that game was a platformer it also ventured into other waters with largely unsatisfying results. There's one stage that plays like American football and a range of mini games that are predominantly unremarkable. The straight forward platforming sections and the boss fights are where 'Buster Busts Loose' really shines and thankfully this is the type of game play that can be found in 'Buster’s Hidden Treasure'.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Mega Drive Review - Bio Hazard Battle (Game 133)

The Mega Drive is well served when it comes to shooters, but 'Bio Hazard Battle' offers an experience unlike all the others. 

Developed by SEGA Enterprises Ltd
Published by SEGA Inc.
Released in 1992
When I think of my favourite games there are some quite obvious common traits. I primarily play games which have strong stories since narrative development propels me to play on. I enjoy fair gameplay where failure comes from my shortcoming rather than flaws in the game. While I wouldn't want too many different gameplay styles within a game, a bit of variety is preferable. Finally I liked to be praised, I like my games to frequently reward me for doing well and avoid rubbing incompetence in my face. Role playing games clearly tick most of these boxes which is why I gravitate towards them. However, every now and then I have a desire to play their antithesis. Shoot ‘em up games offer little to no story. They're unashamedly hard with repetitive gameplay. Frequently you die through no fault of you own and after an hour of failing to get past the first level you realise just how terrible you are at playing games. So why does anyone play these games?

Admittedly, my knowledge of the shoot ‘em up genre is limited. While I've dabbled in the occasional space shooter like 'Thunder Force' for the most part, if I play a shooting game it's typically one that is excessively cute or quirky. However even with this narrow glimpse I can appreciate the thrill a player gets from mastering something where the odds are stacked against them. Yes you may fail repeatedly but every game over screen symbolises a lesson learnt. You keep playing hoping to get that little bit further on the next game, until, eventually the game's end is reached.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Mega Drive Review - Chuck Rock 2 (Game 132)

The 16bit era was awash with platformers, but is 'Chuck Rock 2: Son of Chuck' a sequel or a rehash?

Developed by Core Design
Published by Core Design
Released in 1993

With few exceptions film sequels are known to be inferior. Popular musicians often talk about their struggle to measure up to a popular debut with their "difficult second album". However the video game medium seems to buck the trend. Typically the debut entry in a series is a starting point which subsequent games build on. As technology advances and developers get more accustomed to using it, the quality of the games we play increases. When creating a sequel to a popular game often the mechanics of the prequel get refined and improved. Development time is spent on optimising what has come before rather than starting from scratch. The developer also had the advantage of knowing what the audience and critics liked in a previous game; which game play devices worked and which infuriated. A follow up can therefore be skewed towards the prequel’s strengths making, in theory at least, a stronger game.

For a sequel to exist of course what had come before must have enjoyed some success; be it critically or commercially. Few publishers are going to be willing to fund the continuation of a series that no one liked or bought. This is why I was so surprised to see that a sequel to 'Chuck Rock' existed. Amiga magazine The One claim coding on the sequel started in late 1991 with a game concept in place before the first 'Chuck Rock' game was even finished. While the first game wasn't bad it also wasn't very good. While it did present a few intriguing Rock based puzzles, the novelty of this wore off quickly when they were endlessly repeated. It's hard to ignore the mediocrity of the game or indeed forgive its underlying misogamy. It seems that my indifferent feelings to the game were not shared by customers at the time however. Clearly enough people bought it to warrant production to start immediately on its pre-planned sequel.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Mega Drive Review - Alien 3 (Game 131)

Licensed games attract an audience based on the name on the box. But is the game's name the only thing that reminds a player of the 'Alien 3' film?

Developed by Probe
Published by Acclaim
Released in 1992

For most gamers the term "film license” prompts a great many thoughts and few of them are positive. With few exceptions video games based on films or TV shows are at best mediocre. Purchasing a licence, also buys a certain fan-base that comes with it. According to Sunsoft producer director René Boutin, smaller companies depended on licensed games to keep afloat. "Working with famous licensed material was pretty cool" he recalls. "We were told that anything that was not tied to a license just did not sell, which was true for the 16bit consoles around that time".  With a big name on the box  a mediocre game can still turn a profit. So while expensive to acquire, licenses were lucrative (even though they left little money for actual development). Worst still the developer has less time to create or play test a game since a license is only valuable when the source material is relevant. For example a game based on a film must hit the shelves when the film is in the cinema or when its released on physical media. While the different Mega Drive and Snes 'Aladdin' games illustrate what can happen when two different developers secure the rights to the same film on different formats this is unusual. Usually a publisher secures an expense license to produce a game on all platforms and to recoup this cost will endeavour to put something on every platform possible. "It was a phase where it made business sense to get our games on as many platforms as possible" recalls 16bit game designer Simon Phipps.

Of course in an ideal world all consoles will have the same game as it seemingly adds expense to develop a different experience for each host machine. So a lead system is decided; typically the system that is the most powerful or which offers the largest target audience. The development team makes their game to this machine's specifications. This version of the game is then used as a template, with the developer (or a third party) adapting the code, graphics, sound and gameplay elements according to the restrictions of the system to which it is being ported. For years it's been considered the most cost effective way to get the largest return from an expensive license. As a result many systems will have a version of the same game and the developers have saved money by adapting rather than creating a unique game for each console.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Mega Drive Review - Kid Chameleon (Game 130)

At a time when every other game involved running and jumping on things, are the unique gameplay quirks of 'Kid Chameleon' enough to stop it blending into the background ?
Developed by Sega Technical Institute
Published by Sega
Released in 1992

I'm sure everyone who played video games as a child had a parent telling them that they were wasting their free time and should be doing something constructive. However in the face of criticism we justify our time spent playing games, subconsciously or otherwise. As an adult I claim it's keeping my mind active or improving hand eye co-ordination but as a child it was training for much greater things. I'm sure that on many occasions I'd claim that should there be some sort of apocalypse is be ready; primed by years of battling zombies with a joystick. Of course the idea of someone saving the world with incredible video game prowess isn't exclusively mine. Films like 'Tron', 'The Matrix' and even the diabolical 'Pixels' were built on the premise. Novels too revel in the idea. 'A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away' by Christopher Brookmyre and Ernest Cline's fantastic 'Ready Player One' both explore the idea that a video game addict can become a real world hero. Given how self serving it is, many games have also explored this narrative idea and it was the plot of the 1992 Mega Drive game 'Kid Chameleon'.
In the world of this game a new virtual reality game called 'Wild Side' proved hugely popular amongst those who frequent early nineties arcades. It's popularity is a surprise given that anyone who plays it  mysteriously vanishes. It transpires that the game's boss, Heady Metal has been kidnapping the kids who play and lose. According to the back of the box "Only Kid Chameleon, the coolest kid around, can foil Heady Metal and his gang of gruesome thugs!”