Friday 20 November 2015

Snes Review - Dynamaite The Las Vegas (Game 093)

Japanese games are often considered quirky and weird, as is Las Vegas.  Put the two together and how can magic not happen?

Developed by an Unknown Team
Published by Virgin
Released in 1994

Gambling in Japan is illegal, banned according to the Criminal Code, chapter 23. There is of course a national obsession with the legal Pachinko however. Despite frequent play inevitably leading to addiction and addiction inevitably leading to the ruin of life, a Japanese man can bounce those pachinko balls all he wishes, owing to the fact that he never wins money. The fact he can exchange the tokens he wins for money in a near by shop is neither-here-nor there of course; legal loop holes are the friend of a pachinko aficionado. In the west we fail to understand the appeal of pachinko largely due to the fact that most have never played it. Gambling for a westerner will involve sports results or it will involve dice and cards. We may laugh that a Japanese man may lose a month’s salary on the ricocheting of a thousand metal balls, but each day in Vegas more is lost on a single roll of a dice. But, despite it being the electric playground of ruined dreams, where the house always wins, there's an appeal to Las Vegas, which is why so many films and games are set there. 

The Snes is actually well served when it comes to Vegas based gambling games. Most are hilariously awful, but some, like the surprisingly fully featured 'Vegas Stakes', are actually pretty enjoyable. It's not that surprising that 'Vegas Stakes' is glossy and elaborate; it was made by Hal Laboratories. That's the same company who are best known for creating the 'Kirby' and 'Mother' games. They are of course a Japanese company, so considering that casinos are illegal in Japan you have to applaud the research it would have taken to get the playable casino games accurate and the atmosphere authentic. For every 'Vegas Stakes' though, there is a 'Dynamaite The Las Vegas'. Hal Laboratories had seen success with their previous games so presumably they had the resources and budget for research. However, the unknown developer of 'Dynamaite The Las Vegas' clearly based their game on what they once heard about Vegas. 

If you're trying to make your game feel Western, it's never a good start to spell the English title wrong. According to a friend (who helped me translate the game to play it) it's a common mistake made by those new to speaking English. Presumably they wanted the game to be known as 'Las Vegas Dynamite' but things got lost in translation. 'Dynamite' spelled in Japanese characters is 'Dainamaito', hence their error. However, if the development team had trouble getting the title accurately western, deciding to base their game in Vegas probably wasn't the best plan. Maybe it’s a benefit for us Westerns. Getting to play an interpretation of Las Vegas made by people working in a country where betting is illegal, can only lead to humours and bizarre things. 

The game opens with the most surreal story you can imagine for a game set in Vegas. It's so odd in fact it makes the over the top antics of Pachinko Spy 008 in 'Pachinko Wars' look commonplace. An opening cut scene sets the scene: Apparently some Vegas casinos are run by a group called The Shenron Dragons, known for their fiery tempers and their way with cards. Years ago, one man decided to stand up to the Shenron, his name was Robert Skylar. Tragically though, things clearly didn't go to plan as now he's missing. Several years later his son comes to Vegas to search for his father. While brushing up on his betting skills, his goal is to find Robert and learn the truth about his Daddy’s disappearance. Considering the notoriety of the Shenron Dragons you would be right to think this plan is fool hardy, but our playable protagonist need not fear the repercussions of an angry Vegas based criminal group. To protect himself his will go by the subtle name of "Dynamite Bullet" (or possibly "Dynamite Burrito" - translating this madness proves difficult). No one would ever suspect him with a name like that! It's a pretty eventful opening cutscene and in less than a minute possibly the most exciting gambling game narrative has be started . With a story so exiting how can 'Dynamaite The Las Vegas' disappoint? After all 'Vegas Stakes' simply had friends going to Vegas to win money and that was an enjoyable game. 

Disappointingly, it does start to unravel though the second you enter your first casino. It is unlike any casino anywhere in the whole of Vegas. Who needs roulette, poker or blackjack when you can play Keno and try "the big wheel"? This last game is exactly as it sounds, a wheel spins and you place bets on what number it will land on. It's a bit like Roulette, if you ignore that there's only five different numbers repeating on the wheel. Should you pick the right number, your stake is multiplied by the randomly generated number shown on the digital display. Keep your fingers crossed it doesn't land on a zero though, as then you have your money returned and the spin is declared null. Everyone's time is wasted and no one is better off: annoyingly this happens every third spin or so. It’s a game not unlike the one you could play at a School fate designed for 5 year olds with gambling addictions.

If that's not your thing you can play on the $1 slots, which are so primitive they don't have "hold" or "nudge " buttons. Regardless of which games you play, once "Dynamite Baloney" has earned enough money in a casino he can talk to a cashier and buy "VIP status". The price this costs varies between each casino but once bought he can play on a high roller VIP table, where there is always someone who knows a bit of information about your long lost father. Knowledge costs though, and despite "Dynamite Balloon's" repeated unsubtle questioning they will only share their information if they are beaten on which ever game they are standing in front of. Inevitably the knowledge they have takes "Dynamite Bison" to another casino where the whole rigmarole repeats. 

Thankfully each casino does have different games to play and while the initial line-up may have been unlike anywhere in Vegas, across the five casinos in 'Dynamaite The Las Vegas' you will get chance to play all the traditional gambling games, albeit very stripped down simplified versions. For example, poker is played just against the dealer and there are no variants to the typical draw rules. Each hand is also randomly generated rather than being drawn from a finite deck, (the giveaway was when the King of Diamonds came up for me three hands in a row). There's no 'Rain Man' style card counting to be done here, so there's a far greater dependency on blind luck. Indeed luck is what you need to win most games: with some casinos only have the luck based roulette, slots and Daisyou as game options. 

While the games in each casino change as you progress through the game, that's the only real difference between them. The music on every stage is similar if not identical; irritating lift music that loops quickly and grates immediately. The casinos of real life Vegas are known for their elaborate themes. Casino owners spend millions of dollars on spectacular buildings so they become the gambling den that everyone wants to go to. In 'Dynamaite The Las Vegas' this is diluted down to each casino having a different coloured garish carpet. The staff of each casino are identical, with only palate swaps separating them. 

The casino games are selected from an overhead view using a cursor to click on different tables. It's essentially a hub that's views from so far out that the people in the casino are about twelve pixels high, echoing the look of Sensible Software's games. Since part of the game centres on finding out information, every one of these tiny people can be spoken to and each has their own portrait onscreen when they talk. Admittedly, the majority of these portraits are the same with different coloured hair and most say variations of "I don't know where your Dad is". However, it does give them a slight character and it's more than you expect from a game that was clearly made on a minuscule budget. In the cut scenes though the pixel art is actually pretty good, depicting anime style stereotypes that were clearly inspired by the popular TV shows and games that were around at the time.
Maybe there was a 'Dragon Ball Z' and 'Sailor Moon' lookalike convention happening in Vegas at the same time that "Dynamite Bacon Buttie" visited. You can't help but think the talents of a very good pixel artist were being wasted on this game; hopefully it was a proving ground for them to go onto far better projects. With no credits in the game we may never know who did the art work, but where ever they are, I hope they are proud.

Once VIP status has been earnt in all the five casinos shown on a world map, 'Dynamaite The Las Vegas' evolves into a point and click detective game. Though we don't get to see the protagonist in the overhead casino maps, we still must explore them all to learn as much information as possible. "Talk to the dealer at the blackjack table" a waitress will say prompting you to find and talk to said man. "Talk to the man in blue" this dealer adds when you finally find him. Things get particularly exciting when you learn of a hidden passageway that exists in one casino. Here we get to meet a hooded witch who tells you of the location of the final casino, the place that the Dragon clan operates from.
Forget neon lights and dancing girls, the most powerful crime gang live in a blue Gothic dungeon like casino. Here, to learn the truth about you father you must take on all four members The Shenron Dragons.  Predictably, each one has their own specialist game that you must win at. It all feels very much like the final four bosses in 'Street Fighter 2' particularly because one is a black boxer, another a flamboyant flamenco dancer and there's also a giant with a scar across his eye. The odds feel very much against "Dynamite Bicycle", but success leads to the game's conclusion and a series of epic, albeit predictable story twists. 

The fact that there is a vaguely engaging narrative to twist is certainly unusual given that this game is essentially a collection of excessively simplified casino games. Now-a-days we are used to just selecting a preferred mini game from a list, there isn't typically a story to motivate us to keep playing. 'Dynamaite The Las Vegas' may be riddled with spelling mistakes, the bits of English text in the game are more often than not mistranslated and the story is hilariously bizarre but the point is there is one. 

Clearly I've got a bit of a soft spot for these low budget Japanese games, ones that make spectacle where there normally isn't. I felt a similar affection for 'Pachinko Wars' and its sequel. Often there's fun in a "so bad it's good" game but I don't think that's what's going on here. The appeal of playing 'Dynamaite The Las Vegas' derives from wondering what odd choice the developers will make next. Like 'Pachinko Wars' the visuals are appealing, and there's even some synthesised speech, though it's endearingly been done by a Japanese man who can barely speak English, let alone emote.

"Please betting" 'Dynamaite The Las Vegas' instructs each time you sit down to a new game. It's a nice example that shows the designers clearly were trying to give the game a western feel but were held back by not understanding Western ways. It's a reflection of the rest of the game, a terrible gambling game but a charming attempt. Maybe it's for the best that the developers (who ever they were) presumably didn't research Vegas or even look at existing gambling games properly. If they had there wouldn't be The Shenron Dragons, there wouldn't be unusual games to play and there most certainly wouldn't have been revenge plot with a central character called "Dynamite Bloomers". There also wouldn't have been a half as many reasons to play this awful wonderful game. 

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