Friday, November 27, 2015

Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle (1990)

Image shamelessly linked from GameFAQS. I'm not seeing much that
screams "castle" here, save for the faux family crest with carrots on 
it.  And never once does Yosemite Sam fire a gun in the game.
Not once. False advertising, or just paying homage to a lovable,
idiosyncratic cartoon character from a bygone era? You decide.

Licensed properties can be a tricky beast.  If you pay for licensing rights to a property, chances are, you're not going to have exclusive rights to that property, or your rights won't cross all borders.  Your licensing rights will expire at some point, and you'll have to weigh the pros and cons of paying to continue those rights, or let them lapse.  Sometimes, the window of opportunity for a licensed property is relatively small, and you are forced to come up with a product based upon that property, in a rather short time frame.  Sometimes, the results can be less than stellar.  Such is the case with Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle.

What happened to the 'Crazy Castle' part of the name on the box?

Let me clarify - I'm not saying Kemco-Seika had a limited amount of time to develop the game because their rights to the Bugs Bunny license were under the gun.  No, I'm saying, due to the resurgence of the popularity of the Looney Tunes franchise during the mid-late 80's, there wasn't a lot of time to waste in maximizing that potential before the 'tude explosion of the 90's came about.  Not that Kemco could have seen that coming, but a sense of urgency should be a factor in developing a game with any licensed property, because you really never know whether something is going to be popular next year or not.  The prevailing thought is, strike while the iron is hot.  In Kemco's favor, they did.  On the downside, they should have taken more time with this game's development.

Before each stage, you get a quick check on where you're at,
and it tells you which stage, how many lives you have, and your score.

By now, most people who are more than casually familiar with retro gaming should be familiar with the Angry Video Game Nerd, and his feud with Bugs Bunny.  Many have seen the video where he incredulously plays 5 games in the Crazy Castle series, to some disgust and frustration, followed by several sequences of the Nerd, and Bugs Bunny, duking it out in the most awkwardly hilarious choreographed fight sequence this side of 90's late night TV.  What some might not know, however, is that the Crazy Castle games are an interesting case of licensed property usage, and how that translates across different regions.  The original Famicom game was called Roger Rabbit, and starred the titular character from the movie.  However, Capcom had the rights to all the Disney franchises in North America, so it came to the US as Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle.  When the game was ported to the Game Boy, Kemco of Japan had already lost the licensing rights to Roger, but they still had Disney rights in Japan, so the game came to the Game Boy as Mickey Mouse.  However, in the US, Kemco still had the rights to the character, so the North American Game Boy release was also titled Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle.  Funny how that stuff works, right?  In any event, the Game Boy game was pretty much a straight port of the NES game, with a graphical downgrade, but retaining the same level design and music.

"Oh my stars, look at all the carrots! Ripe for the picking!"

Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle is a puzzle platformer.  You walk up and down staircases, crawl through pipes, and go up and down stairs through various doors, to reach multiple levels within each stage so you can collect carrots.  Along the way, you have to avoid one of several "enemies" within the game: Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, Wile E. Coyote, and for some reason, multiple Sylvester the Cat instances.  One touch, and it's curtains for Rocky, erm, I mean Bugs.  You do have a limited ability to attack, either by picking up a single-use boxing glove you can throw at a foe, or by pushing one of several stationary objects into an enemy.  These include wooden boxes, buckets, a 10-ton weight, and of course, ACME safes.  Each object has different weights, meaning when you kick them, they'll move different distances, based on their weight.  In other words, kicking the bucket makes it go very far, the wooden box less far, and the 10-ton weight the shortest distance.  Some levels also have a bottle of "invisible ink", but instead of just making you invisible, it also makes you invincible for a short time, so any enemy you touch in the limited time it's active, will instantly die and go "poof!"  Once you obtain all the carrots within a level, you receive a 1-up and advance to the next level.  After each level, you're given a 4-character password so you can continue where you left off.  That password is strictly to reach that stage, however - it will not record your score, or the number of lives you have.

"Nyeaaaaah, I better hurry before that stupid cat catches me!"

In terms of the game's visual aesthetics, they're okay.  Bugs, as well as his foils, all look recognizable, and they animate decently as well.  The death animation for Bugs is amusing, and seeing each of his nemeses fall on their back as they're defeated is satisfying.  The game does mix up locations a bit, sometimes incorporating stairs, sometimes incorporating pipes, an occasionally both, but the design is quite minimal, which is reminiscent of Super Mario Land, and other early platformers on the Game Boy.  The backgrounds are totally devoid of any level of detail, so the focus is on the platforms, pipes, objects, and enemies on display.  It's nothing fancy, but it gets the job done.  Everything is rendered well enough so as to be recognizable.  Unfortunately, there's a fair bit of sprite flicker going on.  Sometimes Bugs will flicker, sometimes the enemies, and sometimes the objects you can kick, or the carrots will flash.  What's really odd is that, if you're standing in just the right spot, those objects will flicker perpetually until you move again.

I think Bugs is just a LITTLE too excited about collecting all the carrots.

In the audio department, the game takes a pretty minimalist approach.  There are a small handful of music tracks in the game, that rotate between levels.  I do like that they didn't stick with a single track for a large batch of levels (Nail 'n Scale, I'm looking at you), but it would have been nice to have a few more tracks to help break up the monotony a bit.  Still, the music itself is bouncy and fun, and is fitting for the game.  Speaking of monotony, the sound effects available here are pretty sparse as well.  There's no sound when Bugs goes through a pipe, and only basic sounds when you use the boxing glove, knock an object on the floor, pick up a carrot, or kick something into an enemy.  Whomever at Kemco did the sound design for this game, kind of phoned it in.

You can escape a situation like this by going down the pipe, but
watch out - the Sylvester cats can, and often will, follow you through.

As for the gameplay, this is where things start to get dicey.  Controlling Bugs takes some getting used to.  The chief complaint leveled against this game is that you're controlling Bugs Bunny, but you can't jump.  For those who bought the game new in 1990, and didn't know it was a port of a Mickey Mouse game (which meant 99% of buyers), the prevailing though would have been that a game starring a rabbit who couldn't jump was just broken.  Once you get past that notion, other problems begin to emerge.  The enemy AI is highly unpredictable at times, so sometimes you'll get through a level with very little danger, and other times, you'll be bombarded from all sides, and may seem to beat a level purely through dumb luck.  Some things are consistent, such as Sylvester being the only enemy that will go through pipes, Daffy Duck using stairs, and both Yosemite Sam and Wile E. Coyote being stuck to the level/layer they're on, but otherwise, the enemy patterns aren't very obvious.  You can find yourself cornered very quickly, with no recourse except to die and start the level over.

One really nice feature of this game is the password system. The game's
4-character passwords may be the shortest in video game history.

In the larger levels, with long staircases or pipes that span a greater distance than the size of the screen, taking those paths becomes a crap-shoot each time.  It makes perfect sense that once you enter a pipe, you continue through it until you reach the other side, but not so much with stairs.  Once you get started up or down a flight of stairs, you're committed to that action, and if you run into an enemy, tough luck.  You have to watch the enemies closely, and time your pipe and stair traversal specifically, hoping beyond hope that the enemy doesn't suddenly turn around and greet you at your destination for instant death.  The other frustration with the controls is, when you have a flight of stairs going down, and another flight going up, both within a few pixels of one another, the only way to ensure you're going up is to stop pressing the direction on the D-pad you want to go (i.e. left or right), and start holding Up on the D-pad to guarantee you'll go up the stairs.  The Castlevania games work the same way, but it's implemented a bit more cleanly there.  Here, it feels clumsy and half-baked, when coupled with the flaw that you can't stop on the stairs and turn around.  Had they tightened that up, it would have made the game less frustrating.

All I have to do is wait for Yosemite Sam to pass by, and I can sneak
down and get that carrot. What a maroon! What an imbecile!

Not that the frustration means much, aside from the obvious fact that, when playing through this game, Bugs Bunny is going to die.  In fact, Bugs is going to die A LOT.  If you're playing strictly to play through and win each level, it's not a lengthy experience.  Sure, there are 80 levels to play, but with a password for each level, combined with unlimited continues, you can keep hammering away at a level until you figure it out, or are lucky enough with the enemy AI that you can sneak past them to get that last, hard to reach carrot.  The real problem is, since design elements in this game hearken back to design concepts from classic, single-screen puzzle platform arcade games, playing for score is next to impossible because the enemy patterns are hard to pin down.  Some levels I blew through in a single try, but a few of the levels took me 10 or more tries, and a fair number of those were levels with a lot of opportunities for cheap deaths.  Combine cheap deaths, less than stellar control, and other issues, and you have a game that isn't doing itself any favors in the fun department.

Where did Bugs go? Oh wait, it's that horrible sprite flicker you see
when you grab the bottle of invisible ink, that's all that's going on.

Despite all of its flaws, Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle can be a fun game, as long as you take its flaws into account, and understand that playing strictly for score is a losing proposition.  I had fun throughout the 5-6 total hours of gameplay I had to dedicate to completing the game, and if you're a fan of puzzle platformers, or old school single-screen arcade games, you might get a kick out of this as well.  I wouldn't recommend it if you're trying to find the "cream of the crop" of Game Boy titles, but it's good for a few laughs.  I picked my loose cart up for $4.95, which, for the limited amount of gameplay available, might be slightly on the high side.  Still, you can spend $4 or more on much worse titles in the Game Boy library.  Ultimately, I would say if you have a friend or relative with a copy of this, try before you buy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Play Action Football (1990)

Image shamelessly linked from Adventure Amigos.
"I choose" the realistic offensive strategies, but the defensive strategies
are tough - does that mean they're not realistic? Or are they both
AND realistic? Can the game possibly live up to this box art?

I must begin this review with a bit of history, nostalgia, and a confession.  As I write this, I'm reeling from the news that the Kansas City Royals, long the proverbial butt of many a baseball joke, have won the World Series against the New York Mets.  Though I don't consider myself a sports fan, I got a little bit of whiplash with that announcement, and had to check my calendar to make sure it wasn't 1985 again.  I was a fan of baseball for many years, as a kid, until the player strike brought the ugly realization that athletes can often be petty, whining oafs that are just money hungry.  Granted, they're not all like that, but the strike certainly gave me a new perspective on things.  So while my love for baseball lasted a number of years, my interest in professional football was relatively short-lived.  In 1985 and 1986, I fancied myself a pro football fan, if only to impress my classmates and the neighbor kids, who all thought I was a giant dork (spoiler alert: I was).  I told people I was into the Dolphins and the Bengals, and that Dan Marino was pretty much the best quarterback on the planet.  Of course, I never really watched any football games, because we had 1 TV in the house, my parents weren't into pro football, and none of my friends invited me over to watch with them.  Subsequently, my neighborhood kids (and kids at school) saw through my petty charade.  Yes, I was destined to be a nerd.

Compared to the title screens for Baseball and Tennis, both Nintendo
launch titles, this is just lazy. There's not even a football to look at!

I'm not totally devoid of football knowledge, however.  I watched college football with my parents; specifically, the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  Yes, the Huskers are (in 2015) having what is possibly the worst season in the history of the football program, but in the mid-late 80's and early 90's, the Huskers were a staple of Saturday college football games, and I watched intently with my parents, despite not having a deep understanding of the game, the plays, or the rules.  I don't catch every game now, though I still try to do so when I can, and root for the Huskers when I do get to watch or listen to a game.  I even casually live-Tweet during games.  Having said that, my knowledge of the game of football is still very limited, and I'm saying that to help set up this review, and perhaps give some perspective as to my feelings on this game.

Play selection is relatively easy, though a touch clunky. I occasionally
found myself kicking a field goal on 2nd down because my instinct
was to push down on the D-pad to change pages, instead of the A
button, as is the default. I had a few failed 70-yard "attempts".

The other thing I'll say is that, as most gamers of my generation know, while Tecmo Bowl for the Nintendo Entertainment System was a pretty good football game for its time, the ball didn't really get rolling (pun intended) with video football games until the 16-bit era, when you had Joe Montana Football, and of course, the kingpin itself, John Madden Football.  That didn't stop every game console from receiving some sort of football title, and the Game Boy certainly saw a handful of pigskin games.  By my count, there are 11 total football titles on the venerable handheld, though 2 of those are combination baseball/football titles.  Part of me is dreading having to review those carts.  Cramming 2 fully realized sports games into a single Game Boy cartridge (in the early 1990's) would have been a feat unto itself, but also require real thought and design.  I guess I just don't have much faith in licensed titles from that era, which can be attributed to the low number of them that actually turned out to be good games.

Team Captain: "Stay in formation....stay in formation!"
Player: "Loosen up!"

Play Action Football, the first pigskin game for the venerable handheld, is a pretty simple affair.  There are 8 teams in the game, all from major cities across the US, though, conspicuously, devoid of actual NFL names, due to the game's lack of NFL license.  The manual makes no mention of differences between the teams, and I was not able to really gauge any kind of discernible difference in team or player stats and abilities (more on that later).  There are 4 modes to play: a 1-player against the CPU mode, which is a single game, a 1-player against the CPU "championship" mode, where you play 7 games against the other teams (with a password system for saving progress), a 2-player mode where you play against one another in a single game, and a 2-player against the CPU mode (also a single game, from what I gleaned from the game's menu).  There are 4 difficulty levels to play against the CPU, and, like the 2 Nintendo sports launch games, they range from moderately difficult to insanely hard.  I will readily admit, as a sports video game beginner, I stayed at the "Level 1" difficulty the whole time, as my experience with that proved to be challenging enough for my rather weak skills.

Pat is good? Okay, that's good to know, thanks for filling me in.

Play calling is relatively simple.  At the play screen, you press one of 4 directions on the D-pad to select a play, depending on which directional arrow you see next to the play you want to run.  If you press the A button, you can move to a 2nd, or sometimes even a 3rd screen of available plays.  If you want to call a Timeout, press Select at the play selection screen.  Once you're on the field, you'll "hut" until you press A to hike the ball.  Then, depending on your play, you can either run the ball, or press the B button in conjunction with a direction (left or right), to throw the ball.  One thing to keep in mind is, as soon as you throw the ball, the player selection switches immediately to the receiver, so don't forget to move them into position based on the arrows that display on screen, indicating where the pass is being thrown.  Also, you can press A several times per play to either break a tackle, or get a speed boost.  While running the ball, you can press B to dive, and usually pick up another 2-3 yards on a play.  On defense, you also have the speed boost available for each player, and you can press the Select button to switch to whichever teammate is closest to the ball.  Again, you can dive to try and tackle the runner, by pressing the B button.  When you're kicking the ball, you have an arrow that moves left and right, and that determines the direction of the ball when you press A.  Then a 2nd meter will go up and down, and when you press A again, that determines how hard you kick, and thus, the distance the ball travels.

The stats screen that shows at halftime and at the end of the game
is easy to read, and shows a lot of good, relevant info, especially if
you're into that kind of statistical stuff, you football nerd, you.

The game doesn't have a lot of visual appeal, and is somewhat simplistic.  The overhead view works well for basic play execution, though sometimes, when you or your opponent are running the ball, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle, and have no idea where the ball is.  There's not much detail on the field, but that's a blessing, given the business of the two teams clashing, especially during running plays.  When performing a long pass, or a kickoff, the screen will switch to an even less detailed overhead view that shows more of the field, and players represented by little dots, and then will zoom in again to the standard view, once the ball is close to the receiver.  If you score a touchdown, or make a successful P.A.T. or Field Goal, you're treated to a 2 or 3 frame animation, and you get a basic, 2-frame animation of a referee signaling when you've achieved a first down, scored a touchdown, and either made, or missed, a kick attempt.  You also see an easy to read stat and score breakdown at halftime, and after each game, complete with each team's "logo".  Oh, and one nice touch is when you get close to a first down, the referees will come out with the poles and chain, to "measure" the distance, and you can see the animation of the chain going by the ball to show if you made the first down or not.

This screen looks just a shade or two more advance that the old
Mattel Electronic Football handheld games that were popular in
the late 1970's and early 80's. This is what you see during a
kickoff, or a similar view when you throw a long pass.

There's very little in the way of music in the game.  You have the title screen theme, and music that plays once the ball is in motion, as well as a different music track that will play when your opponent gets into the red zone and is threatening to score.  Aside from that, there's a short ditty that plays when you score, and another short theme on the score breakdown screen.  Otherwise, it's mostly sound effects.  You have basic sound effects for the "hut", hike, and pitch/throw sounds, and the "alley-oop" sort of sound to denote the ball going up in the air, and coming back down.  The tackle sound is pretty basic, as are most of the other effects.  The game has a bit of rudimentary voice sampling as well, though it's awful scratchy.  There's a voice for "first down" and one for "touchdown", but as you can imagine, they sound so much alike that they're almost indistinguishable.

Whether you're kicking the ball, or your opponent is kicking, and no
matter which team you choose, #7 will be the kicker. Man, that guy
really gets around. He must be a hot commodity!

Playing through a single game, you can almost immediately see the games flaws take center stage.  First and foremost, despite each team having no discernible difference in stats, the CPU team ALWAYS runs the ball faster than you.  If they throw a pass and catch it, your best bet is to switch to the closest player and try to tackle or dive to get them.  Be careful, however, because if you miss, the CPU team will take that ball all the way to the end zone.  Countless times during my experience with this game, I kicked the ball for either a post-TD kickoff, or a punt after a 3-and-out drive, and the opposing team would score a touchdown, simply because I couldn't catch up.  This happens regardless of which team you play against.  I realize the game is trying to offer a challenge, but I would have hoped that whomever was responsible for play-testing the game would have brought this to the design team's attention.  It's terribly unfair when you, as the player, have to waste all your speed boosts to break tackles and fight for 20-25 yards, while the opposing side can score a TD on nearly any kick return if you miss a couple tackles.  Call me crazy, but that sounds like poor design.  Working in your favor sometimes is the goofy detection for P.A.T. and field goal kicks - sometimes, it looks like you missed the space between the goal posts, but the CPU will say your kick was good, while the CPU team kicks the point after attempt, and it looks like it will be called good, only to see that it's no good.

That's me at my 40-yard line, trying to run the ball downfield. Because
the CPU team is so much faster, I'll get about 7 or 8 yards until they
catch up to me. A couple speed boosts and I can break a tackle or
two, but then I'll have to dive if I want to get to, or past, their 45.

The passing also seems weird to me, but maybe I haven't played enough football video games to know any better.  It seems as though I can't land a pass more than 40-50 percent of the time, when performing a Play Action Pass.  With that, I seemed to have way more accuracy passing to my left than to my right, for some strange reason.  I was never once able to land a long pass, and I found short pass plays to be utterly useless, because the opposing team was always able to find a way to get to the receiver before I could gain yardage.  Once I reached the red zone, I found both the "Sweep" and "Dive" plays useful, because I could sometimes muscle my way into the end zone, but just as frequently, I ended up throwing a Play Action Pass to seal the deal.  Maybe it's just because I figured out how to run that play successfully the most, but I thought it was strange that the play the game is named after seemed to be the best way to move the ball downfield.

Wait, first you tell me Pat is good, now you're saying Pat is no good?
Make up your mind, already! Who are you to say, anyway?

At the end of the day, I understand that, because of my limited knowledge of sports, any recommendation (or lack thereof) of a sports game will need to be taken with a rather large grain of salt.  Having said that, I think the major flaws in this game speak for themselves, and it's hard to give the game a thumbs up.  I think I paid $3 for my copy, and while I got enough enjoyment out of it to warrant that, I can't imagine what poor kids got this as their birthday present, and ended up spending far more time on it than the game's design truly warranted, because mom and dad paid $30, and they were going to like it, if it killed them.  I learned enough about how to play the game that I was able to win about 30% of the time, and for a non-sports fan, that's good enough for me.  If you're thinking about spending more than $3 or $4 on this game, take a knee, call a time out, and give it some serious thought.

Playing on the Game Boy Player, via my Game Cube, I found it slightly
amusing that the game had a bit of a color palette interpretation "oops"
with the player's arm after a touchdown. Not only is the end of his sleeve
a totally different color, but you can see the sprite overlap between the
arm and the body, and the color difference just makes it more pronounced.

As an aside, I wanted to mention that I played through the entire 7-game "championship" mode, and purposefully did so, utilizing every means I have to play Game Boy games.  I played game 1 on my Game Boy Advance SP, game 2 on my original Game Boy DMG, game 3 on the Game Boy Pocket, game 4 on the Game Boy Color, game 5 on the Game Boy Player, and Game 6 on the Super Game Boy.  I finished up with game 7 via an emulator on my PC, so I could grab screenshots for this review.  I found it interesting to go back and forth between the different systems, to see how it played, but also get a feel for how good the D-pad is on each of those systems.  Turns out, my Game Boy Color D-pad could use a little TLC, and my SNES controller is in dire need of a cleaning and alcohol bath.  Also, it's really awkward to play with a Game Cube controller (in my case, a WaveBird), because the "Y" button acts as the "Select" button, and it doesn't feel natural to hit that while you're running downfield, trying to catch the other team's runner.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Radar Mission (1991)

Image shamelessly linked from Game Oldies. Once again, I find myself
in awe of late 80's, early 90's box art. The cool fonts, the excellent,
hand-drawn artwork, and blatant overstatement of the actual product.
Ah, nostalgia.

I love playing games.  I love video games, of course, because, if I didn't, writing this blog would be pretty silly of me, wouldn't it?  But I also love other kinds of games.  I grew up playing board games and card games with my family.  I can rock a game of Klondike Solitaire any time, and I rather enjoy trouncing my family in a rousing game of Scatergories.  Yes, I love a good tabletop game.  So do a lot of other people, I'd wager, which is why we see so many conversions of popular card, board, and other tabletop games on video game systems.  The Game Boy was no exception to this, and received a number of relevant titles.

Radar Mission, on paper, is the very definition of taking a board game and turning into a video game with enough added content, feature/functionality, and substance, to make it worth playing over and above the source material it shamelessly copies.  In this case, it's the venerable classic Battleship.  Yes, the game that invented the catch phrase, "You sank my battleship!" that nearly every North American child in my generation could pull out of the air, since during almost any commercial break for after-school programming, or Saturday Morning Cartoons (RIP), a commercial for some iteration of the game was inevitably aired.  The difference with Battleship, however, was that many versions of the game came with more than just plastic pegs, plastic ships, and a nice custom game board.  Some versions came with lights, sounds, and gripping nautical warfare action!  Okay, so maybe I'm channeling the commercials from memory, but the truth is, as a property to translate to the video game medium, Battleship had already transcended its pressed cardboard and plastic game piece brethren, and was therefore going to need more than just pictures on the screen and cutesy music to spruce it up.

And once again, we have a completely different game logo design
from the box to the title screen. Another case of the left hand and
the right hand not being aware of one another, methinks.

I suppose Nintendo was able to produce Radar Mission (or Kaisen Game: Radar Mission, in Japan) without having to pay Milton Bradley bucket-loads of money, because the game originated as a pen-and-paper game, and took on a number of physical board game revisions, before Milton Bradley's more famous Battleship game became a household name sometime during the late 1960's and early 1970's.  By the 1980's, of course, it had become a phenomenon, and I think it was almost a prerequisite that any American family had at least one Battleship game board in their house.  At least in my experience, I believe all my friends' families had the game, my grandmother had it, and they even had it at school where we could play during certain activity times.

Game A in Radar Mission sets itself apart by offering a number of features that its inspiration never boasted.  First and foremost, when you start the game, you get to choose what size of game board you want: 8x8, 10x10, or 12x12.  You only get to choose the size of the initial board, however, because, if you happen to defeat the enemy during the first match, you move on to a 2nd level with an 8x8 board, and then on to a 3rd and final level where you're attacking the enemy's base on land.  It gives the game a lot more depth than the traditional board game variety.  You have the ability to toggle a "Near Miss" feature, which means that, when you or your enemy fire a shot that lands in the water next to a ship, a warning sound will play, letting you know that in one of the spaces directly above, below, or to either side of your ship, there's a target you can hit.

Here you can see all the options available in Game A, like the ability
to have aircraft launch, near miss, and WHAT ON EARTH, is that
Hitler commanding your fleet? No wonder I lost so much!

There's also the "Lucky Shot" feature, which is triggered in a seemingly random fashion.  When you or your opponent miss a shot, you may be granted a lucky shot on your next turn.  There are 3 varieties: first a single square shot, which, if successful, will completely destroy a ship in 1 hit.  Second, there's a 5-shot blast which fires off 5 shots in the shape of an "X", and finally, a 9-shot volley that mirrors the 5-shot, but just stretches out 1 additional square diagonally from the center-point.  If toggled, you will be alerted of near misses with these, though it's still a guessing game as to what side the actual target will be on.  Then there's a nifty feature where, mid-way through a match, your aircraft carrier can launch a fighter jet, which will randomly move to different squares surrounding the location of the aircraft carrier (even after it has sunk), during each turn of the game.  If your opponent has sunk all your ships, but your jet is still in flight, you still have a chance to take them out, as long as they haven't taken it down.  It adds an additional strategic element, because of the need to hit what is, essentially, a moving target.  Finally, you can choose between 2 captains to command your fleet, and 3 different opponents to play against, though the actual choice doesn't matter, as each commander plays exactly the same.

It's a satisfying sight, seeing your enemy's ship go down in flames,
helpless to defend themselves against your missiles. No, I don't
need therapy; all is fair in love and war, remember?

Game B is where the biggest deviation from the Battleship formula comes in, as it has nothing to do with the board game, but is instead a submarine-based action shooting section, with a first-person perspective.  You control your sub, and can move left and right on the play field.  Pressing Down on the D-pad will submerge the craft, and you can move left and right while watching the radar map, then press Up on the D-pad to raise up out of the water, and put you back into first-person view so you can either torpedo enemy ships, or use your machine guns against the enemy sub.  Before each of the 3 rounds, you can equip your sub with a turbo propeller for additional speed, a twin-torpedo shot, for easier aiming, and powered sonar, which will reveal whether enemy vessels are moving left or right.  Occasionally, you'll see bags of money pop up on screen, which you can shoot to earn more money, which will help you buy those upgrades again for the next round.  Both you and your enemy start with the same number of ships each round, and the object is to blow up the last ship of your enemy's fleet before you can, or to blow up your foe's submarine, should you be so lucky.  In the first-person view, you may get an indicator arrow pointing left or right, as to which is the best direction to travel to reach the most enemy ships to take out.

As you can see, I've already taken out my opponent's aircraft carrier.
The area my targeting cursor is over happened to be the next ship I
hit.  It won't be long before it's blown to smithereens, sinking to the
bottom of the sea, forever to be nothing more than a relic of warfare.

Here's the tricky thing about Game A: the AI is all over the place.  As one would expect, the game attempts to approximate what a human would do, but sometimes it feels very random.  Anyone I've ever played Battleship against, once they've found one of your ships, they continue to fire in that region until they've sunk the vessel.  Sometimes, in Radar Mission, your enemy will hit your boat, fire a couple near miss shots which give them license to sink the vessel, and then, inexplicably, they'll begin firing on random spots on the board, seemingly in an attempt to find other ships.  It's a strategy I've honestly never seen, and it's a bit baffling.  I'm not complaining, however; Game A provides quite a challenge, and I only conquered my opponent after about 15 or 20 attempts, during a game where the CPU used the aforementioned tactic.  Apparently, my nautical warfare skills need some tightening up.

Finally seeing the smiling face of my fleet admiral and the celebratory
dance of my crew was quite a feeling, after being taken down so many
times. It felt good to finally win all 3 rounds and defeat the enemy.

Game B, however, really ups the ante in the area of challenge.  The enemy sub seems to have an innate sense of which direction to travel for maximum kill speed, and is relentless in firing machine guns and torpedoes at you when you cross its path.  My assumption is, because the other sub can destroy you, that you could also destroy it, but I haven't been able to accomplish this apparently herculean feat.  Rather, I have focused on taking out the opposing ships, but I've only ever been able to get past the first round, with a scant, single ship in my group remaining.  In the 2nd stage, assuming I earned enough money to buy all 3 power-ups again, I get absolutely creamed by the lousy enemy craft, and haven't seen the 3rd stage, as of yet.  Oh, and unless you're a masochist, or an absolute Jedi at games like this, don't even think about trying Game B without buying the upgrades before each round, because you'll probably lose.  Needless to say, Game B presents a pretty stiff challenge, though I suppose with enough practice, one could best the 3 stages and achieve victory.

These guys are the smart ones, who stayed back at the dock. They're
not going to be sunk by an opposing sub. No, they'll happily be sipping
beverages in the cantina, laughing at their comrades risking their necks.

In terms of the game's visual aesthetics, they're pretty well done.  The ships themselves aren't much to look at when you're looking at the game board, but the designs are nice, and the animations accompanying each volley are a nice touch, despite being a bit sparse.  Obviously being a slow-paced game, Game A gets by more on substance than flash, but then Game B has some nice touches, like the multi-level scrolling water that looks like a parallax scrolling effect, and a decent depth perception effect when firing torpedoes at far away ships.  The little animations in between stages are a bit goofy, but they're light-hearted, and serve their purpose.  I also kind of like the explosion effect graphics each time you destroy a ship.

I said it before, and I'll say it again. Get the upgrades, or prepare to be
annihilated within short order. Seriously, the enemy sub will cut you
down to size without a moment's hesitation, and you'll be crying.

The music in the game is well composed.  In Game A, there's a standard tune that plays during the bulk of the stage, and then toward the end of each round, the music will change, depending on you and your opponent's status.  If you are down to your last ship, the music becomes serious and ominous, as if to signal that you're in trouble.  If the enemy is down their last vessel, you get a more triumphant, victorious kind of theme that plays, signifying that you're in the home stretch with only 1 boat left to bomb.  When the opposition gets a lucky shot, another serious, frantic-toned ditty plays while they're targeting and firing, as a means of building tension.  The title screen theme is nice as well, with a catchy melody and a nice faux-military sort of feel.  Sound effects are also decent, with the usual "alley-oop" kind of high pitched whistle when firing missiles, a good explosion sound, and a serviceable splash-down sound for missed shots.  The near miss sound is a bit annoying, though one assumes that's the point.  Game B's main theme is a bit less memorable, though once you're down to 3 ships, it changes to the "ominous" theme from Game A, which serves to heighten the action.  I like how the music fades out on the option screens when you select your options and start the game, it's a nice effect.  Overall, the sound design is pretty solid.

There are moments like this in Game B that are very rewarding - the
second before the torpedo hits, you know it's going to find its target,
and you'll get to watch the glorious explosion of an enemy vessel.

It's hard to fault Radar Mission for much of anything, because, in 1991, the Game Boy was really hitting its stride, in terms of development teams really learning how to get the most out of the limited hardware.  The slow pace of Game A, coupled with the original DMG Game Boy model's blurriness, means that it was probably the perfect choice for car rides, weekends at grandma's house, and late night sleepover game sessions.  Game B, with its faster pace and fast scrolling ships, doesn't fare quite as well on the original hardware, but since the animation is relatively flat, it still works pretty well.  Nintendo took an established formula and added some nice additional features that really buoy the game (sorry, pun intended), and make it feel more fresh.  But instead of just stopping there, they added an entirely different 2nd mode, which gives the game even more replay value, especially since both game types can be played with 2 sea-faring swabbies (no, this isn't a pirate game, but go with me on this one).  Sadly, since I only have 1 copy of the game, I didn't get to experience that.  My only real complaint is that, for Game A, there's no mode that allows 2 players on the same device.  That would have been a fantastic addition to an otherwise well made game.  Had I known about Radar Mission back when it released, it might have, erm, "been on my radar" (sorry, I can't help myself), and might have been a game I would have purchased.  I know my younger brother would have played with me, and had there been a 2-player/1-device mode, I might even have convinced my dad to as well.  Regardless, anyone who owns a Game Boy (or compatible device), has fond memories of playing Battleship, and enjoys this kind of tactical strategy challenge, should be looking this game up and seriously thinking about acquiring a copy.  I got mine for $4 (loose cart), and I would think you could probably find a copy in the wild for around that price.  It's well worth that and more, and you could easily sink hours (okay, okay, I'll stop!) into it.  Highly recommended.

Unless you can master the submerging in Game B, you'll be seeing
this screen a whole lot like I did. Thankfully, once you do, avoiding
the other sub becomes a lot easier. You can also submerge to
avoid missiles fired at you by enemy planes, which comes in handy.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Guru Inside: clarification on the use of "Guru"

I am a bit of a dichotomy, as a gamer.  I consider myself to be reasonably knowledgeable with regards to video games, gaming history, and in general, gaming culture.  I will fully admit that I'm not up on the latest thing in today's gaming scene, but from a standpoint of "retro" games, I've got a pretty broad base of information.  That said, I know that I don't know everything, and there are some definite gaps in my own knowledge.  There are consoles I've never seen or played, games I've not heard of, and experiences I lack as a whole, that prevent me from being the "be all, end all" of video game know-how.  I'm a student of life, like anyone else, and I'm always learning.

Bearing that in mind, why would anyone who admittedly doesn't know everything call themselves a "guru"?  Why would I want to subject myself to the level of scrutiny that comes from identifying oneself as a "guru"?  What is my motive for elevating myself so much, other than to draw attention to myself?  Am I crazy enough to think that I know enough to even refer to myself with such distinction?  Do I deserve to even be referring to myself by such a title?

Image shamelessly linked from Adido Digital.
"Buy more Game Boy games, they will help you on
the path to enlightenment. Mariska Hargitay."

First, let's look at the definition of the word from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

      noun gu·ru \ˈgu̇r-(ˌ)ü, ˈgü-(ˌ)rü also gə-ˈrü\

  1. a religious teacher and spiritual guide in Hinduism
  2. a teacher or guide that you trust
  3. a person who has a lot of experience in or knowledge about a particular subject

I think we can immediately scratch definition #1 off the list, because I have nothing to do with Hinduism.  I am a Christian, though that doesn't necessarily intersect with the game reviews I write, other than my faith informing who I am and what I do.  Definition #2 is short and to the point, and I like it.  I could be considered a teacher or guide, given that I'm writing about games and sharing my experiences, as well as recommending (or not) games to others.  Definition #3 is a bit less subjective, but strictly by that definition, I am probably not a "guru" in the classic sense.  I am playing games and learning about them as I go along, but as of this writing, I'm no expert on the Game Boy library of games, or the hardware.  My goal is to get to that point.

Image shamelessly linked from Imgion.
Thanks for the tip, bro, but can I get a verdict on this here Tetris Blast game?

I like the way Wikipedia frames it:

Guru (Devanagari गुरु) is a Sanskrit term for "teacher" or "master", particularly in Indian religions. The Hindu guru-shishya tradition is the oral tradition or religious doctrine or experiential wisdom transmitted from teacher to student. In the United States, the word guru is a newer term, most often used to describe a teacher from the Hindu tradition. In the West some derogatory interpretations of the word have been noted, reflecting certain gurus who have allegedly exploited their followers' naiveté, due to the use of the term in certain new religious movements.[1]


As a noun the word means the imparter of knowledge (jñāna; also Pali: ñāna). As an adjective, it means 'heavy,' or 'weighty,' in the sense of "heavy with knowledge,"[Note 1] heavy with spiritual wisdom,[3] "heavy with spiritual weight,"[4] "heavy with the good qualities of scriptures and realization,"[5] or "heavy with a wealth of knowledge."[6] The word has its roots in the Sanskrit gri (to invoke, or to praise), and may have a connection to the word gur, meaning 'to raise, lift up, or to make an effort'.[7]

Again, though I have nothing to do with Hinduism, the idea of "teacher" is present.  "Master" perhaps I'm not, but I hope to one day reach that point.  If you look at the 2nd paragraph I've quoted here, you'll noticed the phrase they use as "imparter of knowledge".  I quite like that idea, and it echoes much of what I hope to accomplish through this journey.  The Game Boy library of games is not nearly as well documented or well known as that of the NES or even the Sega Genesis or SNES, so to try and uncover as much about it as possible is part of my goal.  I want to impart my knowledge and experiences about the games as much as I can so that others can hopefully make informed decisions about purchasing those games, especially considering that as supply decreases, demand may increase, along with price, so those looking to get into Game Boy collecting will want to know if what they're paying for is worth the money they're considering spending.

Image shamelessly linked from Wikepedia.
Droppin' Game Boy knowledge like it's hot. Represent.

Here's another perspective to consider from the Wikipedia article:

A traditional etymology of the term "guru" is based on the interplay between darkness and light. The guru is seen as the one who "dispels the darkness of ignorance."[Note 2][Note 3][11] In some texts it is described that the syllables gu (गु) and ru (रु) stand for darkness and light, respectively.[Note 4]

The 2nd sentence highlights what I'm attempting to do: shed light on the subject of Game Boy games, and help separate the good from the bad.  I'm here to 'dispel the darkness of ignorance' by playing games and then recommending the good or decent ones, and letting people know when they might want to steer clear of something that has little or no merit, replay value, or fun involved.  If a game deserves your time, attention, and hard-earned cash, I'm going to tell you that.  If a game is completely terrible, I want to make sure that everyone knows it, so they don't spend their money without at least being informed.  My responsibility, as a self-proclaimed "guru" is to make sure that you have all the information you might need to make an informed purchase or play decision.

I firmly believe that no one in a position of teaching others ever stops learning themselves.  Just like watching a movie multiple times, and picking up something new each time, or reading a book multiple times, and noticing new elements in the subtext upon each read through, teachers are in a constant state of learning.  How else would they improve their ability to convey information, or have a better sense of the context of that information, if they weren't constantly attempting to increase their own knowledge in that area?  As a consumer of games and gaming culture, it's important for me to not only be steeped in that culture as I know it today, but to continue to learn about it, so my understanding of that culture can be greater and more full.  If I ever feel like I've learned enough about the Game Boy, its games, or the technical information surrounding it, I'm wrong.  I need to keep learning.

The Beatles went to this guy for spiritual counsel. You should feel
comfortable coming to me for some of your Game Boy education.

In summary, I call myself the Game Boy Guru, partially in jest, since I've nothing to do with any of the religious or spiritual connotations that implies, but also partially because my goal is to reach that stage; that place of Game Boy "enlightenment" if you will.  I want to become an authority on the subject, so I'm putting it out there that this is what I'm going to become.  Do I expect to ever be as learned as Jeremy Parish of Game Boy World?  No, probably not.  He's been a games industry writer for a number of years, and is far more "professional" than I ever aspire to be, in terms of his writing and composition.  Don't get me wrong, I strive for all the hallmarks of good writing: proper grammar, correct spelling, good use of transitions, proper punctuation, and variety in my use of synonyms.  But compared to a professional writer who is being and has in the past been paid to write about video games, I'm just another guy.  He's the business casual guy in the room, unassuming but confident, safe in the knowledge that he's at the top of his game.  I'm the nerd in the corner wearing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt, camouflage shorts, and silently blogging about my latest portable game conquest, while tweeting about how much I hate the motion blur on the original Game Boy DMG's screen.  So yeah, I wear the mantle of Game Boy Guru with pride, but also with a grain of salt, and tongue planted ever so firmly in cheek.  I hope I can live up to the name, and I hope that this helps to clear up any misconceptions people might have about the somewhat presumptuous moniker I've chosen for myself.  Game on!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

SolarStriker (1990)

Image shamelessly linked from GameFAQs.
I love classic video game box art like this. It symbolizes
the imagination many artists put into the artwork. Imagination
that unfortunately, rarely ever captured the true look and
feel of the game. Still, it gave us hope of the contents within.

One of the video game genres that I've been a big fan of over the last 20 years or so is shoot-em-ups.  No, I'm not talking about "shooters", those fast-paced, first-person games where you brandish a firearm of some sort and snipe guys at 300 feet, reveling in every headshot.  No, I'm talking about the scrolling shooter, one of the staples of what we now know as classic, or "retro" gaming.  You see, from the early-mid 1980's, until around the mid-late 1990's, the scrolling shooter genre evolved tremendously, from humble beginnings like 1942, Vulgus, Star Force, and the like, to highly sophisticated games with deep, complex scoring systems like Battle Garegga, Dodonpachi, Radiant Silvergun, and many more.  While I appreciate the complexity and replayability of games like that, give me a simple "shmup" (a term, coined by Zzap!64 Magazine) with twitchy game play, a simple control scheme, and solid action any day.  While there's room in my heart for "danmaku" games (aka bullet curtain, or "bullet hell" shooters), I generally prefer classic shoot-em-ups to their more grown-up descendants.

Someone needed to remind companies during the 80's
and early 90's that changing the logo design between the
box and the title screen caused confusion. Which logo
was the "official" one, and which was a design mistake?

Leave it to Nintendo to do things differently.  While we know in today's modern world that Nintendo prefers to go their own way and do their own thing, in the late 1980's and early 1990's, it was everyone else who was doing their own thing, while Nintendo were the stalwarts of the scene, at least in North America.  We didn't know any better until years later, when we found out about the Tengen stuff, companies only being allowed to publish so many games each year for the NES, having to buy cartridges and hardware from Nintendo, etc.  During that time, Nintendo was leading the charge, and everyone else was either following, or trying to differentiate themselves somehow to stand out.  From the N64 forward, however, we saw a much different Nintendo.  So to some fans in 1990, a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up might have seemed like it came out of left field from Nintendo.  Be that as it may, they made a solid game.

"Space...the final frontier."  Also, graphically kind of boring.

The setup for SolarStriker reads like any other bog standard shmup from that time period.  You're a lone spacecraft either tasked with a suicide mission to save civilization, or a loner bent on revenge and the destruction of an alien planet/race/culture/technology/etc.  It doesn't matter much, as there's no story in-game, and the back of the box doesn't exactly give you much of a reason for blasting alien baddies, anyway.  What does matter is that you've got 3 lives, an upgrade-able weapons system, and tons of alien craft and weaponry in your way before you reach the end of the game's 6 stages.  Throughout your journey, you'll collect power-ups, destroy flying ships, tanks and trucks, alien life forms, and large boss enemies to reach the final showdown.

I'm sure you'll become quite acquainted with this screen
as I did in my play through of the game. It gets annoying.
Thankfully, you can press Start to jump right back to the
title screen, and Start again to get back to the action.

Graphically, the game isn't too shabby for the Game Boy.  Your ship, while devoid of a "tilt" animation when you move left to right, is rendered nicely, and the backgrounds generally strike that balance between interesting and utilitarian, leaning more toward the latter in favor of the player's ability to see what's going on.  Enemies move in various patterns, and while some enemies rotate or change as they attack, others just move on the screen and their sprites are static; only their movement fluctuates.  Explosions are also decent, given the small screen size, but they don't distract from the action.  As a side note, this game was released early enough in the Game Boy's life cycle that it has a special palette programmed into the Super Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and Game Boy Player which reverses the "black and white" contrast, so that space looks like space with black space and white stars, and similar changes.  If you want the original experience, you'll need to play it on an original DMG or Game Boy Pocket unit, otherwise, you'll see the game much differently than R&D 1 had in mind.

I can only assume since we started in space, and this is
Stage 2, we're in the sky above the alien planet, raining
down destruction and chaos everywhere.  Neat.

The audio of the game is an area that I think was relatively strong, given the time of the game's release.There are only a handful of music tracks in the game.  The title screen has its own ominous theme, and then there are 3 tracks shared by the subsequent 6 stages, each track playing for 2 consecutive stages before the next theme is used.  There's a separate track for boss fights, and then of course, separate music for when you lose your last life, and for the game's ending.  All tracks are reasonably well composed, though I'll wager that most people will say the Stage 1/2 music is the best tune in the game, in part because it's super catchy, but also because that's the music they'll likely be hearing the most.  Sound effects are also decent, though very minimal, using white noise bits for explosions, sufficient beeping and noises for your craft firing, etc.  Most enemies don't make noise when they fire projectiles, so you don't get that extra warning - you'll have to be mindful of their incoming fire by sight only.

Stage 3 goes over some roadways, which look suspiciously
like our own on Earth.  Wait a minute, am I blowing away
aliens on Earth? Why didn't anyone tell me?

Game play is pretty standard.  You can move the ship up, down, left, and right on the screen, and have no real restrictions as to where you can go within the game's field of vision.  The actual stage width is greater than what you can see on screen, so as you move the space ship left and right, the screen scrolls slightly to display the rest of the area you have to fly in.  It feels natural, and didn't distract me when playing like in some games.  The difficulty is pretty standard throughout the first 3 stages, increasing relatively gradually, though the bosses for the 1st 3 areas are quite easy.  Things get very hairy starting with Stage 4, however, as the difficulty ramps up quite a bit.  In particular, the Stage 4 boss rains down a lot of fire on your ship, making it quite tough to get in a few hits here and there.  The Stage 5 boss is only slightly less forgiving, having a more predictable pattern.  From Stage 4 through 6, there are mini-bosses, and there's a small mini-boss rush at the end of Stage 6 before the final boss.  Strangely, though the final boss throws a lot at you, it feels like a less complicated battle than the 2 preceding boss fights, so it comes off as a bit of a relief in comparison.

Stage 4 adds the first mini-boss, this big fella here. You
have to destroy the shielded units around him to get to
the actual core of the unit itself, not unlike another famous
series of shmups where you have to "Shoot the core!"

This is a shooter based on the template laid down by a number of arcade and early console titles that came before it, and in some ways, served as a template for all shoot-em-ups subsequently released for this platform.  There's not a 2nd loop for "New Game Plus" mode, and there's not even a high score table.  You just fly, maneuver, and shoot through 6 stages, and that's all there is.  It's not a particularly long game, though the stages themselves are sufficiently long before the boss encounters.  Yes, the game comes off as a pretty no-frills affair, but for a portable title, that's pretty much all you need.  It's a solid game with tight game play.

This is the Stage 4 boss, just before it starts shooting a
metric ton of bullets at me. This was long before the term
"bullet hell" was coined, but that's not far off the mark here.

If I had to level some complaints against SolarStriker, I would say the game's major difficulty spike after Stage 3 would be one.  The game just doesn't feel that hard through the first 3 levels, once you memorize enemy wave patterns.  Starting with Stage 4, however, things become much more manic.  You start to encounter fast moving enemies that can only be destroyed at the highest level of ship fire, and even then, only if you're at the bottom of the screen firing at them constantly until they're nearly on top of you.  The enemy bullet timing and patterns are kind of goofy as well.  Sometimes it feels like they're targeting you, while other times, it seems like they're just shooting a bullet, hoping to hit something.  In later levels, when half the enemies start shooting directional lasers that always shoot straight down, it becomes less twitch-reflex dodging, and more risk/reward, where you decide whether or not you want to risk potentially being taken out by a laser, versus the points you'll earn for destroying that enemy or group.  It's a little unbalanced in that sense, and is a bit too obvious in the game's setup.  I also would have liked the other 2 stage tunes to be a bit more memorable, or better yet, have dedicated music for each of the 6 stages.

Oh look, a stage that looks like highly advanced
technology and stuff - that's not a trope at all, is it?

Despite these less than perfect design choices, SolarStriker remains a highly playable, and reasonably enjoyable game.  It's a solid shmup that benefits from some good graphic design choices to make the game easy to see and play on the original hardware, despite the Game Boy DMG's tendency toward motion blur.  The music and sound, despite the sparse nature of it, is fitting to the game, and you'll likely find yourself whistling or humming the Stage 1/2 song at some point.  Just don't throw your Game Boy against the wall when you die on the Stage 4 boss the 12th time.  I'll give this 2 thumbs up for shooter and arcade game fans, and a casual recommendation to anyone else.  It's a very common game, and I picked up a copy for $4.  If you can't find it that cheap, it might be worth paying a little more for, but I wouldn't go out of your way to acquire it, because it's so common in the wild.

The final stage looks vaguely like you're inside some giant
alien being, not unlike Life Force/Salamander or Abadox. The
final boss appears to be the creature's heart that you have
to destroy. Why it shoots bullets at you is anyone's guess.

Yeah, we kind of figured that part out with the preceding
cut scene, but thanks for telling us anyway.

"Finally, I can dock my ship and go meet up
with that cute engineer from Section 3!"

This is my SolarStriker cart. It appears that perhaps my
cart fought in the conflict with the aliens alongside the
space ship you pilot in game...