Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Gargoyle's Quest (1990)

Box art scan shamelessly stolen from GameFAQs.
Someone at Capcom USA should have been sacked for turning
Firebrand into a green gargoyle instead of his signature crimson.

From time to time, video game companies see fit to tinker with their intellectual properties.  This may be due to creative surges within the development teams, wanting to try something new.  Sometimes a dev team knows the formula within a given series has become stale or rote, and they feel the need to mix things up.  There are examples where changing the formula has had resounding success, such as Konami's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, as well as instances where this approach completely flopped, as was the case with Accolade's Bubsy 3D.  Whatever the reason, creative minds generally need to branch out to do different things on occasion, to keep things fresh and flex the creative muscle.

Even though the box doesn't specify the Ghosts 'n Goblins
subtitle, the title screen makes sure you know what's up.

Such is the case with Gargoyle's Quest from Capcom.  It's sort of an off-shoot of the Makai-Mura series, better known as Ghosts 'n Goblins, or Ghouls 'n Ghosts.  In Japan, the game is known as Reddo Arima: Makai-Mura Gaiden, which can be roughly translated as Red Arremer: Demon World Village Side-Story.  Rather than starring the main protagonist of the Ghosts/Ghouls series, Arthur, it actually stars the "red arremer" enemy from the original game, known as Firebrand.  Based on the game's plot, it could be seen as a prequel to the original game, which you find out at the end of the game.

Nothing like initial story exposition from a series of ghouls dying
right in front of the main character. And this was a children's game?

Gargoyle's Quest is a side-scrolling action title, like its source material, but where the previous games were content just being ultra difficult, quarter munching arcade action games, Capcom changes up the formula.  Alongside the action sequences, you also have an overhead world, much like a classic JRPG, including towns where you can converse with other ghouls from the ghoul realm, and perform other tasks.  Each town has someone who will exchange the game's currency (vials) for talismans that act as additional lives.  There's also someone who will give you a resurrection spell (aka, a password), that you can use to continue your game if you need to power off your Game Boy, or you lose all your lives and want to continue your progress near where you left off.

For a game within the first year of the Game Boy's life, this title is
absolutely gorgeous. The flames in the windows flicker and burn,
and the rest of the backdrop is lush and detailed. Also, fish bones.

The game begins with the requisite story told via scrolling text, then a short bit of exposition via a few conversations seen in the overhead view.  Once that sequence is done, you're thrust into the first action level, culminating in a boss fight at the end.  Once that first level is done, you're taken to the overhead view, and get a chance to walk around the world to find the next town, where you'll discover your next objective.  In the overworld sections, you can encounter random battles; unlike a traditional RPG, however, you're placed back into a side-scrolling action sequence again, with between 1 and 4 enemies you must dispatch, to complete that action sequence and go back to the overworld.  After each of these random encounters, you'll earn "vials", which you can use later to purchase extra lives.  When in the overhead view, you can press the A button to access a menu, and you can choose to TALK to a person, USE and item, check your LVL or level, to see what your stats are, what weapons, items and magic are at your disposal, and so forth, and finally, you can CHK to check, or examine an item you see laying on the ground, or look for a secret.

"Whatcha doin', Firebrand?"
"Just hangin' out, dude!"

The basic flow of the game is thus: explore the overhead world, fight random battles, earn vials, find the town, talk to the town's ghouls, buy extra lives, get your password, then talk to the town's ruler, who will usually task you with a quest (hence the name) to retrieve a magical item or beat a baddie who they can't defeat.  Prior to taking on that task, this ruler usually bestows some power or item upon you that will upgrade your attack, or your life/defense, to aid you in completing your mission.  Once you complete that mission, you return to that ruler to either get directions as to where to travel to next, or sometimes get upgraded further before venturing on.  Some areas of the map have bridges you have to cross, which are often devoid of enemies, but are still side-scrolling action sequences, though more focused on avoiding traps, pitfalls, and environmental hazards, rather than combat.  Each major action stage includes a boss, and as you power up Firebrand, you will often need to use different attacks to take on those bosses, as well as to help traverse the stages themselves.

Now that is one ugly flying fish. Turn him into sushi, Firebrand!

Firebrand has a number of abilities.  He can jump in the air with the A button, and because he has wings, by pressing the A button again when he's in the air, he can hover or fly for a brief moment, until the "W" meter at the bottom of the screen is empty.  If you jump or fly up to a wall of most any kind, Firebrand will cling to it with his claws.  This particular ability is a key component of the game, because it's required to traverse each action sequence.  It's also key because, each time you touch the ground or cling to a wall, the "W" or "Wings" meter refills, giving you another brief moment or two to fly or hover.  When you're clinging to walls, you can fire in the direction opposite of the wall you're on.  You can also cling to a wall, jump, and then cling to the same wall higher up, allowing you to climb to the top and access more of the stage.  If you press the Start button while in an action sequence, not only does that pause the game, but you can then select between any of the weapons you have.  Also, if you have collected the "Essence of the Soulstream" item, it gives you a one-time use ability to refill Firebrand's health during an action sequence.  This ability will recharge for subsequent action stages.

This is one of the random battle encounters you face. Unlike a
regular RPG, you get a small action sequence where you have
to kill all the enemies to get back to the world map.

There are 4 attack types you have access to throughout the game.  The first is a basic flame attack, which you have at the start.  The second is a sort of spinning, boomerang-like weapon that can also double as a means of breaking certain blocks, to clear a path.  The third is known as "Claw", and is a large ball that, when spit out against a wall of spikes, creates a temporary place for Firebrand to cling to, useful for scaling large walls of spiky terror.  The fourth and final weapon, obtained just prior to the final boss battle, is known as Darkfire, and is a large flame.  This weapon shoots slowly, and can only be fired one at a time, but it's required to take on the final boss, the King of Destruction.  As you progress through the game, using the most recently acquired weapon is good for most situations, though toward the end you'll find yourself switching between the boomerang and the claw from time to time, depending on the circumstances.

Something tells me this guy's not happy to see me...

Gargoyle's Quest is a gorgeous early Game Boy game, really flexing the graphical muscle of the handheld.  Sprites are large and detailed, and generally speaking, animations are fluid and well done.  Terrain and locales are all rendered interestingly, with nice touches, such as the spooky looking tree trunks in the opening stage, to the floors of flame or blowing grass in some of the later stages.  Backgrounds are sometimes a bit sparse, but paired with the excellent foreground graphics, it becomes a total package that really shines on the handheld, and shows just what it was capable of so early on.  The overhead areas are also detailed and interesting, though Firebrand's 2-frame walking animation seems pretty basic.  All in all, the game wastes no time impressing visually.  I also wanted to make special mention of the "explosions" in the game, or the interesting visual effect when some enemies die.  It's a neat effect where the enemy sprite sort of simultaneously explodes and implodes, but with a bit of a sideways motion.

Who would create such an idyllic little town in the middle of a scary
forest? Looks like the real estate agents in the ghoul realm forgot
the 3 cardinal rules or property: location, location, location!

In the audio department, Gargoyle's Quest also shines brightly.  A couple of the game's themes recall the original Ghosts 'n Goblins or Ghouls 'n Ghosts main themes, though in a more subtle fashion.  The rest of the original music in the game is excellent, with a varied mix of energetic tracks played during action stages, along with more somber, contemplative material for the overworld map and town sections.  The short ditty that plays when you activate a random battle in the overhead view is foreboding, and the jingles that play when you defeat enemies and earn vials will get stuck in your head.  As for sound effects, they're well done also.  Capcom used more than one sound set for creating the "voices" that you hear when townspeople are speaking to you, and the various other sound effects all fit the game's mood, aesthetic, and overall presentation.  Kudos to composers Harumi Fujita and Yoko Shimomura (better known for her work on Final FightStreet Fighter II, and later Parasite Eve) for such an expressive, emotive set of music to accompany this game.

This little sandpit can be tricky to get to. If you don't approach it
just right, you'll get flung back, as if you were in a windstorm.

The game has a few interesting design quirks.  First and foremost, while the overhead sections serve to function a bit like a proto-RPG, the random battles that ensue are treated as individual entities.  By this, I mean that, when you enter a random encounter, you have full health.  After each random battle on the map, your health refills.  This is by design, I'm sure, since you start with only 2 hits, and the game would require even more patience and persistence to clear, were it not for this small mercy.  The password system, while only 8 characters long, is full featured.  Each password takes into account the town you're in, the items and powers you've collected, the number of talismans (lives) you have, and the number of vials you have collected.  Because the game is reasonably linear, there are probably a relatively finite number of passwords, but it's still relatively robust for what it is.  Also, despite the fact that, in the overhead view, you have 4 menu choices, you only use the "USE" command a couple of times in the game, rendering that feature relatively pointless otherwise.  Oh, and you'll want to stock up on extra talismans early in the game.  Toward the end, each extra life costs 32 vials from the local merchant - ouch!

Capcom really used the potential of the Game Boy's hardware
when making the graphics for the game. Even today, they're
stunning, with intricate designs, and lots of fine detail.

Gargoyle's Quest is a difficult game, and at times, can be pretty punishing.  The ability to purchase extra lives helps, though I found myself forced to "grind" through dozens of random battles toward the end, to earn enough vials to purchase extra lives, so as much as I was making mistakes in the later action stages, I could foul up and still be able to muddle my way through.  This game moves at a bit of a slow pace, though it's still action packed, and because Firebrand sort of moseys through each level, sometimes the enemy or hazard placement can feel cheap, though, like with most any action platformer, level memorization helps alleviate some of that.  In general, slow and steady wins the race.

The pause menu has a handy-dandy heads-up display, showing
you the number of lives, how many vials you've collected,
which weapon you have selected, and more.

Incidentally, I played through most of the game on the original Game Boy DMG model, and switched over to playing on the Super Game Boy toward the end, just before the second to last boss encounter, when the difficulty started to ramp up.  Despite the motion blur on the DMG, the game's excellent graphical design and generally slower pace made for a pleasant experience on the monochrome handheld, even after all these years.  For a game to still be fun to play, and still play well, on the monochrome Game Boy, it has to be a good game.  It's easy to have fun with most any game from this era, played on a Super Game Boy, Game Boy Player, or later iterations of Game Boy hardware; but for a game to still excel and not feel like a chore to play on the original hardware, when there are so many better alternatives?  That's a sign of good game design, and Capcom delivers that in spades with this title.  Despite the fact that this game is very common, it has gone up in price in recent years, to around or above the $15 mark.  With most Game Boy games, I would recommend looking for something less expensive, or waiting for a good deal, Gargoyle's Quest is worth every penny, and is an essential cart for the discerning Game Boy fan or collector looking to get the best titles for the library.  If you haven't played this game, and you even remotely enjoy action platformer games, or action adventure games with light RPG elements, you owe it to yourself to check this game out.  Highly recommended, if not downright essential.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Disney's Hercules (1997)

Image shamelessly stolen from GameFAQs.
Though I haven't yet seen the film, I recognize the art style, and
while this isn't totally representative of the contents therein, at
least the branding is consistent.

During the 8 and 16-bit eras, it's no secret that licensed games were a mixed bag.  That is, a mixed bag of mostly garbage, and the occasional diamond in the rough.  For every Sunsoft Batman, there were a dozen LJN X-men games, or titles of that ilk.  The one major bright spot among all the detritus was Capcom.  Their handling of a number of Disney properties was excellent, and many of the resulting games, such as Duck Tales or Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers on the NES were hailed as shining examples of action platform games, and are often still lauded as some of the best games on the system.  Not all their efforts were perfect, but certainly they stood head and shoulders above the competition in nearly all respects.

From what I understand, this is supposed to be representative of Hercules' home in
the film. Not sure why Tiertex thought that might make a captivating title screen...

To paraphrase another, now Disney-owned, property: "That was before the dark times; before Virgin Interactive."  At some point, Capcom lost the Disney license, and most of those properties were then handled by Virgin Interactive.  Not all, but a large share of them, were handled by VI, and resulted in a series of mostly mediocre games.  The Lion King may have been an excellent movie, but it didn't result in outstanding games.  Over time, Disney has had a number of game development houses involved in making games from their properties.  In 1997, developer Tiertex Design Studios got their shot at a new property, the fresh take on an old Greek mythology classic, Disney's Hercules.  Does this game deserve to be thrown out with the refuse of most licensed titles, or is it the diamond in the rough, made possible by Hercules himself squeezing a lump of coal until it becomes a precious gem?  Read on, dear soul.

Not sure if "Phil" is annoying in the movie, but given that he's voiced by Danny
DeVito, it's a good probability. He's annoying in the game, popping up and
offering advice in the midst of action, breaking up the game's flow.

From what I understand, this game is marginally based on the movie of the same name, an animated adaptation (I'll use that term loosely) of the Greek mythology stories of the character of Hercules.  Disney, of course, has to inject their own spin on things, so it's all very light and fluffy, but wrapped up nicely with a bow of some "moral of the story" by the end.  Basically, Hercules has discovered that he's the son of Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, and must set out on an adventure to prove himself so he can take his place among the pantheon.  For some reason, Hades sees Hercules as a threat, so he tries to foil Herc's plans, by convincing a young maiden to try and distract Hercules from reaching his goal.  Hilarity ensues, and you have a reason to wander around with the titular character, fighting all manner of creatures and completing challenges to prove your strength and worth.  Well, sort of.

See that giant dragonfly-like creature above Herc's head? Learn to kill those bad boys
quickly, or they'll drain your life bar faster than you can say, "By the gods!"

Rather than having Hercules go and take on a number of challenges as he does in the original mythos, this game sees him wandering through a number of relatively nondescript locations, fighting non-human characters, and collecting what look like milkshakes to stay healthy.  Sounds riveting, right?  Herc's only weapon is a sword, which seems odd, since he's supposed to be super strong, and may well elect to only use his fists.  You also have a "shoulder smash" move, where you can make Hercules run, and then ram his shoulder into the enemy, or a block wall to break it, but you only use that a small handful of times in the game.  There's a really awkward looking jump kick maneuver that's included in the game, but I didn't find anywhere it was actually useful, other than performing the move to watch how awkward it looks.

Hercules, mastering the most awkward one-handed rope climb ever, sword in the other hand.

Graphically, the game is a mixed bag.  They aren't overly interesting, but they're not entirely boring, either.  Some spots have decent graphics, such as scenery like large stone blocks, and some trees, but otherwise, things are a bit ho-hum.  Nothing reeks of poor design, and there's not an abundance of scenery that you can't tell isn't scenery, but nothing stands out very much.  It's just kind of blase.  That's not atypical for a Game Boy game, though at this point, just a year and a half from the launch of the Game Boy Color, many developers had learned how to really squeeze a lot out of the little handheld.  Tiertex wasn't necessarily one of them.  Animation is okay, trying to mimic that somewhat fluid Virgin Interactive style, but not quite hitting the mark.  However, because this title is compatible with the Super Game Boy, when used in that context, at least there are splashes of color, and differing motifs that change things up and keep them interesting throughout.

I don't remember which level this password is for, probably the 3rd of 4th. You're welcome.

In terms of music, you get the main theme from the game, which plays during the title screen and attract mode, and from what I've read elsewhere, the rest of the music is original to the game.  Unfortunately, despite there being 9 stages, there are only a couple of tunes that alternate between different levels, so you're limited to just that music.  On the upside, they're not grating or bad songs, and are a bit catchy.  If you play long enough, like I did, you may find yourself humming them.  That goes double if you play via the Super Game Boy, as the music gets an upgrade in that configuration.  Unlike a lot of games, which just add borders, and occasionally colored still images between levels, not only do the graphics get a boost here, but the music does as well.  The songs in-game are upgraded to sound more like what you'd get on the SNES, and it helps make the music more memorable.  Sound effects, on the other hand, are passable, standard fare, and little more.

The 2 levels where you ride atop the mighty Pegasus are made slightly easier by
grabbing the flaming sword toward the beginning of the level. That's not saying
much, however, because both levels are painfully easy to begin with.

In terms of gameplay, this game takes its cues from Prince of Persia more than any of its licensed Disney game forbears.  Your character moves along at a slow pace, and if you want to run, you press the direction you want to go twice rapidly, then hold that direction down.  There's one button for jump, and one for attack.  If you hit the attack button while running, you go into the running stance for the "shoulder smash" I mentioned earlier.  If you walk up to a platform that you would normally jump onto in most games, instead you press up on the D-pad to make Hercules climb up.  Otherwise, Hercules' jump is pretty short and pathetic.  This is a key factor to the game, which I'll touch on more later.  If you jump toward a vine or rope, you can grab hold, and then press up or down on the D-pad to climb.  When climbing up a rope or vine, if you hold left or right and press the jump button, Hercules will jump at a near 45-degree angle downward from that point.  You can also press down on the D-pad to duck, which you'll need to do to attack some enemies.  In the 2 stages where you fly on Pegasus' back, you have free range of motion, and just a simple punch or sword swing attack.  In Stage 7, which is the labyrinth with the Minotaur, you also use up and down on the D-pad to enter doors to different sections of the maze.  It's simple and easy to pick up, though some of the timing can be a bit tricky.  There's a delay between hitting the attack button and Hercules actually swinging or jabbing his sword, so that's a factor.  In fact, nearly all movement commands have a bit of a delay, which players will want to keep in mind.

The majority of foes in the game are animals of one type or another, like this
scorpion. PETA should have had a field day with this game in 1997.

When I started playing the game, I nearly rage quit out of frustration after my first couple attempts, thinking Disney had decided to punish fans by letting Tiertex design this game.  After learning the controls, and coming to grips with some of the game's quirkier design choices and pitfalls (quite literally), I started to understand the flow, and subsequently, began to have a little fun with it.  If you go in expecting an action platformer, you'll be sorely disappointed.  Instead, think of it as a platform adventure game with light action elements, and your perception may be more favorable.  Once I had the mindset that it was pretty far removed from the Capcom Disney games of yore, and had much more in common with the later VI-developed titles, I had a better frame of reference as to what the game wanted to accomplish.  As an adventure game, you also have a basic 4-character password system, so you can play a few levels and then go back to it later.  This is also handy, because you're only granted 1 life, and there are no continues.  If you die partway through the game, your only recourse is to enter the password for the last level you were playing and just try again.

The ONLY time the "shoulder smash" move is remotely useful is against these big
rock monster guys. It levels them to rubble in one hit. Otherwise, good luck
carving them down with a sword; that ain't happening.

I mentioned that I had some fun with this game, but that's not without caveats.  I'm not a big fan of the original Prince of Persia formula, but I understand the appeal.  I have had fun with similar games like Flashback or Out Of This World, so it works for what it is.  However, the pacing is horribly slow, the limited music selection is disappointing, the combat is rote and uninteresting, and the boss fights are all laughably easy, and not in a good way.  The only time I was challenged with the game at all, once I figured out what I was doing, was in the labyrinth level, because the map screen you're provided doesn't really help that much, and in Stage 8, which I sadly didn't complete, because there's a spot I couldn't figure out how to get past due to a "false floor" situation where you fall through a platform.  I know it can be done, but I couldn't be bothered to spend any more time trying to work out how to get past that spot, as many times as I tried crawling, running, and jumping to pass it, especially with as long as that stage is leading up to that point.  Suffice to say, though I had some measure of fun with the game, it just wasn't fun enough to warrant putting the time into it to finish.

This boss is extremely easy. You move in close enough to strike, swing your sword,
then back away a step to avoid getting kicked. Rinse and repeat until enemy is dead.

The supporting character of Philoctetes, aka "Phil", is only present in still screens where he tries to give you advice, but those screens pop in at inconvenient times, and completely break up the flow of the action.  By way of example, when you jump from a vine in the first stage and are about to hit the ground, Phil reminds you to watch for enemies.  The instant you hit a button to make that screen go away, you hit the ground, and are immediately accosted by a scorpion, which you have to duck to attack.  Unless you know it's there, you will likely take damage.  There are also spots where Phil interrupts as you're about to do something, and you will likely take damage as well, such as when he warns you about incoming fireballs.  There are spots where you will take damage no matter what, because of some poor design choices, and despite Herc's awful jumping skills ("Greek Demi-gods Can't Jump"?), the first stage has several spots where, if you don't jump to the side to grab the vine and climb up, you'll instantly fall if you try to walk up to the vine and grab it.  The scenery distinction isn't entirely obvious, and unless you're paying close attention, you may miss it and fall to your death like I did 2 or 3 times before realizing what you have to do.  These annoyances don't ruin the game experience, but they certainly keep it from being a top-tier Game Boy title, this late in the handheld's life cycle.

You know what, Phil? Why don't you shut your stupid mouth! Come down here
and let's see if you can fare any better with these janky controls!

At the end of the day, Disney's Hercules is an okay distraction, but not something I would want to put much more time into.  It doesn't do anything particularly well enough, save for the Super Game Boy music, to write home about, and the awkward animation, stilted level design, and somewhat clumsy combat bring down an otherwise reasonably solid experience.  As I said, if you go in expecting an action game, you will come away disappointed.  Instead, think of it as a slow-paced adventure with platforming elements, and it fares a bit better.  Still, this isn't a game I can heartily recommend, and I certainly wouldn't pay much for it.  I paid $4 for my copy, and I'd say that's plenty.  Had I been able to do so during the time of the game's release, it would have been a weekend rental, and that $4 would have been spent to determine that it's just not a good enough game to warrant paying retail price for.  Even in today's aftermarket, I can't recommend paying much more than what I spent, even for hardcore collectors.  If you're looking for a fun game, you can do much worse, but you can also do much better.  Recommended only for devotees of the animated movie.

P.S.  As a side, note, there's a really excellent write-up about Disney's Hercules for Game Boy that I would also encourage you to read, courtesy of a site called "StarBlog".  Starboy91 writes incredibly detailed and thorough reviews of games, far more in-depth than I care to get most of the time.  I consider myself to be quite verbose, but his reviews border on novellas.  Still, worth reading if you really want that exhaustive level of content.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Pit Fighter (1992)

Image shamelessly stolen from GamesDBase.
3 buff dudes and a lady in dominatrix gear. Nothing can
go wrong with this scenario, right? Nothing at all...

Since the inception of the modern fighting game with Street Fighter II: The World Warrior in 1991, scores of video game developers have attempted to jump on the head-to-head fighting game bandwagon at least once.  SNK had Fatal Fury, Midway had Mortal Kombat, Data East had Fighter's History, and even Capcom rivals Konami had the little known Martial Champion.  Prior to the fighting game craze, however, companies were still trying to figure out a way to make a fighting game that wasn't just walking left to right, mindlessly punching enemies in the face, but focused more on actual human interaction.  Atari threw their hat in the ring (sorry, pun intended) with 1990's Pit-Fighter, originally released in the arcade.  The game was received well enough to receive a whole cadre of home conversions, including a port for Nintendo's own Game Boy.

Unlike some games, at least the logo is the same here
as it is on the box. That's about all that's good about it.

It makes a weird kind of sense that someone would port a game like Pit-Fighter to the Game Boy, and yet it makes no sense whatsoever.  It makes financial sense, because if you liked the arcade game, you might want a home console or portable version, right?  So why not port the game to anything and everything with enough power to give some facsimile of the game?  Where that logic ends, however, is with the realization that the Game Boy just didn't have the power to approximate a game like Pit-Fighter with enough technical success to make it anything more than a curiosity.  Rather, it's more of an abomination.

Buzz is one of the 3 fighters you can choose from. Not
much to look at, he's your standard beefcake wrestler.

Forget the fact that several development teams, including some of Nintendo's own, had been able to make the Game Boy do some pretty amazing things by 1992.  Logically, you don't take a 3-player, open arena based head-to-head fighting game with beat-em-up mechanics and environment interactivity onto a handheld system that is barely as powerful as its home console hardware predecessor.  I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at that meeting at the Atari Games/Tengen offices when they decided to port the game to the Nintendo Game Boy.  That must have been an interesting discussion.

I could totally see this happening at the Atari Games/Tengen offices, given how much focus
there was on pure profit during those times, especially with arcade ports to consoles.

Nevertheless, like any game company wanting to eek every cent of possible profit from their intellectual properties, Atari Games decided to port Pit-Fighter to every possible console they could to maximize the game's earning potential.  They probably knew that console ports of Street Fighter II were going to dwarf any earning potential they had soon, so it had to release fast and on as many platforms as they could muster in order to capitalize on the arcade original's marginal popularity.  Indeed, the SNES port of Street Fighter II, followed later by the Sega Genesis release of Street Fighter II: Championship Edition took the console world by storm, and most other fighting game franchises were left in the dust.  No one can fault Atari for wanting to bleed the proverbial turnip dry, given the fervor fans had for one on one fighting games by 1992, and wanting to get in on a piece of that action, monetarily speaking.  Sadly, the Game Boy conversion (that term used very loosely) of Pit-Fighter, leaves a LOT to be desired.

Don't talk to me like that, you meanie!

Here's the basic setup, for the uninitiated.  Pit-Fighter is a head-to-head fighting game that, at least in the arcade original, would "pit" (pun intended) up to 3 fighters against one another in mortal combat (I can't help myself).  Each area is an arena in a sort of 2.5D view, and you can move up, down, left and right, and all over the place.  You have the ability to punch, kick, and jump (with both buttons simultaneously), and depending on your proximity to another fighter, and the combination of your movements and button presses, you can do other things like throws, or slamming/kicking your opponent when they're on the ground to deal extra damage.  After you win a round, you're granted temporary use of a special attack, which you can execute by sort of "swiping" over the two attack buttons in rapid succession, executing the attack.  It's a tad clumsy, but it works well enough, and that usually deals more damage than anything else, so it's important to use that as frequently as possible.  Each fighter's health is represented by a counter that slowly whittles away as you or your opponent take damage.  Once the counter reaches zero, it's game over.  No continues, no second chances, just death.

Looks like Buzz won himself a match! I hope that $1850 is enough
to pay his medical bills after the next subsequent beat down!

In the original arcade game, you had nice extras like the 3 player melee, weapons you could pick up off the ground, Double Dragon-style, and crowd interaction.  If you got to close to the crowd, the audience could attack you or push you back into the fight, and you take damage.  This was a strategy you could use to your advantage, by backing your opponent into a literal corner, then a combination of allowing the onlookers to pummel them, and unleashing your own fatal fury upon them (sorry, I can't stop).  In the Game Boy version, the 3-player mode is removed, for obvious reasons, and sadly, there are no weapons available to assist you.  You have to rely solely on your own art of fighting (it's getting bad) to see you through each match.  Unfortunately, there's no health regeneration between levels, and no health pickups or bonuses, so the best and only strategy you can hope for is to get through each level with little or no health lost, so you can make it to the final fight (that was low hanging fruit) with as much energy as you can.

$11K for a single low-level fight? I picked the wrong profession...

Graphically, the game does as good a job as you could expect the monochrome handheld to do.  The arcade game was a touch herky jerky, and Nintendo's venerable handheld doesn't handle the scrolling very well so it jerks and stutters a fair amount.  The crowds have exactly 2 frames of animation which go back and forth at varying intervals, so it gives the illusion that there's more going on than there really is, but as you'll be focusing on your opponent, you may not even notice.  The character animations are copied from the original, though obviously scaled down for this format, and are equally as awkward as the source material.  The strange thing is, on the original DMG hardware, the game looks fine.  With different palettes, however, the graphics have a weird effect where your character sprite, or other elements, may disappear into the background because of the blending.  This is evident with the Super Game Boy and Game Boy Player, as well as with the Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance.

In terms of audio, it's a mixed bag.  The game has relatively impressive voice samples, taken straight from the arcade game, that are present here.  However, for anyone who played the original, they would notice the rather limited number of samples available here.  Speech samples are a small handful of grunts, a laugh, and a couple yells.  It's reduced to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/3 of the original voice samples, and despite being somewhat impressive coming out of the Game Boy hardware, are still far less than what the original game allowed for.  There are also punch and kick noises, which sound like you might expect them to, sort of a "whiff" sound.  Unfortunately, only one music track from the arcade game is converted, and because the original wasn't exactly a bastion of great melody, since that's all that's left available from the 4 sound channels on the hardware, it grates quickly because it's just not that well composed.

"You're the best around,
nothing's gonna ever keep ya down!"

The other curious thing about the audio is what happens when you play Pit-Fighter on a Game Boy Advance, GBA SP, or Game Boy Player add-on.  You get this curious effect where, interspersed with the sound and music, you hear this high-pitched whistle or ringing effect.  It rings somewhat intermittently as the game is played, but the occurrence of it is near-constant.  As if the game's sound didn't already border on annoying, this happens, and puts the whole experience over the top.  It's an interesting phenomenon, and while I don't yet know the reason for this anomaly, I recorded a video documenting it, along with the odd video problem I mentioned earlier, regarding character sprites blending into the background:

Episode 001 in my new Game Boy Oddities series.

At the end of the day, Pit-Fighter remains only marginally playable.  The original game wasn't known for tight control, and the Game Boy port fares no better.  The game's "moves" aren't easy to pull off, and some of the maneuvers, like the rolling that Buzz can do when he gets up from being knocked down, I was never able to accomplish.  The graphics are problematic because of the choice to merely copy the arcade, rather than retool for the hardware, and the impressive speech samples aren't enough to save the game's audio from being anything more than mediocre at best.  The game offers no continues, unlike the arcade original, and because there are no power-ups (like the "power pill" which offered temporary invincibility in the original), health restores, or breathing room, the randomness of the enemy characters just adds to the punishing difficulty.  With some practice, I was able to kind of make it to the 3rd fight on most every attempt, but the game also lacks the "Grudge Match" option, where you fight a clone of yourself to try and score 3 knockdowns.  With all that's missing from this port, all that the development team failed to tighten, and the obvious fact that this just wasn't a stellar game to begin with, and you're left with a Game Boy title that made neither Tengen, nor TH-Q, into world heroes (please, someone stop me!).  I paid exactly $4 for this, and that's probably the most I would encourage anyone to pay.  Not that I'm encouraging anyone to pay for this game.  No, I would tell you to stay away, because it's just not a good game, it's not a fun game, and it's not worth your time.  Pass this one up unless you're a Pit-Fighter die-hard (should such a creature exist), or an avid collector like me, who masochistically has to have every title, no matter how wretched.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Cosmo Tank (1990)

Image shamelessly stolen from GameFAQs.
Similar to Solar Striker, the logo image for Cosmo Tank is so metal.

In the year of our Lord, 2016, Atlus is known for 2 things.  First, for being currently the foremost developer keeping the Japanese RPG, or JRPG, alive in the west.  Second, for having been purchased by Sega, and having been, thus far, largely left alone to do what they do so well.  Prior to becoming a go-to RPG powerhouse, however, Atlus dabbled in a number of different genres. They've published puzzle games, platformers, beat-em-ups, and a number of other games.  Keep in mind, some of these games were developed in-house by Atlus, and some were not.  One such example of an early game that may have had some bearing (or not) on the RPG direction Atlus would eventually settle into is Cosmo Tank, developed by Asuka Technologies.  Curiously, Cosmo Tank is the only game attributed to the studio, and it's a shame, because while Cosmo Tank is flawed, it hints at what could have been, and shows that, in the right hands, the Game Boy can do impressive things.

Unlike Solar Striker, this game has consistency between the box art
and the logo on the title screen. Way to go, Asuka Technologies!

Occasionally, developers fall into the trap of trying to bite off more than they can chew.  Sometimes they take on a license that is too big and venerable for them to do anything meaningful with it, or perhaps they try to take on a genre with which they have no experience, only to fail because they didn't study the source material.  In this instance, it's because Asuka Technologies tried to tackle too many genres at once.  Truly good developers can design games to cross genre boundaries and be successful.  Asuka Technologies shows that they have the chops, but they don't quite get the job done.

Wait, what's this - no "Vision Quest" mode?

The basic premise of Comso Tank is thus: you are the lone operator of a superior battle machine, the "cosmo tank", as it were, and your mission is to go after Gregor, a typical mad scientist type who has seen his genius outclass everyone else, and has decided that it's better for him to rule the universe, rather than allow the plebes to have freedom.  Something like that, anyway.  It's not made entirely clear at the start of the game why you're doing what you're doing.  You're literally thrown onto a planet with your tank and told to "Destroy the life cores of each planet."  Kind of a raw deal, given that you aren't given much information, or much to work with.

Private - "What's a life core, sir, and why do I want to destroy it?"
General - "Are you questioning my orders?"
Private - Sir, no sir!"

The 3 modes of gameplay are "QUEST-MODE", the main story mode of the game, "TRAINING-MODE" where you can practice one of the gameplay types across multiple levels, so you can learn enemy patterns, and "VS-MODE" for 2 players.  This, of course, requires a 2nd copy of Cosmo Tank, another player with a Game Boy, and a Link Cable.  Sadly, I don't have any of these prerequisites, so this review will focus almost exclusively on the meat and potatoes of the cart, which is the QUEST-MODE.  Suffice to say, TRAINING-MODE is fun for a few minutes, but as I'll explain through this review, it gets old quickly.  Rather, most of your time will likely be spent in the main story campaign.

These enemies seem a little crabby to me.

The first type of gameplay you'll take on is an overhead, free-range shooting section.  You'll control the tank and go in any of the 8 directions on the map, with a basic laser cannon and a couple smart bombs at your disposal.  Enemies will seemingly assault you from every side, with alarming frequency, so you had best be on your toes.  You start with a relatively small life/armor bar, so take more than 2 or 3 hits, and you're done for.  As you destroy enemies, some will reveal a multitude of power-ups you can collect.  Small capsules are smart bombs, which will destroy all small enemies on screen, and damage larger ones.  You can stock up to 10 of those.  "P" capsules are for powering up your tank.  However, in order to gain a power level, you have to collect 10 of them.  Doing so upgrades your laser to a double-shot laser.  Doing so a 2nd time upgrades to a sort of energy ball that waves back and forth.  Small "L" chips refill a single bar of tank armor, and the larger "L" capsule refills a much larger portion of your tank's armor.  For each enemy you destroy, you receive experience points.  Small enemies grant 1 point, larger enemies usually grant 2 or 3.  For each 100 points you earn, you level up, and your tank's armor bar becomes larger.  The tank can be leveled up to 6 levels, effectively doubling the amount of hits you can take from like enemies.

This tank is all about that base.

In the overhead sections, you drive around the map, blasting enemies, looking for what to do.  There are small bases on each map that serve different purposes.  Some bases will give you information about your objective, some refill your life, and some provide upgrades to your tank.  Each of the main planets past the first one has a different upgrade, and though you can select the levels to traverse to past the initial planet, some planets aren't really passable until you have a certain upgrade.  As you travel around the overhead maps, your goal should be to destroy enemies and level up your tank as much as possible.  In additional to the bases, you will also discover caverns and tunnels that you'll need to enter.

When paused, you can see what level you're at, how much
experience you've gained, and what your laser power is.

Inside the caverns and tunnels is the 2nd type of gameplay introduced here.  Rather than the overhead free-roaming shooter style, the game switches instead to a first-person dungeon crawler type of game.  Your only moves are to either move forward, or to turn left or right.  As you explore each cavern, you may find yourself suddenly in an enemy encounter, with the enemy shooting at you, and moving either left or right, around your tank.  The radar shows you that the enemy can move around you, and you can swivel your tank's cannon around to fight the enemy.  In this battle style, enemy projectiles only hurt you if they collide with your ship in a relatively head-on manner.  So if an enemy is off to one side or another, and they're firing straight ahead, but the shot isn't hitting your tank in roughly the middle third of the view, you won't take damage.  This becomes a critical strategic element throughout the game.  Once the enemy is destroyed, your tank cannon swivels back to its previous cardinal position, and you continue to wander through the cavern.

In these first-person enemy encounters, you can move the targeting
reticle up and down to track the enemy's movement as you fire.

In the tunnels, your goal will be to take out the "Life Core" of each base, which is a fancy way of saying you fight a boss.  In addition to these life core boss encounters, you also have to take out a Control Tower, and often smaller life core units which are stationary and just fire away at you.  Once you destroy the Life Core, you'll get access to a map of the cavern (basically after your need for it has expired), and you'll get a brief sense of where you may need to go to find the exit.  Also, destroying a Life Core means your health will be refilled, which is always a plus.  Upon finding the exit, you'll be thrust once more into the top-down perspective so you can find the next objective, which is usually either another tunnel to explore, or if you've rooted them all out, finding the base where you can get off the rock you're on and travel to another planet.

A lot of the enemies in this game seem to have a crustacean theme.
Perhaps someone on the Asuka Technologies roster was a Darius fan?

This brings about gameplay type 3: the vertical scrolling shoot-em-up.  As a fan of shmups, the prospect of a shooter inside an existing game intrigues and usually excites me.  Here, however, it's just your tank transforming into a spaceship, Guardian Legend-style, and flying from the planet you just conquered to the next one you choose on the selection screen.  The shooter levels are pretty basic and nondescript, with the same weapon you had in the overhead stages available at your disposal to take out enemies, as well as the same stock of smart bombs.  Enemy waves and patterns are pretty boring, though they do come quickly, so be on your guard.  There's not much to these levels, however, and they lack variety.

You always start on Planet Desa, but after you defeat that planet's
Life Core, you can choose which planet to travel to next.

As I mentioned earlier, the game isn't entirely linear, because you can choose which planet to go to after you complete the objectives on Planet Desa.  This is a tad misleading, however, because some items are required to progress very far.  For instance, you can't progress across spots in the overhead sections where the ground is mostly water without the "Hover Unit" which you'll acquire from Planet Monoa, and you need the "Shield Unit", obtained from Planet Gadam in order to drive over places where the ground looks "broken".  So while there's some freedom to go and grind for experience and "P" capsules to power up your ship, assuming you did so on Planet Desa already, chances are, you'll already be at full power and such an act will be redundant.  I will say, you'll stand little chance of success if you try to go after Planet DN-1 without the other upgrades, however, especially the "Pulse Unit" from Planet Aquel, which allows you to charge up your main shot to a powerful energy ball.  This becomes essential for boss encounters later on.

Gotta love the "warp tunnel" effect in the shooter stages.

There are a couple additional mechanics thrown in for good measure.  One is on Planet Aquel, with a secondary boss fight.  Taking the form of the overhead tank sections, you fight a large lobster-like creature that throws duel boomerangs at you.  Assuming your main laser is fully powered up, you can make quick work of him, though his pattern does take a bit to discover.  It's similar to the other overhead tank sections, except that you're confined to a single screen, there's no background, and it's literally just a dark screen with you and the boss.  It's the most "normal" action game boss encounter in the game.  In addition, once you've completed all 5 planets, a 6th planet, Gidoro, opens up, and at the end of the shoot-em-up sequence, you get to fight the Planet Gidoro itself, which is sort of a giant scarab beetle thing that shoots at you as you attempt to shoot at it while dodging its onslaught.

Here's that lobster boss I mentioned before from Planet Aquel.
Send him back to the dinner table where he belongs!

Graphically, the game is quite good, especially for such an early title.  Having been released not much more than a year after the Game Boy's release, the sprite design is quite good, with a cool tank design, a nice heads-up display for the first person sections, nicely done terrain graphics that make excellent use of the Game Boy's limited 4-shades of green, and overall, the enemy designs are detailed and nice to look at.  The tank has a satisfying "shudder" effect signifying its size and tank-like movement, as well as when it takes damage, and there's a cool explosion effect when you destroy the falling meteors on Gadam or in the shooter portions.  The larger Life Core bosses are all interesting, and the graphics convey, as much as is possible on the platform, that sense of depth you need in the first person areas.

A couple planets have these annoying barriers you can only clear
by using smart bombs. Conserve them well, or you'll have to grind.

In the audio department, the game is also strong.  The music is generally fitting in the game, with a nice upbeat tune playing during the overhead sections, complete with a nice little bridge riff that makes you think the song is going to completely rock out for a bit, then settling back into the groove.  Music in the caverns is more atmospheric, with different themes, depending on whether you're tackling a primary cave with the full Life Core, or just a smaller cavern with a Control Tower, and the shooter sections have their own theme as well.  There are short little tunes that play when you go into a base, and when certain objectives are met.  Sound effects are generally good as well, with better overall sound design than the usual fare you might expect from an early Game Boy title.

The primary strategy for first-person boss encounters is to stay off to
the side until an opportunity presents itself to fire, then move in so
you can line up your targeting reticle to hit the boss. Just be careful
not to stare head-on for too long, lest you get blasted.

By this point in the review, some of you reading may be wondering, with all that I've described, how can this not be the greatest Game Boy game of 1990?  I can answer that with a single word: execution.  The scope of this game's design is impressive.  With everything Asuka Technologies attempted to do, it's easy to take this game's size and scope and see it as a win.  However, none of the elements in the game are fully realized, and end up being a bit half-baked.  The overhead sections play fine, but the limited enemy patterns and endless waves coming at you is a cheap mechanic that substitutes for better designed enemy encounters.  Some of the enemy wave patterns are cheap, and will inevitably result in taking damage.  Yes, you can get "L" chips and "L" capsules to refill, and there are bases where you can refill life, but practically forcing you to take damage due to a combination of endless enemies and sluggish, awkward tank movement is hardly good design.  The first person sections are better, with the kind of atmospheric, sparse design you want, fewer enemy encounters and all, but the mazes are a bit pedestrian, and the non-boss Life Cores and Control Towers are completely devoid of any challenge due to the "middle 1/3" hitbox I mentioned earlier.  Shoot and dodge, shoot and dodge, ad infinitum, until the core is destroyed.  It seems more like an empty sub-boss fight than if it was just a stationary object for you to destroy.  The shooter portions are also pretty sparse and underwhelming.  They don't have interesting enemy patterns, and aside from the cool meteor explosion effects I mentioned, are hardly noteworthy, especially since there's only 1 of them, just prior to Planet Gidoro, that culminates in a boss battle.

The Life Cores on Planet Gidoro are all the previous Life Cores you
have faced, effectively culminating in a sort of boss rush before
the final encounter with the mad scientist and his ultimate weapon.

In addition to the stunning mediocrity of each gameplay type's implementation, there are also additional flaws that weigh the experience down.  If you die in either the overhead or first person sections, you lose all your weapon and health upgrades.  Despite the fact that you have to grind to achieve these upgrades, one death and it's back to square one, much like a shoot-em-up game from the same era.  Because of the possibility of taking damage during a Life Core encounter, your best bet is to go grinding in the overhead area to get back to full health and laser upgrades, because otherwise, even the smaller life core and control tower fights will take a long time, because you'll be pelting those units with the weakest cannon in the game.  Another oddity - your laser maxes out at Level 3, but you can still collect up to 9 "P" capsules above that, though it has no additional effect to your weapon's power.  It's unfortunately that the development team didn't see fit to make weapon and/or health upgrades stay with you after a couple planets, so you're not back to a beginner power level when you die.

Even if you're fully powered up, the final boss takes a LOT of damage.

There are enough objectives to complete in this game that the lack of a save or password system hurts it quite a bit.  If you sat down to play through this game, you could probably do the whole thing in a little under an hour, assuming you know all the tricks, but as a portable game, especially one that has you grinding for power-ups, with as much as there is to do to complete each planet, it would have been nice to have a password system, at a bare minimum, so you could play through a planet, complete its objectives, and then have that password to go back to.  If this were a NES game, it would be less an issue, but as a portable experience, that should have been part of the design concept.  If that wasn't enough, there's no way to pause the game during boss encounters, either in first-person, or during the "lobster" sequence, or during the first-person enemy encounters.  Once you're engaged in those battles, it's all or nothing.  This is a relatively fatal flaw in my estimation, because you're talking about a game designed for a portable system that may need to be paused at any time, due to the times when one might be playing a game like this.  It's a rather egregious omission that just puts the sour cherry on top of the bitter sundae.

Planet Gidoro goes up in smoke.

Despite the game's flaws, it has its fans.  I read through a couple reviews that highly praised the game for its use of multiple styles, excellent graphics, and sound design.  I can't fault those sentiments, because I echo them.  But when you cross genres like this, and none of the elements you present are fleshed out enough to feel fully realized, it lowers the excitement and hampers the overall experience.  Add the additional design flaws/omissions, and the entire package comes out half-baked.  Had Asuka developed this for the NES, and added the other elements and refined it somewhat, I think it could have been a game that is as fondly remembered as something like Blaster Master.  There's so much potential here, but it's unfortunately squandered by the game's inherent shortcomings.  Having said all that, there's fun to be had here, and if you can pick it up for $5 or less like I did, you might still get a kick out of it.  Don't get suckered into paying much for it, however, because the final product probably isn't worth laying out much cash in order to experience.