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.