Friday, 31 January 2014

Blue's Journey - SNK Neo Geo AES - 1990

It’s fitting that my first game of the decade should be for the first console released in the 90's.  The Neo Geo AES was a console version of the Neo Geo MVS arcade machine.  The cartridges contained the same PCB that slotted into the arcade hardware so the games were identical.  This meant you had arcade quality games you could play in the comfort of your own home.  All was not a bed of roses, however, and the Neo Geo had a couple of issues.  The biggest stumbling block was the price – in the US a basic console with one controller and no games cost about $400 while each game cost upwards of $200.  Secondly, you only got arcade titles which are limited by their very nature.  There were no strategy, RPG, adventure or similar releases available for the AES.  None of this prevented me from wanting one.

The attract screen of Blue’s Journey tells the story of the planet of Raguy.  It has been invaded by the evil Daruma Tribe who are consuming the planet’s resources and polluting the atmosphere.  You take control of Blue who has been tasked by Princess Fa with saving the once peaceful planet.  I have to say it's a bit weird having all the friendly characters dressed up as insects (or are they hybrids?) but maybe that's just me.  

The game plays as a colourful cartoon platform game that Japanese gamers seem to love.  There are, I believe, five levels to work your way through.  Each level has a time limit and ends with a boss fight.
Blue has the ability to jump and to shrink in size to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.  He also has the ability to stun enemies by jumping on their heads or wielding his almighty….leaf!  Stunned enemies can be picked up and used as projectiles.  A second player can take control of Princess Fa who has the same abilities as Blue.

During his journey across Raguy there are many flowers to be collected.  These are used as currency to buy special items in the shops and houses that are can be found on his travels.  Certain plants can’t be picked up and must be hit.  These reveal items such as weapon upgrades or special abilities.

Blue's Journey has charming visuals and quality audio to encourage you to buy more credits.  It also doesn't want you playing too long so gets very difficult very quickly.  It's an addictive game but not the most original.  I have played many platform games for this blog and this borrows features from a few of them.  There are recognisable elements from Wonderboy in Monster Land and Super Mario Brosfor example. Would I have paid $200+ for Blue's Journey?  Probably not, but it's still good enough to get on my blog.

Example gameplay....

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Goodbye 1989, Hello 1990

Goodbye Amstrad CPC – The last of the three main 8-bit computers onto the UK market was the first to leave.  In the UK at least, sales of the system always lagged behind the Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64.

Hello SNK Neo-Geo Max 330 Pro-Gear Spec Advanced Entertainment System – Or Neo Geo AES to you and me. Launched in January it was basically Neo Geo MVS arcade hardware in console form.  As it was able to play the latest arcade releases (not ports) it was only for gamers with deep pockets.  In the US the basic console was $400 while games started at $200.  That’s a lot of quarters.

Hello Sega Game Gear – This handheld console was released in October as a competitor to the Nintendo Game Boy.  Although technically superior it suffered from a short battery life and couldn’t compete in terms of sales.  Due to similar hardware, Master System cartridges could be played by way of a converter.

Hello Nintendo Super Famicom – Nintendo’s 16-bit console was launched in Japan in November 1990, just over two years after its Mega Drive rival.  Nintendo needn’t have worried about being left behind as it eventually sold more units than the Sega 16-bit.

Hello Sega Mega Drive – As usual, European gamers got the shaft.  The Mega Drive eventually arrived in November, 25 months since its initial launch in Japan and 15 months after North American gamers got their hands on it.

I can’t remember what I was doing in 1990 but it couldn't have been much gaming as I hardly recognise any titles on my shortlist. Then I saw it – Ultima VI: The False Prophet.  So that’s what I was doing in 1990.  I religiously mapped all the towns and dungeons and got a long way into the game until my game disk corrupted.  I downloaded the game from a while ago and if I still find it playable I will give it another go.

The only other games I’m looking forward to are Cadaver by the Bitmap Brothers and Powermonger by Bullfrog Productions.  I had both these games for the Atari ST but never got around to playing them.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Game Over: The Eighties

During the course of my blog I have witnessed the rise and fall of the 8-bit home computer.  There were still games being released for the Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum and Amstrad CPC into the early nineties, but their glory days were well and truly over. Their position in the market had gradually been usurped by the 16-bit Commodore Amiga and Atari ST from the middle of the decade.  The PC was also making its way from the office into the home and was becoming a viable games machine as the graphics and sound hardware improved.

After adding a couple of video games for Atari consoles in the early eighties, the NES took up the mantle and dominated the console scene.  This Japanese machine would continue to remain popular for a few years to come.  At the very end of the decade Sega released the Mega Drive/Genesis, nicely taking us into the 16-bit era of the early nineties.

Over the decade I have discovered some gems I had never heard of (eg Below the Root), played games for little known systems (eg Sharp X68000) and seen the birth of franchises that are still going strong today (Mario, Metal Gear, Zelda etc).  I also experienced my first JRPGs and finally completed my nemesis of many years – Ultima IV.

To find my personal crème de la crème for each year, a lot of 'classics' have bitten the dust.  I messed up a little at the beginning by deleting games from my shortlist as I played them but, to put it into perspective, the number of games that got through are listed below against the number I rejected (in brackets).

            1981                3          (??)
            1982                1          (??)
            1983                9          (37)
            1984                16        (58)
            1985                14        (83)
            1986                7          (107)
            1987                13        (117)
            1988                10        (149)
            1989                12        (181)

I have also listed the number of games that got through for each system.  It comes as no surprise to see the Speccy on top.  A machine is only as good as its games and these figures justify my purchase back in the day.  What is a surprise is that the Atari ST features more games than the Commodore Amiga.  This was mainly due to the early ST exclusives and lazy conversions that didn't take advantage of the Amigas better hardware.  This position will certainly reverse as we move into the nineties.  I had expected the PC Engine to have some good arcade conversions, but it was the Sharp X68000 that really impressed me.  Games such Space Harrier (not on the blog) and Gradius were as near as dammit arcade perfect.  If Sharp could have packaged the hardware into console form and distributed it worldwide, who knows what the current gaming scene would have looked like?

 1.   Sinclair Spectrum (24)
 2.   Commodore 64 (18)
 3.   Atari ST (12)
 4.   Nintendo NES (10)
 5.   Commodore Amiga (9)
 6.   Amstrad CPC (6)
 7.   Commodore VIC-20 (5)
 8.   Sharp X68000 (4)
 9.   BBC Micro (3)
 =    NEC PC Engine (3)
11.   NEC TurboGrafx-16 (2)
 =    Atari 2600 (2)
 =    Atari 5200 (2)
 =    PC (MS-DOS) (2)
 =    Sega Master System (2)
16.  MSX (1)
 =    Sega Mega Drive (1)


Saturday, 18 January 2014

Xenon 2 Megablast - Atari ST & Commodore Amiga - 1989

After Xenon, the Bitmap Brothers released the decent (though completely overshadowed by its sequel) futuristic sports game, Speedball.  They then went about designing a follow up for their debut game.  With Xenon 2 Megablast the Bitmaps decided to forego their usual metallic looking graphics and instead went for an organic theme for all but the final level.
The graphics in Xenon 2 Megablast are some of the best to appear on the Atari ST

The best versions were for the 16-bit Commodore Amiga and Atari ST.  As is usually the case, the graphics and gameplay are identical on both computers.  The Atari ST has much, much weaker music than the Commodore machine but has meatier sound effects in my opinion.  Although the music is better on the Amiga, the drums use the same sound channel as the spot effects so keep cutting out.  You also have to wait for data to load on entering and leaving the upgrade shop – this is especially irritating at the mid-level shop.  The ST has no in-level loading so the game flows much better.  Taking all this into account, the two are about equal so I have included them both on the blog.
The wafer thin plot says the defeated antagonists from the first game, the Xenites, are trying to wipe out the players history.  To this end they have planted bombs in several time zones.  It is up to you to conquer these zones - for some reason each bomb is diffused by destroying an end of level boss.  Needless to say the plot is not mentioned again in game.

Xenon 2 is set over several vertically scrolling levels, each with a particular theme (underwater, insects, dinosaurs, technological).  As well as the gorgeous graphics the game features three layers of smooth parallax scrolling.  Unusually your space craft has reverse thrust to allow you to back up a limited distance.  This comes in especially useful where sections of scenery have dead ends and when tackling particular bosses.
Reverse thrust can also be useful for slowing the game and regulating the appearance of enemies or, as in this case, reaping money from the endless supply of flying squirrels.

The scenery scrolls by slowly but the enemies come in thick and fast.  When waves of smaller enemies, or certain larger enemies, are shot they drop a bubble.  The smaller bubbles are worth 50 credits and the larger ones are worth 100 credits.  The credits can be spent at the mid and end of level upgrade shop.  Upgrades can be bought as well as sold and must be picked up wisely as some weapons can’t be used together (eg side and rear lasers) and certain weapons are more effective on particular levels.  Some of the weapons can be upgraded several times to increase their firepower.  A couple of the items are effectively useless such as the Bitmap Shades (dims the screen) and Super Nashwan Power (gives you all the weapons but they are so short-lived they are gone before any enemies appear).  As well as weapons you can also purchase health and extra lives.

Decisions, decisions, decisions....

Additional upgrades occasionally appear during the level in the form of pods.  Shooting the pod reveals the upgrade to be collected.  At the start of one level several side lasers can be picked so it is worth remembering to sell any side or rear lasers you already possess for extra cash. 

If your ship is hit by an enemy or their bullets you lose energy.  This can be replenished at the upgrade shop or by collecting a health pickup when one appears.  If the energy bar disappears completely you lose a life and restart at one of the many checkpoints with upgrades still intact.

Bosses appear at the end of each level and most have a mid level boss.  These bosses are suitably large and, again, are very impressive in terms of graphics for the Amiga and ST.  Each boss has obvious weak points and drops a lot of credit bubbles when destroyed.  These have to be collected quickly before they drop off the screen.

The first boss

Xenon 2 Megablast has been criticised for being too hard.  The Bitmap Brothers purposely did not want to make an easy game and in fact went out of their way to make it more difficult.  A common feature on many joysticks in the 80s was an autofire switch which took the pain out of a lot of shooters.  The Bitmap Brothers used some kind of programming trickery which disabled these and even went as far as creating a less effective autofire as a power up.  Little did they count on my cheap but fragile Cheetah Mach 1+ joystick.  I had mainly used it as a second stick for two player games and was the only one I could find where autofire worked in Xenon 2.  It had weak microswitches so I had to buy a second stick and used the first one as spares when they failed.  If it wasn’t for the Mach 1+ I would now have a stump where my left thumb should be.

As I said, the game is very difficult and to get anywhere near completing Xenon 2 you will need either a bionic trigger finger or a (working) autofire joystick.  Other criticisms?  The game is exactly the same each time you play it – power ups and enemies appear in the exact same places so it can turn into a memory game.  Having said that, Xenon 2 Megablast has to be one of my all time favourite shooters - better than a lot of the excellent titles I have already featured on the blog.  It’s loud, good looking, has great gameplay, numerous power-ups and is polished to the nth degree – everything I look for in a shoot 'em up.

The final level, the only one not to have organic looking graphics.

Example gameplay - music off, autofire on

Sunday, 5 January 2014

R-Type - PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 - 1989

Dobkeratops - The archetypal R-Type boss.

Along with Gradius, R-Type is one of my favourite shoot ‘em up franchises.  I have enjoyed every game I have played in the series, from the 1987 arcade classic to the excellent R-Type Final on the Playstation 2. 

In 1988 I had already dismissed the Sega Master System and 8-bit computer conversions of the original game.  Now in 1989 it’s the turn of the big guns – the Sharp X68000, the Commodore Amiga and the NEC PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16.  Each has major flaws compared to the arcade original so do any deserve a place on my blog?

I had great expectations for the Sharp X68000 conversion and knew it could handle a pretty accurate rendition of the arcade game.  Arcade quality graphics? Check.  Arcade quality sound? Check.  Fast moving, flicker free sprites? Check.  Accurate gameplay?  Erm…  Now, I like challenging games and R-Type is already a tough game so why make it even harder?  In this version you spend more time dodging bullets than you do shooting enemies which is not much fun.  There are also two difficulty levels – normal and hard.  The only difference I can see with normal mode is that the hit box of your ship is made smaller so bullets can pass through parts of it without registering.  Why mess up the collision detection when a reduction in the number of bullets would suffice?  Disappointing to say the least.

R-Type on the X68000 looked and sounded the part.  It was let down by the hike in difficulty level.

Contrary to the X68K conversion I didn’t have high hopes for the Commodore Amiga.  I used to own the subpar Atari ST conversion of R-Type and was expecting another lazy port.  To my surprise it turned out to be much smoother and faster than on the ST.  Having a limited palette, the graphics can’t hope to compete with the Sharp and NEC machines, and some backgrounds are missing altogether.  Additionally, with only one fire button you have to take your hand off the joystick and use the spacebar to control the ‘Force’ pod - not ideal in this shooter.  Having said that, the Amiga version of R-Type is a pretty good game in its own right.

A good shooter for the Amiga but out-classed in this company.

Finally we have the legendary conversion of R-Type for the PC Engine/Turbografx-16.  The Engine wasn’t released in the UK but screenshots of the game appeared in several magazines of the time and practically kick-started a grey import market on their own. R-Type on the PC Engine was released in Japan as R-Type I and R-Type II with the eight levels split equally across two Hu-Cards. Lucky Turbografx-16 owners got the game in its entirety.  The issue with this version is that instead of reducing the size of the graphics, the developers decided to have the levels scroll slightly in the vertical plane.  This is easy to become accustomed to but does mean you can’t see, for example, gun emplacements at the top of the screen if you are in the lower half.  Nevertheless, the game gets through since this blog is about my favourite video games, not how accurately they were converted.

The NEC console makes a good stab at the graphics.  Only a few shades are missing.

In the game you control an R-9a “Arrowhead” starfighter and must take on the mysterious Bydo – an amalgam of biological and mechanical components.  The R-9a is initially armed with a quick fire laser.  This weapon can also fire a powerful laser pulse by holding down the fire button for a few seconds to charge it.  The Arrowhead can also be upgraded by collecting power-ups.  Upgrades include ‘bits’ (help protect the top and bottom of your ship and fires weak lasers), speed ups, homing missiles and three different lasers (by picking up coloured crystals).  The most famous power-up has to be the ‘Force’ pod.  The ‘Force’ is an indestructible pod that follows the up/down movement of your ship and fires small laser bolts.  It can also be attached to the front or rear of the R-9a where it provides protection and allows the upgraded laser types to work. As it is indestructible it can soak up bullets and harms any enemy it comes into contact with.  Astute use of the 'Force' is needed to successfully navigate the eight levels of the game.

Each of the stages I completed ended in a boss.  The only exception was the third where the boss is a giant ship that takes up almost the entire stage.  Each has one or more weak points that need to be hit several times to take them down.
This boss splits into 3 parts.  The first one has just exploded

If your ship gets hit or you touch the scenery you will lose a life.  You restart a game at the last checkpoint passed but any upgrades you were carrying will be lost.  Depending where this happens restarts can often be frustrating.  And short-lived.

So, although it’s not perfect, R-Type on the PC Engine/Turbografx-16 is the best version I have found so far.  The graphics are pretty close to the arcade original losing out due to fewer colours and lower complexity in places.  There is the occasional slow down, flickering sprites, and that annoying vertical scrolling but it still deserves a place on my blog.  I guess I’ll have to wait for R-Types on the Playstation for the definitive conversion.

Level 3 is basically one huge boss.
Example gameplay....