Sunday, October 07, 2007

Virtual Console Releases - September 24

Okay, folks, getting caught back up here. Virtual Console reviews for September 24 - read 'em and weep. I hope you enjoy all these wonderful screenshots, because I've burned away my Saturday playing these games and taking pictures. And, since two of this week's games have different versions available, I had to be sure to play around with those as well. Ah, the life of a games critic is never done! After a few hours of this, you can understand why most reviewers stick to the simple Mad Libs formula. It's just a lot quicker.

Whatever. What would the late, great Sean Pettibone say if he saw me selling out like that, taking the cheap route? So I prod on forward, striving to be that one oasis in the desert, all just for you. Besides, when I put all these reviews together in a book, you'll appreciate all the hard work.

Yadda yadda. I've stumbled on through the intro long enough. Let's get cracking.

Kirby's Avalanche - Compile/HAL for Super Nintendo - 8/10

In Japan, there was a great development house named Compile. They made a number of classic shooters, and they also made an addicting little puzzler named Puyo Puyo. It spawned a number of sequels overseas, and finally made the jump to the States. Unfortunately, the game became victim to Nintendo and Sega's console war. Sega polluted the game with all those crummy characters from the instantly forgettable Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon show, and rechristened it Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine.

That game was among the earlier Virtual Console releases, so you could already get your Puyo Puyo fix, if that's your thing. Or, instead, you could get this version. Nintendo and HAL changed the characters into the players from the Kirby universe, retitling it Kirby's Avalanche.

Sigh. We're already getting several sequels on the VC, so why not go one step further? It's really inevitable. Sooner or later, you're going to start seeing those crossover titles that appeared on both Genesis and Super NES. If the whole Virtual Console idea is ever to be taken to its logical end - archiving videogame history - then we're going to have to brace ourselves for more of these.

Still, it's really not that bad. Chances are, if you like competitive puzzle games, Puyo Puyo is a longtime favorite. I don't know what to say if you bought Mean Bean Machine earlier. Would you need to get Kirby's Avalanche? No, of course not. Unless you just really couldn't stand those Sonic cartoon characters. Ugh, I hated that show. C'mon. Urkel was the voice of Sonic. What more do you need?

If I had to choose between the two, I'd go with Kirby's Avalanche. The characters are more anime-defined, and the Kirby thing never really caught on as a major series, despite some really good games over the years. So they seem to fit better here without seeming obviously shoehorned. And the Super Nintendo's graphics have an advantage over Genesis, a wider and warmer color palette.

Anyway, at some point I should explain the game for those who aren't well aware. This is a puzzle game where google-eyed balls (the Puyo Puyo's, I've always assumed) descend into a pit in joined pairs. In order to remove them, you must link together four of the same colors. The key in mastery, however, lies in linking together combo chains. Larger chains will send more empty balls into your opponent's pit.

Another key element of Puyo Puyo is that you can see what your friend is sending your way. You have, basically, one turn to respond with a combo of your own. You may be able to cancel the attack out, or lessen it somewhat, or, if you have a bigger combo, counterattack. This gives an added degree of tension into the mix, aside from just setting up long chain combos or struggling to keep your playfield empty.

Skilled gamers can really bring the hurt on, nailing you with so many blank Puyo's that you don't even stand a chance. Thankfully, the one-player story mode is challenging enough, as the computer shows you some pretty advanced techniques. It's all just practice for two-player games, of course, which is the whole point to the game. Puyo Puyo was the first puzzler to follow Tetris that really took a competitive angle, and it remains the gold standard for similar games.

In a perfect world, we in the West would get the unvarnished Puyo Puyo we really deserve. Puyo Puyo 2 on the Super Famicom is especially brilliant, perhaps the perfection of the whole formula. But you can't go wrong with the Kirby version.

Legend of Hero Tonma - Irem for Turbografx-16 - 5/10

I've been searching around high and low trying to determine if Legend of Hero Tonma was ever released in North America for the Turbografx. After much searching, I finally found a game box on Ebay, and that settled the matter. Apparently this was among the console's later releases, because I don't remember ever seeing or reading about this game before. Strange. But, then, the prozines all but abandoned the poor Turbo once the Super NES arrived, and it was clear who wasn't going to win the console race. Such is life.

Legend of Hero Tonma was an arcade game by Irem. It's very much a part of that late '80s action style, with a fast speed, endless onslaughts of enemies, and breezy power-ups. It's also a depressingly short and shallow game. Remember that these games were made to be played for a minute or two, at a quarter a pop. Many arcade games never translated smoothly to the home because of this. Console games are expected to be longer and deeper, offering more bang for the buck. Instant-caffeine-rush coin-ops are a different beast entirely.

So here we have Irem's home version, the only conversion of Tonma that I'm aware of. This was always an obscure little game to begin with, so it's no surprise to see it appear on a minor console. The biggest hits go to the biggest systems. Such is life, don'tcha know.

As far as things go, this is a very solid game, one that captures the arcade very nicely. It's about as smooth and detailed as you can expect on the Turbo, capturing that bright, cartooney look. Characters are fairly large and detailed, and many of the game's bosses are large and impressive. Well, they look sort of nice. Most of 'em are complete pushovers, and don't offer any real challenge to anyone with a central nervous system. But they do look nice.

There are a lot of games that start out being really great fun, and one way or another leave you feeling burned out by the end. I think Legend of Hero Tonma is one of those types. If you play for a little while, you might enjoy the fast action, all the running about and bopping on people's heads and shooting everything in sight....but like any sugar rush, it only lasts for a short while. And sugar is all this game really offers.

Now here's what I really don't like about this game. It's too damned short. Just five or six short levels, then a boss fight, then off to the next stage. It's embarrassing how short this game really is. It's not as if all arcade games were like this. Shinobi, Rygar, Ghosts 'N Goblins - these are all Tonma's peers, and they were fairly long and challenging. Tonma could probably be completed by a skilled gamer within an hour. Two hours, tops. And, to be fair, it does get steadily more challenging further along, but I think the difficulty has more to do with your hero's floaty jumps (can't tell you how many times I just float into a bullet) than skilled game design.

Hmm. Really wanted to like this one. I really had high hopes. Perhaps if you're an arcade or action junkie, or maybe if you're just not that good at videogames, you'll have a better run at it. So I'll raise the final score by one, just for you. But don't complain to me when you never play this game again after a week or two. That's your six bucks, not mine.

Streets of Rage 3 - Sega for Genesis - 5/10

So now we come to Streets of Rage, Episode 3: The One Where Sega Royally Screws Up.

In 1991, Sega developed its own fighting game in response to Capcom's Final Fight, which was headed to the Super Nintendo. It was called Streets of Rage, and it was a tremendous hit, comparable to Sonic and Toejam and John Madden. Then they followed up with Streets of Rage 2 the next year. It was bigger, faster, meaner, and better in every way. Sega could do no wrong. Then they completely screw everything up with Part 3. At least, that was the impression at the time, and it managed to stick.

I long wondered about this mysterious Streets of Rage backlash. Was it just that Part 2 was so good, so beloved, that nothing else could take its place? See: Goldeneye, Perfect Dark. Was it just that we all became burned out from the overload of beat-em-up games? Heaven only knows just how many fighting games were deluged upon the 16-bit systems in the early '90s. Everybody got in on the racket. Or was it something more basic? Was Streets of Rage 3 just not as good? Maybe it's really as simple as that?

So went the debate. Then we got wind of the original Japanese version, Bare Knuckle 3. And if you were a hardcore gamer, you likely blew your top. Bare Knuckle 3 was terrific, fantastic. It was everything you wanted as a Rage fan. And if you saw it in action, you knew the score right away: Sega of America tanked their own game.

No surprise that this all happened in 1994, when Sega began self-destructing in earnest. The bloom had fallen off the rose, and the colossal, almost mysterious foul-ups were in motion. Sega was headed for oblivion. Sigh. Light a candle for poor 'ol Sega, and poor 'ol Genesis, and poor 'ol Streets of Rage 3.

So here's the deal. Sega decided, first of all, to mess with the color scheme. Somebody got the brilliant idea that the main characters were sending the wrong signals with the colors of their clothes. Axel, with his blue jeans and white t-shirt. Blaze, with her red tube top and skirt. This sent the wrong signal....I suppose. Was somebody offended? Was there some contingency of color-blind gamers that would have felt left out? I have no bloody clue. But the suits decided to change everyone's outfits to more gender-neutral colors. Which would have been manageable if the same suits didn't insist upon such gaudy colors. Eww...Claire....Why?

Really. Gender neutral colors. Because in 1994, there were all these teenage girls and young women who just wanted to play one of those violent martial-arts fighting games. They were only turned off by the colors. Yeah, that's right.

Great move, losers. And that was only the first offense. Sega America also decided to foul up the tempo of the game. Beat-em-up games are very dependent upon tempo and rhythm. These aren't complicated videogames. All you really ever do is walk up to a small group of thugs, punch and kick them mercilessly (usually by mashing buttons), then walk ten paces and beat up the next pack. You really have to change things up in order to hold gamers' interest. And this is where Sega's fighting series truly excelled.

The key is to make sure areas aren't stretched out too far, that things don't become too repetitive. You need to offer new thrills and something besides just a change of scenery. The designers in Japan knew this, and Bare Knuckle 3 hones those ideas to near perfection. The pacing, the rhythm, the levels - all are perfectly balanced. Not so for the American version.

For our version, Sega America decided to make the game much harder. Levels are stretched out, and your walks are interrupted by more and more bad guys. One early villain, a suit with a gun, is now partnered with another stiff suit, and they shoot a lot more. Later bosses are much faster and harder to defeat, almost unfairly so. And did you know that there was an opening sequence to this game? It's pretty elaborate, actually, finishing with main man Axel punching out the screen. That's been removed entirely. Scripted cut scenes have also been cut down notably. Was there ever a reason for this? Did Sega need to save memory chips for all those Barney games? They had no problem throwing away consoles left and right. But here, of all times, they became stingy.

In Sega of America's hands, Streets of Rage 3 just drags. It's an embarrassment, because you know there's no damned reason for it. The most infamous alteration in the game is the removal of one early boss, who's so ludicrously over-gay that it's almost surreal. It's slightly comical, and you could understand the squeamishness on the Americans' part. Homophobia is a real problem in our society, unfortunately. I don't think anyone knew that Japan is a far more gay-friendly society. Would "bi-curious" be the right word here? Have you ever read Shojo Manga? They just don't have the overarching macho psychosis that we have here in America. Then again, Japan doesn't have a military, and they're not running off to drop bombs on half the countries of the world. They don't have that outlet for sexual repression. So they just learn to deal with it.

Still, the "gay" character (and I use the quotes only because he's so absurd and over-the-top) isn't the worst offense. Padding the game out needlessly is. Cranking up the difficulty is. Fouling up the color scheme is. Playing the role of Puritanical Magistrate is. We don't need no education. We don't need no thought control. We don't need your damned censorship and your sexual paranoia (put more clothes on those women, forsooth, or to the stake with ye). Jerks.

That's a real shame, because it only serves to expand the game's flaws in your mind, even when they're relatively minor. And all the game's advances and little touches, the things that make a videogame really inspired, are forgotten about, lost in the haze. You wouldn't know that this was the fastest game in the series, or the most easily varied, or the most graphically detailed. You wouldn't know there were multiple endings, or secret rooms, or hidden characters, or added special moves. All you remember thinking is that Axel has turned into a steroid freak, and that Dr. Xan is creepy-looking and bland, and you miss that big lug Max from Streets of Rage 2. And the levels are too damn long.

If you asked me to pick my favorite of the Streets of Rage series, I'd have to go with the second one. That's the fan favorite among most gamers. But if you asked me to include the Japanese titles, then it's no contest. Bare Knuckles 3 wins, hands down. That's the real deal, not this tepid, Puritanical farce.

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