Sunday, November 11, 2007

Virtual Console Review - November 5

Oops - this week got away from me rather quickly. But, since there's likely no bloody chance in hell I'll find a Nintendo Wii in the coming weeks, I won't have to waste away my spare hours looking for one. Which means more time writing for the blogs, of course.

To help the push for Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo has released Super Mario Bros 3 this week. That's going to be a big hit on VC any way you look at it. Fortunately, Sega also has an excellent offering this week, courtesy of the fine folks at Treasure. All my favorite Treasure games are now available for download. Well, except for McDonald's Treasureland Adventures. That was a really good game.

What? It was a good game. Seriously. The music is really goofy, and Ronald McDonald's friends all leech off of him. Hey, Ronald, can you spare five bucks? I still can't find work...

Oh, and there's some golf game that I never spent any time playing. Like you'll do better.

Power Golf - Hudson Soft for Turbografx-16 - 5/10

Trying to find a proper balance as a critic remains an ongoing process for me. Some weeks, I'll write a review that's somewhat generous. I'm not out here to hurt anyone's feelings, after all. Then my angry punk side kicks in, and I really wallop the next guilty parties. Then I feel a little sorry - hey, it's not like the people who made those early NES games were bad people. At least they're not advocating torture. So I try to be more understanding the next time.

Which brings us to Power Golf for the Turbografx. The next average game I see is really going to get hit. But, for now, we'll just head back to that old safeguard, the shrug-of-the-shoulders 6/10 rating.

The Turbo was a games console that, for whatever reasons, never came together with good sports titles. The best they ever did was the Power League series of baseball games; the first in the series appeared in the States as World Class Baseball and stunk up the place, but later versions improved dramatically. Even still, it was pretty standard, by-the-book video baseball, which was the best the Turbo could muster. All the other sports were either absent or atrocious.

So I suppose, in that context, that Power Golf really isn't that bad. It could have been worse. It could have been part of the TV Sports franchise - a rather sorry series of sports games that arose around the same time as Electronic Arts took over the racket. Videogame golf is just not one of the better sports. For whatever reasons, game designers could never really master its nuances or style. There were two main schools of video golf. One was the arcade route, which probably started with Golf on the Atari 2600 VCS, continuing through the likes of Nintendo's golf games. Today, that strain is seen through Camelot and Tecmo's series of cutesy golf. The second was the heavier, simulation route. Leaderboard Golf on the home computers became the archetype for this approach. These games are more detailed, more complex, but notably slower and really not much fun for the non-golfer. Links and Tiger Woods are good examples of this.

Hudson't Power Golf fits squarely into the first school of videogame golf. It's a relatively speedy and brisk game of arcade fun. There's catchy music, bright and confident graphics, and matches that just breeze. There certainly isn't much in the way of character or style, which won't make impressions on later generations of gamers. If you get your kicks from Hot Shots Golf - I always liked it when your player could make noises when your friend is trying to swing - then this will feel sterile.

At least the basics are covered. At least you have a playable game that isn't too straining on the eyes or brain. Which means that it's a better choice than the NES golf games. Not that any of those were any good.

I don't think I've ever spent more than a few minutes with Power Golf. I've popped the game on a few times, but it never succeeded in holding my attention or capturing my imagination. There's no hook. It's just, you know, a game of golf. A game of golf reduced to hitting a button at the right time, and hovering over the course from a blimp's perspective. Hmm. Perhaps that's why these games fail to impress me. I never feel like I'm in the game. I feel like I'm watching the satellite images from outer space.

Fortunately, golf games have improved greatly over the years. It's enough to render nearly all the older titles obsolete. There's an arcade golf game on the Neo-Geo called Neo Turf Masters which is absolutely smashing, but beyond that, I could do away with every golf game before the arrival of the Playstation and Saturn. But then I start feeling sorry, and the sympathy kicks in. So I'll walk away with another five points out of ten, and leave to you to choose for yourselves.

Alien Soldier - Treasure for Genesis - 9/10

Alien Soldier was one of the great "lost" Genesis titles, possibly the most famous, and certainly the most sought after by hardcore gamers. The game was released in Japan, but failed to make the jump westward for whatever reason. It is one of only two games Treaure created for the Genesis that never left its shores. For the devoted fans of the great Gunstar Heroes, this was almost scandalous.

Treasure hit the ground running with some of the most inventive and exciting games for Sega's consoles, first with Genesis and then later with Saturn. Gunstar Heroes kicked things off, and it was continued with the likes of Dynamite Headdy, Alien Soldier, Guardian Heroes, Silhouette Mirage, and Radiant Silvergun. Those were their golden years.

The last decade hasn't been kind to Treasure, as their fortunes waned and the studio was forced to churn out commercial tie-ins and reruns of their classic hits. The magic in a bottle had finally run dry.

If you consider yourself a hardcore gamer, Alien Soldier is the perfect game for you. It has been thought of, casually, as a cousin to Gunstar Heroes, with a typically strange lead character who runs and shoots enemies through science-fiction environments. But that's really not where the game is coming from. It's really much closer to the tournament fighters, games like Street Fighter 2 and Virtua Fighter.

This game is composed almost entirely of boss fights. Long, brutal, vicious boss fights. These are battles to the end, one endurance test after another. If you've complained about the simple pattern memorizing that entails most boss battles, well, you've got your wish. Congratulations. You may learn to regret your wish, after you've had a couple teeth knocked out.

Alien Soldier sends you out the door fully armed, with a large collection of weapons that you can choose from. This idea of eschewing power-ups is used again, to great success, in Radiant Silvergun. It was a novel idea at the time; the established cliche of most action games was to begin almost unarmed, and steadily improve your offense with power-ups, scattered about. It's a tired old cliche, a relic from the video arcades which demanded another quarter from poor, luckless kids every 60 seconds.

Treasure trimmed away all that fat, leaving us to get down to business. This is the whole reason we're here - now let's get to the fighting and see who comes out on top. I can't think of another action-shooter-fighting hybrid; it's a testament to the endlessly crazy ideas that flowed from the studio. They understood the essentials of game design, especially arcade-style games, better than almost anyone. Treasure understood things from the fan's point-of-view, because they were fans at heart, too. They were the hardcore kids who blistered their fingers on everything else and still screamed for more. Nobody else could be bothered to challenge the skills of the coin-op veterans, so they went and did it themselves.

Alien Soldier is a tough game. Brutally hard, the ultimate test for the gamers. Because of this, it's doomed forever to the status of cult hit. More casual gamers, even those who enjoy Gunstar Heroes and Dynamite Headdy, are left out in the cold. It's just too much for them. That's not a critique; it's just the way of things.

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