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Column: Bastards Of 32-Bit

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Burning Rangers

June 9, 2006 9:11 AM |

brangers1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Burning Rangers for the Sega Saturn, published by Sega and released in the United States in May of 1998.]

Treasure the life.

Shadow the Hedgehog. Sonic Riders. Sonic Heroes. It wasn't always like this. At one point in time, Sonic Team was a font of creativity. Innovative titles like Samba de Amigo and NiGHTS brought the development team much critical acclaim, even if these games weren't always a success in terms of sales. After the death of the Dreamcast, however, things changed. Though Sonic Team's portable software output remains solid if mostly unremarkable, console gamers have for years now been forced to endure a torrent of awful Sonic the Hedgehog sequels and spinoffs. The trend shows no sign of waning, either; if initial impressions of the upcoming next-gen Sonic title are to be believed, there's little hope of seeing a glimmer of Sonic Team's former creative spark ever again.

But let's think happy thoughts! Burning Rangers is a game that was developed during the peak of Sonic Team's creativity, and it plays like nothing that has been released since. It's a little rough around the edges, sure, but Burning Rangers is arguably more innovative than anything Sonic Team has developed in the last five years.

brangers2.jpgHave goddess on your wings.

So, get this: you're a firefighter. Not just any old firefighter, mind -- you're a firefighter from the future. As such, you have access to a jetpack and a laser-powered water cannon to help you in your task of putting out fires and saving lives. Gameplay is exploration-based, and requires careful navigation through environments that explode and collapse around you.

Burning Rangers would be little more than a simple 3D platformer if not for its implementation of audio as a crucial gameplay element. Listening to radio chatter between your teammates is a requirement in many cases, and since the game lacks a mapping function, you'll often need to rely on the aid of a navigator in order to make progress. The game has a habit of thrusting you into total darkness or into situations where fire affects visibility, and there's a great amount of tension in having to rely solely upon your navigator's spoken directions in order to survive.

CRADLE'S ROCKIN' WITH LOOOOOVEJust Burning Rangers.

With so much of Burning Rangers' gameplay reliant upon audio, it's kind of a shame that the voice acting isn't better than it is. The game's entire translation is pretty flaky, actually; one of the lead characters is referred to as "Lead" and "Reed" interchangeably, and most of the dialogue inexplicably has a creepy, faux-seductive quality about it. The floaty controls could use a lot of work as well, and the game's rough graphics and framerate are hard to stomach at times. If ever a game cried out for a remake, it's Burning Rangers.

Despite its problems, though, Burning Rangers has a number of good ideas and innovations in its favor. After a small adjustment period, it's possible to ignore the gameplay annoyances and concentrate more on the joys of putting out fires and saving polygonal Sonic Team staff members (including Yuji Naka himself!) from certain doom.

In any case, it sure beats the hell out of Shadow the Hedgehog. Because seriously.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Imadoki no Vampire: Bloody Bride

June 2, 2006 8:17 AM |

bloodyb1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Imadoki no Vampire: Bloody Bride for the Sony PlayStation, published by Atlus and released in Japan in 1996.]

I want to suck your blood. Wanna go out?

The dating simulation genre has long flirted with breaking into non-Japanese markets. Sure, there have been numerous RPGs in the past that have incorporated datesim elements -- Thousand Arms and the Harvest Moon series come to mind -- but the United States has yet to see a single console release of a full-on, Tokimeki Memorial-style dating simulator. Though the genre may flourish overseas, it seems that in the United States at least, dating-centric gameplay is doomed to always play a supplemental role to a larger overall experience.

Japan, on the other hand, suffers no shortage of quality dating simulators. The region still to this day sees several new dating simulators released every month, and the genre's popularity shows no sign of waning. It's this popularity that encourages datesim publishers to often include unique storylines and unusual gameplay concepts in their offerings, in attempts to make their titles stand out from the rest. Such is the case with Imadoki no Vampire: Bloody Bride, a title most accurately described as a vampire dating sim.

bloodyb2.jpgTokimeki Dracula.

To be more specific, it's a dating sim that has you playing the role of a vampire. As part of a traditional vampire coming-of-age ceremony (or something), you're charged with the task of seducing a young woman and drinking her blood. The trick comes in the seduction part; according to the Vampire Rules, any blood you drink must be given willingly. This is where the datesim elements come into play, and where your bumbling attempts at becoming Casanova Dracula begin.

In order to drink a girl's blood with her consent, you're going to have to win her heart first. This involves doing any number of things you would do in any other dating simulation, all of which are given their own unexpected twists, thanks to the fact that you must keep your identity as a vampire a secret at all times. It's easy to forget your own weaknesses, so careful planning must be made in order to avoid potential problems. At an amusement park, for example, taking your girl to the house of mirrors would lead to a small disaster. A roller coaster ride would be a much safer option. While making these decisions, you must also maintain good hygiene, keep careful tabs on other potential victims, and find enough time to stalk the streets at night. Yes, being a vampire is more than about sucking blood -- it's also about effective time management.

CTRL+F5 CTRL+F5 CTRL+F5Ladies love cool vampires.

It can be argued that most dating simulators do little to distinguish themselves from one another. Most are content to base their gameplay entirely on dialogue trees and statistics management, but Bloody Bride takes this rote formula and applies its own brand of vampiric quirk to craft an enjoyable and interesting experience.

Also of note is that there is a full English translation patch available for Bloody Bride, making the game playable from beginning to end for non-Japanese speakers. The only problems are that the English dialogue is in all caps, and that the translation is a little shaky at times, often to a humorous extent. It's hard not to laugh when your character is turned down for a date, for one thing, since his response is always an abrupt "AH!! REGRETTABLE!!" Still, the translation lends a sort of stilted charm to the game, and Bloody Bride's unique premise and storyline make it well worth a look for anyone interested in trying their hand at a vampire dating simulation.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Um Jammer Lammy

May 26, 2006 12:42 PM |

lammy1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Um Jammer Lammy for the Sony PlayStation, developed by NaNaOn-Sha, published by Sony Computer Entertainment America and released in the United States in July 1999.]

It's a bit of a rush and a bit of a dash!

While most video game genres expand over time and continue to offer new twists and complexities to old formulas, such is not the case for the rhythm genre. What began with story-based, character-driven titles like Parappa the Rapper soon gave way to more simplistic, arcade-friendly fare such as Beatmania and Dance Dance Revolution, both of which refined the mechanics of music-based gameplay, yet eliminated many of the more complex elements that once characterized the genre.

This move can be seen as beneficial to the genre, as early rhythm games were often criticized as being too short, and for possessing too little depth. Modern games in Konami's Bemani series, on the other hand, are almost infinitely replayable due to their lack of specific goals or finite storylines. For all the advancements the genre has seen, however, there's a certain charm present in older music-based games that modern titles seem to lack. Um Jammer Lammy may not have the length and depth that Bemani fans crave, but it possesses wit and charm in spades.

lammy2.jpgThere's no foolin' around with deers.

Um Jammer Lammy stars a would-be rockstar lamb named Lammy, and you're in charge of helping her get to her big concert on time. Along the way, you'll have to help Lammy put out fires, land an airplane, and escape from the clutches of hell itself...using only the power of her mind. Heavy stuff! Gameplay is cue-based, with timed button presses simulating the playing of a guitar in accompaniment to various call-and-response sequences. If this formula sounds familiar, the similarities to Parappa the Rapper are beyond coincidence; Lammy takes place in the same universe as Parappa, and features many of the same characters.

Um Jammer Lammy never garnered the recognition and critical praise that Parappa did, however. This is somewhat puzzling, as Lammy's soundtrack is one of the best to ever be featured in a video game, and easily bests the music found in Parappa and its sequel. Gameplay in Lammy also has much more variety to it; unlike Parappa, two-player cooperative and competitive modes give the game life beyond the completion of its story mode, and there are several optional goals to achieve both in single-player stages and when playing against a computer-controlled opponent. One of the game's best features comes upon the completion of the story mode: an entirely new set of stages that star Parappa as the main character! These stages -- which feature all-new music and rap-based challenges -- prove to be an inclusion that doubles the game's length.

If I'm dead, then the game's over! What a STUPID game!I thought milk was pink!

The game is still a short-lived experience in comparison to modern rhythm titles, but what Lammy lacks in replay factor it more than makes up for in sheer weirdness. Make no mistake, this is one bizarre game. In the third level, a caterpillar vomits uncontrollably while it urges you to put children to sleep by strumming them like guitars. For landing a plane, you're given a set of false teeth, which add a wah-wah pedal effect to your guitar when you equip them. The game's strangest moment, however, was censored out of the United States release -- in short, Lammy trips on a banana peel, dies, and goes to hell, where she has to battle an evil J-Pop idol for her mortal soul.

You won't find moments like this in Dance Dance Revolution, that's for sure. Story-based rhythm games may have never achieved the popularity of their Bemani successors, but titles like Gitaroo Man Lives! prove that the subgenre isn't dead yet. One can only hope that a Lammy sequel isn't far behind.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: If you're a fan of music games in general and NaNaOn-Sha in particular, you might want to check out the recent Gaijin Restoration column on 'Vib Ribbon', another classic rhythm game for PS1 from Masaya Matsuura and friends!]

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Blast Corps

May 19, 2006 4:47 PM |

blastcorps1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Blast Corps for the Nintendo 64, published by Nintendo and released in the United States in February 1997.]

Time to get moving!

Rare was once a force to be reckoned with in the games industry. The company was responsible for numerous quality titles during its heyday, but somewhere along the line, Rare seemed to forget how to make fun games. Many of Rare's more recent titles have been criticized for their focus on pointless widget-collecting, and the surplus number of used copies of Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero available at many retailers offer some indication of Rare's failure to capture the modern gaming market.

It wasn't always like this, though. Many gamers have fond memories of playing Rare's Donkey Kong Country series, and GoldenEye was considered one of the best console first-person shooters of its time. During this era, Rare also released Blast Corps, a title that had all the hallmarks of a classic, but was largely overlooked.

blastcorps2.jpgShow us what you got!

The objective of Blast Corps is to destroy buildings. That's pretty much it. Games have been based around this concept before -- Rampage comes to mind, for one -- but Blast Corps manages to add enough variety to the destruction-based gameplay mechanic to make it never boring or repetitive. There's some reason or another behind all the violence -- some story about a runaway nuclear-equipped vehicle that will explode if it collides with anything in its path -- but the almost complete lack of cutscenes makes it easy to concentrate on blowing stuff up.

The game's objectives aren't as mindless as they sound, though. In the process of clearing a path for the nuclear tanker, you'll often have to find creative ways to destroy the obstacles in your way. The game provides you with a number of vehicles in every stage, each with its own special abilities -- the bulldozer is best suited for the quick leveling of small buildings, for instance, but some situations may call for a missile-launching motorcycle, or the speed of a racecar.

In many cases, Blast Corps more closely resembles a puzzle game than anything else, as the game often requires the use of several vehicles in sequence, in order to overcome environment-based obstacles on the way to a demolition site. These elements of planning and strategy make the act of demolition more satisfying than it would be otherwise.

It's like Pilotwings, only completely different.You can DO this.

Blast Corps also contains a number of side missions in addition to the main levels, most of which are time trials that test one's ability to use specific vehicles effectively. There's an impressive amount of optional goals and unlockables in the game, as most stages can be replayed for the sake of finding hidden items, or to raze an entire city's worth of buildings following an initial run-through. You'll be playing for weeks if you want to achieve the game's highest rank of "You can stop now."

Blast Corps adds a degree of depth to a simplistic formula, and the result is an engaging title that can be as mindless or as complex an experience as you want to make it. Plus, if nothing else, the game lets you control a giant flying robot who crushes buildings with its butt. How is that not awesome?

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Elemental Gearbolt

May 12, 2006 6:10 AM |

elegear1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Elemental Gearbolt for the Sony PlayStation, published by Working Designs and released in the United States in June 1998.]

Our elementals go to 11!

Working Designs' legacy is built on the "*sigh*"s and "ugh"s of a legion of disaffected gamers. Though the company translated and released dozens of titles in the United States during its 14-year run, Working Designs' distinct brand of humor and penchant for adding or changing content during localization earned it the ire of what seems to be the entire Internet. Complaint has been registered with practically every title Working Designs has published, ranging from legitimate concerns over difficulty rebalancing to essay-length screeds over how a game is completely ruined if its script contains the word "Wheaties".

Elemental Gearbolt has one of the smallest localization footprints of any Working Designs-published title, and is consequently discussed less often than many of the company's other games. The title remains one of the best lightgun shooters to ever be released, however, and few games in the genre have yet to match it in terms of depth and originality.

elegear2.jpgLike Dirge of Cerberus, except it's a game.

If you've played any modern lightgun shooter, you know what to expect from Elemental Gearbolt on a basic level. The game takes place in a first-person perspective, and all movement occurs on predetermined rails. Enemies pop up. You shoot them. Avoid dying for high score.

Elemental Gearbolt takes this basic formula and then further simplifies it, adding its own twists and subtleties. You have unlimited ammo and never need to reload, but you can't just go around blasting everything as fast as you can. You can only fire one bullet every half a second or so; attempting to shoot faster will result in your gun jamming momentarily. This deliberate pacing gives the game a curious sense of rhythm, and necessitates the use of a greater amount of strategy and accuracy than most other lightgun shooters.

Once you get into the beat of firing as often as the game will allow, Elemental Gearbolt becomes a soothing experience, somehow exuding an aura of calm amidst all the explosions. The game's fantasy setting and orchestral soundtrack contribute in a big way; it's easy to be lulled as the view soars over mountaintops, the music swelling as you rhythmically blast away at biomechanical creatures in the distance. Despite the game's difficulty, Elemental Gearbolt is always more relaxing than it is frustrating, yet remains just as compelling as the more frantic titles in the genre.

Just ignore the anime crap and you'll do fine.Warning: sweaty palms corrode gold plating.

As with many of the best games, Elemental Gearbolt accommodates and welcomes expert play. A trade-off sequence at the end of every level presents the opportunity to either upgrade your weapons or add bonus points to your score, meaning that the highest scores can only be earned by playing with crippled weaponry. Working Designs further refined the game's scoring system for its English release, and also ran a series of high score contests for a short while. Winners of the Elemental Gearbolt contest at 1998's E3 received a gold-plated GunCon -- a prized item that has now become one of the most sought-after collectibles in the PlayStation's library.

Despite what your opinion of Working Designs may be, Elemental Gearbolt is well worth checking out. The game's atmosphere is unlike anything seen before or since in the lightgun shooter genre, and its elements of strategy make it stand out among its peers. The possibility of winning a golden GunCon may have long passed, but Elemental Gearbolt's excellent gameplay remains.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Ore no Ryouri

May 5, 2006 2:27 PM |

orenoryouri1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column takes a look at Ore no Ryouri for the Sony PlayStation, published by SCEI and released in Japan in September 1999.]

Who's the chef? Me. I am.

To import-hungry gamers, the PlayStation Underground was one hell of a tease. Disguising itself as a quarterly disc-based magazine, the typical issue of Underground was little more than a series of videos and demos promoting the latest PlayStation releases. Occasionally, however, the magazine would feature import coverage, with some issues going so far as to include playable time-limited versions of titles available only in Japan. Trouble is, only a small percentage of these games would later see release in America, leaving many players forever curious about what existed beyond the first few minutes of gameplay in titles like Metal Slug and Puyo Puyo Sun.

One of the more popular imports to be featured in the magazine was Ore no Ryouri, or "I'm the Chef", as it was called in the one-level demo version played by Underground subscribers. The title's unique gameplay won it many fans among Underground members, but despite many subsequent requests for an American release, no English version ever surfaced.

orenoryouri2.jpgIt's hard out here for a chef.

Ore no Ryouri is commonly described as a cooking simulator, but the game's scope goes way beyond mere food preparation. You're responsible for all of your restaurant's cooking duties, yes, but you're also the guy in charge of washing dishes, counting money, and chasing down dine-and-dashers when the situation calls for it. Careful handling of food during the cooking portion is important as well; customers don't tend to react too well if their soup includes a fingertip you cut off while slicing vegetables.

The game's multitasking requirements may initially seem daunting, but tasks are made simpler by the fact that control is limited to a single button and the DualShock controller's analog sticks. Cooking in particular feels very natural, as control in most cases involves manipulating both analog sticks in roughly the same way as one would use both hands. Chopping meat requires fast movements to simulate quick strokes of a knife, for instance, and making a good ice cream cone involves a slow rotation of one stick in order to give it an attractive swirl.

There's also a story about a frog or something.To clarify: A mama who cooks.

Do well enough in a level and you'll soon face the area boss in a cookoff, where skillful cooking on one side will cause the lesser chef's restaurant to suffer a series of roach infestations and belligerent customers. Ore no Ryouri contains a fun two-player mode similar to these boss battles, along with a number of bonus extras and pointless minigames to round out the package.

While Ore no Ryouri may have never found an American release, the PlayStation Underground demo version is captivating enough in its own right, and is very much worth seeking out for fans of unconventional gameplay. Similar action can also be found in the game's spiritual sequel, Cooking Mama for the Nintendo DS, which was recently announced for release in the United States. Now if only some enterprising party would develop a cooking simulator that takes full advantage of the Nintendo Wii's control scheme...

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Space Station Silicon Valley

April 28, 2006 3:05 PM |

sssv1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Space Station Silicon Valley for the Nintendo 64, published by Take-Two Interactive and released in the United States in October 1998.]

When suicidal rodents become passé.

In 1998, developer DMA Design faced a crossroads. Known previously for the creation of the Lemmings series, DMA experienced a dry spell in the mid-90's when Lemmings's popularity waned, following a glut of rereleases and expansion packs. 1998 was to mark a new beginning for the company, however. This year saw the release of three DMA-developed titles, one of which would propel the company to new heights of fame and fortune, while the other two would languish in relative obscurity.

Suffice to say, DMA's biggest success in 1998 was not with the Nintendo 64 sci-fi action title Body Harvest, nor was it with this week's featured game, Space Station Silicon Valley. In the end, neither game had the impact of DMA's other 1998 release, Grand Theft Auto.

sssv2.jpgAttack of the killer ROMs!

Compared to Grand Theft Auto, Space Station Silicon Valley is a silly game indeed. As a new arrival at a space station inhabited by robotic animals, you play as a mobile computer chip with the ability to temporarily possess and control any deactivated creature you encounter. Gameplay is based around a series of objectives, many of which can only be accomplished by using special abilities unique to certain animals. One level may have you possessing a dog in order to herd sheep into a pen, for example, while others require a more complex series of tasks that involve using some animals to attack and deactivate others before objectives can be completed.

While Grand Theft Auto represented a radical departure for DMA Design in terms of genre and gameplay, Space Station Silicon Valley shares many similarities with the company's earlier Lemmings games. There's no central character, for one thing; the player-controlled computer chip has no special abilities of its own, and serves only as a medium of travel between deactivated animals.

The concepts of player-encouraged cooperation and teamwork are present here as well, and are made more challenging by the fact that some of the animals instinctively want to kill one another. In many ways, Space Station Silicon Valley represents the last great evolution of the Lemmings-styled puzzle game, as the subgenre is rarely attempted in modern gaming.

Featuring N64 blur effects!Save a hooker, possess a robot dog.

The game contains a good amount of wit and charm that makes it stand out among character-driven puzzle titles. Character design has a goofy Nick Park vibe to it, and there's a lot of subtle humor to be found throughout. The implementation of the game's soundtrack is particularly clever: background music is piped into every level through a series of speakers, which can be destroyed if one wishes to play in silence.

Space Station Silicon Valley's cutesy look and puzzle-rich gameplay may seem like a far cry from Grand Theft Auto, but the games share some common ground -- both feature gameplay that involves the hijacking of transportation, be it vehicle or animal. It's not too much of a leap in logic to equate beating a hooker to death with biting a sheep on the butt in order to take over its body, either. Well, okay, maybe it is. Still, few titles can claim to be even remotely similar to Space Station Silicon Valley, and it occupies a unique position in the N64's library of forgotten classics.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Pepsiman

April 21, 2006 11:41 AM |

pepsiman1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers Pepsiman for the Sony PlayStation, published by KID and released in Japan in March 1999.]

Have a Pepsi!

Product placement in video games is usually a little bit more subtle than it is in Pepsiman. Most gamers probably don't bat an eyelash when a game makes you collect iPods to access hidden music, and does it really matter if your game has a few Snickers banners in it? In the past, there have been titles that exist solely to promote dog food and the magical power of Skittles, so it's difficult to categorize any kind of incidental advertising in gaming as "blatant".

Pepsiman, however, is a game that takes product placement beyond what could even be considered blatant and crosses over into the realm of the absurd. In Pepsiman, you play as a man -- himself presumably made entirely out of Pepsi -- who runs through a number of stages collecting Pepsi cans and distributing delicious Pepsi to those in need of refreshment. The game is based off of a series of Japanese Pepsi advertisements, and it's even more ridiculous than it sounds.

pepsiman2.jpgEverybody Pepsi!

The first level's introduction is a good indicator of the madness to come. The heroic Pepsiman theme blares in the background, serenading the player with repeated cries of "Pepsimaaaan! Pepsi-Pepsi-Pep-Pepsimaaaan!" A Pepsi deliveryman calls out to you, in desperate need of help. "There are a bunch of people waiting in front of the vending machines, and they want Pepsi!" he says. "And the word is that they're just about to riot. Can't you do something, Pepsiman?" Pepsiman nods, then rushes to the scene. It's up to you to ensure that Pepsiman gets there in time, before a war can erupt on the streets.

Pepsiman's gameplay was once described to me as being "like Crash Bandicoot for idiots." Take that for what you will. Pepsiman runs unceasingly forward, and your job is to make sure that he doesn't trip over anything in his path. Circumstances may occasionally force Pepsiman to ride a skateboard, or navigate the landscape with a trashcan over his head, but gameplay always involves lots of jumping, dodging, and Pepsi can collecting. All of this matters little in the end, though; once a level's goal is reached and crisis is averted, Pepsiman immediately suffers a violent death. Such is the way of Pepsi.

Pepsi for big fat American jerks!Pepsi for Pizza!

After Pepsiman dies and before he is resurrected without explanation for the next stage, the player is rewarded with a live-action FMV cutscene featuring a fat American man extolling the virtues of Pepsi. These clips are devoid of context, and none of them have anything at all to do with gameplay. One such scene begins with the guy laughing while shoving potato chips into his mouth. He then laughs at an even greater intensity, causing crumbs to shoot out of his mouth and onto his protruding stomach. He pauses to take a sip of Pepsi, then looks directly into the camera and cheerfully states, "Pepsi for TV game!" Fade to black, end of scene, begin next level.

Truth be told, Pepsiman as a game is not very much fun to play. The controls could be a lot better, and later levels are full of cheap, frustrating deaths. Still, the idea of preventing riots and saving lives using the power of Pepsi has an undeniable appeal, and the lure of the next inexplicable FMV cutscene will keep you playing until the end.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Devil Dice

April 14, 2006 4:16 PM |

devildice1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column covers the THQ-published puzzle title Devil Dice for the Sony PlayStation, released in the U.S. in June 1998.]

Alea Jacta Est!

It takes a spark of inspiration and not a small amount of luck for a homebrew title to cross over into the mainstream. There aren't many games that have successfully done so in the past, and the stories behind attempted releases like Drymouth and Cave Story's PSP port give some indication of the peril that small-time developers face when trusting their work to publishers.

Devil Dice is one of the lucky homebrew titles that possessed both the necessary creative energy and the good fortune to avoid exploitation by an unscrupulous publisher. Initially programmed using nothing more than the Net Yaroze consumer development toolkit, Devil Dice so impressed Sony that the result was eventually a commercially-released game, followed by a number of sequels, the newest of which was recently released for the PSP. Despite two domestic releases, however, the Devil Dice series remains an obscurity in the United States.

devildice2.jpg(It means "The die is cast!")

As with the best puzzle games, Devil Dice's gameplay is simple in premise, but full of nuance. You control a little devil who runs around a playfield where dice spawn underfoot. In an attempt to stop the onslaught of dice, you can move them around by either pushing them or rolling them into other dice of the same top face number. Once you push together a set amount of dice determined by top face (two connected dice with a top face of two, six with a top face of six, etc.), the dice glow and start to sink back into the ground. It's at this point that you have the opportunity to eliminate more dice by rolling or pushing dice of the same top face into the sinking set. This is where the game's combo system comes into play, with further matches rewarded with more points.

Devil Dice contains a number of variations upon the main game, including the requisite puzzle mode -- where screens must be cleared in a certain number of moves -- and various flavors of multiplayer. Devil Dice can be played competitively with up to five people at a time, but the cooperative two-player mode is even more engrossing. Together, two players can set up chains and combos to mutual benefit, and can perform time-saving moves that aren't possible with a single player. Few puzzle games encourage cooperation rather than competition, and this mode alone provides plenty of reason for replay.

Hey, the game quoted Caesar, not me.(Julius Caesar said that.)

As fun as Devil Dice may be, its gameplay is surpassed in every way by the Japan-only sequel XI Jumbo. XI Jumbo expands upon the original's cooperative two-player mode, and also introduces the ability to jump and flip dice, adding a whole new element of strategy to the Devil Dice formula.

XI Jumbo was later followed by XI Go for the PlayStation 2, which found an American release under the title Bombastic. Bombastic features a quest mode and new exploding dice, but these innovations ultimately add little to the core gameplay. Fortunately, Bombastic includes the original Devil Dice and XI Jumbo gameplay modes as unlockable bonuses, both of which retain their great cooperative play modes.

Devil Dice may have never found its audience in the United States as it did in Japan, but Bombastic remains one of the best puzzle titles to be released on the PS2, and fans of cooperative gameplay owe it to themselves to check the series out.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com, and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Bastards of 32-Bit' - Bulk Slash

April 7, 2006 6:02 PM |

bulkslash1.jpg['Bastards of 32-Bit' is a weekly column by Danny Cowan that focuses on overlooked, underrated, and inexplicable titles from the era of the PlayStation, Saturn, and Nintendo 64. This week's column focuses on Hudson's Bulk Slash for the Sega Saturn, which was released in July 1997 in Japan.]

Not your grandma's mech game.

I don't get mech games. I can't find the fun in Virtual On, the complexity of the Armored Core series scares the hell out of me, and even though Carnage Heart would be a perfect fit for this column, I just can't make myself play it. I'm not quite sure why, but it seems like the appeal behind controlling giant robots will always elude me.

Bulk Slash is the only game in my experience that has been the exception to this rule. It's the mech game for people who hate mech games; the number-crunching statistics screens inherent to the genre are nowhere to be found here, and it's one of the few games of its kind that doesn't make a huge ordeal out of something as simple as a 180-degree turn. The game further differentiates itself from its peers by being playable without the use of a ridiculous and expensive controller. That, and it's actually fun to play.

bulkslash2.jpgNeither fat nor fanfiction.

Simulation-minded mech fans should stay far away from this one; Bulk Slash is an action game through and through. You pilot a robot through several fenced-in 3D stages, blasting everything that you can get a lock on and hunting down assigned targets as quickly as possible. Your mech has the ability to change from a ground-based biped into an airborne jet (and vice-versa) at any time -- a necessity, since there's often a lot of ground to cover in every level.

Graphically, the game takes advantage of the hardware's strengths without trying to push it too hard. There's a bit of a pop-in problem at times, but the framerate is fast and consistent enough to make the concession worthwhile. The Saturn isn't exactly known for its ability to render 3D graphics, either, so it's impressive to see a game of this type handled so well on the console.

giant robot shootin' down a butterflyMore man than machine.

Other aesthetic touches further add to the game's charm; the use of bright colors is refreshing to see, making the game stand in stark contrast with the muted tones present in many other mech games. The weapons are pretty cool too: the lock-on lasers and napalm bombs arc crazily, and there's a certain specific thrill involved in marching up to a huge gun turret and destroying it with a laser sword.

With its easy-to-master controls and a simple stage-boss-stage-boss structure, Bulk Slash feels like less of a mech game and more of an action game with a mech in it. Where other games of the genre are bogged down with simulation aspects, Bulk Slash places its focus on action throughout. This may be where the game succeeds in places others fail; stilted realism may appeal to only a select few, but the allure of giant robots shooting things is universal. If you like robots but don't want to program them, put them together, or guide them along a hex-based grid, Bulk Slash is a great alternative.

[Danny Cowan is a freelance writer hailing from Austin, Texas. He has contributed feature articles to Lost Levels Online and 1up.com , and his writing appears monthly in Hardcore Gamer Magazine.]