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Column: Compilation Catalog

COLUMN: 'A Life In Obscurity' - Sega Genesis Collection

November 23, 2006 2:11 AM |

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Our buddy Jiji ran out of stuff to post for his 'Compilation Catalog' column, so we're calling it 'A Life In Obscurity', and he'll alternate random D3 musings with compilation round-ups and other odd reviews, semi-regularly. Only on GSW! Because only we're crazy enough!]

cover scanOn the eve of the retro-bonanza promised by Nintendo's Virtual Console, Sega of America released another in a long line of retro compilations for modern consoles. This time, Sega Genesis Collection brings together titles from throughout the 16-bit console's life, with no particular series as its theme. Digital Eclipse, the western game industry's favorite studio for retro emulation, produced this package, and the development team shares most of its members with the team responsble for the excellent Capcom Classics Collection Remixed (PSP).

Mmm, Shiny Interface!

Sega Genesis Collection has a rather shiny interface that's very similar to the Capcom packs, and it includes a similar variety of game tips and trivia. There's a nice variety of unlockable bonus material here, including video interviews with Sega development staff and several of Sega's arcade games (Zaxxon, Zektor, Altered Beast, Tac/Scan, and Future Spy).

Many of the twenty-eight titles present here have shown up in previous retro compilations, and indeed, some have made multiple showings already. But there are some interesting inclusions here that are worth some attention. The arcade version of Altered Beast, never seen on consoles until now, is quite a bit more attractive and playable than the hoary old Genesis version. But let's face it: Altered Beast was never a particularly good game.

Gain... Virtua?

Gain Ground is a refreshingly tactical single-screen shooter that has the player controlling warriors from various time periods and settings, past, present and future, and rescuing hostages. Rescuees join your team and contribute their unique talents, and captured allies can be regained if you're skillful. Alex Kidd is an interesting glimpse into what Sega's character-mascot strategy was like before the abandoned the character for the more internationally-appealing Sonic. Golden Axe III was never released outside of Japan before its appearance in this package, but unfortunately it's not quite up to the level of the previous two games.

A few of the games in the package seem to be here simply as a gesture to players who suffered through them on the original console - or to pad out the title count. The completely-2D version of Virtua Fighter 2 is somewhat competent in its own right, but it's such a silly port of the original that it's hardly relevant now. Super Thunder Blade shares the same fate: who wants to play a choppy, substandard port of a 1987 arcade game? The shape-changing platformer Kid Chameleon still somehow manages to have fans, but now more than ever it's easy to see how wholly derivative of Mario it is. And Ecco Jr.? Dreary edutainment, ahoy!

Go, Gimli!Technical Pluses, Minuses

Video is mostly respectably emulated, but Digital Eclipse's usual lack of any support for these games' native resolution has once again left this writer in the lurch. They did include an option for progressive-scan, though, which will marginally help these games' appearance on HD sets. As they are, in 480i, they look swimmy, indefinite, and flickery.

Sound emulation doesn't fare much better. The music seems to be streamed off the disc to save on CPU usage, but this has caused oddities like the music in Sonic 1 and 2 not speeding up when it should. Plus, there are glitches here and there with music starting or stopping in the wrong place. Sound effects sound fine in some games and dreadful in others, but there's a general cast of inaccuracy over the whole package that will grate on you if you've played any of these games recently.

Exciting Conclusion!

Sega Genesis Collection comes off as being mostly unnecessary. Fans of Sonic and Ristar probably already own those games in previous compilations. Bonanza Bros. was in better form in Sega Classics Collection. Even Phantasy Star fans would be best advised to hold off and wait for Sega's import-only Phantasy Star Collection, as the often-pricey games have been graced with some of the most grievous sound problems in the collection. The rest of the games often go for under five dollars apiece on the used market and are more enjoyable in their original format. It's hard to recommend this collection if you're interested in it for any reason other than a quick romp down memory lane.

(For the sake of thoroughness, here's the full list of Genesis games included: Alex Kidd in the Enchanted Castle, Altered Beast, Comix Zone, Golden Axe I-III, Phantasy Star II-IV, Sonic the Hedgehog 1 & 2, Ecco 1, 2, and Jr., Ristar, Columns, Virtua Fighter 2, Shadow Dancer, Shinobi III, Super Thunder Blade, Bonanza Bros., Decap Attack, Kid Chameleon, Sword of Vermilion, and Vectorman 1 & 2.)

COLUMN: 'A Life In Obscurity' - A Maid is Not Enough

October 23, 2006 11:09 PM |

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Our buddy Jiji ran out of stuff to post for his 'Compilation Catalog' column, so we're calling it 'A Life In Obscurity', and he'll alternate random D3 musings with compilation round-ups and other odd reviews, semi-regularly. Only on GSW! Because only we're crazy enough!]

It's a trap!It's not often that a Simple 2000 game has recognizable - or even mildly appealing - characters. More often than not, Simple 2000 characters simply represent archetypes or attempt to imitate well-known characters from full-priced games. But when a game in this series has characters that are so appealing that they make one want to ignore the overall quality of the game, it's clear that the developer has done something right. Such is the case with last August's release of Simple 2000 Series Vol. 105: The Maid Uniform and Machine Gun - and, indeed, there's a lot to ignore if one expects to have much fun with the game at all.

[Click through for more.]

COLUMN: 'A Life In Obscurity' - D3 Does Cavemen Right: The Genshijin

October 16, 2006 1:01 AM |

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Our buddy Jiji ran out of stuff to post for his 'Compilation Catalog' column, so we're calling it 'A Life In Obscurity', and he'll alternate random D3 musings with compilation round-ups and other odd reviews, semi-regularly. Only on GSW! Because only we're crazy enough!]

Mammoth!What makes a successful Simple 2000 Series game? Sometimes it's a collision of original elements that have been refined over several games, often on other publishers' dimes. Sometimes it's a mere port or remake of a game that's previously found success as a full-priced release. The well-executed, original, non-franchise title is a rarity among the rare good games in D3 Publisher's catalog. However, the necessary alignment of heavenly bodies seems to have been just right for the release of developer Vingt-et-un Systems' April release, Simple 2000 Series Vol. 99: The Genshijin, or The Primitive Man.

[Click through for the full article.]

COLUMN: 'A Life In Obscurity' - August D3 Publisher Monthly

August 11, 2006 6:30 AM |

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Our buddy Jiji ran out of stuff to post for his 'Compilation Catalog' column, so we're calling it 'A Life In Obscurity', and he'll alternate random D3 musings with compilation round-ups and other odd reviews, bi-weekly. Only on GSW! Because only we're crazy enough!]

Japanese budget publisher D3 haven't slacked off during these hot summer months: they've kept up a steady flow of information on new titles, and they've ticked off some of the entries on their busy release schedule. Let's get started!

Simple Series

• The Japan Special Forces has received its own dedicated site, with some gameplay footage and screenshots. It might end up being a bit stiff - and limited, of course - but as the game's closest precedent in the budget-tactical-shooter genre is probably the Special Ops series for PSone, the bar is set very, very low. GAME Watch has a preview.

The Escaped Prisoner• While Vingt-et-un Systems does their take on a reduced Rainbow Six, Tamsoft trying their hand at the style put forth by Grand Theft Auto. Vol. 110: The Escaped Prisoner puts the player in the shoes of Alex Turner, wrongly imprisoned and newly escaped, who has ten hours to prove his innocence. The player must evade police and mobsters in a freely-traversable metropolis known as "Los City" (the name likely being responsible for Play-Asia's "Escape from Los Angeles" listing) while searching for evidence to clear his name. Rakuten has a cover image and more screenshots. True to the usual conventions of this genre, vehicles can be stolen, and the game's CERO D rating and red splotchy warning seem to indicate that there will be plenty of violence and gore to go with the game's hard-boiled atmosphere. Tamsoft aren't known to be one of D3's better developers, but this one might be worth keeping an eye on (for the wrong reasons, possibly). It's due out October 12.

The Maid Uniform & Machine Gun has just hit stores, and - somewhat surprisingly - Weekly Famitsu has only seen fit to give it a score of 16 out of 40. That might be enough to throw just about anybody off the scent, but there's still something so charming about its design and characters that it begs to be given a chance. Here's a video to help you make up your mind, in any case, as well as a feature at ITmedia and NCS's notes on the game. NeoGAFfer Lyte Edge had some negative things to say about it, though, so caution might indeed be warranted. Developer Rideon put up an official site for their game this week, but strangely it disappeared within a day. Did they violate one of the stipulations in their contract with D3?

The Let's Make a Robot!, just released, is looking like it's going to be the highlight of this summer's lineup, having received a - surprisingly high, for a D3 game - score of 25 out of 40 from Famitsu. National Console Support lays the game bare in their game notes.

• Our friend (indeed, everybody's friend!) duckroll picked up The Earth Defense Force Tactics, and has posted some...semi-positive impressions! Apparently, despite its wretchedly lazy presentation and painful battle scenes, it's actually a competent hex-based strategy game. It just happens to look a lot like a Genesis game. You can see a demonstration of both aspects of the game in this YouTubed video: part one, part two. You'll probably have to switch off all of the battle scenes and find your way in with very low expectations, but there may be some fun to be had.

The Dokodemo Gal Mahjong
• Just announced is a PSP version of the rather well-executed mahjong-against-girls game Love Mahjong 2. Called Simple 2500 Series Portable: The Dokodemo Gal Mahjong, this version of the game is not far removed from its predecessor, but the featured girls have had their attributes made even more pleasing to the eye. Their facial features have been made more rounded and cute, too, which is probably a concession to the portable medium. And if you're still not sure what this game's all about, well, take a look at that cover. This one is scheduled for release on October 26.

• Japanese Simple fansite MO-GOS has compiled the results of a poll on the best and worst Simple 2000 releases yet this year. The top picks this time are The Genshijin (38 votes), The Investigator (DS, 33 votes), The Oneechanpon (15 votes), The Zombie vs. Ambulance (14 votes), and The Anywhere Mystery (7 votes). The least-liked were The Men's Machine Gun Platform (no surprise there - 55 votes), The Oneechanpon (Oneechanbara games often show up in both rankings - 10 votes), The Pirate (7 votes), The Right-Brain Drill (D3's half-hearted attempt to cash in on the brain-training craze - 2 votes), and The Tennis (PSP - 2 votes).

• Finally, if you're like this writer and have always wanted to see the majority of D3's titles at a higher resolution than that at which they can be seen on D3's site, GAME Watch has just the thing for you. They've put up a listing of every Simple-series game released for the PS2, complete with high-res screenshots and cover scans.

Full-Priced Titles

Oneechanbara X
• The first of D3's long-awaited Xbox 360 titles has gained its own website. Oneechanbara X seems to be returning to the red-on-red-on-red gore found in the original Oneechanbara, rather than that pinkish hue featured in Oneechanbara 2. This one's probably due for a CERO Z rating (which restricts sales of the game to customers 18 and up), the same rating Oneechanbara and Oneechamploo retroactively received. (Oneechanbara 2 and Oneechanpon ended up CERO D (17+). It's a fine line, apparently.) There's not much else to see on the site except for Tamsoft's experiments with pixel shaders and the same sorts of environment seen in the first two games (plus upgrades). We'll have to wait a little longer to see video footage of THE DEVIL EVOLUTION HUMAN.

[Trevor Wilson is a web developer and amateur game developer who indulges his unhealthy obsession with obscure, strange, and unique video games over at his weblog, namako team.]

COLUMN: 'Compilation Catalog' - Capcom Classics Collection Remixed

July 28, 2006 1:48 AM |

['Compilation Catalog' is a regular biweekly analysis of retro remakes and compilations old and new. This entry's subject is Capcom Classics Collection Remixed, released this year for Sony's PSP.]

Capcom has been releasing compilations of their 8- and 16-bit arcade games since the 32-bit years with the import-only Capcom Generations packages, though since that time the company has stuck to giving the retro treatment to a very specific set of their hits. The Ghosts n' Goblins series, the series of shooters beginning with 1942, Commando and a couple of close relatives, Final Fight, and the Street Fighter II series have all seen multiple releases on multiple platforms since then, but many of Capcom's well-loved - though perhaps less-successful - titles have languished. Thankfully, this compilation seems to signal a change in the wind.

Black TigerCapcom Classics Collection Remixed brings together 20 titles that were released for several of Capcom's custom arcade boards, up to and including their wildly successful Capcom Play System hardware. Several of the titles (most notably Final Fight, Forgotten Worlds, and Strider) have received well-respected home ports in the past, and while they are in perfect form here, the true stars here are the long-neglected titles that have rarely or never been seen at home. Black Tiger is an extremely well-crafted platformer that was scheduled for NES release at one time, but never made it out.

The fast-action dungeon-platformer Magic Sword received a SNES port once upon a time, but it's a relief to finally see it preserved in proper form here. The three-game compilation Three Wonders may seem like an oddball grab bag at first, but it includes some of the prettiest visuals in this package, and the run n' gun Midnight Warriors is strongly reminiscent of Treasure's Gunstar Heroes (which it preceded by two years). And despite three separate rereleases of 1942, 1943, and 1943 Kai, the nicely polished fan favorite 1941 hasn't made it home since it came out for NEC's ill-fated SuperGrafx console - until now.

Along with the cult classics, there are some oddballs that are so obscure that even if they were denied home release indefinitely, Capcom might be forgiven for not taking the risk with them. Quiz & Dragons is a fantasy-themed, uh, trivia game, that incorporates a few RPG elements and has a body of questions that draw heavily on '80s and early-'90s pop culture. The references to TV shows of the era are especially difficult these days, though the game's no slouch when it comes to questions about anatomy or history.

The Speed Rumbler, Avengers, and Last Duel are three odd little top-down, vertically-oriented action games, each with fairly original (and often strange) mechanics. Block Block is a Breakout clone, but it's polished and well-made, and seems to be one of the better examples of a well-trod genre. And Varth is a very tough, very long vertical shooter, with thirty (!) levels and excellent art design.

Capcom's development for NES often involved the practice of adapting arcade releases with significantly different level layouts, graphic styles, and even different gameplay. Also preserved here are three examples of arcade games that received well-known NES treatments: Section Z, Legendary Wings, and Bionic Commando. Some might argue that the NES versions of these games are better remembered because they're simply better games, but the games' presence here means that the curious can find out for themselves.

Forgotten WorldsEven those titles that have been around the bend consolewise are in excellent form here. Forgotten Worlds includes some interesting approaches to adapting its uncommon rotary controller's firing scheme to PSP controls. One involves using the face buttons to approximate a second D-pad, while the other has the player turn the PSP upside-down so that the analog nub can be used to fire in any direction and the face buttons used to move the player. The well-loved beat 'em up Captain Commando is in perfect form here, after an unflattering SNES port and a now-rare and expensive showing on the Japanese Playstation.

The horizontal shooter Side Arms may have fared well on the TurboGrafx-16, but it's nice to see all of its animation restored. Mega Twins, a platformer that's almost a spiritual successor to Black Tiger makes it home here without compromise for the first time, even after a few ports back in the 16-bit days. This likely marks the first perfect port Final Fight has ever received (discounting the resolution-challenged version in the console Classics), and Strider finally gets to stretch out into its native aspect ratio. The old-and-moldy Street Fighter makes a token appearance here, too, though it's not much more than a curiosity these days.

The package uses a notebook-themed menuing system that's very similar to what was seen in the multiplatform Capcom Classics Collection. There are unlockable tips, artwork, and music for each game, and each includes a short description linking it to its time and to Capcom's history. It's clear that great care was taken with how each game is presented, as there are multiple video and control modes available for each game. Most games can be displayed at native or stretched resolutions, and every game that used a vertically-oriented monitor in the arcade has an option to be displayed vertically, with controls automatically rotated to suit the orientation. All of these settings are automatically saved and maintained, so there's little to fuss with as far as configuration goes.

And speaking of aspect ratio: games on the CPS hardware used a resolution that put them very close to a 16:9 aspect ratio, which means they fit the PSP's screen particularly nicely, even without stretching turned on. The only real technical problems present mostly seem to be due to issues with the PSP hardware itself. Starting any given game involves around fifteen seconds of loading, and return to the menu screen takes nearly as long. There's some of the PSP's infamous ghosting present here and there, though it's mostly limited to games that use a lot of black in their backdrops. Overall, though, emulation-workhorse developer Digital Eclipse has turned out a very polished product here.

Midnight Wanderers (3 Wonders)This collection does more than previous Capcom retro-releases to illustrate the consistency of graphical and musical style, as well as some consistently great gameplay, that was present across nearly a decade worth of Capcom's arcade releases. Many of the games here share gameplay elements, shading styles, and other bits and pieces - like the way a key or treasure chest might be drawn, and the ubiquitous "zenny" currency - that link them across the years despite a lack of any sort of franchise links.

It's this consistency that really helped establish a name for the company's in-house development. And even though this collection is full of what might seem to be considered B- or C-list releases, there's more sheer quality and genuine love of the medium to be found here than in compilations brought from the dusty corners of many other software houses.

[Trevor Wilson is a web developer and amateur game developer who indulges his unhealthy obsession with obscure, strange, and unique video games over at his weblog, namako team.]

COLUMN - 'Compilation Catalog' - Falcom Classics

July 12, 2006 8:21 PM |

['Compilation Catalog' is a regular biweekly analysis of retro remakes and compilations old and new. This entry's subject is Falcom Classics, released in 1997 for the Japanese Sega Saturn.]

CoverThe amount of time and effort the venerable Japanese PC developer Falcom has spent remaking and re-remaking their classic franchises (most notably Ys) has become almost a running joke over the years. It's tempting to see this package, developed by JVC Victor and released in 1997 for the Japanese Sega Saturn, as more squeezing of the same bloodless stone. But included along with the requisite Ys are two of Falcom's earliest hits, Dragon Slayer and Xanadu, which influenced the entire course of Japanese action RPGs afterward. While fans who are only familiar with Ys might not see these two dusty old relics as classics, they're still quite playable today, and an interesting look at a genre in its infancy.

Each of the three games has been completely overhauled in colorful 32-bit-era 2D, far cry from the originals' EGA-ish graphics. Each has redone - or new, depending on the case - music, too, though the games have tended to retain their original sound effects, appropriately. Most importantly, though, the earlier two games in the pack have had their controls streamlined and adapted to the Saturn's joypad, making them much easier to get into than the Japanese PC originals are these days. Plus, each of the games has a new "Saturn Mode" that add additional gameplay tweaks, but these can be skipped in favor of an "Original Mode" for each.

Dragon SlayerDragon Slayer, released in 1984, is the very first action-RPG ever made. At first it might look very much like the graphical derivatives of Rogue that have proliferated over the years, right down to the way you bump into enemies to attack them. But even apart from the fact that it runs in real-time, Dragon Slayer's rules are a bit different. The game plops the player down in the middle of a 2D overhead map that's scattered with blocks, potions, monsters, chests, gold coins, and a fair variety of items whose purpose will surely be a mystery to any new player, including a...house? There doesn't seem to be much of a goal to the game at first glance. Sure, there are monsters to kill and treasure to find, but the functions of items are a mystery, there's nothing to buy with the treasure, and enemies don't add to a player's experience levels. And where's the exit to this level?!

The point of the game becomes more clear when one notices that picking up one of the crystals scattered around a level and then "using" it on the house (the player's home, which is located right in the dungeon, for some reason) increases the player's strength by a good deal. Additional items increase health and damage potential, while others can be used to defend against the attacks of enemies. Further structure is noticeable when the player comes upon a gigantic, unmoving, three-headed dragon situated in one corner of the first level. Attacking it early on is an easy way to experience a quick death, but thankfully there have been more than enough items placed within the level to allow the player to grow strong enough to (of course) slay the dragon.

Once that's been accomplished, the game moves on to the next stage, with a new layout and another dragon to beat. It's like a series of miniature, abstract RPGs laid end to end. One could be forgiven for noticing a resemblance between this game and a fourteen-year-old's summer project, thanks to its seemingly nonsensical nature and arbitrary mechanics. And once you've figured out how to play the game, all is not roses: it can be irritating juggling the one item you can carry (a key, a cross, a ring) and those that you accumulate, and making trips between item fields and home can be a chore, even after one learns how to push the house around (!). However, it's interesting to see how such an untamed project gave birth to a relatively measured genre.

XanaduXanadu (which has no relation to Olivia Newton John) was developed as a direct sequel to Dragon Slayer. It was one of the first big hits in the Japanese PC game market, having sold over 400,000 copies after its release in 1985. Its graphical style and assortment of items bear some resemblance to its predecessor, but Falcom practically started from scratch with the game's design, resulting in something that should be much more recognizable to modern players. The bulk of the game takes place in an underground, 2D dungeon that's viewed from the side this time, and there are ladders, doors, pitfalls, and shops to navigate. Enemies can be seen roaming around on the map, and when the player's character collides with one, a top-down encounter begins. The player can attack the enemies by simply running into them, or magic can be used to attack from afar. Once each of the enemies are killed - or once the player escapes - the game continues as usual. Each of the game's ten areas (called "floors" even though each has many of its own floors and distinct areas) has smaller, self-contained sub-dungeons. Upon entry, these are represented entirely by rooms in a top-down perspective, with individual enemies infesting each room.

Familiar elements abound here, for fans of both Eastern and Western RPGs old and new. When starting a game, the player is set free in a surface-level town, which has various shops and training facilities that can be used to improve the player's starting statistics (most of which are swiped wholesale from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons). There's experience to be gained here, and underground churches where the player can level up (each level of fighter or mage experience has its own title - a nice touch). The items that can be found are pretty close to the consumables seen in later (and even modern) action RPGs. Subterreanean shops carry weapons, armor, keys, and food, the last of which is consumed slowly over time and is essential for keeping our intrepid adventurer alive. Weapons and armor change the player's sprite visibly when equipped, which is a cute touch, and the game's indigenous monsters are nicely varied (if not always original - watch out for those Beholders).

The game does have its share of problems. Game balance shouldn't be mentioned in this case so much as a complete lack thereof, and the archaic, inertialess "jumping" takes some getting used to. Starting around Floor 3 or 4, dungeon design becomes pretty devious, and it's often easy to find oneself stuck in a room without a key to get out. Granted, there's an in-game escape button included just in case that does happen, but who wants to get sent back to the first floor every time the level layout gets the best of them? Judicious saving can help avoid this, however. Also, the "karma" stat, while an interesting predecessor to more developed morality systems, is a sticky matter. Killing certain enemies raises the player's karma by a certain amount, and if a player's karma is too high, priests in churches will refuse to grant level-ups. The only way to decrease karma is to drink a black potion, which also has the effect of knocking off half a player's health bar. It probably won't be clear to most players which enemies are "good" and which aren't, so it's easy to end up facing either a drug habit or a restart.

Even so, learning the dungeon layouts and figuring out how to best use the game's sytems for survival is satisfying, and boss encounters are rare enough that they're thrilling when they're discovered. And discovery is key here: it might have tiny graphics, but this is a big, big game, with lots to explore and find and see and do. Plus, even when the game's balance has you down, the whole thing is practically begging to be exploited for all it's worth. It can be a vicious game, but it gives the player more than enough means to be vicious right back to it. (Check over here for a video of the game being completely taken apart in 13 minutes.)

Ys1987's Ys doesn't bear series links to either of the above games, but Xanadu's collide-to-attack mechanic was included and practically refined into an art form. This game is most often compared, unfavorably, to its contemporary The Legend of Zelda, and many players aren't sure what to think of a game that doesn't require you to swing your sword to hit enemies. But the heavily action-based play style is still as solid and addictive as it always was, and while the game's messy dungeon layouts haven't aged as well as its setting or story, it's still easy to see why Ys has remained popular all these years. Ys was originally the main draw in this package, and most of the bonus material included in the limited edition of Falcom Classics is strictly Ys-related. The game had already been remade a couple of times and ported to many, many platforms before this package came out, and it would go on to be remade again in the super-polished, high-resolution Ys Eternal.

This version of the game is certainly attractive, and its Saturn Mode adds a run button and diagonal controls. How much these actually aid the original gameplay is debatable, though, and the lack of voice and the relatively high level of Japanese required - at least, compared to next to nothing in Xanadu and Dragon Slayer - make this remake hard to recommend as a reason to track down the package. Plus, the remixes of the classic tunes - which are arguably what the series is known for - are merely pedestrian and functional. Luckily, the other games in this collection provide an interesting enough glance into the (pre-)history of Japanese computer games and RPGs that they make this package more than worthwhile, especially for its easily-manageable going price on eBay.

[Trevor Wilson is a web developer and amateur game developer who indulges his unhealthy obsession with obscure, strange, and unique video games over at his weblog, namako team. Thanks goes to the always excellent Hardcore Gaming 101 for the screenshots of Ys and Xanadu.]

COLUMN: 'Compilation Catalog' - Sega Ages 2500: Space Harrier II

June 28, 2006 8:30 AM |

Cover Image['Compilation Catalog' is a regular biweekly analysis of retro remakes and compilations old and new. This entry's subject is Sega Ages 2500 Vol. 20: Space Harrier II - Space Harrier Complete Collection, released in 2005 for the Playstation 2.]

The first iteration of Sega's current series of retro remakes weren't exactly warmly received. The results of a partnership with budget-development specialists D3 Publisher, the remakes produced by the joint publishing effort 3D AGES under the Sega Ages 2500 series ranged from somewhat presentable to downright ugly, with gameplay that was sometimes robust and enjoyable and other times absolutely reprehensible. In 2005, Sega rebooted Sega Ages 2500 with a new focus on faithful ports and emulations of classics coupled with presentation that represents the cream of the retro-compilation crop. One of the first franchises to receive the new treatment was Space Harrier, in Space Harrier II: Space Harrier Complete Collection.

Welcome to the Fantasy Zone

sharrier-01.jpgThe original Space Harrier has already received its own entry in the Sega Ages 2500 series (which can also be found in Sega Classics Collection), so in this volume, it's Space Harrier II (the Genesis sequel) that nominally has the limelight. But really, it's almost as if Sega's using Space Harrier II as a minor excuse to release a perfect port of the original Space Harrier on this particular collection, as an apology for the first, coolly-received remake. And perfect it is: it's just as fast and smooth as the original groundbreaking rail-shooter, with no glitches or inaccuracies in its conversion.

It's easy to see why the game is so well-loved to this day, with its blinding speed and classic tunes, and it holds up extremely well (even if you don't care for scaling sprites - shame on you!) And for only the second time ever, Space Harrier supports analog control. The original arcade game sported a full-sized aircraft-style joystick that allowed for precise control and aiming, but no console version of the game since - aside from the Sega Ages version that was released for the Saturn - has supported anything but digital D-pad controls. Here, Space Harrier supports the analog sticks present on the Dual Shock and Dual Shock 2 controllers, as well as two of Hori's USB flight sticks (break out your limited-edition copies of Ace Combat 5!).

Space Harrier SMS
Also accounted for here are the Sega Master System and Game Gear conversions of the arcade game. Both of these are as limited as you might imagine, given the 8-bit hardware they run on. Both struggle along valiantly at roughly half or quarter the speed of the original and are full of messily-converted graphics and sparse level layouts. have tunes that are pretty faithful to the original's soundtrack, though those in the Game Gear version sound a good deal fresher. To access the Game Gear version of the game, by the way, hold right on the D-pad while the cursor's on the version-select option in the game-select menu.

Get Ready

Space Harrier II
Space Harrier II, originally meant to display the young Genesis's muscle in comparison with arcade hardware of the time, doesn't hold up nearly as well today as its older brother. It carries forward Space Harrier's famous infinite horizon well enough, but as the Genesis had no built-in scaling hardware, all the scaling here is faked. Each of the game's objects was captured at several different levels of zoom and stored in ROM for display at given intervals, giving a mild - but very choppy - simulation of scaling.

Choppy as well is the Harrier's movements: moving him across the screen makes him jump between a set of fixed positions, instead of having him move smoothly as in the original game. All of this makes the game seem as if it's running at about fifteen frames per second or so. Naturally, this isn't the best state for any aspiring action game to be in, let alone the descendant of one as speedy as Space Harrier. That, coupled with the comparatively lackluster soundtrack and level designs, leave this one feeling fairly uninspired.

Ouch!

The third headlining title here is Space Harrier 3D, a Master System game that made use of a rather dodgy-looking pair of goggles that had lens-shutter mechanism that, coupled with a flickery game display, created a 3D effect. That potentially headache-inducing mechanism isn't available here (thankfully?), because it simply wouldn't make much sense to include it, given the current selection of 3D-compatible goggles for PS2. Rather, this version of Space Harrier 3D has a mode that uses the old red/blue 3D effect instead.

You'll have to break out the scissors and glue if you don't already have a pair of those cardboard goggles, though. Packaged in with the game is a little envelope that contains sheets of red and blue cellophane, along with a pattern and instructions for cutting out and assembling a pair of 3D glasses. Thankfully, for those of us who don't want to go through the trouble, there's an option to switch off the 3D mode entirely. (And it's worth noting that there's a hidden mode that replicates the original's flickering, as well as an option that lets you use the same glasses you'd use to view stereogram images. Just hold right on the control pad while on the "3D Type" option.)

Space Harrier 3DOf course, stripping away the gimmick leaves you with an original Space Harrier sequel that's not much more advanced than the original Master System Space Harrier. It's competent for the hardware, though, even if it's inherited the Genesis version's choppy player movement. And what's with the TIE Fighters? An extra bonus for fans of the US version, though, is emulated support for the FM-synthesis module that was only released for the Japanese Sega Mark III system. Anybody who's only heard the original Master System version's reedy tones will be in for a treat.

You're Doing Great

And since presentation is the name of the game here, no effort has been spared in making each version of each game present here as faithful as possible. The emulation (or conversion, whichever the case) is absolutely rock-solid in each case, and all of the original options and cheats for the old games are present. There's a gallery for each game with sound effects, music, and printed material included. The original Space Harrier has its promotional flyers, while the other games have their cover art and manuals - from both the Japanese and overseas versions of the games - scanned at a quality so crystal-clear and a resolution so huge that you can zoom in and read every word. Space Harrier's gallery also includes an expert superplay of the game, along with the option for the player to record and play back play sessions.

There's no lack of video options available: each game can be displayed in an interlaced and scaled mode, in progressive-scan, or pixel-perfect in its native resolution (termed '240p' here). This latter option is something that's missing from nearly every major retro-compilation that's released these days, and the lack of it leaves the vast majority of all those classics looking blurry, shimmery, and limp. Such is not the case here. And in the game's manual, there are interviews with and comments (all in Japanese, of course) from Japanese journalists and members of the original Space Harrier development team, including Yu Suzuki.

This package, along with the even-more-excellent Gunstar Heroes Treasure Box, represents the standard that all retro-compilations should be measured by. Even though there are "only" five games present here for your (roughly) $25, this package shows that care and respect for classics like Space Harrier and how they're presented can go a long way, even in the face of the ever-decreasing, technology-driven perceived value of games like these.

[Trevor Wilson is a web developer and amateur game developer who indulges his unhealthy obsession with obscure, strange, and unique video games over at his weblog, namako team.]

COLUMN: 'Compilation Catalog' - Space Invaders Pocket

June 14, 2006 4:06 AM |

cover['Compilation Catalog' is a biweekly analysis of retro remakes and compilations old and new. This entry's subject is Space Invaders Pocket, released in Japan in 2005 for the PSP.]

The PSP has proved to be fertile territory for retro-collections, beginning right with its Japanese launch (with Darkstalkers Chronicle: The Chaos Tower). Taito was quick to follow up with repackaged versions of its own efforts, beginning with the Japan-only Space Invaders Pocket. Not to be confused with the later PSP remake Space Invaders Galaxy Beat (by Marvelous Entertainment), SI Pocket includes emulations and ports of eight of the venerable series' iterations, though it's debatable whether several of the titles are really unique entries.

Space Invaders' Background

If you're familiar with console or arcade video games at all, you probably know what's going on here: neatly-arranged rows of alien invaders march across and down the screen (with that inexorable TROMP, TROMP cadence) toward Earth, while the player controls a single ship on the surface that fires back up at them. Space Invaders created a genre and was singlehandedly responsible for arcades' explosion of popularity around the world. The original Space Invaders is present here in its Black & White, Cellophane, Upright, and Color versions, each of which applied slightly different presentations to exactly the same game. SI Cellophane (1978) literally used strips of colored cellophane superimposed on the monitor to lend the illusion of color to the graphics of the original SI Black & White (1978). SI Upright (1978), which moved the game into an upright cabinet from the original's "marquee"-style tabletop cabinet, turned the player's ship and the shelters green and placed a static background of a planet behind the action.

Invadin' The '70s And '80s

Space Invaders Color (again, 1978) was the first time the game was released in full color, though the trick the developers used to turn each row of enemies a certain color looks an awful lot like the bands of cellophane used earlier, as a given row on the screen always turns the objects inside it the same color. Space Invaders Part II (1980) gives the illusion of being a true sequel, but it really just added a new type of UFO, made some invaders split into two when hit, and caused UFOs in stages past the first to drop invader reinforcements.

Return of the InvadersReturn of the Invaders (1985) was the first proper sequel the series received, and it really pulled out all the stops. Developed by (but not credited to) those masters of the bizarre at UPL, it took the basic single-screen shooty formula and added detailed full-color graphics, varied enemy formations and movements, intricate and truly alien invader designs, and new gameplay mechanics. For instance, the ever-present shelters that the player can duck behind now have a tiny murder-hole that can be opened up by a few shots from the player's cannon, while the rest of the shelter stays intact (until it takes enough damage to self-destruct). Plus, by destroying all but a single type of enemy on a stage, the player can trigger a "challenging stage" in which the remaining invaders combine into a large boss enemy that rains destruction on the player and can be destroyed for a tasty score bonus.

When hit, some enemies fly off into space and arc gradually toward the ground, and the close to the ground these are shot, the higher the bonus the player receives. Return is more difficulty and much tricksier than its predecessors, too, especially with a certain enemy whose core is its only vulnerable point - hitting it elsewhere will cause the player's shot to be reflected back after a cleverly-timed pause. With its looping and pulsating enemy formations, spacey-sounding music, and higher rate of fire, Return retains a much fresher, dynamic feel than the stodgy-to-some original does, these days.

Invadin' The '90s!

Majestic Twelve: The Space Invaders Part IV (1990) mixed things up again, adding powerups, new bonus stages and enemies, and a new level branching level flow reminiscent of Darius, Taito's other popular shooting series. In fact, much of Majestic Twelve's look and presentation should feel familiar to anyone who's played other Taito games from the era, as it shared programmers, artists, and composers with several Darius games and the cult-classic shooter Metal Black. As in Return, there are many and varied new types of invaders, and each stage in the game has its own indigenous and nicely-animated invaders (and bosses).

The powerups new to this game include one that adds a faster rate of fire, one that stops the marching of the invaders momentarily, and one that summons the series' traditional shelters (which aren't present initially in this game). Plus, there are several powerups that grant super-powerful weapons that can destroy many invaders at a time and are activated with a second fire button. Between stages, the player encounters the amusing "Cattle Mutilation" bonus stages, in which the player defends a green pasture full of unwitting cows against flying saucers bent on abducting them. Majestic Twelve does go a bit easier on the player than previous Invaders, and the powerups make it one of the more forgiving games in the series. It's also pleasing to the eye, even today, despite the typically washed-out color palette its hardware sported.

AkkanvaderThe last game in the package is the most colorful of the all: Akkanvader (1995), better known in the US as "Space Invaders '95: The Attack of the Lunar Loonies" is bright and well-animated with sprites that are gigantic when compared with the rest of the series. It's truly a "cute-'em-up," and with its wacky-cartoony style, large cast of playable characters, and the way it lampoons series conventions, it is to Space Invaders as Konami's Parodius is to Gradius. Guest-starring here are two Silver Hawk ships from the Darius series, Sayo from the Pocky & Rocky games and a friend, a stray cat and dog, and two sentient, uh, dollops of excrement, one pink and one blue.

As in Majestic Twelve there are powerups to be collected, and a new charge shot has been added. But Akkanvader moves beyond the single-screen nature of the rest of the series and is a true vertically-scrolling shooter, with proper level layouts and bosses. And even though it was released eleven years ago (and counting), it's as fresh and attractive as any modern 2D game, and a fitting send-off to the series' original run in arcades.

Overall Emulation Impressions?

Each game included in this collection is pixel-perfect in its presentation. The games up to and including Return of the Invaders seem to be emulated, as they retain their coin-operated nature (press the PSP's select button to drop in more credits). Majestic Twelve and Akkanvader lack an explicit credit-feeding button leading one to believe that they were ported instead of emulated. As Return, Majestic Twelve, and Akkanvader are all vertically-oriented games with lengthwise resolutions that exceed the PSP's vertical resolution, they can be viewed in either cropped or rotated modes. The rotated (or "tate") mode in each game can be activated by pressing L and R together. With one's left thumb on the control pad at the bottom of a left-rotated PSP and one's right thumb on the X button at the top, this is not an altogether uncomfortable arrangement, and allows the entire original picture in each of these games to be viewed as it was intended.

Each game has an options menu for setting difficulty, scores for play extends, number of lives, and so forth, and in the front-end menu there's a brief description of each game (in Japanese, of course). The first of each pair (!) of loading screens features a rotating selection of silly illustrations of the titular Invaders involved in everyday activities like singing karaoke, heading off to work, playing arcade games, and so on.

Space Invaders ColorThere are some technical problems with the collection, however. When starting any given game from the main menu, a player can expect to sit through various loading screens that last fifteen seconds or more (Akkanvader takes a full thirty seconds). And returning to the main menu can take just as long, giving you double the wait when switching games. This is a relatively early PSP release, and there was indeed much hubbub about the long loading in UMD-based games back then, but this is a little ridiculous. Plus, Akkanvader sports some heavy slowdown when compared with the original, and it pauses for a half-second to several seconds whenever the background music changes (as it seems to be streamed off the UMD).

Conclusion

Most fans of the original would surely be content with a single, definitive version of the original game (Color, perhaps), so for how much longer will Taito continue to repackage all of those revisions of the original as distinct games? And while Return of the Invaders is an eternal classic in this writer's view (and Majestic Twelve very nearly reaches that level), and while the excellent Akkanvader has only recently made it home outside of this collection (in Taito Legends 2 and Taito Memories 2), it's debatable whether this package is worth its roughly-$50 asking price.

[Trevor Wilson is a web developer who indulges his unhealthy obsession with obscure, strange, and unique video games over at his weblog, namako team.]