Saturday, March 9, 2019

Hudson Soft's original Caravan trilogy

Hudson's All-Japan Caravan Festival...a legendary series of competitions held yearly throughout the 80's and 90s. It was established at the height of the shoot-em-up's popularity, and this shows in the lineup. Before Bomberman became the face of Hudson, the first three years of the competition revolved around the Famicom shooters Star Force, Star Soldier and Hector '87 (known in the west as Starship Hector). Here's a little history lesson!

Star Force (1985 Tehkan)

While not the first autoscrolling shootemup (that honor I believe goes to Konami's Scramble in 1981), it's definitely one of early influencers on the genre.

Star Force is often spoken of in the same breath as 1986's Hudson's Star Soldier, and for good reason; however, Star Force was originally developed by a completely different company called Tehkan (better known later as Tecmo, and currently known as Koei Tecmo). Hudson ported Tehkan's arcade original to the Famicom a year after its release, and while Tehkan later went its own way with Star Force 2, Hudson took several cues from the original and made history with the Soldier series.


I think Star Force probably gets short shrift in the face of its more famous spiritual sequel, but there's still a good time to be had with even such a simple game. Compared to more sedate contemporaries like Namco's Super Xevious, both the player and enemies feel zippier with the ability to fire as fast as you could press the button (when closer to the top of the screen at least; when at the bottom, the number of onscreen shots was limited). It was also known for having an impressive 22 different enemy types, each with their own pattern of movement. The simple controls and satisfying explosion sounds make this game hold up surprisingly well!

Star Soldier (1986 Hudson)

With Star Soldier, Hudson built upon the earlier Star Force formula and made the game its own. Functionally very similar to the previous game with one very unwelcome (in my opinion) addition: the ability to fly beneath the terrain, rendering the player invincible but unable to attack. I think there's a simple trick to doing this at will, but more likely you'll be doing it on accident at the worst possible times.

Star Soldier keeps the large enemy variety and large bosses, while rewarding the player with not just two (as in Star Force), but four levels of shot power. Fully powering up your ship and being able to autofire in all directions is still fun.

Star Soldier is the most famous subject of Hudson's Caravan competitions (until Bomberman took over, that is) and was the game that cemented the legendary reputation of Toshiyuki Takahashi, a Hudson employee also known as Takahashi Meijin, or "Master Takahashi" for his ability to supposedly fire 16 times per second. Takahashi Meijin is an interesting story that I won't go into here, but look him up!

Hector '87 (1987 Hudson)

This is the one they don't talk about so much. In some ways Hector '87 seems like a step back from the previous game; the graphics are improved and stages alternate between vertically and horizontally scrolling a la Konami's Life Force, but the pacing feels slightly sedate and the player's ship design is decidedly un-hype, leading to a less compelling overall package. Although the player feels more sluggish, enemy attacks are severely increased! Thankfully you have a health bar now (which honestly is the weirdest thing about this game).

One interesting choice is Hudson's decision to give the player a standard shot and a bomb to hit ground enemies, just like Xevious. However, they also did away with weapon power-ups entirely,

In Hector '87's favor, however, the game allows players to choose 2 or 5 minute "caravan mode" from the title screen, making it even easier to practice for competition.

After Hector '87, Hudson would move the Caravan onto the PC Engine console. Other than 1988's Power League baseball game, the Caravan would continue to revolve around shooters for quite a while longer, including the excellent Final Soldier (for my money the best in the Soldier series).

If you want to try some no frills retro shooting, give the original trilogy a try!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

I'm glad Namco stopped making their cover art like this

Absolutely nobody: "..."
Mid-90's Namco:

Here's something I've never seen anybody talk about: In the young days of the North American PS1, Namco came out kicking by releasing ports of their early-90s arcade games. Can you detect the subtle pattern in the cover art*?

Yes, like Nintendo's celebrated "Black Box" launch titles and Capcoms "gridline screensaver" cover art, it seems like Namco was angling to establish a House Style for their western releases. While "Terrified Person Wearing Headgear while tiny renders of in-game vehicles float in their eyeballs" doesn't exactly explain to me what the game is about, you knew you were getting a Namco product when you saw it. good??

However, concurrent with these releases were other Namco games (such as Tekken and Air Combat) that did not follow this short lived trend, and after the release of Starblade Alpha in late April 1996 Namco seems to have abandoned it entirely. In fact, Ridge Racer only used this cover in the version of the game that came bundled with the Playstation console; subsequent standalone releases had the standard car cover.

Perhaps Namco quickly saw how limiting the style was and how little it did to actually market the game to potential buyers? Pehaps the plan all along was to have only these three games share a similar cover, but what would tie them together? Other games like Air Combat would have been a perfect candidate for Man In Helmet style.**

Contemporary games that used more descriptive cover art

This is just a bit of ephemera that other Namco maniacs might find interesting. Fortunately for them (and us, those covers are freaking me out), as far as I know they stopped using this style after those three games....HEY WAIT A SECOND

*actually, the helmet man on the Starblade Alpha cover art was only used on the manual, while the actual box art was a more conventional image of the GeoSword ship. I guess at that point they were phasing out the concept, but wanted to keep it there in some capacity?

**UPDATE! Remember how I said that Air Combat should have used this style of cover art? Turns out the hid it on there too; Ian on Twitter let me know that even Air Combat uses the Helmet Man...but only on the back of the manual and case.

Thanks for the tip Ian! Now I'm going to have to dig and see how many more of these they made...

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Zombie Revenge (Dreamcast, 1999)

**Hey guys; as expected, I missed ANOTHER October Horror Games month! I've been busy lately, what with moving 1600 miles across the country to start a new job at a game studio in California. I do plan on finishing these though! Stay tuned.**

Known mostly its over the top horror atmosphere, location-specific enemy damage and absolutely ludicrous voice acting, HotD is one of the elder statesmen of the light-gun genre. Think of it as a good version of Crypt Killer (does anyone besides me think about Crypt Killer?). Most of the franchise plays it straight; move through a variety of locations on rails, clowning on zombies and mutants with a fun and satisfying selection of firearms. Every one of the light games absolutely rules.

However, once in a while Sega likes to mix it up and we'll get a strange spinoff title such as the The Typing of the Dead, The Pinball of the Dead, the odd minigame collection (featuring two zombies in love!) House of the Dead EX, and today's exhibit, 1999's Naomi/Dreamcast title Zombie Revenge.

There's still a whole lot of shooting for a beatemup

The game is full of setpieces and novel situations, like this deathtrap room

Unfortunately, Zombie Revenge is the weakest spinoff of the franchise. The light-gun theme (and first-person viewpoint) is dropped in favor of a beat-em-up style of gameplay similar to Sega's own Dynamite Cop, released the previous year. Control the excellently named Stick Breitling (the standard man character), Linda Rotta (the standard woman character) or Rikiya Busujima (a ki wielding force of nature who resembles a 1970's Japanese crime movie archetype, specifically actor Yusaku Matsuda) and prevent the confusion in the city during a zombie outbreak.

Per the HotD Wiki, Zombie Revenge was originally titled Blood Bullet: The House of the Dead Side Story and Zombies Nightmare, two way cooler names.

Is it good?
Zombie Revenge is a sharp looking game, with detailed character models and decent looking environments (mainly grimy urban areas) and a few sick boss designs. There's even a stage in the latter part of the game where you revisit Curien mansion from HotD 1, complete with the classic stage 1 theme and the iconic run through the mansion courtyard!

Disappointingly, the bosses do not follow the trend of being named after tarot cards here, other than our pal Magician


There are lots of arcade style gimmicks, such as rescuing civilians and pulling the brakes on an out of control train while your partner holds off an endless wave of enemies. The presentation side is flashy, goofy and well done.

On the other hand, the gameplay leaves me cold. The combat feels stiff and repetitive; I don't feel that each character's arsenal is varied enough to really empower the player. Gunplay, which is actually a large part of the combat--it's still House of the Dead after all--is similarly unsatisfying. The visceral fun of blasting zombies to pieces from the mainline games does not translate at all in Zombie Revenge.

Speaking of not feeling empowered, the difficulty in this game is very uneven and in my (and many others) opinion is difficult in a cheap way. Come for the atmosphere, not the gameplay.

A full playthrough should run you around 45 minutes or so and boyoass do you feel every one of those minutes. Honestly if it were a little shorter and breezier I think the game would do well for it.

I'm glad the big ghostly head from Crypt Killer got a job in Zombie Revenge

Even Stick can't believe that's his name

Is it scary?
Shit no; any other HotD game is scarier than this one, and there are no scary HotD games. This franchise has always been more of a B-movie experience than actual horror...rundown mansions, over the top violence, mad scientists, bad acting. On that front, Zombie Revenge does exactly what it set out to do. I suppose the time limit could be nerve-wracking if that sort of thing bothers you. It doesn't help that an alarm noise plays incessantly when it's time to move on and the announcer will straight up yell THERE'S NO TIME when the clock starts running low.

Should you buy it?
Welllll, that really depends on the person. I don't think it's an extremely good game, but it is a spectacle, and as of now you can find it on ebay for around $30 USD. For House of the Dead fans I say go for it! For everyone else, I would recommend Dynamite Cop if you want a DC beatemup.

Also, someone on the development team was a big Desperado fan if that helps influence your decision at all!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Fantavision (PS2, 2000) A Flashy, Tonally Inconsistent Puzzle Game

It's Fantavision!

It's July 4th! In the United States it's Independence Day, a holiday that was ostensibly created for, you know...patriotic America type shit. Nobody actually cares, it's an acceptable reason to get drunk and set off fireworks! In the spirit of this most sacred holiday, I'd like you to take a look at the tech demo-turned-Playstation 2 launch title, Fantavision.

Intended to be a game that the entire family could enjoy, I assume Fantavision was localized to diversify the launch lineup for the Playstation 2 in 2000. However, the top ten best sellers for that year were headed by Madden 2001, Tekken Tag Tournament and SSX. It's a safe bet that western audiences had no clue what to think of Fantavision, and the fact that it appears to be little-remembered (outside of the few who bought it at launch and fell in love) seems to reflect that.

I went with the Japanese version for a few reasons, particularly the disc design

Fantavision's presentation is immediately striking; as a fireworks based puzzle game with no actual character-based hook, the introduction and packaging goes for an odd, somewhat Norman Rockwell-esque theme of a good old-fashioned American family getting together to play some PS2. I'm into the anachronistic, 50's style infomercial look, though some people have said the introduction and inter-stage cutscenes can be off-putting and creepy. And you know what: they're not wrong.

I think it's cute, in a supremely odd way. We need to talk about the greenscreen goofup that sheared half the face off that poor boy on the right, though.

What's Fantavision?

Think of it like a cross between a color matcher and Missile Command! Fantavision is easy to explain if you're familiar with color matching puzzlers in the vein of Dr. Mario, Tetris Attack, Candy Crush and the like. The camera pans slowly over a cityscape at night as fireworks of various colors are launched from the bottom of the screen. Drag your cursor over consecutive fireworks of the same color (at least three of em) and press the Circle button to detonate them in a beautiful, Turn of the Century display of particle effects. Let them hang in the air too long and they fizzle, draining your energy gauge. This is the ebb and flow of the game.

Once you've gotten the hang of chaining consecutive colors, notice how hitting any special fireworks that aren't tied to colors (such as the versatile Wildcards or one of several Items) allows you to start tagging differently colored fireworks! This is where the "Daisy Chain" system comes in. For example:

-Tag four blue fireworks
-Tag a Wildcard firework--now you have a Five Chain, or...
-You can now tag two or more of a different color firework and voila: a 2-Daisy.

2-Daisies are just the start of course, and expert players can plan ahead to get multiple combos in one detonation. Doing this before your fireworks start to fizzle out is another thing entirely, though!

Handy instruction card in the Japanese manual explaining various rules, items and fireworks patterns

Working on a big chain during a "Star Mine" sequence, wherein all fireworks are (usually) the same color

Fantavision begins in a festive nighttime city, but as you progress through the game the player enters Earth orbit (yes, there are fireworks there), a moon base, and finally to a Dimension Beyond Space where the fireworks emerge from all sides of the screen. I'm never making it that far into the game though, because Fantavision is hellaciously difficult and has yet to really "click" with me from a gameplay perspective.

Moonbase gameplay from Youtube. Source: Higher Plains

A fairly robust Replay Mode lets you watch your play from different angles and with various camera/weather effects!

Fantavision was originally created as a tech demo to show how well the Playstation 2 could handle particle effects (perhaps to show off its higher video RAM compared to PS1; correct me if I'm mistaken). Somewhere down the line they realized that a real ass game could be squeezed out of the idea, and Fantavision was released to...polite reviews. Consensus seems to be that it was an average but unremarkable puzzle game, a little thin on content but with nice graphics. Unfortunately I can't find any sales numbers, but according to Youtube comment sections it's remembered fondly!

Regional Differences - A Soundtrack For Everybody!

Here's an interesting oddity about the game: the NTSC-J, NTSC-U and PAL releases of Fantavision all have entirely different soundtracks.

The Japan version was composed by Soichi Terada, an electronic musician known for composing for Ape Escape and co-founding the musical group Omodaka (!!) while the North American soundtrack was scored by Ashif Hakik, a composer whose credits list is short but includes Sly Cooper and Tomba 2. Both versions have their own bright spots, with a mix of funky techno and more atmospheric, new-age sounding tracks. The PAL version, by contrast, is the work of composer Jim Croft and is decidedly more European in its dance club feel. Of the three I prefer the Japanese version best, though all of them are decent.

One very odd thing is the PAL version's intro music; rather than the appropriately goofy muzak style of the Japan and NA release it goes for a techno tune that is strangely dark and unfitting against the visuals. Super weird!

Also of note are the announcers. The Japan and Europe releases feature separate female VAs calling out the onscreen action while the North American version uses a slightly bored sounding male announcer. It's a tossup between the PAL and JP announcers for me.

Skip to 0:15 to hear the European intro music.

And here are the three soundtracks for Fantavision if you'd like to compare them yourself! They're all quite different.

North American Soundtrack
Japanese Soundtrack
European Soundtrack

Competitive Mode

I haven't played it myself, but it's said that the real fun of Fantavision is in its 2-player Versus Mode. Players compete to get the highest explosion combos while a variety of items also fly onto the screen to give yourself an advantage (or mess with your opponent). The western releases of the game got this mode out of the box; it wasn't until the Japanese rerelease titled Futari no Fantavision ("Fantavision For You And Me" or more literally "Two-Person Fantavision") that Japan could play 2-player as well.

"I want to enjoy every possible thing within today as my heart wishes, but I will leave some for tomorrow." You said it, kid

So that's Fantavision! Should you play it? I don't know, maybe. The steep learning curve, idiosyncratic soundtrack(s) and bizarre cutscenes seem as if they would be off-putting to the wide audience that Fantavision aimed to please. Now that I'm older and weirder I find it a very interesting piece of art that you don't see so often in mainstream games.

You won't find anything earth-shattering with Fantavision, but it's an neat little game with great music and an odd presentation style that makes it stand out from the crowd. Get the lovely HD version of it on PS4 if you want to go that way!

I'm also a sucker for anything with fireworks, though...