Sunday, 19 May 2013

SFC box art number 4: Super Valis IV

Full name: Sūpā Varisu Akaki Tsuki no Otome
Genre: Action
Developer: Telnet Japan
Publisher: Laser Soft
First released: 1992

We're now very much at the business end of the countdown, and into the realm of very special box art. I certainly hope the next few pieces don't disappoint!

The Valis games are very well known in PC-Engine and Mega Drive circles. Luscious anime visuals, solid hack and slash platforming and (in the PC-E games) fantastic cut-scenes, made this much loved series a darling of the import scene in the UK. But it wasn't until the fourth, and penultimate instalment of the saga that Telnet finally saw fit to give their sword wielding maiden a run out on the Super Famicom, in the form of Super Valis IV.

Although the SFC release is a port of the PC-Engine title, there are several notable differences between the two games. Gone are the elaborately animated cut-scenes, along with a couple of stages and the ability to use choose from three different characters. The developers did however add a stage exclusively designed for the SFC.

This is hands down, my favourite piece of anime styled box art on the Super Famicom. Although it could be accused of being slightly plain, I think that the simple design really helps to put the focus solely on the wonderfully drawn characters. This is the kind of stuff we were used to seeing on the front of the latest VHS from Manga Entertainment, and it's another game that I was smitten with from the minute I saw it.

I often cite Super Valis IV as a prime example of just how much of a difference there was between the box art of games released in Japan and those that made it to Europe and North America. If you're interested in just how different the two versions are, then you can view the US art at Gamespot.

A quick peek at: The Holy Trinity

As some of you may well have gathered (especially from my Terranigma love-in), I am a bit of fan of the so called Quintet Trilogy on the Super Nintendo and Super Famicom.

Though none of these games are directly related, there are a number of common themes and characters that connect them, and because of this they have come to be known as a trilogy. Sadly, as is often the case now with slightly obscure RPGs, they are classed as "rare" and so can command a hefty price.

I digress though, the point of this piece is not to bang on about how amazing these three are or how large a bank balance you need to buy them. This is about celebrating what Quintet gave the world through the wonderful box art. So, I'll shut up now and present to you The Quintet Trilogy, in full CIB and original Super Famicom guise...

Soul Blader 

First released in 1992 and given the name of Soul Blazer in North America and the PAL territories.

Gaia Gensōki

First released in 1993 and given the name of Illusion of Gaia in North America and Illusion of Time in the PAL territories.

Tenchi Sōzō

First released in 1995 and given the name of Terranigma in the PAL territories. This game was never released officially in North America.

I don't often see these three together, so I thought it was about time that was changed. And I hope you enjoyed a glimpse at what I consider to be the greatest RPG trilogy there has ever been.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

SFC box art number 5: Ganbare Goemon 2

Full name: Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu
Genre: Action
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
First released: 1993

To many video game aficionados, Konami's Goemon series is held in both high and loving regard. The eclectic mix of Japanese folklore and completely off the wall humour, wrapped up in extremely well designed games struck a real chord with those who looked to the east for their digital fix.

Ganbare Goemon 2 once again follows the escapades of title character Goemon, his brilliantly wacky sidekick; Ebisumaru and now robotic clockwork ninja; Sasuke as they attempt to halt the evil General Magginesu's plans of westernising Japan (textbook!). As you'd probably expect, all sorts of crazy shenanigans happen along the way, with a guest appearance from Sparkster and the giant robot Goemon Impact being amongst the highlights.

I never really know where to start with this's totally nuts! The stand out stuff for me has to be the towering figure of Impact in the background, the mischievous army of bunny men on the reverse of the box and of course, the awesome Ebisumaru, who always looks like he's about to get into to trouble.

This game (and its artwork) epitomises everything that I find fascinating about Japanese video games, and from the first time I saw it in a Super Play feature, I knew that it was one I'd need to own at some point. Just imagine how radical this looked to a 12 year old kid from just didn't see this sort of thing round my way! Even though it was sadly never officially translated, the absence of really heavy text means that you can get through it with little fuss and maximum enjoyment, and so I'd urge any fans of wacky, fantastic video games to hunt down a copy.

Go Goemon!

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Five minutes of fame: GD Leen

Gorgeous SFC box expected.
You probably wouldn't know by looking at it but Seta's GD Leen is a very important game. It has the distinctive honour of being the first RPG released for the Super Famicom, hitting Japanese shops in May 1991...a whopping six months after the system's initial release.

As you might expect from such an early title, it is a bit rough around the edges and lacks some of the sparkle and refinement of the later RPG juggernauts. Even so, this is a fantastic game with a lot going for it and given that it opened the door for some of the most memorable games of the 90s, I feel it is certainly deserving of some attention.

Based on the light novel of the same name, the game follows the story of Ryun, who ends up stranded on the planet of GD Leen after his space craft malfunctions. Whilst there he ends up becoming embroiled in the archetypal civil war and much generic RPG-ness unfolds.

Visually, the game draws much influence from the likes of Xak: The Art of Visual Stage, Lagoon and Neutopia, with the view point and indeed settings being quite similar. In-game cut-scenes are staggeringly pretty, especially for such an early release, with bold anime style characters and colourful environments.

The soundtrack is by far my favourite part of GD Leen and is absolutely tremendous. From the wonderfully melancholic title theme to the oddly upbeat Eules, there are a number of signature tunes which give an early indication of just what the SFC sound chip was capable of.

Battles arrive in the usual form of random, turn based bouts and are viewed in the first person...ala Phantasy Star, Lennus etc. On the whole they're fairly run of the mill affairs, with the exception of mid battle levelling up, which always comes in handy.

Given its rather illustrious position in the annuls of Super Famicom history, I find it a little sad that this game is so rarely mentioned or praised. It may well have been quickly eclipsed by bigger names such Dragon Quest V and The Glory of Heracles III but it is a solid and very enjoyable RPG experience. It also seems that other software houses took note of what developers Jorudan had come up with story-wise, because a certain Star Ocean 2 has remarkably complementary plot.

Unfortunately, as was customary during the 16bit era, GD Leen was never granted an official translation and subsequent western release. Although a US version was mooted and discussed at one point, it seems it was dropped shortly after. Currently the game is on the books of ROM hacking legend; Gideon Zhi and his team over at Aeon Genesis Translations, progress is only at 5% at the minute but I'm hopeful that it will see the light of day in English sooner rather than later.

One final note, I picked up my copy of GD from the fantastic Tsunami Video Games. If you're in the market for great value Super Famicom games then this shop is should definitely be on your hit list!

Friday, 10 May 2013

Gaming's great intros part IV: Wave Race 64

During the mid to late 90s, video game intro sequences had become big news, and it was unusual for any major release not to be accompanied by a flashy FMV/CG based movie. Nintendo's decision therefore, to persist with cartridges as opposed to shiny CDs as the preferred choice of storage medium meant that the newly released N64 needed to show the world that flashy intros were not just the preserve of the disc spinning Playstation and Saturn.

Enter Wave Race 64, with its outrageously uplifting (and not to mention cheesy) music, ridiculously accurate physics and the most impressive water effects of the entire generation...which actually look a lot better than much of the subsequent generation.

From the moment the camera first sweeps around the gloriously designed Dolphin Park (check out that lens flare!), you are left under no illusion that something truly special is unfolding. Watching the riders blast through the sparkling azure waters with squeaking dolphins in tow, gives some indication of just what the N64 could do in the right hands. The supreme attention to detail, coupled with those mind boggling physics and and huge grin factor made Wave Race 64 a real jewel in Nintendo's crown, elevating it above its main rival at the time; Jet Moto on the Playstation (which often felt strangely numb), and making it the premier jet ski game of the day (niche section, I know!).

Wave Race 64 remains to this day, one of the most feel good games I've ever had the privilege to play and own, and even now, just watching this intro makes me feel fantastic. It's also one of the few games that still has me almost slack jawed in awe at just how pretty and well designed it is. So with summer (supposedly) approaching fast, it's the perfect time to break out the Kawasaki jet skis and get racing!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

A decade too late? In defence of Astonishia Story

Astonishia Story is a RPG/SRPG developed by Korean company; Sonnori. It was initially released on the PC in 1994 and then in 2002 it was given a remake (also on PC), which was ported to the GP32 handheld and eventually Sony's PSP.

As I write this, I'm painfully aware that my opinion of the PSP port of Astonishia Story leaves me very much in the minority (possibly of one). Almost everywhere I've looked, this game has been ridiculed, derided, and often dismissed as useless, boring and even unfinished. I'm not so sure it deserves such harsh treatment though.

Adlehyde meets Gregminster?
Now although I do have a genuine affection for it I'm not one to ignore the facts, Astonishia Story has some pretty major faults to contend with. It has by far the most abysmal (and literal) translation I've ever come across in an officially released title (yes, even worse than Breath of Fire 2 and Paladin's Quest), it is littered with grammatical errors, the characters are also overly clichéd as is the story and when you place it up alongside the visuals in some of the PSP aristocracy, it looks like belongs in 1994 (because in essence, it does).

Add to that lot, a strangely severe imbalance between enemies which can see you skip through a few fights with relative ease, and then get nailed for no apparent reason, and it's not difficult to see why so few people give it the time of day.

Impressive if a bit generic character portraits.

Those aforementioned indiscretions aren't enough to dent my enthusiasm. This quirky and old fashioned Korean RPG has bucket loads of the 'X factor' that many of us crave in a video game, and as a result it holds a special place in my heart.

The 2D visuals, while looking somewhat dated are beautifully drawn and boast delightfully intricate animation, which actually isn't too far away from the level of Suikoden 2 and Wild Arms. In fact I'd probably say that graphically Astonishia is very reminiscent of RPGs from the peak of the 16bit era...only with an added flamboyance.

Each town and village is packed with the kind elaborate detail that borders on unnecessary, such as ticking clocks and birds flying overhead, and I know this doesn't sound overly impressive in 2013 but to me it's an indication of just how much the developers cared about the overall look and feel of the game. Though never mind blowing, the world map is also pretty and is somewhat reminiscent of Chrono Trigger, with the usual sprawling mountain ranges and and rolling hills. The characters, both lead and NPCs are well designed and each main star comes with their own beautifully styled portrait that pops up for conversations (again, very Suikoden). This adds a deal of personality to each scene...more indication of effort on Sonnori's part.

Random encounters have been given the boot.
Sonically there isn't much to blow the mind...and Chrono Cross, it certainly ain't. The typically pleasant and generic RPG tunes are present and accounted for, along with a few stand-out pieces to raise the bar at important moments in the story. All in all it does a good job of transporting you back to a simpler time.

Astonishia's Achilles heel is oft seen as its much maligned story. I can only comment on the English language translation and unfortunately it is dreadful. In fact I'm genuinely surprised Ubisoft chose to publish the game in this state, and I can only surmise their QR department was on holiday that week...or they just didn't care. Either way it's a real shame because there are numerous moments when I could see glimpses of an excellent story poking out from under the layers of dodgy spelling and lazy grammar. Anyone who's experienced Enix's botched translation of Lennus (into Paladin's Quest) will know what I mean here. And even though the game's ability to convey moments of emotion have been stunted, there are still both heart warming and heart wrenching scenes to be appreciated.

The battle system is probably this game's shining light and is both efficient and challenging. Those who have dabbled with the likes of Fire Emblem, FEDA or Langrisser will feel instantly at home with the grid based, strategic layout. Tactics play a significant part in each battle, to the extent that a couple of wrong moves can see your party get wiped out...which brings a stop the monotony often experienced with battles in many turn based RPGs

Can't beat a nice RPG grid!
All this geniality is nicely wrapped up in a glorious and typically over the top anime styled intro...complete with obligatory cheesy guitar work. Textbook brilliance if you like that sort of thing (I do).

So if you're the kind of person who has more than a passing interest in 90's RPGs, specifically the era of the SNES/SFC, Mega Drive and PC-Engine, and can put up with a few (substantial) foibles, then you should really consider giving this outcast some consideration. It has so many of the ingredients required to make a solid and enjoyable RPG and what's more, because it's so unpopular you can pick it up for next to nothing...result!

Astonishia Story did spawn a sequel of sorts, known in the west as Crimson Gem Saga. This game was actually translated properly and is a real leap forward in terms of graphics and sound. It is definitely worth checking out too.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Too weird for the west? Part 2: Shounen Ashibe

The cuteness knows no bounds...
Today sees me back on the trail of interesting Japanese games that never saw the light of day outside of their homeland, and also back again with a Super Famicom platform game.

Now if (for some reason) you've been searching for the cutest game ever, then you can probably rein in the hounds and call the hunt off right now, because Shounen Ashibe is going take some beating. Developed by Nova Games (the same studio responsible for the rather lovely Xandra's Big Adventure), it features a ridiculously cute seal cub named Syo as the main character, and his mission (I swear) is to wander around a theme park of sorts collecting chicks, apples and baby rabbits. Those of a Call of Duty disposition should probably grab a bucket at this point...

Yay for parallax scrolling!
Given that this game was one of the earlier Super Famicom releases (way back in 1992), it's genuinely impressive to find it full of neat graphical touches, the likes of which were often lacking in these smaller scale efforts. The levels, though a bit empty at times are especially pretty, and help show off a decent portion of the machine's potential, with swanky parallax backgrounds and vivid design. The main focus though is rightly on Syo, and the little seal dishes up a hat-full of adorable animations (along with squeaks), the best of which is surely when he hangs off a ledge waggling his flippers.

In between stages there are entertaining water based bonus levels to take part in, which help to keep things fresh. Though never particularly trying, they do add to the game's overall appeal and fun factor. There's also an RPG style over-world, (akin to Light Fantasy or Chaos Seed) where you can talk to people, progress the game and probably find out what's going on in the story...unfortunately I don't yet read Japanese so it makes no sense to me, looks nice though!

Far too happy given his current location...
Syo's adventure differs slightly from the common platform fare of 'reach the exit' by requiring the player to collect a certain number of items before the end of each level. this involves head-butting things to find said goods and at one point even heading basketballs into the open mouth of a hippo (so run of the mill, I know). Again, not revolutionary by any stretch but definitely a plus point.

Despite it’s overly cute appearance, Shounen Ashibe is a refreshingly deep and thoroughly enjoyable platform romp. It’s not exactly the last word in 2D hop and bob, but it is very easy to fall in love with ...that is if you can stomach all the cuteness. And this actually got me thinking, if there existed in 1992, the large amount of young female gamers that we see today, then this off-beat little gem may well have been granted passage out of Japan.

I do love a good over-world! 
Although it still saddens me that it took over 15 years to get my mitts on this game, it has definitely been a case of better late than never! And if like me, you simply can't resist the kawaii stuff then Shounen Ashibe is an absolute must...even if it is a bit tough to track down these days.

Shouldn't be funny but is...
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also enjoy Too weird for the west? Part 1: Gegege no Kitaro

Monday, 29 April 2013

Vampires, whips and 16bits

Throughout the years much has been much written about Konami’s wondrous Castlevania series (a boat load in all honesty). And for one instalment in particular there is very little that has not been said, no part of the game left upraised and no dimly lit Transylvanian corridor unexplored... I am talking of course about the legendary SNES offering; Super Castlevania IV. Even though this game has been pulled apart on innumerable occasions, it has not deterred me from adding my own two penneth’s worth into the mix.

Released in 1991 as part of the Super Nintendo’s first wave assault on the gaming landscape, Super Castlevania IV arrived on the scene carrying with it the heavy burden of reputation - the rabid love for its predecessors was a force to be reckoned with. Although on the face of it, seemingly not much more than a simple 16bit re-working of Simon Belmont’s original NES outing, it soon becomes apparent that the cosmetic Mode 7 upgrades are just the beginning of this vamp-tastic (yes that’s a word!) adventure. Konami unleash upon us an array of undead baddies, eerie vistas and demonic overlords that will test even the most intrepid of vampire hunters.

Once again the game focuses on the tale of the unfortunately named Simon Belmont and his quest to slay the biggest and baddest undead fiend of them all; Dracula. Belmont must navigate the vast labyrinths and mazes of his nemesis’ castle (as well its substantial ‘grounds’) and using his trusty whip, slay hordes of minions and generally kick arse along the way (there may also be some swinging involved...but thankfully not of the fruit bowl variety).

Visuals – 8.5 / 10 

In what is a rare occurrence for a Konami game, the graphics do not immediately blow you away and in fact for the first 20 minutes or so you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. This is not to say the appearance is initially poor (far from it), the graveyards and outer reaches of the castle are immaculately drawn and ooze atmosphere, it’s just that it’s all a bit...brown, or maybe “earthen” is a better term. Though this does fit in with the gothic and chilling undertone of the game, it can feel a little samey.

Anyways, as with many of the finer things in life, once things get up and running you are treated to a Konami master class in how to how to “do graphics”. There is gorgeous use of parallax scrolling, seeing the night sky drift past the dilapidated walls is heaven for any 16bit fan! The sprites for the legions of evil creatures are beautifully drawn and then we get to the bosses which manage to put a decent amount of later Super Nintendo games to shame. From the delightfully translucent giant skull to the brutish take on Frankenstein’s Monster, these end of level titans are as jaw dropping in their appearance as they are in their difficulty.

And as was the way in the early 90’s, Super Castlevania IV takes huge advantage of the SNES’ (still mind boggling) Mode 7 trickery...leading to one of the most talked about and impressive scenes of the 16bit era. Yes, the chandelier bit is as good as everyone says it is...there is just something immensely satisfying about dancing over giant swinging light fittings! The scene’s cemented renown in gaming folklore is very much deserved.

Sound – 10/10

As any fan of the series can attest to, music is one of Castlevania’s strongest and most enduring features, and the SNES version is no different. It is well known amongst fans of the console that the Nintendo’s second grey box had the capacity to produce some quite staggering musical scores, so it is rather pertinent (to me at least) to say say that Super Castlevania IV’s is up there with the very best that the system has to offer.

The soundtrack is dark and foreboding – classic horror stuff and you could honestly be forgiven for thinking it was scored by an actual orchestra...on a cartridge! The use of organ (or the midi version of it anway) fits in perfectly well with the baroque style ambience of the game and adds a genuine feeling of darkness to each level you tackle. For my money, a video game soundtrack is only truly exceptional when I find myself listening to it outside of playing the actual game, this one has been on my iPod for a number of years now...and it will not be going anywhere soon.

Playability – 9/10

Once again here Super Castlevania IV starts off at leisurely pace, the first couple of sections are nothing more than an evening stroll around the castle grounds slaying a few slow moving monstrosities...this does seem trying initially but later on you realise that the period of familiarisation was actually a must. The gameplay is similar to earlier incarnations of the game but with some much needed improvements; Mr Belmont can now whip all around the place (or at least in eight directions as opposed to just four) which makes for some lovely diagonal action. The whip (aptly named ‘The Vampire Killer’) can also be held in front of the player and swung around like a flail; this inflicts less damage in exchange for much more frequent hits. An extra treat also comes in the form of sub-weapons such as daggers and axes which come in handy when the going gets tough.

Although controlling Simon initially feels slightly cumbersome, once you have the hang of it, the system feels very natural and then we get to Konami’s pièce de résistance: the whip can be used to latch onto and swing over various obstacles which allows you to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Although this kind of thing seems standard today, it was revelatory stuff for the series and gives the game a much more fluid platform style flow.

Longevity – 8/10 

The game is stretched out over 11 magnificent and varied levels, cunningly each one is just that bit tougher than the last so you never feel like you've run into a wall of difficulty. Make no mistake though, this is a hard game and death is never far away. Even though you learn that certain jumps require super precision and certain enemies have a pattern you’ll probably use continues and become familiar with the password system. If you’re not skilled at the platform genre then making it to the end and besting this beast may be a tremendous test of patience. The game is best suited to committed folk looking for a challenge and a bit of exploration to go with their platform escapades.

Sadly the western releases of the game were blighted by the usual censorship shite that we had become used to. Dripping blood was replaced by green ‘slime’, certain religious crosses and removed and the obligatory topless statues were given some clothing to keep them warm...but even this overly nannied approach though does not detract from what is an awesome spectacle with tonnes of replay value.

Overall In more recent times, Super Castlevania IV has (in my eyes at least) been eclipsed by the nigh-on perfect Symphony of the Night for the PSX. Never-the-less it is still a veritable classic and one of the Super Nintendo’s flagship titles, whilst it does begin at a rather sedate pace and maybe lacks the initial wow factor of a Super Mario World or F-Zero, those willing to persist with it will find true quality the likes of which is all too rarely seen.

I am a long time fan of this fantastic game and, in this reviewer’s humble opinion it absolutely carries the torch for a time when video games were not only scaling new heights of technical excellence, but were also crafted with genuine heart and soul...something which seems sadly lacking in many of today’s releases. Super Castlevania IV is dripping in both class and charisma and although I dislike the phrase, it really is a tour de force that once again shows what Konami could achieve at their brilliant best...and when playing with Super power.

Go out right this minute and buy it!

Score 9 out of 10

Saturday, 27 April 2013

SFC box art number 6: Super Mario Kart

Full name: Sūpā Mario Kāto
Genre: Racing
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
First released: 1992

Here we have a video game colossus that really needs no introduction. If you're a fan of console gaming, then it's likely at some point you've played Super Mario Kart (or at least one its various offspring). A great many games are often hailed as revolutionary or genre defining, but in this case that tag actually does apply.

Although there's nothing hugely clever or jaw droppingly pretty going on here, I've always found the Super Mario Kart artwork totally bewitching. The ingenious use of some of gaming's most lovable characters and the promise of bags of vivid and colourful fun, is one of the most powerful images of the 1990's. Mostly though it harks back to an age where Mario still had a bit of belly and a weft of innocence about him, and when a young lad from Liverpool (me) was left wide eyed at the prospect of racing a koopa trooper around a beach!

I think the biggest tribute that I could pay to Super Mario Kart is that even though it was released some 20 plus years ago, it still remains the most fun I've ever had playing video games. And I honestly can't see anything displacing it.

Friday, 26 April 2013

SFC box art number 7: Vortex

Full name: Vortex - The FX Robot Battle
Developer: Argonaut
Publisher: Pack-In-Video (Japan)

So we arrive at number 7 in my Super Famicom box art countdown, and what's giant mechs thus far?! Fear not, as this will now be addressed with the very interesting Vortex. Developed by British company Argonaut; Vortex was one of the first (and few) games to show off Nintendo's shiny new Super FX chip and gave 16bit gamers a taste of what Transformers could have looked like on the SNES.

I've got to be honest, part of me thinks this box art should have been number 1 in the list, but the RPG fan boy in me (and my girlfriend) just wouldn't allow it. It is however, absolutely stunning.

It's very rare I've come across a piece of Super Famicom art that's so foreboding and so...epic. The level of detail on show on the giant mech (named 'Morphing Battle System') beggars belief and the background only serves to exaggerate the scale of the metal behemoth. This picture looks like it's been taken straight from the cover of a sci-fi novel about a distant and apocalyptic war.

The reverse side brings with it a slice of reality with some screens of what the game actually looks like, but seriously, you tend not to pay it much attention.

Although Vortex is a fine game, and uses the SFX chip remarkably well, I can't help feeling that it suffers from a classic case of the artwork being just too awesome for the game to keep up. That said, what Argonaut achieved with just a measly 4mbit cart is astounding, and I'd have loved to see what they could have done with a bigger 16mbit cart.

This particular example was purchased from the wonderful Genki Video Games. Check them out!