Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Gaming's great intros part I: Soul Edge

Namco's early mastery of the Playstation provided us with some titles of real quality. Almost single headedly, they managed to show what could actually be done with Sony’s grey box of tricks and gave us a real insight the then 'next generation'. The release of 1996’s Soul Edge cemented their reputation as one of the machine’s most talented development studios, and as pioneers in glorious, over the top intro sequences.

Launched at the height of the new FMV/CG animation rush, Soul Edge boasted what was easily the greatest intro of any game during the 90's (possibly ever in fact). Indeed, the opening homily of “transcending history and the world” (which I’m sure is voiced by Resident Evil’s ‘Barry Burton’) is enough to send shivers down the spine, and it provides a moment of serenity before all hell breaks loose and we are treated to numerous displays of outrageous swordsmanship and carnage.

Although the CG models may now be starting to show their age, the overall feel of the intro has stood up well to the test of time, and it still remains an audio ‘tour de force’ with it’s sweeping strings the perfect accompaniment to the stomping drums and typically over the top guitars.

It is worth noting that this is the intro for the original Japanese release and is therefore uncensored. For some reason, we poor saps in the west were deemed too impressionable to watch Li Long clean house with a set of nun-chucks and too excitable to watch Sophitia bathe in a lake…without her swimming costume!

Soul Edge itself will be given a more in depth look further down the line, but for now, enjoy this fantastic piece of CG artistry, and epic tale of ‘Soul and Swords’.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Neugier: A rose tinted retrospect?

Although it looked fairly standard, this could've been a hit on western shores

Now this one really is obscure...

'Neugier Umi to Kaze no Kodo' is a title that will be pretty much unknown to most SNES fans. Released in Japan for the Super Famicom in 1993 by Wolf Team, it's a short (very short actually) action RPG in the mold of Soulblazer, Lagoon and the Ys games.

For some reason this game always has always interested me (funny that Neugier is actually German for 'curiosity'). I first caught sight of it in an old copy of Super Play (issue 10), and it was literally only a few screenshots and a couple of paragraphs about how this neat little Zelda clone would be worth a look once it was given a US release as 'Journey Home: Quest for the Throne'. Something about those pictures really caught my eye though and the game reached out to me as an RPG starved Brit (the fact that it looked like a slightly more basic Zelda III wouldn’t have done it any harm either). For the next few months, I kept a keen eye on all US game releases, eagerly awaiting more news.

To be honest that was pretty much the last I heard of Neugier. The US release had just dropped off the radar (no Internet back in those days meant this happened a lot), and so it was filed away in a dusty part of my brain as another missed opportunity...until earlier this year.

Spurred on by a reborn love for gaming and SNES RPG's in particular, I found myself excitedly searching my ROM collection for old RPG gems, and eventually I happened upon Neugier. Much to my dismay though, there was no English ROM to be found, a quick dig around Google yielded answers.

By all accounts the game did receive an English translation, and subsequently a US release was planned (it even got as far as the box art being produced, which being American, was nob). However the project was scrapped when Sega acquired Renovation Products, and immediately pulled the plug on all Nintendo projects (Renovation were the North American publishing arm for Wolf Team's parent company, Telnet Japan). The west was once again denied a decent RPG, and Sega had once again pissed on my chips.

By the by, the remnants of Wolf Team and Telnet would eventually go on to form tri-Ace and Namco's Tales Studio, who are responsible for behemoths such as the Star Ocean series and the Tales series...from small acorns eh.

Anyways, further Googling brought results that really lifted my spirits, ‘Haeleth’ and ‘RPGOne’, two heroes of the fan translation scene, had hacked the ROM, performed some crazy magic and released their own translated version of the game...HA, in your face Sega!!

After a wee bit of Lunar IPS patch magic I was finally able to play Neugier: Journey had certainly felt like a journey to me.

So what about the game then?

Well, you play as Duke, the banished son of Count Wein, the ruler of the realm of Neugier. Duke is journeying home amid rumours of pirates and witches wreaking havoc in the place he once resided in. First impressions are that the story does a job but was never designed to worry the RPG aristocracy, but actually, take time to read between the lines slightly and there's more going on here. Very early on in the game, we see innocent people viciously slaughtered, kidnap and a thick veil of deception...not bad for an action RPG. There are also a couple of fairly decent plot twists (for the time) thrown in throughout the journey to keep you interested.

Graphically and sonically, Neugier weighs in at above average for the SNES, falling short of Enix, Square and Capcom standards, but trouncing offerings such as Lagoon, YSIII and Arcus Spirits. And while it is let down badly by it's (criminally) short lifespan, the developers, aware of this, added in a ranking system which dished out a score based on completion time of the game...which does add replay value I guess.

Duke himself is a joy to control and actually reminds me somewhat of a more basic Ark from Terranigma (someone from Quintet obviously played this game). He use the obligatory RPG sword as a main weapon, but he also gains a pretty nifty grappling hook. This is another of Neugier’s standout features, because as well as repelling enemies, it also allows Duke to reach otherwise inaccessible areas of the game and hurl rocks and crates at his enemies. This all action style game play is where Neugier really excels and separates itself from the other games in it’s genre, which are so often mired in mediocrity. Small wonder the ‘Tales of’ games are so well engineered, with such talented staff working on them.

For me, it’s a crying shame that this game never made it to the west in an official capacity, in those days we in the English-speaking world were crying out for solid RPG titles, and very rarely did we receive. It's even fair to say that this game would probably have amassed a pretty decent die-hard fan base (me included), there were enough features to make it stand out amongst rivals at the time and it could hold it's own in most departments. Unfortunately though, it became just another obscure footnote in the annuls of the all conquering SNES, left to toil in the shadows of more elaborate cohorts, it's few supporters being those who discovered the awesome fan translation. This is quite a tragedy in my eyes, as this little game deserved much better.

And so, as I was merrily blasting through the game and thinking to myself "this is ace", I was struck by a quite profound and relevant thought...was this game really as good as I was telling myself? Or was I just caught up in the joy of finally snaring something that had eluded me for 15 long years?

To help answer this, I cast my mind back and tried to predict what the mercurial Super Play and in particular, the mighty Zy Nicholson (RPG overlord) might have made of it all. After much deliberation, I concluded that it probably would have received an above average 65%, with praise for the battle system, character control and possibly music, but a slamming for the longevity and a mild chastising for the graphics for hardly pushing the machine. Overall, a worthy addition to the RPG scene, and that was that.

But I don’t know, for me, on this day…it’s clearly an 8 out of 10 game.

So there we have it, and this brings me neatly on to the final question. Does this viewpoint mean that my glasses are indeed rose tinted?

It appears so...and long may it remain that way.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

An ode to Shenmue

Ryo Hazuki...all round good guy, fond of hair gel

Firstly, let me start by saying that I'm in no way a Sega fan boy. In fact, during the console wars of the 90's I was a foot soldier of the big N, and would've argued until there was no air left in my lungs that the SNES was superior to the MegaDrive. And whilst I appreciated some Sega games, I never gained true respect for Sega as a company until the release of the Dreamcast...this stance (to me anyways) makes it even more pertinent when I say that Yu Suzuki's Shenmue is one of the finest games ever produced, not just on a Sega machine, but period.

Shenmue is one of those very rare gems and it's very easy to find yourself taking about how it "transcends gaming" and is an "experience like no other". I'll try not to though because it's a bit embarrassing isn't it.

Before we get cracking, there’s the bad stuff. Whilst Shenmue may indeed "transcend gaming" (damn), it is far from perfect, hideously clunky controls (which aren't helped by the controller itself), voice acting that borders on B-movie, and a plodding style of gameplay are all enough to put a lot of people off. However, if you're willing to accept all this and persevere, you'll find brilliance the likes of which is all too rarely seen.

For those who are unfamiliar with the game, here’s a brief summary of what's what.

You play as Ryo Hazuki, an 18 year old Japanese lad (with more than a nod to Virtua Fighter's Akira) who returns home one stormy night to find the family dojo being ransacked by a group of Chinese thugs (called the ChiYouMen) led by the mysterious Lan Di. Ryo arrives just in time to see his father get his arse handed to him in the most comprehensive way. After some talk and much violence the villains make off with the mystical Dragon Mirror. Ryo, with his father left dying in his arms, vows to track Lan Di down and have his revenge no matter what...epic stuff. All these events are viewed through glorious in-game cut scenes (no CG/FMV nonsense here!), which are fully voice acted and beautifully animated.

You’re then thrust into the fabulously constructed world of Yokosuka, Japan in 1986…and when I say world, I mean world, seriously, the depth of detail in this game borders on scary and insane. You’ll find near enough everything in game that you’d expect to see in the real world and what’s more, pretty much everything is interactive…to the point where you can buy a chocolate bar from the local shop and then literally examine the wrapper, right down to the image on it (I know that sounds dull, but try it)! Even the weather is famously accurate and was matched to actual weather conditions experienced in Yokosuka in 1986/87, how detailed is that!!

Throughout the days that follow you're tasked with talking to the residents of the town, completing errands and progressing the story (much like any RPG), but it's the way that Shenmue goes about this that makes it stand out from the crowd. You can speak to almost everyone you encounter and unlike a lot of games, each person looks different, sounds different and has something unique to say. The quests and side quests are set out so they never become monotonous and there's even a time when you're required to get a job(!), unbelievably this is also ace. If you so choose, you can spend days or even weeks of the in game calendar just dicking about and enjoying living another life.

Some totally ace and pointless things you can do in Yokosuka:
  • Spend the day playing (full versions of) Space Harrier and Hang On
  • Spend all your allowance at the vending machines buying awesome toys!!
  • Go and knock at random houses to see who’ll answer the door
  • Visit bars and play tunes on the juke box
  • Go rooting through your house and whip out the Saturn
Another brilliant touch is the (now much copied) Quick Time Event (or QTE). This certainly keeps you on your toes and breaks up the game's sometimes plodding feel. One minute you're walking around the main street and then an incident occurs, you're then tasked with pressing the correct buttons at right time to make it through the event. It can be frustrating if you don't possess quick reactions, but it certainly adds to the gameplay and keeps the game feeling fresh.

For me, the true joy of Shenmue lies in the intricacies that are woven into the do actually feel like you're living Ryo's life, and the ability to do as much or as little with it as you like is truly liberating. I've never played another game where you feel so connected to the people who share your day to day life. And to people not used to or uninterested in this kind of experience, playing a game where you have to hold down a job and need to hone your fighting techniques might sound terrible, but trust me, it's delivered in such a way that it never becomes boring. Each day you have a full and vibrant town to explore and each day there is something different to experience...the only downside really, is that you've only got a set time to finish the game (although that time is a decent number of "game months"). Throughout the adventure, Ryo meets many people and makes a boat load of friends, guaranteed you'll remember each and every one of them.

The game is also not short on humour (though unintentionally), some of the things that Ryo comes out with are gold dust, anyone who's fond of the game will never forget the lines "I'm looking for sailors" and "ah...good" (that one's from when he's just downed a can of fizzy one go). So although the storyline is pretty serious, you'll still chuckle too.

This game is classed as a ‘third person action/adventure game’, but that’s honestly like classing an Aston Martin DB9 as ‘just some car’. It is without doubt (still) a shining beacon of what can be achieved when the producer/developers have a vision and (perhaps more importantly) when they have bosses who take a risk and just let them get on with it. And when compared to the myriad of uninspiring first person shooters on the shelves these days, the depth and originality of the game seem even more stunning.

Now, as is commonly known, Shenmue cost the equivalent of a small country’s GDP to make and never sold very well. As such, it’s now quite rare and can be pricey to buy, however I implore anyone who can, to go and buy a Dreamcast, a VGA cable and a copy of this game and experience first hand one gaming’s most divine moments.