30/04/2015

LEGACY OF THE WIZARD (NES)

They say the family that plays together stays together, so the family that fights the awakened terror of an evil dragon together are probably going to be pretty tightly knit. Child protection service might have a few questions for the parents, mind you. So, today's game is all about family. And getting lost. It's mostly about getting lost, if I'm honest. It's Falcom's 1987 NES game Legacy of the Wizard!


The legacy of the wizard was so dangerous that the ancients sealed it up behind a brick wall, but now it has broken free and it thirsts for souls! Most wizards only leave a legacy of dusty tomes filled with forgotten lore, the occasional abandoned familiar and a robe in dire need of a thorough dry-cleaning, but this legacy is much more expansive than that.


Living in a cabin in the woods - always a safe place to be, that - are the Drasle family. I know they're called the Drasle family because the game's original Japanese title is Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family. Legacy of the Wizard is part of Falcom's long-running Dragon Slayer series of action RPGs, which started on Japanese home computers in the mid-Eighties, it's most familiar incarnation to Western audiences probably being the NES spin-off Faxanadu. Being part of the Dragon Slayer family gives LotW an "early Japanese RPG" pedigree, which I'm fairly certain means it's going to be an unnecessarily obtuse and rather unforgiving adventure.
Anyway, the Drasle family are all gathered around their kitchen table. You've got Mother and Father Drasle, their son and daughter, grandma and grandpa, that white lump that fills the role of family pet and Handy, the giant disembodied hand that came to live with the Drasles in a failed sitcom pilot. Not really, the hand is the cursor the player uses to select which of the Drasles they want to play as. I think I'll start with the father.


The Drasle's woodland home looks pretty idyllic, with lush forests, blue skies and even a convenient shop right next door to their house. The shop would be more convenient if it wasn't up a tree and only accessible by ladder - it's going to be difficult getting down that ladder if your arms are laden with shopping - but awkwardly-positioned business are something of a staple of this game, so this is just letting the player know what they're in for.
Also in the vicinity of the Drasle's house: a ladder that leads to the vast, labyrinthine dungeon that lies mere feet below the surface.


I wonder if the estate agent mentioned this to the Drasles when they bought their house? You'd think there'd be some kind of legal requirement about informing potential buyers of the monster-infested caverns nearby. It's like telling them about subsidence, which must also be a worry in this situation.


Legacy of the Wizard is definitely an action RPG, although the RPG side of things is a withered, vestigial lump: there are no experience points or stat upgrades here, just a big dungeon to explore. The basic gameplay is the same as a hundred other NES platformers, with one button to jump and one to fire your projectile weapon, which in Xemn's (that's Papa Drasle's name) case is a supply of throwing axes. My early experiments into throwing said axes at the many fast-moving enemies littering the caves reveal that they are magic axes. They don't seem to be enchanted or anything but my magic meter decreases when I throw them so, y'know, magic axes. They kill things well enough, and early on Xemn and I were making good progress through the dungeon; slaughtering the admittedly underwhelming enemies, jumping between platforms and collecting bags of gold and keys. It all feels well-constructed, with sharp controls and the ability to throw your axes in eight direction being a welcome addition. I'm usually not keen on the inclusion of falling damage, especially when you can't fall far before it kicks in - memories of my struggles with Spelunker spring to mind - but Xemn has an adorable little animation where he lands on his face if he falls too far, so that takes some of the sting out of it. Not out of his face, I mean. I'd imagine that stings a fair bit.


Hey look, it's one of the Eggplant Wizard's less successful siblings! No wonder he looks so grumpy, everyone loves Kid Icarus, but who in the hell remembers Legacy of the Wizard? No-one, that's who! If only he'd been immortalised as a cartoon villain like the Eggplant Wizard then maybe this walking aubergine would cheer up a little.


After a while spent wandering around, I came to the conclusion that I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. Dead ends sprung up everywhere I turned, my magical energy was fading fast and I wasted a lot of time wondering why that ghost at the bottom of the screen is wearing a cowboy hat. Is he the ghost of a cowboy, his eternal punishment for a life of misdeeds on the wild frontier to be trapped underground, far away from the rolling prairie? Is it simply a matter of style? He is a stylish ghost, I'll give him that. He's got matching boots and everything. See? That's far too much time to be thinking about these things, so I resolved to make my way back to the Drasle homestead and try a different character.


This time I took Lyll, the daughter of the family. She can jump much higher than Xemn, but she can take less punishment and her attacks are less powerful, being little pink fireballs instead of manly throwing axes. Her improved jumping capabilities meant that I could explore some new areas, which was nice, although it also meant I was taking a lot more falling damage thanks to poorly-aimed leaps.


Here is a dragon in a box. Legacy of the Wizard being part of the Dragon Slayer franchise, I suspect that at some point I am going to have to get around to slaying said dragon, but for now it remains paralysed in its chamber, refusing to interact with Lyll no matter how I tried to get its attention. Perhaps it was confident that its cyclops minions could handle things. They certainly took me by surprise, running around the screen like overexcited cyclops children on the last day of term at Cyclops Academy.
It was at this point that I admitted defeat. I am not great at games, or anything really, that doesn't come with specific instructions, and so I turned to Legacy of the Wizard's manual. Within, I learned a great many useful things, some of which I probably should have already known. "Make a map," the manual cries. It also says "anyone can defeat the monsters," and that came across as a little contemptuous and somewhat hurtful, given that I died because the monster took all my health. But yes, making a map would be a very good idea. The manual also reveals the Drasle family's main goal is to collect four crowns hidden throughout the dungeon: doing so will then let the son, Roas, use the Dragonslayer sword to fight the dragon. There are many other items to collect, too, all of them important to your quest but apparently (judging by the amount of space in the manual given over to explaining how it works) none more important than a glove that Xemn can use to push blocks around. With a clear goal in mind, and a quick peek at an FAQ to get an idea of where the glove is, I sent Xemn into the dungeon once more.


I found the glove inside a section of blocks shaped like a fish, or possibly a submarine. It's hard to tell with it being made of big stone blocks. It was also hard to find, because there was no obvious pathway to the chest, hidden as it was behind a group of fake bricks that crumble when the player walks into them. The revelation that some bricks are only bricks until one of the Drasles rubs their face against it went a long way towards explaining why I didn't get very far, and it doesn't auger well for the rest of the game. I'm all for your underground labyrinth having hidden secret passages - labyrinth designers are a notoriously mischievous lot - but having those secret obscured by brickwork that looks like all the other brickwork in town is going a bit too far.


With the glove in Xemn's possession I could... well, not do much, actually. You have to go back to the nearest inn (or your house) and add it to your inventory before you can use it, but once you've done that then whoo baby, those pushable blocks better look out because they're in for the shoving of their lives! Once I figured out how to push them, that it. Turns out Falcom decided that simply walking into the blocks with the glove equipped would be too simple and would bore the seasoned dungeon explorer who craves a challenge in all things. Instead, you have to jump, then hold the jump button and press the direction you want the block to move in and hopefully it will move that way. It's an awkward system, presumably designed to allow the player to move blocks above them by jumping into them, but it's limitations are revealed when you're trying to jump around on blocks you don't want to move but they slide around like soap of a water slide anyway. It also leads to block-pushing behaviour that feels very counter-intuitive, like being able to push blocks around corners and even allowing the player to ride on floating blocks by repeatedly jumping onto them and holding left or right as you land.


Yes, a huge amount of block pushing lies ahead for Xemn as he searches for the crown. There are a lot of puzzles involving sliding blocks and oh my god it is the worst. I have made my hatred of sliding block puzzles known many times before, and if you do get to experience personalized torment in Hell then I will be spending eternity trying to move tiles around one at a time until they form a picture, a picture showing the ones I love playing a proper game and having loads of fun without me. LotW's block sliding is more of a Sokoban clone than the scrambled-picture kind, but it's still an unpleasant experience. I don't think that's my own biases talking, either: the, uh, unconventional block pushing controls make the whole thing much more of an ordeal than it needed to be, and they're not even engaging, well-designed puzzles. The game's manual even says that the block puzzles are "the hardest part of the game," and for me this was very much true. I had a hard time forcing myself to play through them, I know that much, even while I was using a step-by-step guide to solve the later ones.


I found a crown! It was just sitting there, completely free for anyone to take once they'd negotiated the deadly pillars, moved more rolling stones than a record shop in 1969, avoided the predations of the monocular rocks and unlocked the treasure chest it was placed inside. It's like they wanted me to take it, and once all this is over I've sure they won't mind Xemn taking it down to the local Cash Converters.


Collecting the crown came at a price: a battle against an enormous pubic louse, fallen from the crotches of the very gods of Olympus! After being teleported to its bone-strewn lair - frankly a relief, as I had to push no blocks to get here - the battle was joined and the foe quickly vanquished by standing on the spot and throwing axes at it until it died. All it does is jump around near you, and assuming you've got plenty of magic and a decent amount of health you'll easily win the race to the bottom of your respective health bars. I guess anyone can defeat monsters.


There are three more crowns to find, each of them hidden in areas that require the skills and equippable tools of a different member of the Drasle family to conquer. I took Pochi the monster pet out to find the next crown. Pochi looks like a cross between Bub and / or Bob and the pink dragon mascot of games developer Asmik, and his power is that enemies ignore him. I'd ignore him too, he looks like kind of a dork.
Pochi is advanced enough to know how keys work, and he'll need plenty if he's going to accomplish his mission, so it's handy that a defeated enemy has dropped one right in his path. However, even collecting items is not an easy task in this game, because there's a slight delay between the enemy dying and the item they drop appearing. This would be fine if they only dropped helpful things like keys and gold, but they can also randomly drop health-draining vials of poison. When you're trying to kill monsters and make your way through the maze, this often means that you walk right into a bottle of poison before it even appears, and the only way to avoid doing so is to stand still after killing each bad guy on the off chance that it's trying to poison you to death with its final act on this mortal coil. To make matters worse, if you're playing as Xemn you then have to wait for the potion to disappear before moving on because Xemn lacks the jumping ability to clear it, by which time the enemy you just killed is in the process of respawning. I began this adventure with a fair amount of goodwill towards the game, but LotW's little irritations are stacking up and detracting from what is otherwise a perfectly acceptable action adventure.


Pochi's quest ends with a battle against a lich of some kind, a terrifying undead effigy created from unhallowed bones and a bin bag. Pochi eats tacky Halloween decorations for breakfast, possibly in a literal sense because he may be a monster but he behaves like a dog, and this fight is even easier than the previous boss battle. They're just not very tough, is all. Speaking of tough, I've warmed to Pochi a little now that I've noticed he tries to do an angry face every time he fires his projectile. He's still a dork, but he's making an effort.


Back to Lyll, who we've met before, for another boss battle. This time it's against a dragon. Not the dragon from earlier, a smaller, much more pathetic dragon who wasn't so much slain as gently brushed aside. It's always an odd feeling when the bosses are the easiest part of the game - a rare occurrence, but one that does happen from time to time - and they'd be the least interesting part of Legacy of the Wizard if it wasn't for all the block pushing.
None of that should reflect badly on Lyll, though. She's probably my favourite character - she's got a jaunty feather in her hair, she can jump really high and best of all she doesn't push blocks, she smashes them apart with a pickaxe she finds in the dungeon. I appreciate her refreshingly no-nonsense approach to problem solving.


The final crown must be collected by the final character: Meyna, mother of the Drasle family and full-on wizard. Her statistics are average, but she can use a variety of impressive items (once you've found or bought them in the dungeon depth, that is) including a magic stick for unlocking doors and a pair of wings that let her fly around the screen at the cost of her magic bar. Here, Meyna watches two children in cat pyjamas frolic around the dungeon, pondering whether to incinerate them with her powerful magics. In the end the decision was made for her when the cat-people's frolicking turned into a attempted murder by way of overenthusiastic romping and she was forced to put them down. That's what she's going to tell the police, anyway.


Playing Legacy of the Wizard is a draining affair filled with questionable gameplay decisions, but it's not without it's endearing moments. Two of those are shown here - LotW contains some fully adorable skeleton knights who waddle around with a hesitance that makes it seem like this is their first day on dungeon-patrolling duty, and there's also the occasional pattern to the layout of the blocks that makes for an interesting view. You already saw the dolphin / submarine thing, and here's a leering demonic face. Nice detail work, using the portcullises for nostrils, and they're not just decorative - they're also extremely useful landmarks for making sense of that map I'm sure every player will be drawing.


Using all these arcane relics means that Meyna has to pop into the health-restoring inns more than the other characters, which can be a problem because some of these inns are not exactly welcoming to potential guests. I mean, look at that inn down there - sure, the carpet of lacerating blades around the front door is going to help to keep cold-callers at bay but you're never going to make any money if all your customers bleed to death from lacerations to the femoral arteries before they can even reach the reception desk. That's not even the worst one, check this out:


I'd say that's pretty inn-hospitable. Of course I'd say that, I'm a terrible human being.


Meyna's boss is a golem, and to its craggy credit it put up much more of a fight than its associates. I had to move out of its way, how crazy is that? It still wasn't particularly difficult, because as with all the bosses it was just "moving thing that fires smaller moving things at the player" but there was a touch more effort involved in not dying.


With the four crowns collected, the duty of finally slaying the dragon falls to Roas, son of the Drasle family. He's an unexceptional young man with none of the special powers of his relatives, but for some reason he's the only one who can wield the Dragonslayer sword. Or maybe that's just what his family told him so that he didn't feel left out. Roas has a spiky hat and the facial expression of a perpetually surprised bowling ball. Those are really the only interesting facts about Roas.


No, wait, I tell a lie: there was also that time he found a hovering green arse in a box. That was quite interesting. I rushed over and grabbed hold of the arse, naturally, and I'm glad I did because it restored Roas' health. I looked into it and apparently it's supposed to be bread. Green, arse-shaped bread. If I asked for some bread at a restaurant and they brought that out I would leave, or at least reconsider ordering the sausage.


It's not just butts, either: this shop appears to be selling a human kidney. It'd be fun if there was a super-secret hidden character in Legacy of the Wizard but you had to piece them together Frankenstein-style before you could use them, but sadly I'm stuck with Roas.


There's the Dragonslayer sword, hidden away in a floating chamber that's only accessible through the portrait on the wall. They work as teleporters once you have all the crowns, and by zapping between them in a set order you will eventually be deposited in the room with the sword. However, you may have noticed that I am above the sacred chamber. This is because, despite knowing what I was supposed to be doing, I somehow messed up the teleportation procedure and had to resort to cheating my way back to the Dragonslayer. I don't feel too guilty about it. I put enough effort into negotiating the sliding block puzzles and hunting for false walls to feel I deserved the cutting of some slack. I mean really, who has time for all this adventuring? Well, okay, the children of the late Eighties for whom this game was released might well have, and that's the thing about Legacy of the Wizard: I can feel that this is the kind of game that a certain type of kid would become obsessed with - creating detailed maps, painstakingly marking the location of each item and shop and inn and filling many pilfered school exercise book with meticulously recorded passwords. Even now LotW retains that sense of exploration, and while I'm very grateful that modern videogames rely less on obscuring gameplay mechanics to create challenge there is something very pleasing about having the labyrinth laid out before you, daring you to figure it out.


With the fabled sword in hand, Roas faces off against the dragon Keela; a foe so overwhelmingly powerful that even the background has run away in terror. Keela only has one move, but it's an extremely effective one - it breathes green fire on the ground in front of it. I know that doesn't sound like much, but it's effective for three reasons. One, it does a ton of damage. Two, Roas can't throw his swords very far, so he has to get right into the fire's range to hurt the boss and three, there's no warning or indication that the boss is about to breathe fire. It just goes on and off like a lightswitch, so the fight ends up being a tentative tip-toe dance as you try to edge close enough to attack before moving away immediately lest you get grilled. Patience is your strongest non-magical-sword weapon here, and the game generously gives you infinite magic to get the job done. As long as you don't get to greedy and calmly chip away at the dragon's health, it will eventually be slain and the Drasle family can get back to their simple, humdrum lives, starting with a dragon steak supper.


All the Drasles are back together, waving in appreciation to the player who has guided them through their ordeals. Except Pochi, who is waving his backside at the camera. Thanks, Pochi. Real classy. It's because I called you a dork, isn't it?
So what was the legacy of the wizard? In my case it was mostly frustration and confusion, but there's enough going on that I wouldn't say this is a bad game by any means. There's some fun to be had here, especially if you're the type for whom an untraversed dungeon and blank graph paper holds a special thrill. It's well made, with good solid controls (weird block wrangling aside) and presentation that's basic but endearing. There are a lot of interesting-looking enemies, even if they mostly behave in the same way, and the graphics are decently varied for being made almost entirely of square stone blocks. One bit of glamour is provided by the game's soundtrack, which was composed by industry legend Yuzo Koshiro. It's not his best work, too beholden to the idea of what an action RPG should sound like, but it's not bad. I like Lyll's theme, myself.



Still, completely unmarked hidden passageways and sliding blocks around means that Legacy of the Wizard is not a game for me, no matter how much I warmed to the Drasle family.


Oh, now you tell me that their surname is Worzen? Thanks, I've been calling them the wrong name this whole time... and I just figured out that "Drasle" comes from the first syllables of "dragon" and "slayer." At least I got there before the end of this article. Which is now.

25/04/2015

BATTLE OUTRUN (MASTER SYSTEM)

One of the great pillars upon which the videogame industry is built is a process I personally think of as "angrification," where gentle, peaceful concepts are given a crispy coating of violence. Nothing draws in the punters like the promise of, if not actual bloodshed, then at least the potential for black eyes and hurt feelings. That's how we ended up with Mario and Princess Peach beating seven bells out of each other, with Mickey Mouse swinging a key-shaped sword around, with Battlechess, for pity's sake. Almost no franchise can escape this process - not even the lighthearted summer breeze of arcade racers that is Sega's OutRun, and thus in 1989 the Master System became home to Battle OutRun.


Regular VGJunk readers will probably know of my deep and abiding love for the original OutRun, a game which I consider about as close to perfect as any arcade title has ever been. A big part of why I feel that way is OutRun's relaxed charm, it's atmosphere of escapism where your only enemy is the clock and you're not racing for a prize because the experience is the prize. To shoehorn in some inter-vehicular combat, as Battle OutRun does, feels somewhat sacrilegious but in the interests of fairness I suppose I should reserve judgement until I've actually played the game.


Battle OutRun is a race across America, the boring middle states where nothing happens being excised from the gameplay experience out of consideration for you, the player. The game itself provides no details on your reasons for embarking on this road trip, but I found a transcript of the manual which explains things thusly: you are Joe Hurst, "the coolest bounty hunter ever to take the wheel," a title Joe is only allowed to use on a technicality because Samus Aran's spaceship doesn't have a steering wheel. Joe wants the bounty money so he can restore his pride and joy, a supercar with the copyright-skirting name of the Larborarri Teratuga. Joe's Teratuga can't be in that poor a condition, mind you, because that's what he drives around in for the whole game.


Here's Joe's first bounty target. He doesn't exactly look like the kind of hardened criminal I was expecting. He looks like he has a thyroid problem, what with those bulging eyes. Whatever his heinous crimes are, they were apparently severe enough to warrant a bounty of 2000 dollars and that could pay for Joe's new floormats so I'll be tracking him down on the highways of San Francisco.


In classic OutRun fashion, you can choose the background music for each stage by retuning your car radio, although this differs from the original game in two ways. One is that Battle OutRun's soundtrack, while passable, is nowhere near as good as OutRun's. The other is that in OutRun you don't manipulate the radio with the wizened, gnarled finger of an ancient sorcerer.


The action is underway, and it's no surprise that for the most part said action is very similar to OutRun Senior. You have to drive your red sports car across the country - with no girlfriend at your side, because the life of a bounty hunter is a dangerous and solitary one - avoiding collisions with the traffic and other obstacles in an effort to reach the end of the stage before your time runs out. Battle OutRun's main difference from OutRun's control system is that it lacks the Hi-Lo gear shifter, so mostly you're just holding down the accelerator and very, very occasionally using the brake.


It's all very familiar, and it plays about as well as you'd think a Master System version of the concept could. The movement of the road and the scaling sprites are smooth, the controls are sharp and the collision detection is much more accurate than I thought it was going to be, which was nice because there's a lot of narrowly scraping past obstacles in this one.
Early impressions are good, then, and so far it seems like an enjoyable enough ride, colourful and straightforward while feeling just a little flat.


"COME" says the sinister, three-lane-spanning truck. What do you mean, "COME"? Like, join your mysterious convoy or something? I dunno, my mother told me never to trust strange lorries.


Oh, I see, come in. Well, as I'm doing nearly 250 kilometres an hour and your occupying pretty much all the road in front of me then yes, Mr. Truck, I think I have little choice but to "come in." The only real question is whether we're all going to die in a fiery explosion or not. Is Joe Hurst's career as a bounty hunter doomed to failure, cut short before it even began when he's abducted by a menacing truck?


Not to worry, the truck is actually a mobile garage and tune-up station, where Joe can spend his hard-earned bounty dollars on sprucing up his Teratuga. Each category of upgrades improves a certain aspect of the Teratuga's performance: more powerful engines mean higher top speeds, working on the body means you lose less speed when you crash, better tires help with handling and the chassis... well, I'm not entirely sure what improving the chassis does. I mean, I know at least one thing it effects but that thing is so inconsequential that I have a hard time imagining that the game would charge the player money for it.


After some more driving you'll catch up with your bounty target. Here he is now, in his unassuming green car. It's a good thing the music changes when you enter the "boss" portion of the stage because I'm not the most observant - in my defence, I was keeping my eyes on the road - and I could easily have not realised that this was the man I'm trying to bring to justice. In the case of Battle OutRun, justice is served through high-speed automobile collisions, just as Sir Robert Peel envisioned it. Yes, you crash into your target until they stop and yes, it is almost identical in both concept and execution to Chase H.Q., Taito's arcade game from the previous year. Battle OutRun is not nearly as enjoyable as Chase H.Q., of course, but then it's unfair to compare them: so much of Chase H.Q.'s fun factor comes from it's over-the-top, frenetic energy, and the humble Master System simply cannot replicate that. That's not to say Battle OutRun lacks a feeling of speed; as I said, this is probably the best a developer could get out of the Master System hardware in 1989. It's just that it's a much more subdued experience which quickly falls into the pattern of you ramming the target car once or twice, only for it to speed away and put some distance between you. Then you have to dodge some random traffic until you catch up to your bounty. Rinse, repeat, hope that Joe can find the delicate balance of car crashes that results in an immobilised vehicle and not a horrific death for all concerned.


Okay, so I caught the guy, right? That means I get to see a picture of Joe for the first time. Joe is very obviously the same person as the bounty target. He's just swapped his sunglasses for a cap in an attempt at disguise that won't fool me, pal. Unless... did I just pit Joe against his identical twin in a hi-octane battle for justice that could tear his family asunder, that's Brother Justice, coming to a cinema near you? If so, they both seem surprisingly relaxed about the whole thing, the trademark Hurst family smirk marking them as not only brothers but identical twins on opposite sides of the law. If only Joe's brother has a sports car and a pair of aviators, then maybe he would have stayed out of trouble.


With San Francisco cleared of all crime forever, you're free to move on to the next stage. Actually, you're free to move on to any stage. You could skip straight to New York if you like, but without accumulating enough points to soup your car up to maximum power you'll have a very tough time so the whole "stage select" thing is kinda moot. So, Los Angeles it is. What fearsome kingpin of crime will be come up against in the City of Angels?


Ah yes, it's Spaniel Sam, the Dog-Eared man. Who's a good boy, then? Not this guy, he's a criminal. Always chewing up people's slippers and chasing the postman. What a bastard.


The Los Angeles stage definitely has an OutRun feel to it, with its beachfront views, blue skies and waving palm trees. Why, if it wasn't for all the intentional car crashes it would just be, well, OutRun. I get that Sega were trying to mix up the formula, and the cynic in me wants to say they were trying to mix up the formula in a way that involved as little effort and creative thinking as possible, but what annoys me is that Joe's plan is so incredibly stupid. His car needs fixing, and to raise the necessary funds he's going to repeatedly crash his car? C'mon, man, why not spend some of that money and buy a pick-up truck for all the heavy lifting? Think it through. Spaniel Sam here is in a jeep and you're in a whatever-that-fake-Ferrari-name-was, it's no wonder you had to smash him dozens of times before he'd stop.


Spaniel Sam is a speed freak in the sense that he takes a lot of amphetamines, I'd guess. There's no way that haircut was chosen by a man free from the grip of powerful drugs.


I refuse to believe that this person has ever been wanted by anyone, ever. Are those earrings, are are they part ram and they're a pair of horns? Holy crap, I think I've stumbled across Battle OutRun's big secret - all these bounties have been put out by a shadowy organisation determined to round out the escaped test subjects from their manimal hybrid experiments. That first guy, the one who looked like Joe? He was a merman, but obviously you couldn't see his fishy tail in his portrait.


Viva Las Vegas, with its neon flashing and its one-armed bandits crashing. The neon part, mostly. On the right of the horizon we can see the bright lights of the city, while over on the left we see the bright lights of an abstract purple mess. A terrible accident at the hot air balloon factory, possibly.
I didn't realise it at first, but by this point it had become clear to me that these other road users were actively trying to crash into me. I consulted the manual again to confirm and yes, they are agents of whatever criminal you're chasing, and after much deliberation I came to the conclusion that their aggressive nature is not an enjoyable part of the gameplay. It just feels so opposed to the very nature of OutRun, but if that was all it was then the problem could be solved by renaming the game Car Smash USA or something. No, they're also annoying in a mechanical sense, swerving all over the road before deciding, at some point when you approach them, that they're going to stay in whatever lane they're in. This turns the whole experience into a guessing game: gamble correctly and you'll sail past them as they stay on the opposite lane, but get it wrong and you're in for an unavoidable crash with no chance of getting around them, or at least not until late in the game when you've got better tyres and you can get away with going off-road a little bit. It doesn't add anything to the game - not anything fun, at any rate - and I can't but think the game would have been better served by more traditional, less murderous traffic patterns.


A bald man is sad. Perhaps this is because his head looks like a bean. I hope that was the direction that the higher-ups at Sega gave to Battle OutRun's artist. "Like a bean, but with a sad face drawn on it. No, no hair. You heard me."


The Grand Canyon. Not much to say about this one, folks. It's more orange than Dale Winton's towels, and there are rocks. Big rocks. Grand rocks, you might say. There's also oil spilled all over the road. You can tell it's oil because someone has thoughtfully labelled it with the word "OIL". Of course, you're driving much too fast to be able to read that when you're blazing down the highway, but even without that label you'll soon figure out it's oil when you drive over it and your car spins out. Skidding on a patch of oil doesn't actually slow you down a much as you might think, so if the choice is between hitting the oil or smashing into a roadside sign and coming to a dead stop then take the oil every time.


Oh, so the human-animal hybrid experiments reached the ape-man phase, did they? Good, good. Honestly, you'd think you'd start with the ape-man. More compatible DNA and that. You get The Human Gorilla here up and running and then gradually work in animals more distantly removed from Homo sapiens. Once you've constructed a squid-man and a beetle-man, you can start getting really creative and going to for things like a horrifying amalgam of man and coffee table or what have you.


This is Chicago, and it looks like a miserable place. It's the weather, those are some heavy storm clouds brewing. To lighten our spirits, let's discuss one of the other things you can find littering the roadways of Battle OutRun, and that's ramps. There's a ramp now, right in the middle of the road and I'm blasting towards it at terrifying speeds, so I guess I'll be going into the air now?


That's not as impressive as I'd hoped. The ramps are rather feeble affairs, launching the Teratuga into an oddly floaty jump that serves almost no purpose. I'd say that in the course of a whole playthrough I managed to jump over another car maybe twice, which was a damn sight less than the amount of times I hit a jump and then crashed as soon as I landed because I couldn't steer properly in mid-air. To add insult to injury, as far as I can see the only effect of upgrading your car's chassis is that it makes you stay airborne longer when you jump. Here's a handy hint: invest your money more wisely, such as in a new engine or fuzzy dice.


The official Mr. T inflatable sex doll did not sell as well as anicipated.


Welcome to Miami! What do we have in Miami? White cubes on the distant horizon and a hell of a lot of sky. Sky and buildings inspired by sugar lumps, that's Florida for you.
It's also got a lot of road to traverse, which is a shame because by this point Battle OutRun is starting to overstay its welcome, ignoring the exasperated sighs of its hosts and their pointed comments about how they have the number for a taxi firm right there in their phones. Each stage consists of the same don't-crash-em-up gameplay, with no variation in the action aside from an increased density of traffic and, like, two extra corners per stage. There's nothing to captivate the imagination, and no sense of reward for completing each stage of identical gameplay unless you're really excited to see each city's unique skyline.


Washington DC has a unique skyline; it's got the White House and the Washington Monument and a vast, featureless desert on its outskirts, just like every city in this version of America. Spacious skies yes, amber waves of grain not so much. Still, it looks nice and on the whole the graphics (sprite flicker aside) are one of Battle OutRun's better features.


I've finally made it to New York, where the fiendish Fu Manchu has given up on his elaborate criminal plots to spend his time driving around and making a nuisance of himself. He looks pretty smug about it, but let's see how smug he is when I'm slamming into him with nitro-assisted power!


Still pretty smug, I assume, because my nitro doesn't seem to be helping me. You can buy the nitro as an optional extra in the lorry-shop, and when you have some you can press up on the d-pad for a speed boost. The problem is that once you've rammed into the boss a few times they shoot off in front of you regardless of whether you're doing three hundred kilometres an hour or thirty, and you'll still have to drive for a while to catch them no matter what your speed is. This, coupled with the fact that the bosses can drive through the traffic like it isn't there, makes these later criminal encounters just that bit more irritating than before.


I managed to defeat him, though. He says I have improved much, but the only thing that has improved is my car. At least buying the upgrades, especially the body upgrades, does have a noticeable effect on how your car performs. It's always nice to have that increased feeling of power.
That's all the stages completed, then, so I suppose it's time to sit back and enjoy the no-doubt extravagant ending sequence and hang on, there's another bloody stage.


New York, New York, so good they made me play it twice. There's no mugshot for the villain of this final battle and no indication of what his car looks like, so it's a good job all the other vehicles look exactly the same as they did in every other stage otherwise I might have had to resort to ramming every car until I found him.


Oh, I found him. He's driving a Hot Wheels car with tyres one size down from "monster truck." It was a long and gruelling stage, but this time it's really, truly over. Honestly it could have been over two stages ago when I'd managed to buy all the upgrades and Joe has accomplished his original mission of getting his car up to spec, but I guess once you get a taste for justice it's hard to let any criminal go unpunished.


It's the mob boss know as Jimmy "The Forehead" Scalotti! He's a such a criminal mastermind that he had his skull surgically enlarged to fit all his master mind in there. I think he was in This Island Earth, and his forehead has indeed grown like the mighty oak. I suspect there may have been some miscommunication when this guy was described as "the head of the Mafia."


The ending shows the Teratuga driving across the screen, because lord knows I haven't seen enough of that already, and Battle OutRun draws to a close. Part of me wants to decry it as a horrendous bastardization of everything that made the original OutRun great, the feeling of freedom that can be found in the simple pleasure of driving stripped out and replaced by some dull battling and upgrading mechanics, but I just can't get that angry about it. It's a competent game in it's own way, certainly not bad for a Master System racer even if it's missing a real spark. It's a concrete bridge support of a game: technically well-constructed but unlikely to evoke any feelings of passion. The stages are too long and too samey, the computer-controlled cars are annoying and so I'm forced to end this article in the way it was always going to end - with me telling you to play the original instead.

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