30/08/2011

AIR GALLET

As I'm sure I've mentioned before, I'm bad at shoot-em-ups. Really bad, in fact, with the reflexes of a lobotomised manatee and joystick skills to match. This feels like a poor position for someone who writes about videogames to be in. So, I've decided to try and rectify this and get better at shooting them up - and what better way to do that than by playing a whole bunch of shoot-em-ups? Aside from some kind of experimental Virtual-Reality training like something out of Lawnmower Man, I don't think there are any. Some kind of cybernetic implant, maybe? I don't have the money for that! Instead, I'm declaring this the first VGJUNK Shoot-Em-Up Week, and I'll be starting with Gazelle / Banpresto's 1996 arcade jet-fight-em-up Air Gallet.

I have no idea what the title means. According to the dictionary a gallet is a small chip of stone, which doesn't really tie into the theme. Of course, it could be "garret", given the indistinguishable nature of Ls and Rs in Japanese. Oh, and the announcer calls it "Air Garret" during the attract mode. So, I guess the game is actually called Air Garret, but as a garret is a room located directly under a roof that doesn't make much sense either, unless the plane also doubles as a loft apartment.

Plot-wise, Air Gallet is simple enough - an evil organisation is taking over the world, destroying major cities and forcing newsreaders to read their bad terrorist poetry live on air. Only one man (or two, men if you're playing with a friend,) can stop them: our unnamed hero and his souped-up jet fighter.

You get a nice intro sequence showing you launching from an aircraft carrier, complete with a lot of chatter from you comrades in the form of voice samples. There's a lot of speech in Air Gallet, and surprisingly it's all fairly well acted. The best speech comes at the title screen, where a voice announces that "Air Gallet will blow your socks off". A bold claim indeed, so let's take off and see if Air Gallet can live up to its own promises.

As you can see, it's a vertically-scrolling aircraft shoot-em-up (as opposed to a spacecraft or a cutesy witch or something) in which you fly around in what is apparently a modified F-15 and blast everything that moves. The controls are standard, and when I say standard I mean there's one button to fire your normal weapon, one button to fire your limited-ammo superweapon, and the stick moves you around. Simple indeed, and I think Air Gallet will be a good place to start shoot-em-up week due to its stubborn refusal to add anything even vaguely original to the shmup formula.

Still, who cares about a lack of innovation - just look at those graphics! If you're a fan of pixel graphics, then you're in for a treat here. To my mind, arcade shooters of the mid-to-late 1990s offer some of the finest pixel graphics ever created, and Air Gallet is certainly up there with the best. It's all about the detail, and the graphics here have plenty of that, at least once you get past the slightly bland opening section.

Definitely not bland is the first boss, a battle-ready space shuttle that blasts off as you approach it. This should have been NASA's response to the closure of the space shuttle program; load Atlantis up with guns and make it dogfight with military jets until it either a) gets destroyed, thus avoiding the indignity of becoming a museum piece or b) escapes into outer space, communes with a vast alien intelligence at the heart of the galaxy and becomes sentient. Then it waits, out there in the void between the stars, waiting for its chance to return to Earth and destroy those that created it.

Anyway, back to the mechanics of the game. Your plane explodes at the slightest contact with an enemy or bullet. This is as you would expect. Yes, it can fire a huge amount of bullets/missiles/lasers and yes, I always wonder why whoever designed your plane didn't try and do a more balanced job when it came to prioritising attack and defence. I think I could live with a few less missiles if it means that a bluebottle colliding with my cockpit didn't result in my immediate fiery death.

Weapons-wise, you have four options. Well, I say "options" but in practise it's not so simple. You see, your weapon is determined by collecting a power-up that is constantly cycling through the available weapons. Pick it up when it's blue and displaying the letter L and you'll switch to the laser weapon, for example. The problem with this is that when you're trying to singly-handedly take down the most well-equipped army ever raised, things get a little hectic and you end up accidentally picking up the weapon change, which can be a bit of a bugger. Powering up the weapons is simple enough: collect five of the "P" icons and the level of your weapon increases

The weapons themselves are a weak shot combined with a barrage of missiles, a spread-pattern vulcan shot, a powerful but narrow laser and something that is misleadingly called the "Hunter Seeker". It's misleading because it neither hunts nor seeks, and is in fact an Option-type weapon that changes position relative to the movement of your ship and can be locked in place by holding down the fire button. While it's not so bad during the stages themselves, if you accidentally pick up the Seeker before a boss fight then you're in for a world of hurt: its piddly shots seem to bounce harmlessly off the boss' armoured shell, and you're dragged into a long, hard slog.

Here's the second boss, a stealth bomber that you fighter around the Tokyo Tower. In a nice touch, the perspective of the tower shifts as you fly around it, although you don't really get to appreciate it as you fight for your life. That brings me nicely on to the difficulty level, which is high. Well, the first two stages weren't too bad, and even with my sub-par shooter skills I managed to get through them without using a continue.

This lulled me into a false sense of security, and I began wondering if I wasn't better at this than I'd originally thought. I was soon put in my place. Air Gallet isn't a "bullet hell" type shooter, really - while the bullet patterns can get pretty hectic towards the end, there's nothing like the insane curtains of neon death that you'd associate with the bullet hell genre. Instead, Air Gallet's difficulty seems to come mostly from the high damage threshold of the enemies, combined with their accurate shooting. So, maybe this wasn't the best game to start my shooter training with after all, unless by starting with something really difficult I have ensured that everything else is going to seem like a breeze by comparison.

So, what else does Air Gallet have to offer? Did I mention the excellent pixel graphics? Because they really are good. I know some people would say that there isn't much deviation from the usual areas found in "real-world" shoot-em-ups - cities, airports, naval bases, that kind of thing - and they'd be right. However, I can never get enough of intricately-detailed pixel cityscapes. I don't know what it is about them, but I do know they're like digital crack to me.

Air Gallet's most unique stage is probably this beautifully drawn European-style village, complete with castle...

...which happens to have a giant battle-fortress style boss hanging out in a lake behind it.

The graphics are great, but the music is pretty darn good too. Composed by Yoshitatsu Sakai, (who also worked on the bullet hell shooter Batsugun and, sadly, not much else,) the soundtrack is typically shooter-esque but with a slower, more restrained style than most. My personal favourites are the almost melancholy stage two theme:



And the more energetic, "hero-flies-through-the-sky" stage five theme.



That's really all there is to Air Gallet: solid gameplay that is very difficult without ever really feeling unfair, top-notch pixel graphics, good music and decent enemy design (by shoot-em-up veteran Junya Inoue, amongst others) with the occasional very nice touch. My personal favourite is the reappearance of the castle stage's battle-fortress boss towards the end of the game. He comes back into the fray, no doubt looking for revenge... until an aircraft carrier crashes into him and pins him to a skyscraper.

Nice. Oh, and the final boss? If you were expecting some kind of giant warship or super-bomber - a not-unreasonable expectation given the military theme of the game so far - then prepare to be confused.

It's a huge statue of an angel smiting the hell out of a bunch of people. She's encrusted with orbs (including one acting as a glowing orange nipple), and you've got to destroy them all. It's at this point I was encountering near-constant deaths, as every barrage the statue fired seemed to be unavoidable by someone with my merely human reflexes. Once she's taken enough damage...

...the real villain is revealed to be a flying robot skull. I mean if you do have the technology to make a hovering, laser-equipped battlecraft, you might as well make it look like a skull, right? Another round of dogfighting action later and the skull is destroyed. You've saved the world!

"On your mighty wings across the skyyyyy!"
World unendangered our hero heads back to base, informs everyone of his desire to have a shower (and I do so love voice samples) and no doubt scores with some beautiful young lady with a gigantic 80's hairdo. And that's it for Air Gallet!

A pretty good start to the VGJUNK shoot-em-up week, I'd say. Sure, it's about as original as calling your dog Rover, but what it does it does very well. What it does is demand a constant supply of credits, but I'll forgive it for the great graphics, good gameplay and music and for giving me the chance to fight a space shuttle. It's a shame that Gazelle, a small company composed of former employees of shoot-em-up legends Toaplan, only made two games (the other being a Sailor Moon game for the arcade).
Air Gallet, then: recommended, especially if you don't mind (or actively crave) the high difficulty level, or you just want to see a giant robot impaled by an aircraft carrier.

25/08/2011

FIGHTERS OF THE WORLD: SPAIN

Previously on "Fighters of the World":

Hola, and welcome to another installment of Fighters of the World! This time, I'll be looking at beat-em-up characters from sunny Spain. And yes, there are some beside Vega.

Vega, Street Fighter II

And where else could I start except with Spain's most famous fighting export, Vega himself? Or Balrog, if you prefer, or even Claw. I must admit that Vega fared rather well in Capcom's overseas name-change merry-go-round, because he sure doesn't look like he should be named after some hulking demon.
With Vega, we can jump straight into the main stereotype that game developers base their Spanish characters around, and that's matadors. If your national sport involves being chased by a large, angry animal that wants to perforate you with its horns, you have to expect developers to run with it. It's like us British and tea, except tea doesn't revolve around cruelty to animals. Vega's outfit and backstory both point to a past as a matador, but it might have worked out very differently. Here's an early design for Vega:

He was almost some kind of masked Crusader with a sword. It's a good job they changed him, it probably would have been difficult to climb fences in those armoured boots. Actually, I think this early Vega looks a lot like Lancelot from Capcom's side-scrolling Arthurian beat-em-up Knights of the Round, which was released mere months before Street Fighter II.

A bit of cross-pollination in the Capcom offices, perhaps? In the end, Vega's "knight" look didn't come to pass and we ended up with a matador who is also a ninja, two jobs which I'm sure share a lot of common skills. Vega's most notable feature, apart from his claw, is his beauty and the extreme narcissism that comes with it.

That's probably true - you're not going to stay handsome if you keep losing battles, at least. Handsome Spanish gentlemen will also become a theme, and on that note I'd like to mention that there are very few female Spanish fighters. I'm not sure why, other than the lack of female matadors.

Laurence Blood, Fatal Fury

Unlike Vega's flirtation with the matador look, SNK's Laurence Blood goes all-out with the theme. He's a matador, he dresses like a matador, he fights like a matador, (as well as having moves supposedly inspired by a martial art called zipota,) and he's pretty good at flamenco guitar, too.

He's also a villain, but with a name like "Mr. Blood" you probably figured that out. Nominative determinism can really mess up a guy's life - just ask Victor von Doom.

Gerelt, Star Gladiator

Even in space, the Spanish can't escape the matador stereotype. What's he doing up there, fighting astro-bulls? Dancing the cosmo-flamenco while drinking star-sangria? As Capcom's Star Gladiator was a weapon-based beat-em-up, Geralt is given a plasma rapier. Now, this is perhaps a sign of a Zorro influence, or it could be that Japanese games developers lump continental Europe into one whole and the insidious influence of the rapier-wielding French is seeping in.

Geralt also bears something of a resemblance to another Spanish (or Egyptian, or Scottish) swordfighter: Ramirez from the Highlander series.

Don Flamenco - Punch-Out!!

As I discussed in the Russian edition of FotW, Nintendo's Punch-Out!! is less a boxing game and more a pixellated catalogue of as many ethnic clich├ęs as possible. Don Flamenco fills the Spanish slot in this zoo of stereotypes admirably, flouncing into the ring to "Carmen" and carrying a rose. There's a bit of an overlap with the French here, and while the Gallic fighters are still the kings of the rose, there are quite a few Spanish fighter associated with it as well, especially Vega.

Look at that guy - there's no way he's only 23 years old. He looks like someone put Adam Sandler's head in a vice and crushed it. Anyway, when the latest Punch-Out!!, the Wii version, was being developed Nintendo took the opportunity to make Don Flamenco even more stereotypical by depicting him as a narcissistic bullfighter. So much for increased cultural sensitivity. He's also (unsurprisingly) a flamenco dancer, which leads me nicely onto our next fighter.

Nick, Power Moves / Power Athlete

Appearing in Kaneko's dire SNES brawler, Nick here doesn't look like a typical videogame Spaniard. If anything, he looks like a bandit from an RPG. He fights in his own unique way, not acting like a matador or throwing roses at you or anything, so it's a pat on the back for Kaneko and they way they've avoided the obvious stereotypes...

...until he wins a fight and starts playing the castanets. You just couldn't let it go, could you Kaneko?

Miguel, Tekken

Introduced in Tekken 6, Miguel wears his Spanish heritage on his flouncy sleeve. His is a standard "consumed by revenge" story, but that is not the outfit of a man consumed by revenge. Consumed by a desire to dance, perhaps, but it looks like revenge was pretty far from his mind when he was getting dressed that morning.

Joker, Savage Reign

Appearing in SNK's Savage Reign series, Joker is at last a Spanish fighter free of stereotypes, except the stereotype that all clowns are violent psychopaths. I'd say that Joker was a one-off, except...

Joker, Jang Pung 3

Jang Pung 3 is an interesting game in its own right. In 1993, a Korean company called Open released Jang Pung II, a truly dreadful pirate copy of Street Fighter II, for the various Sega consoles. Then in 1994 they performed something of a miracle with the actually rather good (by 8-bit standards) sequel, Jang Pung 3. As well as featuring a brand-new cast of characters, it also has one of videogaming's greatest plots, about Nazis building a robot dinosaur in Leipzig.

One of these new characters was Spanish, specifically from Valencia. He's called Joker, and he's a clown. What are the chances? JP3 came out a year before Savage Reign, but the odds on SNK having copied an obscure Korean Master System game seem very slim indeed. So I have to wonder, are jesters seen as a Spanish thing in the Far East? I could understand it if they were Italian, what with the commedia dell'arte and all, or even French and mime-like. In the end, I fear it comes down to that most boring of explanations - simple coincidence.

Cervantes, Soul Calibur

And finally, a goddamn pirate. Cervantes is almost like a glimpse of what stereotypical Spanish characters could have been, were it not for all that bullfighting and flamencoing, because what else does Spanish history have to offer if not piracy? The Spanish Main, pieces of eight, it's all waiting right there to be plundered. By a pirate. An undead pirate with a gun in his sword.

And that's it for this installment of "Fighters of the World". Will it return? Well, that depends if I can find another country that has more than two fighters in it. I'll be scraping the bottom of the barrel soon enough!

24/08/2011

THE TRIATHRON

I've mentioned before that despite being the nerd that I am, I'm still a fan of some sports. I love football, and I'm into boxing. There are even some sports I don't like which, through the transformative properties of videogaming, I've enjoyed playing a digital recreation of. Everybody's Golf springs to mind, and as a kid I spent countless hours playing NBA Jam (possibly the game that most solidified my love for digitised speech samples). I've never been a fan of athletics, though; all that running around a track brings back dismal memories of mandatory cross-country events at school which had all the cheerful character of a death march. That could all change today, however, as I play K Amusement's 1988 NES Ironman-em-up, The Triathron. No, that isn't a typo.

Some kind of three-headed rainbow man appears on the title screen, perhaps representing the final product of a government experiment to create the world's greatest triathlete. Yes, as you may have deciphered from the title The Triathron is a NES version of the triathlon. You know the one - a bit of swimming, then a bit of cycling, then some running, then a massive cardiac arrest. Okay, so maybe it's just dough-bellied lumps like me whose hearts would explode at the end, but I'm not competing, am I? Of course not, the triathlon is an event for only the fittest of men and women. Only men in The Triathron, actually, although with NES sprites you'd be hard-pressed to spot any gender differences anyway.
Before you begin the gruelling competition, there's the somewhat less grueling task of selecting your character. There are six in total, each with slightly different stats.

For example, number six is William Baker. He's from Canada, and as you can see he has high stamina and "dush", but relatively low speed. He is also The Terminator in a neon-green tanktop.

Or maybe Scott Anderson takes your fancy? Why are you looking so glum, Scott? Is it because they've given the name of your home country as "Austlaria"? You should cheer up, you're pretty good at swimming. That'll come in handy.

In the absence of a British character to select based on patriotism alone, (I assume there's no British athlete because he couldn't make it out of the qualifiers,) I'll be playing as Shingo Takada. He's got a lot of dush, you see. Girls love dush.

Chicago is the venue for the first event, and you're presented with what is possibly the most useless map in videogaming history. The first part of the race is swimming.

The game helpfully reminds you to "Swim" at the top of the screen, just in case the picture of men bobbing chest-deep in water and wearing goggles didn't tip you off.

And here you are, swimming. As with pretty much every athletics game of the time, The Triathron is about button mashing. Pressing the B button repeatedly gets your character swimming forwards, which is all fairly standard. The first problem you might have is getting your swimmer to face in the direction you want: strangely, the controls are relative to the direction of your character, so pressing left on the pad makes your swimmer rotate to their left. It feels unusual at first but it just requires some practice, and once I'd figured out that it's easier to turn if you tap the d-pad rather than hold it I started to get the hang of the swimming. More challenging than the controls, however, is the sea itself.

As we all know, the ocean is a terrifying stygian otherworld filled with devastating natural phenomena and creatures made mostly of tentacles, spines and poison glands. The ocean in The Triathron is no different. Jellyfish impede your progress, (and getting a jellyfish in the face would be bad enough,) but the race organisers decided that hey, if we're trying to find the ultimate athlete, why not make it a real challenge? To this end, they placed the race course in an area of the sea filled with raging whirlpools, because what else did the spectators come to see if not a man struggling for his life as the current inexorably pulls him to a slow death by drowning? Yes, you can die in The Triathron. The race continues without you, just another victim of the triathlon's insatiable bloodlust.

If you manage to survive the horrors of the deep, you can move on to the next event. This is the cycling segment, and it's my favourite of the three: this is probably because the idea of sitting down appeals to me.

Much like the swimming, cycling involves hammering the B button to build up speed. Once you stop pressing B, your speed gradually decreases, which is useful for getting around corners. Apart from the occasional sections where the roads haven't been finished, the bike course seems a much more sensible setting than the swimming route. The problem with the cycling stage is your opponents, who appear to have taken the "Iron" in "Ironman" literally. You're racing down fairly narrow streets most of the time, and your co-triathletes take up an awful lot of space.

Run into them, and you'll fall over. They won't, though. They just keep on riding, oblivious to the impact even if you sideswipe them at maximum speed. Just make sure you don't try and overtake them on a corner and you should be okay. With the cycling complete, it's on to the third and final event: long-distance running.

Is it just me, or is the way it says "...RUN..." at the top of the screen a little menacing? Is something going to be chasing me? Well no, not unless you count the constant feeling of your parent's disappointment weighing heavy on your shoulders, forcing you to compete in triathlons to prove your worth.

The running switches to a side-on view, but it's the same basic concept: hammer B to build up speed while trying to conserve your stamina. Actually, I never managed to deplete the stamina bar despite mashing the B button so furiously that my right thumb now looks like Conan's bicep. I'm not sure why that is: perhaps I picked up a lot of stamina power-ups, or maybe I was placed on this Earth solely to be good at The Triathron.
As well as running, the A button now comes into play and pressing it makes you jump. This is important, because in the worst display of town planning since, erm, the last time I played Sim City, someone has planted hedges directly across the road. So, The Triathron isn't just swimming, cycling and running - it's also jumping, and the racing stages are more a steeplechase than a marathon.

Oh, and you can hop on a skateboard. Normally I would say that this is way beyond the realm of good sportsmanship, but then again they did make me swim through a whirlpool, so fuck your sportsmanship. The benefit of the skateboard is that you don't use stamina when you're riding it, and your thumbs get a rest because it automatically accelerates. Good use of the skateboard, especially if you can get it through the pothole-filled sections without crashing, it a good way to secure victory. Speaking of victory, The Triathron is over!

It's about time someone praised my fighting spirits.
Once you've won, you get a couple of "bouns" points to spend on increasing your athlete’s stats, and then it's straight back into the next Ironman Triathlon, this time in Japan. And then another, and another. To be honest, I gave up after the third triathlon in a row, because the tendons in my thumb had melted to the consistency of applesauce and the pain was affecting my ability to avoid other cyclists.
That's not all The Triathron has to offer, though. If you select "special" from the title screen, you can play a new triathlon with altered stages. This is the first one:

Personally I would have gone with "Oh Shit It's A Shark", but "Splash Fight" is fine too.

It's pretty much the same as the standard swimming sections, except with more obstacles to avoid. Yes, and a shark too. Jaws here chases behind you, and if you slow down too much he eats you. Strangely, there are other swimmers on the same course (which you have to avoid) but the shark completely ignores them and remains fixed on devouring the player character, which just goes to show that wearing chum-scented cologne isn't a good idea on a date or during a triathlon.

The biking event is reborn as "Galaxy Course II", and you must ride your bike through space, avoiding meteors and UFOs whilst trying to stave off explosive decompression. It's a lot easier than Splash Fight, because you can slow down without being eaten by a shark. There are no sharks in space, silly. At least... not yet.

And finally there's "Midnight Running". Let's just take a moment and look at that title card. Nice, isn't it? Anyway, Midnight Running is exactly the same as Daytime Running but with more obstacles. The hedges are replaced with giant trenches, there are trampolines and enemies that fall from the sky, but after the previous two stages it's a breeze.

Forget "dush", there is nothing the ladies love more than a man who can outswim a shark, ride a bicycle through the stars and, umm, jog at night.
And that's it for The Triathron. I admit I only gave it a go because the misspelled title promised a world of poor translation decisions, but I ended up sort of enjoying it. Sure, it's basic and rough around the edges, and all it really amounts to is steering something while pressing a button repeatedly... but it does what it sets out to do quite well. The graphics are decent, the music is okay and the gameplay is interesting enough to keep you diverted for at least a little while. However, I think my favourite thing about the whole game is that during the running stages you can grab a drink from the refreshment table on the way past, and your character glugs it down as he runs along. I love little touches like that.

Its main flaws are a lack of a two-player mode, something which I'm sure would have injected some fun into the proceedings, and the fact that you can't save your progress. This is particularly irritating given that you can upgrade your character, but hey - it's a button-masher for the NES, what do you expect?
In the end, I can't really recommend it to you: you should either play a modern title, of if you're set on a NES sports game there are better ones around. What I can say is that The Triathron wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting: it even managed to charm me a little, and that's not bad going.

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