30/04/2012

CITY BOMBER (ARCADE)

What with articles about Crazy Cop, Escape Kids and Fast Lane, VGJunk is becoming something of a repository for information about obscure Konami arcade titles. That's fine by me, of course - not every game can be a Castlevania or a Gradius, or even a Track & Field, and these forgotten titles are still fascinating in their own underdeveloped way. With that in mind, here's another game from Konami's murky late-Eighties past: the 1987 arcade escape-the-law-em-up City Bomber.


Ah, 1987 - a more innocent time, before the rise of international terrorism, when you could name a videogame City Bomber and have it not feel crashingly insensitive. All you freedom-loving patriots out there need not despair, this game doesn't actually include any bombings or even all that much in the way of cities, so you're definitely not playing as a suicide bomber or anything. No, you're just a common-or-garden casino robber.


That's you, the tiny lump of pixels next to the red car. I'm assuming you've just robbed the casino and you're about to make your high-speed getaway, but because the game itself offers you no kind of story beyond "man leaves casino and drives away really fast" you could equally claim that he's been caught counting cards and needs to make a hasty escape, or that The Apprentice is on in ten minutes and there's no way he's going to miss Alan Sugar shouting at people.


Some other cars give chase. These are either your accomplices, or the Mafia members who run the casino. Given that their cars appear to be from the Thirties, I'm going with the Mafia, and those cars are almost certainly filled with Italian-American waving tommy guns and calling each other goombas.


Oh yes, and the Old Bill are there too. Honestly, they don't really make much of an appearance. Casino heists are pretty low down on the list of police priorities: they've all seen Ocean's 11, they no there's no point trying to match wits with the kind of razor-honed intellect smart enough to fleece a casino. They'll only make a token effort to catch you, and leave you to experience your downfall at the hands of more qualified opponents, like trees and badly-maintained piers.


City Bomber is a checkpoint racing game. All you need to do is drive as quickly as possible from the start of the stage to the checkpoint at the end. Up and down on the joystick makes your little red car accelerate and slow down, left and right steer - easy enough, I'm sure you'll agree. Of course, there's a little more to it than that: our casino-burgling hero has improved his odds of escaping by kitting his vehicle out with a few helpful optional extras. One button lets you fire from the front of your car, which is useful for clearing other roads users and obstacles out of the way even if it does probably invalidate your MOT. The other button makes your car jump into the air - you know, for jumping over things. And jumping onto other cars, destroying them like an elephant seal mounting a chihuahua. It's a lot like Capcom's Mad Gear, but without all the wonkily-translated story about sentient Formula One cars.


And now my getaway car has sprouted wings! Ah, the power of, erm, power-ups. You can collect pick-ups as you destroy the differently-coloured cars, supplying you with a wide range (alright, four) of abilities that James Bond would be proud to strap to his Aston Martin. The wings makes your jumps last longer, there's a speed booster which I'm sure you can figure out, a "launcher" that increases the power of your shots and lets you shoot down the infuriating helicopters that chase you wherever you go, and best of all a pair of saw blades that let you simply drive through obstacles.


As you can see, you can collect all the power-ups at once, and you get to keep them until your car is destroyed. This casino bandit has really helped his chances of escape by selecting a getaway vehicle that can have wings and saw blades bolted on to it. He's already showed that he knows what he's doing, he's planned his criminal activities with precision and skill, so I'm sure City Bomber is going to be a breeze.


Indeed, the first stage is a breeze. I spent as long as possible avoiding the other cars, assuming that the collision system would work like Gradius and my car would explode if I so much as scratched the paintwork, but eventually I realised that you can take a hit from the other cars - instead of dying, you just lose some speed, or spin out and stop altogether for a moment. Even if you do manage to get yourself killed - either by colliding with one of the giant trucks, falling into the sea or (particularly embarrassing, this) driving into the pillars that mark the end-of-stage goal line at about three hundred miles an hour like I did - you just lose some time while your car respawns and all your power-ups disappear.


Yeah, those guard towers at the sides of the road there. Crashed right into them, so I did. I don't know exactly where I was escaping from and why it has a Berlin Wall-style barrier topped with barbed wire, but I'm sure the guards weren't expecting a winged, rocket-launching sports car to slam into their tower so fast that the driver's kidneys were embedded six inches into the solid concrete of the wall. Still, it was my only major cock-up, and I cleared the first stage.
Before we bid goodbye to the first stage, I'd like to mention the thing that piqued my interest in City Bomber in the first place, and that's the excellent soundtrack. Here's the first stage's theme:



I don't know who the composer is, so let me know in the comments if you have an idea, but whoever they are they've put together a first-stage theme that's up there with some of Konami's best, a real pounding, catchy number that's perfectly suited to the high-speed action of City Bomber. This is definitely the high-point of the soundtrack, but the rest of it is very good too.


It's a good job you don't die in every collision because once stage two starts, City Bomber decides that it's time to stop fucking about and ramps up the difficulty level. Most of the danger comes from the fact that the game is simply so fast: you can't see very far ahead, so corners and obstacles are sprung upon you with almost no warning as you barrel through the stages. Trees are the main source of horrible Marc Bolan-style death, because our hero has decide to try to lose the police by driving through a forest. You can shoot the trees out of the way, but you can't fire that fast and if there's more than one tree in front of you you'll never clear a path in time. Better hope you've picked up the saw power-up so you can just drive through them.


Okay, I take back everything I said about this guy knowing what he's doing - I can see why maybe he might go off-road, try to shake off his pursuers in the dense undergrowth, but the fact that his escape route takes him over some of the most neglected piers I've ever seen (and I used to holiday at the British seaside as a child) show a truly shocking lack of foresight. It's a good job his car can jump into the air because otherwise the local sea life would be getting a brand new four-wheeled neighbour.


What a rebel. Look at him, totally ignoring that STOP sign. Also I'm fairly sure you're not allowed to just glue wings onto your car and drive it on public roads. Never mind that, though, because with some careful driving and good use of the front-mounted saws I've made it through stage two. And stage three...


...well, it's actually much more relaxing. Granted, that screenshot doesn't make it look particularly calm but there's much less to crash into than the previous stage and there're no vertiginous cliffs that drop straight into the sea. What you've got instead is some gargantuan, multi-laned highway that scrolls across to the left and right to form a nightmarish blanket of asphalt as far as the eye can see. Seriously, I'm hardly an environmentalist but this bleak vision of man's destructive tendencies is creeping me out a bit. You could use this as a recruitment video for Greenpeace. At least it's a short stage, about forty seconds long, and as long as you remember to jump over the craters caused by the helicopter's bombs you shouldn't have a problem. Stage four, please!


Oh good, this is more like it. A nice straight road, walls up the side so you can't fall off, minimal traffic - our hero's escape strategy is back on track!


Oh for fuck's sake. I'm not sure what the most baffling thing about this stage is: the fact that our hero thought his best chance of reaching safety was to drive through a volcano, or that the local council has paved roads inside said volcano. They can't even afford to fix the potholes where I live, never mind funding an ambitious program of road building amidst the lava-filled fury wrenched up by unimaginable forces from the very bowels of the Earth itself.


And we've got a rain of exploding boulders to deal with, too. Marvellous. Between the falling rocks and the way the narrow road twists and turns, this stage is so much harder than stage three that it's almost ridiculous. Difficulty curve? City Bomber doesn't have a difficulty curve, unless "Difficulty Curve" is the name of a large hooked stick that Konami periodically whacks into your groin.


In short: screw you, volcano and screw you Konami. Just because I don't have superhuman reflexes, there's no need to rub it in by making me drive into a lake of molten rock over and over again. I'm going to stage five and there's nothing you can do to stop me!


I'm driving through a farm now: those brown lumps around my car are cattle that moo and panic when you drive through them. Having seen what can happen when people crash into deer, people who aren't driving some kind of souped-up rocket car, I'm surprised a vehicle-cow interaction doesn't end in instant disintegration. It's a small mercy, but I'll take what I can get. Don’t let the wide open spaces in the screenshot above fool you, either - this stage is just as hard as the last one. These are some of the best-irrigated fields in the world, and every five seconds you have to hop over another small stream or wooden fence.


The farm's behind us and we've arrived at an airport car-park. Buildings and cars appear thick and fast, and frankly if you haven't played this level before and memorised the location of all the things that will kill you you're going to see your little car explode an awful lot. The controls aren't an issue - everything handles nice and sharply and reacts as you'd expect - but the speed of the game means there's not really much chance of you avoiding anything.


Especially not giant warehouse that appear out of nowhere. You'll notice that the warehouse is taking up almost the entire screen, because the stages scroll quite far to the left and right and you've got to negotiate your way through the narrow passageways between them. After many attempts, I managed to figure out a path between the buildings and I've broken free!


Oh great, now I'm going to crash into this aeroplane.


No, hang on, it's absorbing me into its metal womb.


Erm... see you later, then?


I guess not. City Bomber is over, ending as our hero flies off into the sunset with his ill-gotten haul and the kind of severe neck trauma that comes from driving a jumping car through a volcano at close to the speed of sound. I like that it just says "CONGRATULATION", because it looks like that's the placeholder text - someone at Konami was supposed to insert a proper congratulatory message but they just forgot / weren't arsed.
Yep, this game has all the longevity of a hide-and-seek game against Superman. You can probably complete the whole thing in about ten minutes if you know what you're doing and not much longer if you don't. I'm okay with that, though. If nothing else, writing for VGJunk has taught me to appreciate these small, unassuming games a little more. I've been playing Skyrim all week and ten minutes of City Bomber is a nice break from stabbing dragons in the face. That's probably because these days I'm always looking for the bright spots in games like this and City Bomber certainly has a few moments of charm, like the goofy honkahonkahonka noise triggered when you collect a power-up or the animation of your car driving on two wheels during heavy collisions.


Overall, it's a simple, fast-paced arcade title that would be extremely frustrating if you were putting real ten-pence coins into an arcade cabinet but turns out to be a faintly charming ten-minute diversion if you're playing it through other means. Plus there's the excellent soundtrack, reason enough for City Bomber to exist at all and easily the best thing about the game. In fact, that seems to be a good description of most of these semi-forgotten Konami arcade titles: interesting enough for a short while, but quickly, well, forgotten. Like I said at the start, not everything can be Castlevania or Gradius, and I'm okay with that.

25/04/2012

OCTOPUSES!

So, I think octopuses are really cool and endlessly fascinating. I mean, why wouldn't you be fascinated by a highly intelligent, colour-changing, multi-limbed creature that can squeeze itself in and out of tiny holes like it was made of putty? That's right, you can't help but be a little in awe of them. VGJunk is about videogames, though, so rather than reading about my plans to breed a species of terranean octopuses to replace guide dogs and other helper animals you get a short article about some of my favourite videogame octopuses instead. I'll add a link to the "Operation Landopus" KickStarter later.

This octopus, from Sega's Laser Ghost, did not make the list as his shifty and violent nature brings other octopuses into disrepute. Not really, it's because he's not that interesting. Sorry, fella. Anyway, who's first?

Octoman, F-Zero series

As much as I love the original SNES F-Zero, (and I really do,) the series really took off with the release of F-Zero X for the Nintendo 64. It added wonderfully varied and fully 3D courses, an unparalled sense of speed and best of all a whole host of utterly mad new characters, each with their own machines and often ludicrous backstories. One of these new characters was Octoman.


Hailing from the planet Takora and racing for cold, hard cash, Octoman combines the advantages of both man and octopus into one hard-drivin' whole: his multiple limbs make controlling his craft a breeze, while his humanoid, forward-facing eyes give him the depth perception and field of vision required to participate in the elite F-Zero races. Actually, I think that's the only humanoid feature that's working to his advantage: all the other attributes of octopusosity could come in handy. I mean, you saw how small a gap an octopus can squeeze into, right? Octoman's ship wouldn't even need a cockpit, and that's bound to save some race weight. Forward-facing eyes, though - they're important. You wouldn't have a chance of winning and F-Zero Grand Prix if your eyes are looking out of the side windows the whole time.


As for Octoman's personality, his post-race interviews reveal him to be a kind, sensitive young space-creature who vows to use his winnings to feed a bunch of octo-kids as well as campaigning against those who would use his tentacled brethren as a food source. Then you complete the game on "Master" difficulty, and you unlock this video:


Octoman cements his place as a truly memorable videogame octopus by attacking the unappreciative audience of his one-man bodybuilding stage show. This kind of thing is why I lie awake at night, praying for the day that Nintendo and Sega get their acts together and make a new F-Zero game that's as eyeball-meltingly fast and as completely barking mad as F-Zero GX.

Super-8, Cyberbots / Armored Warriors.

You don't have to be an actual octopus to make it one to my list. Oh no, you just have to posess enough of the spirit of the octopus: the tentacular essence, if you will. Super-8 has that in buckets, even if he is a mecha featured Capcom's robot-based beat-em-ups and not a squishy deep-sea cephalopod.



Super-8 is most recognisable to gamers from its appearance in... well, I'm not sure, actually. Cyberbots is where it had its biggest role, but it's not exactly a famous game that loads of people played. I think if people have seen Super-8, it's mostly from Devilotte's appearance in Marvel vs Capcom as an assist character. This cameo doesn't really portray Super-8 in the best light, because all it does is appear and then explode.



Super-8 is the personal mecha of space pirate, angry young lady and proud owner of the most ridiculous name in all of Capcom's fighting games, Princess Devilotte de Deathsatatan XIII. This is great, because if you're travelling through space you might as well make your mecha look like a giant robot octopus. It's not like you need to worry about aerodynamics in space, so why not build all your intergalactic vessels in unusual shapes? Have a star-cruiser shaped like a bucket of fried chicken! A short-range interceptor modelled on the face of Dustin Hoffman! The possibilities are endless. Super-8's octopus-based design, with the traditionally sinister and slippery tentacles, is an excellent match for Devilotte's devious personality.


Yeah, that's definitely the reason that she pilots Super-8. It's certainly not because Capcom made Cyberbots by just reusing assets from their arcade beat-em-up Armored Warriors, where Super-8 is the second stage's boss.

Dark Octopus, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night


Alright, allow me to tell you a story. We're in Transylvania during the late 1700's, and Dracula has once more returned to un-life after his umpteenth beating at the hands of the Belmont clan. With weary resignation, he hauls himself out of his coffin and begins preparations for the inevitable arrival of the latest wielder of the Vampire Killer who'll be along any minute to smash all his candles and put him back into the grave. He takes out a list of all the monsters, demons and fiends at his disposal and goes through them one-by-one, hoping to find something that might stop the Belmont's impending rampage. Zombies, skeletons, Frankenstein's Monsters, even Death himself - none have them have worked. And then, at the bottom of his list, he sees a monster he's never tried out before: the Dark Octopus. Dracula sighs, frustrated at the unending cycle of his existence, and fills the caverns beneath his dark citadel with hundreds of mutated sea-creatures. You never know.

The Tako Family, Parodius series

If you're making a series that'll gently mock (parody, if you will) your most famous shoot-em-up series, what better to replace your sleek space fighter with than an octopus?


Not just one octopus but a whole dynasty of them, their interstellar battle beginning with Tako's appearance in the very first MSX Parodius game. Later games featured Tako's son and occasional lecher Takosuke and Takosuke's younger brother Takohiko. In case you haven't guessed, "tako" is Japanese for octopus.


Why do I love the Tako family? Well, for one thing they're a bunch of tough hombres - they can fly through the vacuum of space without batting an oversized anime eyelid. They still die in one hit, but then so does the Vic Viper and that's apparently a spaceship designed especially for combat. Badly designed, you could argue, but maybe the bad guys in Gradius and Parodius fire incredibly powerful super-weapons and that's why the Vic Viper is the only ship left. Still, it's impressive that the Takos can operate in deep space with no more protection than what they're wearing on their heads, be it a headband, a baseball cap or in Takosuke's case a pair of knickers. I don't want to know where he got the knickers for. I know how the Japanese are with their tentacles.


Another reason I personally like the Takos is that their weapon set is taken directly from the Salamander series of games. Okay, maybe not directly - you can't fire smaller octopuses at the enemy in Salamander - but you do get the Ripple Laser. It just makes sense to me, the octopuses using the Ripple Laser, because their O-shaped mouths are perfectly formed for it. It's this kind of logical approach to the science of space-based laser weaponry that makes me love Parodius so much, you know.

Ultros, Final Fantasy VI

Of course Ultros on this list. How can you talk about videogame octopuses without mentioning the greatest of them all? For those of you who have never experienced Ultros' unique charms, he appears in Square's classic SNES RPG Final Fantasy VI. He's a recurring boss and a comedy foil, breaking up the serious business of saving the world from camp clown with delusions of godhood by popping up for the occasional battle, trying to drop iron weights on your head during an opera and eventually getting his comeuppance in the form of massive debts and a lifetime of servitude.


As I mention whenever I talk about Hallowe'en-y games, I love things that are a mixture of the creepy and the cute. Ultros is a good example of this - check out his out-of-battle sprite:


He's adorable! Look at those cutesy eyes, he looks like the obligatory talking animal sidekick from an 80's cartoon. Compare that to his battle sprite, pictured above. He's still kind of cute, but he also looks like someone shoved a handful of rotting bananas into a pile of strawberry jam. Teeth of that size and number are generally an indicator that you should stay away and Ultros is no exception, especially when he's telling your female party members that he likes pretty girls.


Everyone loves an underdog, and that's exactly what Ultros is. He's a simple-minded, lecherous young octopus who makes the mistake of attacking a group of adventurers who turn out to be the most powerful people in a world filled with gods and robots. His stubborn nature demands that he tries to avenge his earlier defeats but he's just not tough enough, his ambitions thwarted at every turn by his own incompetence. You end up rooting for him, not because he's a good guy but because, despite being a giant purple octopus, he's relatable. Plus, towards the end of the game he ends up working as a receptionist at the Coliseum to pay off his gambling debts and the cheery way he greets the player is one of my favourite lines in all of videogaming.


Ted Woolsey gets some stick, but "Look at me! I'm a receptionist! G'fa, ha, ha!" feels so right that I never want to find out what a more literal translation of the Japanese version would be. I'm just glad the game ends and Ultros is still alive. Thanks, Ultros, for being the big purple cherry on top of FFVI's already delicious cake.


Ultros made a return this year, appearing in Final Fantasy XII-2 as a DLC battle. I played the demo for FFXIII-2 and I was thoroughly unimpressed, but seeing Ultros recreated in modern HD graphics and with appropriately goofy voice acting has redeemed the entire game. He's just fun, wherever and whenever you encounter him, and you can never have enough of that.

Octopuses in gaming, then: usually red, sometimes lecherous, but appearing in a wide variety of different genres to cheer me up with their multitudinous tentacles and ability to pilot high-performance racing vehicles. You'll notice that all the octopuses featured here appeared in Japanese-developed games - my personal theory on this is that octopus is eaten a lot more in Japan than it is in the west, and there's nowt that defines a culture so much as its food. Maybe there's a Japanese version of VGJunk where some nerd with too much time on his hands is talking about his favourite sheep in videogaming.

16/04/2012

KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND (ARCADE)

Get out your party poppers and jolly hats, because today is VGJunk's second birthday! Yeah, two years of this nonsense already. I hope I'm better at it than when I started - if nothing else, the articles include a lot more pictures these days. I'd like to say a sincere thank you to everyone who's read, commented, supported and shared VGJunk over the past two years: especially Mike J, Mike B and Sibs for listening to me ramble on about my crappy website, internet peoples GameWTFs, Wabisabiforrobots, NESVictory, Magnet Beam and everyone (far too numerous to list) who's sent me a nice message, posted an interesting comment or helped me out over the course of the year. I really do appreciate it very much.


To celebrate this momentous occasion, and to celebrate this fact that it's my actual birthday tomorrow, I've decided to give the VGJunk treatment to a game I genuinely love: Capcom's 1991 rightwise-born-King-of-England-em-up Knights of the Round!


That's the Knights of the Round Table of course, Britain's premier squad of brave and noble knights headed by King Arthur himself. Can I get through this whole article without referring to Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Well, I just mentioned it so I guess not. Knights of the Round is a side-scrolling beat-em-up with a medieval twist, Final Fight with plate armour and horses, the mean city streets replaced by castles and battlefields. Yet hidden beneath this familiar facade is a brawler with a little more depth to it than you might expect.


The game begins, as all good Arthurian myths should, with Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone. I love the way he's posing in this shot,  pointing at Excalibur's blade like a QVC host trying to sell you on its incomparable sharpness and ability to legitimise monarchies. Merlin, who has been waiting nearby with a camera and filming the unsuccessful attempts of the other knights so he can sell the footage to You've Been Framed, sees Arthur's feat and jumps out of the bushes to task him with a holy quest. Arthur must seek the Holy Grail itself!


What Merlin actually says is "Only the Holy Grail can release this world from attain the chaos, you should be able to find it because you were able to sacred sword. Help eachother and find it, brave men!!" I know Merlin's little speech sounds like he's reading from cue cards that aren't in the right order, but the guy's about seven hundred years old so we'll give him a break.
Just to recap: a young knight finds a sword in the woods, and an old man appears and tells him to find Jesus' dinner cup with no indication what the cup looks like or where it might be - but it'll be fine, Arthur should be able to find it because OOooOOoo, sacred swoooord!
Arthur is not alone on his quest, however. He's got a bunch of knights at his disposal, so he decides to bring along Perceval and Lancelot. Bringing Lancelot seems an especially shrewd move: if Arthur's going to be away for a while, perhaps the duty of looking after Guinevere should fall to someone a little less adulter-y. But what talents do these warriors bring to the battlefield?


Arthur possesses average skills in all areas, a trait often associated with kings and other leaders of men. Excalibur has truly chosen the most generic man in England to wield its awesome power. According to the arcade flyer, Arthur is a mere seventeen tears old, but I've seen the kind of scraggly beards that are the best seventeen-year-old boys can manage and Arthur's facial hair is far too grand for that. Given medieval life expectancy rates, I'd say he has another seven years left, ten at the most.


Lancelot favours speed over power and flowing golden locks over a sensible haircut. He received his martial training in the Far East, and as a result he fights with a scimitar. He also looks a lot like an early design concept for Street Fighter II's Vega, so perhaps that's here his Richard Gere-ian good looks stem from.


Perceval (or Parceval, as the game sometime feels like spelling it) is a young man with a pure, chaste heart and the body of a shaven bear. He's the heavy-hitter of the group, although he makes a mockery of his low speed rating by being the only character that can dash by double tapping the stick. He carries an axe instead of a sword, because what's the point in using a sword if your teammate is using Excalibur? You're only going to ever feel second best.


And so, our three brave knights set out on a quest to find the grail which they have never seen and have no clue where to find. You have to feel some sympathy for that poor soldier on the right; he can't be any more than fifteen. Join our army, they said. Ransack some villages, it'll be fun. Sure you'll end up in a pauper's grave before your testicles have fully descended, but these are called the Dark Ages for a reason, kid.


If you've ever played Final Fight (or any side-scrolling brawler of this vintage, really) you'll know what to expect in terms of gameplay. It's a two-button system, one to attack and one to jump. Pressing them both together performs a health-draining desperation attacks that knocks down any enemies nearby. Hitting the same enemy a few times with your normal attack will result in a multi-hit combo and why am I explaining this, you know how it works - travel through the lands, cutting down anyone who stands in you path without so much as a second though even if you should possibly be asking them some questions like "who are you?" and "where am I?" and "have you seen the Holy Grail anywhere?"
This first stage is apparently the "village on fire", but the only fire you see is in the distance. I guess "village two miles south-east of the village on fire" just didn't roll off the tongue easily enough. It's a gentle introduction to Knights of the Round, with the bulk of your opposition being made up of the almost-defenceless Soldier enemies, hapless youths with quartered jerkins and early-onset hunchback issues.


It's not long before the first boss appears and single-handedly kicks the stuffing out of a bunch of your allied soldiers.


I love Scorn. Just look at his jaunty pose, his haughty manner, his helmet that looks like an upside-down bucket. He may be eight feet tall and a dab hand with a halberd, but he's got exactly the same "oh ho ho!" laugh as every aristocratic female villain in every anime ever, so it's hard to see him as a viable threat. And so it proves, because with careful application of hit and run tactics Scorn is easily defeated by the soon-to-be-King of All Britons.


This all seems very simple, right? So far, so run-of-the-mill. Well, it sort of is, but KotR has a few tricks up its sleeve that makes it stand out. First and foremost, you can block. I doesn't sound like much, and you'd take it for granted in most modern games, but for an early nineties beat-em-up it's a relatively rare feature. It does take some getting used to, though - there's no specific block button, and instead you have to press attack and then a split-second later hold the joystick in the opposite direction to the one you're facing in. It's a bit of timing that does take some getting used to, and for a while you'll probably be like me and end up turning around and attacking behind you every five seconds like an idiot trying to swat an imaginary bee rather than performing a block.


The block is a little more complicated than simply absorbing damage, however. For starters, you can't block indefinitely: hold your block for too long and you'll be temporarily stunned. The other, and very important thing, is that after a successful block you get a brief period of invincibility. Mastering and utilizing this block-invincibility power is vital if you want to get anywhere in KotR without using enough credits to wear the cabinet's coin slot down to nothing.
This is the second stage, by the way - the "Confused Fight". It's an apt description, as I have no idea who all these soldiers are and why they're trying to kill young Arthur.


I mean, here Arthur has become so confused by the sudden appearance of a portly knight on horseback that he's attempting to leap off the edge of the screen. Come back, Arthur! Use you kingly power to do what all good monarchs do and demand some taxes! In this case, I suggest a horse tax.


Yep, you can mount a mighty steed and attack your enemies from horesback. You can also tell the horse to jump on people, which if you ask me is a perfectly valid use of Arthur's obvious equestrian talents. You can even command the horse to become a sort of living missile and charge forward, trampling any enemies in its path before disappearing off the screen. I seem to get my ass handed to me whenever I use the horse, so this is generally the best course of action. I'm a chivalrous man, the least I can do is butcher these men face-to-face.
Speaking of these men's faces, the Buster Knights (the stout fellows on the left) look rather like the Chaos Warriors from Games Workshop's Heroquest board game:


These guys are far more irritating than Heroquest's bloodthirsty warriors, though, because they tend to wait until you're fighting a different enemy, creep up behind you, and then smack you in the back of the head. So much for the age of chivalry.


Stage two's boss wanted a horse, but he couldn't find one so he has to make do with a powder-blue My Little Pony. This is Braford the Sword Master, champion of double-bladed fencing and possessor of a blue horse that is, like, totally manly. Once you've knocked him off his mount he proves to be a frustratingly gymnastic opponent, diving around the stage despite wearing a full set of plate armour and carrying two swords. Braford must have thighs like hydraulic rams but even he cannot stand for long against the power of Excalibur, especially when you get him trapped in a loop by using your strong attack (press attack followed immediately by holding the joystick forward) over and over again.


Onto stage three, and you might have noticed that Arthur is looking a little... different. More regal, more powerful, more encased in metal than he did when his quest began. That's because KotR incorporates an RPG-style level-up system. Collect enough points and your character levels up, increasing their stats and more importantly changing their sprites to look cooler; Arthur cuts a far more imposing figure now that he looks like he could withstand the impact of a small truck.
Obviously, this means you'll be wanting to maximise your score so that Arthur and friends can level up and become ever stronger. You can collect points in the usual beat-em-up ways - bashing enemies, collecting treasure and finishing stages as fast as possible. However, if you really want to rack up the points you'll have to do a little more planning. For instance, killing several of the same type of enemies in a row nets you extra points for each kill in the chain, so you'll want to plan your attacks a little differently. Treasure usually comes in chests, which actually yield more points when you hit them and their contents spread over the floor that if you pick them up in their (you'd think much more convenient) boxed form. Food items restore your health unless you have full health, in which case they give you points - so do you pick up the food to gain points, or do you leave it in case you take some damage? It's hardly a chess-like mental exercise which requires meticulous planning and penetrating foresight, but the need to collect as many points as you can does give KotR an interesting depth not often seen in beat-em-ups of this time.


"And verily, Arthur thus dreweth the sworde from the stone, gather'd about him his moste loyal knights, wander'd into yon castle in search of the True Grail and was attacked by ruddy tigers, of all thyngs!"


Unless this game is based on the recollections of Arthur himself and he's really exaggerating an encounter with the castle's pet cats, stage three sees the first appearance of the deadly, and apparently very common in medieval England, evil tigers. Not just any tigers, though - these are Mad Tigers. Capcom decided that a normal, sane tiger was not enough of a threat and that only a tiger with mental health issues would truly strike fear into the heart of the player. The meeting when Capcom named these guys must have been a fun one: "I like what you've done with these tiger enemies, but there's something missing. What is their raison d'etre, where is their motivation? What's that? They're insane? I love it! We'll go with that. Just one more thing on the tiger front: I want to make sure everyone knows that these are male tigers, so please go ahead and draw a great big pair of fuzzy knackers on them, okay? Thanks."


Sadly there is no listing in the credits for "Tiger gonad artist" so I can't tell you who is responsible for this.


Responsible for releasing the tigers is the lord of this castle, Arlon the Silver Emperor. A nice modest touch, there - "Golden Emperor" is a terribly crass name and it also makes you sound like a Chinese takeaway. Arlon is the first properly challenging opponent in the game, mostly because he spends so much of the fight jumping into the air and creating a powerful blast of psychokinetic energy whenever he lands. Plus he's got spiked knuckledusters for when things get a bit tasty, y'know what I mean? Yeah, for some reason I can't see Arlon as anything other than a Guy Ritchie-style Cockney gangster. In a film adaptation of Knights of the Round, Arlon would be played Ray Winstone (unless it's straight to DVD, in which case Danny Dyer is the more likely star). If you've got a good handle on the blocking mechanics you should be okay, though, and with the Silver Emperor deposed you can head to stage four.


It's a short stage that takes place a knight's tournament - I think capturing the flag is supposed to be a playful game, but it's hard to tell when I'm using Perceval and my axe is destroying countless men beneath its blood-soaked blade. Of course, our heroes reclaim the flag and there is much good cheer, lusty cries of victory, etc., etc...


And then all the soldiers are killed in a hail of arrows. Suddenly Perceval's decision to only wear heavy armour but only on one side of his body doesn't seem so foolish, as long as he remembers to keep the armoured side pointing at the arrows.
If you ever wanted an illustration of the class system in Britain and the struggles of the working class, just take a look at those nobles in the background as they stand idly by and impassively watch hundreds of men killed before their eyes. A couple of these hideous toffs even have their arms folded, as though the carnage unfolding before them was no more interesting than watching a sub-par mime pretending to be a statue in a busy city-center shopping district. What a bunch of absolute bastards.


Level boss and arrow-blizzard orchestrator Phantom the Nightshade soon appears. After the cruel indifference of the nobility it's hard for him to seem like a complete prick, but he really goes above and beyond with his multiple-personality bullshit and he just about manages to engender even more hatred in me. Congratulations, Phantom. The best way to describe Phantom is to say he's KotR's version of Final Fight's Rolento. He dashes around the screen faster than you can keep up, throwing firebombs and (for some reason) meat cleavers at you. Then he really makes a play for the title of "Most Irritating Dickweed" by producing two clones of himself. On the plus side, he doesn't have much health and if you get lucky you can trap his clones in one place long enough to beat them all down. Sadly Phantom isn't killed but flounces away to fight another day, so you can be sure we'll be seeing him again later. For now though, let's press on to stage five.


That horse is bright orange. That is not a colour that horses should be, and judging by the horse's stoic yet faintly disappointed expression he knows it too. This stage is called "Expedition", so I would guess that Arthur has finally noticed his utter lack of information on the Grail's whereabouts and has taken to just walking around the countryside, beating up the hordes of soldier who lurk wherever he goes and even smiting the occasional falcon.


Before any bird-lovers send me hate-hail about my barbaric treatment of these majestic birds of prey, I'd like to draw your attention to the enemy status bar at the bottom of the screen. See? These are Bad Falcons. Mean, vicious killers with a hard glint in their eyes and a knife clasped in their talons. These falcons are so bad they have no chance for rehabilitation, and they keep throwing knives at me so I feel that I'm well within my rights to hit them with my sword.


This is Balbars the Hammer, not named as an ironic joke like calling a big guy "Tiny" but because he's got a fucking massive hammer. He's the stage's boss, and by God he looks like a boss - there's just something about carrying a hammer the size of a Fiat Uno that rules you out of "cannon fodder" territory. Balbars is yet another boss who likes to defy the conventions of medieval warfare by jumping around like a child with a space hopper, trying to crush you beneath his vast weight. It's a tactic that works well for him, as does waiting until you attack and then grabbing you by the throat. He's not a complicated man. If you eventually manage to wear down his considerable health bar, you can move on to stage six: "Knights in a Strange Land."


Lancelot has upgraded to gold armour, blue jeans and a sword that is more hilt than blade. Even that horse is taken aback by his bold sartorial choices. This stage is one of the longer ones, and it's jam-packed with hordes of soldiers that really do not want Arthur and his knights to get their hands on the Grail. Everything's coming together nicely now, and KotR is reminding me of the reasons I like it so much - the tough, semi-strategic battles that are much more fun now that I've got the timing for the block and heavy attack commands down, the charming graphics and music, and the straight-faced yet off-kilter feel of the whole the game.


This is what I mean by that last comment: stage six's boss is a samurai warrior called Blood Armor Muramasa. I know this stage is called "Knights in a Strange Land", but did Arthur really travel all the way to Japan in search of the Holy Grail? Or is there a lone samurai roaming the wheat-fields of southern England? Either way, it demonstrates why I love KotR in particular and this kind of arcade game in general - the chance to see something like a James Bond movie or an American buddy-cop blockbuster or even the romantic myths of European chivalry through the technicolour Japanese prism that is the arcade videogame, where King Arthur is seventeen, has a beard like a hillbilly mountain-man and uses the legendary blade Excalibur to beat up tigers. As you can probably tell, I'm not really one for realism in my videogames.


As for Muramasa, he's not as tough to beat as Balbars although he can summon an infuriating rain of fireballs at the drop of a hat. Still, I managed to beat him fairly easily just by staying on top of him using the jumping attack. There's no need to pose over his defeated body though, Arthur. Show a little restraint.


With the local samurai defeated, it's time for the final stage as our heroes battle through a castle filled with enemies, spiked balls and the occasional horse. You should know the drill by now, and with grim determination Arthur stabs his way through the chaos of the battlefield, aided by his new and improved golden armour. He's not even the king yet, and already he's spending taxes on solid gold armour and capes instead of shoring up Britain's crumbling road network or something. This is what happens when you choose your leaders by sword-lifting prowess, people.


There's a big robot to fight, because why not? We've had samurai and robots, all we need now is a pirate to complete the set. Phantom reappears once the robot is dealt with, but he's much less of a challenge than the first time around because he's got a smaller health bar. I guess he hadn't quite healed from the injuries I gave him the first time we met.


We're nearly there now - the power and experience coursing through Perceval's veins has caused him to age twenty years and lose all his hair. The fact that Perceval's strength seems to be directly linked to the length of his hair gives me hope for my own receding hairline, although no matter how strong I become I don't think I'll be adopting Percy's habit of only wearing armour on one side of his body. Surely that'd throw you off balance in a combat situation? Luckily it doesn't affect Percival that way, and he can casually ram his way through the assembled throng until he's almost at the final boss. But who could this boss be? What manner of man or beast dwells within this castle, and most importantly do they know where the Holy Grail is because I don't have a goddamn clue?


Well wonder no more, because here is Garibaldi, your final opponent. I don't know if he's named after the founding father of modern Italy or the biscuit, but I do know that he's an absolute pain in the rear to fight. If you haven't mastered blocking by the time you reach this fight, you will die. You will die quickly and often, because Garibaldi has a wide array of powerful projectile attacks, the ability to interrupt your attacks seemingly at will, and a ruddy great mace for cracking skulls. You might also have noticed that his sprite is a slightly-reworked palette swap of Arlon the Silver Emperor, and once he's off his horse he shares Arlon's fondness for the advanced fencing tactic known as the "jumping cannonball."


This is a long, occasionally frustrating fight that is the only part of KotR that I'm not too fond of. Even then, it's still got some nice touches - for example, when Garibaldi dismounts he takes off his golden helm and throws it aside, letting you pick it up for extra points and adding mid-battle looting to the list of Arthur's misdeeds. If he does find the Grail, isn't he going to melt or explode or something when he picks it up? Maybe that's what Excalibur's for, he can use it like a barbecue fork to safely manipulate the Grail.
After a gruelling battle filled with well-timed blocking and countless projectile attacks that'll make you scream "horseshit!" at the screen, Garibaldi is dead and his dream of a unified Italy will go unrealised.


Hey, would you look at that: he did have the Holy Grail! Well that's handy, I was running out of castles to storm. Arthur managed to sneak in one last level up at the end of the game, and his armour has changed from soft, malleable gold to (hopefully) cold hard steel because wearing gold armour is a deeply stupid idea.


Back at Merlin's woodland hideaway, the knights gather to decide what should be done with the power of the Grail. There are actually a few different bits of dialogue you can get here, depending on who deals the mortal blow to Garibaldi and how long you wait to press the "pick up the Grail" button - if you hesitate, Merlin badgers Arthur until he grudgingly accepts the Grail with an "ugh, fine, I suppose I'll be king then" attitude. Everyone vows to use the power of the Grail to spread peace throughout the land, although the details of this are left a little hazy. The Grail just somehow makes everything better, alright? That's all you need to know, serf - now get back to harvesting the king's turnips.


Knights of the Round isn't the best side-scrolling beat-em-up ever. Hell, it's not even Capcom's best in the genre, but I still hold it in slightly higher regard than perhaps it deserves. It's definitely a good game: the graphics are smooth, interesting and just over-the-top enough, and Isao Abe's soundtrack is very good while sounding unlike any other beat-em-up soundtrack I can think of.



Best of all there's the unusually deep combat and level-up systems. As I've mentioned before, the side-scrolling fighter was a genre so heavily mired in its own clich├ęs that a game only needed a small amount of well-implemented new features to stand out from the crowd, and the additions featured in KotR definitely accomplish that. I think what I love most about it, though, is that it's got charm. It's a vague thing to praise, I know, but KotR is filled with little touches and unexpected moments that always make me smile: things like Scorn's dorky laugh, or the Fat Men's recovery animation where they haul themselves to their feet using their halberd as a crutch, or the fact that those tigers are mad as hell. In the end, it's a well above average side-scrolling beat-em-up that came wrapped in just the right packaging for my tastes. Don't just take my word for it: give Knights of the Round a go and I'm sure you'll enjoy it. There was a SNES port, although it does seem quite hard to find. I'm sure you can figure out a way to play it, though; just remember to block, and if you can't block, throw a horse at the problem.


And that, my friends, is the end of VGJunk's second year. I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it, and I'll be heading into the third year of this nonsense sometime soon. Thank you all for coming!

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