03/10/2017

UNDEAD LINE (MEGADRIVE)

I’d love to begin this article by telling you that the scent of Autumn is in the air and a faint chill lingers on the breeze at night, but I can’t because it’s still warm and humid and the fallen leaves are a wet mulch rather than a crisp golden carpet. However, it is October! Wonderful, fantastical October, my favourite time of the year because Halloween season is here and I do genuinely love it so. And of course, it being October also means it’s time for the 2017 VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular! Only ghoulish, grisly games for the rest of the month, beginning with a 1991 Megadrive game with a title that sounds like the punchline to a joke about a zombie newspaper editor: it’s T&E Soft’s shriek-em-up Undead Line!


I’m still not sure whether the title’s supposed to be written as Undead Line or Undeadline. The undead in this game don’t generally form orderly lines, so maybe it really is a pun on “deadline” and there’s a strict time limit on dealing with the unholy forces of destruction. If there is a time limit then it doesn’t factor into the gameplay any, which is good because merely surviving in this game is brutal enough without having to survive quickly. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Before we get to the action, let’s take a look at the story, which has handily been translated into English by MIJET Translations.


It’s that age-old story: the gods and giants that once ruled the world fought to a standstill, until the giants created a quartet of incredibly powerful living weapons. This was a plan of mixed success: the monsters killed most of the gods... but they killed all the giants too. There were some red faces in the giants’ monster-building laboratories after that one, let me tell you. This event game to be known as Ragnarok, and the terrible monsters were sealed away before humans rose up as the dominant species. However, an army of demons is now attacking the kingdom of Gitane – presumably where they make the cigarettes – and they’re trying to get the terrible monsters back up and running. Not to worry, though. The King of Gitane has a plan – he spots a mysterious travelling warrior who no-one knows anything about and tasks him with the quest of finding a macguffin that can re-seal the monsters. The king sure is a trusting sort, ain’t he? Anyway, that warrior’s name is Leon, and that’s who you’ll be playing as.


With the text dump out of the way and whatever options you want to change sufficiently fiddled with – I’d highly recommend turning on auto-fire – you’re thrown into the level select screen. It’s nice to have the option, but I know myself too well to pretend that I can tackle the levels in anything but the order they’re presented.
It’s a set of locations with plenty of spooky potential, especially the graveyard and the ruins, although I’m not looking forward to going down the “drain.” I’m assuming it’s going to be more like a sewer, but I’m worried about having to fight a slimy wad of trapped hair. Just the thought of it is making me feel a bit ill.


Once the action begins, we can see that Undead Line is a vertical shoot-em-up, but rather than controlling a spaceship you’re in charge of Leon, a mighty warrior who follows the usual mighty warrior fashion trends of having heavily armoured shoulders but a bare chest that’s as free and liberated as a spring breeze. Leon relentlessly marches forwards, and you can move him around the screen but you can’t turn around, so try not to get stuck behind obstacles as the screen scrolls because doing so will cost you one or more of your three life points. As for attacking, Leon has the ability to disgorge an endless stream of daggers from his face… for now. There are different weapons to collect, but at the moment the dagger hose is more than enough to clear out these giant dragonflies.


The obvious focal point of this screen is the chorus line of projectile-spitting mushroom men, but don’t overlook the mandragora creature on the right. It pops out of the ground and everything, and while I’ll admit that Undead Line’s first stage isn’t necessarily the most Halloween-y area in a videogame I think the screaming plant face that scuttles around on a thousand tendril feet goes a long way towards making this stage more seasonally appropriate.
Also, note the scattered treasure chests. That’s how you get power-ups in Undead Line, and it’s a system that’s perhaps a little more complicated than you might expect. For starters, the chests might look identical but they can have one of three types of content. There are chests that hold extra lives and nothing but extra lives, chests with weapons and chests with “items.”


When I say “items”, I mean potions that restore health, grant invincibility or increase your movement speed… as well as potions that reduce your health, slow you down or de-power your weapon. The things is, the contents of the chests aren’t fixed, and every time you shoot an open container the item inside cycles around. Think of the bells from the Twinbee games, the ones that change properties whenever you hit them, and you’ve got the right idea. You’ve got a situation where as well as fighting the monsters and avoiding their bullets you also have to concentrate on getting a useful power-up and not accidentally killing yourself by drinking murder potion. I'm sure that will end well for me, someone who has trouble concentrating on one thing at a time.
Weapon power ups work in a similar way. You also have to shoot the chests to cycle through each of the available weapon types, and every weapon has their own unique properties. As well as the default dagger, there are also knives you can throw in a spread pattern, a set of fireballs that can become a flamethrower, axes that work like boomerangs and boomerangs that home in on enemies, magical bolts that fire slowly but leave a lingering radius of death wherever they land and even a Gradius-style Option, where small fantasy creatures follow you around and double up on your firepower. Each time you collect another icon of the weapon you have equipped, your weapon becomes more powerful, but if you pick up a new weapon then you switch to that attack only it’s back to its default power level. When I started playing a shoot-em-up called Undead Line I thought it would feature more zombie blasting and less careful nudging of treasure chests, but here we are.


A miniboss appears! A “halfway point in the stage” boss, anyway. Seems a bit big to be called a miniboss. Anyway, this giant millipede is furious at losing out during the giant boss millipede auditions that Nintendo were holding for A Link to the Past and he’s going to take his frustrations out on Leon. All the boss does is try to run into Leon, so I thought it was going to be a simple matter of never standing still, leading the boss around the screen and shooting it when I got the chance. Unfortunately, this plan fell apart when I realised the boss is faster than Leon. It scurried over to me, pinned me in the corner and sat on me until I ran out of health. That sent me back to the beginning of the stage, but as it’s not a particularly long stage it wasn’t so bad, and I figured out that the way to beat the boss is to force it to make sharp turns. It can't keep up with you so well that way.


The second half of the stage tries to keep the forest setting fresh by adding a few new quirks, and I’d have to say it does a good job. In Undead Line, it rarely feels like you’re wading through the same repeating areas, and the addition of things like crossbow-wielding mercenaries shooting across narrow corridors and this filthy quagmire – complete with gloopy mud-men that have faces like someone tried to capture the sensation of unexpectedly sitting on a wet toilet seat in the medium of clay – helps to keep the stages interesting.


Not so interesting is the end of stage boss. It’s a castle that fires a barrage of classic “deadly baked bean” shoot-em-up projectiles at you. You have to shoot the gun turrets to triumph, which is easier said than done when the boss is pumping out so many death-dots. It’s not quite “bullet hell” levels of carnage, but it’s getting up that way and the first few times I faced this boss I was completely overwhelmed in moments. Then I tried pressing a button that wasn’t the fire button, and Leon raised his shield. His shield! He’s got a bullet-proof shield! Well, that’s certainly going to make things much easier, and indeed the boss can’t hurt you if you stay at the bottom of the screen and hold up your shield. You can’t fire back while you’re cowering behind your shield, sure, but at least you can survive long enough to concentrate the boss’ fire in one area and then dash to the other side of the screen and get some hits in.


Perhaps the developers realised that shooting at a wall was a rather underwhelming way to end Undead Line’s first chapter, and so they threw in another, much more impressive boss. It’s a mega mud-man, presumably here to punish me for mocking his swamp-children earlier. His main method of both attack and defence is to surround himself with a spinning circle of boulders, and then to stand on Leon. Simply occupying the same space as your character is the preferred attack pattern of many bosses in this game, but emboldened by my recent discovery of Leon’s shield I held my ground and somehow managed to destroy the boss’ huge boulder attack by blocking them with said shield. A few shots later and the boss was dead, and I’ve learned a valuable lesson: that the key to progressing in Undead Line is memorising which attacks can be blocked by your shield and which can’t.


That’s the first stage cleared, and I was surprised to be given a chance to level Leon up, RPG style. Unfortunately, I have no idea what any of these stats do. On the face of it they’re all simple enough to figure out. Strength, Magic Points, Dexterity and Agility, right? But I tried levelling them up in various ways and didn’t see much change in Leon’s abilities and anyway, aren’t dexterity and agility the same thing? Unless dexterity is specifically related to Leon’s hands and agility to the rest of his body, perhaps. Maybe if I get his dexterity to the maximum but never touch his agility, Leon will be able to pick locks with a gnat’s pube but he’ll walk like all his blood’s been replaced with gin.


The next stage is the cemetery, and that’s where Undead Line’s Halloween potential really begins to shine. From the outset you’re attacked by a flock of killer bats, before reaching a dense wall of tombstones that you have to destroy to progress… but desecrating the graves cause the unquiet spirits of the dead to rise, as desecrating graves so often does. Fortunately, the (really nicely drawn) ghost ladies are still susceptible to an axe in the face. The scenery here is all autumnal trees, iron railings and mossy brickwork, so it looks for all like world like a Castlevania game that’s been transplanted into a top-down perspective and there’s little that could be more October-appropriate than that.


The mid-boss is a robed sorcerer with the power to call down thunderbolts, so make sure you keep moving because Leon’s shoulder pads are definitely big enough to act as lightning rods. Other than that, it’s the simple matter of hitting the wizard when you get a chance, something that’s made a lot easier if you’ve managed to collect and power up the “double knives” weapon. It fires in a spread in front of you and, if you’ve gathered enough double knife icons, it’ll even fire behind you, too. You spend pretty much all of Undead Line being attacked from all sides, so it’s only fair that you should be able to attack to all sides.


The second half of the stage keeps up the spooky ambience by having conga lines of zombies stumble out of dilapidated buildings like kicking-out time on a Saturday night. There are also snapping carnivorous plants and sword-wielding skeletons to deal with, and it’s all good fun – more fun than the first stage, in fact, and I think the reason is that there are fewer projectiles to deal with. Also I’ve upgraded the fire attack a few times and now Leon can spray a constant stream of lava wherever he wanders. That is also fun.


In keeping with the very Castlevaniaish feel of this stage, the boss is Death himself, the ultimate foe, the Grim Reaper who I guess won’t be doing much reaping because he seems to have forgotten his scythe. Or maybe he’s having a scythe specially built to fit his tiny, tiny hands. Not that Death needs his scythe, and he can kill you in one of two ways, ways that further illustrate the importance of learning what you can and can’t block with your shield. The first way is that Death extends the black void that surrounds him, stretching it, snake-like, towards Leon. This attack you cannot block, because no shield can defend against the encroaching darkness that consumes all living things. The other attack Death has is to throw energy bolts at you. These you can block, so do that. Here’s the odd thing, though – Death throws these energy bolts by rapidly pumping his arms back and forth, and as I watched him do so I thought “hang on a minute, this looks bloody familiar.” Then it dawned on me: Death throws his barrage of magical attacks in the exact same way that Dragonball Z characters throw their barrages of ki blasts. Thankfully, Death doesn’t spend forty minutes screaming “aaaaAAAAHHH!” before the fight begins.


Next up are the ruins. Based solely on the name, I was expecting, you know, ruins. A destroyed castle, a mouldering château, something like that, but what you actually get is something a bit more interesting. It’s a building of indeterminate purpose, somewhere that looks a bit like a school or a church, and it’s floating in a swirling purple void that seems to imply I’m fighting my way through some kind of interdimensional rift. Now that’s the kind of aesthetic I can get behind, and “terrifying labyrinth composed of random architectural elements that defy spatial logic” is one of my favourite horror themes so I think I’m going to enjoy this stage.
It certainly began in an interesting way. As Leon approached the front doors, the windows at either side shattered and the broken glass flew towards him. It’s a moment that rather sums up Undead Line as a whole. The first time you encounter it, it’s a pain in the arse because there’s no warning and suddenly you’re being stabbed to death. The next time you get there, though, it comes across as a cool little effect in a game that does do its best to present you with plenty of fun little flourishes. My take away from this is that your enjoyment of Undead Line is going to depend greatly on whether or not you like playing a game by memorising it, because there are so many similar instances where sudden, unpredictable death is lurking just around the corner.


Inside the ruins, you’ll see a familiar face. Well, a familiar mask. Okay, lots of familiar masks. Crawling from the floor and eager to get stabby, it’s a legion of Ricks from Namco’s even-more-Halloween-y-than-this-game Splatterhouse series! I know you might be thinking “maybe they’re supposed to be Jason Voorhees” but no, they’re not. The sleeveless shirts and bare feet are a dead giveaway that these are Splatterhouse Ricks. Of course, if you want to pretend they’re Jason and do your best “ki ki ki ma ma ma” noises while fighting them, that’s fine too. They are still knife-carrying maniacs wearing hockey masks, after all.


This stage doesn’t have a mid-boss, unless you count the section where you have to stay near the top of the screen because the floor is collapsing behind you. That’s okay by me, though. I’d much rather be fighting all these Ricks and custard ghosts and mouth-blobs anyway. It took a while to get here, but this stage is so intensely Halloween-y that it would have justified Undead Line’s inclusion in this year’s Spooktacular even if every other stage had involved kindly old grannies sitting around discussing how proud they are of their grandchildren.


The big boss of the ruins was worth the wait. A huge skeletal… thing, possibly the Grim Reaper from the last stage back for vengeance after heading into the Hyperbolic Time Chamber so he could do a year’s training in a single day. He does fight like like a Dragonball Z character, after all. This boss is all about the sickle blades, although you can destroy them with your attacks and as luck would have it I have the flamethrower equipped, which seems to be the best weapon for the job. The problem here is that you have to run around the edges of the screen and around the boss so it’ll move and give you some space, but it’s quite hard to tell exactly where the boss’ hitboxes are and often you’ll take damage when you could swear the boss is safely “above” you. Not a great battle, then, but it definitely looks cool.


Before moving on to the next stage, I should mention that Undead Line is not a Megadrive original. It was first released in 1989 for Japanese home computers, specifically the MSX and the Sharp X68000. That’s the MSX version pictured above, and it’s quite the different experience to the Megadrive port. For starters, you have three playable characters with different stats to choose from: Leon, the physical attacker, as well as a wizard and a speed-oriented ninja. On top of that, the gameplay is much changed by having a far slower pace, a bigger life bar and chests that don’t cycle through their items when shot, making what little I played of the MSX version seem quite a bit easier than the MD version. The stage layouts are completely different, too, making the Megadrive version feel less like a port and more of a pseudo-sequel that reduces the complexity but ramps up the action.


After the aesthetic high points of the last two stages, I’m sad to report that the Rock level is much less interesting. That’s not to say it looks bad, because it doesn’t, and Undead Line’s consistently high standards for monster designs hold up here with the lava snakes, flapping gargoyles and plumes of molten rock that fly across your path in massive arcs reminiscent of the same lava arcs in the Gradius games. It’s just that it’s all a bit obvious. Magma, cave walls, stalagmites, you know the drill. It’s particularly disappointing on the heels of the Ruins stage, and I’m not optimistic about further improvement given that the next stage is called Cave.


The boss looks excellent, though. Undead Line’s developers clearly put their heart and souls into this game’s presentation, and there’s an abundance of huge, smoothly-animated and well-drawn sprites in every stage. Fire Pillar Angry Man is no different, although he’ll probably be even more angry now that I’ve figured out I can easily dodge his attacks by standing under his hands and having the diagonal shot from the knife weapons hit him in the face.


Now we’re in the caves, and they’re exactly as I expected them to look. The last stage was fire themed, so this one was bound to have an icy look to it, right? It also feels a bit more lazily designed than other stages, somehow feeling particularly linear in a game where all you can do it walk forwards. Once again it’s saved by the enemies it contains, and I’m very fond of these hooded spooks. I seem to be comparing elements of Undead Line to other games a lot, but I have to say that these things must be related to the flying burrito spectres from Ghosts ‘n Goblins, only viewed from the front.


There’s also this nifty section where the screen goes dark, eyes appear in the darkness like the opening to The Trap Door and then the lights come back on to reveal that they’re just eyes. Flying, vicious, killer eyeballs that flap around like butterfl-eyes. Did I say that out loud in a Cryptkeeper voice as I was typing it? What do you think?


The mid-boss is a Dracula who’s intent on ruining the air of aristocratic contempt his evening wear would usually provide by teaming his tuxedo with yellow wellies and apparently not owning an iron. The count attacks with ice crystals, the smaller ones of which can be blocked so, erm, do that. We’ll see more of this vampire later, so let’s move on to the Caves’ proper boss.


It’s a ruddy great dragon! Are dragons Halloween-appropriate? You know, I can’t decide. Obviously they’re not a Halloween monster per se, but I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing them pop up in Halloween-themed products, you know? They go nicely with witches, I reckon. Anyway, the dragon can breath fire because it’s a dragon. That’s about all it can do besides stomp around the room, but what else do you need? This is a lot like the fight against Big Death, except you can’t destroy the dragon’s fire, so yet again the struggle is knowing whether the dragon will be touching you or not when you try to get behind it. Having the small army of pixie Options actually came in handy during the fight, and one nice touch is that the Option creature is different depending on what stage you’re in. However, they’re also a bloody liability because their shots can also cycle the treasure chests, making it a nightmare to collect the items you want.


Onward to the Drain stage which is, in fact, a sewer. Gotta have a sewer level, right? This one has mutant crocodiles and ghostly hovering skulls, though, so it’s immediately better than almost every other sewer stage in gaming. Other than that, it’s another exercise in Undead Line’s by now familiar gameplay: stay at the bottom of the screen where possible so you’ve got more time to react, hold down the fire button and hope for the best. There are a lot more places in the stage where you can get trapped by the scenery or even be swept to your death by the raging torrents of effluent, so watch out for that.


Oh, and there’s a pirate ship down here too. If I sound a little underwhelmed that’s because I am. I thought it’d be more interesting to fight than it is, and you don’t technically have to fight it at all if you’re good enough at dodging. That would be very difficult to accomplish though, and you really need to shoot the various gun ports off the side – so I hope you’ve got a weapon that’s suited for the purpose because they can be extremely difficult to hit if you have the misfortune to be using something narrow and linear like the basic daggers.


The end-of-stage boss is shit. I mean, literally. It’s a pillar of slimy brown-grey muck lurking in a sewer, it’s not going to be made of ice cream and sprinkles. It tries to slap you with its poop appendage and spawns smaller puddles of excrement to chase you around, but all in all it’s a relatively straightforward boss fight that came as a blessed relief after the pirate ship killed me a dozen times.


With the six main stages cleared, the vampire reappears. He’s called Count Brahzen, so named because he’s brahzen-ly aping Castlevania’s style here. He looks a lot more composed than last time we saw him, at any rate. He must have been to get his suit pressed while we were busy fending off killer turds.


The Count’s reappearance means we’ve got one final stage to fight through before the land is saved, and it’s a castle. It’s a mixture of elements we’ve already seen in the game and (thankfully) a slew of new creatures, like web-spinning spiders and burly minotaurs. I say “burly” minotaurs, it’s not like there are any weedy, wimpy minotaurs out there working IT jobs rather than guarding labyrinths. Actually, that’s just made me imagine an infant minotaur with a newborn baby’s body and a calf’s head, so Undead Line is definitely doing something to bring some horror into the Halloween season.


As I battled through the final batch of enemies, I tried to decide whether I was having fun playing Undead Line and I had to concede that I wasn’t. For starters, it’s just too difficult for me to get much enjoyment out of it without spending a long time practising. Of course, that’s just me. I don’t have the time or the inclination to train myself in the ways of Undead Line, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who would relish the challenge. Personally, though, it started to get on my nerves after a while. There are so many monsters around that you never get a moment's rest, and because you can’t turn around letting an enemy get behind you is a recipe for disaster unless you happen to have the right weapon equipped. Dying strips you of your power-ups, providing that familiar sinking feeling you get in Gradius games as you realise you’ve now got to get through a section you couldn’t beat even when you were fully upgraded. Worst of all, sometimes the game just feels unfair. A projectile might pass through your shield at an angle where you thought it would be blocked, or a hitbox will feel slightly out of place, or an enemy will simply sit on top of you and drain all your health before you can move out of the way. It's not just hard, it's frustratingly hard, and that's what kills it for me.


It’s time to fight Count Brahzen again, and it’s pretty much the same as last time we fought him. He might have a few more projectiles, possibly. Whatever he’s got up his immaculately tailored sleeves, I already know he’s not the final boss so I’ll take this opportunity to say the while I’m not having that much fun playing Undead Line I am enjoying experiencing it. It looks very nice, for starters. Lots of cool monsters designs and graphical flourishes, and it’s got a strangely solemn mood to it that definitely made me want to see what was lurking in the next stage. The soundtrack’s good, too, and once again is slightly unusual – it’s neither the rocking action tunes nor the full-on horror synth affair you might have expected but lies somewhere in the middle and feels a touch more unique for it.


At last, here is the final boss. An all-powerful living weapon that slew the gods and giants alike, and the idiot thing can’t even be bothered to climb out its pit. I suppose it’d take me a while to come around from centuries of sleep, too, and it’s not like the boss needs to move to slaughter Leon. As you can see above, the boss can pump out a ridiculous number of small projectiles, as well as a huge (and unblockable, naturally) laser eye beam and attack with its hands, all while you’re crammed right up against its gormless, skeletal face with no room to manoeuvre. I though I’d been doing a good job of getting through the game without cheating beyond using save states, but this was the point where I had to break out the Game Genie codes because it’s October, man, I’ve got a lot more games than this to be covering. So, pumped up with unearned invincibility, Leon re-kills the undead monster and once again the world is safe.


If you were expecting an exciting, action-packed ending, or even one where Leon gets to put his feet up for five goddamn seconds and maybe reap some of the rewards that come with saving an entire kingdom – princess marriage, usually – then prepare to be disappointed. The monster is sealed back up in its stone tomb. So the problem isn’t even dealt with properly, and instead is ignored until it becomes a problem for future generations? It sounds like a realistic ending, I’ll give it that. There’s also an attempt to include a sequel hook, with Count Brahzen’s final words being that he and Leon are related. “The story of the fighter named Leon will continue,” it says, but as far as I’m aware Undead Line never got a follow-up.


It’s a shame Undead Line never got a sequel, if you ask me. I know I didn’t have that great a time playing this one, but there’s more than enough charm and character in the monster designs and setting that a fairer, more balanced and less frustrating take on the same universe could have had a lot of potential. Plus, if Leon is related to Brahzen then maybe I could have been playing as a vampire in any potential sequel.
Undead Line was okay but not great, then, but there’s a more important question to be answered: how appropriate was it for kicking off this year’s Halloween Spooktacular? For the answer, we must turn to the time-honoured analytical device that is the VGJunk Halloween-O-Meter!


If you don’t know how the Halloween-O-Meter works, it’s not a measure of how good a game is but of how Halloweeny it feels, how much it exudes the aura of this spooky season. I rather shot myself in the foot by making the first of this October’s games difficult to establish a pumpkinosity rating for, but in the end I decided on a seven out of ten. That feels like a fair score for a game where the non-Halloween-appropriate bits are only a little spooky, but the really Halloweeny stages like the Ruins and the Cemetery are worth a ten out of ten on their own.
And that’s it for Undead Line. Will any game this month be able to reach the coveted ten out of ten on the Halloween-O-Meter? We shall have to wait and see, unless I can’t prevent myself from banging on about Night Slashers again and that is a distinct possibility.

5 comments:

  1. I just realized when I saw the ending that maybe the game is called "Undead Line" because if Leon is related to Count Brahzen, that means he comes from a LINE of UNDEAD vampires.

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    1. But the game came out on the MSX first and that versions ending makes no mention of Leon being related to anyone. In fact there's no Count Brahzen in the game at all.

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    2. I'm going to go with the "Leon is part of the UNDEAD LINE-age" angle, MSX version be damned, because it's so satisfying and yet dumb.

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  2. Normally I just lurk here, but just wanted to say I really love your site =P I've been reading my way back through everything, but I've taken a detour back to the new articles so I can enjoy the Halloweenyness! I'm trying to feel Halloween inspired myself so this really helps by combining two things I love into one, Games and Halloween! Also the ghosts and pumpkins are adorable!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you very much, and I hope you're feeling pumped for Halloween! (and I'm glad you like the ghosts and pumpkins)

      Delete

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