A little look at… Dark Echo

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Don’t panic – you have come to the right blog! I don’t cover mobile games often but Dark Echo isn't the first and I’m sure it won’t be the last either. Unfortunately as is the fate of many perfectly decent iOS/Android games this one would have completely fallen under my radar if it weren’t for the lovely Gassi mentioning it and that would have been a real shame because this minimalist action-puzzle-horror game is damned good!

Wait - horror? In a game where all your enemies are “small cluster of red lines” and “big circle of red lines”? Seriously?

Yep!

With the right frame of mind (and with the sound turned up) you’re not just a foot icon making white lines bounce off collision barriers when you move but a lone survivor stood in the dark, your only initial waypoints being the sound of flies buzzing around an unknown object or water slowly dripping from the ceiling on to the floor below. As you walk – sometimes crunching over gravel, sometimes noisily wading through water – the reverberations from your footsteps produce a fleeting image of your surroundings as you explore the dark. You appear to be alone – safe – so you stamp the ground hard to give yourself a better idea of your location, but these stronger sounds shoot down an unseen corridor and awaken a monster that makes a beeline straight for the source of the sound. Running’s no good – it’ll just keep chasing the sound of your footsteps through the dark – but perhaps ricocheting a stone off a nearby wall might distract it, or sneaking away quietly (and slowly) into the unknown and hoping you can tiptoe around it as you grope around in search of the exit.

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I suppose the point of that previous paragraph is to try and illustrate that as with any horror game the “magic” only really happens when players make the effort to meet the designers halfway and try to let the intended atmosphere take over. But while the style may be minimalist and invite player’s to use their imaginations it doesn’t feel like anything’s being deliberately held back or obfuscated and the environment is always clear and easy to read: red things are dangerous, blue means water – it’s all very obvious and never needs explaining; death will come because you weren’t quick or clever enough, but not because you couldn’t interpret what was happening in time.

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It also helps that the game introduces new concepts and abilities individually with levels designed to teach you how to use them effectively before upping the complexity or tinkering with the rules, and the cryptic single-word level names offer helpful pointers on how to approach new challenges too – for example “Pull” is a level that requires you to draw the enemy closer before giving them the run-around and sneaking off to the exit. Just as you think you’re done and you’ve got the game well and truly under your thumb after forty levels in the dark you find the light you escaped into isn’t the salvation you’ve been looking for but another trap – essentially a “New Game +” mode where each level has been redesigned to be more dangerous and difficult than ever before.

Then you find out that there are fifteen treasures hidden within the game, their location only revealed by the way sound passes through the fake walls they’re hidden behind (if that sounds unfair; fake walls are a concept introduced as a central part of the game’s progression). Finding them is completely optional, but it’s a thoughtful little extra in an already well crafted game.

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Ultimately how much joy and terror you get out of this is determined largely by your own imagination and your willingness to turn the sound up or plug in some headphones, but even if you can only see this as the game where the red lines try to kill a pair of white feet you’ll find Dark Echo is still a damn good puzzle game at its core.

Dark Echo is currently available on iOS/Android for a mere £1.49 – I don’t know about you but I’ve definitely spent more than that on games far worse than this one.

Digging through the bookcase: Shining Force manga edition

Or to give it its proper title: Shining Force –Descent of Great Intention-, which fans of Sega’s classic SRPG series might recognise as a riff on the Japanese subtitle of the original Shining Force: “The Legacy of Great Intention”. Unfortunately that’s about as clever as this 1992/93 spinoff manga gets, but let’s not dwell on that for the time being.

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The story planning for this tale is credited to Masahiro Mutoh, someone who according to my brief Googling appears to not exist, and all art was handled by Yuichiro Tanuma, creator of manga series “Princess of Darkness” which is plastered with “Adults only” and explicit content warnings whenever I try to do some careful Googling for further information as well as (amongst other things) “Fat Boy Fairytale”, which I’ll admit I’m not even brave enough to try searching for.

But in any case, this non-canonical story is set a few years after the events of the original Shining Force and takes lead chap Verge along with his friends Shaun and Meg as a mini-Shining Force (apparently the qualifier for being a “Shining Force” is all in the mind, man) against a group of people who think kidnapping princesses and bringing back Dark Dragon are really ace ideas. On the way this Shining Force-lite naturally bump into a few familiar faces from the game, the most notable being Max, Anri and Musashi.

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The story doesn’t throw up any real surprises – love and friendship conquer all, bad guys lose, brave heroic sacrifices are made (that are of course reversed later on) – all the usual stuff. But in fairness it does actually does a decent job of mixing fantasy with sci-fi, just as Shining Force did. So all in all while it’s very much a manga story that just happens to have Shining Force things in it, it’s close enough that the references to the game generally feel welcome, while distant enough that you don’t feel as if it’s trying to force (ha!) itself into the series or that it’s stomping all over the regular characters.

However there’s no getting away from the fact that in some places this manga is plain NSFW. Now that isn’t a problem in and of itself, but when the source material generally gets as “risqué” as this…

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…and series fans (because really, who else is going to want to read a Shining Force tie-in manga?) are faced with (at least) this…2015-04-13 10.54.50

…it can’t really feel like anything less than massively out of place.

Oddly enough the NSFW-ness does come out feeling pretty “balanced” in the end – sure, there are far more gratuitous boobs in the book than there are bare manly butts, but at least there are some manly butts in there, and leading shonen Verge does spend an awful lot of the story mostly naked. But apart from Verge losing his clothes when plunged into molten lava (which does make quite a pleasant change from the usual indestructible-clothes-so-we-don’t-see-naked-people rule of all media ever) these NSFW scenes are neither relevant or, due to the need to show some restraint due to the use of Sega’s all-ages fantasy/sci-fi RPG IP, aren’t exactly erotic either. So you’re left with images like the above that show Princess Anri wearing a skin-tight leather “battle suit” sporting love puppies like warheads while in other scenes the lead baddie gets her post-bath boobs polished by a handmaiden and the whole thing ends up looking faintly ridiculous and unnecessary.

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I’ve been rather negative about this manga but overall it’s really not bad, it’s just not a particularly great use of the source material. Looking at it in a vacuum it’s a neat little story that gets on with things and has some decent enough action scenes even if the illustrations occasionally make it look as though characters are currently undergoing hip reconstruction surgery. So while this may not be some long-lost treasure of the 16-bit era that fans should feel aggrieved for missing out on if you can pick it up and have the means to read it Descent of Great Intention is an interesting enough window into the world of 90’s merchandise to make it worth an idle weekend’s read.

Alien Soldier is awesome

This year I decided to create a gaming wishlist, filled not only with games I’ve always meant to play but never got around to but also challenges that I’ve long wanted to have a crack at but never really had an excuse to. One of those challenges was finishing Treasure’s legendary Mega Drive action game Alien Soldier in a single credit (which with this game actually means a single life), and to be honest I didn’t really expect to pull it off…

...until I did.*

*On “supereasy” – we’ll come to that in a bit.

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Anyway that’s quite enough about how I waste spend my free time, because the star of this blog post really has to be the game itself. Alien Soldier wasn’t Treasure’s final Mega Drive game (that honour went to Light Crusader, their rather ho-hum isometric RPG) but it certainly feels like Alien Soldier is where they poured every drop of expertise and knowledge they’d built up since 1993’s Gunstar Heroes thanks to its endless procession of screen-filling, multi-segmented, sprite-stretching bosses and non-stop action. “Now is [the] time to [set] the 68000 heart on fire!” the Japanese title screen famously exclaims – and looking at everything going on in-game you’d be forgiven for thinking Treasure’s programmers were trying to make that iconic Engrish statement a literal fact rather than mere title screen excitement.

But what makes the game really special isn’t just the way it makes all sorts of tricks that were “impossible” on the Mega Drive look completely effortless, it’s the way they took the accepted action game design of the era and then threw it all out the window.

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Think about it – back then action-platformers (and indeed, most games of any genre) had a typical stage/boss structure to them, with possibly a midboss thrown in to break things up and perhaps a medley of previously defeated end-of-level guardians before the final showdown for good measure. But the bosses are the highlight, aren’t they? So if facing off against giant monsters/robots/monsterrobots is the best bit why have so few of them and why make players fight through long stages against hordes of tiny nondescript enemies before they even see them?

And so Alien Soldier went and addressed all these issues we didn’t even know were issues by creating an action game where the “scroll” sections (the traditional left-to-right segments) can be completed in mere seconds, ensuring the focus is entirely on the game’s vast selection of extraordinary bosses.

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Every last one of the game’s twenty five boss encounters are unique, memorable, and tough. Alien Soldier is a highly technical action game – there is simply no way you can just shoot at stuff and hope to muscle your way through. Heck, with some bosses you can’t even guarantee you’ll have a floor to stand on as the game takes great pleasure in forcing you to fight in various strange locations including on top of a speedboat, in outer space, stuck to a giant spider’s web and plunged underwater. You really don’t know what to expect next, and each boss is best approached as a puzzle: Which weapon works best? Does the boss have a weak point? Do they have an attack I can Counter Force into life crystals? Alien Soldier takes no prisoners and is quick to punish every mistake you make, but it always feels fair because it consistently rewards skilful play and those that make the effort can soon find themselves utterly obliterating adversaries that used to feel impossible.

In spite of all this gushing I do have one, and only one, serious complaint – Alien Soldier has just two difficulty settings: “SUPEREASY” and “SUPERHARD” (yep: ALL CAPS, no spaces) – now “SUPEREASY” is the easier of the two, but in a game where progression is based on the player’s ability to dodge, counter, and then fire pixel-thin lasers at very particular spots in a moving target the difference is no where near as great as their descriptors make them out to be. The game really could have done with some sort of separate training area to give people the chance to practise Zero Teleporting upside-down through enemy fire and other essential techniques, and in my opinion having people understandably fail early on in a damned difficult game even though they’re supposedly playing on the “super easy” setting has done more harm than good as far as encouraging people to learn the game is concerned.

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However, if you do find yourself becoming acclimatised to Alien Soldier’s idea of a “lull” and are grateful for the breathers where you’re “only” running upside down avoiding bombs or dodging laser fire coming from the sky with short warning then the game transforms into a deadly ballet, your carefully selected shots piercing enemy weak points at exactly the right moment and thoughts of survival eventually becoming secondary to pushing yourself for faster and faster clear times.

All in all there’s really not anything else like it, even now. Of course it’s not the only difficult retro or retro-style game before or since, but there’s never been anything that’s been so determined to give you all the best bits, all the time, and with such an unrelenting intensity. Unfortunately not a game for everyone – the controls can be bewildering at first and the game expects you to keep up or go home – but practise and perseverance will pay off for those that don’t get disheartened and the reward is the pleasure of experiencing one of the most breathtaking and exciting games of its generation.

LET’S GO!

Dungeons & Dragons: Mystara Eiyuu Senki menu translations

Capcom’s Japan-only Dungeons & Dragons collection is a real work of art, far and away the definitive version of the games even for those who know exactly what a CPS2 suicide battery is and how to change one. Unfortunately for importers the extensive menus are all in Japanese which isn’t a lot of help to most, so I’m going to try and fill in the gaps in the blog post.

Oh – sorry about the “screenshot” quality by the way; this blog post isn’t going to be pretty, but hopefully it’ll be useful!

The beautiful screenshots on this page were provided by the wonderful Hokuto no Shock, who has graciously allowed me to use his hard work and saved you all from horrific camera shots of my TV.

mainmenu

  • D&D Tower of Doom: Start Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom
  • D&D Shadow over Mystara: Start Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow over Mystara
  • ネットワーク:Network mode – create/join online games here
  • ギャラリー:Gallery – view various artwork and illustrations
  • オプション:Options – adjust screen size, smoothing, and similar here
  • クレジット:View the credits
  • 解説書: Digital manual
  • 更新履歴: Patch notes

network menu

  • ゲーム作成:Create game
  • ゲーム参加:Join game
  • 招待確認:Messages
  • ランキング:Ranking

network create game

  • ゲーム選択:Choose game
  • 難易度: Difficulty select
  • プレイヤー人数:Number of players
  • プライベートスロット:Number of private slots
  • チャプター:Chapter select
  • ボイスチャット:Voice chat (あり=yup/なし= nope)
  • ネームエントリー:Name entry (あり= yup/なし=nope)
  • アピールコメント: “Appeal comment” – basically a message letting potential players know how you want to play, from “Let’s see the ending!” to “Let’s try to clear the game in one credit!”, that sort of thing.
  • 装備アイテム:Sets whether equipment can break (壊れる) or not break (壊れない)
  • ランダムダメージ:Random damage on/off – only an option for Tower of Doom

network search game

(The default option is すべて – all)

  • ゲーム選択:Choose game
  • 難易度:Difficulty select
  • プレイヤー人数: Number of players
  • ボイスチャット:Voice chat

gallery

  • イラスト:Illustrations
  • 開発ノート:Design notes/rough sketches and similar
  • キャラクター紹介映像: Character strategy videos
  • 開発秘話映像: Developer interviews

settings

The small window on the right of this menu shows a preview of your changes as you make them

  • 画面サイズ:Screen size (opens a new window - [square]=default [triangle]=hold this while moving the dpad to maintain a 4:3 ratio)
  • スムージング:Smoothing
  • スキャンライン:Scan lines
  • フリッカー:Adjusts scanline flicker intensity
  • クロスカラー:Cross colour (like deliberately introducing the effect of a poor quality CRT)
  • 音量:Volume
  • 初期設定に戻す:Press [Circle] to restore default settings

option

The above screen and all the others below are found in the options menu at the title screen once you’ve started up either Tower of Doom or Shadow over Mystara – I’ll just cover the text heavy/not-obvious ones.

  • ゲームオプション:Game options
  • プレイヤーオプション:Player options
  • カラーエディット:Colour edit
  • コントローラ:Controller
  • スクリーン:Screen
  • サウンド:Sound
  • ゲームマニュアル:Game manual
  • 戻る:Return

tod game option

Game options

  • 難易度:Difficulty select
  • プレイヤー人数:Number of players
  • 同キャラクター選択:Sets whether you can (できる) or can’t (できない) pick the same character as someone else
  • 装備アイテム:Sets whether equipment can break (壊れる) or not break (壊れない)
  • ランダムダメージ:Random damage on/off (Tower of Doom only)
  • スコアリセット:Score reset
  • 初期設定に戻す:Restore default settings
  • 戻る:Back

tod player option

Player option

(できる=yups/できない=not on your nelly)

  • ガード操作:Allow guarding (manually assigning guard to a specific button appears to override this)
  • 大斬り操作:Allow strong attacks (as above)
  • アタックボタンで拾う:Pick up items with the attack button
  • スライディング操作で拾う:Pick up items while sliding
  • 初期設定に戻す:Restore default settings
  • 戻る:Return

tod default controls

tod extra key config

Controller settings (Tower of Doom)

  • アイテムを使用:Use item
  • ジャンプ:Jump
  • アタック:Attack
  • アイテムを選択:Item select
  • 設定しない:Not set
  • 初期設定に戻す:Restore default settings
  • 戻る:Return

Second image

  • アイテムを拾う:Pick up items
  • 後転:Back roll
  • ガード:Guard
  • スライディング:Sliding
  • ダッシュ:Dash
  • ダッシュ必殺技:Dash attack
  • 大斬り:Strong attack
  • 設定しない:Not set
  • 初期設定に戻す:Restore default settings
  • 戻る:Return

som extra key config 1

som extra key config 2

Controller settings (Shadow over Mystara)

  • アイテムを拾う:Pick up items
  • バクステップ:Back step
  • ガード:Guard
  • スライディング:Sliding
  • ダッシュ:Dash
  • ダッシュ必殺技:Dash attack
  • 大斬り:Strong attack
  • 突き飛ばし攻撃:Knockdown attack
  • 初期設定に戻す:Restore default settings
  • 戻る:Return

Second image

  • バクスタッブ:Back stab
  • 対空必殺技:Aerial attack
  • 緊急回避技:Desperation attack
  • 設定しない:Not set
  • 初期設定に戻す:Restore default settings
  • 戻る:Return

screen option

Screen

  • 画面サイズ:Screen size
  • スムージング:Smoothing
  • スキャンライン:Scan lines
  • フリッカー:Adjusts scan line flicker intensity
  • クロスカラー:Cross colour (like deliberately introducing the effect of a poor quality CRT)
  • 初期設定に戻す:Restore default settings
  • 戻る:Return

    soundoption

    Sound

    • サウンドモード:Sound mode (ステレオ=stereo)
    • 音量:Volume
    • キャラクターボイス:Character voice (日本語=Japanese)
    • サウンドテスト:Sound test
    • 初期設定に戻す:Restore default settings
    • 戻る:Return

    pause menu

  • In-game menu

    • 戻る:Return
    • コントローラ:Controller
    • プレイヤーオプション:Player options
    • スクリーン:Screen
    • ゲームマニュアル:Game manual
    • ゲームを終了: End game

    Hope that’s some help!

  • Dragon Quest world prop series 1/1 Loto’s sword

    Nobody’s going to mind another Dragon Quest post, right?

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    This rather swish looking full-size replica of one of Dragon Quest’s most iconic pieces of cutlery was released in October 2014 for the eye-watering price of ¥21600 (currently worth about £120/$180USD), and going off the title it appeared to be the beginning of a new era of high quality prop-level items from Square Enix – everything looked pretty rosy (and expensive) for Dragon Quest fans.

    So why are Japanese retailers now struggling to sell this headline piece of merchandise for a mere ¥8000(ish)? Why are the reviews on Amazon Japan almost entirely negative?

    Well, there’s really no getting away from the fact that the quality of this sword in no way matches the original selling price, and even the finish is poor – my sword arrived factory sealed and therefore largely untouched by human hands, and yet it still had some dings on the plastic “blade” and the gold detailing doesn’t quite line up with the sword itself. Now on a cheaper item, or on an item that wasn’t trying to sell itself as a prop replica, this would be forgivable but on a “headline” piece of merchandise that is supposed to retail for the price of a Vita it is not.

    The good news is that I was aware of all of these issues before mine arrived and in its beautiful presentation box with the sun shining along the 42 inch sword it does look absolutely fantastic – just don’t look too closely and don’t pay too much if you’d like one for yourself.

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