The finest cel-shaded AIBO-supporting steampunk-detective game on PS2: DekaVoice!

There have been many great gaming detectives over the years, ranging from the more direct approaches of Blaze Fielding and Bruno Delinger to Chris Redfield and Aya Brea’s slightly more cerebral (or at the very least ‘less punch-y’) take on policework; then there’s Acquire’s (Tenchu, Way of the Samurai) DekaVoice for Playstation 2, which at first glance looks like it ripped off Atlus’ Radiou Kuzunoha series trademark style and then slapped some voice controls on top. These initial fears are thankfully easily dispelled by a quick Google search as not only did DekaVoice come out in 2003 - a full three years before Raidou - but also the voice command system actually works and is [gasps] put to good use.

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The game is set in an alternative 1920’s-ish era where steampunk-like technology allows people to use computers and send digital photos from crime scenes while still allowing gangsters in sharp suits to shoot up cabaret bars and make their getaway in some delightfully stylish cars. It’d be easy to question this clash of ideas if the game’s style wasn’t as strong as it is, effortlessly unifying the more typical aspects of the genre with well-designed technology that fits in like it was always there. Everything’s bathed in warm tones and strong shadows with cool tones used for contrasts and highlights, which reminded of another very beautiful game, and red petals burst out of gunshot wounds instead of the usual garish blood spurts - a delicate touch in a game already filled with great ideas.

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It’s time to tackle that unavoidable elephant in the room - that mandatory microphone. You issue voice commands using a push-to-talk system, with a light in the top-right of screen changing colour depending on whether it’s expecting a response from you, listening to your speech right now, or when voice commands are unavailable (this generally only appears if you try to talk when someone is already talking to you). The game is very good at explaining what it expects from you and lists all possible vocal commands when you encounter a new event (these commands are also listed in the manual) and I found in places several natural alternatives worked just as well as the expected commands (for example: ‘Hurry!’ instead of ‘Faster!’). The mic is sensibly not used to move Detective Hayward around or to urge him to fire his gun but for various situations where you’d expect someone to speak, such as issuing commands to your enthusiastic dog partner, Ryan, or when interrogating a suspect. On top of this are a few surprinsgly little touches that show Acquire really gave the idea their full attention, such as optional extra conversations with other people in the police station and the game expecting you to give direct responses to simple questions like ‘Did you rescue me?’ rather than passively watching a scene play out or selecting an option from a menu.

All this underlines what makes DekaVoice so special - it’s not a gimmick in search of a reason to exist, but a game that has chosen to integrate some extra technology into itself to try and improve the typical gaming experience. It’s a game you want to play just because it’s a good game, not because you’ve been duped into testing out someone’s voice recognition software. It also has the honour of being an action-adventure game that’s worth playing through more than once, as there are hidden items to find (including your doggy sidekicks private diary and AIBO parts to replace Ryan entirely with a robot equivalent) and the chance to improve upon your detective-ing score for each scenario. The only truly superfluous gimmick is compatibility with a real AIBO – allowing a connected unit with a special program downloaded to it to offer hints and general comments as you play – but I don’t see how anyone can consider that to be a real negative considering having AIBO support in a Playstation 2 game is really cool and oh dear lord I want an AIBO so bad.

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Even with all this praise DekaVoice still isn’t the ‘killer app’ voice-controlled gaming needs to prove its worth as more than an interesting sideline in gaming history, but it is the first one I’ve played where the vocal interaction felt like an essential layer of design and not an unreliable alternative to button commands (SOCOM’s team orders) or a cart-before-horse attempt to find a use for the microphone the hardware R&D guys made (Seaman, Hey you Pikachu!). Good job Acquire, you gave yourself the nigh-impossible task of turning new tech into a decent game and came out on top on your very first go.

I’m very happy to report the official website is still online here - http://www.acquire.co.jp/deka/

And while a lot of the images are broken the official DekaVoice AIBO page (the AIBO program file is still downloadable!) is archived over here - https://web.archive.org/web/20050912203332/http://www.jp.aibo.com/dekavoice/index.html

A little look at… Mugen no Shinzou

Xtal Soft’s Mugen no Shinzou came out in 1984 for the NEC PC-88, and like the vast majority of other home computers at the time it was strictly speaking a business machine you could play games on, rather than floppy-taking gaming powerhouses that also did word processing like the later X68000 or the Amiga 500. This was a time when owning a colour monitor wasn’t a foregone conclusion, sound was an optional extra, and waiting for every single graphic to draw and then fill itself in wasn’t unheard of or unreasonable.

The reason I’m telling you all this is because Mugen no Shinzou is old. Very old. And you really do need to be prepared for its monumental old-ness before you go anywhere near it.

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Your task in this adventure is to guide your lone hero to the titular ‘Mugen no Shinzou’ within 30,000 in-game days or die. This time limit is apparently quite generous but it won’t matter either way for most of us seeing as surviving a single in-game week is a nigh-impossible task. Like most computer RPGs of the early 80’s this game’s got more than a whiff of genre classics Ultima and Wizardry about it, and you will die often to everything and anything that crosses your meandering path across this harsh landscape. Sometimes you’ll be obliterated by a fancy-looking dragon in a few hits, whereas others will see you beaten down by a lowly and needlessly aggressive farmer that you really should have killed three turns ago. The advice, as it always is with this sort of game, is to save often and hope the RNG gods smile on you.

But even with such swift and unpredictable punishment the game still possesses a certain charm as the initial bewilderment of being dumped in the middle of an enormous map with no clue where to go starts to give way to a vague sense of empowerment as you learn roughly where the next town is and try to remember where that tower you stumbled across is for the next time around. If you can get into the right frame of mind your imagination starts to fill in the gaps where the map and event graphics let you down, and you might even find yourself jotting down a few notes on graph paper to help guide your way.

But that’s a rather big ‘if’, and the other side of the ‘charm’ of not knowing where to go or what to do is that you never know where to go or what to do, and the past three decades of game design have proven that it really is OK to create a game people can complete unaided before the sun burns itself out.

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I couldn’t help but have this niggling feeling though that Mugen no Shinzou was a bit more basic, unfair, and unpolished than it should be even after trying very hard to adjust to 1984 gaming expectations, so I went and checked to see exactly what else came out around the same time.

As it turns out this was the same year Lords of Midnight, Elite, Karateka, Hydlide and Dragon Slayer came out. It’s fair to say that not all of those were on the PC-88 and therefore they didn’t have the same limitations as Mugen no Shinzou, but nobody’s ever accused the Spectrum of being at the bleeding-edge of technology either. With these games I had my answer – Xtal Soft’s RPG just isn’t all that good. It’s certainly not bad either, but it doesn’t have any real ‘spark’ to it the way the other games I mentioned do, meaning it’s really Just Another RPG. It’s a mildly interesting experience if you’d like to see just how far we’ve come since then, but it’s not something that I feel anyone today should sit down and try to play properly with a hope of seeing through to the end. Regardless of my thoughts on the matter Xtal Soft were able to create two sequels that at the very least look a lot better than this first entry, although I’ll admit I haven’t yet worked up the courage yet to play them myself.

If you do feel like a wander around a very old game and getting hopelessly lost/killed/lost then killed I found a very helpful little guide and map here -  http://shamirgame.blog.fc2.com/blog-entry-53.html

Draw! Create! Play! Dezaemon!

I was suprised to learn that the original Dezaemon was actually a 1991 Famicom title – from what I can gather a lot of other people let this 8-bit shmup construction game pass them by too as this inventive game had the rather unfortunate luck of trying to pull potential customers attention away from the launch year of nothing less than the Super Famicom. Athena weren’t dissuaded though and in 1994 they came back for another go, offering a more powerful suite of shmup-creating tools as well as including a sample game called Daioh Gale, a complete six stage shooter for you to play, take apart, and then rebuild at your leisure.

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Once you get going there’s a chance this example shooter may feel a little familiar to you, and that’s because it’s heavily inspired by Athena’s 1993 arcade title Daioh. Daioh Gale doesn’t make any attempt to recreate the arcade experience at home but if you take a look at some screenshots of the two of them it’s clear they’re both cut from the same cloth.

Considering it’s only there to show you what can be done it’s a very competent if not particularly noteworthy shmup – there are power ups, different shot types, bombs (which rather nicely behave differently depending on which weapon you’re using), speed ups, a shield – all pretty standard for the era. But this is actually what makes it so good, because as you’re playing you start to think ‘This would be more interesting if it had <THING> like <COOL GAME>’, or ‘I know what’ll make this exciting!’, and unlike just about any other shmup out there, Dezaemon actually lets you have a go for yourself.

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This editor is as intimidating as it is exhaustive – but thankfully not unfriendly. On the whole icons all have obvious uses, everything feels pretty intuitive and strangely enough even using a controller doesn’t feel awkward, probably because at the resolution you’re working at it’s all about filling in individual pixels on a tiny grid than trying to recreate flowing curves or capture any great detail. The SNES mouse is supported if you have one around and really can’t get on with a regular pad.

So just how much can you change anyway? Well, pretty much anything and everything! Every last sprite, bullet, boss, explosion and background tile can either be edited or redrawn from scratch. Enemy shot rates, movement patterns, speed, and where they appear in a stage too. You can draw your own title screen graphics and then set them to spin, stretch and squish with just a few button presses, and when you’ve finally got all that sorted it’s time to hop on over to the music creator and make some rockin’ arcade tunes.

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The downside to all this customisation and creation is that if you’re hoping for an easy way to make your own shmup Dezaemon really isn’t it, but that’s because it goes as far down into real game design as possible without getting your hands dirty with any real programming. The editor isn’t so flexible that you can code in new abilities or make an R-Type clone rather than a vertical shmup, but within the sandbox you’re given you have the tools to do a hell of a lot - and certainly far more than you’d expect from a SNES cart that contains a shmup, an art tool, a music program and all the AI/stage/layout options you need to make your very own game. Dezaemon is not going to stroke your ego or make you feel like a game design god but if you want a taste of how things really are on the other side of gaming, this is a fascinating way of experiencing all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into game creation first hand.