My week with Pocket Sakura

Last Sunday I dug out my Pocket Sakura, stole the CR2032 battery from my Neo Geo Pocket Colour and started up my little walking-simulator-that-requires-actual-walking with the intent of finally playing one of these damned Tamagotchi-ish things properly and not shaking the thing to generate extra steps (aka: cheating) or shoving it in a drawer after a few hours to prevent me from feeding it through a paper shredder.

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So I did! For three days Sakura went everywhere with me; I answered when she beeped (which isn’t very often), I interacted with her as much as the device allows and I worried about whether we should walk to Shiba or Ueno in the morning. Not even a battery replacement after a 9000 step morning walk was going to stop me!

But by day four (a new personal record for me), I’d left her on the table and stopped checking in on her.

My usual problem with these things is that they’re too needy for my tastes and I soon end up leaving them to die starving and dirty in the dark. Sakura’s problem is the exact opposite – she’s chirpy and cheerful no matter how much attention she gets, and as someone who’s quite a fan of not doing more work than necessary I was quite content to leave her be, safe in the knowledge that she’d be exactly as smiley at home as she would be if I’d attached her to my belt and took her up Mount Everest.

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It’s not all bad though, the sprites are well done and I can’t really fault the hardware (and most perhaps most importantly the belt clip), the only problem just happens to be a big one - your input feels entirely superfluous to Sakura’s jaunt around Tokyo. If you want retro-styled portable Sakura Taisen then please check out the Game Boy games; they’re both very different from each other but they both capture the spirit of the series well. This thing though? Leave it in its box.

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Another new iOS game–Level 5’s Wonder Flick!

Do you see the post just below this one? The one I wrote just this morning, saying “Hey, Donpacchin’s not great, but it’s only meant to be a free to play phone game, it’s not something you’re meant to spend any real time with”? Well, guess what happens when developers aim a little higher than the generic free iOS game template?

Wonder Flick happens, that’s what.

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Strictly speaking this is “Wonder Flick Great Adventure Prologue” – a glorified demo that doesn’t even save – but flipping heck it’s fun, and beautiful too! Created by Level 5 and with music by some bloke called Nobuo Uematsu this is (finally) a phone-based RPG that’s worth spending a bit of time with and also well suited to the platform it’s been created for.

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You start off by creating a character. This is reasonably in depth with a variety of body shapes, eyebrows, hair colours and all the rest to choose from to choose from, then you pick from one of four possible classes – thief, archer, magic user and warrior.

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The setting’s standard fantasy fare – you’re sent on a quest by a king, fight a big dragon (you lose) and wander through dungeons hitting monsters and picking up treasure; it’s so lovely to look at though (both from a technical and a design point of view) that it’s one of those rare fantasy games that does manage to convey the sense of awe and wonder that giant castles and lush green overworlds filled with magic should do.

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You’ll be spending a good chunk of your time in battle, so it’s a good thing they’re fun! Your team contains three party members (you and two mercenaries hired in town) and battle occur in real time – enemies won’t wait for you to decide on a strategy!

Attacks are chosen from a series of icons that appear across the bottom – these must be flicked up over the enemy you wish to attack. These icons replenish when used, but they do so randomly. As you’d expect there’s standard attacks, spells and the ability to use recovery items but there’s also far more interesting things like guard breaks (that require the player to quickly match up three icons) and combos that can slow the enemy down or perform other handy debuffs.

Dungeons aren’t free roaming, but after each room the player can choose which path to take next so it doesn’t feel too linear.

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It’s unfortunate this came out the same day Donpacchin did, because I was prepared to grin and bear that game’s ho-hum effort and forgive Cave for sticking to the standard free to play formula – it’ll probably end up more profitable than some of their arcade games after all. This has completely blown it out the water though, and it’s an excellent reminder that “free to play” isn’t actually code for “minimal effort cash-sucker”. If you want to try this out for yourself the official website (with Apple app store download link) is here - http://www.wonderflick.jp/index.html (Japan only).

Cave’s latest shmup… sort of. Donpacchin!

So this is the latest title from the once-hardcore shmup developer, and it’s a free to play smartphone game. The alarm bells were so loud they were practically deafening but hey – you can’t go wrong with free can you?

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No, not really. In a way. It’s a free to play game, and it contains a lot of the usual free to play “traps” – there’s a fatigue system, upgradeable/purchasable minions (obtained through the ubiquitous “gacha” system) and a straight up shop. The actual shmupping is also err… a bit basic, as you can only move left to right, shoot (happens so long as your finger’s on the screen), use a charge shot (unlocked in area 3) and collect stars to unleash your super-duper attack of doom. There’s also far more to collect than there ever is to dodge.

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But it’s a little unfair to compare it to their past efforts; the game’s designed to be a time killer - something to do in a queue or on a coffee break, at no point was this ever intended to usurp DoDonPachi.

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So I’ve been pretty negative, but I won’t be uninstalling it just yet. It’s fun enough if taken as intended, even if it’s not something any Cave fan’s ever been dying to play. You can try it out for your self on iOS or Android (both currently Japan only) – let me know what you think!

Official Donpacchin website here - http://www.cave-world.com/jp/sp/donpaccin/

A little look at… Phantasy Star Online 2

So I’m rapidly approaching the 100 hour mark on PSO2 and yet I’ve somehow failed to write more than the odd news post about it. I thought at first that I should write about how the game plays or how to get started but there are already a host of websites that go into far more depth on the subject than I can (I particularly recommend this one and this one), so instead I thought it best I just blab on for a bit about how great the game is and how Sega have not only made a game worthy of being a sequel to Phantasy Star Online but also made a free to play game that doesn’t have a fatigue system/constantly harass free customers to pay/make free players feel like third rate losers.

Oh and costumes. Lots and lots of lovely costumes.

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While the Phantasy Star Universe series always felt… OK… online, it didn’t really capture me the way the original Phantasy Star Online did, although bar whinging about the dumb-as-bricks single player storyline I must admit I’m at a loss to explain why. It just felt off somehow, and while Ambition of the Illuminus fixed a lot of things I could never quite shake the strange feeling that the first PSU had left me with.

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This good-but-not-quite-what-I’m-after feeling continued through the Phantasy Star Portable and Zero games too, and when Sega announced that PSO2 would be a free to play PC title my curiosity was piqued – “Ah, so that’s how you kill a series!” I thought to myself. I was wrong. It’s nice to be wrong.

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PSO2 has just the right blend of old and new: a lot of enemies, places and equipment will feel a little familiar to veterans of the Dreamcast game (with some, like the Psycho Wand, going back even further than that!), but never so much that you think of them simply as redundant knockoffs. The completely new areas are also very well done and really nail the series’ trademark mix of fantasy and sci-fi - this is quite obviously a game created by a passionate team and something that Sega are taking seriously, giving them the time, money, and marketing it needs to thrive. Obviously there’s profit in it for them, but if they only wanted a bit of quick cash they’d have made it a free to play smartphone card game like everything else has become; a trend that not even the mighty Kiseki series has avoided.

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What else have we got? Regular updates with significant content, fun crossovers that cover everything from Border Break battles to Arle Nadja and Puella Magi Madoka Magica costumes, the return of the beloved Sato mag and even a special Burning Rangers event. The development team are responsive to criticism (such as the initially ridiculous XP requirements) and thanks to the client order/matter board systems there’s always something to be working towards without feeling roadblocked by a particular boss or quest.

The only thing left is to remark on Sega America/Europe’s incredibly strange decision to not localise the game. Considering the non-support that PSO: Blue Burst and PSU got overseas I’ll somewhat reluctantly admit that it might be for the best, but even so it’s frustrating to see the series back on top form and without any official non-Japanese support. Good thing fans are on the ball eh? Get yourself over here for signup guides, English patches and more – and have fun!

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A celebration of pixel art: PC-98 version

Thanks to a combination of Project EGG, Falcom (as always), and Davzz posting jump heroscreenshots on Twitter every day I’m right in the mood for some PC-98 gaming at the minute, but instead of just yakking on about a random bunch of games I like (again) I thought I’d share some beautiful pixel art instead – and hopefully do this again in the future for a few more formats too.

The PC-98 series of computers first debuted way back in the 80s but it turned out to be a very popular piece of kit and had strong support right through until it finally petered out in the late 90’s; assimilated into Windows and IBM-compatible computers rather than outright defeated in the end. It doesn’t have the same kind of raw technical capabilities of other home computers from the same sort of timeframe, such as the Amiga 500 or Sharp’s X68000 powerhouse, but that certainly didn’t stop lots of creative developers from making some fantastic images with it anyway.

 

Legend of Heroes 2Crisp anime colouring and outlining worked really well on the PC-98, and the likes of Falcom, Compile and TGL weren’t afraid of creating extravagant intro sequences (on their own 5” floppies!) to show off the work they produced. As hard drives gradually became more commonplace unique in game art featured more and more, with games like Princess Maker 2 coming on a frankly ridiculous twelve discs chock-full of artwork.

But in any case, less talk more pictures! There’s no particular reason for the images I’ve chosen other than that  I think they do a good job of showing off some of the different techniques used by artists on the system. If all’s gone to plan then the image hovertext should tell you the name of the game it came from, I hope you enjoy them!

 

 

 

Farland Story

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Little oddities: Early Alisia Dragoon?

I’ve always been a big fan of Game Arts Mega Drive action-platformer Alisia Dragoon, an excellent action game that’s sadly fallen down the retro cracks. Although it’s not been re-released in some form (possibly due to the Gainax/Mecano Associates legal wrangling that might cause) or even turned up as some phoned-in iOS sequel it’s not been forgotten by its creators, still having a little webpage all to itself twenty-one years after it was first published.

Knowing Game Arts still acknowledge its existence gave me that nice fuzzy feeling inside, but what really caught my eye were the three screenshots they used – they all look like they’re from an unreleased and undumped early version of the game! They’re irritatingly small, but there’s still enough in there to make them more than worth looking at. I’ve had a play through the Japanese and PAL versions of the game on normal and hard before writing this as well as what’s described as a Japanese beta just to make sure I’m not mis-remembering anything, but do correct me if I’m wrong.

(Beta images on the left)

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First off we have this scene that matches up most closely to stage 1-1, but there are still plenty of changes here -

Alisia herself has a different standing pose, and her outfit throughout all these early images appears to be entirely pinky/orange rather than blue at the top.

The background trees are in the same sort of position but far less detailed and missing the green highlights in the beta. The err… back-background is an unused green instead of the blue mountains from the text intro at the very start of the game. Possibly even less interesting than slightly different tree trunks is the ground – it’s much higher in the early screenshot and slopes up at the left.

The enemies pictured here don’t appear at all in stage 1-1 but later in 1-3 and even then they look like they’ve had a recolour and a redesign. They also never jump (see the enemy on the left in the beta screen) and they don’t appear in a flash the way the chap on the far right of the beta screen appears to be doing. Have a look at the final version below for comparison -

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Still with me? Good, because there’s two more screenshots to go! Next up is the neat little “cutscene” bit where White Robed Priest Guy taunts Alisia and then takes off with Evil Egg full of Sleeping Super Bad Guy. As before, beta/early/mockup/whatever it is shot on the left.

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There’s one massive hit-you-in-the-face difference here, and that’s that Alisia never fights in this place, while the beta screenshot makes it look as if she was once meant to. White Robe Guy has also impressively gained the ability to fly in the final instead of standing on a little spikey hoverpod-thingy (which is in itself different from the hoverthingies used in stages 2 and 3 of the final), and his sprite is completely different.

The background seems identical or as near as dammit, although the UI obscures the top of it in the final – perhaps indicating that the UI was missing in the early version rather than the image coming from a cropped screenshot. Other scenery changes are the Evil Egg plinth, changed from smooth brushed metal to something more Aliens-like and Evil Oppressive Folks have had the time to go and retile the floor between builds.

The orange enemies themselves bugged me for a bit because they looked familiar but I couldn’t place them… until I remembered the end of stage 1 bosses.

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They’ve been reworked and had their weapons changed but they’re definitely what became of the two seen in the beta egg chamber.

If you’ve made it this far – congratulations! You’re either incredibly patient, polite, or a gamer that can’t resist peering at bad images of beta content, thank you! The final image is from stage 2, and looks at first glance pretty much the same as the final. There’s one glaring difference though…

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Look at the yellow Pacman guy! He’s not in the final game at all! Looking at the way he’s constructed and the leaping arc he seems to be making he *might* have ended up looking a lot less colourful and a lot more like this -

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- but that’s just a guess on my part. The lily pads are also rearranged and the water’s lower in the final (and the fog appears to be missing in the early version); Alisia’s jumping pose looks different too.

Ooh wait one more thing – there’s a decaying tree trunk missing on the left of the beta! Be still my beating heart! *faints*

Got any further information? Corrections? Want to talk about how ace Alisia Dragoon is? Leave a comment below!

A little look at… Steel Strider

It was with more than a little excitement that I downloaded the trial for Steel Strider, Astro Port’s latest “Real Robot Action STG”. The previous entry, Gigantic Army, was both a fantastic homage to SNES classic Cybernator (AKA: Assault Suits Valken) and an excellent game in its own right so seeing them revisit this successful formula set my mech-loving heart aglow.

I just want to take a brief moment to point out that everything below has come from playing the trial version of the game. Until I buy it I can’t say how the game progresses or if anything’s been changed, but logic would dictate that an experienced doujin team like Astro Port wouldn’t release a demo that wasn’t generally representative of the full game.

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On the surface it’s business as usual – blow things up, get to the end up the level and then blow something even bigger up – but there’s some fundamental changes too, giving Steel Strider a not unwelcome “same but different” feel. Perhaps the biggest one is the controls: aiming and firing is now done via the mouse, allowing for super-quick 360° firing while manoeuvring the Gemini. The other major change is in the weapons system – rather than decide on what to bring before the level this time everything’s picked up on site and can be switched between at will so long as the player’s got the ammo to spare.  There are a total of eight selectable weapons in the main game, with the demo containing the first four. The first ranged weapon is a basic handgun – not especially useful but seeing as it has infinite ammo it’s always there in a pinch. The other weapon that’s always to hand is a beam sword; very powerful but you have to be right next to the enemy to use it. The other weapons are all gun variants with their own unique quirks – the assault rifle is the general jack-of-all-trades, the shotgun fires in a wide spread and the grenade launcher shoots in a slow arc. Weapons seem to be upgradeable, but as it’s not a feature in the demo I can’t really say more than that.

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There are four difficulty levels to choose from, starting at plain old “Easy” and working up to “Insane”. There are no lives and unlimited retries from (invisible) checkpoints, the catch being that you always restart with however much health and ammo you had when you first passed the checkpoint, so if you limped into the next area with barely a clip’s worth of ammo then the only way around that is to restart the level from the beginning and use your experience to hopefully end up in the same place but a bit better off! Hard and Insane add more enemies and make the ones that were already there more aggressive – this is pretty much as anyone would expect. Steel Strider doesn’t leave it there though as you’ll also find far fewer health pickups, a bit of extra ammo and the helpful warning notices that appear before bits of ceiling fall and crush you have mysteriously vanished.

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I’ve finished the demo several times now and… I’m not really sure what to make of it if I’m honest. I do like the new control scheme – zipping your mouse in one direction while moving the Gemini in another brings Treasure classic Bangai-O to mind – but it feels incredibly linear and boxed in, with no secret stashes or rewards for the curious as there’s simply nowhere for them to wander off to in the first place. There are also far too many insta-kill crushes and bottomless pits for my taste, especially considering that this is meant to be the introductory level. With the advance warnings for ceiling crushes being turned off on hard or above (but oddly not for the virtually harmless enemies that spawn out of tubes) progress sometimes felt more like Kaizo Mario than Assault Suits Valken. There’s also a feeling that there’s a few missed opportunities too, like the little red exploding enemies that could have perhaps been lured over to damage groups of larger mechs or blast open doors, but instead simply run straight for you until you they die.

With Steel Strider leaving me a bit underwhelmed I made a point of downloading the Gigantic Army trial, just to make sure that I wasn’t giving that game more credit than it’s due. Unfortunately for Steel Strider I wasn’t. Gigantic Army’s trial was exciting, fast paced and didn’t require me to see into the future to avoid death at any point. Being forced to stick with particular weaponry throughout the level also meant I didn’t always have the very best option to hand all the time either, although that feels like more of a personal preference than any actual flaw in Steel Strider. I should say that the official trailer does make a game look far more enticing than this first level demo, but I can’t help but mentally append “Isn’t that what trailers are meant to do anyway?” onto the end of that thought. All in all I don’t think Steel Strider is going to be a bad game, but I don’t think it’s currently got the “omph” its prequel had. But the great thing about doujin games is that they tend to get some serious loving from their creators in the form of free updates, so there’s no reason to think that the issues I’ve got with this trial version aren’t going to be ironed out in the future.

If you’d like to have a look at the official Steel Strider website you can find it here - click me!

You can download the playable demo directly from here - link!

And if you’d rather stay right here you can watch a video I made of the full demo right below (normal mode) - let me know in the comments section if you try the game out!