A little look at… Kurokishi no Kamen

Kurokishi no Kamen for the 3DO is the final game in the Ghost Hunter trilogy of first person RPGs; the first game, Laplace no Ma, was released in some manner across everything from the PC-88 and Super Famicom to the PC-Engine and X68000, although the Super Famicom port is probably the most well-known (and the most unlike the original). Thankfully for me Humming Bird Soft simplified things for the sequels, although picking the 3DO doesn’t appear to have been the most sensible format for this final entry, does it?

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Well let’s take a quick detour into the realm of historical context before we decide, OK?

Kurokishi no Kamen came out early in the Japanese 3DO’s life, on the 28th of May 1994. At this time gamers were busy playing Super Metroid and Sonic 3 whilst saving their pennies for newcomer Sony’s definitely-going-to-flop Playstation hardware or Sega’s Virtua Fightin’ Saturn. So this was a time, if you can remember that far back, when CD gaming was a premium product and seeing real people in a game (as badly blue screened as they were) was still something special - or at least novel.

So while it’s easy (very easy) to laugh at acting that’d make Calculon blush and grainy FMV today it’s worth remembering that at the time this came out the 3D0 really was at the bleeding edge of gaming, and so was this game.

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Everywhere you explore in this first person sort-of RPG is presented as a prerendered FMV sequence; think like D or Enemy Zero, but instead of being whisked between three or four designated points of interest in a room you instead walk tile-by-tile, like an old dungeon crawler. This approach has its ups and downs – while it certainly feels more “free” than other FMV games (as well as massively impressive for the era – imagine walking “inside” an FMV!) - on the other hand the game doesn’t actually do anything interesting with this freedom, and the technical limitation of using prerecorded footage means crucial items are completely hidden from view in all circumstances, so when you’re checking another identical desk and another identical cupboard for items you wish that maybe the game had been a bit more restrictive after all.

It’s also visually quite repetitive – nothing as bad as Septentrion (where numerous rooms are literally identical, or if you’re “lucky”, a mirrored version of an otherwise identical room) - but it’s obvious that almost every room has been decorated with the exact same desk, lamp, cupboard, etc. with maybe a unique painting or different coloured (plain) bed sheet to break things up. I’m not entirely convinced I’m being fair to the game by raising that as an issue, but with D coming out just a year later on the same system it does make Kurokishi no Kamen feel a little unambitious next to WARP’s more famous offering.

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The same could be said of the RPG system which is in all honesty virtually non-existent, especially when compared to the careful stat-allocating job systems seen in previous entries Laplace no Ma and Paraclesus no Maken. The story starts with a pre-set team of four and it eventually expands to six once you’ve rescued Ed and Lisa, although these two new additions do quite literally stuff all for the rest of the game other than show up as names on the UI. Battles only occur in set locations on the map and offer no experience or items once won – a feature that could be seen as allowing players to focus on the horror atmosphere (and the item hunting) if only the battle system didn’t feel so lightweight and unthreatening thanks in part to the unlimited-use health and MP recovery items the party start with and carry at all times until the end of the game.

But while Kurokishi no Kamen isn’t really much more than a CD of the-future-of-gaming-as-imagined-by-the-nineties it was a fun enough way to spend a day and a curious little window into an avenue of gaming that’s mostly been left behind.

If you’d like to play the game for yourself you might find these maps useful.

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?


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…


…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.