Bean-based Bomberman?!

If you’re wondering about the ridiculous title up there I’ll explain:

  1. Why yes I am awful at writing headlines, how did you guess?
  2. This wonderful Bomberman LCD game is part of Bandai’s “Mame game” range, as in “豆”, as in “bean” – due to the shape of the device.

So, now you know!

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In any case, according to this fantastically helpful website there were a total of thirteen games in the range covering a variety of arcade classics like Crazy Climber, Columns, and Densha de GO!, with the vast majority of them being released in 1997. As you’d probably expect they’re all in broadly similar casings and some of them appear to have the same multilayered LCD screen this Bomberman unit does, although I’m only going off photos found online for that last part.

Wait a minute – multilayered?

That’s right! This little VMU-ish sized LCD game has two screen layers, with Bomberman, the blocks, and the score/timer on the lower and enemies, bombs, and the bonus round boss on the upper. This means that multiple objects can exist in the same space, and even overlap! So unlike the (very good) Bubble Bobble LCD game that had to use clever screen layout and an adorably bug-eyed tiny Bub graphic to fit everything in, we’re instead treated to full size player and enemy graphics – and even dedicated boss graphics - with the only compromise being that enemy’s can’t face in both directions on a single tile.

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As if that wasn’t impressive enough the game also flip-scrolls to allow for a larger play area than fits on the screen, with a mini-map by the timer so you always know which quadrant you’re in and half-tiles around the edge (as well as half-enemy graphics too) so you can “see” what’s ahead even when you can’t, err, actually see what’s ahead. If you see what I mean.

If you’re able to tear yourself away from a screen that can only be described as “witchcraft” for a few seconds you’ll find the unit itself feels pleasant to hold and the soft rubber keys aren’t too tall like they can sometimes be on this sort of thing so there’s no annoying wobble when pressed. Between the direction keys and the slightly larger start/bomb set button there’s a trio of useful smaller buttons to toggle sound (on/off only), pause the game and turn it on or reset your current game. The game goes to sleep after leaving it paused for a bit, and if you wake it up you’ll find it paused exactly where you left off, so you can bomb away in short bursts or long sessions as you please.

To further aid in your on-the-go destruction you’re offered two different modes at the start of the game – “Standard” and “Master”. Standard plays out much as classic Bomberman always did, with each of the sixteen stages requiring you to destroy all the wandering enemies within five minutes and then escaping through the exit hidden under a random destructible block. To breaks things up there’s a boss battle after every third stage, these clear the play field of blocks so Bomberman can kick bombs up towards the boss and hopefully hit it before the short timer runs out.

Master mode uses the same stages but allows players to to pick any one of the sixteen to play at the start and kicks you back to the mode select screen on completion, meaning you’ve got a bit of variety available even if you’ve not got the time for a full session.

The manual does say the stage counter goes all the way up to 99, but I don’t know if they’re unique or if they loop after a while – it’d be sensible to assume they loop and probably get a little harder (in this case perhaps enemies would move faster?), but that’s nothing more than a guess on my part as I’m really not good enough at the game to test this out!

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There’s really nothing more you could ask of this unassuming LCD game – it looks great, has the memorable Bomberman jingles, and plays well on a device that’s practical, comfortable, and well built – perfect!

Hooray for RayCrisis!

Shmup fans were really quite spoilt for choice in the Saturn/Playstation era which sadly means a lot of perfectly good games got overlooked entirely, or in this case simply didn’t really get as much attention as I think they deserved. So here’s me waving a little flag for the final game in Taito’s Ray-series, in the hopes that I might be able to waft a little of my own enthusiasm for it in your general direction.

The game originally debuted in arcades in 1998 – the same year as Treasure’s Radiant Silvergun – but it wouldn’t hit the Playstation until two years later at that awkward stretch for the console when some people were busy playing Phantasy Star Online on their Dreamcasts and everyone else was plugging in their Playstation 2 for the first time. The game had a worldwide release and Japan/EU received a very good PC port too (supports 640x480 and works without fiddling on Windows 8, if you were wondering), so it was never all that difficult to buy, just the wrong sort of game at the wrong time on the wrong format.

But that’s enough of that! Let’s get to the exciting part – your role as a virus trying to stop a supercomputer hell bent on the destruction of all humanity that’s been helpfully visualised as a sci-fi flavoured shmup.

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The overhead-but-not perspective and the occasional (and impressive) sweeping 3D shots make for some dramatic action that help give the blocky landscapes a bit of depth that the hardware of the era wasn’t quite up to creating through sheer number of polygons, and somehow even when the action’s intense the screen’s still very easy to read and there’s none of this “But I’m sure I was out of the way!” nonsense when it comes to bullet-dodging. It’s a shame really that vertical 3D shmups reverted back to a true top-down angle after Ikaruga hit because there’s still a lot of untapped potential here.

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This subtly unique take on a well-worn genre permeates right down to the nuts-and-bolts of the game too, with original (read: “arcade”) mode allowing you to pick which three (from five) main stages you’ll tackle and in what order, and even allowing you to pick the same stage every time if that’s what you want to play. Special (“home”) mode plays out in a more traditional manner as it features all the stages in a set order, but even then RayCrisis’ “Encroachment meter” alters the difficulty of the level depending on how well you’re doing so there’s still a sense of the unexpected and of the game reacting to your actions - as opposed to some shmups that can feel like you’re there just to mess things up for the guy who made all the pretty bullet patterns.

The other thing this encroachment gauge is good for is encouraging you to do the one thing shmups really should be about – score? Heck no – blowing things up! You really want to keep your encroachment percentage as low as possible to avoid the last boss showing up early and forcing a BAD END on you, and to do that you need to destroy everything that dances in front of your ship’s (sorry, computer virus’) lock-on sights. It’s a pleasant antidote from the increasingly score-focussed nature of modern shmups without making the game feel brainless or *mock-recoils in horror* “casual”.

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So with RayCrisis you’ve got two different modes of play, dynamic difficulty per level, three ships, PocketStation support (Japan only, of course), a customisable main game, three possible endings, pretty graphics and a whole heap of fun all on a single shiny disc: Raycrisis’ only crime is being not rare enough, weird enough, or big-name enough to get noticed, meaning it doesn’t have the collector-cool of the likes of Zanac X Zanac, the outward weirdness of the excellent Harmful Park, and the general brand awareness of Gradius or R-Type. It is however one of the more affordable and easier to source shmups of the era, and well worth playing whether you’re a genre fan or just mildly interested in blowing up giant spaceships.

A little look at… MonHun Nikki: Pokapoka Airou Mura DX

I wasn’t planning on blogging about this one but seeing as I’ve been banging on about it on Twitter an awful lot it didn’t seem fair to not talk about a game that’s been eating up so much of my free time!

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What we have here is basically Animal Crossing + Patapon + Monster Hunter, and it’s a testament to the strength of Monster Hunter’s setting that it can receive such an extreme makeover and yet still remain totally recognisable and faithful to the Kut Ku-bothering main series.

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While there are still plenty of monsters to hunt the focus this time is on building a successful and happy airou-filled village, which in real terms means an awful lot of material farming, a bit of fetching-and-carrying, and winning the odd pugi race. It starts off a bit slow as your village is rather empty and you’re left on your own to do all the manual labour, but it really doesn’t take very long at all to bring some new cats in to help out, and then before you know it you’re building a guild, expanding your bug-catching area, and sending other airou off in their hot air balloon to grab some super-rare items for you.

As your options open up the more mundane tasks are automatically passed over to other villagers, meaning you can spend more time worrying about which outfit you’ll wear today or chasing after some of the more esoteric items than fishing or mining.

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Oh, I should probably mention a bit about the hunting too! Hunting takes place on a 2D plane that scrolls from left to right, and with the exception of scroll-locked boss areas you can only ever move forwards towards the goal line, not back. Quests will sound familiar to series veterans – kill five Ranpos, collect so many mushrooms – that sort of thing, although how it’s accomplished is very different from regular Monster Hunting as your team of up to twelve cats will give you three options to choose from depending on what’s around them: If an enemy’s nearby the choices may be “Attack” “Trim” (for body parts) or “Move forward” whereas a blue mushroom will instead throw up options such as “Eat” “Harvest” or even “Throw away”. If none of the current actions are what you’re after you can make them bring up another three with a toot on your hunting horn (R button), although as you’d expect herding cats isn’t the most straightforward of tasks.

This hands-off approach sounds more than a bit woolly but it actually works very well, and the organised chaos it brings to the game suits the setting well. You can also pull off some clever combinations while hunting – throwing nitroshrooms at enemies to injure them, spotting hidden Gigi before they ambush you, bringing along a chef-type Airou to cook food before eating – there’s a lot of unexpected but very welcome depth in there to keep you thinking.

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As hopefully most of you will be aware long before the 3DS “Deluxe” version I’m playing came out the game was released on the PSP in both standard and “G” editions but there’s not really much difference between them when it comes down to it – the 3DS version definitely has more stuff in it, but not so much so that the PSP version’s now redundant. There’s no real difference in the graphics either bar the 3DS version being 3D-enabled (which if you’re like me you’ll turn on for a second, go “Ooh!” then turn off because it makes your eyes feel funny). So the recommendation is this: Play whichever version you can get your paws on, because this game’s a lot of fun!

LCD gaming: Puyorin edition!

So far my epic LCD quest has taken me back to classics of gaming’s past as well as tackling a kinda-realistic flight simulation, with both games leaving me feeling pleasantly surprised by their quality and charm. Now we take a look at an LCD adaptation that really shouldn’t work at all – there’s just no way Puyo Puyo’s colour-matching gameplay can work on a monochrome LCD display, is there?

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The packaging for this 1997 release has “Mini game” splashed across both the front and back a few times, and rather than declaring itself a true Puyo Puyo title it instead goes under the name Puyorin (or “Puyolin” for the de-Puyo’d Western releases by Tiger Electronics), which doesn’t bode well at all. Luckily it only takes a quick go to see that while it’s been simplified to suit the keychain-sized format it’s still the same cute puzzle game everybody knows and loves, just with three puyo “colours” rather than the usual five. This is achieved by having each space in the 6x12-puyo play area contain a central black puyo with an outer “shell” around it, so every space can contain either a plain puyo, puyo-with-shell, or shell-no-puyo. Hopefully the video at the bottom makes all that clearer than I just have. Chaining and splitting up your falling puyos all works just as you’d expect, and there’s even a dedicated box in the top-right to show which combination’s coming up next.

In keeping with the mini game nature of this release there are just two modes of play on offer – “Normal” and “Time Trial”. Normal mode has you trying to clear progressively tougher stages (achieved by surpassing an increasingly high score threshold), while time trial’s a race to score as much as possible within the time limit. Both modes have three levels of difficulty to start you off on; normal has a choice between a full playing field or having one or two of the bottom rows permanently blocked off, and time trial lets you choose either a one, two, or five minute timer. 

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The unit itself is pleasantly puyo-shaped and the curves make it feel comfortable to hold for extended periods, and the buttons are all sensibly placed and respond well when prodded. The sound, on/off, and pause buttons are in easy reach but kept far away enough that you’re not going to hit them by accident. The distinction between the pause and on/off switch is an important one – unlike the other LCD games I’ve covered here turning it off will erase your current progress, but keep your high score. The speaker on the back is placed off-center, meaning there’s a fair chance your fingers will muffle the sound somewhat during play. This is actually something of a blessing as there’s no music bar a brief opening ditty and the game gives off a rather shrill beep every time you move your falling puyos about. That’s the only real negative to this portable puyo-ing experience though, and in fairness not an unexpected one.

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If you’d like to grab one of these for yourself you’ll be pleased to learn there’s a colour combination to suit just about everyone, and for those that still struggle with colour matching on a monochrome display there was a later colour release imaginatively titled Colour Puyorin, although it appears to still be restricted to just three puyo types.

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Fanzine frenzy: Deep Fear

Back in 1998 Saturn gamers living anywhere but Japan were having a rather rough time of it, what with the Playstation crushing all in its path and all that. Games that were initially announced as PS/Saturn/PC titles almost without exception became PS1/PC only (Tomb Raider 2 might be a best known example of that) mere months after being announced, and Saturn fans were forced to import from Japan games that had domestic releases (Grandia) on PlayStation or scrabble around local game shops begging them to check the stockroom just one more time in case they had a copy of Burning Rangers/Panzer Dragoon Saga/Shining Force 3/House of the Dead lurking around somewhere.

But Sega fans, especially European Sega fans, are a dedicated l0t and we refused to let go, certain that surely Sega would announce PAL 4MB RAM carts and a Shining Force III trilogy set soon – they had to! Needless to say we never did get those particular wishes, but Sega Europe (and it was only Europe) hadn’t forsaken us yet and graced us with Deep Fear, Sega’s answer to nothing less than the looming Sony-exclusive surefire hit, Resident Evil 2. Sega Saturn Magazine gave it a rather positive review, and while I never did buy it at the time their coverage coupled with its later scarcity and flabberghastingly high second hand value lead me to believe that Sega had done it the right thing back then and given us one final high quality game as a “thank you and goodbye” gift.

I was wrong.

But more to the point, SSM were wrong first.

This re-review, presented in what is hopefully a respectful parody of their writing style, is my attempt to put right what once went wrong.

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Digging through the bookcase… Mystic Ark

I find everything about Mystic Ark utterly fascinating, from Akihiro Yamada’s sumptuous artwork to the musical score and the rather mysterious plot. Unfortunately I’m not that much of a fan of actually playing the game as I find it a rather fiddly RPG and I have the attention span of a wasp after a sugar spill at the best of times. So we arrive at this manga, which I bought in the hopes of being a tour through Mystic Ark’s world without all that RPG-related business that I really do like but sometimes don’t.

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This three part set had its first volume published in August 1996 (roughly a year after the game’s release), and then the second arrived six months later and the final six months after that, making for a rather tidy release schedule. This work was done by Akirako Iwasa, an artist possibly of most interest to people reading this for his work on the Rebus (Kartia: The Word of Fate) tie-in manga. The “regular” art’s competent, expressive, and recognisable while obviously simplified to get each volume out before the end of time, and the chapter intro art ranges from some pleasant little vignettes to some really very impressively detailed work. At no point is there a feeling that anyone’s “off model” or that some scenes been drawn crudely to save time or effort (which is more than can be said for the utterly detestable Final Fantasy XII manga), making for both exciting action sequences as well as well articulated conversations.

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One possible fly in the ointment is that it does take a fair few liberties with the Super Famicom RPG’s plot, with major NPCs being given all-new backgrounds, personalities, and motives and a few cuts to keep things within the three-book format. It’s not going to win over anybody who wanted an exact copy of the game’s plot in book form, but then again the game’s plot is rather fuzzy at the best of times and wouldn’t really make for a particularly gripping manga, so the feeling is the author’s basically taken what they were given and tried to make a good-quality short manga serial out of it.

The good news is that while they’ve not been a stickler for accuracy they have done a good job of weaving an enjoyable tale, and most of the important and recognisable things do show up in some form as you read through – both male and female leads receive their “official” outfits at an important point, all your potential companions show up (even if they do fulfil different roles), and the general The Goddess, The Darkness, and You framework that binds both the story and the manga to the events within them is also present and correct.

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So at the end of the day if you’re an ardent fan of the game’s story and would like to see it trapped within the pages of a manga for easy access then this is sadly not the trilogy for you. However, if you’d like to read an entertaining and heavily Mystic Ark themed story, or would simply like to read a good nineties manga that requires no major commitments, then I’d recommend Mystic Ark without reservation.