A little look at… the Nanashi no Game series

I have a particular soft spot for portable horror titles, so it’s a little surprising that it’s taken me until 2015 to play through the much-mooned-over Nanashi no Game, er, games for the DS – so long that the companion DSi Ware games and iOS app have been and gone, and both games been fully fan translated too! Still, better late than never, right? Especially with games that seem to be a permanent fixture on countless “Why weren’t these released outside Japan?” lists.

Both games are very similar bar a few minor additions in Me, so this blog post will talk about them both without making any particular distinctions. The plot for both can be boiled down to “Like The Ring But With A Game” – according to urban legend anyone who downloads the cursed “Nameless game” in question dies after exactly seven days. Of course it’d be a bit naff if it really was just a hoax so as you’d expect your friends and others around you start dropping like flies and the game becomes a race against time to solve the mystery before you find yourself suffering the same fate.

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While playing the DS is held in two ways – when in the Nameless Game or using the “TS” (your in-game DS-alike) the DS is held in the usual manner, but when exploring the real world it’s held vertically, like a book. In theory this creates a distinct break between reality and the Nameless Game as well as giving the developer more screen space to work with when using 3D, but when this means having to push up on the d-pad and keep your stylus pressed on the center of the screen to do something as basic as run in a straight line you wish they’d have settled on something less experimental instead. I’ll make no bones about it – the control scheme’s awful to use, uncomfortable to hold, and adds nothing to the game – and these problems are exacerbated by a plodding 3D engine that makes the original Resident Evil’s tank movement characters look like Strider Hiryu on a sugar rush.

The cursed 2D game section doesn’t fare much better, with too many “cheats” that make it look inauthentic to anyone who’s ever played a real 8-bit RPG. The “best” example probably being the “corruption” effecting the game – it’s just a generic repeated overlay that pops up when you walk around and isn’t going to fool anyone. In fact it’s not until one particular later area of the second game that you encounter anywhere that you could actually believe was suffering from graphical corruption, and that’s a real shame because it’s a mess of red-on-black wrongness that looks as intimidating and unsettling as a cursed game that’s become hell-bent on ending your life should do. This all might sound like a bit of a nit-pick but as the Nameless Game in question is the defining point of both games it’s very disappointing to see it done in such a half-hearted way and hurts the game as a whole.

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It’s not all bad though – receiving TS messages from “####”with the message content “Die.” can be more than a little creepy, as can receiving helpful messages from people you know are definitely dead already. However these is somewhat ruined by the rigid gameplay structure that often forces you stand on the spot, read your TS messages/play the Nameless Game at highly specific points, then resume your real world investigations after you’ve finished doing exactly as much TS-ing as the designer wanted you to do. This turns what could have been an intricately woven light/dark world style mechanic into nothing more than “Look! Look! Weird game time for you now!”. In fairness the Nameless Game does become a freely accessible dark mirror of the real world half way through the second game, for one chapter, and then instantly squanders the endless possibilities of two interwoven realities by having you solve one single mindless non-puzzle, over and over and over.

Ah, we haven’t got to the enemies yet! It wouldn’t be a horror game without something trying to kill you, and in Nanashi no Game that means avoiding enemies known as “Regrets” (if it looks like a ghost, sounds like a ghost and acts like a ghost… it’s a bloody ghost, Square-Enix) – menacing apparitions that can’t ever be injured, distracted, or stopped – and always kill instantly on contact. Ghostly behaviour falls into three patterns across both games – run trudge in a straight line towards you, patrol a room in a strictly defined circuit and only react if you happen to bump into them (instantly killing you), and stand perfectly still doing absolutely nothing at all. Yes, really. This means in practise ghosts act more like “wrong ends” than traditional enemies as the outcome of any encounter is always a totally binary “completely fine”/or “completely dead” – which means that when they appear you’re more likely to roll your eyes and wonder which door you’re supposed to escape through this time than feel any fear.

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More than anything Nanashi no Game’s biggest disappointment is that a lot of the time it’s very nearly a good series, and when you’re first-person running away from a blood-splattered killer who always happens to be one step ahead, or when ghosts call out the name you entered for your save file, or when you’re visiting your recently-deceased friend in a virtual graveyard it’s a tense and captivating experience and shows how it could have been something really special. Unfortunately the games go and spoil it for themselves with far too many “gotcha” ghost encounters, frequent jump scares that are always a minor variation of “Thing falls over nearby then nothing happens” or “TV turns on and nothing happens”, and it’s all capped off with a final boss battle (!) that requires you to repeat a very tedious stealth section twice (!!), then successfully dodge a fast ghost twenty times (!!!) to win. The Nanashi no Game series is a masterclass in how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and while not irredeemably awful they are easily outshone by a broad range of similar titles already available in English.

Phantasy Star Online and the art of visual storytelling

Phantasy Star Online has been quite rightly praised for a lot of things since it first set countless Dreamcast GD-ROM drives grinding away back at the turn of the millennium – managing to get real-time online multiplayer working internationally over a modem that couldn’t even reach a blazing 56kbps not being the least of its accomplishments.

For me though PSO’s main draw and the part that keeps drawing me back in for “just one more go” all these years later is its eye-searingly unique art direction; everything from the polished floor of Mines 1 to the fabulously unsettling neon grin of the Delsabers and of course the colour-coded item boxes are all just as much a part of the experience as using the Endless Nightmare quests to grind for XP and stocking up on items to feed your mag.

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But praising a game for its graphics is often seen as shallow, even when they’re as distinctive and timeless as the designs shown here. What makes PSO’s style so special isn’t just the way it makes pairing up neon techno-future sci-fi with lush jungles and giant dragons look effortless, it’s the way everything your character sees is just as much part of your Hunter’s existence as it is your personal gaming experience. Being online and always feeling like you were part of something bigger is absolutely fundamental to the game – this isn’t some MMO where you’re allegedly the One True Saviour of All The Things and yet somehow there’s this other guy called xXS3phir0thXx running around in fancier clothes than you and twice your level – PSO is structured to allow all these Hunters to exist side by side, with not one of them contradicting or overriding your own adventures. But this was never about facilitating personal role-play, this is about Sonic Team creating a cohesive world where everything, including online play, lobbies, and begging negotiating with other team members for rare drops are just as much part of the game as the “official” story, and this brave vision is part of the reason why so many people still remember their experiences with the game so clearly.

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Once you learn to trust the game’s visual feedback you start to realise just how deep it goes – character classes are instantly recognisable from a mere glance at their silhouette, enemies can be quickly identified and sorted into groups by their general shapes, and you can tell how someone’s going to fight just by looking at the weapon in their hand.

Even the environmental details go beyond being mere background decoration to spice up the semi-random map layouts and are instead used to silently flesh out the story as well as inform the player that the enemies and environmental challenges ahead have changed too - remnants of Pioneer technology carve long brown streaks into Forest 1’s lush green earth, Caves 2 teems with water and life in comparison to the harsh lava flows above and the sleek Gillchic from the clean and bright areas in Mines 1 give way to zombie-like Dubchic in the dilapidated ruins of Mines 2. It would have been far simpler to just slap a few new textures onto the existing models and call it a day – as they did at times for PSO v.2’s extra-hard Ultimate mode -  just so the player had something different to look at as they went about hitting everything that moved but instead these more thoughtful additions all work together to create a world far richer than the strictly-business level names you lead you to believe.

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This light touch applies equally to enemy behaviour, with a range of common-sense as well as occasionally surprising reactions to the player – kill the lead Barbarous Wolf and the Savage Wolves in a pack will howl with sadness and become weaker as a result. Poison Lilies laugh when they successfully poison someone. The hulking Garanz has its armour gradually fall to pieces as well as become more aggressive as it gets damaged. Paying attention isn’t only a matter of survival but also a chance to see Ragol come to life; the graphics, gameplay and the remarkable adaptive soundtrack all coming together to create a true role-playing experience without anyone having to say a word.

A lot of RPGs like to cover their cases with bullet points about having meaningful choices and immersive worlds through dialogue trees, alignment systems, user-created content and more lore than the Unseen University could hold to try and make players feel like they’re more involved with the “RP” part of “RPG” – PSO goes in the opposite direction, providing the framework and feedback players need to team up and venture down to the surface of a hostile world then leaving them alone to create their own legend. Remember the time you saw your first Hildeblue? Your first red drop? When everybody else died and you were just able to scrape through? PSO’s visual-lead world is built in such a way that it can accommodate all your tales – and everyone else’s – just by letting you play.

MOVING ADVENTURE Psy-O-Blade

(That title’s so good it doesn’t really need anything else added to it)

T&E Soft’s (Hydlide, Undeadline, Laydock) Psy-O-Blade first wooed gamers with its exciting sci-fi adventure tale on the FM77AV back in 1988, with X1Turbo, MSX2, and PC-98 ports the year after. This Mega Drive sorta-remake is the last version of the game, and was released only in Japan on 27th April 1990.

Psy-O-Blade’s an adventure game that goes with the dreaded “using a cursor with a controller” interface; although as there’s no pixel hunting and menus are never more than one choice deep (the most common example being “Move –> <location>”) it doesn’t feel like trying to do origami with welding gloves on as these games sometimes can do. Saving is possible at just about any point you like, and there’s a handy on-screen map so whenever somebody says “Go to the computer room” you always know exactly where to go. Adventure games can often feel like the most difficult task is fighting against the interface, but I never felt like that was a problem here.

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The “Moving adventure” part of the game’s title is in reference to the relatively frequent cutscene graphics and special animations used throughout the game. While a quick glance at the screenshots here might not make the game look especially impressive given the tiny square viewing window it actually works very well in practice, the simplest but most immersive touch being the way individual characters will turn to look at you when you talk to them. Fancy-pants cutscenes often employ a little animation and some basic parallax scrolling that go a long way to making the story feel like the action really is happening now and you’re not just clicking on various hotspots until the end credits roll.

I have seen comments floating around the web mentioning that the Mega Drive version is a cut-down port in comparison to the computer originals – this is true. As it turns out this is also a very good thing, because the main bit the console port cuts out is a hideously complicated collect-the-thingymabobs maze that appears to have been included just because eighties computer games really should have a first-person maze section in there somewhere. Here’s a map of the labyrinth in question -

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As I hope the hellish image above illustrates, this isn’t some sort of carefully-considered puzzle design crafted to give the player some variety and a bit of freedom in a traditionally restrictive genre, this is something slapped in to pad out the end of the game and increase sales of graph paper. Normally I’m all for experiencing games in their original formats in the hopes of playing them “as intended” (or at least as close to intended as possible), but as far as I’m concerned the Mega Drive port of Psy-O-Blade proves that sometimes less is definitely more.

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More good news comes in the form of a complete lack of item menus – you’ll still need to find and pick things up on occasion, but there’s none of this tedious malarkey:

 SHOW –> KEY –> PERSON “It’s a key”

 EXAMINE –> KEY “It looks like a locker key”

 SHOW –> KEY –> PERSON [finally spews out pages of game-progressing locker key text]

You’ll still find yourself talking to everyone to get things moving, but as you’re not allowed to wander very far it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to keep things on track. Whether you consider that streamlined design or a horrific simplification is a matter of personal taste, but I was pleased to play a story-based game that felt like it actually wanted to tell its tale and not begrudgingly hand out tiny morsels of plot to players the designers had failed to kill off in a previous scene (there’s only one possible “wrong end” style game over in the Mega Drive version of Psy-O-Blade, by the way). It’s not a long game by any means, but unlike other more supposedly involved titles the twists and turns here kept me interested right the way through rather than desperately scouring the net for a FAQ or skipping through the text just to try and get the damned thing finished.

The only real fly in the ointment comes from the mercifully one-off into-the-screen shooting section. It looks absolutely fantastic but it’s incredibly hard (you have to take down two hundred enemies and are only allowed to get hit three times) and if you die you have to start from the very beginning. Again. And again. And again. You have my express permission to try that part properly once just to enjoy the graphics and then save state the heck out of it until it’s nothing more than a distant memory.

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I’ve come away from the Mega Drive version of Psy-O-Blade thinking it’s a real a visual treat considering the era and genre with an engaging story and not once did I wish I was playing the “full” computer original. So good on Sigma Enterprises for not only creating a good port but also some thoughtful and worthwhile edits too.

I’ll leave you with a bit of very good news – there’s a complete English translation patch available here (and shown in the video below), so everyone can enjoy this ace sci-fi adventure game!

A little look at…Han Seimei Senki ANDOROGYNUS

(Catchy title eh?)

This 1988 game by Nihon Telenet (them Valis folks) is a Japanese computer exclusive, seeing release only on the PC-88 and the lovely MSX2. Of the two the MSX2 version looks a lot nicer but it doesn’t have the fabulous decorative border of the PC-88 release, and I just can’t resist an old game with a decorative border even if it does mean looking at background tiles that on occasion appear to have been designed by somebody who hates their job, you, and pleasant colour schemes. So, PC-88 version it is then!

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ANDOROGYNUS is an old shmup with a neat little twist – every stage in the game scrolls downwards, taking the player through a vertical cave shaft filled with all sorts of oddballs out to ruin your day. The scrolling is, err, “rustic” in its execution, but the PC-88 was never really designed for games at all, never mind ones that chuck glowing bullets about like there’s no tomorrow.

The other nice surprise with this game is how plain fair it all feels – a lot of older titles and shmups from this era (R-Type came out in 1987) were designed either as arcade-based credit-eaters or as titles that confused “Deep immersive experience” with “You’re going to spend every night for the next two months playing this with graph paper in hand or else you’ll never finish it”. In contrast ANDOROGYNUS is a game that wants you to see the end credits, it’s a game that gives you all the tools you need to do the job and has enemy patterns and level layout that expects the player to react to troubles ahead, rather than already know they’re coming (my pet hate with Rockman 2 right there). Checkpoints are frequent and while they do strip you of all your weaponry you’re always left with an incredible handy shield that not only absorbs incoming bullets also destroys regular enemies on contact, meaning that no matter where you die you’ve always got a fighting chance to make a comeback and reach the end.

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Speaking of power ups, there are a few surprises there too! Nothing too exciting on their own – a bunch of different weapons, a speed up, and a rare “second chance” item that blows up instead of you if you’re hit – but the way they sometimes mix together to create new weapon combos is very interesting and another feather in the cap of what all too easily could have been Yet Another Impossible Retro Shmup.

It’s not all sunshine and roses though – bosses are either a total pushover or keyboard-destroyingly hard and they’re all a bit too weird or abstract to feel threatening or visually impressive. The difficulty mentioned before doesn’t come from an aggressive attack pattern or (mercifully) from having the “wrong” weapon equipped either, just obscure weak points that give absolutely no indication you’re hitting the correct area unless you check a guide or get lucky and see them explode. 

But that’s only an issue that raises its head three times all game, which isn’t too bad at all considering there are thirteen levels and fourteen bosses in total, split across two loops. I consider myself to have quite a short attention span and even less skill when it comes to these games, but I was happy to stick with ANDOROGYNUS just because the game itself seemed to be more concerned with getting me back into the fight than kicking me out to the title screen at the earliest opportunity. Heck, you can see for yourself in the video at the bottom – I die once on each stage, but it doesn’t put me at a massive disadvantage the way restarting in Gradius would.

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This isn’t the sort of game that’s going to change the way you see the genre or burn itself into your mind (hideous colours aside), but for the 500 yen Project EGG are asking for it you’ll find yourself with an entertaining and unique shmup that doesn’t require the included emulator’s save state function or months of dedicated play to see to completion. There’s also some fabulous Engrish at the end referencing ANNCIENT GREECE (spelling mistake and all), because how else do you try to make a deep philosophical point in an 80’s shmup?

If you do take the plunge then of course I want to hear all about it! Don’t forget to head on over here too for an incredibly useful (Japanese) guide - http://mii5.at.webry.info/200908/article_5.html

A little look at… Bomberman Wars

Bomberman Wars is a Japan-only title released in 1998 for the Saturn and original Playstation, and one of Hudson’s earlier attempts at branching the Bomberman series out beyond A Man, Bombing into what they hoped would be new and profitable territory.

So Wars takes the regular Bomberman character design and turns it into an SRPG complete with multiple introductory FMV sequences, customisable battle parties and an item shop. Now there’s nothing wrong with this in principle – Bomberman can be a pretty tactical game if you’re taking it seriously (as seriously as you can take a series that occasionally features a dancing pink kangaroo, anyway) but in practise… there’s really no getting away from the fact that this is just plain awful.

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You know you’re in for a rough time when a game can’t even get basic movement right – all battle characters can only move in straight lines, meaning something as simple as moving around an obstruction while pressing forward towards the enemy becomes a multi-turn lesson in frustration as you move once to the side, wait a turn, move forward, wait another turn, then move to the side again to complete this apparently monumental task. This is further exacerbated by three out of your initial five Bomber (Wo)Men only being able to move a single square in any direction, making item chasing and basic positioning utterly tedious.

Battling takes place on the same field as movement, and as you may expect involves placing bombs in strategic locations in an effort to blow the opposing team into itty-bitty pieces while attempting to avoid the same fate yourself. The hideous movement system manages to mess this up too, as setting up any kind of trap or clever chain reaction becomes a lot of hard work that’s often ruined by the CPU simply moving out of the way. Oh and let’s not forget that by default your characters can only have a single bomb active at a time, and they all have a pathetic range of just two squares – and they all take a minimum of five turns to detonate unless they’re caught in the explosive range of another bomb. The only good news here is that if – if – you are lucky enough to hit someone with an explosion then they die instantly, the camera zooming in on them as they’re engulfed in flames and cry out in pain in a deeply unsettling way. Should you get lucky enough to destroy the opposing king the battle’s automatically won, briefly freeing you from the torment of having to play more Bomberman Wars.

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Maybe it gets better. Maybe it becomes genuinely tactical later on. Maybe Square-Enix will finally stop churning out ports of Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD and make Final Fantasy XII: Glorious 4K Edition Now With Extra Sky Pirate. *coughs* Anyway! The game is an SRPG with featureless pancake-flat arenas that requires your opponents to remain within arm’s reach of your attack for five turns and gives everyone a movement range akin to a sloth wading through cement mix wearing full plate mail. Bomberman Wars doesn’t reach the tactical level of the original Shining Force, never mind something more complex like Tactics Ogre, and it’s certainly not about fast-paced explosive destruction the way real Bomberman games are either, leaving Hudson with the dubious honour of managing to disappoint both old and potential new fans in a single game.