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.


Diggin’ through the bookcase: Popful Mail edition!

Unlike the staggeringly beautiful artwork that graces the cover of last month’s Xanadu manga, Popful Mail’s is a little more, um, ‘basic’ and I have to admit that seeing the main cast’s faces composed of 95% shiny eyeball put me off really sitting down with it until just a few days ago (possibly-totally related to me finally finishing the excellent Mega CD version of the game). Thankfully the dubious cover art instantly gives way to some full colour pages featuring illustrations originally used in the Popful Mail Paradise drama CD inserts, as well as a short two-page story on the same premium paper.

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There are six self-contained stories inside this 1996 manga, and they all weigh in at around thirty pages each. The first two are classed as ‘Popful Mail’ stories, meaning it’s just Mail plus guest-star-of-the-week, and the final four are ‘Popful Mail Paradise’ tales featuring Mail, Tatto, Gaw and Paradise co-stars Coam and Kachusha – another bounty hunter/magician pairing who act as friendly rivals to the main gang.

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Trying to cram so many unconnected stories into a single book wouldn’t turn out so well for most RPG adaptations, but as Popful Mail was already ‘Ninties Fantasy OVA: The RPG’ it all works out just fine – quick-tempered treasure hunter Mail is either chopping things in half or dreaming of money, Tatto’s the reserved sensible one who will always follow Mail wherever she goes (Not that he secretly like likes her or anything, of course…), and Gaw is, well, Gaw – the cute lesser sidekick with the amusing speech pattern who on the whole shows up in the book because that’s what he’s supposed to do. If you’re looking for a retelling of Falcom’s colourful platforming RPG you will not find it here, and neither is it really an attempt to document their adventures after the credit roll in any serious or canonical manner either. But this scattershot method suits the setting just fine, with straightforward characters getting stuck into straightforward adventures that will raise a smile and can be idly read while sitting down with a cup of tea.

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Popful Mail reads very much like an old Saturday morning cartoon, with your favourite characters bashing a new evil person and/or monster each episode and no matter what happens it always turns out OK in the end - but never so OK that everything isn’t mysteriously exactly how it was before the story started. Mail may never get that big win, Tatto may never get that kiss, and Gaw may never find a fish big enough to satiate his appetite, but it doesn’t matter one bit. The art and tales inside this book aren’t the sort of thing that will leave you gasping at the author Yuu Aizaki’s talent but there are some eye-catching moments and they do grasp the atmosphere of Falcom’s RPG well without making the mistake of confusing ‘light-hearted’ with ‘gag manga’. This isn’t the most important book you’ll ever read, but it is a very enjoyable one.

A little look at Xi [Sai] Little!

Ah yes, that natural leap from Net Yaroze to PlayStation to… WonderSwan?!

It’s not as strange as the situation sounds these days though – back when Xi [Sai] Little released in 2001 developers were looking for alternatives to Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance and Bandai’s handheld had a reputation for being warm and welcoming towards Sony-aligned companies. While you wouldn’t have thought a full-3D PlayStation game was the most obvious candidate for portable-ification luckily for us it turns out the game was perfectly suited to the format.

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Other than now being entirely in 2D Little plays just like it’s bigger PlayStation sibling, and as always the basics of the game require clever use of your baby-faced coloured devil to roll dice around so their upwards faces match each other, making them disappear. Higher numbers require more matching dice (so an upwards-facing five needs to be touching five other fives to disappear), and if you’re quick you can roll another matching dice into the cluster you just linked together for hot bonus point action. It’s one of those things that makes more sense when you see it in action, and is simultaneously face more straightforward and also more complicated than I make it sound. So, like any other good puzzle game then! There are four different ways to play, and Shift really took the bull by the horns and did an awful lot with the concept, especially when you consider this is essentially a de-make of their very first game!

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Let’s have a quick look at what’s on offer:

Trial: This mode comes in customisable Endless/Time Limited and Exhibition flavours and is the basic Tetris-style ‘Let’s just play and see how long we survive’/’How high a score can I get?’ game, a real-time race to match away dice before the constantly arriving new ones clog up the board and end the game.

Battle: This can be played against either another player via link-up cable or a CPU opponent. At first glance it looks like the trial game, but to win here you need to match particular dice values (anywhere between 3~6 depending on how difficult or long you want the game to be) before your opponent beats you to it.

Puzzle: The one mode where I don’t run around like a headless chicken trying to manipulate the dice! Here you have a limited number of steps to remove all of the dice and as much time as you need to work it out. What makes this challenges so special is that they actually teach you how to use some very clever tricks that can then be applied to the more frantic battle and trial modes.

Dance: I’ve saved this one for last as it’s a WonderSwan exclusive! This mode’s a replacement for the ‘Wars’ 1-5 player battle mode found in the console version. Here you have to make sure the correct number is pointing upwards by the time the appropriate face reaches the box on the left of your play area. To keep you on your toes the field changes during the match with darker colours being worth more points – this is to stop you sitting cowardly in the middle and making movement too easy. It’s not actually Xi DDR (or DDDDR if you’re an overseas fan of the series) as you’re not doing anything in time to a beat, but it’s still a pleasant diversion and it’s good to see that Shift took the time to replace Wars mode with something instead of just axing it and hoping nobody would notice.

All of the above bar puzzle mode can be played with another person via the WonderSwan link cable, making social play almost as fully-featured as puzzling alone – never something to be taken for granted in portable gaming and a very welcome added feature.

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Xi [Sai] Little is pretty much a perfect port of an already excellent game, and one that’s well suited to on-the-go play. The ability to easily scale the difficulty and length of the fast-paced trial/battle modes and the sheer quantity of puzzles on offer means that it’s just as easy to play for five minutes as it is to settle down for a much longer session. Of course with the original game available in portable form on both PSP and Vita these days there’s a legitimate question as to how practical it is to track down this WonderSwan port, but with the SwanCrystal’s slender form and the astonishing battery life a single AA battery provides it means that you could potentially leave this lying around somewhere convenient and always have a top-quality puzzle title ready to play. If you don’t already have a SwanCrystal around - and please do buy a Crystal, not a Colour - it’s not worth hunting one down just to play this game, but if happen to own one already and fancy branching out from the usual Final Fantasy remakes and Digimon games then this is a very well made, familiar, and (currently) reasonably priced choice.


Something to be Treasured? Dragon Drive: D-Master’s Shot

A game based on an anime that’s based on a manga isn’t normally a recipe for success, but with Treasure’s steady hand at the helm and their previous track record with anime tie-in titles such as Yu Yu Hakusho: Makyo Toitsusen and Astro Boy: Omega Factor there was only one way Dragon Drive: D-Master’s Shot could ever turn out -

Very badly. Wait, what?

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There’s an uncomfortable truth in the gaming industry that Treasure have clearly understood ever since they followed up Gunstar Heroes with McDonald's Treasure Land Adventure in 1993, and that is that creating genre-busting classics capable of pulling off incredible technical feats that aren’t even supposed to be possible on the hardware you’re using just isn’t enough to keep the company lights on, and somewhere along the line a bit of creative pride has to be swallowed and a licensed tie-in game made. The Treasure Difference™ here being that regardless of the IP in question they have still gone on to produce a quality title where other, lesser, developers would have simply churned out Generic Anime Game #3215.

This is what makes Dragon Drive so surprising. This isn’t Treasure having an off day and producing something OK-but-not-great, this isn’t even outright bad, it’s just horribly, obviously, phoned in – a game created to fulfill the bare minimum contractual obligations between Bandai and Treasure, effectively being just enough ‘game’ to allow Treasure to walk away with their money. This isn’t a title with ambitious but unrealised ideas like Gotzendiener or even Septentrion, there’s no glimpse of a flawed beauty or a clever twist that didn’t work in practise, it’s just there, existing as pretty much the definition of ‘Some Anime Game’.


But that’s enough venting for the time being as we should probably take a bit of a look at the title that has lured in many a hopeful gamer with promises of being ‘A bit like Panzer Dragoon and Zone of the Enders, but by Treasure’.

As you’d expect from any tie-in game, it’s littered with various direct-from-the-show clips between stages for that authentic ‘It’s like one of my Japanese animes!’ feel, with voiced talking heads of various sizes used during the bits where you’re supposed to be having fun playing a ‘Dramatic 3D Shooting’  game. The action itself is split into the Zone of the Enders/Panzer Dragoon styles I mentioned before, with the latter appearing to be in the minority if the chapters I’ve been able to stomach playing are anything to go by. It doesn’t really matter because regardless of the level type you end up in it will definitely be another bland location with low-poly landscapes fading into the fog (!!) and brainless adversaries that neither challenge nor excite.

There are, if you scrape the barrel to it’s very bottom, some ghosts of good ideas in here though – as the game unfolds you gain access to new dragon forms with their own particular strengths and weaknesses that instantly make you wish you were playing Panzer Dragoon Orta (released the year before this) instead. And there’s the collectable card powerups stored and used at the player’s discretion, which could possibly allow for some tactical play if the game showed even a sliver of the finesse shown in any other Treasure title. That’s about it as far as nice things I can say about this game go other than… um… the package includes a bonus anime disc with a special episode on (for the GC, not a DVD) if you just can’t get enough Dragon Drive, I guess? Oh and there’s a two player versus mode if there’s a particular friendship you’d like to end. Yay.


'But it’s meant to be for kids, Kimimi!’, is something you might be shouting at your monitor right now, and you’d be right. But there are a lot of other games intended primarily for a younger audience – Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Pokemon [colour of your choice here], Sonic Colours – that are capable of entertaining gamers not already ravaged by the passing of time without being vapid fun-free experiences. Treasure can’t even argue that the hardware wasn’t powerful enough to realise their vision of ‘Dramatic 3D shooting’ action, as Star Fox, Panzer Dragoon, Galaxy Force II, Omega Boost and plenty more all came out on vastly inferior formats and they all show more flair and style in their opening levels than Dragon Drive manages to muster in an entire day’s play.

Of course not every game Treasure put out is going to be an all-time classic or push the boundaries of a particular genre and it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise, so it’s important that I emphasise here that I’m not annoyed with Dragon Drive because it tried and failed to be a good game, I’m annoyed because it never tried at all. I am happy to play and even recommend flawed titles if I feel there’s some clever idea or nifty twist in there, and even so-bad-they’re-good kusoge can be a fun way to spend a weekend if you’re in the right sort of mood, but Dragon Drive possesses not one of those qualities.

If you’re a fan of the anime then this is not the enthralling interactive take on the show that it could have been, if you’re a fan of Treasure this will knock your faith in their abilities, and if you happen to love Zone of the Enders or Panzer Dragoon and would like more of the same then you will only come away disappointed. Avoid this game even if it’s cheap, a gift, or you think ‘It can’t be that bad, can it?’ – it is.