A little look at… Tokyo Twilight Busters

Tokyo Twilight Busters is a 1995 PC-98 adventure game by Wolf Team, the Japanese developer responsible for El Viento, Tales Of…, and the Mega CD port of Time Gal. However Wolf Team’s take on ‘adventure’ is a little different from the usual as in this game’s case it means an intriguing fusion of the mundane with the occult in 1920’s Japan – absolutely my sort of thing – that moves back and forth between typical Snatcher/Psy-O-Blade/Bubblegum Crash J-adventuring and lengthy point ‘n’ click sections with a real-time twist.

The ever-present pocket watch on the right hand side of the game’s beautiful UI frame keeps track of the relentless passage of time in the game – an extremely important item in an adventure that has certain events only occur at particular times. From what I can gather from various Japanese FAQs and comments the game pushes on towards the ending even if you do spend a lot of time dawdling around, albeit with the better of the two conclusions reserved for players who don’t waste too much time on their adventure (a little like the much-maligned Castlevania 64 now I think about it).

Seeing as the game opens on a point ‘n’ click segment and they’re where you’ll be spending most of your time we’ll take a look at those first. During these parts of the game you are locked within a specific location and must furiously click away at the scenery until you either stumble across the correct doohickey or you waste enough time to inadvertently trigger the story scene that will move you on to the next chapter.

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Y’see, Tokyo Twilight Buster’s problems stem from having its fascinating setting hamstrung by some truly oddball design decisions.

Take item discovery, usage, and… well, items in general, really. The vast majority of the things you’ll find are generic goods that offer some sort of one-time use bonus (for example, combining a lantern with oil and then using a match grants the character in question a working light to illuminate darker areas) or can be used as breakable weaponry in battle (more on that later). Ordering one of your team of up to four party members to lunge wildly at an evil guard with a screwdriver you found in a battered container certainly adds a sense of personal improvisation to what is usually a very inflexible genre, but on the other hand it often leaves you with four inventories filled with items that are too useful to simply throw away, but not so useful that you’re relieved to discover yet more matches/nails/length of rope as you painstakingly sweep yet another room.

Filling up on these sundry items is impossible too, as unlike most of examples of this sort of gameplay almost all objects in Tokyo Twilight Busters are completely invisible and rely on the player performing a tedious Look->Examine->Search dance on every vaguely suspicious area of the screen to uncover them. To make matters worse searching, once you’ve finally clicked on an object enough times for that particular interactive option to appear, then requires squandering the game’s most precious resource – time – to actually uncover anything. Searching a hotspot means watching in-game time fly by as the party runs through an exaggerated ‘looking for things’ animation loop that may or may not result in them finding a key item (often literally a key) that’s fundamental to your progress, an assortment of wotsits that might possibly help in a scuffle, or nothing at all. There’s no way of knowing until you go looking and even the plainest corridor can have multiple searchable hotspots, leaving players forced to click their way around every room on the promise of a maybe, then do it one more time just in case.

It’s not as though you can methodically search your way through the locations on offer either, as the maps in these point ‘n’ click sections are extremely difficult to navigate. They’re certainly not miserable eighties labyrinths of corridors leading to corridors leading to dead ends, but a lot of the rooms are minor variations on a particular theme with very little to make one brick-walled corridor stand out from another. There’s also an unforgiveable ‘camera’ issue too - going ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the screen can result in the view silently switching around, so if forwards meant ‘walk to the left’ pre-transition it will mean ‘walk to the right’ the screen after, and there’s no map to guide you.

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The good news is puzzles never ask more of the you than ‘Have you found the hidden switch?’ or ‘Do you have the key to the locked door?’; the focus here is very much on experiencing the story and the surrounding game is really just a means to that end. There’s nothing especially unusual in that – Snatcher, Bubblegum Crash, and Psy-O-Blade are all designed with the same sort of priorities in mind – but as finding these items involves a lot of floundering around in the dark this part of the game may have benefitted from either making the important objects a lot easier to find or pushing towards the other end of the scale and integrating these game-extending wrinkles better by including actual puzzles over endless menu clicking.

It’s not all bad news though, and Tokyo Twilight Busters does have one very clever idea lurking in its side-on searchathons – guard patrols. You’ll sometimes earn a little unwanted attention while helping Sho unravel the mystery behind his father’s murder, and the game gives you several ways to deal with anyone pursuing your team.

The first is the the most obvious – don’t get caught! The game will let you know when people start looking for Sho and friends, so if you’ve got some idea of where you are in relation to them you can simply try to keep one step ahead – move fast and close doors behind you to give yourself a little more time. If that’s not an option then you can order your team to hide in appropriately-sized boxes, crates, or drums until the threat’s passed – these guys aren’t Metal Gear Solid-level soldiers so you don’t have to worry about getting caught out so long as you’re all tucked out of sight in time. The final option is to tackle them head-on, which shifts the action to an RPG-like battle screen. Battles operate on a typical turn-based system, with you issuing orders to each party member then sitting back and watching the action unfold. Unlike PC-98 adventure Makyouden the battles here require real thought and strategy from the player, especially as there’s no levelling or skill system in place (like Kurokishi no Kamen), so victory relies entirely on your ability to put whatever you’ve found to good use.

The rest of your time playing Tokyo Twilight Busters is spent bumbling around the adventure portion of the game, and this section mostly follows the typical Japanese formula for this sort of thing – there’s a large view window to show the current location (the monochrome digitised photographs used for the backgrounds here are incredibly stylish) and a selection of move/look/talk options that pop up on the right hand side as required. You’re given a lot of freedom to roam around an expansive list of Tokyo locations as you please, although you’re only ever really needed in two or three locations to continue the story. ‘Immersion’ comes in the form of having to literally wait in some locations for a particular event to start (for quite some time too, and repeatedly selecting the ‘let’s hang around here’ command over and over), meaning from the player’s perspective you can be in the right place and have done all the right things to get here… but still make no progress. This feels especially at odds with a game that relies on you reaching the end within a certain amount of time to receive the best ending – it may not be especially strict in that regard (nothing like Final Fantasy IX's Excalibur II), but it does feel as if the game’s trying to get you to hurry it up while also making you stand around and do nothing too.

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I’m pretty sure I’ve been a little too hard on Tokyo Twilight Busters in this blog post: It’s visually stunning, uses a sorely overlooked setting in an interesting way, and generally feels like a game with a lot of love and effort put into it. The problem is the flaws that it does have are utterly inescapable, and they drag down every part of the game. Am I not making progress here because I’ve missed something, or is it just the wrong time of day? Did I not find an item here because there’s nothing to find, or did I not let my characters search for long enough? You’re never quite sure if the fault lies with you or the game when things screech to a halt, leading to yet more clicking and backtracking in a game that already has you scouring the background for tiny objects of interest and ping-ponging between home/university/police station just to get things done.

If you have a clear schedule, the directional sense of a homing pigeon taped to a military-grade GPS and the steely determination to click on everything multiple times, and then click on everything two more times just to make sure, you’ll be rewarded with an intriguing tale and some of the finest pixel art I’ve ever seen on NEC’s wonderful hardware. Everyone else? Enjoy the screenshots here and elsewhere, then go pick up the 2010 DS remake of the game as it has a precious onscreen map for the point ‘n’ click segments.

Sharing the love: Streets of Rage 3

1994 was a funny old time for the Mega Drive as a lot of great games released that year showed just how sweetly the hardware could sing in capable hands (Castlevania)... yet somehow failed to make much of an impact at the time; leaving the likes of Ragnacenty, Panorama Cotton, and Contra: Hard Corps to garner little more than a dab of niche praise and some frankly ridiculous resale prices over the following twenty three years. Sadly Streets of Rage 3 has suffered this same fate, arguably best known in modern times for being ‘not Streets of Rage 2’ and ‘butchered’ on its international release: Yet as with many games that have had their molehills transformed into mountains both of these points are true and yet not the world-ending issues they’re made out to be, as I’ll hopefully be able to show you as we go.

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But before we get stuck in to the good stuff let’s start with the one sticks-out-like-a-sore-thumb, really-can’t-defend-this problem with Streets of Rage 3 – Zan. People (still) miss Adam. People quite rightly miss Max too. Nobody misses Zan. Nobody picks Zan. Being neither old man enough to pass as the team’s cool martial arts wizard or cyborg enough to add some tough robo-chic to the team, Zan is an unwelcome and unnecessary replacement who fills the ‘strong guy’ role in a way that can only make you think ‘I wish the secret kangaroo boss was a default character’. Plot-explaining cutscene-only NPC? Fine. As an alternative to the scarred man-mountain in tight-tight lycra? GET OUT.

The silver lining here is that at least Robo-Gramps can be easily ignored as we’re still graced with three fantastic familiar faces to senselessly beat up punks investigate crimes with, and they’ve all been gifted with a greatly expanded set of moves that takes the best bits of the original Streets of Rage’s brilliant co-op system, the sequel’s flashy special moves, and then adds a further layer of tactical depth on top with dodge-rolls, individual weapon specialities, back attacks, upgradeable dash attacks… there’s an awful lot to try and take in on your first go, and many of the finer details aren’t obvious unless you spend some time looking through the Japanese manual and its accompanying move sheet, or go and read the FAQ I just linked you to.

Enemies weren’t forgotten in the gameplay overhaul and can now perform all sorts of tactical trickery including blocking, grabbing dropped weapons, throwing other bad guys at you, and generally making a nuisance of themselves in ways that weren’t possible one game ago – square up to a whole gang of assorted troublemakers and you can throw a few of them down a nearby pit, get grabbed from behind and still kick approaching enemies in the face, then throw the guy that grabbed you over your head… the attention to detail is so great that  the fat guys have real weight this time around! Make Blaze suplex a rotund chap in Streets of Rage 2 and she’ll crack his head into the pavement without any trouble. In 3 though? She’ll fall flat on her back and the rotund chap will get up and laugh at her. By giving both sides a wider range of options even standard goodies-vs-goons battles in Streets of Rage 3 become more interesting and unpredictable than they otherwise would be, even when the play area’s just a flat rectangle of floor dressed up as a back alley or warehouse.

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Thankfully levels are rarely that uninspired and most of them are happy to throw in a unique environmental hazard for you to learn how to avoid and then later twist to your advantage – anything from falling metal drums to trap rooms filled with lasers to everybody’s favourite, the Bottomless Pit of Doom. There’s a feeling of constant inventiveness as you punch, skate, and fireball your way through the levels serve up anything from a free-roaming race against the clock to save the chief of police (or General Petrov if you’re playing Bare Knuckle III) to a rather lopsided fight with a digger. Much as I love the genre a lot of the games within it feel as if they’ve supplied an incidental scrolling image just so you’ve got something to look at while you knock out another palette-swapped bruiser’s teeth but the stages here really feel – as they do in other great games – just as integral to the experience as the bosses, weaponry, or the player characters. On repeat plays you may find yourself stumbling across one of several secret routes within the ninja hideout stage, or get to see how the game splits in two completely different directions (with their own stages, bosses, and endings) depending on how well you do in stage six too: You simply cannot experience everything the game has to offer on a single run, and even when you do get good enough to pick and choose where you go the sheer variety of events and unique scenarios found in each stage help to prevent the game from feeling like its in danger of overstaying its welcome (as Shadow over Mystara and Guardian Heroes sometimes do).

Now to tackle the elephant in the room… the dreaded localisation changes.

‘It’s awful! They changed… things! Things I tell you! I read all about it one time on some website!’ You know what? You’ll live. Really, you will. It’s the plot to a 90’s side-scrolling beat ‘em up for starters and in any case the changes here, while collectively quite different to the Japanese script, don’t actually amount to anything like pulling a Probotector or Vay’s gold vortex, and are in practise just an equally flimsy excuse for a citywide brawl. I’d say the biggest offense is Axel’s awful yellow/black costume recolour - famously removed miniboss Ash is a walking collection of (at best) ignorant clichés – and what else…? Um, ‘Victy’ is possibly a better name for a violent marsupial than the more generic ‘Roo’? Maybe? Anyone? There are two things to remember here – first off, the changes here aren’t large enough to turn Streets of Rage 3 into a game that’s notably different from Bare Knuckle III. Yes, they’re there – but you’d have to have played through both releases extensively to really notice the difference as they aren’t especially obvious unless you compare the two side-by-side. Secondly, and the most important point of all: These changes happen all the time. Think of Nier's Japan-only ‘Replicant’ release, or the headache that is ‘Which version of Metal Gear Solid 3 actually has all the extra stuff?’ (I ended up answering that question with the Japanese first-print run of Subsistence on PlayStation 2, if you were wondering). Looking back around the time of Streets of Rage 3’s release there’s Castlevania’s eternal cross/boomerang switcheroo, Metal Slug’s ‘sweat’, and Link’s Awakening’s hippo boobs and mermaid bikinis. Changing things – for better or worse – is not and has never been unique to Streets of Rage 3.

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Then there’s the oft-cited difficulty increase to contend with, casually thrown around as if Streets of Rage 3 is (forgive me) the Dark Souls of side-scrolling beat ‘em ups. It’s not. It’s not even anywhere close to being the Guardian Heroes of Mega Drive side-scrolling beat ‘em ups, never mind Battletoads! In any case this was – again - not an unheard of change for the era as pretty much every mainstream Konami game from the nineties was made more difficult for its overseas release, as was Dynamite Headdy, Ninja Gaiden 3, Popful Mail, Astal, Resident Evil…

And there’s a very simple reason why this practise was so commonplace – we wanted games to be that hard. Let’s use some snippets from UK gaming bible Mean Machines Sega’s review of Bare Knuckle III (pages 42-45) to illustrate the point – ‘marred by exceptional easiness’ ‘extremely playable – if a tad easy’ ‘Lastability: Too easy’. Were we right to demand all our games be so tough? In hindsight, no. A game that takes a solid month of blood, sweat, and tears isn’t better than something that ‘only’ lasts the weekend but keeps you coming back to every year just because you always finish that short session with a smile on your face. But back then Japanese games weren’t viewed as being ‘balanced’ or ‘fair’ but ‘easy’ – and an easy game was a bad game (or at the very least, a kid’s game) to a reviewer’s mind back in the distant past of 1994, and as such Sega (and Konami, and Capcom, and everyone else) adjusted their games to suit the tastes of the overseas market at that time. Sega did nothing more than give us what we asked for.

To talk more specifically about the standard difficulty in Streets of Rage 3: yes, it is significantly harder than the default setting in Bare Knuckle III but it’s far from an unmanageable slog. Most of the standard opponents still go down in a single flurry+throw combination, and the larger crowds just mean you can do a really satisfying amount of damage when you fling an enemy across the room and see them all get knocked backwards. Harder? Yes. Still fun? Absolutely.

Whether you go for the original Mega Drive cart or the cheaper Steam/XBLA digital versions of the game (M2’s XBLA port is the superior experience) you’ll find Streets of Rage 3 in all its forms to be a deep, challenging, and inventive game featuring an enviable mix of meaningful co-op play with six truly unique playable characters, silky-smooth yet lightning-quick brawling, and an excellent soundtrack – undoubtedly a shining light in its genre, and one that’s well worth anyone’s time.

The RPG of the anime of the manga: Seima Densetsu 3x3 Eyes

Sometimes you’ve got a retro-itch and the only thing that’ll scratch it is a CD-based 16-bit manga/anime tie-in RPG, right? Maybe that’s just me. Either way it means I’ve spent a good chunk of the past week chipping away at the overlooked Mega CD title named above in a vain attempt to knock another game off my towering backlog and hopefully share something worth reading with you all.

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The good news is this 1993 RPG starts off strong, with a lengthy and eye-catching introduction showing off Pai’s life in Tibet, her time with Yakumo’s father, and eventually poor Yakumo’s transformation into a deathless Wu. All of these dramatic events fill the screen with reasonably well animated cutscene graphics and grace your ears with lines delivered by (most of) the original Japanese voice cast, helping to really kick things off on a high note.

This same level of care and attention can be found in the lush battle graphics too, where even the most ordinary of enemies are given lavish idle animations and a range of enormous side-facing attack/defend/hit recoil sprites. Party members are somehow shown even more love, with unique near-death stances, magic casting poses, and even different attack animations depending on the weaponry they have to hand. The downside to these scenes is that they take a good while to load (mercifully nothing like the horror that is Samurai Spirits RPG) and even longer to play out, but at least the designers were aware enough of the potential issue to give players the choice to turn them off for standard battles in the options menu.

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If you delve into the mechanics here there are some nifty ideas going on under the hood too – ‘defend’ lets you select an ally to protect rather than have a character stand around with their hands over their face for a turn and effects buffs and debuffs have on both your team as well as the enemy are significant and potentially deadly to both sides. To help keep track of exactly what’s what in an RPG that often feels like it’s going out of its way to call spells by especially obtuse names players can check the effects of any magical ability before casting, with the exact use and MP cost laid out in plain Japanese.

Death in battle is also handled in an unexpected way: In keeping with the idea that none of the main characters actually die die during the story killing blows reduce a character’s HP to one rather than zero, putting them in a ‘half-dead’ state until brought back with a particular spell or item. Yakumo’s canonical ability to revive himself comes into play here too, as after a few turns (assuming you can survive that long without him) he’ll return to a functioning if dangerously ill state all by himself, leaving battles open for some exciting hanging-on-by-a-thread scenarios where he can still potentially save the day after keeling over. Another interesting feature is the overpowered ‘near death attacks’ that come into play when any character’s got exactly 2HP remaining – these deadly blows deliver at least quadruple the damage of a standard attack, with the obvious drawback being that the character in question is a mere demon’s sneeze away from being completely incapacitated.

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Unfortunately it’s not all rosy in demon-fighting land, and there are a few issues here that are at odds with the beautifully presented artwork and interesting ideas. The most obvious one is having to watch party members moronically throw away items and wasted MP on allies that have fallen during a turn – there’s no reason why these couldn’t have been auto-redirected to the caster, another random party member, or plain failed due to the lack of a valid target. The other is that random battles are as frequent as they are tough, and the caves, basements, schools, and hotels you encounter them in are labyrinthine nightmares without any save points within to give you a breather. Now on the one hand the game generously supplies a variety of spells and items that can warp you to a dungeon entrance or back to the nearest save point, but on the other that still leaves you with a whole dungeon to march through again when you do find the time/patience to come back to the game. On the surface these all sound like typical retro RPG problems… until you consider this game came out the same year Shining Force 2, Phantasy Star 4 and Secret of Mana hit the shelves, so it doesn’t feel as though there’s any real excuse for the game to be as user-unfriendly as it sometimes is.

Outside of demon-bopping the actual RPGing unfortunately feels like a greatest hits collection of every bland 90’s genre feature going; stretching out the plot with endless to-ing and fro-ing between NPCs you must talk to several times in a row before they’ve give up whatever key item you need or move slightly to the side so you can get to whatever you need to go, and a vast array of shops that all sell items you aren’t sure will be an improvement over your current gear until after you’ve paid for them. The PC Engine 3x3 Eyes adventure game (apologies for the quality of the text in that ancient link) proves that the setting is more than rich enough to create an exciting globetrotting tale filled with bloodthirsty demons, but after the initial setup Seima Densetsu instead sleepwalks its way through a checklist of mediocre RPG tropes.

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But while it strangely holds the exact opposite problems as Compile’s Mega CD RPG Shadowrun – a game dripping with atmosphere and intrigue but lumbered with a battle system so bad it literally didn’t function as intended - Seima Densetsu’s clearly been made with love and effort… just not necessarily a lot of skill. The good bits don’t cancel out the bad, but if you’re curious enough to try it out they’ll certainly lift this average RPG into something that’ll at least make your reasonably cheap purchase feel worthwhile. I’d recommend taking this very helpful FAQ with you on your journey, mind - http://sesesega.blog90.fc2.com/blog-entry-37.html

As an added bonus the game comes with a separate ‘CD & Graphics’ soundtrack disc – always a welcome sight in any package! You’d think the ‘& Graphics’ in the title would refer to either a few ancient BMP files tucked away on the disc or even a fancy CD+G style extra, but if that’s the case I can’t seem to get these mystical hidden graphics to display via either a Mega CD or Sega Saturn (or my PC for that matter), more’s the pity. Then again I can’t say I’ve ever tried to use CD+G before now, so if you know better please get in touch!