Gaming

“Playing” Akira (Mega Drive prototype)

Over Christmas 2019 the videogame preservation website The Hidden Place uploaded a ROM dump of a prototype for SEGA’s Mega Drive of an unreleased Akira tie-in, regular readers and those who know me are well aware of my love for Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga and movie, so it comes as no surprise that I had to have a go at this.

It’s worth saying before I go ahead though that this appears to be a very early prototype, in fact, Hidden Place believe this is from before a demonstration at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in 1994, a kind of precursor to E3 (Wikipedia suggests Mega Man X was shown to the public for the first time at the 1993 show, and the first E3 didn’t take place until 1995 when SEGA famously launched their Saturn console). I didn’t even know this existed, I didn’t get properly into videogames (buying magazines, looking forward to future releases etc) until I got a PlayStation, prior to that I’d literally just be playing whatever I fell into my lap.

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What we have here in this prototype is very bare-bones, but its a real good look at what Black Pearl Software were working on (the studio are probably better known for working on Super Star Wars: Return of the Jedi on the SNES and Jungle Strike on the Mega Drive) and it would seem that THQ were to publish the game as Black Pearl Software are listed during the intro’s as a “THQ subsidiary”.

First impressions are quite positive, the attract sequence looks and sounds the part, with the camera panning across the shot of Kaneda that we’re used to from the covers of VHS and DVD copies of the film from over the years. Going into options lets you play with the background music, which was a regular thing that used to happen in games, it’s particularly the work the sound design has done to capture the sound and feel of the movie, there are noticeable elements of the score here and where the composer has had to be creative they mostly hit all the right notes. The level select looks pretty cool too, with a map of Neo-Tokyo and icons telling you who’ll you be playing as and what the gameplay will entail.  There’s no level progression at this stage though, you can select any of them to play at will and a press of the Mega Drives start button (or emulation equivalent) whilst in a level brings you back to this screen.

So the front end is excellent, playing is a bit hit and miss though. Black Pearl has decided to go down the route of using a variety of 16-bit era gaming archetypes to play out key moments from the movies, there’s on bike levels that play like Super Hang-On but clearly use Road Rash as inspiration as you can (playing as either Tetsuo or Kaneda) kick and punch as you ride along. There’s no enemies or traffic to avoid, nor can you hit any of the signs that are along the side of the road. The viewpoint is a little low too, with Kaneda’s bike, in particular, obscuring the player’s view. Whilst the sprites are pretty cool (and the background work of Neo-Tokyo in the distance being particularly impressive) they’re clearly unfinished as turning animations are more than ropey.

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There are four other gameplay styles that the developers have experimented with, to varying levels of success, Kaneda’s levels involve exploring and escaping from the sewers beneath the Olympic Stadium, first on foot and then on a flying platform, on the latter I came across a doorway that I could enter, taking me behind the scenery and beyond a wall, but I couldn’t enter out the other side so my progress was halted, and on the latter, there wasn’t any route through the level. There were pickups available on both, drugs heal and I picked up a gun for Kaneda, whilst on the flying platform level I picked up ammunition, there were also enemies to kill.

Tetsuo’s levels feel like that had the most potential but were probably the least playable. These are played out from a first-person perspective, exploring a map in the manner of an early first-person shooter, though here you don’t have a collection of guns to use, as you have access to Tetsuo’s telekinetic powers. The third level for Tetsuo is played out from an isometric point of view as he walks across a bridge towards groups of soldiers, this level began to glitch quite heavily with the screen tiling rather than scrolling and enemies not dying when hit with a blast from Tetsuo’s powers.

The very last level doesn’t work at all, once you move from the level select screen you’re presented with a background of the Olympic Stadium with sprites of Tetsuo and Kaneda facing each other. I can only guess that this would be a beat-em-up like experience or maybe like the bosses at the end of side-scrolling action games where Kaneda would be tasked with avoiding Tetsuo’s attacks and either kicking and punching him or maybe using the laser from the end of the film to defeat him. However, before you can play, the whole game freezes and crashes forcing you to restart the console/emulator in order to try out the other levels further.

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Hidden Place actually put out a video showing off a lot more content than I managed to see, though I’ll readily admit I didn’t spend much time in each of the levels, usually quitting out once I’d gotten an idea of what was going on. I do intend on spending more time with it and seeing what else I can find (I’ve not watched all of the video as I wanted to see some of this stuff for myself).

There have been a few Akira games released since the movie came out in 1988, though they’re all apparently rather poor (or haven’t even been released outside of Japan), so despite the fact, this isn’t even a game, the experimentation on display from Black Pearl Studio’s at least suggests that we could have had a pretty good game on our hands with a fair bit of variety and some excellent polish, the little video’s introducing each segment are brilliantly done.

#throwbackthursday, Gaming

#ThrowbackThursday: Captain America and the Avengers

Last week I wrote about Gregory Horror Show when normally it would have been an update on my Final Fantasy IX playthrough. This week is the first Thursday of the month, and like with yesterdays Book Club update, that means its Retro Game Club time. Octobers game, voted on by the rest of the group is Captain America and the Avengers which comes from a time before Marvel licenses were the biggest thing in the world.

Originally released in the arcades, Captain America and the Avengers was ported to a variety of the early 90s platforms, though its the Mega Drive/Genesis version of the game that I chose to play.

What we have then is a fairly basic side scrolling beat em up, you choose from Cap, Thor, Hawkeye or Vision and take on a variety of lesser known Marvel villains that have been hired by the Red Skull in another attempt to take on the world. Each of those villains acts as an end level boss that you fight after working your way through a variety of robot like opponents. This was probably chosen as a means to keep the license family friendly.

I’ve already said that the game is fairly basic, you have a jump button, a punch button and a projectile attack, though despite the Mega Drive having three buttons on its controller (and probably as many buttons as they wished on the arcade cab) Data East have chosen to attach the projectile to you having to press both the jump and punch button at the same time, this is all the more baffling when you consider the inclusion of Hawkeye, rather than his default attack being his bow and arrow he’s forced to punch his way through the game as the only difference in the four characters is purely cosmetic.

So game play wise, its fairly dull, though it does throw an odd curve ball by turning into a side scrolling shooter for a few of its levels. It’s the games presentation that make it stand out. Whilst the general enemies are non-descript, the main cast of heroes and villains really pop off the screen and the inclusion of comic book sound effects as you punch your way through levels is a nice touch though in my opinion the sound effects sound a little muddy.

I didn’t manage to stick Captain America and the Avengers out until its end, but I cant really see it throwing much else at me that could have changed my impressions of it. Last months ESWAT was flawed but tried to play about with its mechanics, this doesn’t try anything brave at all and is largely forgetful.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday ESWAT: City Under Siege

Retro Game Club this week, this time the group voted to play a SEGA Mega Drive/Genesis game I’d never heard of before: ESWAT:City Under Siege. This Mega Drive version is based on the arcade game Cyber Police ESWAT that also saw ports to a variety of other systems including SEGA’s own Master System.

As mentioned above, I’d never heard of ESWAT so I’d gone into this without any nostalgia attached to the title. First impressions are that its what I’d describe as a side scrolling action game. It’s not an all out ” run ‘n’ gun” like Metal Slug and its not a side scrolling brawler like Streets of Rage, its also not a “proper” platformer. It does, however, feature platforms to jump across and shooting, the group has likened it to SEGA’s Shinobi games, but with a futuristic setting and I’d have to agree with that, though my experiences with Shinobi are very limited.

First start off fine, you control a typical cop looking character, walk from right to left (and then left to right as you make your way up the platforms in the first level) and shoot enemies as you go. The second level is a little more technical and it took me a while to get past the second levels boss. This was because I knew you could crouch, then I figured out you can walk and shoot whilst crouched, but I kept standing up to turn and being shot, I’d like to blame the PSP’s d-pad for this, as just holding crouch and moving felt cumbersome, but it was all on me really as it took me ages to realise you could also change the direction your facing whilst crouched. It still took me a few attempts to get past though.

However, its the third level where things really take a turn. You’re suddenly put into what looks a little like a Robocop suit but with jet thrusters on the back. This allows you to stay in the air but you only have a set amount of fuel and, honestly, its best saved for the boss battle, provided you can get there as the difficulty level really gets ramped up with the number of on screen enemies increased greatly and all placed at very different positions. It’s also the first time you have to select different weapons but the game never tells you any of this so there’s alot of trial and error involved that would have, if I weren’t using save states via my emulator, seen me just quit and not bother returning.

Level 2 is the interesting, with you having to nagivate a prison rail system through multiple directions before entering the cells themselves and dispatching the enemies, I ultimately gave up at the boss for level 5.

Being honest, it was a trek getting that far, ESWAT is very much of its time, its also cashing in heavily on the popularity of the Robocop movies in the late Eighties (this version of the game was released in the same month as Robocop 2 premiered in cinemas in 1990, whilst the previous versions of the game arrived the year following the first films release). It’s a competent game at best and its certainly showing its age, that the difficulty level ramps up so drastically in level 3 gives the impression that there was very little outsourced playtesting going on for this version of the game, and its not as though its a properly difficult level, as once you know the mechanics, progression is as simple as before, the issue with it is that the game play changes with brand new mechanics thrown in with no introduction to the player (beyond the suit appearing on the idle and title screens).

I was trying hard not to write it off, but was struggling to find the enthusiasm to play it after an initial couple of plays and its only really with the end of the month arriving and me wanting to write this post that I gave it any more time. It’s easy to see why I’d never heard of ESWAT, I was normally a generation behind during this period in gaming and it seems that even then ESWAT was the type of game that pretty much found its way to the dusty cupboard of games no one really talked about, which whilst I’m all for preservation of gaming history, its hard to make a case for anyone really missing this or of it being a bad game that ought to be remembered.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse

For May the Retro Gaming Club played through the original Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse. Some played the Master System version, some the Game Gear release and others the Mega Drive one. Some played all three, I played the Mega Drive one via emulation on my PSP.

Castle of Illusion was developed and released by SEGA prior to them releasing Sonic the Hedgehog, in a way it was the SEGA consoles’ competitor to Nintendo’s Mario games due to the time in which it was released. SEGA at that point had relied on their mascot at the time, Alex Kidd but I don’t think that he was ever likely the one to take Mario’s crown. A good platformer featuring a character who was more renowned than Mario though? That’s more like it.

My recollection of the time was that it was another game in a long line that had me interested in the system, and I spoke in my Sonic 2 and Rocky throwbacks of how much I wanted a Mega Drive. I don’t ever recall actually playing Castle of Illusion, but I’m certain I played its sequel World of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck at a friends house a few times. So really, I went into this one fairly blind.

First off, it looks lovely, and I know I’ve said this often, and maybe its the PSP’s still pretty gorgeous screen or that 16-bit games have aged incredibly well, but it looks lovely. It obviously has its limitations and the animation obviously isn’t that of a Saturday morning cartoon but it definitely brought back memories of waiting at the airport when going on holiday in Jersey and reading comic strip panels with Mickey Mouse and co in from one of the pull out sections of my Uncles newspaper. Each level looks totally different with unique enemies in each so that visually it never gets boring, and the worlds behind each door way are interesting and fun with the odd hint to some of Disney’s own history (one boss is reminiscent of Pete’s Dragon), albeit this is a standalone tale of its own.

Level’s are short and sweet, although I definitely took advantage of my emulator’s Save State ability as the controls can feel a little imprecise and once Mickey’s lives are lost you’re sent right back to the beginning of the game, there’s no saving at all as far as I can tell and this definitely harks back to the “must complete in one play through” days of yore. There’s nothing wrong with that and maybe back then I’d be more inclined to keep trying as that was just how games were, now though we’re spoiled by saving structures, particularly autosave, and thus these types of games feel harder now than they did back then. Mickey can use two methods to defeat his foes, he can jump on them (however you have to press jump twice to pull of the bottom bounce required to defeat a foe, hitting one with a standard jump will deplete your health bar) or you can throw collectible items at them, a level is complete once you defeat its boss, again achieved by throwing items at them or bouncing off them. Due to the small area’s within these boss fights take place they often feel more difficult than they actually are.

It’s a charming little game though, its length means it never manages to outstay it’s welcome although this is probably a design decision based upon finishing in one sitting than it was the developers deciding they wanted that mood set. The story is uncomplicated, an evil with wants to steal Minnie’s youth and its upto Mickey to save the day, is typical of the time and particularly reminiscent of Super Mario Bros. which is probably what the team at SEGA were trying to emulate. Does it stand up as well as Nintendo’s defining platformer? I’d say no, it feels a little sluggish in comparison (despite the more primitive hardware that Nintendo’s game was on) and as I’ve mentioned the controls don’t feel quite accurate enough which is what makes Mario really stand up well today. It was still fun to play as a curiosity though.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday: Sonic the Hedgehog 2

After the recent trailer for the godawful looking Sonic the Hedgehog live-action movie, I decided that I’d go back and play what is mostly regarded as the best Sonic game, Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Yes, I know theres an argument to be made that the best Sonic is Sonic 3 & Knuckles, but I’ve never actually played that.

In actual fact the most I’d ever played Sonic 2 was at a friends house as a kid. Well, a couple of friends actually, as I didn’t own a Mega Drive for myself until about 2008 when I got one off a car boot and thats spent a good few years sat in my loft as I don’t have the space to have my collection set up and on display. We mostly played the 2 player special stages when I visited friends’ house, although I did “help” occasionally as Tails on their play throughs, but only ever saw bits of levels at a time. I remember the first four levels, although I may have gotten through those via emulation in the years since it came out, and I remember controlling Tails’ plane on Sky Chase then watching a friend on Wing Fortress, but beyond that I don’t remember much of whats in between or after those zones until this recent play through.

For Sonic 2, Sonic Team introduced two new key features, the most obvious is Tails, whom either runs along behind Sonic or can be controlled via a second player (always my role as a kid), the other introduction was the Spin Dash, a move that has become such a part of the Sonic experience that many forget that it wasn’t there from the start. Emerald Hill Zone, much like the games predecessors Green Hill Zone, gets things off quickly and its very easy to get through to the end of both Acts without incident and a fast pace but as the game progresses the area’s become more technical and call upon the player to combine both Sonic’s speed and his maneuverability to traverse the levels. Some of the Acts are almost maze like, according to the timer in the top left corner of the screen I spent around 10 minutes working my way through Act 2 of Metropolis Zone, and whilst I enjoyed the zone’s music at the start of Act 1 by the end of its third Act I was finding it really annoying.

On the subject of the music, none of Sonic 2’s offerings are as iconic as Green Hill Zone nor as wonderful as Starlight Zone (which I think is still my favourite piece of Sonic the Hedgehog music, Open Your Heart from Sonic Adventure is wonderfully cheesy but its just not as good as Starlight Zone imo), but whilst Metropolis Zone’s music outstayed its welcome it was mostly because it would repeat itself so quickly and so often and there weren’t many Invincibility boxes scattered in the level (which is fine) to break up the monotony of the tune.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is still a brilliant platformer. Purests will say its not as long, nor as deep as Super Mario World which was released two years before Sonic Team’s game, and despite going head-to-head with each other, Sonic 2’s goal was always to continue SEGA’s edgy, cool and exciting approach to gaming. Has it aged as well as Super Mario World? You know what, I think it has, it still looks wonderful and when you’re good at it it provides the same assault on your senses as it always did. Theres a few enemy designs later on I wasn’t keen on (again, Metropolis Zone, which has a habit of putting its punching crabs and praying mantis enemies in exactly the wrong places) and there is sometimes an over-reliance on intricate platforming and small platforms that require dexterity to overcome (I properly abused the PSP SEGA Mega Drive Collection’s save game feature to get through some of them), but, importantly, its still really good fun to play through now. Which bodes well for the Mega Drive Mini’s release later in the year.

Gaming

#ThrowBackThursday – Golden Axe

I’ve been joining in with a retro gaming club on a forum I’m on, the first month we played Links Awakening, but due to using my phone and emulators to play it I got too distracted by social media and the likes being available so readily that I didnt put much time into it.

For April we played Golden Axe, with us all playing on a variety of platforms. I played on two and I’ll come to those in a moment.

My memories of Golden Axe are split into two seperate experiences and I don’t really know which is the earliest. The shortest tale is of being in the waiting area of Jersey Airport and seeing the arcade cab and having a play on it there, my lasting memory is of the skeletons, which suggests I got a decent way in (I’ve no idea how many coins I pumped into it, sorry) as they don’t appear until the latter half of the game, unless it was a different Golden Axe I was playing, I’ve not knowingly played Golden Axe 2 or 3 so can’t comment if the skeletons appear earlier in those games or not.

My other memory is of sleeping over at my older sisters, shes around ten years older than I am and would have us over at the weekends so my Dad could go out to the pub with friends after working all week (my parents split when I was young and initially my Mum and her boyfriend at the time were living with his brother so my younger sister and I couldn’t stay over). My sisters boyfriend had a Master System II, as did I although mine had Alex Kidd built in, his had Sonic the Hedgehog. Other than having Sonic the Hedgehog he also had a copy of Golden Axe, and whilst I don’t remember it intricately, I do remember sitting up on the end of the bed playing on it until my sister would come up and tell me to go to sleep. Poor sleeping habits and videogames are pretty much a pattern for me as you may discover in later #ThrowBackThursday posts.

Let’s come back to the present then. My initial choice to play Golden Axe was via the SEGA Mega Drive Collection (or SEGA Genesis Collection if you’re in the US) on my PSP. For such an old game it really does look lovely on the PSP-2000’s screen, the sprites and colours are crisp and sharp and not in the least blocky, which is probably due to the systems size, I doubt it’d look this good on a television without some poking. It plays well too, again, largely thanks to the system as the d-pad on this 2000 model is excellent (as I discussed in last weeks KOF94 post), and the more I played and the more I learned the better the experience. I didn’t know about the special moves the characters have, for example, nor the differences in the characters beyond the level of their magic usage. Even so, I found the PSP Mega Drive Collection rather difficult and despite playing it in fits and drabs for a month, would only ever get half way through the last stage at very best.

The other version I played was the version SEGA ported to the XBox 360’s XBLA platform, although I played on my XBox One S. Admittedly I ramped up the number of lives, etc to the maximum that version allows, and managed to complete it twice on one continue each. Coming back to the games visual appearance, knowing that it would be played on the a larger HD compatible TV, SEGA have redone the artwork for the sprites and they look kind of painted. I can understand why they’ve done it, I remember rightly, back when this was ported, there wasn’t much in the way of enjoyment of pixel based artwork and everything had to be up-ressed, now it just looks blurry and a bit crap. Still, it plays well, the controls don’t feel as tight as they do on the PSP, my ability to pull of special moves or dash attacks wasn’t as consistent on the XBox One controller as it was on the PSP, but its still a really enjoyable game that doesn’t ever really feel too unfair, unlike alot of arcade games of this vintage.