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.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games (Nintendo DS)

Did you ever spend a few hours huddled round a PlayStation with a multitap and four controllers connected, wrists and fingers hurting as you, once again, tried to take the gold in the 100m sprint on Konami’s International Track & Field? I know I did many a time, and thats essentially what we have here, but on the DS.

This is the first time Mario and Sonic have both been in a product together, officially anyhow. but don’t let this sway you either way as theres nothing here to suggest that its anything other than a means to shift units. The game itself is pretty solid and fairly enjoyable, with it using pretty much every aspect of the DS within the confines of each event, for instance, the 100m sprint, unsurprisingly, has you scrubbing away at your touch screen like a madman, something I assume isn’t really all that healthy for the machine in the long run, the cycling has you hammering away at the shoulder buttons, whilst changing “lanes” to pick up stamina items with the d-pad, Table Tennis gets you to you the d-pad and face buttons and the long-jump incorporates some use of the microphone in order to get you to fill up an “inspiration” metre before taking your jump which seems to have some small effect on the overall distance of your jump.

Most of the games are pretty much by the numbers as you’d expect them, they’re certainly not pushing any boundaries, but some work better than others. The fencing, for instance, comes across as quite confusing and the touch screen controls feel very random as to ether you are successful at parrying or not. The rifle shooting happens to be my favourite of all of the events on offer (16 in total) as it happens to be both simple yet challenging.

The game offers three different modes for single player, Single Match, Circuit where you are given 3 or 4 different events to do and you have to be the overall winner on points after all the rounds are over, and Mission where you are required to do different things (such as using Shadow in the 100m Sprint and not letting Sonic pass you). This all amounts to there being much more to do for the single player than previous games in this genre, but its multiplayer where these games always stand out as being most fun, and MaSatOG is no different via playing 2 player single card play I had access to 6 events which were easy to play and enjoyable whilst still competitive, however, there is no WiFi play available on the game which seems to be a bit of an oversight on SEGA’s part.

Mario and Sonic at the Olympic games appears to be a well built game, that looks pretty good graphically for a DS game, although certainly not on par with Phantom Hourglass, and its perfect for a bit of light hearted multiplayer fun, but I really wouldn’t recommend playing it too often, if only for the sake of your touch screen.

bitparade, Gaming

bitparade: Makai Kingdom: Chronicles of the Sacred Tome (PlayStation 2)

Since it’s release Disgaea: Hour of Darkness has been a huge hit for the PlayStation 2, promoting Nippon Ichi Software to a much loved status within the gaming community and introducing an awful lot of gamers to the world of the Strategy Role Playing Game. A genre that’s a healthy blend of your Final Fanatsy-esque traditional RPG’s and strategy table-top/ boards games such as Chess.

Due to Disgaea’s success, Nippon Ichi saw fit to release its predecessor La Pucelle Tactics, and another SRPG title from their ranks, Phantom Brave, on these shores, and while both of these titles have a strong following; they’re not quite up to Disgaea’s standards. So with its latest release can Nippon Ichi step out of the shadow that Laharl, Etna and co have cast over its studios? Makai Kingdom is certainly going to try!

Nippon Ichi have stuck to their usual 2D sprites approach to the graphics giving the title a cartoonish approach, but allowing them much more freedom in showing emotion from the characters when telling the story. This brings about a quirkiness that will gain the developer many more fans, something that Capcom will know all about due to the success of its Street Fighter titles. Really it’s all about producing game mechanics that makes the title stand out, rather than just focusing on the graphics, something that many developers seem to forget, and Nippon Ichi appear to have this down to a fine art.

And it’s these game play mechanics that have taken the most radical change, albeit not a huge step from what the developer as already established in previous titles. In terms of its playing style, Makai Kingdom has more in common with Disgaea’s successor, Phantom Brave in that you have “free movement”. Basically instead of being forced to play on a grid-based landscape, you now get a ring appear around your character that shows the area that your character can move in, then once you select attack and how you want to attack, another ring appears to show you the range for it. This range of movement and attack can vary depending on your location on the map, which can make battles seem random and difficult to plan. This isn’t to say that the systems don’t work, as it does, very well in fact, and if anything it makes the title more accessible to newcomers than Disgaea ever did. Which can be no bad thing to Nippon Ichi although it might upset a few fans of that title.

And now not only can you bring your characters into the battlefield, but you can also “invite” the buildings that appear in your Netherworld carrying extra times and featuring ability aids to help you become all the more successful in battle. The ability aids are similar to the ability/status effects seen ion titles such as the Final Fantasy series, things like your health points being cured by a percentage every few moves and such. Using the buildings can also help you introduce vehicles such as buggies and mech-suits giving you extra movement options or more power in attack or defence in order to help you put together a successful battle strategy.

But with this amount of depth in mind, Makai Kingdom is incredibly easy to get into, especially compared to slower titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics Advance on Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance. It’s this accessibility that has gained Nippon Ichi so many fans worldwide since its PlayStation days. Even though previous titles have introduced numerous ways of altering the outcome of battles such as Disgaea’s Geo’s and the Item World. Makai Kingdom also brings something new to the table here, but it’s not a case of altering the battles, but more a case of extending them. For every hit you deal out to the enemy, you earn points, and these points go towards a total, once you reach a set amount, which is different depending on the map, you are asked if you want to finish the battle and be successful or carry on to earn more experience points or find rare weapons (you’ll probably need a thief for that) at the risk of possibly failing the mission.

On the subject of leveling up, those of you who are veterans of Nippon Ichi’s previous titles will be used to being able to level your characters up to ridiculous heights such as 9,999. But again, Makai Kingdom makes a change here, again making it more accessible to newcomers by reducing this number to a still very high 2,000. Even though it is possible to complete the game with your character levels in double figures. This isn’t to say the game tires quicker than anything else the studio has developed, with the opportunity to play any story battle as many times as you like and also the ability to use any Mana you earn to purchase new dungeons to fight in.

Makai Kingdom is an incredible achievement from Nippon Ichi, not only will fans of their previous work enjoy it, but it’s the perfect starting place for anyone who has the slightest interest in the genre but doesn’t know where to start. Although the game doesn’t quite shift Laharl et al out of the spotlight, it does give the audience of the show yet more content to rave about.

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.