Thursday, 4 October 2012

Ding Dong...who’s there?!

A blue cat and the Hudson logo...happy days!

This week on FRG there was a bit of a cartoon theme in the air. Now we all know cartoons are awesome and are still the by far the greatest thing on television (after your games console of course), so this week’s batch of reviews were all to be of NES and Famicom games with cartoon origins. Obviously my immediate thoughts were: Duck Tales or Chip 'n Dale...job done right?! Wrong! I realised that my rather clever reviewer chums might have similar ideas, and that this would call for some outside the box (and indeed outside the country) thinking. So after a little deliberation I decided to go down the anime path and arrived at the slightly wacky but quite loveable Doraemon on the Famicom.

For those who aren’t familiar with this little Japanese icon; Doraemon is a robotic blue cat that travels back in time from the 22nd century to help out young children (as you do). Created in the late 60’s by the Fujiko Fujio partnership, his cute appearance was used to help educate the (young) audience on the importance of strong moral values such as honesty, courage and respect for the environment.

This particular title is one of the earliest Doraemon video games and was developed by (the now sadly defunct) Hudson Soft in 1986. The objective is to rescue Doraemon’s kidnapped friends who are being held captive by some baddies...I guess. This is achieved by besting the game’s three distinctly different sections, each of which was apparently designed by a different person. This somewhat clever concept makes for some very interesting contrasts in gameplay and adds a respectable slice of variety to the overall game.
Oh by the by, for anyone curious about the title of the review; Ding Dong is the name Doraemon goes by in China!

...erm...the title screen...sorry
Visuals – 7/ 10


Though never likely to challenge graphical juggernauts like Kirby’s Adventure and Little Sampson, Hudson did a thoroughly decent job with Doraemon’s graphics. The sprites are clear and well drawn and although some of the backgrounds do look a tad dull at times, the robotic feline hero and the slew of bad guys stand are a cute sight to look upon.

Each chapter opens with a bizarre (and quite possibly drug inspired!) scene...it kind of reminds me of a pinker version of the Twilight Zone or something, anyways...it has to be seen to be believed. There are lots of wonderfully neat touches scattered through the various levels, such as Doraemon’s expression...he looks really sad(!), this attention to detail helps the game to stand out amongst the hordes of other mascot driven titles in the Famicom universe.

 There are also some rather pleasing (if very blatant) “homages” shall we call them, to some of the video game world’s more famous citizens: the turtles in the water level look suspiciously similar to the henchmen of a certain Bowser and I’m sure that I’ve seen that big octopus skulking about in Miracle World before! Anyways, it all looks attractive enough and is wrapped up in that oft seen Famicom glow, which we all love so dearly.

The Twilight Zone...Famicom Style!
Sound – 8 / 10

Portions of the soundtrack will be comfortingly familiar to anyone who has seen the Doraemon cartoons, and it is lovingly presented in beautiful 8bit midi. The joviality of some of the audio fits in well with the game’s main character as well as its colourful appearance.

The background music really is one of my favourite aspects of this game, and it has an almost Taito like quality to it. The tunes bury their way into your head so that hours after you finish playing you’re still humming away...I found myself doing this when I was brushing my teeth at night! Doraemon is another shining example of just how addictive and important video game music can be when done well.

Doraemon's face... hilarity!
Playability – 7 / 10

While Doraemon does not boast any revolutionary gameplay (and in truth, borrows quite heavily from other Famicom titles!), what it does have is solid, and well structured. As previously mentioned, the game is split into three chapters, each of which boasts a different style of play.

Chapter one plays a little bit like The Legend of Zelda; using a top down view with an adventure feel to it, there are also some 2D platform mini dungeons (makes me wonder if Nintendo where watching when planning Link’s Awakening). This part of the game is pretty standard fair, but is possibly the most arduous as you have no real idea of where to go!

Chapter two heads down the SHMUP route and plays in a fashion akin to Gradius, and R-Type with a little bit of vertical 1943 action chucked in for good measure. For my money, this was the most appealing part of the entire game, and my favourite part is the way Doraemon flies using a little helicopter blade on his head...hilarious stuff.

Chapter 3 takes place underwater and again borrows significantly from the Mushroom Kingdom’s finest. This is probably the nicest looking segment of the game and makes quality use of the Famicom’s capabilities.
Each level is ended by taking on and defeating the obligatory end of level boss, again this is standard pattern recognition stuff...just with the difficulty ramped up a level...or 10!

SHMUP-tastic!
Longevity – 7 / 10

Doraemon is a classic example of the kind of game that appears to be cutesy and easy but then actually turns out to be a complete ball breaker to finish! The fact that you are given no steer at all on where you need to go or what you need to pick up makes for a lot of trial and error...not to mention dying. There is also a touch of Zelda about it in the way that once you are out of range; all enemies will re-appear...this certainly can make things interesting and although it can become a touch tiring, it’s not enough to spoil the game. In fact the challenge kept me coming back for more; the seemingly random exits and power-ups hark back to the days before gamers were told where to go at every turn.

While I was doing a bit of research on Doraemon I stumbled across a YouTube video of someone speed-running the entire game...it took him just 12 minutes and 59 seconds. At first I was disappointed that the game could be despatched so easily, but after watching it a few times it seems the person is either (freakishly) fantastic at the game or uses some sort of ├╝ber cheat code to get through it unscathed...either way don’t let it fool you, this game is far from easy. It won’t last weeks but provides a more than adequate challenge.

Platform fun is not forgotten here...
Overall

I’ll come clean now; I’m a complete sucker for games based on anime or manga so I was probably always going to like this one. But even if you’re not a fan or haven’t heard of Doraemon there’s still plenty to like about the game, it’s challenging, well made and fun. And while it comes nowhere near to toppling the titles it “borrows” ideas from, there’s enough variation there to keep most gamers satisfied. Weirdly the game did receive a fan translation but to be honest there’s so little text present that you could easily plough through the original Japanese version with no problems.

Oh...and like I said, Doraemon is a blue robotic cat from the 22nd century. You can’t argue with that now can you!

Score

Score 7 out of 10

The SNES Knight Rises

Greetings friends! I've recently been moonlighting on another site writing the odd review. In a scandalous turn of events I've decided that I'm going to dual publish everything I review, so without further ado (ah, a rhyme!)...
The prelude to awesome...
I know I know...more Batman!

It does seem like the guy is absolutely everywhere at the moment. However the current hyperbole surrounding the Caped Crusader does give me the perfect excuse to talk a bit about one of his most highly regarded forays into the video game world: Batman Returns on the Super Nintendo.

Developed by the magicians at Konami back in 1992/93, Batman Returns is essentially a scrolling beat-em-up based on the movie of the same name...think Final Fight but with Keaton, Pfeiffer and DeVito replacing Cody, Hagger and Guy! The story goes something like this: maniacal business tycoon Max Shreck has formed an unholy alliance with The Penguin and Catwoman, together the three plan to bring Gotham to its knees (just for a change). As the heroic Dark Knight, you have to punch, kick and swing your way through a menagerie of baddies on the snowy streets to save the day. As it is commonly known, movie/game tie-ins are notorious for being, well...a bit cack really, but thankfully Konami bucked the trend here in a big way.

Konami + Super Power = amazement
Visuals – 9/10

As with the majority of Konami’s SNES offerings, the graphics on show are nothing short of divine. The game opens with a quite stunning intro sequence that shows off some swanky digitised stills from the film, amazingly Michelle Pfeiffer manages to look enticing even when displayed in 16bit!

The in-game sprites (both major and minor characters) have a chunky and well designed look about them. The entire game is fantastically animated and manages to move with a fluidity that is quite astounding given that it was one of the earlier titles to be released on the SNES. There is also some decent use of parallax scrolling within the levels, coupled with lush backgrounds and lighting effects (check out the Christmas tree for instance) to really turn heads.

The baddies are refreshingly original if a bit weird in places (giant skulls riding motorbikes anyone?), the mixture of clowns, jugglers and American Indians (nope, I have no idea either) makes a nice change from the stock street punks seen in the likes of Double Dragon and Undercover Cops. The end of level bosses; Catwoman in particular are sights to behold, and I actually found myself a couple of lives down from admiring them too much.

Parents queueing outside Toys r Us?!
Sound – 8/10

In the world of the scrolling beat-em-up, soundtracks are often left dripping in uninspiring or horribly cheesy background music. Happily Batman Returns brings to the table an epic rendition of Danny Elfman’s original movie score which not only belies the age of the game, but brings with it a real sense of that comic book atmosphere and this fits in perfectly with the gritty charm of Christmas in Gotham. Fans of the movie will instantly recognise signature melodies, and Konami’s use of the SNES’ quality sound chip set up is impressive to say the least.

The game is heavily loaded with some very satisfying sound effects; there are lots of hefty sounding thuds and cracks to let you know that bones are being crunched and heads are being cracked, these effects add a great deal to the game and are genuinely (and perhaps worryingly) realistic!

Or more likely squeal, as you punch her face in!
Playability 9/10

This where Konami really have pulled out the stops, Batman Returns plays like a dream. The brawling is right out of the top drawer and even gives the mighty Streets of Rage II a run for its money. Along with regular punches and kicks, the Dark Knight can also play a bit dirty by grabbing two enemies and cracking their heads together (rewarding) or even by throwing them at the wall or through windows...which is a wonderful touch (and immensely rewarding!).

The mandatory energy sapping special attack is also present and correct; a nice looking swing of the cape will take out all nearby enemies when things get a bit lairy. And of course, this being Batman there are a few elaborate gadgets to be called upon: the batarang, which stuns the crims for a couple of seconds allowing you to get the drop on them, and the batrope, which is ace for getting out of tight (and sometimes on fire!) spots. The last of these toys are the ‘test tubes’, loosing one of these bad boys unleashes a smart bomb effect and obliterates everything (normal) on screen...he’s nothing if not tooled up.

The two bones of contention I have with the gameplay are the slightly cheap boss fights, which can take up a good deal of your ‘test tubes’ and lives without you making much of a dent in their health bars, and the Batmobile section. It’s not that it’s terrible, the roads of Gotham look acceptable and the whole thing moves along at an ample pace, but it does just lack the polish that rest of the game displays so readily...to be honest, it’s a relief when it’s over and you get back to stoving heads in!

Insert Batfink joke here...
Longevity – 8/10

Unlike many scrolling beat-em-ups of the day, Batman Returns is actually pretty tough to beat, and should keep most players busy for a while...especially if you play it on the ‘mania’ setting which is completely mental! The boss fights alone can easily cost you a few lives, and while they can be a bit cheap, it’s nothing that’ll drive you to smashing the controller. The pick up and play appeal of this kind of game give serious relay value and I found myself playing it right the way through a couple of times.

The only thing that does slightly hamper the life of the game is the lack of two player mode. I know this is a bit harsh because the source material doesn’t really allow for one, but as any brawler fan can attest, stalking the streets and dishing out vigilante style justice is always more fun with a friend.

Christmas cheer...Gotham style
Overall

The bottom line is that Batman Returns is an absolute gem of a video game. For my money it is the best example of the scrolling beat-em-up genre on the SNES (outside of Japan at any rate), and probably the best Batman game I’ve ever played. It boasts glorious graphics, a wonderful soundtrack and has the charm and panache to rival even some of Nintendo’s own first party offerings. For anyone who is bored of Final Fight and Rival Turf or just wants a better SNES alternative to the Streets of Rage series then Batman Returns could and probably should be the game for you.

With this title Konami showed early on that their reputation as one of the Super Nintendo’s top developers was very much justified. And although a myriad of alternative ports of the game were released on a variety of other formats (Mega Drive, Amiga NES etc), it is the SNES title that remains the seminal instalment, and as such it would make a worthy addition to any retro collection.

Score

8.5 out of 10