Sunday, 19 May 2013

SFC box art number 4: Super Valis IV

Full name: Sūpā Varisu Akaki Tsuki no Otome
Genre: Action
Developer: Telnet Japan
Publisher: Laser Soft
First released: 1992

We're now very much at the business end of the countdown, and into the realm of very special box art. I certainly hope the next few pieces don't disappoint!

The Valis games are very well known in PC-Engine and Mega Drive circles. Luscious anime visuals, solid hack and slash platforming and (in the PC-E games) fantastic cut-scenes, made this much loved series a darling of the import scene in the UK. But it wasn't until the fourth, and penultimate instalment of the saga that Telnet finally saw fit to give their sword wielding maiden a run out on the Super Famicom, in the form of Super Valis IV.

Although the SFC release is a port of the PC-Engine title, there are several notable differences between the two games. Gone are the elaborately animated cut-scenes, along with a couple of stages and the ability to use choose from three different characters. The developers did however add a stage exclusively designed for the SFC.

This is hands down, my favourite piece of anime styled box art on the Super Famicom. Although it could be accused of being slightly plain, I think that the simple design really helps to put the focus solely on the wonderfully drawn characters. This is the kind of stuff we were used to seeing on the front of the latest VHS from Manga Entertainment, and it's another game that I was smitten with from the minute I saw it.

I often cite Super Valis IV as a prime example of just how much of a difference there was between the box art of games released in Japan and those that made it to Europe and North America. If you're interested in just how different the two versions are, then you can view the US art at Gamespot.

A quick peek at: The Holy Trinity

As some of you may well have gathered (especially from my Terranigma love-in), I am a bit of fan of the so called Quintet Trilogy on the Super Nintendo and Super Famicom.

Though none of these games are directly related, there are a number of common themes and characters that connect them, and because of this they have come to be known as a trilogy. Sadly, as is often the case now with slightly obscure RPGs, they are classed as "rare" and so can command a hefty price.

I digress though, the point of this piece is not to bang on about how amazing these three are or how large a bank balance you need to buy them. This is about celebrating what Quintet gave the world through the wonderful box art. So, I'll shut up now and present to you The Quintet Trilogy, in full CIB and original Super Famicom guise...

Soul Blader 

First released in 1992 and given the name of Soul Blazer in North America and the PAL territories.

Gaia Gensōki

First released in 1993 and given the name of Illusion of Gaia in North America and Illusion of Time in the PAL territories.

Tenchi Sōzō

First released in 1995 and given the name of Terranigma in the PAL territories. This game was never released officially in North America.

I don't often see these three together, so I thought it was about time that was changed. And I hope you enjoyed a glimpse at what I consider to be the greatest RPG trilogy there has ever been.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

SFC box art number 5: Ganbare Goemon 2

Full name: Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu
Genre: Action
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
First released: 1993

To many video game aficionados, Konami's Goemon series is held in both high and loving regard. The eclectic mix of Japanese folklore and completely off the wall humour, wrapped up in extremely well designed games struck a real chord with those who looked to the east for their digital fix.

Ganbare Goemon 2 once again follows the escapades of title character Goemon, his brilliantly wacky sidekick; Ebisumaru and now robotic clockwork ninja; Sasuke as they attempt to halt the evil General Magginesu's plans of westernising Japan (textbook!). As you'd probably expect, all sorts of crazy shenanigans happen along the way, with a guest appearance from Sparkster and the giant robot Goemon Impact being amongst the highlights.

I never really know where to start with this's totally nuts! The stand out stuff for me has to be the towering figure of Impact in the background, the mischievous army of bunny men on the reverse of the box and of course, the awesome Ebisumaru, who always looks like he's about to get into to trouble.

This game (and its artwork) epitomises everything that I find fascinating about Japanese video games, and from the first time I saw it in a Super Play feature, I knew that it was one I'd need to own at some point. Just imagine how radical this looked to a 12 year old kid from just didn't see this sort of thing round my way! Even though it was sadly never officially translated, the absence of really heavy text means that you can get through it with little fuss and maximum enjoyment, and so I'd urge any fans of wacky, fantastic video games to hunt down a copy.

Go Goemon!

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Five minutes of fame: GD Leen

Gorgeous SFC box expected.
You probably wouldn't know by looking at it but Seta's GD Leen is a very important game. It has the distinctive honour of being the first RPG released for the Super Famicom, hitting Japanese shops in May 1991...a whopping six months after the system's initial release.

As you might expect from such an early title, it is a bit rough around the edges and lacks some of the sparkle and refinement of the later RPG juggernauts. Even so, this is a fantastic game with a lot going for it and given that it opened the door for some of the most memorable games of the 90s, I feel it is certainly deserving of some attention.

Based on the light novel of the same name, the game follows the story of Ryun, who ends up stranded on the planet of GD Leen after his space craft malfunctions. Whilst there he ends up becoming embroiled in the archetypal civil war and much generic RPG-ness unfolds.

Visually, the game draws much influence from the likes of Xak: The Art of Visual Stage, Lagoon and Neutopia, with the view point and indeed settings being quite similar. In-game cut-scenes are staggeringly pretty, especially for such an early release, with bold anime style characters and colourful environments.

The soundtrack is by far my favourite part of GD Leen and is absolutely tremendous. From the wonderfully melancholic title theme to the oddly upbeat Eules, there are a number of signature tunes which give an early indication of just what the SFC sound chip was capable of.

Battles arrive in the usual form of random, turn based bouts and are viewed in the first person...ala Phantasy Star, Lennus etc. On the whole they're fairly run of the mill affairs, with the exception of mid battle levelling up, which always comes in handy.

Given its rather illustrious position in the annuls of Super Famicom history, I find it a little sad that this game is so rarely mentioned or praised. It may well have been quickly eclipsed by bigger names such Dragon Quest V and The Glory of Heracles III but it is a solid and very enjoyable RPG experience. It also seems that other software houses took note of what developers Jorudan had come up with story-wise, because a certain Star Ocean 2 has remarkably complementary plot.

Unfortunately, as was customary during the 16bit era, GD Leen was never granted an official translation and subsequent western release. Although a US version was mooted and discussed at one point, it seems it was dropped shortly after. Currently the game is on the books of ROM hacking legend; Gideon Zhi and his team over at Aeon Genesis Translations, progress is only at 5% at the minute but I'm hopeful that it will see the light of day in English sooner rather than later.

One final note, I picked up my copy of GD from the fantastic Tsunami Video Games. If you're in the market for great value Super Famicom games then this shop is should definitely be on your hit list!

Friday, 10 May 2013

Gaming's great intros part IV: Wave Race 64

During the mid to late 90s, video game intro sequences had become big news, and it was unusual for any major release not to be accompanied by a flashy FMV/CG based movie. Nintendo's decision therefore, to persist with cartridges as opposed to shiny CDs as the preferred choice of storage medium meant that the newly released N64 needed to show the world that flashy intros were not just the preserve of the disc spinning Playstation and Saturn.

Enter Wave Race 64, with its outrageously uplifting (and not to mention cheesy) music, ridiculously accurate physics and the most impressive water effects of the entire generation...which actually look a lot better than much of the subsequent generation.

From the moment the camera first sweeps around the gloriously designed Dolphin Park (check out that lens flare!), you are left under no illusion that something truly special is unfolding. Watching the riders blast through the sparkling azure waters with squeaking dolphins in tow, gives some indication of just what the N64 could do in the right hands. The supreme attention to detail, coupled with those mind boggling physics and and huge grin factor made Wave Race 64 a real jewel in Nintendo's crown, elevating it above its main rival at the time; Jet Moto on the Playstation (which often felt strangely numb), and making it the premier jet ski game of the day (niche section, I know!).

Wave Race 64 remains to this day, one of the most feel good games I've ever had the privilege to play and own, and even now, just watching this intro makes me feel fantastic. It's also one of the few games that still has me almost slack jawed in awe at just how pretty and well designed it is. So with summer (supposedly) approaching fast, it's the perfect time to break out the Kawasaki jet skis and get racing!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

A decade too late? In defence of Astonishia Story

Astonishia Story is a RPG/SRPG developed by Korean company; Sonnori. It was initially released on the PC in 1994 and then in 2002 it was given a remake (also on PC), which was ported to the GP32 handheld and eventually Sony's PSP.

As I write this, I'm painfully aware that my opinion of the PSP port of Astonishia Story leaves me very much in the minority (possibly of one). Almost everywhere I've looked, this game has been ridiculed, derided, and often dismissed as useless, boring and even unfinished. I'm not so sure it deserves such harsh treatment though.

Adlehyde meets Gregminster?
Now although I do have a genuine affection for it I'm not one to ignore the facts, Astonishia Story has some pretty major faults to contend with. It has by far the most abysmal (and literal) translation I've ever come across in an officially released title (yes, even worse than Breath of Fire 2 and Paladin's Quest), it is littered with grammatical errors, the characters are also overly clichéd as is the story and when you place it up alongside the visuals in some of the PSP aristocracy, it looks like belongs in 1994 (because in essence, it does).

Add to that lot, a strangely severe imbalance between enemies which can see you skip through a few fights with relative ease, and then get nailed for no apparent reason, and it's not difficult to see why so few people give it the time of day.

Impressive if a bit generic character portraits.

Those aforementioned indiscretions aren't enough to dent my enthusiasm. This quirky and old fashioned Korean RPG has bucket loads of the 'X factor' that many of us crave in a video game, and as a result it holds a special place in my heart.

The 2D visuals, while looking somewhat dated are beautifully drawn and boast delightfully intricate animation, which actually isn't too far away from the level of Suikoden 2 and Wild Arms. In fact I'd probably say that graphically Astonishia is very reminiscent of RPGs from the peak of the 16bit era...only with an added flamboyance.

Each town and village is packed with the kind elaborate detail that borders on unnecessary, such as ticking clocks and birds flying overhead, and I know this doesn't sound overly impressive in 2013 but to me it's an indication of just how much the developers cared about the overall look and feel of the game. Though never mind blowing, the world map is also pretty and is somewhat reminiscent of Chrono Trigger, with the usual sprawling mountain ranges and and rolling hills. The characters, both lead and NPCs are well designed and each main star comes with their own beautifully styled portrait that pops up for conversations (again, very Suikoden). This adds a deal of personality to each scene...more indication of effort on Sonnori's part.

Random encounters have been given the boot.
Sonically there isn't much to blow the mind...and Chrono Cross, it certainly ain't. The typically pleasant and generic RPG tunes are present and accounted for, along with a few stand-out pieces to raise the bar at important moments in the story. All in all it does a good job of transporting you back to a simpler time.

Astonishia's Achilles heel is oft seen as its much maligned story. I can only comment on the English language translation and unfortunately it is dreadful. In fact I'm genuinely surprised Ubisoft chose to publish the game in this state, and I can only surmise their QR department was on holiday that week...or they just didn't care. Either way it's a real shame because there are numerous moments when I could see glimpses of an excellent story poking out from under the layers of dodgy spelling and lazy grammar. Anyone who's experienced Enix's botched translation of Lennus (into Paladin's Quest) will know what I mean here. And even though the game's ability to convey moments of emotion have been stunted, there are still both heart warming and heart wrenching scenes to be appreciated.

The battle system is probably this game's shining light and is both efficient and challenging. Those who have dabbled with the likes of Fire Emblem, FEDA or Langrisser will feel instantly at home with the grid based, strategic layout. Tactics play a significant part in each battle, to the extent that a couple of wrong moves can see your party get wiped out...which brings a stop the monotony often experienced with battles in many turn based RPGs

Can't beat a nice RPG grid!
All this geniality is nicely wrapped up in a glorious and typically over the top anime styled intro...complete with obligatory cheesy guitar work. Textbook brilliance if you like that sort of thing (I do).

So if you're the kind of person who has more than a passing interest in 90's RPGs, specifically the era of the SNES/SFC, Mega Drive and PC-Engine, and can put up with a few (substantial) foibles, then you should really consider giving this outcast some consideration. It has so many of the ingredients required to make a solid and enjoyable RPG and what's more, because it's so unpopular you can pick it up for next to nothing...result!

Astonishia Story did spawn a sequel of sorts, known in the west as Crimson Gem Saga. This game was actually translated properly and is a real leap forward in terms of graphics and sound. It is definitely worth checking out too.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Too weird for the west? Part 2: Shounen Ashibe

The cuteness knows no bounds...
Today sees me back on the trail of interesting Japanese games that never saw the light of day outside of their homeland, and also back again with a Super Famicom platform game.

Now if (for some reason) you've been searching for the cutest game ever, then you can probably rein in the hounds and call the hunt off right now, because Shounen Ashibe is going take some beating. Developed by Nova Games (the same studio responsible for the rather lovely Xandra's Big Adventure), it features a ridiculously cute seal cub named Syo as the main character, and his mission (I swear) is to wander around a theme park of sorts collecting chicks, apples and baby rabbits. Those of a Call of Duty disposition should probably grab a bucket at this point...

Yay for parallax scrolling!
Given that this game was one of the earlier Super Famicom releases (way back in 1992), it's genuinely impressive to find it full of neat graphical touches, the likes of which were often lacking in these smaller scale efforts. The levels, though a bit empty at times are especially pretty, and help show off a decent portion of the machine's potential, with swanky parallax backgrounds and vivid design. The main focus though is rightly on Syo, and the little seal dishes up a hat-full of adorable animations (along with squeaks), the best of which is surely when he hangs off a ledge waggling his flippers.

In between stages there are entertaining water based bonus levels to take part in, which help to keep things fresh. Though never particularly trying, they do add to the game's overall appeal and fun factor. There's also an RPG style over-world, (akin to Light Fantasy or Chaos Seed) where you can talk to people, progress the game and probably find out what's going on in the story...unfortunately I don't yet read Japanese so it makes no sense to me, looks nice though!

Far too happy given his current location...
Syo's adventure differs slightly from the common platform fare of 'reach the exit' by requiring the player to collect a certain number of items before the end of each level. this involves head-butting things to find said goods and at one point even heading basketballs into the open mouth of a hippo (so run of the mill, I know). Again, not revolutionary by any stretch but definitely a plus point.

Despite it’s overly cute appearance, Shounen Ashibe is a refreshingly deep and thoroughly enjoyable platform romp. It’s not exactly the last word in 2D hop and bob, but it is very easy to fall in love with ...that is if you can stomach all the cuteness. And this actually got me thinking, if there existed in 1992, the large amount of young female gamers that we see today, then this off-beat little gem may well have been granted passage out of Japan.

I do love a good over-world! 
Although it still saddens me that it took over 15 years to get my mitts on this game, it has definitely been a case of better late than never! And if like me, you simply can't resist the kawaii stuff then Shounen Ashibe is an absolute must...even if it is a bit tough to track down these days.

Shouldn't be funny but is...
If you enjoyed this post, then you might also enjoy Too weird for the west? Part 1: Gegege no Kitaro