16/04/2018

A LIGHT INSIDE

I know I’ve been away for a little while. I needed a break from writing about games, just to recharge the ol’ mental batteries. But it’s mid-April now, so I had to come back because today is VGJunk’s eighth anniversary! I can’t believe it’s getting so close to being a full decade. Anyway, long-time readers will know that I usually celebrate the anniversary by writing about a game I really like, because it’s my actual birthday tomorrow and I deserve a treat. However, this year is different. This year, I made a visual novel!


While I was having a break I wanted to try something different, so I spent a week or so faffing about with the visual novel creator Renpy. The result is A Light Inside, a short spooky (but not too horrifying) story that you can download for free here:

Download A Light Inside – Google Drive / Mediafire

I wasn’t able to do much testing (especially on the Mac version) but I tried it on few Windows computers and it all worked fine; just download, unzip and go. Normal disclaimers in this kind of situation apply, of course.


The main goal for me was to get past the fact that I have very (very) limited artistic or musical talent – my attempt at breaking through that feeling that everything has been done before, and better, by people more talented than I. Sometimes just getting something done is enough, you know? Plus there’s the fun of learning a new system, and I did have fun. I enjoyed limiting myself to the ZX Spectrum colour palette (with a couple of cheats) and creating some simple music, so who knows? Maybe I’ll go back and make something more fully-fledged later on.


If you give A Light Inside a try, I hope you enjoy it. It should only take about fifteen minutes to get through, and if you spot any problems with it feel free to let me know. Even if you don’t try it, thanks for visiting VGJunk. It’s been a weird year, but writing about old videogames is definitely something that helps keep me sane, and I’ll be getting back to it soon enough. And hey, now the ten-year anniversary is visible on the horizon. I really hope I get there. Thanks, as always, for reading.

29/03/2018

GHOST & BOOSTER (ZX SPECTRUM)

Today I’m going to fire up the ol’ ZX Spectrum and attempt to answer that age-old question: does boostin’ make me feel good? Let’s find out with the 1987 Spectrum spook-em-up Ghost & Booster!


I usually begin each article by showing you the title screen of the game in question, but Ghost & Booster doesn’t have a title screen. That’s because it appeared on the cover tape of an Italian Spectrum magazine called Load’n’Run. The September 1987 issue, to be precise, its cover adorned by a pair of magnificent dragons squaring up to each other like two drunken club-goers during an “are you looking at my girlfriend?” moment. Leave him, Smaug, he’s not worth it.
You can see Ghost & Booster listed at the bottom of the cover, amongst other such fascinating names as Thunderland and Kill Firer. With so many games crammed onto one cover tape, you’d be right to assume that Ghost & Booster isn’t the most involved game ever coded. But who’s Booster, and what have they got to do with ghosts?


Surprise, Ghost & Booster is a Ghostbusters knock-off. What do you mean you’re not surprised? Okay, fine, so it’s not the most well-disguised title, especially if you say “Ghost and Booster” out loud. I guess “Ghostbusterz,” “Ghostbashers” and “Ghostbotherers” were already taken.
Anyway, the game begins with Ghost & Booster’s van. I have concocted an elaborate backstory explaining that this is an Italian franchise of the original Ghostbusters, and they’ve had to replace Ecto-1 with a smaller micro-van that’s more suitable for nipping through the tightly-woven streets of Rome. Perhaps it’s a Goggomobil. Did I mention this purely because “Goggomobil” is an outrageously fun word to say aloud? Yes, yes I did.
The Boostermobile trundles along the moonlit road, past the haunted “tree” (a generous description of whatever that red polyp-looking thing is) and towards some modest chalets. You do not control the Boostermobile. It drives from left to right on its own…


...until it stops and the message “PREPARATI!!” appears at the bottom of the screen. Now, I’m about as fluent in Italian as I am in ancient Sumerian but I’m pretty sure that means “get ready.” So, take the game’s advice and prepare yourself for raw, unflinching horror.


Well, I don’t know about you but I’ve been chilled to my very core. It’s a vampire… bat? I guess? A vampire who grew tired of rigmarole of transforming all the way between humanoid and bat form, so decided to split the difference and become a flying vampire head. The vampire is also ahead (pun most certainly intended) of the fashion game, sporting as he does a trendy undercut hairstyle. Unfortunately I spent so long admiring this vampire that I suddenly lost a life.


Then the same vampire reappeared, this time with less bat-wings and now wearing a barber’s cape. His fashionable hairdo takes quite a lot of maintaining, it seems.
At this point, I figured out what Ghost & Booster’s gameplay entails. It’s a reaction test, basically. A monster appears, and you have to quickly react by selecting the appropriate weapon with which to defeat them. That’s what the icons on the left represent. There’s a crucifix at the bottom and that classic ghost-busting tool A Ruddy Great Kitchen Knife in the middle, but I was at a bit of a loss as to what the icon at the top was supposed to represent. A handful of paracetamol? Pez candies? An extreme close-up of some rice? None of those thing seem like they’d be helpful in dispatching a spectre, but then neither does a knife.
In the case of the vampires, it’s obvious that you need to use the crucifix (although I’ve played enough Castlevania to know that throwing knives at vampires can work) but the problem was I didn’t know how to use the crucifix. I couldn’t get a joystick to work and trying each individual key on the keyboard was a level of effort that Ghost & Booster does not warrant, so I went looking for a copy of September 1987’s Load’n’Run magazine.


To my surprise, I managed to find one. It taught me a few things about Ghost & Booster. It was programmed by one Gb. Aicardi, and sometimes it’s called Ghost & Boosters, plural. More importantly, I learned that the controls are E, S and Z for up, left and down respectively. I even learned that the top icon is supposed to be silver bullets, because they’re mentioned in the magazine as “proiettili d’argento” and I’ve spent enough time playing as the Kingdom of Italy in Battlefield 1 to know that proiettili means “bullet.”


Having figured out a) what the game wants me to do and b) how to do it, I managed to clear the first set of five or so monsters that popped up by selecting the right tool to defeat them. Then the Boostermobile trundled along a little further, moving on to the next screen before another set of monsters attacked. That’s the entire game. React to the monsters, move forward, repeat. It’s not just vampires and vampire heads standing in your way, however.


You’ll be attacked by a hideous green lizard-genie hybrid sometimes. Its weakness? Bullets. If they’re silver bullets, does that mean this thing’s supposed to be a werewolf? I hope so, because then I can imagine a much more interesting version of the Twilight movies where this thing makes googly eyes at Kristen Stewart.


Or how about this chap, who appears to be the ghost of a turd struggling to escape from a heavily-shoulderpadded eighties power suit? He looks familiar, and my first thought was that he was a ghost from the Real Ghostbusters cartoon but I can’t seem to find any hard evidence of that. Forgive me, but it’s not like I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Ghostbusters cartoon, which is strange because I spent around seventy-five percent of my childhood watching the Ghostbusters cartoon. The other twenty-five percent was playing with Ghostbusters toys and being bitter that I never had the firehouse playset.
This ghost is vulnerable to the knife. Somehow. The Ghostbusters could have avoided a lot of trouble with the Environmental Protection Agency if they’d stuck to carrying guns and knives rather than unlicensed nuclear accelerators.


Lastly, there’s this familiar face. It’s the ghost from the Ghostbusters logo, free from its confinement and ready to wreak havoc on the land of the living! What tool can I use to send it to an eternal rest? None of them seem very practical. Using the silver bullets seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen if anyone happens to be standing behind the ghost, the knife would surely pass straight through it and I don’t think the ghost is religious enough for the crucifix to have any effect. Fine, I’ll try the knife.


Oh no, it was a trick! Attacking this ghost causes you to lose a life, with this message appearing - “You don’t have to kill the little ghost” is how I’d translate it. There’s a lot to unpack here. Firstly, “fantasmino” is a wonderful word that I’m going to try to use more often. Secondly, I know I don’t have to kill the ghost. It’s already dead. It’s a ghost. Thirdly, it’s very strange that they chose this specific ghost to be the one you don’t harm, because the Ghostbusters’ logo is very clear that this ghost in particular should be dealt with, and it’s not like I have any way to imprison the bloody thing. So, what you do is you ignore this ghost whenever it pops up. It’s a red herring, you should let the little fantasmino live. Okay, not live, but continue to exist even if it is intent on committing suicide by Ghostbuster.


To reiterate, that’s the entire game. Every time you clear a round of ghost attacks, the next set gives you less time to press the correct key before you lose a life. By the time you reach the third screen, the ghosts attack so quickly that you don’t have time to react so you’re reduced to guessing which monster is coming up next, and I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to fantasmino for all the times I accidentally shot it.


With much scumming of save-states I managed to get about five screens in, but the backgrounds had started repeating and nothing new was happening so I feel confident in saying I’ve explored Ghost & Booster to its deepest depths. Those depths might barely lap around my ankles, but I had fun all the same, because spooky ZX Spectrum graphics, misshapen monsters and blatant copyright infringements are all things I enjoy spending time with. I couldn’t call it a good game because it’s hardly a game at all, but a fun little thing to mess around with for ten minutes? Absolutely. For added enjoyment, listen to the theme from the official ZX Spectrum Ghostbusters game at the same time. You won’t regret it, unless the maniacal voice sample at the beginning creeps into your nightmares. I admit that is a possibility.

26/03/2018

SUNMAN (NES)

Last time out I wrote about Hangzo, a ninja-based arcade hack-n-slasher that was never actually released, despite being both 99.9% finished and surprisingly good fun to play. In what might turn out to be a foolish attempt at luck-pushing, I’ve decided to once again return to the mysterious world of unreleased videogames in the hope of finding more buried treasure. This time it’s the turn of the NES, with Sunsoft’s Sunman!


That’s a rather familiar-looking logo, hmm? But forget that for the moment and enjoy the use of double exclamation marks on the “press start” message, because it’s kinda sweet. Sunsoft are really excited for you to start playing Sunman! Oh hey, Sunsoft, Sunman - maybe in another universe Sunman is Sunsoft’s corporate mascot, appearing as a hidden character in all those famous Sunsoft games like Waku Waku 7 and Hebereke’s Popoon.


The large green head of the game’s villain hovers above the Earth. Metaphorically hovers, by the way, you don’t have to travel into space to shoot a planet-sized cyborg’s head. Disappointing, I know. Seeing this image, I was convinced that the villain would be named Doctor Thingy or Professor Whatsit, some kind of name that implied the bad guy was terribly proud of his academic achievements, but no. His name is Specter.


And this is Sunman himself, resplendent in a costume that’s all red, all the time. You know, just like the sun. Could have done with a couple of accent colours on there, buddy, although I realise it’s difficult to base a superhero costume on the colours of the sun without looking like a minor McDonaldland character.


Here we see Sunman’s alter-ego - let’s call him Kent Clark – rushing into danger as Megaro City comes under attack the evil forces of Specter. “Defeat all enemies” is the order, but that’s nonsense because it’s much easier and more practical to avoid all the enemies and dash for the end of the stage. Perhaps they’ll feel defeated when the hero ignores them entirely before destroying their evil organisation’s power structure.
As an aside, I’ve been surfing the web for many years now and I’ve visited many… interesting websites, so I hope that explains why I saw Kent Clark as wearing a jumpsuit that’s unzipped to the navel and immediately thought “yaranaika.”


“Help!” screams some poor civilian – or perhaps it’s a metaphor for the city itself crying out for justice, justice that only Sunman can dish out. Sunman delivers justice by punching things, mostly. He was never going to rid the city of crime through programs aimed at reducing the socio-economic factors that drive people to crime in the first place, was he?


First up on the punching block these lesser Specter minions, flappy bat-winged types that have guns but aren’t that keen on actually firing them for whatever reason. It’s not like Sunman is bulletproof. Anyway, what we’ve got here is a fairly straightforward NES action game. Get from one end of the stage to the other while clearing out the bad guys, or avoiding them entirely, whichever is more practical at the time. You’ve got one button to jump and one button to “attack,” which at the moment makes Sunman throw out a punch. Punching gets the job done but it’s hardly the most exciting superpower, so does Sunman have any other special skills?


Well, he can fly. I suppose that’s a super power. Either press jump twice or simply hold up on the d-pad and Sunman will take to the skies, moving wherever you want him to with the merest manipulation of the controller. He can even hover in place like an oversized hummingbird, except he’s got fists instead of a specially-adapted prehensile tongue and he dips those fists into crime rather than nectar-filled flowers. He’s not much like a hummingbird at all, now I think about it. But Sunman can hover, and fly, a superpower that makes this first area extremely easy because you can just fly past all the enemies as they only offer the most token level of resistance.


Area two of the first stage is much less relaxed, with lots of potential death-traps such as crushing spiked pillars and electric barriers. Don’t worry, though: you can take your time and carefully pick your way through the danger. There’s no time limit and very few enemies to hurry you along, so take it as slowly as you need to. This is good advice for any of Sunman’s stages where taking a more leisurely approach is a viable option, because you’ll need to work as hard as you can to preserve your health bar. It’s not just that the game has some rather difficult sections (and it definitely does) but that there are no power-ups in this game at all. Your health is refilled whenever you beat a boss, but apart from that there’s no way to regain lost hit points because there are no health pick-ups, as well as there being no power-ups for the things you might expect to see in an NES action game like special attacks or temporary invulnerability.


Now we’re really flying, heading to the top of this skyscraper while Specter’s agents harry and harass our hero. The villains aren’t very threatening, are they? I think it’s those wings, it’s as though they were all ready to fight Sunman but hadn’t realised that he could fly, so they’ve had to hastily assemble crude canvas bat-wings.


The last section of this first stage is, or course, a boss battle. Sunman fights against a helicopter. The chopper attacks with a spread-shot from the front and homing missiles from the back, and it’ll also try to ram Sunman as it moves from one side of the screen to the other. Position yourself in the gaps between the spread shots and destroy the homing missiles, and when you get the chance you can attack the helicopter by firing your laser eye-beams at it. Okay, okay, let’s address the elephant in the room: Sunman sure seems a lot like Superman, huh?


That’s because he is Superman. There are even earlier prototype versions of the game which reveal that yep, Sunman was originally intended to be a licensed Superman game, with a playable Man of Steel and John Williams’ famous Superman movie theme playing as the in-game music. For whatever reason, the Superman license was very lightly painted over with the new Sunman character. Maybe that’s why Sunman never saw an official release: Sunsoft’s attempts to convince people that this is a Totally Original Character We Swear were patently unsuccessful, so perhaps they were worried about DC Comic’s lawyers getting involved.
Personally I think the switch from Superman to Sunman works in the game’s favour, because it eliminates the Superman Paradox. The invulnerable, incredibly powerful Superman – a character well know for being immune to bullets – can be brought down by a few shots from a hired goon wearing home-made bat-wings? Hard to swallow. But Sunman? We don’t know jack about Sunman. Sure, he can fly and punch hard, but that doesn’t mean he can catch bullets in his teeth. He could be an alien from another planet with a deadly weakness to a certain element, but unlike Superman and kryptonite he’s allergic to lead. Helps to keep Sunman that bit more relatable, you know?


Back to Sunman, and after clearing the first stage we get a shot of our hero in a dramatic pose. Yes, he’s definitely looking “grate,” and I’m enjoying the sheer cheek of giving a Superman clone a big letter S on the chest of his costume. On his planet, it means “the licensing deal fell through.”


Stage two is the Grand Canyon, and Specter has hidden a missile base at one of the United States’ most visited tourist attractions so clearly he’s just doing all this for attention. It begins with another flying section, only now Sunman’s eye-beams are gone and he can only punch the enemies. This reliance on punching is perhaps the biggest problem with Sunman’s core combat, because he’s kinda the short arm of the law and it can be difficult to get close enough to the enemies to hit them without taking damage yourself. A bit of extra range would have gone a long way towards making the fights more enjoyable; something as simple as giving Sunman’s fists a glow of solar power to increase their size by a few pixels would have gone a long way.


The bulk of the stage takes place in these crystal caves. The mineral pillars move up and down to crush our hero, and there are stone walls that need to be punched through along with the usual slew of villains to batter. A lot of the fighting in this game is either against flying enemies or in segments where everyone is flying, and again the punching combat suffers. What Sunman needs is a way to attack upwards, because that’s where ninety percent of the enemies attack from. An uppercut performable on command would, again, make the combat much smoother and more entertaining. Instead you spend a lot of time trying to get Sunman on the right horizontal plain and it can be kinda awkward and fiddly.


Also a bit awkward is this section where Sunman drills into the floor by spinning around really fast. It’s not awkward to control because you just mash the buttons as fast you you can, but Sunman sure looks awkward as he pirouettes on the spot. You wouldn’t see Batman making a fool of himself like this. Hang on, if Sunman is Superman then I wonder what this universe’s version of Batman is called? Moonman? No, that sounds a bit too hippyish for Batman. Darkman? Nope, already taken. Moonbat? Yeah, sounds good, let’s go with that, although I haven’t been keeping up with Pokemon so I’ve got the nagging feeling that might be one of the newer pocket monsters.


The boss battle is against the missile. It took me a while to figure out that the missile itself was my target, because there are four little scuttlin’ robots along the walls of the arena that move up and down shooting lasers at you. You can destroy the robots but they just keep coming back: it turns out the real goal is to punch each individual segment of the rocket until it’s completely crumpled up. Now, I’m well aware that all long range missiles are fitted with safety mechanisms that prevent them from detonating unless they’re specifically intended to explode at that moment, but it still feels like punching an ICBM with my super-fists going to end up doing Specter’s work for him.


Stage three, and all aboard the Rocky Mountain Railroad as Sunman attempts to stop the runaway train. This is another stage that hews quite close to the usual “NES platformer” school of design, albeit with Sunman’s powers of flight making it play somewhat differently. The most dangerous obstacles here are the girders that hang down from the tunnels’ ceilings. If you don’t duck under them in time, they’ll slam into Sunman and cost him a lot of health.


Once you’re out of the tunnels, however, you can bid the minions of Specter a hearty farewell and fuck you by simply flying right over their heads, their feeble grunt brains too slow to keep up with Sunman as he moves at a brisk walking pace six inches above their heads.


I guess Sunman didn’t inherit Superman’s whole “faster than a speeding bullet” shtick, what with having to walk across the whole train in order to stop it, but is he more powerful than a locomotive? Yes, he is, but that’s not the issue here – the real question is whether you have the iron fingers required to hammers the buttons fast enough. I’d consider myself fairly good at mashing buttons, because I play more old videogames than most people, but this section felt especially rough on the old digits. Perhaps there’s a rhythm to it that I just wasn’t getting into. “Problems with rhythm” would definitely be a problem I’d expect to have.


Moving on to the next stage, and Sunman has infiltrated Specter’s aircraft carrier. There’s not much new to say about this area. Fly a bit, punch a lot. But what’s this? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the difficulty level, which has rocketed into the stratosphere. The stage is difficult because there are more enemies about and the ship’s deck being at the mid-level of the screen means the action is more compressed and you have less room to manoeuvre, but the real pain-cherry top this sadism cake are the jump-kicking enemies pictured above. They move very quickly, rolled up in a ball until they fly towards Sunman with their deadly legs extended, bouncing unpredictably around the screen and usually coming in pairs. This is where I really wished there was a way to attack upwards, but no: somehow these guys are stronger and faster than Off-Brand Superman and they kept kicking my arse so thoroughly that the game went from “enjoyable romp” to “deeply frustrating” in about three screens.


To finish off the stage, Sunman must chase down an escaping speedboat and blast it out of the water with his laser vision. Somehow the speedboat is more heavily armed than the battleship. There are a lot of bullets packed into that thing, and then there’s the fact it can sometimes turn invisible to deal with. Okay, fine, so the invisibility isn’t a genuine feature of the boat, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.


The problem is that this area has a very intense parallax scrolling effect on the sea and the sky. The parallax looks great. I don’t have any complaints about the background. However, the strain on the NES hardware results in so much sprite flickering that you’d be justified in describing it as “sprite vanishing.” Good luck spotting the boat in the screenshot above. Fortunately the boat is always in front of Sunman, so if you just keep firing and dodging the projectiles you’ll hit it enough times to win eventually. I hope the glory of your triumph makes up for the new involuntary spasms you’ve developed in your ocular muscles.


The final stage is Specter’s hideout, as you might expect. It begins with another fly-n-punch section that isn’t all that interesting, before moving into the mechanical deathtrap zone pictured above. The gears of my mind may move slowly – certainly slower than all the spiked crushing traps and electro-barrier in this stage – but it eventually hit me that Sunman is obvious very similar to Sunsoft’s Batman NES games, namely, erm, Batman and especially Return of the Joker. Sunman’s gameplay feels like the mid-point between those two games, and the graphical style is the same: all bright colours, mechanical greeblies and parallax scrolling punched up to the extreme. But you know what finally tipped me off about the similarities? It was the little animation of Sunman’s cape slowly fluttering to the ground when you crouch, because the same thing happens in Batman. Also, Batman: Return of the Joker is called Dynamite Batman in the Japan. I hope you enjoy that fact as much as I do.


Unfortunately, Sunman was saving it’s most obnoxious section for the very end, with a high-speed horizontal race section that will reawaken submerged memories of that one bit from Battletoads as Sunman hurtles through a series of narrow corridors made even narrower by all the blocks filling the area. As you can see above, sometimes you’re forced to guide Sunman though gaps barely wider than he is, with each collision taking two chunks off your health bar. It’s just… bad. A bad bit of gameplay. Not exciting, not engaging and the only pleasure I got from it was the grim and ultimately self-defeating kind when I saw Sunman ram his face full-speed into a metal bar.


But all that’s behind me now – I’ve reached the final confrontation with Specter! Given that he looks an awful lot like Sunman and he seems to have a similar set of powers, I’m going to guess that in the original Superman version of Sunman, Specter was going to be General Zod. He clearly ain’t Doomsday and while his bald appearance on the title screen could point to Lex Luthor, Lex Luthor can’t fly or shoot energy blasts from his hands. Not without his big robot suit, anyway.
After the miserable previous sector, this boss fight is a welcome return to Sunman not being awful. It’s a very simple fight: the boss disappears and then reappears in one of several fixed points around the screen. It’s then you task to clobber Specter before he can attack. If you hit him fast enough, he’ll take damage and teleport away; if you react too slowly, he’ll use one of the aforementioned energy blasts or summon a rain of falling rocks.
I really like this fight, a lot more so than any of the other boss battles in the game. It sounds pretty underwhelming on paper, but I like the tension that comes from having to react quickly to Specter’s new position or avoid his attacks, and he manages to be a challenge without being ludicrously overpowered. However, the main reason I like this fight is that both Sunman and Specter are both so well-animated and fluid that watching them duke it out is a real treat. I was particularly impressed with Specter’s hand motions when summoning his falling rock attack. A lot of games would have just had him raise his hand, but here he looks as convincing as a NES sprite summoning personal attack meteors can look.


Looking cool wasn’t enough to save Specter, though, and in the name of the sun I punished him good and proper. What follows is a perfunctory ending as Sunman flies past the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty has been moved from New York to the unspoiled pine forests of the America north, presumably to protect her from attacks by the likes of Specter. You get a message saying “the world returns to a peaceful time. Now and forever.” which strikes me as wildly optimistic, and then the credits roll.


Well hey, look at that: Sunman was directed by the late Kenji Eno, perhaps best known for creating the D games.
Did the videogame world miss out when Sunman was cancelled? Yeah, I suppose so. For the most part it’s an enjoyable game, and the sense of colour and style that permeates Sunman makes up for the parts where the gameplay is unremarkable or, in a couple of spots, outright bad. As a NES game by Sunsoft you know the soundtrack’s going to be good, and it is. Not quite as excellent as some of their other NES soundtracks, sure, but certainly very funky. I’d tell you to listen to it on YouTube but all the videos uploaded there appear to have been recorded in NTSC mode and so the music is playing too fast – the Sunman prototype is a PAL version of the game, you see.


There’s a lot I’d change about Sunman – the lack of an upwards attack, Sunman’s stubby little arms, the fact that the hitbox near his head feels massive yet his feet are often invulnerable, like some kind of reverse Achilles – but on the whole it’s worth checking out for the presentation alone. He might not be Superman, but Sunman has style.

20/03/2018

HANGZO (ARCADE)

In the interests of keeping things fresh and innovative here at VGJunk, I present a game about ninjas. They use ninja magic and hit things with their ninja weapons. Also shurikens. No wait, come back – did I mention it’s an unreleased ninja game? That’s right, you might never have seen this one before. It’s the mysterious arcade prototype Hangzo!


You might notice that there are no developer credits on the title screen. That is, you might notice it if you’re more observant than me. Personally, I couldn’t stop looking at the ninja on the right who’s horrified that he’s picked the claw out of the big sack of ninja weapons. He really wanted the nunchucks.
So, who did make Hangzo? Apparently it runs on Data East arcade tech, but some places list Hot-B as the developer. A collaborative effort that didn’t pan out, possibly, and it doesn’t feel like the work of a top-tier developer so Hot-B seems as reasonable an option as any other.


Hangzo has a story, but I can’t read it because it’s in Japanese. That said, if the story isn’t “city is taken over by an evil dictator and only the three ninjas of the Hangzo Squad can save the day” then I’ll eat my Shinobi cartridge. Just once I’d like the story to be “why are we taking orders? We’re ninjas, we can conquer the city ourselves and transform it into a paradise of endless shurikens and katana polish!”



There are three playable ninjas to chose from: big blue Hanzo (the veteran of the team at the ripe old age of 20,) Kotaroh with the vertiginous hair on the left and Kasumi, the lady ninja. Naturally I assumed these three characters would fall into the usual arcade game spectrum of the fast but weak one, the slow but powerful one and the average all-rounder, but Hangzo neatly sidesteps this cliché by having all the characters be essentially interchangeable.


And away we go, taking the fight against the evil “Mr. K” onto the city streets. Hanzo uses his sword to cut down the gun emplacement ahead of him and for a moment I’m confused, because I was certain that Hangzo was going to be a typical side-scrolling beat-em-up. It isn’t. It’s a single-plane run-n-slash adventure with some light platforming, much more akin to Ninja Gaiden than Golden Axe. As well as using your sword to attack nearby enemies, you can use the other attack button to sling a shuriken for ranged damage. You can also hold the shuriken button down, and I thought this was Hanzo “charging” his shuriken attack but the projectile doesn’t seem to do any extra damage. Holding the button can still be useful, though, because it allows you to keep a shuriken at the ready so you can release it when an enemy hops into your path.
Oh, and you can jump, too. However, if you double-tap the jump button…


...your character produces a rope from somewhere and proceeds to swing across the screen with their foot extended. A dangerous, deadly foot that can be used to kick enemies to death. With this simple addition, Hangzo has already begun to endear itself to me because I’ve played so many games where the supposed ninja characters play more like people who attended an online ninja school which supplied a diploma, ninja suit and headband all for the low, low price of $899.99 per semester (throwing stars sold separately). I know it’s only one move and swinging into a fight like goddamn Tarzan is the conceptual opposite of the mysterious, shadow-clad assassin, but it feels right.


I mentioned Golden Axe earlier and now you know why it was on my mind: Hangzo offers you the chance to ride these guardian lion / komainu creatures. They look cool and their ability to fire large projectiles out of their mouths definitely comes in handy, but at a terrible cost – their slightly ungainly movements and the vague collision detection on their feet makes it more than likely that you’d ride them straight down one of the bottomless pits that litter this section of the stage.


And so goes the fighting, sometimes against demonic warriors and sometimes against fire-breathing fat blokes. In this case we’re battling in front of a boutique specialising in those hot Blade Runner fashions, and because Hanzo is surrounded I’m going to press jump and attack at the same time to activate his limited-use, screen-clearing ninja magic attack.


Did I mention the overweight chaps who breathe fire? Hangzo feels like it’s suffering from something of an identity crisis, as though it really wants to be a side-scrolling beat-em-up but accidentally became a hack-n-slash platformer instead. It’d score quite highly on the beat-em-up bingo sheet, I know that much. Given that arcade brawlers are one of my favourite genres I’m naturally a little disappointed that Hangzo isn’t that kind of game, but I’m having a good time with it so far. Ninjas in a scuzzy cyberpunk future is a theme that’s always welcome here at VGJunk, and while the action does have problems that we’ll get into later it’s all hanging together quite well in the early going.


Inevitably, there are bosses at the end of each stage. The first one is an enormous mechanical kill-bot whose imposing air of menace is undercut only slightly by it having the same wheels as a shopping trolley. Oh, but it’s got lasers, plenty of ‘em, and most of the fight is spent dodging said lasers and throwing shurikens back at the robot when you get the chance. Eventually the robot will become frustrated with using futuristic lasers that travel more slowly than even the most primitive solid-projectile technology, and it’ll try to punch you. That’s your cue to stab the robot’s hands. It’s not the most complex boss battle.


Moving onward to stage two – the “Disposal Plant” - and it’s Kasumi’s turn to flex her ninja muscles. As mentioned earlier, there’s little difference between the three characters. They all seem to move at the same speed and their attacks do the same amount of damage. They have aesthetic differences, of course – they have unique sprites and while each character’s limited-use super move simply covers the screen in damage-dealing magic, Hanzo summons a whirling wall of flame and Kasumi creates a rain of deadly flower petals, that kind of thing. The only truly unique feature of each character seems to be a special “command” move activated by pressing up and attack at the same time. Hanzo swings his sword in a wide overhead arc that hits enemies both in front of and behind him, whereas Kasumi attacks while backflipping away from whatever you’re attacking. Sadly these attacks are a little too slow to be much use, but Kasumi’s is the best of the bunch as it overs a bit of extra mobility. I’d say Kasumi is my favourite character overall, but that’s almost entirely because she looks enough like Blaze from Streets of Rage that I can pretend Kasumi is one of Blaze’s descendants, carrying on the family tradition of pummelling villains on the mean city streets.


After the relatively standard “dystopian cyber-city” of the first stage, Hangzo moves into a globby, goopy biomechanical flesh-hell vibe with stage two. Gigeresque resin growths coat the walls, multi-eyed slimes patrol the sewers and a distant relative of Zantar the Gelatinous Cube (literally) drops in to exercise his powerful digestive enzymes. I love it. There’s a part of this stage where you’re riding down an elevator and – obviously, because Hangzo is 95% a scrolling beat-em-up – enemies fall into the lift while you’re travelling. One of those enemies is a clump of brightly-coloured pustules that can reform itself into a demonic creature, and if there was ever a monster I wanted to fall into a beat-em-up elevator it would be a vicious puddle of transmogrifying boils. That’s just my kind of thing.


Also my kind of thing – this boss, a hideous fleshy mound so abstract that getting a handle on what it’s supposed to be is nigh impossible. This stage takes place in the sewers, so it’s probably for the best that we don’t know what this thing is. Besides “angry” and “murderous,” I mean. What I will say is that I once had a sinus infection so bad it gave me nosebleeds, and I’d create a clone of this boss every time I sneezed.


Moving on to stage three, where the “elevator that keeps filling with enemies” concept is taken to its logical extreme – it’s an entire stage of elevator that keeps filling with enemies! Okay, so there are actually two elevators and you ride on top of them, and the elevators move up and down independently as the stage goes on. This does help to keep the action more interesting than it might have been otherwise, because you have to move between the two lifts in order to get into advantageous robot-stabbing positions, but after the dripping, ichorous stink-scape of the last stage it’s difficult to get excited about Stairs: The Next Generation.
Oh, and I’m playing as Kotaroh now. That’s not very exciting, either. His basic attacks are slightly more vertically oriented than the other character’s horizontal slashes, maybe? I know, it’s not the kind of thing you’d splash across his advertising blurb, is it?


After that disappointingly mundane stage comes a boss that isn’t bad, per se, but doesn’t really interest me as much as a boss that looks like a verruca you’d catch in Hell’s changing room. It’s a robot dragon / griffon thing, and that’s fine. It attacks pretty much how you’d expect it to (lots of projectiles and swooping) and that’s fine too. I like its very fancy wings. And the actual battle itself was, you know, fine. My major issue was that this boss was reminding me of something and my brain kept trying to tell me I was thinking of the Dinobots from Transformers, particularly Sludge, the brontosaurus Dinobot. You can see why I was confused, because this boss is definitely bird-like and not a dinosaur. I think what it is is that the original Dinobot toys had the same silver and gold colour scheme, and when combined with the four legs and the long neck my brain’s going “I’ve seen enough, that’s definitely Sludge the Dinobot.” Screw you, brain, now I can’t judge this robo-griffon on its own merits and I’m boring anyone who’s reading this.


Stage four is another relatively bog-standard videogame location – the “factory” that builds nothing but electrical death traps and moving platforms – and once again I’m left wishing that Hangzo’s developers had gone all-out on the weirdness front instead of having yet more elevators. It’s very colourful, at least, and I’ve come to the conclusion that whoever did make Hangzo, they were (unconsciously or not) aping Konami’s nineties arcade style. The whole game feels like the first draft of a Konami arcade game, especially the visuals. The neon ninjas that are very reminiscent of Mystic Warriors, or the Contra-esque “robots and Aliens” vibe of some stages.


This stage does feature these impressively strange creatures, enemies so weird that they totally make up for the slightly bland stage design. They’re… gladiators, I think? Those helmets and loincloths are definitely making me think of Roman gladiators, but these enemies also to appear to be moulded from play-doh and they have chainsaws, which would have made the “gladiators versus lions” fights a lot more intense.


Then you hit them a few times and they inflate into grotesque humanoid balloons, with the extra-disturbing detail that only their stomachs are inflated. The rest of their bodies dangle from the back. You might be wondering what advantages this offers over “hitting people with a chainsaw” in combat, but think about it: would you want to keep hitting them in this state? There are only three possible outcomes in that situation. They either revert back to hitting you with a chainsaw, they keep expanding or they burst. None of those options are especially appealing, so you’ll be pleased to know that these enemies can do both the first and last things on that list.


The latter half of this stage features a lot more platforming, and that’s a bit of a problem. Not because the level design is bad, because although it does tend towards the blander side of the spectrum it’s certainly not infuriating or anything. In fact, Hangzo is surprisingly easy-going for an arcade game, with lots of power-ups floating by and the ability to always be throwing shurikens across the screen. No, the problem here is with the grappling and swinging abilities. Portions of this area are set up so that the best way to make progress is to swing between the dangling electric cables, timing each swing so you pass the wires at the lowest point of your swing’s arc. There’s a chance to revel in freedom of movement here, but unfortunately it’s hampered by the actual swinging. Firstly, launching your rope can be a touch fiddly and often resulted in me not swinging when I was sure I would. However, the biggest problem is that it’s very difficult to tell if you’re taking damage while swinging, because you can’t be knocked back and there’s no sound effect, so you might swing your way through an area thinking that your glowing ninja foot is clearing a path through the bad guys, only for you to land on the other side and realise you’ve lost three-quarters of your health bar. Hitboxes feel especially ill-defined when you’re swinging, and because you travel quite a long distance when swinging it can be impossible to avoid enemies that appear when the screen scrolls.
It’s a real shame, because the swinging mechanic is so close to being a lot of fun, but the frustrations and niggling awkwardness of it means that taking things slowly and picking off enemies from a distance is by far the more efficient method of making progress.


Now this boss I do recognise: it’s Final Fantasy V’s recurring superboss Omega! Or a distant relation thereof, at the very least. They get together at murderbot family reunions, which this boss hates because all the other murderbots keep saying things like “Did you hear about your cousin Omega? He’s in them Final Fantasies now! The big time! His parents must be so proud. And how are you doing, Hangzo Boss Unit 04? Still working on that novel about the young college student who falls in love with her older professor who is also a cycloptic murderbot? Well, good for you, buddy.”


The final stage is President K’s Room, and it’s a bit of a cop-out, what with it just being a flat corridor where our heroes are attacked by conveyor belts and the Google Chrome logo. The backgrounds are nice, at least, as they have been for the majority of the game; well-drawn even when they’re just elevators or factories.
President K has an appreciation of fine art, at any rate. Ancient samurai armour is reverently displayed, a calming bamboo grove breathe life into his mansion and he’s even got a Playmobil horse over there on the left.


Go on, admit it. The first thing you though of was Sagat’s stage from Street Fighter II.
The final stage has a “boss rush” feel to it, even though mostly you’re fighting regular enemies, and as the lead-up to the cataclysmic clash of good and evil it’s about as exciting as folding laundry. The swinging mechanic is now totally redundant, the fights are all things you’ve seen before and it feels very rushed and unfinished, which is presumably the reason Hangzo never received a full release.


President K, then. President of what? The United States? His local wine club, which he hates running because it’s all become so pretentious? Who knows. He’s got a big steampunk thing behind his desk that’s making me remember The Chaos Engine and he flaps around the screen, lazily throwing projectiles like a cheap Halloween decoration that had to be recalled because it put some poor kid’s eye out.


After a few hits, President K reveals his true form: a hideous demon with wings, dragon heads as supplementary wings and the furry underpants found on most He-Man action figures. Again, he does little but flap around throwing projectiles only, you know, more dangerously. Not that dangerously, though, and I have to say that Hangzo’s bosses are strange in that they seem to get easier as the game progresses. In my experience, President K just kept trying to summon lightning bolts that you could easily position yourself in between while jumping up to slash at him, so he must have become president thanks to his business and political acumen rather than raw fighting power.


And that’s your lot. Hangzo ends as it began: with the same artwork from the intro of the heroes standing on a rooftop, only this time K’s tower is collapsing. Then you get a brief piece of text and Hangzo is over.


Despite there being a high score table during the attract mode, I was not allowed to enter my initials so obviously Hangzo isn’t worth bothering with.
I’m kidding, of course. Hangzo is worth bothering with, and the fact that it’s available in a playable form at all is fantastic. It’s hardly a fantastic game; it’s a bit too obvious, a touch ramshackle for that, but I reckon all it needed to be a genuinely good game was a bit more time in the proverbial oven. With more time spent on buffing out the problems with the swinging and the hitboxes, a little more care poured into fleshing out the game’s short run-time with more engaging stages and a final level that’s not a flat corridor, I reckon Hangzo could easily fall into the “hidden gem” category. As it stands, it’s simply a fun little romp with some excellent enemy designs that I would recommend playing through with a friend if for some insane reason you’re bored of Capcom’s Alien versus Predator.

P.S.: as I'm in the middle of the miserable experience that is "looking for a job" I hope you'll forgive a rare reminder that you can donate to VGJunk if you like the site. Please only do this if you are an eccentric millionaire.

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