26/08/2016

FINAL FANTASY V SUMMONS

I really like Final Fantasy V. It might not be the crowning achievement of the SNES’s RPG library in the way that Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger are, and neither is a revolutionary megahit like Final Fantasy VII, but it’s got plenty of its own charms. A fun ability system with dress-up potential  (which, honestly, is something I really like in an RPG,) a simple story of heroic warriors and evil trees, a great soundtrack and a hero whose name you’re well within your rights to transliterate as “Butz.” Sadly I don’t have the time to participate in this year’s Four Job Fiesta, but I’ve had “In Search of Light” from the game’s soundtrack stuck in my head for days and it’s made me really want to write something about FFV, so here’s today’s article: a look at all the summonable monsters in the game, from oversized chickens to oversized chickens made of fire.
Chocobo


I was going to say that the chocobo is a mainstay of the Final Fantasy series’ summons, but thinking about it you can’t conjure large ostrich-like birds in all that many of the games. After FFV I think (and someone can correct me if I’m wrong here) the chocobo only appears as a summon in FFVII, and even then it’s teamed with a moogle. I think this is probably because of the chocobo’s increasing prevalence as a mode of transport. Being able to summon a chocobo in the later games would be akin to reaching out to the magical realms beyond and calling forth a bicycle.
Final Fantasy V’s chocobo isn’t quite as refined, design-wise, as chocobos that would appear later in the series. The legs are ganglier, the neck more crooked, and then there are those eyes: massive, saucer-like peepers that give the chocobo a constant expression of shock. If the plush, fluffy chocobos of games like Final Fantasy XIII are the regal thoroughbreds, then this chocobo is the runt of the litter who lived a tough life on the streets before some kindly group of adventurers took it in. I like it, though. This chocobo looks like it’d be handier in a fight, plus it’s scrawny enough that there’s little risk of the party turning to it for sustenance if their supplies run out.


When you use the chocobo summon, there’s a random chance that you’ll be visited by the fat chocobo instead. That isn’t an ironic nickname. Maybe chocobos hibernate through the winter months and he’s been packing away the gysahl greens in preparation. The difference between the fat chocobo and the regular kind, other than their cholesterol, is that the fat chocobo hits all enemies on screen rather than just one. Of course, the chocobo summon is pretty weak, so there’s a chance you’ll never use it enough times to see the fat chocobo. He’s out there, though. Eating. Wark-ing. Having naps. I’m jealous of the fat chocobo, is what I’m getting at.

Sylph


Sylphs plural, even. Two small fairies in green swimming costumes. Look, every summoner has to start somewhere, all right? You can’t dive straight into the earth-rending megadragons on day one of Summoner School. Not that the sylphs don’t have their darker side: they restore health to the party, but they get that health by draining it from the enemies. They’re more like miniature trained attack vampires than your usual fairies, so at least the concept is fairly metal even if the execution looks like a successful range of soft toys from the eighties.

Remora


This is a weird summon, because remoras are real fish. They’re the ones with the strangely-evolved fins that let them stick to other, larger sea creatures. It sort of makes sense that summoning Remora paralyses your opponent briefly – I know I’d stop whatever I was doing if a fish attached itself to me using an organic suction cup – but there’s nothing particularly magical about a remora. In this case “summon spell” could easily equate to “having a bucket filled with fish.” The remoras in FFV don’t look much like the real-world fish, however, instead clearly being based on piranhas. Now, “bucket full of piranhas”? That’s a special attack I would end up using a lot, unlike summoning remora. Maybe one day there’ll be a FFV sequel that includes the Fishmonger job. As you level up, you learn the secrets of larger buckets with larger fish inside, until you’re dropping aquarium tanks packed with great whites onto the battlefield.

Ifrit


First up in a trio of classic elemental-themed Final Fantasy summons is Ifrit, Square’s take on the Efreet of Middle Eastern legend. Ifrit possesses the power of fire, and if this sprite is any indication that fire might be a little too hot even for him. He’s definitely shielding himself from something, as though he wasn’t expecting his attack called “Hellfire” to be quite so fiery. He’ll tone it down to “Heckfire” next time, I’m sure. Or maybe he's shy, just because you're a terrifiying demon of flame doesn;t mean you're exempt from self-confidence issues.
Someone once told me that Ifrit’s horns reminded them of disgusting overgrown toenails, and ever since that’s what I’ve thought of when I see them. I’m telling you this in the hopes this knowledge works like The Ring and I’ll be free of it forever.

Shiva


The ice spirit Shiva just looks bored. “Ho hum, another day, another monster to freeze to death.” I reckon she knows she’s just a temporary fixture, until the party finds more powerful summons later in their adventure. That would be pretty demoralising. Or perhaps as a facet of the Hindu deity Shiva, she has already seen all this before. I’ve often wondered how the Hindu god Shiva – a male god who has more to do with fire than ice – became a female ice spirit, but then I realised I was thinking about it too hard and Squaresoft probably just liked the name. In fact, I’ve seen some suggestions that “Shiva” is just meant to be the word “Shiver.” I’m not sure I buy that. If it was true, I'd expect Ifrit to be called "Burny" or something, but it’s an interesting theory.

Ramuh


Then there’s Ramuh, the old man with the electric stick. There’s little to say about Ramuh, who doesn’t change much between appearances and does his job of electrocuting monsters with a minimum of fuss. The most interesting thing about him is his beard. If you look through a list of all the times he’s appeared in the FF games, you gain a respect for the amount of effort put into giving him ever-more bizarre and elaborate facial hai.r By the time we get to Final Fantasy XXV, his moustache will be seven miles long and composed of loop-the-loops and dangerous hairpin turns. His moustache is already weird enough in Final Fantasy V,  mind you: one side’s drooping and the other side’s curled up in the air in a way Salvador Dali could only dream of. I assume he ran out of moustache wax half-way through sorting it out. I also assume this happens to Ramuh on a regular basis.

Titan


It’s Titan, former scourge of the Greek gods, now a large naked man squatting in a position that speaks to either an imminent wrestling move or a chronic bowel obstruction. You might be thinking “hey, he’s not naked, he’s wearing a belt that holds a fake horse tail near his rear end,” but let me tell you that you will be refused admittance to the bank or your child’s parents evening or an airport terminal if you turn up wearing nothing but a belt and a fake horse tail.

Golem


Good ol’ Golem, always one of my favourite summons, makes an appearance in FFV. I don’t like him for his looks, if I’m honest. He’s just a monster-man made of rocks, which is a design we’ve all seen a million times even if this particular iteration does only have one arm. I think Titan covers FFV’s quota of “man-shaped lumps that look as though they were carved from stone” very well, thank you, and this Golem certainly isn’t as interesting as the Golem in Final Fantasy VI because that one’s a robot. No, I like Golem because of his special power: when you summon him, you’re placed under his protection and if you’re attacked by physical means then the Golem’s hand pops up out of the ground and deflects the blow. This, one assumes, is why his sprite only has one arm. It’s very satisfying to see your enemies being denied, that’s the thing.

Catoblepas


Catoblepas, or Shoat as it’s sometimes called, is based on a mythical monster that the ancient Greeks described as being able to turn a person to stone with a glance. Being literally petrified by looking at something seems to have been a real worry that played on the collective consciousness of ancient Greece, but it’s not so much of an issue with the Catoblepas as it is with Medusa because the extreme weight of the catoblepas’ head means it’s always looking downwards. It's the Eeyore of the ancient bestiary, really. Looking at this sprite, and particularly the Catoblepas’ single eye, I’m guessing that its design was inspired by real-life animals born with the mutation that makes them cyclopes.

Carbuncle


How unfortunate to share your name with a festering sore. Okay, yes, and also a gemstone, but still. It’s a problem I imagine herpetologists get tired of dealing with. Luckily for Carbuncle (and, presumably, some herpetologists) it's pretty cute. Not “puppy in a Halloween costume” cute, because it’s got a distinctly alien look to it and a rock in its forehead, but something you could see yourself owning as a pet. Keeping it fed might be an issue, mind you. I can't imagine Carbuncle would survive on Pedigree Chum.

Syldra


Mild Final Fantasy V spoilers ahead: Syldra starts the game as the ship-towing companion of playable character and pirate captain Faris, but various events occur and Syldra ends up becoming usable as a summon towards the end of the game. While her non-summon sprite looks a lot more dragon-y, summon Syldra is a Loch Ness monster / plesiosaur type creature. She also looks rather cheerful, probably because she doesn’t have to pull a pirate ship around any more. Surprisingly, Syldra’s elemental attack is wind rather than water. If you’re a big fan of water-theme dragon monsters, don’t worry, FFV has you covered. Syldra’s not a bad summon, either, and with some smart wind-boosting equipment set-ups she can do a hefty chunk of damage. Is it worth all the faffing about to make that happen? Maybe not, FFV does have a lot of ways for you to do big damage. Personally, I like to throw large sums of gil at my problems or, when I last went through the Four Job Fiesta anyway, to pray that my Dancer would deign to activate their high-damage Sword Dance ability on a regular basis.

Odin


Another common recurring summon in the series, Odin works the same way as he always does: instantly killing weaker enemies, or doing damage to bigger foes that are immune to instant death attacks. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, that’s Odin’s motto. His sword has a handy can-opener attachment, and his horse Sleipnir has six legs. The mythological Sleipnir had eight legs, but look at that sprite and tell me where you’d cram in another two legs, huh? My favourite thing about FFV’s Odin is his pose, his outstretched arm in a mocking “is that the best you’ve got?” stance. I mean, it’s probably nothing of the sort: Odin’s above such petty concerns and his pose is simply him trying to keep his balance while carrying a huge sword and riding a horse with surplus limbs. That said, he is the Allfather of the Norse pantheon, you’ve expect him to be at least a bit of a show-off.

Leviathan


I promised you big watery fish-dragons and let it never be said that I’m not a man of my word. I’m looking at Leviathan’s face, and I find myself thinking “what would the Joker look like if he were a fish? There have been so many alternate takes and spin-offs of the Batman universe that I’m sure he was a fish at some point.” Then I remembered the classic episode of Batman: The Animated Series where the Joker uses a special toxin to give a load of fish his face and my question was answered. I do think Leviathan has a really cool sprite, though. Very sinuous, a great colour scheme and again a cheerful expression. There you go, then: being a sea monster is the secret to true happiness.

Phoenix


Yep, that’s definitely a bird made of fire. I’m sorry, folks, I’ve got nothing. You’d expect something more impressive from a top-level summon, especially after Leviathan looked so good, but sometimes you’ve just got to have a bird made of fire. There’s not much else you can do with Phoenix, except spell its name wrong every god damned time.

Bahamut


Finally you've got Bahamut, a relatively classic western-style dragon. His neck doesn’t look very comfortable, does it? It’s all bunched up, he’s going to get a cramp. Nice wings, though. I’m not sure if the artist was going for a crispy crystalline coating or the iridescence of a butterfly, but they make a nice change from the usual leathery wings. The more I look at Bahamut, the more I get a subtle xenomorph vibe from him – it’s the segmented tail and neck, combined with the black parts of his colour scheme. It seems appropriate, Bahamut really could take off and nuke a site from orbit. In the end, though, Bahamut is just another dragon. An imposing, dangerous dragon to be sure, but still just a dragon. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by later Final Fantasy games, where Bahamut becomes a laser-firing space dragon. That’s the kind of thing that could spoil anyone, although it’s going to lead to a rapidly-escalating draconic arms race, with consumers demanding bigger, ever-more-laser-packed dragons. Hang on, I'm making that sound like a bad thing, which it clearly isn't.

That’s all the summonable creatures from Final Fantasy V, then, and if I had to pick a favourite I’d probably go with Leviathan based on looks and Remora for concept. If there’s a better use for the mystical arts of sorcery than firing piranhas at people, I’ve yet to hear it.

23/08/2016

ZX SPECTRUM NINJA COVERS

You know what the 1980s had? The ZX Spectrum, Britain’s premier home computer for lovers of very rubbery keyboards. The 1980s also saw ninjas reaching the peak of their pop-culture influence. If only someone had thought to combine the two! Oh wait, they did. Many, many times. There are more ninjas on the ZX Spectrum than in Godfrey Ho’s filmography, and for your viewing pleasure I have assembled a collection of cover art from some of those games. Some of it may be amateurish by today’s standards, but you cannot deny that these are indeed games with ninjas in them. Apart from the ones where you look at them and think to yourself “that’s clearly not a ninja,” I mean. But hey, who are we to judge what a ninja looks like? Have you ever seen a ninja in real life? No, you haven't. That’s kind of the point.
Ninja


Let’s begins, as seems appropriate, with a game simply titled Ninja. I wonder if there was a meeting where the creators sat down to think of a name and were delighted to find that every other ninja game was called “ninja this” and “ninja that” but the name Ninja remained unclaimed. That’s serendipity, that it. As for the cover, it’s not bad at all. It’s got a guy who looks like a ninja on it, which is a good start, even if he did get a bit overambitious when designing his ninja claws. Having a two-for-one sale on spikes, were they? Those things must be forever getting tangled up with each other, and I can only imagine the carnage that would ensue if he stored them in the same pocket as his headphones. A closer look reveals a few other quirks: this one’s totally on me, but at first glance I thought the victims in the bottom left were wearing aprons, making me think that the ninja was terminating the staff of his local B&Q. Then there’s the fist at the bottom, positioned in a way that gives the impression that the ninja keeps it tucked in his trousers until the moment is right for it to strike, swiftly and without mercy, from out of his open fly.

Ninja Commando


Poor old Ninja Commando, his ninja face-mask doesn’t fit quite right and it must be very unpleasant to be running around doing your ninja business with the constant sensation that your mask’s about to slip over the end of your nose. I did try to decipher the writing on his headband, but I only got as far as tentatively identifying the first character as the number seven, so if you’ve got any better suggestions let me know otherwise I’m going to assume he’s been a ninja for seven years and his co-workers got him a special headband to celebrate. Maybe it’ll give him the confidence to defeat that much larger red ninja.

Ninja Massacre


Well, no cover art is ever going to live up to that title, is it? It’s relatively action-packed, I suppose, but I’m not sure I’d describe it as a massacre. A ruckus, possible. Ninja Fracas at the outside. The most interesting thing about it is the relaxed demeanour of the man in the background who’s being stabbed in the face. That’s the unbendable will that martial arts training gives you.

Ninja Master


In which Conan the Barbarian meets his most dangerous foe: an out-of-scale ninja who catches him in a deadly ambush. Makes sense to me, if you can take down Conan then you’ve truly earned the title of Ninja Master. He clearly knows what he’s doing, he’s using a flying kick to disarm his opponent while the barbarian’s distracted by Cinderella’s castle.


If that ninja looks familiar to you, it might be because you’ve seen the poster for the “classic” Golan-Globus movie Enter the Ninja. Conan does not appear in that movie, so sadly this cover is as close as we’re ever likely to get to seeing Conan vs. the Ninja Clan.

Bionic Ninja


Hey, I’d recognise that midriff anywhere: that’s RoboCop’s abdomen! Okay, RoboCop’s abdomen with a big scoop taken out of it, but still. I’m not sure how stealthy a mechanical ninja is going to be, but on the plus side he can manufacture his own clouds of disorienting smoke. Oh, and according to the back of the case his name is Ninjabot 1. Make sure you wear your plastic hood when you go out to slay your enemies, Ninjabot 1. It’s forecast rain.

BMX Ninja



I think I’ve mentioned this before somewhere else on the internet, but that is clearly a samurai and not a ninja. Samurai fight by a code of honour, and would never stoop to knocking a child off a skateboard, not even if that skateboard happens to be the ugliest thing ever crafted by human hands. The full-face helmet, combined with the samurai deelyboppers, (I assume that’s the technical term,) kinda make the BMX Ninja look like a Gundam, don’t you think? I know they put out a new Gundam series every two minutes – gotta keep those shelves stocked with toy robots – so here’s my pitch for the next iteration: Gundams on Bicycles. That’s it, everything else is the same but all the mechs ride around on appropriately-sized bicycles. It might make some of the fight sequences a little awkward, but any problems can be glossed over by having one of the characters pop a wheelie.

Ninja Scooter Simulator


Here’s one I’ve definitely written about before, in the article about the game itself, but I couldn’t not include it on this list because c’mon, it’s called Ninja Scooter Simulator. That’s the kind of thing that just makes you glad humanity bothered to evolve its way out of the primordial ooze. All the salient points about this one are covered in the earlier article, but I’m still bemused that the ninja appears to be wearing loafers and I still have no idea how that back wheel is supposed to be affixed to the scooter. Oh, and the ninja seems to be trying to cast a magical spell on his sword. Look, buddy, I’m sure you have just as many questions as the rest of us but I don’t think you’re going to find the answers in your sword. Did I mention that you don’t actually play as a ninja in this game? Incredible.

Oriental Hero


One of the problems with wearing the all-concealing black attire of the ninja is that you don’t get much sun. Even I’ve got more of a tan than this ninja, and I shun the daylight like a vampire with meningitis. He has a defiant stance, this ninja, in that he’s defying you not to look at his exposed nipple. That’s his plan, you get hypnotised by the nipple and then bam, he throws his pet snake in your face. The old Sneaky Snake Nip-Whip, the ultimate sure-killing technique.

Shinobi


Time for some not-terrible artwork with the Spectrum port of Sega’s classic Shinobi, and apart from the logo making me crave liquorice there’s nothing wrong with this one. All right, so Joe Musashi looks less like he’s framed by the setting sun and more like he’s about to be turned to paste by an oncoming train, but aside from that it’s good. It’ll give you a sympathetic knee ache if you look at it for too long, though.

Ninja Hamster


Admittedly I’m not a zoologist or anything but that isn’t a hamster. I don’t know what it is, but hamster is right out. A cracked-out Ewok, possibly. Whatever it is, it’s shaved its limbs and is taking a rare pleasure in slapping that mouse. I’m getting conflicting messages about how much the Ninja Hamster’s enemies really want him dead, too: the mouse is wearing boxing gloves, presumably because he thought this was all going to be a bit of harmless exercise, but the crocodile is carrying a  mace. Personally, I think the crocodile has the right idea. The Ninja Hamster needs to be dealt with as harshly as possible. Just look at his face, he’s way too into the violence. Sure, he’s knocking people out with unarmed combat now, but give it a few months and he’ll be having all the woodland critters lined up and shot.

International Ninja Rabbits


Having played the Commodore 64 version of Ninja Rabbits, I can assure you that “Microvalue” is a very appropriate label for it to be released on.
There’s nothing that says a ninja can’t also learn karate – everyone should have a hobby, after all – but it’s annoying me more than I’d like to admit that the star of International Ninja Rabbits is wearing a karate gi and not a ninja outfit. Not even a mask! I guess he wants to make damn sure everyone knows he’s a ninja rabbit and not a common-or-garden human ninja. It makes a real mockery of that "ninja combat" blurb, because he's obviously using karate, but more importantly whoever designed this cover managed to make the promise of "ninja combat" look boring. You wouldn't think such a thing could even be possible, but here we are.

Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles


The glut of animal-themed ninjas is surely the result of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ runaway success, although ironically the word “ninja” was scrubbed from their name and replaced with “hero” in the UK, as “ninja” was deemed to be inherently violent and liable to drive British kids to silently assassinate their friends in the school playground. Don’t worry, they’re the same four radical turtle bros you know and love. Leonardo still leads, Donatello continues in his suspiciously vague role of “doing machines” and Michelangelo still sits splay-legged with his crotch on full display for all the world to see. What, were you expecting decorum? He grew up in a sewer.

Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: The Coin-Op


There’s another TMNT game. It’s a decent approximation of the cartoon’s style, although the turtles’ grimacing faces make it clear that skateboarding through an open sewer pipe is not the tubular thrill-ride they thought it would be, but they can’t lose face by admitting it was a bad idea.

Last Ninja 2


Here’s the grammatically confusing Last Ninja 2, and when you are drawing a large number two for your cover art, at what point do you have to concede that it’s gotten away from you a little and your two is now too big? Okay, okay, so I’ll admit that this is a decent cover for a game about a shogun who travels through time and conquers New York, even if it doesn’t feel particularly ninja-y. Why, those could just as easily be the eyes of a mad wizard, vengeful ghost of a mafia boss or any other entity that might want to take over Manhattan. It needs a headband with some unrelated Japanese symbols on it, maybe a few shurikens. Hey, that’s a good point – all these ninja covers and not a single throwing star between them! It’s probably for the best given the, ahem, unpolished nature of most of this artwork. Any shurikens involved would probably have looked as though they’d been crafted using the same production method we used as kids: cutting rough star shapes out of Coke cans using a pair of rusty tin snips. It's a technique that leaves you with shurikens that don't fly very well and won't stick in things when thrown, but handling them will slice up your fingers like you approached Freddy Krueger for an ill-advised high five.

Ninja Remix


There are so many ninjas on the Spectrum that we’ve reached a point of ninjas within ninjas. The big ninja seems tense or at least very warm, the sweat pouring down his nose serving as a good example of why you shouldn’t keep your head completely covered all the time. The little ninja in his eye? Not so much. That ninja’s having the time of their life. They’re not doing a flying kick, they’re leaping into the air and clicking their heels together at the sheer joy of being a ninja. My best guess is that they’ve just seen their careers advisor from high school. The shadowy world of espionage in feudal Japan is difficult to break into, is it, Mr. Johnson? Well, who needs a back-up plan now!?

Legend of Kage


It might seem like a bit of a stretch, but the game’s blurb describes Kage as “a young ninja” and besides, there’s no way I was going to let that outfit slide. Who knew they had mankinis back then? Kage is out to rescue a kidnapped princess (as though there’s any other kind of princess) and he must have been given this task when the rest of the royal family saw him and said “look at what this weirdo is wearing, he must be pretty bloody brave.” Technically it’s a pretty good cover, with some dynamic cartoon action and a man in the background who appears to be carrying a carton of french fries on each ear, but I just can’t get past Kage’s clothes. It’s not even the near nudity and prospect for some truly bizarre tan lines, it’s that it looks so damned uncomfortable. You’re a ninja, Kage. Your uniform is essentially pyjamas. I would start seeing that snuggliness as a perk of the job, if I were you.

The Ninja Warriors


The only thing “incredible but true” about that tagline is that it’s truly, incredibly inaccurate. I don’t even understand what part of The Ninja Warriors is supposed to be true. That ninja warriors once existed? Because I think even that is up for debate, or at least the idea that real ninjas did a lot of warrior-ing is. They certainly didn’t fight cyborgs in a futuristic dictatorship, which is what happens in The Ninja Warriors. I feel the composition of this piece is rather unfair on the red ninja, too, especially considering she’s the player one character of Ninja Warriors. For a ninja it’s probably a relief to know your face is obscured, but that’s what the masks are for.

Shadow Dancer


You know, I always thought wolves had necks, but it seems I was mistaken. Apparently they’re all neck. Thanks for clearing that up, Shadow Dancer. Also, it’s nice to see Lawrence of Arabia’s still getting work.

Shadow Warriors


Or Ninja Gaiden to you and me, and here’s a cover included because a) it’s good and b) it’s incredibly “of its time.” There’s no way you could place that artwork at any other period than the late eighties / early nineties. Bright colours, a ruddy great ninja, and even graffiti-style lettering that adorned thousands of market-stall t-shirts during my youth. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, even without checking, those aren’t real Japanese characters. However, the Japanese should definitely adopt them as the pictograms for “gnarly” and “x-treme.”

Saboteur!


Finally for today, my absolute favourite ninja cover on the ZX Spectrum with Saboteur, a cover that has most certainly earned that exclamation mark in the title. Where can you start with this masterpiece? The title's sort of accurate, I guess. If you're trying to sabotage something, then murdering everyone in a three-mile radius will probably get the job done. Or how about the fact that the ninja has upgraded from primitive weapons like the sword to a fully-loaded MAC-10? He’s even put a silencer on it, as a gesture towards his ninja heritage. Then there’s his face, an expression of complete sensory overload, the look of a man who was pushed to the limit by the loud noises and flashing lights until he broke and began operating on pure instinct like a puppy during a fireworks show. No, the very best thing about it is that the ninja isn’t even looking at the man he’s kicking in the head. He’s a busy guy, he doesn’t have time to stare deeply into the eyes of each person whose life he snuffs out. I get the impression that the saboteur is very easily distracted, and should probably consult his doctor about potential ADD treatments.

There we go then, a hefty chunk – but not all – of the ninja-related covers of the ZX Spectrum. What did we learn from this look at the ancient shadow arts? That ninjas never use shurikens and they like to stand out in the open and fight, mostly, putting ninjas in the same category as professional boxers and half the clientèle of my hometown’s pubs at kicking out time. What a mysterious breed they are.

19/08/2016

BATTLANTIS (ARCADE)

Now we know what happened to the fabled city of Atlantis: an aggressive species of giant sentient bats invaded and claimed the city for their own, the former Atlanteans telling people that their home had sunk beneath the waves to avoid the embarrassment of explaining to people they were defeated by bats. Or the title of today’s game is a portmanteau of “battle” and “Atlantis,” if you’re really so afraid to access the wondrous powers of your imagination. Yes, it’s Konami’s 1987 arcade shooter Battlantis!


I’ll be honest, when I first looked at this title screen I thought those tendrils were the angel’s legs and they were rubbing their crotches all over the logo. Also, it looks like I’m already too late to save Atlantis. That rather takes the pressure off our hero, doesn’t it?


Battlantis doesn’t offer the player much in terms of plot. The title implies there’s some kind of battle involving Atlantis, and a bit of poking around informed me that the hero’s name is Cripeuss III and he’s out to stop the “Boss Enemy” Asmodeus. Aside from that, the game does give you a little information about the game’s enemies if you leave the attract mode scrolling for a while, which is something I always like to see. If I’m going to be killing these guys by the dozen then I should at least know their names, right?


So the game begins, but what kind of game is it? Well, it’s Space Invaders, with a pinch of Galaga. A single-screen shooter in which the player shoots rows of monsters as they descend towards their position. That seems like a very strange game to be making in 1987: Space Invaders was almost a decade old by that point, and at the speed videogame trends bloom and die it might as well have come out at the same time as the Magna Carta. Not one to thrill the player with its novelty, then, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a bad game. Maybe Konami have managed to put a fresh twist on the formula? Well, it doesn’t start out feeling that way. It starts out feeling, you know, like Space Invaders. You move left and right along the bottom of the screen, using your slow-firing weapon to pick off the monsters one at a time. There are a couple of barricades in front of you, barricades that can be destroyed by projectiles, that provide either cover or an irritating obstruction depending on the current monster situation. The fantasy setting makes it look a bit different, at least, although in this case the fantasy also includes modern firearms because if you look closely at Cripeuss’ sprite he appears to be carrying a double-barrelled shotgun. Now I’m disappointed that Battlantis isn’t an Army of Darkness tie-in. It would take very little effort to change Cripeuss in Ash and the monsters into Deadites, so someone please get on that. I can’t offer you money for your efforts, just the knowledge that you’re making the world a groovier place.


Shoot all the monsters and a boss of sorts appears, a slightly larger monster carrying a shield that requires multiple shots to destroy. Thankfully the miniboss tends to stand still, throwing easily-dodged Olympic torches at the player. Thus the fight devolves into little more than tapping the fire button and hearing the incredibly weedy plink-plink-plink sound effect of your bullets hitting his shield, occasionally sidestepping the boss’ attacks.


Stage two: The Devil’s Whack-A-Mole. No wonder Atlantis sank, it’s full of holes! Holes filled with winged demons, who attack by flying directly at Cripeuss rather than moving in the regimented downward movements of a traditional Space Invader. They only take one shot to kill, so there’s that, but they’re also quite fast and there’s a veritable swarm of the bloody things.


This leads me to the biggest problem with Battlantis, and that’s the utterly ruthless difficulty level. Now, it’s a well-documented fact (documented by my win/loss record on Street Fighter V, mostly) that I’m not great at videogames, and arcade games are usually more difficult than their console counterparts. However, I don’t often struggle to get past the second stage of any game, but it took me more than a few tries to clear this one. The standard one-hit-kills are in place, and when coupled with a basic weapon with all destructive power of a paper bag filled with the sneezes of tiny kittens, Battlantis is really stacking the odds against the player. Enemies are fast and numerous, many of them fire projectiles and what’s worse is that when they reach the bottom of the screen they can climb up to your castle’s battlements. I know the enemies reaching the bottom of the screen is a pretty standard way to lose a life in games like this, but it feels so much harsher in Battlantis because they’re right there at the side of you and you can’t do anything to stop them because apparently Cripeuss has such severe back problems that he can’t even rotate his goddamn torso. There is a weapon that shoots projectiles sideways, but to use it you have to collect two power-ups at once. That doesn’t sound too bad, but all the power-ups in this game are timed; you don’t get to keep them until you lose a life, you get to keep them for about ten seconds. You can’t hold the button down for continuous fire, so you're in a race to see whether your will to continue or your thumb gives up first. Oh, and you’re limited to five continues by default, so you can’t even credit-feed your way through the game. Just bear the punishing difficulty level in mind for the rest of the article, because I’m guessing it coloured my opinion of Battlantis. See if you can figure out where I gave up and started using cheats.


Stage three has a proper boss in it, and frankly it’s a relief to know that I don’t have to worry about him reaching my castle and attacking from the side. Cripeuss’ complete lack of peripheral vision is usually a real problem, but not against the game's big bosses, and I can concentrate on shooting this thing while avoiding the triple goo-balls it slings around the place. It’s just a shame that the boss isn’t more interesting to look at – its most notable features are the two massive thumb-prints on its shoulders, as though it was made of clay and the sculptor didn’t bother smoothing it off.


Battlantis isn’t much to look at all over, really. Lots of flat colours and basic animations, with few of the enemies having much character. That said, looking closer at the little guys in the red robes, they appear to be carrying rocket launchers. Shoulder-mounted anti-vehicle weaponry is a decent substitute for character, if you ask me.


I take it back. That’s too many rocket launchers. I’m only one man, one man with a double-barrelled shotgun that I very rarely get to power-up into a large crossbow that can pierce through multiple opponents. This is all too much for me.


Ah, this is more like it. Finally, Battlantis throws me a bone and gives me a break from the otherwise relentless tide of death by pitting me against a frog. A really angry-lookin’ frog, sure, but it’s still just a frog.


Then the frog gets hit by lightning and mutates into a monstrous behemoth of a frog, revealing a deep lack of understanding about how frogs work. Put fifty-thousand volts through a frog and all you’re going to get is a very unpleasant mess and an aroma that you’ll never forget. Please note I’m not speaking from experience here. How great would it be if that’s what happened in the game, though? The frog hops out, gets zapped and pops like an overfilled water balloon, Cripeuss moves on to the next stage with a slightly bemused look on his face.


And so Battlantis continues, with Cripeuss defending a castle in a land that I thought was covered in soapy lather at first, perhaps formed when the soap factories of ancient Atlantis began to sink. On closer inspection, I think it’s supposed to be snow. I also collected a power-up that lets Cripeuss throw extremely ugly-looking bottles at the monsters. The bottles explode when they land, allowing you to take multiple enemies out at once, assuming they're kind enough to stand in a clump. As well as this and the slightly more powerful crossbow weapon, you can also collect as speed-up icon and once that makes you invincible. The invincibility power provides the only time in the game you don’t feel like the “before” model from a fifties bodybuilding advert, because you can run into the enemies that scrabble up your parapet, if you’ll excuse the phrasing, to defeat them.


Oh look, a dragon. A dragon that spits pizzas! You don’t see that every day. Unless you work at Domino’s and that’s the dark secret to their success.


There’s a stage set in space, by the way. This sudden change in altitude is never explained. How would you explain it, anyway? The ancient Atlanteans really were spacemen and their city did not sink into the ocean but rather flew back into the cosmos that spawned them? That’s ridiculous, I’m sure no-one could believe that.


Battlantis’ level of difficulty continues to do unfortunate things to my blood pressure, but in the interests of full reportage I should say that at least there’s a consistency to it. The hit detection is a more than a little generous in favour of the enemies, but it’s not unpredictable. One thing that’ll make your life easier is learning the order that the monsters attack in, because there’s a surprising amount of... not strategy, exactly, but needing to know what comes next. In many of the stages, if you don’t defeat the enemies in the right order, you’ll be too far away to get across and deal with the next batch before they reach your castle, so learning attack patterns is almost mandatory if for some reason you’re desperate to see the end of the game. Speaking of which…


Here’s the final boss – Asmodeus himself, one assumes – and he’s a big, ugly lump. He feels very Konami-ish, that’s for sure: I could easily imagine him appearing in a Contra game. In fact, I’m not sure he didn’t. He also reminds me a bit of Smash TV’s bosses, especially because you can blow his eyeballs out. It’s a simple battle in concept – destroy the fleshy sacs on the side so they can’t spawn projectiles, pop his eyeballs and then finish the job by shooting his exposed brain. Is there any greater physical flaw than “an exposed brain”? Testicles so long and pendulous you risk standing on them whenever you walk, maybe, but that’s a weakness that unlikely to appear in a Konami arcade game, so instead it’s the brainmeats that take the punishment. A bloody good job, too: this fight is long enough, I dread to think how long it’d have dragged on if Asmodeus was in possession of a fully-formed and eminently sensible skull.
I get the impression that it’s a very difficult fight. Asmodeus puts a lot of projectiles into the air, including ghosts that can land on your castle. I can see how that would be a challenge. You know, if I wasn’t already deep into the “screw this, time for cheats” portion of my playthrough.


With Asmodeus defeated and Atlantis free to fall into the ocean in its own sweet time, Battlantis draws to a close. Your reward for suffering though it is a rather cute picture of the development team, which is nice. I’m not sure why they’re pictured kneeling in a flowerbed, but it goes to show that bizarre decisions at Konami are not a recent development.
There’s something else to note here. A message that read “more stages to go.” That’s right, Battlantis has a second loop. It’s fair to say I felt a lot of trepidation in hitting the start button, but I managed to summon up the courage somehow.


The backgrounds are the same as before but somehow, against all the odds, Konami managed to make the game even harder. More enemies, tougher enemies, multiple minibosses to be fought at the same time: grinding through it is an exercise in masochism that I would not recommend. It’s not as though there are any new bosses or anything.


There is a stage where the monsters are arranged in a swastika. Okay, so it’s the manjji symbol rather than a Nazi thing, but it still took me a back the first time I saw it. I expected the monsters to be evil, but not, like, Nazi evil.
Anyway, I played all the way through Battlantis again. You get a slightly different ending, and when I say “slightly” I mean in the way that having nine of your fingers ripped off in a terrible combine harvester accident is slightly better than having all your fingers ripped off. Would you like to see this one extra screen, the sum total of your reward for suffering through Battlantis two more times than anyone ever should?


Thanks, but I knew that already.
Battlantis, then. A game that’s not quite bad enough to hate, but one which feels lazily composed and with a difficulty level that sucks all the fun out of proceedings with the efficiency of your parents standing in the doorway and giving thumbs-up during your first romantic encounter. There’s nothing to thrill the imagination here, folks, and that means it’s not worth slogging through the hugely-outdated-even-in-1987 gameplay. On the plus side, the art on the arcade flyer is pretty rad, to use the parlance of the time.


Straight from a Dungeons and Dragons expansion, this one, with some great monster illustrations. However, things get a bit weird if you look at Cripeuss for too long. At first glance he appears to be wearing nothing but golden underpants that leave absolutely no room for any external genitalia, but on closer inspection you can see folds near his, erm, intersection. So, he’s either wearing trousers that match his skin tone or he has a very unfortunate skin condition. Then there’s his cape. Nothing wrong with the cape itself, it’s the fact that he’s attached it by clamping it directly onto his pecs that troubles me. He also has a shield. I wish I’d had a bloody shield in the game. Anything to make Battlantis a little easier would have helped to make it more enjoyable, but as it stands we’re left with the videogame equivalent of assembling flat-pack furniture in the dark: fiddly, not much fun and unnecessarily difficult.

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