15/09/2017

STREET SK8ER (PLAYSTATION)

This article’s all about a Playstation skateboarding game. Not that Playstation skateboarding game, though. However, please don’t take the fact that I’m writing about a much less well-known PS1 skate-em-up as proof that I’m purposefully choosing more obscure games to cover here at VGJunk. It’s just that if I tried to cover the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games I’d end up playing them for ages and getting nothing else done. Instead, I’m going to get my extreme sports thrills with Atelier Double and Micro Cabin’s 1998 big-air-em-up Street Sk8er!


Street Sk8er has a few names, actually. It was first released in Japan as Street Boarders, before coming to the US and being renamed to the much more “hip” and “urban” Street Sk8er. This was far too x-treme for the staid, reserved palate of European consumers, and so in PAL regions the name was changed again to Street Skater. Then the game was re-released as part of the Japanese “Simple 1500” budget range - the name once more changed to the rather severe-sounding The Skateboard. That’s a lot of different names for one game about rolling down hills on a plank of wood, so let’s hope the game itself contains just as much variety.


On that front, the early signs are not good. There are only two gameplay modes, Tour and Free Skate, and three courses, plus a couple of minigame modes. That doesn’t necessarily make for a bad game, though. How many tracks did Ridge Racer have? Exactly, and that turned out pretty well.


There are also four characters to choose from, each with different ratings in a variety of skateboard-related stats. All the statistics are important for effective skateboarding, but given how likely it is that I’m going to spend my first few attempts at the game constantly slamming into walls I think that I’ll get the most use out of TJ here thanks to his high acceleration stat. Hopefully it’ll allow me to get back into the action that bit more quickly.
The character designs are about what you’d expect for a group of young skate punks, and you get the obvious mix of stat allocations (some slower but easier to handle, others faster but more slippery than a greased eel) with a design philosophy of typical late-nineties skateboarder gear.


That said, Jerry’s shirt is so violently unpleasant that having to look at it means I’ve got a decent case to prosecute him for assault. Also, I know “goofy” in this context means that he rides with his left foot at the back of his board, but that doesn’t mean I can’t chuckle at a character being labelled with “style: goofy” because I'm assuming they shout "oh, gawrsh!" when they fall off their board.


Okay, here we go with the skateboarding. I decided to give Free Skate mode a go so I could get used to the action, and immediate impressions are that it handles just as I was expecting. Left and right to steer, X to jump, hold circle to crouch and build up speed. All very straightforward, with your character having a good sense of momentum when they’re moving: enough that you can’t turn on a sixpence unless you come to a complete stop, but responsive enough to get you where you want to go, especially with a little forward planning. All in all, I think I’m getting the hang of this skateboarding lark and I’ll soon be impressing everyone with my sick moves.


Or perhaps not. Here’s the first ramp I saw, and rather than soaring majestically into the air and doing some kind of flip, I skated right into the side of it. If the commentator’s anguished cry of “medic!” is anything to go by, TJ’s bones now have the consistency of cat litter, but skaters are made of sturdy stuff and he’s soon back on his board, albeit with a -300 point penalty. I think that’s what they mean when they say “adding insult to injury.” Well, the joke’s on them – I didn’t even have any points to lose.


Okay, here we go – I’ve managed to pull off my first trick, a simple grind along the edge of brick planter. Simple is the operative word here, because all you have to do to grind is jump onto the grindable rail at a reasonable angle – that is, not perpendicular – and you’ll be “locked” on to the rail, scoring some points in the process.


Ramps took a bit more figuring out. Obviously you can do tricks off the various ramps and half-pipes that make up the course, but my early issue with the mechanics of doing so were twofold. The first was that it took me a while to realise that simply shooting off the ramp isn’t enough, and you have to manually jump at the ramp’s edge. Then the problem was that I kept holding down the jump button, something ingrained into my muscle memory through years of playing, you guessed it, the Tony Hawk’s games.


Once I’d got it into my thick head that tapping the jump button is the way to go, Street Sk8er’s gameplay clicked into place, and it turns out that pulling off tricks is extremely simple. When you go off a ramp or the top of a pipe, press jump and hold one of the directional buttons to do a move. That’s all there is to it. Up, down, left and right each perform a different trick. Like I say, it’s very simple and doubly so when you realise that unless you really mess up, for example by falling off the edge of a half-pipe and slamming face-first into the unforgiving concrete or jumping straight into a wall, you’ll always land your trick. There are no extra points awarded for a good landing and almost no mid-air adjustments to make, so as long as you’re going to land on a “viable” surface then you’re going to score points. The same is true with grinding, as there’s no need to balance on the rail and once you’re on there, you’re on there.


With the basics of Street Sk8er’s action roughly figured out, I decided to head into the Tour mode, as that’s where the meat of the game’s content lies. I switched to the all-rounder character Ginger, because she’s the only one sensible enough to be wearing knee pads. The Tour is a series of score-attack challenges across the game’s three courses – New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo – interspersed with a couple of minigame challenges. You’re given a target score to beat before you can progress to the next stage (although you can retry as many times as you like) and a time limit to consider, which can be topped up by skating through various checkpoints.


Los Angeles is the first course, and because I’d already played it before I managed to get through it with the minimum of fuss… on my second attempt. The first time through, I spent too much time trying to rack up points on the half-pipe, which isn’t a great tactics for several reasons. One is that you gradually score fewer and fewer points for each trick you pull off on the same obstacle, forcing you to move on to fresh, ankle-shattering pastures. That makes sense, and it keeps the action flowing at a good pace. The other thing is that you get a big points bonus if you reach the goal with a lot of time left on the clock, and especially later in the game you need this big points bonus to meet the score requirement. So, Street Sk8er tries to squash two kinds of skating gameplay together: the trick-centric score-em-up and the straight race to the finish line, and it does an admirable job of combining the two into a game that’s fast-paced but still gives you a chance to show off.


After each of Tour mode’s main stages, you’re given some points with which to improve your character’s abilities. I decided to keep Ginger as an all-rounder, although it was tempting to slam it all into jump power and see if I could send her into a low-Earth orbit, or at least out of bounds.


Next up is the half-pipe minigame: thirty seconds to score as many points as you can without severely injuring your character by trying to get them to grind along every available surface. That’s definitely an issue with Street Sk8er, it’s often not clear about which ledges are grindable and which aren’t. Anyway, the half-pipe. There’s not much to it, but you should still try your best because the higher the score you get, the more bonus time you’re given to complete the next “proper” course and those extra seconds can be vital.


Here we are in New York, grinding our way to success and definitely not about to smash into that chainlink fence once this brickwork runs out. I’m sure I’ll avoid that hazard, have my time refilled and do a backflip off that ramp in the distance. That’s the plan, anyway. Because Street Sk8er only has three full stages, you’ll eventually come to learn the layout and location of every ramp and obstacle, and honestly the earlier comparison to Ridge Racer is a surprisingly apt one. Despite being a PS1 exclusive, Street Sk8er feels very much like an arcade game: short, score-focused stages where playtimes are generally under three minutes per course, bold, chunky graphics and not much else to it rather than the core gameplay.


Fortunately, that core gameplay is a lot of fun. Limited, sure, but it moves at a good clip and the feeling of nailing a series of tricks, grinding along a rail to the next half-pipe and backflipping over the finish line with time to spare is enjoyable enough to keep you coming back thanks to good controls and some fun presentation. There’s definitely room in my heart for an arcade-style skateboarding game, and that’s exactly what this is, to the point that I’ve almost convinced myself that there really was a Street Sk8er arcade cabinet with a motion-sensitive fake board for you to stand on. The brevity of a Street Sk8er play session relly works in the game's favour, too - keeping each run to a couple of minutes forces you to avoid getting hung up on the same areas of the course, being able to retry with no fuss prevents things getting frustrating.


The second between-round minigame is the bowl, which is functionally the same as the half-pipe. Thirty second timer, score points, etc. The main difference is the added anxiety that comes from constantly worrying I was about to smash Ginger’s head into this crane dangling over the middle of the bowl.


The final “big” course is Tokyo, and personally I found it the most fun of the three, probably because it’s a little less realistic than the other two, with menacing, vertiginous quarter-pipes and almost sci-fi themed tunnels – an aesthetic that fits nicely with the overblown, oversaturated arcade feel of Street Sk8ter’s action.


It’s also fun because while it technically has the highest points requirement to clear the stage, it also has the most ramps and jumps so you can score some big points without having to slow down too much. In fact, Street Sk8er’s Tour mode is one of those rare games that gets easier as you progress through it, mostly because of the bonus time you can get from the minigames which isn’t available to you on the first stage. This is especially noticeable once you’ve completed the Tour mode once, because the next time you play it the score requirements will be even higher.


It doesn’t take long to finish Tour mode, and you reward for doing so – the first time through, at least – is that some gates in the stages become unlocked, giving you access to different routes though each course. It’s a decent way to expand on the game’s replayability, even if it was surprisingly difficult to see the new routes when I went back and tried the stages again.


And I did go back, because I was having so much fun playing Street Sk8er that I figured I’d try to unlock a few more things. I hit a bit of a stumbling block when I went back into tour mode and the point requirements had been increased, mind you – especially on the first course, where there simply aren’t that many things to trick off and to get through you have to nail every available point-scoring opportunity and get to the goal as quickly as possible. One thing it took me a while to realise is that when you level up a character’s stats, it also increases the “level” of tricks that they can perform. You start out with fairly “standard” skateboarding tricks like kickflips, but once you’re up to level eight you can pull off ridiculous helicoptering moves, mid-air handstands and the like, all of which get you the extra points that you’ll need to meet the new targets. While there’s not really a combo system as such, it does seem that you can only perform the bigger tricks after knocking out a few of the smaller ones, making hitting as many potential jumps as possible very important.


Another reason to keep playing Tour mode is that you can unlock some new characters, with a couple of stand-outs. One of them is a bonobo ape called, appropriately enough, Bonobo. Who could fail to be charmed by the concept of a skateboarding chimp? Especially in a videogame, because this way you get the fun of seeing a monkey busting out killer backflips without any of the ethical concerns you might feel when viewing, say, an old PG Tips advert. More skateboarding monkeys, that what videogames need.


The other “weird” character is a ninja lady called Saho, who’s unique in that she rides rollerblades rather than a board. It doesn’t affect the gameplay any, but it’s a nice touch and I assume the thinking was “ninjas stab people, so she should use rollerblades, ah ha ha.” Once of Saho’s moves is a jumping board-grab where she stretches her legs out like she’s doing a flying kick, so she’s worth unlocking for that reason alone.


By this point, I’d spent a good few hours playing Street Sk8er, and I was having a lot of fun. More fun than I expected to, if I’m honest. It’s a straightforward, uncomplicated but action-packed and very engaging piece of arcade excitement, and part of me wants to describe it as the skateboarding equivalent of Crazy Taxi. It’s a particularly impressive achievement when you consider that it’s one of the first – if not the first – fully 3D 32-bit skateboarding games, preceding even the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.


Ah yes, that game. Well, there was always going to be a point in this article where I had to compare Street Sk8er to Tony Hawk’s, wasn’t there? However, it’s not a fair comparison, because they’re very different games. Street Sk8er’s all about straightforward, uncomplicated action, while THPS simply has much more to it. That said, I’m still going to compare them by saying that THPS is the better game, because it has even sharper controls, more locations, bigger combo potential and (starting with THPS2) the Create-A-Skater option... but Street Sk8er offers a nice change of pace, and is a fun game for when you’ve got twenty minutes to spare. One thing that THPS did that Street Sk8er doesn’t quite manage is that it made regular suburban kids feel as though they were, in a small way, a part of a cool “underground” subculture. That might sound like I’m taking the piss but I genuinely think that’s a good thing - I’m sure there were kids out there who got into skating and other related topics because of the THPS games and I think that’s neat.


On the theme of comparisons between this and THPS, I should mention Street Sk8er’s soundtrack, which is probably exactly what you’re expecting – licensed pop-punk and ska tracks from lesser-known bands of the time like The Pietasters and I Against I. The exception is a couple of tracks from Less Than Jake, including “All My Best Friends Are Metalheads” which later graduated to the big leagues by appearing on the soundtrack of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. Obviously it’s all down to personal taste, but I enjoyed the soundtrack and whatever your feelings about ska-punk I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say it’s the perfect genre to soundtrack a 1998 PS1 skateboarding game. Personally, “All My Best Friends Are Metalheads” comes attached to a lot of fond, alcoholically-fuzzed memories, so I was glad to hear it while I tried to steer a monkey in a baseball cap around a half-pipe. There’s nothing quite as iconic as holding on to what you are and pretending you’re a superman or as straight-up good as Adolescents’ “Amoeba,” but yeah, I enjoyed the soundtrack.


That’s Street Sk8er, then. If you’ve read through this article and spotted an instance where I typed “Street Sk8ter” and forgot to fix it, feel free to let me know because I’m sure I did it at least a dozen times. It’s a really enjoyable little game with a pleasingly straight-ahead arcade feel, and it’s particularly impressive when you consider when it was released. Honestly, I'm struggling to think of anything negative to say about it besides the lack of content. There's a stretch or two ineach course where there's not much to do besides "go fast," and it could maybe do with a button to reset your position when you get stuck in the smaller crevices of the play area, but other than that it does what it does very well.
So is it inferior to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater? Just about, and especially when compared to that venerable franchise’s later sequels, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.  And hey, skateboarding ape. You can’t argue with that.

08/09/2017

DEMON BLUE (AMIGA)

Today’s game is an Amiga platformer called Demon Blue, released in 1992 and developed by a company called Hirographics, and I’m going to guess the design process was “I’ve drawn a bunch of weird creatures. Well, better make an Amiga game about them!” Also, the name Demon Blue makes me think of Scottish pop-rock band Deacon Blue, who are probably most famous for their 1988 single “Real Gone Kid.” Then again, I might just think that’s Deacon Blue’s most famous song because it was on those Boots adverts. Hang on, where was I? Oh yeah, Demon Blue. Is it named after Deacon Blue? Who knows, but what I do know is that you spend the game playing as a small blue demon head.


This demon head, to be precise. Good lord, this thing’s hard to look at. Not because it’s especially ugly, although it is – it looks like a facial prosthetic from a particularly bad episode of Star Trek grew feet and tried to escape – but because of the expression it’s wearing. I feel like the demon head is judging me, somehow. That’s the diabolic visage you see when you’re in Hell’s waiting room and the demon in charge of new arrivals is checking out your internet search history.


Before we get to the gameplay, I’d just like to say I like the vaguely M. C. Escher-ish look of the game’s logo, and there’s almost as much fun to be had trying to parse exactly how these letters are shaped as there is in playing Demon Blue.


Here we are at the very fist screen of the game, and it’s weird. You can see that it’s weird. Lantern-jawed angels with dangling, fleshy hoof-feet? That’s weird. Eyeball monsters riding atop oversized mushrooms? Also weird, but admittedly less weird than the angels. At least Demon Blue himself doesn’t look quite as intimidating as he did on the title screen. His expression has softened into a smirk, and now he resembles a bootleg Kirby more than anything else. Will his brightly-coloured platforming antics be as much fun as those found in a Kirby game? No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.
Oh, and please note that even though this is the very first screen of the game, that door says “EXIT” on it. This will be important later, so if you do decide to play Demon Blue make sure you remember where this door is.


As for the gameplay, I said Demon Blue was a platformer and I meant it, because jumping is all that our hero can do. No special moves, no different running speeds, no climbing or swimming, just jumping. You do a lot of jumping in this game, so it’s unfortunate that Demon Blue shouts “ey!” every time he jumps. It’s an annoying noise when you first start playing; by the end of the game it’ll have you browsing Amazon for ear protectors.


As I say, all you can do in this game is jump, but you might have noticed that there are enemies all over the bloody place. Does this mean that our friend Blue has no way to fight back against those who would oppress him? Well, yes and no. There are three basic types of monster in this game. The first are the ones that stand or hover in place, maybe bobbing up and down a little. The angels fall into this category, as do the carnivorous plants. There’s no way to harm these enemies (at least, not that I could figure out) and they’re really more obstacles than enemies. Touching them will drain a bit of your health, and thankfully Demon Blue give you a fairly generous health bar.
Enemy type number two is typified by the creature on the right of the screenshot above. The one that looks like a tongue sticking out of an arse with googly eyes perched on top. Yeah, that thing. These enemies can be defeated simply by jumping into them. You touch them, they explode and you don’t lose any health… so I guess they’re not really enemies at all, are they?
Then there’s the third kind, an example being the red M&M up above our hero or the giant wasps that patrol certain screens. These enemies will make an effort to come and kill you, tracking you down so they can rub their deadly bodies against your character, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. They can’t be killed. They can’t be bargained with, they can’t be reasoned with. They don’t feel pity, remorse or fear, and they absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead. It makes sense that wasps would fit into this category.


In short, the answer to the question “does Demon Blue contain combat?” is no, unless you’ve got a very flexible definition of what constitutes “combat.” I say it’s a platformer, but I suppose you could equally call it an avoid-em-up, because most of the gameplay revolves around making your way through the maze-like environment while touching as few things as possible.


The goal of all this wandering is to find the eight keys that are scattered around the map. Once you’ve got all eight, that exit door on the first screen opens up, and you can walk through it to freedom. Here’s a key now (the first one I managed to find, even) and this gives up an opportunity to play a little game I call What’s Killing Demon Blue? Some of the thing on this screen will hurt you if you touch them, while others will not. Try to guess which ones are harmful. The angel is a "free space" kind of deal, because I already mentioned that they’re deadly and it makes sense that they’d be trying to harm Demon Blue because he’s, you know, a demon. Okay, do you have your answers ready? If you said “I think that large blue wyvern that seems to be throttling itself with its own tail looks dangerous and also a bit kinky,” then you’re wrong. That thing’s safe, and you can even use it as a platform. “What about that sword, then?” you say, but no, that’s also safe. However, those squatting gargoyles – the things that look for all the world like immobile statues that exist as decoration – those will drain your health, and because the gap between the ceiling and the gargoyles is so narrow you’re definitely going to get hurt here.


Thus, the first thing you have to do when you start playing Demon Blue is learn what will kill you and what won’t. As a general rule of thumb, if it moves, it’s deadly, although that doesn’t always hold true. At least this large woman with the sunglasses is safe to stand on. Just… don’t try to figure out the anatomy of her torso, okay? Even I, a loner who spends his time writing about forgotten Amiga games, know that a woman’s breasts don’t grow directly out of her armpits.


Once you have figured out what’s deadly, you can concentrate of the real meat of the Demon Blue experience, and that’s the exploration. The eight keys are scattered far and wide over a gameworld that’s not only fairly large but often has multiple different exits on each screen, some of which can only be reached by approaching them from a different screen. If you’re planning on finishing Demon Blue without resorting to cheats then drawing a map is a must, something that’s doubly true because all the screens look the same – that is, like the illustrations from a cheap pack of tarot cards came to life and tried to found a society based upon the great and noble theme of hovering platforms. There are no new backgrounds or enemy types to be seen once you’ve travelled beyond the first ten or so screens, so keeping track of where you’ve been can be a bit of a pain.


On top of that, Demon Blue will throw the occasional bit of pure bullshit at you, like these pillars that have invisible pathways through them. Well, some of them do. Most of them are solid. I’d recommend you make Blue jump into every single tower of unblinking eyes that you see, but that would mean you’d have to hear him shout “ey!” even more than necessary so you’re going to be having a miserable time no matter what you do.


Is Demon Blue a miserable time, though? Once you get down to actually playing the game, I mean? I’ll be honest, it’s not great. Considering the game consists almost entirely of jumping between platforms and avoiding enemies placed in ways that give you almost no room to manoeuvre, the fact that your character handles like a carrier bag filled with jack-in-the-boxes does not make for the most engaging gameplay experience. Demon Blue is an awkward jumper, and a lot of the time your movements feel fuzzily defined. Will you land on the edge of a platform? It’s often hard to tell, especially when you’re jumping between screens, and because a missed jump often means falling for several screens or landing in a pit full of monsters, this lack of precision can become annoying.


It doesn’t help that Blue keeps jumping as long as you hold the button down, and there was more than one instance of me making a short jump and not letting go of the button quickly enough, causing our hero to leap straight off the platform I just landed on. Oh, and getting Demon Blue to jump straight up is a pain, too: if there’s a platform to your side, you’ll automatically jump diagonally towards it even if you’re not pushing the joystick in that direction, which obviously hampers your ability to hop over enemies or scope out the next screen. I also had a real problem with Blue banging his head (or, erm, his body, I guess) on the lip of platforms just above him, which causes him to fall straight down. You know, now that I’ve gotten around to writing this down the flaws in Demon Blue’s core mechanics sound game-breakingly bad, but they’re perhaps not quite as terrible as all that. It was an occasionally frustrating experience, but I didn’t hate it or anything, perhaps because when I got the jumping right it felt smooth and the platforms were laid out in interesting patterns without it ever being unclear about how to get from point A to point B.


I thought I’d be more pissed off about the relentless enemies and lack of safe screen space meaning that you’re constantly taking damage that you can’t avoid. I usually hate being forced to take damage that can’t reasonably be avoided, and it does become a bit wearying in Demon Blue when you walk on to a screen like the one above and see a dozen things that are going to hurt you because Blue’s jumps have all the aerial precision of a piano falling from a helicopter. However, scattered around are energy bottles that give you all your health back, and it felt to me like if you were dedicated enough to learn Demon Blue’s tricks and traps thoroughly enough to beat the game, then you’d know where all the energy bottles are and they’re spaced in such a way that you’d always be able to keep your health topped up. Think of them less as health refills and more as fuel for Blue’s cybernetic innards, that’ll soften the blow.


More than anything, Demon Blue is a good argument for videogames having some sense of structure to them. It’s all well and good saying “here’s a big map and a vague goal, now go and explore,” but when it’s done too loosely you end up with a saggy, uninspiring mess. The Metroid games make a similar formula succeed by always giving you something to work towards – the next boss to defeat, a new item to collect which in turn unlocks new areas. Games like Demon Blue don’t have that, and as a result it’s hard to get excited about slogging through a barely-changing warren of tunnels for which the only reward is more barely-changing tunnels.


I did have some fun playing Demon Blue, though. More than anything, it’s enjoyable as a sort of digital safari, and by far the most compelling reason to keep moving through it is to see what weird creatures you might happen across. For example, I dropped down a chasm and landed in a room which has all the hallmarks of being a boss fight but without any of the actual fighting. As far as I saw this monster is a one-off, a bouncing creature made from beetle legs and an old lightbulb that stomps around in this pit, trying to crush Blue. Naturally Blue can’t fight back so all you have to do is climb those platforms and escape, but finding a strange new monster was worth the health I lost. It’s only on reviewing these screenshots that I noticed the monster has a teeny-tiny face right at the bottom, which is sad: I had though it was a nightmarish amalgam of random insectoid parts, but now I can see its head I have to assume it knows what a grotesque freak it is, the poor thing.


It helps that the graphics are nice. Sharply detailed, colourful and possessing a sense of genuine strangeness when it comes to the creature designs, Demon Blue is definitely visually interesting enough to soften the blow of the mediocre gameplay. That said, it may look nice but it also looks familiar. Hmm, what could this be reminding me of?


Here’s a snippet from Hewson’s 1989 Amiga action game Stormlord. Now, I’m not saying that Demon Blue’s creators ripped off the “fairy women arching their backs and bulbous mushrooms” aesthetic from Stormlord, but that’s definitely what it was reminding me of and I’m glad I figured that out. It would have been driving me mad for weeks if I hadn’t.


After I’d been wandering around for a while, gathering up the odd key here and there, it struck me that I had no idea what was going on. Like, what even is this demon I’m controlling? What is it the demon of? Based on the title screen I’d guess it’s a demon that inflicts one minor but very specific annoyance. The demon of the headache you get from staring at a computer screen for too long, that sort of thing. So I thought I’d check out the game’s manual to see if I could learn a bit more, and I was not disappointed.


It turns out that I’m controlling the demonic reincarnation of a dead Scottish child who drowned while bunking off school. I’m not sure that playing hooky is a spiritual defilement so severe it deserves the punishment of being transformed into a limbless, grunting football, but here we are. God is truly wrathful, and apparently he bloody hates fishing. The thing is, the manual also suggests that “Harrison” can be reborn on Earth by finishing this game. The theology here is baffling, it really is.


I don’t really want to make a dabbing reference, but I know that if I don’t others will so yes, that statue kinda looks like it’s dabbing.
After a couple of hours spent exploring, dying, turning on a cheat for infinite health and exploring some more, I managed to collect all the keys. If you’re going to play Demon Blue, I would highly recommend giving yourself infinite energy. Overcoming the challenge of the gameplay isn’t nearly as much fun as wandering around unimpeded, gawping at the d├ęcor.


Here we go, then. I’ve got all eight keys, the door is open and Harrison can return to the land of the living, presumably forever bearing deep mental scars after his ordeal. We don’t get to see any of that in the ending, mind you. Is there an ending at all? Sort of. Grammar pedants may want to look away now.


*You’re.
And so Demon Blue ends on a poetical note, with a cheeky rhyme that promises the developers next game will kick your, well, I’m sure you get it. I have no idea if that’s true, because I don’t know what the developer / coder’s next game was, but I hope it was better than Demon Blue. It’s not that this is a bad game, per se – it’s just that the majority of the fun you’ll get from it doesn’t come from the gameplay but from the bizarro monsters and strange setting. Honestly? That’s good enough for me. There are plenty of good platformers out there, but it’s rare that I get to traverse platforms that look like Santa Clause with a bad spray tan.

05/09/2017

VIOLENT SHOOTING / CYCLE SHOOTING / BRONX (ARCADE)

oday’s article is all about a 1986 arcade game from Taito. No, not Bubble Bobble. Not Arkanoid, either. This game is called… well, it gets a bit complicated. In Japan it was released as Violent Shooting, which raises questions about whether there can be a game about shooting guns that isn’t intrinsically violent. Then it came west, where it was called Cycle Shooting. A slightly more descriptive title for the contents, because you definitely have to shoot at some (motor)cycles. Then there was a bootleg version called Bronx, which is technically the version I’ll be playing today because both Violent Shooting and Cycle Shooting seem to be unemulated a the moment. As far as I can tell, the only difference between Bronx and the official versions of Violent Shooting is the title screen, so I figured that’s close enough.


Here’s the brand-new title screen that the creators of this bootleg went with. One might argue that they shouldn’t have bothered. I don’t know about you, but I can’t help seeing it as “the square root of bron,” and I have no idea why you’d even call this game Bronx because it has nothing to do with that particular part of New York.


What is does have is a strangely-proportioned young lady running down the middle of a road while being harassed by a gang of hooligans on motorbikes. I know she’s all geared up like she’s on her way to her mid-week roller derby match, but she’s not wearing skates. Even if she was I doubt they’d give her enough to speed to outrun the thugs who, of course, kidnap her. Oh yes, Violent Shooting is ferreting through the bottom of the “rescue the abducted female” barrel for a storyline, and now it’s up to you – the nameless, gun-toting hero – to save this woman.


It turns out that the “shooting” part of this game’s many names is accurate, because hey look, it’s a lightgun game. A very basic lightgun game, at that. You point the attached gun (if you’re playing on an actual arcade cabinet, anyway) at the screen and shoot the bad guys. This makes Violent Shooting’s gameplay quick to describe, and in fact I’ve already covered all the salient points. There’s no reloading, no special weapons or screen-clearing grenades and no shrieking hostages that you’re supposed to not shoot despite their arm-waving, attention-grabbing antics. As I say, it’s about as basic as a lightgun game can get.
I should also mention that while this “Bronx” version of the game is emulated, it’s not emulated well and there are plenty of issues that popped up while I way playing. They were mostly graphical errors, especially with sprites appearing on the wrong layer of the playfield, and normally I wouldn’t write about a game when I can’t get a feel for what it’s really like but despite the rather bland gameplay Violent Shooting was interesting enough for me to play through it anyway.


So here we are, shooting at a motley crew of mohawk-wearing shoulderpad aficionados in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Some of them have motorcycles, some of them have cars and a couple of them even have small personal helicopters, because as always these post-apocalyptic survivors are forever bleating on about the lack of fuel but there’s always enough to keep roving gangs of motorbike psychos on the move. As always in these situations, we must decide whether the aesthetics are influenced more by Hokuto no Ken / Fist of the North Star or Mad Max. You might think that’s a moot point, because Fist of the North Star is hugely inspired by Mad Max in the first place, but there’s a subtle distinction – Mad Max drives a car and uses a gun, but Fist of the North Star’s Kenshiro punches people until they explode. Like I said, it’s a subtle distinction. I’m leaning towards Mad Max because of, you know, the shooting, but those ruined buildings back there look very much like a Fist of the North Star backdrop.


Halfway through the stage, the punks were replaced by a swarm of floating, grinning balloons that grant points when shot. While the bad guys in Violent Shooting are hardly the roughest, toughest looking bunch of hombres, it’s a bit jarring to suddenly be shooting at something that seems to have drifted in from Hugsy Smileington’s Adventures in Balloonland.


I do like these punks, mind you. Even though they’re trying to kill you (and succeeding) they’ve got the air of bumbling losers, especially when you shoot their motorcycles and they comically roll along the asphalt with goofily exaggerated expressions rather than having all their skin sheared off. It’s a fun look, and it's about as close as we’re ever likely to get to a Mad Max / Fist of the North Star lightgun game so I’m having a nice time even if the gameplay is very one-note.


Moving on to stage two, and rather than the scrolling roadway of the first stage it’s a static screen showing a petrol station overrun by, you guessed it, a biker gang who took full advantage of the local boutique’s “buy a pair of shoulder pads, get a free eyepatch” offer. The most notable new addition here is the cutesy cartoon cat that scampers around the screen. Aww, isn’t it adorable? All fuzzy and cute. Shame I had to shoot it to collect the points bonus it was carrying, really.


You spend your time on this stage shifting between shooting gang members and fuzzy critters, and it’s fairly important that you shoot both kinds of target. I was rather taken aback when I started playing Violent Shooting and realised I only started with two blocks of health in my life bar, a measly amount that is quickly shredded should you miss a shot on even a single enemy. In fact, it was a real challenge just to get past the first stage, so quickly was my health bar depleted whenever I didn’t take out a single punk in time (which was a lot, because I’m bad at videogames.) My two top tips for Violent Shooting success, then: shoot the balloons and animals because they give you extra health when you collect enough points, and don’t hammer the fire button because your gun fires in a “bang-bang, bang-bang” two-shot rhythm which can leave you vulnerable between those two shots. Of course, this is all theoretical, because most of the time I lost health it was due to an enemy I couldn’t even see. As in, there was no enemy sprite there at all. I’m going to put this down to emulation issues, because surely even a mid-eighties arcade game wouldn’t be cruel or greedy enough to have invisible enemies.


This stage has a boss at the end, but it’s not just any boss – it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger himself! Specifically, it’s John Matrix from Commando, if the body paint and rocket launcher are any indication. He operates as a pretty typical lightgun game boss. Keep shooting him so he can’t shoot you, only adjusting your aim to shoot down the rockets he occasionally fires at you. I’ve fought a thousand lightgun game bosses like him before, but happily this one has the advantage of being a super-deformed cutesy version of Arnold Schwarzenegger: something you don’t see very often, and probably for good reason. Taito definitely pulled off the look, though. Immediately recognisable as Arnie, an engagingly silly design and some bright red high-heeled boots just to spice things up a little.


Once I’d managed to shoot the boss enough times, he died. That’s to be expected. Less expected was the row of bullet wounds that appeared across his chest and the blood oozing from his mouth. It’s still presented in a cartoonish manner, but it’s a little gorier than I thought Violent Shooting was going to get. In fact, one of the most noticeable things about this Taito game is how un-Taito-y it feels. I know they’ve got a wide range of different genres and aesthetics under their belt, but whenever I think of Taito arcade games I think of Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands, not eighties action movie stars leaking blood like an oversaturated sponge.


Onward to stage three, which is a lot like stage one except it takes place in a tunnel of some kind. Violent Shooting’s biggest problem is that it becomes repetitive almost immediately. Most lightgun games are, by nature, rather basic in terms of gameplay design but they (the good ones, anyway) keep things interesting with new enemies, hazards and locations. Not so with Violent Shooting, because you’ll be blasting away at the same set of hairspray-hogging punks for the entire game, the action set against backdrops that you could hardly call exciting. The only new feature in this stage is that the punks will now throw bundles of dynamite at you, which must be shot out of the air.


I thought that the sound that exploding dynamite makes had long been settled on. Bang, boom, kaboom, all acceptable onomatopoeia. “Krash” is a new one on me, unless they’re chucking the dynamite through a plate glass window before it explodes.


Another day, another single-screen stage populated by the same villains. Sometimes they ride up and down in the elevator on the side of the building, so that’s new. Also new are the strange fuzzy chicks that wander around the screen, disconsolate that Taito didn’t choose them to star in New Zealand Story and desperate for the player to end their miserable existence. “Go on, do it.” their fluffy little faces seem to say, “You’ll need those points.”


Yes indeed, I will need those points and the precious life energy they bring, because this stage has a fight against two bosses at once. They’re punks, but bigger and with even more extravagant shoulder pads. If they had a running start and jumped off a cliff, they could glide for miles on those things, obviating the need to terrorise the innocent post-apocalyptic survivors during their relentless quest for petrol. Maybe that’s why they spend this fight leaping around like kangaroos with tasers stuffed into their pouches, they’re trying to figure out their own aerodynamics.
Anyway, the fight is simple in concept but difficult in practise, because Violent Shooting is hard enough without having two fast-moving targets gunning for you at once. I managed to triumph, however. I’m not sure whether it was through luck, design or poor emulation, but one of the bosses decided to wander away for a significant portion of the fight, leaving me with only one target. I don’t know how or why it happened, but I’ll take it.


Another scrolling stage now, this time a jaunt through the irradiated wasteland with a large tanker for company. I assumed I was supposed to be protecting it – and I’m pretty sure that is the case – but obviously I shot it a few times just to see what would happen. Nothing, is the answer. Nothing happened. I mean, I lost a life because I was too busy shooting at the truck to get rid of the punks, but nothing happened to the truck itself.


The action then moves on to this series of wooden bridges, which are naturally infested with gang members on motorcycle. A bloody ton of them, even. They just kept coming, wave after wave, with no end in sight no matter how many of them I reduced to red smears on the road. I began to worry that the game was broken somehow – more broken that it already was, I mean – and that I was trapped in an endless loop of logs and punks.


Then I accidentally shot one of those grey blocks, and it exploded. So those are bombs, then? Okay, so I have to shoot enough bombs to destroy the bridge. Well, that’s something a bit different, at least. It’s not fun, not when the bombs whizz by at a speed that makes them far harder to blow up than it feels like it should be, but having a concrete goal to aim for is nice.


Now we’re at the final stage. You can tell it’s the final stage, because the kidnapped lady from the intro is tied up at the top of the screen. Much like the tanker, I had to try shooting her too, just to see what would happen. She made a noise. I don’t think it was the noise she was supposed to make, because it sounded like R2-D2 stubbing his toe. Maybe there’s meant to be some digitised speech in there. “Cut it out, you berk,” something like that.
As for the stage itself, well, you shoot some punks. That’s it. Violent Shooting is a very short game even by the standards of the lightgun genre, and that’s definitely for the best. It doesn’t have the energy to sustain itself for the stages it does have.


The final boss appears, and I was not expecting it to be some kind of armoured cherub, an enemy I’m pretty sure I fought during Bayonetta. I was expecting it to be a punk, but bigger. RoboPutto is what we’ve got, though, so I got down to the shooting only to discover that the boss is carrying a large, bulletproof shield and the only way to land a hit is to fire during the very brief window when the boss lowers their shield to fire at you. This is easier said than done, because the boss runs around the screen pretty quickly, but it’s a decent-enough set-up for a boss fight in a lightgun game.


Eventually I landed enough shots to knock off the boss’ helmet and reveal that – gasp – I’m fighting against a lady! I think. No, hang on, she’s got armoured boobs, it’s definitely supposed to be a woman. This would be more interesting if the boss had any backstory or motivations to speak of, but I suppose it’s still better than fighting yet another gang member.


A few hits later, and the boss is defeated by the power of embarrassment as our hero shoots all her armour off. You even get a couple of frames of full-frontal, single-pixels-for-nipples nudity to keep all you perverts out there happy. What a way to end a strange little game.


As far as an ending goes, you get to see our hero in the flesh. He looks a lot more like Max Rockatansky than Kenshiro, so I guess that clears up the whole Mad Max / Fist of the North Star influence debate. Not that he looks that much like Mad Max, mind you. I don’t remember Max wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. Not-Max and his lady friend get their revenge by tying the villain up at the top of the screen – poetic justice, if the poet in question is someone scrawling a dirty limerick on a toilet wall – and Violent Shooting / Cycle Shooting / Bronx comes to an end. Except it doesn’t, it loops back to the first stage with increased difficulty, but as far as I’m concerned it’s done.
Normally I’d try to come to some kind of conclusion here, but because I can’t be certain about what Violent Shooting is really like when it’s all working correctly I think it’d be kinda unfair to do so. That said, from what I’ve played it seems like a technically competent but very limited game. There’s not much here to keep you coming back for more, you know? On the plus side, the setting is a weird enough take on a very familiar world to make it interesting to play through once or twice, and it’s hard to argue with that tiny Arnie boss. Maybe one day it’ll be fully emulated and I’ll go back to check up on it, but for now I’ll go back to trying to figure out a way to cryogenically preserve myself until the Yakuza Fist of the North Star game is released and I can get my post-apocalyptic thug-fighting thrills that way.

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