Monday, 24 July 2017

Iblard Laputa no Kaeru Machi (Playstation)

It's another one of those ~aesthetic~ Playstation games, like previous Lunatic Obscurity entry Kaze no Notam, and while Kaze no Notam was vaguely inspired by the work of artist Hiroshi Nagai, Iblard Laputa no Kaeru Machi is explicity and specifically based on the work of artist Naohisa Inoue, right down to his paintings appearing in some stages as clues.

Besides being an artistic showcase, Iblard is also a first-person adventure game featuring simple puzzles, which are mainly solved by using the right item in the right place. It's actually a lot like a version of Yumemi Mystery Mansion, but set outside and with realtime 3D graphics instead of prerendered FMV fakery, and it is actually from the same developer as both Mystery Mansion games. There are seperate stages, and each one only includes a few items to use and a few items to work with, meaning that all the puzzles are very easy to solve: even if you somehow don't figure them out, it won't take long to get through with trial and error. Another nice thing is that though there's some text and spoken dialogue, there's very little, and you don't need to understand any of it to get anywhere (at least, not in the few stages I've played through).

A quick image search for "Naohisa Inoue" brings up lots of paintings of incredibly idyllic fairyland gardens overflowing with flowers, and those are the environments you'll be exploring in this game. Although there are some minor hazards, they're both easy to avoid and very unlikely to kill you, and they seem to be there simply as some kind of token gesture towards being a traditional videogame. The visuals and music and lack of real threats combine to make a very safe-feeling environment, and everything's very cosy and dreamlike. If you've ever been in either a very verdant garden or a very overgrown bit of forest on a sweltering hot summer afternoon, this game's got a similar feel, to the extent that you can almost feel the pollen going up your nose.  I think the low-poly models and low-resolution textures really help that feeling, and that this would be a very different game were it made at any other time in the advancement of videogame technology.

Iblard Laputa no Kaeru Machi is a game that's completely devoid of excitement, and isn't interesting mechanically, either. However, it is a perfect example of how a game can still be good and worthwhile while not being "good" in any kind of traditional sense. It perfectly creates an atmosphere and the simple puzzles are in there for two reasons: firstly, they give you a reason to fully explore each stage, as solving the puzzles will mean going to each part at least once. Secondly, they create a (very mild) feeling of being a little bit lost in a nice, though strange, place, a feeling which is helped by the fact that the map works like an actual map: there's not movie "you are here" dot, and instead you have to look at certain landmarks on the map and then look for them in the stage to get your bearings. Though it might not be the easiest game to track down, I strongly recommend that you do.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Wiz n Liz (Mega Drive)

Videogames magazines of the early to mid 1990s had something of a strange vendetta against platform games. Even unquestioned classics like Gunstar Heroes, Contra Hard Corps and Alien Soldier would get average-at-best reviews from a lot of magazines, simply for looking like platform games. Obviously, this meant that there were great games that fell by the wayside, and since they never had the series or developer associations that those games had, they never gained the renown they deserved. Wiz n Liz is one such game.

Though it's a UK-developed game that was only ever released on home systems, it could honestly stand up alongside the best single player arcade games, as it is purely about going fast and scoring points. I'd even go as far as to say that with a different aesthetic, the game's design could totally be used to make a perfect Sonic arcade game! The main meat of the game is running arond the stages, which are only a few screens across, rollercoaster-like in design and looping (kind of like the multiplayer stages in Sonic 3), where you collect rabbits, which turn into letters. The first task of each stage is to collect the letters to spell a word at the top of the screen, once that's done, you just have to collect the rest of the rabbits (who now turn into clocks, fruit, and stars, all of which I'll explain shortly) and go to the exit as fast as possible, you have to do two or three rounds of this per stage, depending on the difficulty level. There's no enemies, other than very easy bossfights that occur every eight stages, and your only threat is the time limit.

You start the game with two minutes, and your remaining time carries over from stage to stage. When it runs out, you lose a life, but there are various ways to claw back the seconds. The main two are the clocks that the rabbits drop during the stages, as each one will give you three seconds back at the end of the round, and a glowing time orb worth thirty seconds that appears in a random place on the stage whenever you get down to lesst than ten seconds left on the clock. Now that the clocks have been explained, I should do the other two items, right?

The stars don't really do anything on their own, other than give you points, but with the aid of certain fruits and vegetables, they can do a lot more! The fruits and veg, you see, are spell components, and between stages, you put two of the food items in your posession into a cauldron to get various different effects. This is where the game hides and almost Bubble Bobblian level of secret stuff: as well as item shops where you can spend you hard-won stars on more fruit, extra lives and a few more precious seconds, there's at least three mini-games that can be played for more points, level skips, a fake game over screen and various other weird things. Though obviously, a player who wanted to maximise their score would go online to look up a list of all the recipes for the most useful spells, I would honeslty advise against doing this, as there's a lot of fun to be had in getting a different surprise between every stage, and of course, the world seems a lot bigger when you don't know exactly how much there is in it, right?

Obviously, Wiz n Liz is a game I completely recommend you go and play as soon as possible. It really is a double shame that it never got an arcade release back when it came out, and that it doesn't have the cultural cache to ever get any kind of remake or rerelease on modern consoles. It's a game that excels in pretty much every department and deserves to be much more famous than it is.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Heated Barrel (Arcade)

Heated Barrel is a pretty unfortunate case, as it marks the first time (as far as I can remember) that a game excels in almost all respects, but I can't really recommend it for one particular reason that represents a stupid and unfortunate set of decisions on the part of the developers.

It's a wild west-themed horizontally-scrolling shooting game, presented in a belt scrolly fashion that works really well. You play as a generic cowboy, and you go from right to left shooting crowds of various kinds of bad guys, as well as the occasional bear, bull, ghost or demon. It's very fast and smooth, and feels great to control and play in general. To an extent, it looks great, too. All the sprites are detailed, well animated, and full of personality.

There's not many power-ups or gimmicks to speak of, but the aforementioned smooth speed more than makes up for the lack of mechanical complexity. Repetition isn't really a problem, either, as each stage introduces a whole bunch of new foes to gun down, alongside the ever-present generic enemies. All in all, Heated Barrel is pretty close to being an excellent game, and I wish I was introducing you all to a forgotten, hidden arcade gem. But it's time to get onto that downer I've been alluding to.

The fact is, this game is super racist. From the first stage, a lot of the enemies are racist caricatures: Native American "savages", running around near-naked, throwing stone axes and so on, lazy, corpulent, hairy Mexican bandits with gatling guns and sombreros, and the midboss you fight in the middle of the third stage is a huge, grotesquely muscled black prisoner with a ball and chain and a face that looks like it was drawn by infamous neo-nazi cartoonist A. Wyatt Mann. The style of all the graphics shows that they were clearly trying to emulate the look of classic American animated shorts, the difference being that those shorts are from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, whereas this game was made in 1992. It sucks, but as good as this game is, I don't think that cancels out how awful it is thematically.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Curiosities Vol. 12 - Ultrabox 2 (PC Engine)

It's been a long time since I've covered any discmags, hasn't it? And this oone is especially unusual, since it's for a console, not a computer! Even stranger, it seems to have been aimed at more general audience than "people who really like videogames", being a mix of nerdy stuff with some sort of vaguely lifestylish content and some stuff that's just plain inexplicable. Let's look at each thing one-by one!

First up is Cast: Epitaph from the Pale World, some kind of non-interactive story told in a similar manner to the cutscenes in a lot of PC Engine games: fullscreen pixel art with voice acting and narration. Of course, I can't tell you a lot about it, other than that it's set in 1901, and seems to be about archaeology, UFOs and an alien invasion. An interesting item, kind of a super low budget OAV on a format that couldn't (in 1990 at least) handle any kind of recorded video format. I imagine that if you were a kid with a console in their room but no VCR, this could have been quite a draw.

Next up is Mission, probably the most bizarre item on the disc. What it is, is a database of school uniforms. You pick a uniform, and you're taken to another screen, where you can see that uniform's variations for each season, as well as hear comments from a guy (who I assume is the creator of the section) or a girl (who is different for each uniform). I don't know if the uniforms are original or taken from real schools, but each one also comes with a "data" page that suggests either the creator of this section has way too mcuh time on their hands, or that they are from real schools. Either way, the inclusion of such a feature is totally bizarre.

Third on our itinerary is Kamen Victor, a weird little top-down racing game, in which you play as a parody of Kamen Rider, and ride around collecting hearts and avoiding guys, trying to find the stage's exit before the time runs out. The stages are massive and labyrinthine, so I was only able to get to the third, and it took a fair few attempts just to get past the first. It's a very simple game, but I'm sure some of the more shameless publishers at the time were releasing stuff at full price that wasn't much more filled-out.

Next, there's another game who's title I couldn't read. It's a game in which you and your opponent take turns knocking blocks away from underneath little Darumas. You can knock away as many blocks as you like in a turn, but only from beneath one Daruma. The winner is the one to knock away the last block, and after a few games, I hadn't won a single one.

The next thing is also the biggest and most time-consuming! JJB is a huge gallery of various fan-submitted works, including four-koma comic strips, fanart, letters, a top ten list of what the compilers consider the best of the fanart, with voiceover commentary and what I think is some kind of videogame Q&A advice section. In case you're wondering, the most common subjects for fanart were Dragonball Z, Valkyrie no Densetsu, Ys and Ranma 1/2. For additional context, this disc was released in September 1990.

The last big bit of original content is something just called DATE, which, as you might assume, is a little romantic minigame. It seems to be themed around speed-dating, and there are three girls, who say things to you. Then you can pick from a list of responses, hoping to woo them. At the end, there's a section that I think has you trying to ask a girl of your choice out on another date. Obviously, all the text and speech in this is in Japanese, so I had no idea what I was doing and didn't get anywhere. Never mind.

Other than that, there's a database of available PC Engine games, which includes non-playable demos for the first PCE Ranma game, Ys III and some game that looks like it's based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and an "END" option which lists credits for the disc while playing a cute animation of the Ultrabox mascot dragon flying in front of a sunrise.

Ultrabox 2 is pretty different to other discmags I've seen before, and probably had a broader appeal at the time, though the series only went on until issue 6. They're all available pretty cheap if you shop around online, though, and if you can read and speak Japanese, you could probably have hours of distraction browsing all the content on them, as if they're all like this one, they're packed full of stuff.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Wizkid (Amiga)

I'm not sure if this game is really obscure. I think of it as one of the better-known Amiga games, but I've never actually seen anyone on the internet talking about it, and even the best-known Amiga games don't tend to have a lot of fame outside the UK. So I think it's safe. It's also a childhood favourite of mine, and it's pretty unique, too.

It's the sequel to a much-loved (though I never got into it) C64 shooting game called Wizball, and you play as Wizball's son, Wizkid. Like his dad, Wizkid is a floating orb with a face. He's tasked with defeating screens full of enemies by headbutting bricks in their general direction. If you run out of bricks on a screen, you move onto the next uncompleted screen, minus any power-ups you had. The power-ups on offer are a clown's nose (which lets you juggle bricks on top of your head) and dentures (which let you hold bricks in your mouth. There's also coloured notes that gradually fill spaces on a tune at the top of the screen. When the tune's filled, it rains money and the game completely changes.

First, you're taken to a shop, where you can buy an assortment of seemingly-random objects, like a newspaper, or some coloured glasses. All the items have uses somewhere, though a lot of them are very obscure (I think the developers must have realised this, since the game tells you when to use them). The big change comes with the exits from the shop screen, of which there are too: one that takes you back to being just a head, knocking bricks around, and another that gives you a body, letting you play the other half of the game.

That other half is a kind of simple adventure game taking place in the backgrounds of the head stages. Adventure games have a reputation for having their own logic at the best of times, but Wizkid takes this to extremes. For an example, I'll describe for you some things you can encounter in the first stage. You can ring a bell to summon a door, behind which hides an angry, barking dog. Post a newspaper in the door's letterbox and open it again, and the dog will be calmly sat on a toilet, reading, allowing you to go inside and solve a little weight/pressure pad puzzle. Alternatively, you could go do the well, where you'll find men's and women's toilets. In the women's toilets, you can sit on a toilet and make poo shoot out of a volcano, while in the men's toilets, you can flood the well by flushing a blocked urinal, or you can put a token in the condom machine, inflate the condom that comes out and use it to float away to a series of secret rooms.

And the whole game is full of weird nonsense like that. The point of the game is that you're trying to find a bunch of lost kittens to row a boat to the villain's castle and rescue your dad. I actually got to the "rowing the boat" part as a kid, though I never had enough kittens to get any further. There's one kitten on each stage, and they're hidden in different places, or sometimes you get them by clearing every screen in the head-only game.

Wizkid is a game I definitely recommend. There's nothing else like it, it's bizarre and funny and actually fun to play. Playing it now, though, it seems that I'm a lot worse at it than I was 20 years ago. Boo.