April 2020 Updates: Reviews, New Content and What I’m Playing

I don’t like to make these sorts of update posts. For one, if I’m going to spend time typing something up for this blog, then I want it to be real content, such as a review or discussion piece.

Secondly, I don’t have a big enough ego to believe that the internet cares about what I’m doing. This blog has about fifty followers and, while I certainly appreciate any views and the odd comment, I’m a realist. Fifty followers isn’t even a grain of sand in the blogging world.

Yet here I am, doing what I just said I don’t want to do.

So why, then? Well, I’m on a small roll here, having put out two mini-reviews over the past few days. I want to keep that ball rolling. New reviews are in the works and I want to get back to doing some more in-depth discussion things. The irony is that this sudden spurt of motivation isn’t even linked to me being stuck indoors due to the big, bad C-Virus. My job means that I will still be going to work full-time unless a) I fall ill or b) my workplace shuts down, which is – fortunately – unlikely given that I work in the food distribution industry.

Once the day job is done and dusted however, I can get back to enriching the internet with entirely unnecessary reviews of games like this:

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Yes, I decided that Dead or Alive Xtreme 3‘s sunny beaches, chilled music and bodacious babes would be the perfect antidote to all the misery and worry gripping the planet right now. Was I right though? You’ll find out in the upcoming review which is currently baking in the oven. I probably could have had the review finished by now but I had a lot to say about Xtreme 3 and the resulting review should be reasonably meaty.

I’ve also been on a retro kick, specifically a Playstation one as you will already be aware of if you’ve checked out the previous two mini-reviews on this blog. I’ve dug out another old favourite which has stolen a lot of my gaming time in recent weeks:

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Expect a review of this too, once I’m done perving on digital girls with improbable proportions, that is. Priorities and all that.

Elsewhere, I’m continuing my Yakuza marathon with Kiwami 2 – the most excellent remake to my favourite game from the entire series (Yakuza 2, duh). As ever, I was aiming for that sweet 100% completion and, again – as ever – it’s looking unlikely since I absolutely cannot be arsed with the Japanese gambling games. Even the casino has been making me angry. Several hours of trying to win 1000 chips in one sitting to satisfy Haruka’s request has that sort of effect on you. Still, you don’t need that 100% rating or a platinum trophy in your virtual cabinet to enjoy one of the best story-driven series’ of modern times.

Finally, I’ve been dipping in and out of Soulcalibur VI again, especially since I paid up for the second season pass after months of putting it off. So I now have access to Hilde (who actually looks awesome to play as) and her stage, which has such good music that I don’t even feel the need to swap it out with a classic BGM from one of the earlier games in the series’. As a bonus, it looks like I’ve bought in to Season 2 just as Samurai Shodown‘s Haohmaru is about to be added, along with some new creation bits.

tl;dr: expect DOA Xtreme 3 and Destruction Derby Raw reviews very soon and (hopefully) some new discussions/articles.

Most importantly: stay safe, stay sensible and look after each other.

 

Mini Review: Tombi (Playstation)

Mini Reviews: I played it…I just don’t have a lot to say about it.

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Nobody is more disappointed than me to be writing a Mini Review of Tombi (Tomba to you fine American folks) rather than a full-fat verdict. But after finally playing this game (after a looooooooong wait), I felt so “meh” towards it that I’m struggling to work out what to say.

It’s imperative to understand that my interest in this game goes all the way back to the late 90’s when my Dad surprised us all by coming home one day with a Playstation under his arm. Included in the box was the latest version of the legendary ‘Demo 1’ disc and one of the games previewed on there was Tombi. I think I played the Tombi demo more than any of the full games that we had for the Playstation. I just couldn’t get enough of the comical, extremely exaggerated visuals, vibrant colours, dangerously addictive music and the game world itself, which seemed to be packed with places to explore and secrets to uncover.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get the full game but I frequently returned to the demo for my Tombi fix. Eventually I grew up (in physical age at least…the jury’s still out on my mental maturity) and acquired a disposable income as well as a keen interest in retro gaming. I still wasn’t able to buy a copy of Tombi however, because it turned out that the game was quite rare. You couldn’t find it on the pre-owned racks in physical shops and ebayers wanted big money for this OMG L@@K!!!! MEGA RARE VINTAGE PS1 SONY GAME – something that hasn’t changed when used copies still sell for anywhere between £100-£150 on ebay.

Thankfully, the game was made available in 2012 for a much more sensible price on Sony’s Playstation Network (£6.49 at the time of writing), something that surprised me when I (wrongly) assumed that it would be a niche game lost to the mists of time, or swallowed up in a licensing/rights hell. Even so, I was tardy at downloading Tombi and didn’t get around to it until this year.

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So…that’s eight years after it was re-released and a whopping twenty-three years since the game was originally published. It’s fair to say that my anticipation was sky-high, and I was genuinely excited as I watched the progress of the download on my Vita.

They do warn against meeting your heroes however and I’m afraid that I may have fallen foul of this slice of philosophy given how I put a healthy wedge of hours into Tombi but haven’t touched it again since.

Now don’t get me wrong: the game still absolutely oozes with charm and, being a 2D game, it has aged very well compared to all those (then) cutting-edge 3D Playstation games that look rougher than a badger’s arse in 2020. I’m still head-over-heels for the game’s visual style, music and playful humour. I also appreciate the game’s non-linear structure. You will collect loads of items on your adventure, for example, and have to go back to previous areas to complete quests or access new places. There’s a vague Metroidvania feel to things with new areas linking up to older ones in unexpected ways.

And, while Tombi is a 2D platformer, you are able to traverse both the foreground and background. There are also areas that rotate and allow you to explore all four sides of a structure. It’s a creative and clever game that tries to do something different and shake up the 2D platform formula.

Unfortunately, the charm and nice ideas only carried Tombi so far and I rapidly tired of the game, much to my disappointment. Perhaps I expected too much, or had waited far too long. Maybe I had built the game up in my head to be something that it was never going to live up to. More likely, it was the deciphering of cryptic clues to make progress. The difficulty ramps up very quickly too, demanding uber-precision from the player. A challenge is no bad thing in a game (it’s entirely necessary) but when it saps the enjoyment out of the experience, then all the aesthetic charm in the universe can’t compensate for getting pissed off at cheap deaths, being expected to make super-precise jumps and having to constantly re-load my save to try again. I wanted to enjoy the game for all the positive, happy things that I previously mentioned, but ultimately found that I couldn’t be bothered to continue with it.

Will I be selecting Tombi from my Vita’s home screen again? Well, never say never. There is that small voice in the back of my head suggesting that I may have thrown the towel in prematurely rather than rising to the challenge. That said, Tombi is – and always has been – all about the art direction and creativity for me and I’d really rather not spoil those things by persisting with unsatisfying, often frustrating platforming mechanics.

Mini Review: Overboard! (Playstation)

Mini Reviews: I played it…I just don’t have a lot to say about it.

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Prior to playing Overboard! (known as Shipwreckers! to my NTSC-U readers) on the Playstation, I had heard a lot about it. The game does, after all, crop up on many people’s “hidden gems” lists and “cult classics” countdowns. It’s also a rare thing: a game for Sony’s debut console that comes with a good rep and doesn’t cost the earth to source from the likes of ebay.

Unfortunately, I will have to burst the nostalgia bubble and say that I didn’t really get on with Overboard! but I can, nevertheless, see why the game has the following that it does.

You guide a dinky pirate ship through maze-like waterways, fending off enemies and circumventing all manner of hazards in your quest to collect treasure and capture ports. Your galleon boasts a hell of a lot of cartoon-ish charm, as do the enemies and overall visual style. It’s these appealing aesthetics and enjoyable music that form the bulk of Overboard!‘s appeal but it also controls well and does a deft job of staggering the introduction of new weapons, enemy types and mechanics.

Overboard! is a piece of simple but effective puzzle/action game design that doesn’t need discs full of CGI or an unnecessary storyline and, as much as I enjoy those things, I’m all for a more straight-forward, unbloated experience that prioritises gameplay. It reminds me of Kula World in that respect, and that should be a good thing.

So I was surprised to feel a dull apathy towards Overboard! once I’d finished appreciating the presentation and fun tone.

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First of all, it’s incredibly easy lose your ship to enemies and hazards, especially fire-based obstacles. You have the weapons to deal with enemies but I found it extremely fiddly to switch between them on the wheel-like selector, and often skipped past the one I wanted in my rush to get to it before my vessel was sent to Davy Jones’ locker. It was a problem compounded by being attacked from the sea and by bomb-dropping birds from above at the same time. I tended to try and ready the weapon I wanted before advancing into a new area and it usually turned out to be the wrong one for the situation, resulting in a lot of health lost.

Having to restart also means dealing with sluggish load times, something we were liberated from a long time ago with modern games and now struggle to accept when getting our retro fix. I could suffer this though because I expect it. What I couldn’t suffer was the way in which you can save yourself into a corner. The game allows you to save to the memory card after completing each level. Unfortunately, it also saves your lives and ammunition and doesn’t allow you to have another go at a failed stage with replenished lives/weapons. You have to re-load your save and start again with whatever you had at the point of saving, so it’s entirely possible to save with zero spare lives and be stuck with that bum deal every time you load up.

Overboard! is one of those games that I desperately wanted to like because it has a lot going for it. Sadly, I couldn’t gel with the weapon selector, being constantly killed by hazards that I wasn’t prepared for, and the save system. It’s by no means a bad game at all but I also have no desire to play it again.

 

Review – Rival Schools: United by Fate (Playstation)

rival-schools-1Platform(s): Playstation (reviewed), Arcade
Year: 1998 (Playstation version), 1997 (Arcade)
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Virgin Interactive (PAL), Capcom (North America/Japan)
Genre: Fighting

Whenever there’s a discussion about which of Capcom’s forgotten fighting games (so anything other than flippin’ Street Fighter, then…) should be brought back in a blaze of current-gen glory, there’s usually only one franchise that tops the polls: Darkstalkers. As a huge fan of the Darkstalkers, I can’t suppress the fanboy in me very effectively and I tend to agree. That said, there is another fighting game with a cult following that has been pushed to the back of Capcom’s storage locker for far too long: Rival Schools.

I’ve always been aware of Rival Schools but it was one of those games that I didn’t get around to playing in period. Until recently, the closest I came to the franchise was playing as Kyosuke in Capcom Vs SNK 2 and Batsu in Tatsunoko Vs Capcom. That all changed when I was slimming down my collection and testing out game discs (many of which I’d bought years ago and never played) before listing them for sale on ebay. The Playstation port of Rival Schools: United by Fate was one such game and there was a part of me that had to wonder why I had shoved this to the back of the shelves and ignored it for so long, especially since I’m a big fan of classic Capcom.

It’s what’s inside that counts

The first hurdle that needs to be cleared, when playing Rival Schools for the first time in 2020, are the horribly outdated visuals. Look, I’m no graphics whore. I grew up playing the Playstation and I’ve also enjoyed Sega Saturn and 3DO games long after they were “current” systems, so I’m no snob when it comes to old 3D. But it’s an unavoidable fact that we’ve been spoilt by the realistic graphics of the last few hardware generations, so returning to the era that pushed crude textures and pioneering polygons into the mainstream is always going to be jarring and requires a brief adjustment.

As such, I was initially taken aback by the character models in Rival Schools when I first booted up the game. Perhaps I’d just become accustomed to the perfect curvature of Sophitia’s bosom in Soulcalibur VI, or maybe it was because I’d not played Rival Schools before so my eyes weren’t prepared. Whatever the case, some of the most enjoyable fighting games of the 90’s – Tekken 2, Street Fighter EX and Virtua Fighter 2 – all look pretty blocky these days but that shouldn’t (and doesn’t) detract from the quality of the games.

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Spoilt for choice. Some fantastic portrait art too.

So once I’d acclimatised to some of the derpy expressions and Tiffany’s cubism-inspired tits (complete with a primitive jiggle effect), I found myself enjoying the game, warts and all. In truth, the characters only look janky up close during win animations. During regular gameplay, they actually look pretty good for their age and you’d be a fool to expect much better from the original Playstation. Perhaps Tekken 3 and Soulblade are a little easier on the eyes but Rival Schools isn’t that far behind.

But it really is what’s under the skin that counts.

Rival Schools is presented as a three-dimensional fighting game fit for the late 90’s but, in truth, it’s a bit of a hybrid. While it does have a sidestep feature and dynamic camera angles to capture the crazy super moves, it still feels like a 2D fighting game. That’s because it uses the familiar Street Fighter-style inputs on the d-pad and a light/heavy attack set-up over on the buttons.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing however because I immediately knew what I was doing, allowing me to pick the game up quickly and concentrate solely on getting to grips with Rival Schools‘ unique mechanics.

First up, Rival Schools is a tag-team fighting game of sorts. I say “of sorts” because you can’t actively tag back and forth between your two characters, as in the Marvel Vs series, but you can switch in between rounds. You can also utilise your partner for powerful combination super move known as a Team Up Technique. Depending on your partner, the Team Up move can be an outrageous tag-team super move for big damage, a stat boost, or even a cheeky health boost. I really like this tag-team system because it injects strategy into a fighting game; do you choose a partner that can restore health and simply use them solely for that purpose or do you forfeit the stat/health boosts, select two characters that you are competent with, continuously switch between them and opt for the big damage Team Up Techniques?

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Tiffany’s kiss restores health. She doesn’t discriminate between boys and girls either…

Each character also has a selection of “Burning Vigour” super move attacks. These and the dual-character Team Up Techniques are all ridiculously awesome because they are incredibly over-the-top and feel stupidly OP. These crazy moves also tend to be shown off with different camera angles, taking advantage of the game’s 3D engine. I’ve played a lot of Capcom fighting games and I have to say that the Burning Vigour and Team-Up Techniques in Rival Schools are probably some of the most visually satisfying of the lot.

rival-schools-4You also get plenty of access to these attacks too because the super guage fills up faster than The Flash on Speed. Some may criticise this because it makes the game feel easy and the super moves throwaway. I get that, and agree to a small extent, but Rival Schools is more about the entertainment factor than being a serious tournament game.

But there’s still more to the core gameplay. For instance, there is the Textbook Combo (a nice school-themed pun!) which is the ability to string together a short sequence of light and heavy hits, similar to Darkstalkers‘ Chain Combo system. You can also launch enemies skyward then jump up to hit them with a Textbook Combo in mid-air and even cancel into Burning Vigour supers. If it sounds similar to the the Vs series’ air combos then that’s because it feels exactly like that, down to the launcher input being the same.

There are also Defensive Fall and Get Up Attack techniques, as well as dash attacks. Finally, there is the Dodge ability that snaps you out of the 2D plane and back into the 3D realm. You can dodge sideways in either direction and, if you time it just right, you can evade an incoming attack at the very last moment and slide all the way around to your opponent’s back to catch them off-guard with a combo or deliver a different, more powerful throw attack that can only be used at an rival’s back.

A loaded package

Away from the actual gameplay, Rival Schools is simply bursting with charm and it’s easy to see why so many people love this neglected series. The characters are bold and full of personality, the music is terribly catchy and there is a big effort put into the presentation of the game. There is an anime-style intro upon booting the game up, for example, multiple animated endings and every character has their own unique illustrated endings to their stories. It’s one of those games where even the sound effects for selecting menu items are endearing.

The characters all feel unique to play as, and there are twenty of them to choose from as standard. That said, the veteran fighting game player will spot some cheeky imitations in amongst the roster, such as Hideo who is essentially the Ryu of Rival Schools with Shoto-style special moves. Roy seems to have borrowed Ken’s Shoryu-Reppa super move and Street Fighter Alpha‘s Sakura is included in the line-up. Overall however, the roster isn’t simply a copy-paste job; the majority of the fighters have their own style and are fun to experiment with.

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Capcom really went all out with the Playstation conversion of this game too. There are two discs: an Arcade disc and the Evolution disc. The Arcade disc alone would have been acceptable enough since it features a fantastic conversion of the arcade original, a training mode and extra, bonus features. But Capcom also threw in the Evolution disc which is just so much more.

The Evolution disc contains an optimised, more balanced version of the game and more characters. As well as unlockable, alternate outfit versions of four of Rival Schools‘ female characters (complete with unique Team Up Techniques), there are 24 pre-edited special characters – mash-ups of the original characters and their moves. You also have the new Group Battle, League Battle and Tournament Battle modes, as well as the Cooperate Battle which allows four players to get in on the tag-team fighting with the assistance of the Playstation Multi-Tap. Finally, there is a “Lesson” mode and an art gallery. Phew!

It seems surreal in this post-Street Fighter V age to be playing a Capcom fighting game that had a warehouse of kitchen sinks thrown at it. To any younger readers of this blog, I would say this: go play PS1 Rival Schools and you’ll understand why us grumpy old farts moan about the bare-bones menu screens on modern fighting games, and the way that there is nothing to unlock (unless you are paying by credit card).

Conclusion

Rival Schools: United by Fate was an incredibly pleasant surprise and I think I need to be sent back to education myself for making the schoolboy error of not playing this sooner (enough with the school jokes!). After spending a good amount of time with the game, I can definitely confirm that the characters have just as much charm and appeal as Morrigan and co. from Darkstalkers. What’s more, the fighting system is excellent and strikes a perfect balance between the technical stuff and accessible, mental fun. It certainly wouldn’t need much to be brought up to scratch for a modern revival, something I’m now very much all for.

The only downside is that the Playstation port isn’t the cheapest used game to pick up these days, and it hasn’t been re-released on PSN outside of Japan (reportedly due to licensing issues) which certainly doesn’t help. That said, I think that Rival Schools is worth every penny of your money if you are a fighting game nut or a fan of classic Capcom.

DS90 Plays: Crash Bandicoot [Playstation]

…or to be more precise, I’ve been playing Crash on my Vita but before I get into the game itself, I feel a mini rant coming on that needs to be vented and said rant regards the mess that is the Playstation Store. I already have Crash Bandicoot 2 on my Vita and I know that Crash 3 and CTR are also both available to download but the original? I had to find the game on the website version of the store (where it is marked up as only being compatible with the PSP and PS3), pay for it then dump it on my Vita by accessing my download list from the Vita. What a ball ache! So not only does the game not show up on the Vita version of the Store but it also doesn’t list the Vita as a compatible platform (when it is). I had to go through the exact same process to download Medievil to my Vita and it highlights how poorly organised the store is. In fairness, it does serve the PS3, PS4, PSP (through no longer directly) and the Vita but the whole thing needs updating and putting into some kind of order without the need for the daft download methods I have had to endure simply to get hold of an old PS1 game.

The positive side is that the store does at least still have all of these crusty old games to download unlike Nintendo’s versions of their e-shop which eventually get removed from existence once a superceded console is no longer worth supporting in the eyes of its creator. Plus, I have read that US gamers can’t even get the original Crash via the workaround (due to licensing issues) so as a British gamer, I must count myself lucky in that respect.

But anyway: Crash Bandicoot!

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I did of course play this game (as well as the sequels) back in the day so me downloading the original to my Vita was because I fancied a nostalgia trip. I’d already downloaded Crash 2 for convenience’s sake and completed it but I no longer have my original copy of the first game so it was a case of necessity rather than convenience this time. Plus it was £3.99 which is a complete steal versus the price of used physical copies of Crash Bandicoot. I do always prefer an original hard copy (as my physical PS1 collection amassed over the last twenty years affirms) but I’m also no longer so snooty about going digital when I feel like it.

The biggest thing that my modern-day play-through of Crash Bandicoot has revealed however is that this game is tough! I certainly didn’t remember it to be so unforgiving but compared to the sequels, the original Crash is definitely a much crueler game that often demands the sort of platforming skills of a player that 8 and 16-bit games in the genre did. Most of the time though, I would say that losing lives is entirely avoidable and purely the player’s fault. In this respect, I’ve cursed at the screen and gritted my teeth on many occasions but I’ve also known that failures are my fault and not due to cheap game design. This is what the Mario games do so well and we can rage about how demanding old games are/were but this is what we were used to at the time. Games have become – to an extent – very easy and hand-holdy with safety nets everywhere, greater concern being shown to keeping the player happy rather than giving them a challenge. Both approaches to entertaining a gamer are valid (because sometimes I don’t want an aldrenalin-fuelled experience after a long day at work) but I do sometimes lament the loss of actual, fairly-weighted challenge in games.

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The opening jungle levels are perhaps the most iconic in the first two Crash games. General gameplay mechanics are introduced at a reasonable pace.

The most prominent issue relating to the difficulty is the game’s save system. You can only save your progress by reaching the end of the bonus round (which you have to access from within a stage by collecting a set of three pick-ups from crates) or by breaking every crate in a stage and collecting a silver gem as a reward. The game also features a password system because this was an early Playstation release that didn’t demand the ownership of a memory card but even so, you can’t retrieve a password without actually reaching save point in the first place. What this means is that failing on a bonus stage puts a fair bit of pressure on the player to ensure that they reach the next one and don’t screw up a second time. If you are attempting to smash all of the crates within said bonus rounds then plummeting to your doom is easily done and you only have one shot of clearing a bonus round so there is a distinct lack of forgiveness.

As for genuinely unfair game design, it only really rears its head on the warthog stages where Crash leaps stop said beast and you have to steer them through all obstacles in your way. I say that these stages can be unfair because there is some trial-and-error involved with the timing of some of the moving obstacles and it can take a few failed runs before you know in advance whether to move left/right or jump/duck out of the way of something. The stages where Crash must run towards the screen with a giant Indiana Jones-style boulder of doom in hot pursuit are similar but I managed to clear them pretty easily with reflexes alone.

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These levels (with their distinct lack of footing!) will really test your reflexes…

Otherwise this is just pure platforming action that tests reflexes, timing and accuracy. The controls are spot-on so it’s all down to the player to get right. The game does a very good job of introducing new forms of hazards and giving the player a fair chance to see how they work before gradually throwing more and more for them to deal with. For example, you won’t be expected to jump across three flaming torches in a row without first being given one to handle on its own with lenient timing between the flame switching on and off. The same goes for rolling millstones, falling platforms and all manner of hazards. This is why the game is – aside from the few bits I previously picked out – completely fair: it introduces new obstacles and gradually ramps up the quantity that you must deal with in one go or the strictness of any timing involved.

It’s also worth mentioning that Crash’s reportoire of moves is much more limited here than in the sequels so there’s no sliding or belly-slamming – just jumping. This makes for a very pure platforming experience that blended (at the time) the old-school 2D traits that we’d just left behind with a fresh, into-the-screen 3D perspective. There are many 2D stages however which betray the transitional period between the 2D and 3D eras of gaming but the mix of both styles helps keep things varied. The only negative aspect of the 2D sections in my opinion is the fact that Crash isn’t ‘locked’ to the ground so despite being asked to walk left/right, you can still slip on the controls and end up walking over the edges. This is especially frustrating in the bonus stages where you are desperate not to fall! Thankfully (in this specific case) the game doesn’t support analogue control so if you are careful and stick to the left/right buttons on the d-pad then you should be safe.

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Slippery ramps, spikes, elevators…what could possibly go wrong?

What I really enjoy about the original Crash Bandicoot is the sense of achievement (and relief!) upon clearing a stage, especially with all crates smashed which is a pretty smug moment. I also really enjoy the challenge of the later levels where checkpoints are spread out further, one mistake = doom and you feel as if you are being pushed to your limits of endurance and reflexes with some of the stages and what they demand of you. But getting through these stages after many attempts (and much swearing) is what makes that sense of achievement all the sweeter. After all, isn’t it better to really earn something than have it given to you?

It would also be a sin for me to wrap up this review without mentioning another of Crash Bandicoot‘s defining characteristics: the humour. From Crash’s facial expressions to the general cartoon-like vibe of the game, everything feels fun and playful even when the difficulty is up and the stages do their best to appear dark and menacing later on. The audio is simple but classic with funky backing music and charming sound effects that are unmistakably from a Crash game. This is also one of those rare 32-bit games that has clearly aged but done so with grace. Like with the Spyro games, Crash Bandicoot didn’t push for realistic graphics and so the exaggerated cartoon-like approach still looks great today and pretty sharp. Contemporaries from the same period that tried to look “real” can often be shocking to behold in retrospective with jagged edges, awful smudgy textures and laughable (by today’s standards) attempts to get near photo-realism. Not so here.

Overall, I have very much enjoyed returning to Crash Bandicoot. It’s probably my least-played of the original Naughty Dog-developed games so there’s the added bonus of not being overly-familiar with it. It’s also a perfect fit for the Vita so if you are able to get it on there then I highly recommend doing so. PS4 remasters next?