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  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] F-1 Dream

    Posted on May 16th, 2011 keving 2 comments

    F-1 Dream
    (F1ドリーム)

    Maker: NEC Avenue
    Release Date: 8/25/89
    Price: 5400 yen
    Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Racing
    PC Engine FAN Score: 19.76 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “A game that simulates growth process from street racer to F-1 Driver. The story, which has you saving money as a street racer and going from F-3000 to F-1 races, is interestingly unique.”


    As mentioned in previous entries, Japan was in the grip of a massive Formula One obsession at almost precisely the same time the PC Engine was viable in the marketplace. It kicked off in 1987, when the Japanese Grand Prix returned to the Suzuka Circuit, and symbolically ended with the death of Ayrton Senna in 1994, just as the PC-FX was released and the last major PCE releases were hitting the market. The flow of F-1 games was pretty constant on the PCE, and it was the same story in arcades, most of them behind-the-car sims housed in enormous sit-down cabinets like Namco’s Final Lap (1988).

    Capcom’s F-1 Dream (1988) was a bit different. It was a straight overhead game controlled with a standard eight-direction joystick, and with its chubby little cars tooting around a bouncy, curvy track, it didn’t look much like an F-1 game at all. And it was…sort of popular. Not terribly. Just a little, and then chiefly thanks to how it realistically started players out in F-3000 before promoting them to the big leagues. The cutesy graphics, though, made it a prime candidate for a PCE port — from an audiovisual standard, the arcade and home versions are pretty well identical.

    The PCE version goes a bit further than that, however. In addition to the F-3000 bit, the home F-1 Dream starts you out on the street racing route, even having you hire your own mechanics and bet on the results of your own races. You start with nothing but $10,000 and what looks like a souped-up VW bug from overhead, and the odds are frankly against you — the mechanics (each specializing in tires, steering, engines or suspension) are incredibly expensive to hire and suck even more money out of you when upgrading your car, which leaves you eternally poor and scrounging around for cash to bet with. This wouldn’t be a great concern if you could drive your way to victory more often, but your street-race challengers are all incredibly talented. They almost always have better acceleration, and if you make a couple mistakes, they drive right off the screen, turning F-1 Dream into what looks like a rally race across the mountains.

    As if all that weren’t enough, the controls in this game take some serious getting used to. Steering is handled with the control pad, but F-1 Dream is the sort of overhead racer where you press up to turn the car upward, right to go toward the right side of the screen, and so forth, instead of the standard behind-the-wheel controls. This means you’re crashing into junk all the time at the start, which is dangerous, because if the G/B meter on the bottom of the screen expires, your car explodes and you’re out of the race. (G/B is short for Gas/Body, which is all rolled into one parameter for the purposes of this game. Odd, I know.)

    I suppose the purpose of the street-racing segment is to help introduce all these novel concepts to the player before the “real” racing starts. But things are so difficult from the get-go, I imagine the majority of players ran out of money before making it anywhere near an actual race car. Exhausting your bank account automatically puts you into the F-3000 races, which doesn’t seem like a bad thing, but if you didn’t have the cash to hire any mechanics during the street bit, there’s no way in hell you’re going to win the first F-3000 race, and it’s Game Over right after that. You need to win on those mountain passes, and win constantly — in fact, I’d say winning all 15 possible street races is far more difficult than making it big in F-3000.

    The tacked-on street mode, in other words, was probably a serious mistake on NEC Avenue’s part. Not only is it too frustrating to serve as an effective introduction to the game, it also has adverse effects on the F-3000/F-1 segments, the part of the game that’s actually from Capcom’s original. The visuals and controls are faithful enough to the arcade, yes, but they really ain’t kidding about the title here — F-1′s gonna be nothing but a dream to anyone who plays this.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Break In

    Posted on May 5th, 2011 keving 5 comments

    Break In
    (ブレイク・イン)

    Maker: Naxat Soft
    Release Date: 8/10/89
    Price: 5500 yen
    Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Sports
    PC Engine FAN Score: 19.34 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “A total of six billiards games are available for play. Each one is playable in action, simulation and techique modes, letting you enjoy the experience from practice to actual play.”


    When I think of pool, chiefly I think about being drunk in exciting, exotic locales. The last time I played pool was at a bar in lovely Breckenridge, Colorado, where I got involved in a game with an Englishman and an Irishman who spent the entire time whining that billiards is for addled baboons and snooker was a far superior table sport. My technique was the best out of all of us, no doubt thanks to my advantage in age and erudite dual-wield skills with a pint. These are abilities I lacked the time I played pool previous, Austin circa 2004, on an Acclaim press junket about four months before they filed for bankruptcy. It was on Fifth Street somewhere and — wahey, kind of like Break In — it wasn’t pretty.

    (My paragraphs, they always wrap themselves up like a neat little package in the end. That’s the Magweasel difference.)

    Billiards sims have never been common. It’s understandable. Until Jimmy White’s ‘Whirlwind’ Snooker in 1991, they all looked exactly the same — straight overhead view of the table, a bunch of little balls, nothing to stimulate you visually. They were all realtime geometry homework. After Jimmy White…well, it was the same thing, except in 3D. I never quite understood it, but in Europe, at least, they go crazy for it.

    There was sort of an audience for Break In in 1989, though, enough that Famicom Tsushin actually scored the game 30 out of 40 points (at a time when this still meant something). But to modern eyes, we may as well be playing Trick Shot on the 2600. There’s no story mode, nothing to liven up the action; just a lot of little balls on the screen. (There is a 3D targeting display on the bottom, but it’s tiny and of limited use.) The audiovisual atmosphere is there, from the sepia-toned competitor portraits — most wearing the all-important white shirt and vest that apparently identifies you as a cool billiards guy — to the lounge music that tends to permeate this genre of game.

    This is one of the few pool games to include a carom game — yotsudama, a Japanese varient on 4-ball pictured on the left above — but you really don’t care, trust me.

    Break In would be a very obscure release were it not for its worldwide Virtual Console relaunch in 2008 as part of the Kaga Create package. It tended to score very poorly, although judging by IGN’s review (which whines about how there’s no way to determine the numbers on each ball, a feature you activate by pressing the Select button), very few outlets cared enough about virtual billiards to give the game much of a chance. And neither would I. Pool is something to play with strangers, on vacation, drinking beer. Everyone knows that.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Power League II

    Posted on May 3rd, 2011 keving No comments

    Power League II
    (パワーリーグⅡ)

    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 8/8/89
    Price: 5200 yen
    Media: HuCard (3 Mbit)
    Genre: Sports
    PC Engine FAN Score: 22.76 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “The popular previous game receives updated data and several new modes: an all-star game and a home run contest. The graphics have been extensively reworked and are much prettier.


    The first Power League, released a year and two months before this sequel, was a decent but fairly flawed attempt at presenting a realistic baseball package compared to Namco’s World Stadium. Power League II is a far more complete package, essentially ensuring the brand’s role as the PC Engine’s longest-lasting game series. (Bomberman didn’t come out for another year after this.)


    Released simultaneously with Hudson’s Tennokoe 2 “memory card,” Power League II pretty much defined how Hudson’s PCE baseball games would look for the next five years. The field, displayed in an awkward direct-overhead view originally, is now shown in the standard quarter-view that was used by nearly every other 8- and 16-bit baseball sim. That’s very much to the game’s advantage — the graphics look far more realistic now, with the view making it easier for Hudson’s artists to place more detail into the players and the Hu Stadium they’re playing in.

    The biggest graphical enhancement, though, lies in the home run sequence. The game decides right when you make contact with the ball whether it’s going to be a homer or not, and as you can see in the bottom of the 2nd in the video below, the view follows the ascent of the ball from behind the plate, which was a pretty impressive trick in 1989. The best part about it: as the ball flies upward, the ground below falls out of view in realistic 3D perspective, an effect that’s extremely impressive in the subtle realism it gives the whole sequence. It’s a bit of tiny detail that must’ve been a pain in the ass for whoever programmed it at Hudson, and I love it.

    There is indeed an all-star game mode, not that it matters all that much at this point since Hudson wouldn’t get the license to use actual Japan Professional Baseball League players until Power League 5 in 1992. The home-run derby is also pretty bare-bones, featuring the player of your choice taking BP for anywhere between 10 and 100 pitches. The Tennokoe support allows you to save your team’s progress in Pennant mode, which culminates in a Japan-US championship game that’s featured below.


    In a way you could call Power League II the zenith of the series, simply because none of the four subsequent titles changed the basic visual package or gameplay much at all beyond what we see here. It’s a shame that NEC based the TurboGrafx-16′s World Class Baseball off the first Power League and not this one, because I’ve half a mind to say this is better than anything that was on the NES as of 1989. That, and I like the “runners in scoring position” jingle a fair bit.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Tennokoe 2

    Posted on April 29th, 2011 keving 3 comments

    Tennokoe 2
    (天の声2)

    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 8/8/89
    Price: 2600 yen

    The Guinness Book of World Records claims that the NES release of The Legend of Zelda was “the first home console title to include an internal battery for saving data.” This is not actually true. Zelda came out August 1987 in the US, but in April 1987, Seta released Morita Shōgi, a Japanese chess sim that allowed you to save the status of the board and pick up a game in progress anytime you liked. (The cartridge version of Hydlide II on the MSX had battery backup even earlier in late 1986, and considering most Japanese people treated the MSX as a game console, that oughta count as well.)

    The tech may not have been common until 1987, but it gained prevalence pretty quickly on the Famicom and NES, just in time for the role-playing game boom that hit around the same time. Lucky thing, too, because the alternative to battery backup on a console RPG is junk like the 52-character passwords used in the Japanese version of Dragon Quest II. The first two FC Dragon Quests had a password system that Enix called fukkatsu no jumon (復活の呪文, the “incantation of resurrection”) which made children nationwide cry because the strings of kana it spat out were almost impossible to write down and type in correctly unless you had a lot of practice. (American gamers of a similar age might remember how the font on Hudson’s Faxanadu also led to frequent incorrect passwords.)

    The original PC Engine, as designed and released in 1987, had no provision for saving games without a password. It wasn’t part of the HuCard’s design spec because there just wasn’t any space for it on the card (although this changed later on). PCE games up to now all either had no save system or made you write down long, tricky passwords — Susa-no-Oh Densetsu actually had you type in your characters’ current HP, gold and other parameters alongside the password checksum. NEC Home Electronics and Hudson didn’t see this as a big deal at first, partly because they figured CD-ROM technology would advance more quickly than it ultimately did — Shinichi Nakamoto suggested in a couple game-mag interviews at the time that technology to write data onto CD-ROMs would be implemented on consoles in the near future. Thus, the PCE was without backup functionality until the CD-ROM² System came out in late 1988, and gamers unwilling to shell out for that had to wait until August 1989 for a solution that didn’t involve trying to decipher their own messily-written passwords.

    For whatever reason, Hudson and NEC both developed their own HuCard backup devices — Hudson had the Tennokoe 2, and NEC had the Backup Booster, released in November 1989. Why this happened, and why NEC’s peripheral came out so long after Hudson’s, is unknown. It should also be noted that HuCards had to to have backup support specially written into the code in order to be compatible with these devices, something that largely didn’t happen until late 1989, although a few Hudson titles had Tennokoe support built in before the hardware was released.

    Where did the name Tennokoe 2 (which literally means “The Voice of Heaven 2″) come from? The term is actually borrowed from Momotarō Densetsu, a 1987 Famicom RPG from Hudson set in the world of the Japanese folktale. Tennokoe was what the password system was called in the game, a similar bit of atmospheric decoration to Dragon Quest’s “incantations” but with a bit more of a Far East flair to it. As for the “2″ at the end of the accessory’s name? That, according to Hudson, is because the unit contains two kilobytes of battery-backed SRAM. This is a very weird thing to name an accessory like this, but I suppose it helped the thing stand out in the shops.

    As you can see here, the Tennokoe 2 connects to the expansion port at the rear of the original PCE system. Perhaps “latches on to” is a better way of putting it, though. The thing’s huge, and heavy. The size is partly because  it doesn’t run off the PCE’s power supply — you have to load it up with two AA batteries, essentially supplying the “battery” of the battery backup yourself. A red LED on the plastic case turns on whenever the batteries are almost exhausted, and as long as you’re quick about switching in a new set, you won’t lose any data. Because the Tennokoe doesn’t have any composite video output on its rear, and because it occupies the only expansion port on the console, you can’t use it and an AV Booster simultaneously, which means you’re stuck with RF video if you wanted to save any games. (The only solution for this was to purchase a CoreGrafx or CoreGrafx II, which had separate composite outputs.)

    Still, the Tennokoe has the same amount of backup SRAM as NEC-HE’s Backup Booster and cost about half the price in shops, making it by far the most popular choice among PCE gamers. Thus, for whatever reason, Hudson’s third-party accessory beat out NEC’s first-party version in userbase, a trend that was set in stone by the time the Tennokoe Bank (a far more convenient storage device in HuCard form) shipped in 1991.

    2K doesn’t go very far if you have a large HuCard collection, and more than a few gamers purchased multiple Tennokoe’s around this time to avoid having to delete anything. The accessory’s portability and separation from the games themselves also give it an advantage of convenience, letting you take your in-progress data to a friend’s house or trade it with others. In a rather perverse way, then, the Tennokoe 2 was the game biz’s first memory card. I told you the PCE doesn’t get enough credit as an industry pioneer.

  • Quick note

    Posted on April 27th, 2011 keving 1 comment

    For future I ♥ The PC Engine entries, I’m going to add the capsule descriptions in Kōgien to the basic info up top. They’re a bit opinion-free, but they’re still interesting and occasionally cover something I don’t get to in the actual review.

    I’ve added Kōgien descriptions to all previous PC Engine games on this site, so browse around the category a bit if you’re interested in seeing what they’re like.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Maison Ikkoku

    Posted on April 25th, 2011 keving 4 comments

    Maison Ikkoku
    (めぞん一刻)

    Maker: Micro Cabin
    Release Date: 8/4/89
    Price: 5900 yen
    Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Adventure
    PC Engine FAN Score: 17.69 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “The player becomes Godai as he tries to find what Kyoko is looking for. An adventure game that pits you against the eccentric residents of the run-down Ikkokukan apartment house. As a game, it’s less of a puzzle-solving adventure and more one where you are immersed in the drama as one of the characters.


    Maison Ikkoku is Japan’s version of Three’s Company. No, really, this makes sense. Stay with me on this.

    The original Ikkoku is a manga by Rumiko Takahashi that ran in Big Comic Spirits from 1980 to 1987. If you haven’t read it (shame on you), it stars Godai, an eternally broke student, as he lives an incredibly sitcom-like situation at a ramshackle boarding house straight out of the 1960s. His comic foils: an alcoholic single mother, a bar hostess who wanders around the house in lingerie all day, a creepy middle-aged man who would have been on the sex offenders’ list if such a thing existed in the early 1980s…and Kyoko, the superintendent and a total babe despite already having married and lost one husband.

    The series (which has sold over 25 million volumes worldwide) grew into a sort of romantic comedy of errors over the years, with Godai and Kyoko developing a thing for each other that falls victim to a neverending cavalcade of misunderstandings and rival lovers. Before that love subplot kicks into high gear, though, the manga is nearly all about Godai’s hapless luck, his constant poverty, and the madness set off by his neighbors down the hall. So, really, Three’s Company, with  Kyoko’s domineering parents dual-playing the part of Don Knotts. Simple.

     


    Micro Cabin, the maker of this title, has something of an odd history in the adventure genre. When Sierra released Mystery House (one of the first graphical adventures) in 1980, the Mie prefecture-based developer countered with its own game for Japanese PCs, also called Mystery House, that also featured a mansion explorer trying to find a cache of diamonds. This sort of ripoff activity was pretty rife in the early history of Japanese video games (one of Nintendo’s first CPU-based arcade game was a Space Invaders clone), and while Sierra didn’t like it very much, they had little legal recourse given Japan’s laws at the time. (Sierra’s Mystery House would finally get an official port to Japanese computers in 1984.)

    Micro Cabin made two Maison Ikkoku adventures, the first of which was originally made for the PC-8801 and later ported to the 9801, X1, MSX, Famicom, and finally PC Engine. In a way, though, the game’s more like Mystery House than anything else. There’s not much of a plot (Godai learns from the rumor mill that Kyoko is hiding some kind of secret from the tenants of Ikkokukan, and he tries to find out what it is) and the gameplay mostly involves wandering aimlessly around the apartment house and surrounding neighborhood in search of stuff to do. After some experimentation, you’ll figure out that the plot advances whenever you sit down and have a conversation with Kyoko, but with all of the interference from the other tenants, getting that audience is a lot harder than simply knocking on the door.

    Maison Ikkoku, despite the standard Japanese menu-based adventure interface, is not a very orthodox adventure. There’s no stepwise walkthrough you can rely on to always take you to the ending — instead, the game’s about collecting items and keeping the NPCs happy and out of your way. Each tenant has an undisplayed “mood” statistic that changes their behavior, and at times you’ll need to give them things they like (such as instant ramen or sake) for them to get out of your way. This requires money, which Godai never has enough of, so figuring out how to score some extra yen is the game’s other main “puzzle,” if you want to call it that.


    The result is really just frustrating. You get the idea that Micro Cabin wanted to recreate the charm of the manga, letting you step into the story and enjoy the atmosphere, but instead it feels like you’re in this sort of cruel purgatory where you’re constantly harangued by strangers and forced to repeat previous actions multiple times to get anywhere. All this for what must be one of the most non-ending endings in the history of anime licenses.

    If I paid full price for this back in the day, I’d be angry — and yet, if some enterprising 8-bit software developer had tried making a Three’s Company adventure like this, I’m sure I’d lap it up at once. Funny how that works.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Takeda Shingen

    Posted on March 31st, 2011 keving 4 comments

    Takeda Shingen
    (武田信玄)

    Maker: Aicom
    Release Date: 7/28/89
    Price: 5600 yen
    Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Action
    PC Engine FAN Score: 17.18 / 30.00

    Another one of those rare console games that the Kogien, the great phonebook (published until 2008) that attempts to list every Japanese title ever released, actively criticized in their paragraph-long capsule review. The review text, verbatim:

    “The setting has Takeda Shingen delving solo into enemy territory in order to defeat his adversary Uesugi Kenshin. The large size of the characters is nice, but it’s somewhat of a shame that the controls and movements had to become so rough as a result. A side-scrolling action game.”

    The very definition of damning with faint praise, isn’t it? (Side note: The box shows Shingen fighting a mounted soldier, something that never, ever, ever happens in the game.)

     
    Takeda Shingen is second PCE game published by Aicom, the somewhat hapless early third party whose previous game was P-47. Three out of Aicom’s four PCE releases were ports of late-’80s arcade games from Jaleco, which — if you’re a fledgling publisher trying to establish a foothold in the console marketplace — really isn’t a great way to stand out from the pack. Jaleco games, after all, were all about finding whatever the latest trend was and copying it in as quick and budget-free a manner as possible.

    In this case, the arcade Takeda Shingen was released in 1988 to capitalize upon an NHK TV show of the same name, the station’s taiga drama of 1988. The 50-episode series portrayed the warlord’s life as he rose from the also-ran leader of Kai province (modern day Yamanashi prefecture) to the man who almost beat Oda Nobunaga at his own game. It was an enormous hit, the second most-watched taiga drama ever; the entire series averaged a 39.2% share in the TV ratings, a figure that’s all but impossible to achieve these days. Such is the influence of this show that many of the warlord portraits seen in Nobunaga’s Ambition and the other Warring States Period sims Koei’s released over the years were often based off the actors that appeared in the series. (The show also inspired Hot-B to make two FC Shingen sims, one of which was released Stateside as Shingen the Ruler.)

    So Jaleco cobbled together a Shingen arcade game and rushed it out while the series was still running. Aicom ported it, I guess, because they had a contract with Jaleco to port their arcade stuff and they didn’t put out anything more sellable than this for all of 1988.

     

     
    What’s so bad about Takeda Shingen? Well, besides the fact that the main character walks like a infant (see right), the game he stars in is a poor attempt at making a sort of medieval-Japan Double Dragon with a few RPG elements. You can freely mince through all the environments — you aren’t required to beat up any of the doomed ashigaru you run into — but rushing right to the boss of each stage without building up experience and upgrading your abilities beforehand is suicide.

    The gameplay itself copies the original Double Dragon in all the wrong ways. It’s slow, laggy, and there seems to be a half-second delay between button presses and Shingen doing anything onscreen. This results in the player having to very carefully toddle up to enemies from the classic 2D-brawler diagonal angle, press the II button, and largely hope for the best. Things improve once you get some useful power-ups (that sliding move you get is rad, but that doesn’t happen until near the end of the game), but whether you have the patience to make it that far or not is highly questionable.


    There seem to be three main signs that the PCE title you’re playing is crap: The controls are oddly lagged (cf. Energy); the main character walks like an idiot, and the music is surprisingly good. (That’s the Level 1 theme on the PCE, but the boss tune in the arcade version, where it sounds quite a bit more epic and taiga drama-ish.)

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Sidearms

    Posted on March 23rd, 2011 keving 6 comments

    The site was down for a bit today because I forgot to pay my web-hosting bill. Sorry!
    Side Arms
    (サイドアーム)

    Maker: NEC Avenue
    Release Date: 7/14/89
    Price: 5400 yen
    Media: HuCard (2 Mbit)
    Genre: Shooting
    PC Engine FAN Score: 20.86 / 30.00

    Kōgien: “An innovative shooter that lets you attack to the left and right. A faithful port of the arcade game that features a fine-tuned balance that keeps things accessible for beginners and veterans. Collect an item power up your attack further.”

    Another NEC Avenue port of a Capcom arcade game, this one a shooter that oddly never made it to any other Japanese hardware platform, only finding official home release on European computers. (EDIT: I was wrong here. Capcom USA released their own Commodore 64 port for the US market in 1987. It’s not great.)

    It was never a very popular arcade game — I think I saw it only once or twice in person — but considering it came out in 1986, it was a pretty decent upgrade on what Gradius offered just a bit previous.

    Two main improvements make this game different from Konami’s: the screen can scroll vertically and diagonally as well as the standard horizontal; and your robot fighter can fire left or right depending on which of the two buttons you press. The power-up system is also a little freer, letting you choose your weaponry from the pause menu as you acquire the needed items (the arcade version had a third button for changing weapons on the fly). Grabbing the α/β items lets you combine with another fighter jet and transform into a super-duper robot that fires in eight directions; this also lets you take a hit without dying, which perhaps says something about the building standards they use on robots of the future — surely my last hope of Earth, savior of the people, etc., can take more than one stinking hit at a time. Also worth noting is that you can shoot onscreen power-ups before grabbing them to transform them into something else, a system that Capcom reintroduced a year later in the much more successful 1943.

    The game has no smart-bomb function, and presumably the left-right firing arrangement is meant to take its place. It becomes a bit of a moot point, though, considering that you’ve got enemies swooping upon you from both sides starting about two minutes after you press the Run button. If Gradius got a little tricky after you died and lost your weapon upgrades, this is the equivalent of challenging Darth Vader with a used Panda Express chopstick. Sure, it’s fun while you’re alive — you easily bash up swarms of enemies with your 8-way fire, and the game demands enough dodging ability from you that the pace remains engaging and fun. But lose them all, and you’re pretty much done for that go-around, especially given that Side Arms starts you right in the same place, still surrounded by all the bad guys that killed you the first time.

    This may be much of the reason why Side Arms never caught on worldwide the way that Gradius and, to a lesser extent, stuff like Capcom’s own 1943 and Legendary Wings did. But the PCE port is pretty faithful, at least. Despite its two-megabit size, all 10 arcade stages are included; the graphics are varied enough (although the bosses repeat too often); and the sound’s excellent throughout. NEC Avenue would go on to release a CD-ROM version of this game that included an original “Before Christ” mode and recorded music from Capcom’s in-house studio, but I’ll get to that later on.

    (Of particular interest with the HuCard version: The music was rearranged for the PCE by Takashi Tateishi, whose most famous soundtrack work in games probably still remains Mega Man 2. That title came out half a year before Side Arms in Japan, and tracks like the one above make it pretty obvious that it’s the same buy behind both scores. Tateishi still remains in games, running indie music contractor Most Company and making contributions to Dance Dance Revolution and the like.)


    I can think of a lot of mid-to-late-’80s shooters that look just like this. They all seemed to get PC Engine ports, too, is the funny thing.

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Final Lap Twin

    Posted on March 16th, 2011 keving 7 comments

    Final Lap Twin
    (ファイナルラップツイン)

    Maker: Namco
    Release Date: 7/7/89
    Price: 6200 yen
    Media: HuCard (3 Mbit)
    Genre: Racing
    PC Engine FAN Score: 23.04 / 30.00

    Kōgien: “Three game modes are available: a single-player race against the computer, a two-player simultaneous mode, and a role-playing Quest mode.”

    Namco and racing games go a long, long way back. Pole Position (1982) was far from the first behind-the-car racing game, but it was undeniably the most popular racer of the “classic” era, becoming the biggest earner in North American arcades during 1983 and spawning (among other things) a Saturday morning cartoon. 

    Final Lap (1987) was largely a graphical update taking advantage of 16-bit microprocessors, but it did offer one revolutionary feature — while Pole Position was strictly one-player (the first Namco arcade ever to not have a two-player option, in fact), Final Lap allowed filthy rich operators to link up cabinets and allow for up to eight players to course through a single track simultaneously. It was also arguably the first racer to deliberately implement “rubberbanding” to ensure that less talented players were never too far behind the leader — a feature that Mario Kart would later polish to maddening, Saturday night-ruining perfection.

    The game got ported first to the Famicom in August 1988, a pretty remarkable effort that included a built-in sound chip and a 2-player mode that split the screen in half, a pretty impressive feat that must’ve been murder for the programmers to get right on the platform.

    Final Lap Twin on the PCE has the same functionality, as shown above, but the system’s superiority in processing speed gives the proceedings a much greater sense of speed than was possible on the ol’ FC. That, and you get a choice of F1 racers, a skill difficulty function, assorted tuning options, a career mode of sorts, and so on. In other words, it was a bit of a simulator — or, at least, as much of one as the genre was capable of handling on Japanese consoles back then. (Formula One Grand Prix, the first F1 game that we could still recognize as a real “simulator” today, came out in early 1992.)

    That’s not why modern people enjoy this game so much, though. No, all the praise is reserved for the RPG mode, which — like the one in Namco’s last PCE sports game, Pro Tennis World Court — takes the cake for sheer lunacy. “Oh, a racing-themed RPG,” you might think. “Maybe it’s something like Speed Racer, where you have a little racing team with your family and you fight off masked rivals and robot drivers and so on.” Pfft. As if. Instead, it combines the world of mini 4WD cars (on the cusp of a major toy boom in Japan at the time of release) and  Star of the Giants, the most famous overwrought sports anime of all time.

    “I have something important to speak to you about today, [name],” your stern, unshaven father tells you in the in the game’s intro. “I have hammered into you all the mini-4WD techniques I know, but now it is time for you to embark on a training mission of your own. [Name], my child! First you must match wits with the mini-4WD champions dotted around each region and test your skills against them. [...] You must keep your races clean, [name]! Never forget the value of friendship as you compete. …If darkness should ever cloud your heart, then you may return to your father’s side at any time. I will punish you with my family lashings, just as I did before! I will give you my 4WD machine, the “Star of the 4WD,” the very same as what I once used. It will serve you well, [name]. Now, go, [name]! Become the star of the 4WD world!”

    And so it goes, really. You travel around the world map, fighting random battles against bratty kids in order to earn the cash to upgrade your little RC car. Six bosses need to be defeated, and the game’s climax takes place in a domed stadium situated on an island shut off from the rest of the world for some reason. The backdrops in this mode, as you can see, are blown up to reflect the small size of the mini-machines you’re racing here, and overall it’s a pretty bizarre world being depicted. At least the world of Pokemon kinda-sorta makes sense if you don’t squint at it that hard. This “RC car” angle was completely removed from the RPG mode of the TurboGrafx-16 version, with “turbo engines” replacing the idea of upgrading your car’s battery. The backdrops are still enormous, though, which must’ve caused some confusion among kids.

    (Interesting side note, by the way: The music for Final Lap Twin is by Katsuhiro Hayashi, a widely under-appreciated composer who I last discussed when I wrote about High School! Kimengumi and Hokuto no Ken.)


    This video (half of a TAS released a year or so ago) should give a basic idea of what the RPG mode’s like. You have to race a lot of “random battles” in this game to scare up the cash you need — I suppose you could call it a classic ’80s JRPG in that respect, eh?

  • [I ♥ The PC Engine] Gunhed

    Posted on July 8th, 2010 keving 5 comments

    Gunhed
    (ガンヘッド)
    (Blazing Lazers)

    Maker: Hudson
    Release Date: 7/7/89
    Price: 5800 yen
    Media: HuCard (3 Mbit)
    Genre: Shooting
    PC Engine FAN Score: 24.10 / 30.00
    Kōgien: “A standard vertical shooter, much like the other shooting games used in the Caravan. Based off the film of the same name, although none of the movie’s elements are used in the game. An exhilaratingly powered up shooter.”

    Gunhed, the 1989 Japanese live-action SF flick, is not very good. You can tell it’s trying very hard, but it can never quite shake the fact that it’s, well, a low-budget ’80s SF flick, one that wouldn’t be out of a place in a late-season episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I like the film for those qualities, but many don’t. Heaven knows director Masato Harada didn’t like the English VHS release I saw back in the early ’90s, one that was extensively edited to remove most of the very Japanese bits; that’s why that version is directed by “Alan Smithee” instead. (ADV, my former bosses, released a much better DVD in 2004.)

    Hudson and Compile’s video-game version of Gunhed has absolutely nothing to do with the film — you’re piloting a spaceship, for one, while the Gunhed shown in the movie is a robotic tank — and it’s far, far better off for it.

    It’d be fair to say that Gunhed helped shift a lot of PC Engines in the summer of 1989, and not simply because it was the competition game for the Summer Caravan that year. It’s also one of Compile’s best releases ever, packed with everything that makes a Compile shooter so good: a numerical power-up system, changes to upgrade weaponry at regular intervals, and really fast vertical scrolling. It’s also one of the longest shooters they’ve ever made, with a full run taking around an hour to complete assuming you don’t continue. (It’s no coincidence, I don’t think, that stages 5 and 8 — both very slow-scrolling levels — are also the most boring and frustrating to me.)

    You’ve got four main weapons to choose from: the standard Star Soldier five-way beam, a half-moon rapid-fire beam which later got lifted wholesale for Donpachi, an undulating lightning shot that I remember thinking was totally “next generation” back in the time, and some useless orbs that fly around your ship. You’ve also got Gradius-style options called “multibodies” (or, as the in-game voice calls them, “Mmrnh Bnhh”), optional shields, and upgradeable homing missiles. These missiles are secretly the best weapon in the game, because they home in on enemy bosses even before the hit detection kicks in — they make things so much easier, and once they’re fully upgraded, it’s like you can beat the game blindfolded. Sort of. Not really.

    Gunhed is a product of the age, and as such, it’s kill-or-be-killed. None of this “only the center dot of your ship has hit detection” stuff — your entire spacecraft explodes if anything overlaps with it, and that’s that. On the other hand, you’re never asked to perform a lot of fancy bullet dodging in this game, not even in the later stages. It’s a careful balance Compile has pulled off here, and it results in an exhilarating shooting gallery, especially in the high-speed stages 3 and 4. (It’s no accident that the Caravan competition version started in stage 3, probably because of all the destructible blocks and things. Competition HuCards were given out to Caravan champions as prizes, and like the Nintendo World Championships cart, they’re now pricey collector’s items.)

    Really, this is one of those very few PC Engine games that’s so universally praised worldwide that I don’t have much to say which hasn’t already been written elsewhere. The graphics are great, the music’s thumpy and catchy, and it’s just a perfect game to turn your brain off and blast away with. Man, the summer of ’89 was an awesome time to be a PCE owner, wasn’t it?