COMMODORE 64 REVIEW – B.A.T. (Bureau of Astral Troubleshooters)

5_25 floppyIf you haven’t heard about this Ubisoft adventure/rpg from 1990, then you aren’t alone.  I came across a boxed copy of this 5 1/4 floppy game last year, and it looks like an enticing Blade Runner-esque rpg on its face.  If nothing else,

This mainly point-and-click adventure starts you out with an optional character creation opportunity.  Don't ask me if it really changes anything ...
This mainly point-and-click adventure game starts you out with an optional character creation screen. Don’t ask me if it really affects anything …

the box is great and way ahead of its time (it looks solidly like a 1995 game, so it had to sell a bit on that, alone.)  The game of B.A.T. itself, though, which is actually a port from the Atari ST home computer version, is a mixed bag of awesome and awful.

I’ll start with the awesome: the setting is just darn cool.  It embraces rather than shy’s away from its Blade Runner roots, casting the player as an interplanetary detective searching for an escaped criminal scientist who’s suspected of siding with a known human-hating terrorist.  There are lots of aliens and bizarre landscapes to view, though I’d say that none are so outlandish as to be utterly unique.

Also good is the amount of open-ended action.  You can find a phone, and dial the number off of a pamphlet or ad, and speak to different individuals that you may or may not ever encounter.

Locations branch into comic-like panels when you delve deeper into them ...
Locations branch into comic-like panels when you delve deeper into them …

There are limits, though, and you’ll hit them after about half-an-hour.  Still, given the size of the game (one double-sided disk,) the achievement is commendable, and you’ll find plenty of places to wander around and aliens to chat with.

The speech system is okay, giving you random conversation encounters with recurring characters and the occasional on-screen static illustrated character, but having long ago mastered interactive fiction/text adventures, the “Discuss/Attack/Steal” type options of interaction seemed overly limiting.

Personally, the graphics did it for me.  They aren’t fantastic when compared to the Atari ST version, which, coincidentally, is what they decided to stick on the box.  However, they did a lot with the limited graphical capacity of the C64 hardware, and it definitely succeeded in keeping the gritty urban/sci-fi atmosphere they were shooting for.  The fight scenes in particular look great, which sometimes occur randomly, and sometimes occur at your prodding (there’s a great ATTACK option for every random person who talks to you, and I urge you to hit it often if you want to lose all your ammo and die over and over again.)

Battles look pretty good, but don't forget to buy ammunition ...
Battles look pretty good, but don’t forget to buy ammunition …

Now, for the awful bits about B.A.T. for the 64. LOADING, LOADING, LOADING.  Every C64 enthusiast knows the lengthy wait times associated with booting up the real deal software, but this game takes the “read a book and play at the same time” idea to the next level.  I’m not sure what the developers were struggling with, but having to switch from side 1 of the disk, then side 2, and back again is truly maddening. Even emulating this title can feel like a chore, though it makes the task a bit easier.

The gameplay of B.A.T. consists mainly of you clicking on static images, either to go to new locations, talk to characters, interact with technology, or search an area for items.  Like other games of the point-and-click adventure genre, your cursor will change depending on what it is you’re dragging your joystick cursor over.  This brings up the second biggest problem with B.A.T.: there is no indication on which way you came from, and your new location screen never keeps a consistent perspective.  This means that you will click an arrow to go to the next place, yet you have a 33%-50% chance of going back to the previous screen by mistake–keeping in mind that you had to wait half a minute or more for the new location to load, switching disks like a fleshy-jukebox all the while.  This makes that easily attainable online walkthrough all the more tempting, which isn’t what I look for in a great game.

I had nightmares about this guy ...
I had nightmares about this guy …

When the cursor driven interface succeeds, though, it’s adequate.  The learning curve requires you to realize that, when you click and search on that little item in the picture, you are actually searching the whole screen.  It’s confusing at first, especially when you click on the picture of a gun in a case, search it, and the dialogue box pops up to say “Sushi. Will you take it?”

I’ve said already that the fight screens look good (though don’t expect them to change,) and consist of you looking at your target from a first-person view.  You have a limited amount of time before they start shooting, which they will, without fail or variation, and in that time, you need to click on what weapon and shield (if available) that you want to use in the fight.  This is where you learn that, while you may have a gun, you probably haven’t bought any ammo.

Yes, this is a point-and-click adventure mixed with an rpg of the old-school–you’ll get hungry, thirsty, and tired, and occasionally you’ll have too much stuff and be forced to leave stuff in random locations like a slug leaving a slime trail.  This isn’t a bad thing, though, and adds something a bit deeper to the talk-to-him and find-this gameplay that makes up the majority of the game.  Did I mention that there’s also a time limit to your overall mission?  Don’t fret, though,

This game features a computer implanted into your arm that allows you to check your stats, and even to program in a little BASIC-style setup.  Although a strong foreshadowing of Fallout's Pip-Boy, Brian Fargo had nothing to do with this game ...
This game features a computer on your arm that you can program. Yes, like Fallout‘s Pip-Boy, but Brian Fargo had nothing to do with this game …

because you’re not likely to reach it before you either complete the game (I commend you) or decide to quit while wondering if the game is loading or just plain crashed.

This may sound to you as though I didn’t enjoy my time with B.A.T., and I hope to correct that misconception.  There’s a lack of cyberpunk adventure in the world of games, despite some well-known favorites like Beneath a Steel Sky (which you can get free with a free account at gog.com) and Neuromancer (also on the C64 and other platforms, and much easier to play,) and I think that any addition to the fold is a welcome one.  If cyberpunk is your cup of tea, and reading Philip K. Dick while your 1541 disk drive clicks and whirs away sounds heavenly, than I suggest you give B.A.T. a try. Also, check out the sequel, The Koshan Conspiracy for DOS, the Amiga, and the Atari ST systems.5_25 floppy

BAT SCORE CARD

GENESIS REVIEW – UNIVERSAL SOLDIER

GENESIS cartOh, licensed games, how you confuse us.  We love the movies and comics that you represent so thoroughly that we temporarily forget the tragic history of poor games shoved out the door to make a quick buck.

But that’s not always the case.  Sometimes we get lucky, a golden ticket of a game that combines a great license with fun gameplay.  Ducktales for the NES and the Arkham series of Batman games have taught us that developers can give us great licensed games that combine quality original game engines with the atmosphere of the source material, but there’s another strain of licensed game that merits our attention: licensed games that are great versions of other games.

So the movie didn't have any giant robot-insects--they're better than generic character actors!
So the movie didn’t have any giant robot-insects–they’re better than generic character actors!

Rambo: First Blood Part II for the Sega Master System falls into this category, as it’s a re-skinned version of Ashura/Secret Commando. Since it’s a re-marketed version of a good game, Rambo: FBPII is, itself, a good game making okay use of a good license.  There’s a similar game that does one better, and it’s Universal Soldier for the Sega Genesis.

Ten seconds with this game will tell any experienced gamer what the engine is from, and it’s an amazing thing: this game is a retooled version of Turrican II for the Commodore 64.  Like Turrican II, Universal Soldier has the excellent animation and quality shooting and platforming controls that made gamers riot when the Turrican II demo was released and there weren’t enough copies to go around (Cologne, circa 1991).

Never played a Turrican game? Imagine the love-child of Contra and Metroid.  Sound good?  It is, and Universal Soldier  has the platforming and shooting joy that it denotes.  Turrican lets you jump and shoot like any good Contra-esque title, and there’s a lot more platforming and some hidden secrets ala Metroid.  Also like Metroid, you can press down and

Spiny-balls of doom are pretty much always a great game-maker, right?
Spiny-balls of doom are pretty much always a great game-maker, right?

attack and you roll like a spiky ball, whacking enemies and spinning through hard to reach places.  Something Universal Soldier takes solely from Turrican  is the automatic fire mechanism–hold down the fire button, and your character locks down, spraying a rain of bullets in whatever direction you aim with the directional pad.  It’s a staple of the Turrican series, and it works just as well here.

So it’s got a good engine, you say, so what? It also has something that most shooters don’t, and that’s a weird sense of humor.  See those tiny mechs that look like little baby ED-209’s running at you?  Sure, you can shoot them … or you can jump on them, Mario-style, and watch them collapse like a can, skittering back and forth and spraying sweat into the air.  Not enough?  Okay, what about

There are tons of power-ups picked up from shooting flying drones ala Contra ...
There are tons of power-ups to collect by shooting flying drones ala Contra …

discovering hidden blocks that, when shot or bumped, spit out power-ups in a showering arc like, oh golden coins?  Yeah, that all happens, and it really gives the game a sense of fun missing from a lot of shooters.  The odd bits remind you “Hey, it’s a game. And I’m having fun.”

The music is a so-so bag, giving adequate but not memorable tunes paired with radically mismatched ones (I’m talking about you, level 2–YOU SHOULDN’T BE THAT HAPPY.) The graphics, while the animation and colors are great, are also uneven.  Turrican II  had some awesome enemy sprites, whereas the Universal Soldier film had, uh … b-actors pretending not to have emotions (except Dolph Lundgren–he’s the bomb.)  So the retooling Universal Soldier did on Turrican II (it’s not a total rewrite, but it’s a lot more than just a re-skinning) resulted in uglier and less-creative enemies, all in an attempt to make the game fit the license.  Yeah, it’s a sad result of the process, but anything that gives the world another Turrican game is a positive.

Turrican II (left) had much better enemies than Universal Soldier (right), but the action in both is just as fierce.
Turrican II (left) had much better enemies than Universal Soldier (right), but the action is just as fierce in both …

So if you want to shoot the gears out of a million robot-bugs and cyborg fighters, Universal Soldier is an excellent (not to mention inexpensive) action-platform fix that is a perfect fit for any Genesis or Mega Drive owner with an itchy A-button thumb.GENESIS cart

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER SCORE CARD

SNES REVIEW – ININDO: THE WAY OF THE NINJA

Game Over A lot of modern gamers will claim the Super Nintendo as the godfather of JRPG’s, and there’s good reason for that.

Same RPG Actions, Harder to Pronounce RPG Character Names ...
Same RPG actions, harder to pronounce RPG names …

It hosts the classics of the genre, such as Final Fantasy III (or VI, if you’re one of those people), Illusion of Gaia, and Chrono Trigger, to name a few.  But those are just the big guns, the games everyone and their grandmother has heard about.  Inindo: The Way of the Ninja is one of a slew of Japanese Role Playing Games that came stateside for the SNES and has, for one reason or another, been forgotten by the wayside.  Does it deserve to be left there?

The short answer: no.  Released circa 1993 by Koei, Inindo has a lot going for it that other JRPG’s of the era don’t have.  First, the hero isn’t your average boy-whose-village-is-destroyed-by-the-villain-and-is-out-for-revenge kinda kid.  Err, actually, that’s exactly what he is.  But this boy is a ninja in a somewhat historically accurate feudal Japan, and the villain he’s going after is Oda Nobunga.

If that name is familiar to you, and not because you’re a historian of ancient Japan, it’s because KOEI has been making Nobunaga’s Ambition historical strategy games since 1986.  That said, Inindo is the first and only traditional RPG to find it’s way into KOEI’s Nobunaga-repertoire. The historic setting definitely gives the game a unique feel–you still visit inns, but you also visit Tea Houses.  You still get party members, but you have to gain enough of their trust and enough levels to be able to recruit them.  You can also start a duel with recruitable characters, and beat the stuffing out of them to show that you mean business.  Shame I couldn’t do that in other JRPG’s–I’m talking to you, comic relief!

There are some good cutscenes now and again, reminiscent in style to the original Ninja Gaiden.
There are some good cut-scenes, reminiscent in style to the original Ninja Gaiden …

The setting is enhanced by bits of historical facts dished out by the NPC’s that you’ll talk to in towns, and also from the occasional shifts in political power in certain regions as you walk through them via an overworld map.  Every so often, a risk-type map of feudal Japan will pop up, and cycle through battles between feudal lords (called “daimyō”).  Nobunaga is one of these, and each political shift brings him closer to total rule over the region.  After you get renowned enough, you can speak with daimyō’s, and spy on other rulers for them or carry out various tasks to curry favor. When you have enough, you can unite them against Nobunaga.

The shifts in regional power within the game occur when a certain amount of days have passed, which is calculated via the overworld’s day-night cycle.  Yes, you heard right–this 20+ year old SNES RPG actually has a day-night cycle, shown by the dimming and brightening of the screen while traveling on the overworld map.  Your character has to rest, too, and when he wakes up, he can be ambushed by traveling recruitable party members.  Lose, and you get robbed of all your cash and are injured, causing attack and defense penalties that require medical attention or items to remove.

Even Ninjas Had to Deal with Dungeons
Even ninjas had to deal with dungeons …

Sound rough?  It is.  This is a tough game, but gets less so the more you push on.  You can’t grind excessively, because duels don’t give you experience, and there’s programming that makes enemies disappear if you’re way too powerful for them.  And guess what?  Overworld random enemy encounters are super-rare.  This can give the game a somewhat linear feel, which may turn off some RPG’ers.

Aside from all the nifty features present in Inindo, it is, at it’s heart, a traditional JRPG.  You fight turn-based battles against giant rats, snakes, and “bushwhackers,” which I guess is what KOEI called bandits in the early 90’s.  The graphics have been bashed by other critics as NES quality, and while that’s not true, they can’t compete with the SQUARE, CAPCOM, or ENIX RPG’s of the era.  The spell and attack effects are underwhelming, and the character sprites and background illustrations are the bare minimum for a 16 bit system.  That said, the unique elements of Inindo kept me coming back for more, and the promise of different events on different play-through’s tells me I’ll be hitting this one up again down the retro road. Game Over

ININDO SCORE CARD