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Psychotic Reviews: Gungriffon

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In the middle years of the 1990s every company that had not already done so built a 3D engine to enter the new world of gaming. With 3D arcade games wowing audiences worldwide it was natural that everybody would be excited to see this new dimension come home on the next generation of home consoles. Gungriffon started off as one such project at Game Arts, starting its development with the vague working title 3D Polygon. The game released exclusively on Sega’s Saturn worldwide in 1996. The game’s events take place in 2015 (what???); so when you play it, make sure the right side wins this mech war!

Gungriffon is a game that would feel right at home as an upright cabinet in an arcade. It really has that feel to it. It is a mech combat game, with a fairly limited set of controls built around the Saturn’s controller. This actually helps the game keep a simple design while still giving the player tools to easily navigate the levels. There are only six levels in the game, and each one is essentially a box you can openly move around in. Most of them will last less than ten or fifteen minutes.

[b]Why did Star Wars Battle Pod have closed levels instead of a big box to fly around in?[/b]

This game is a popular import. It requires little Japanese, and the only text you have to worry about is a mission briefing before each level. The first batches of levels just involve you killing every enemy in the level, but the objectives of later levels varies from destroying a specific target, to protecting your allies. This could confuse those who opt into a cheaper Japanese copy and wonder why they keep failing some of the levels.

By virtue of being a mech combat game the controls do take some getting used to, but once you do its quite easy to maneuver and make your way from one end of a stage to the other in a much smaller amount of time than you’ll think. The music in the game is excellent, and I found myself just relaxing at the mission select screen for a few minutes between every stage. Gungriffon goes for a more realistic atmosphere when you’re on the ground stomping around and blowing up enemy tanks, transports, air support, and mechs! You hear a lot of radio chatter and the sounds of your mech whirring as it walks like the giant robot it is.

This game does have some of the best 3D on the Saturn, with all enemy designs being clear and detailed for its time. It even looks better and runs smoother on the Saturn than the Mechwarrior ports to the Playstation! Game Arts always manages to pull the most out of the systems they work for, and its quite surprising to see this run so smoothly on a Saturn. A common thread I’ve noticed in games for the system is that there are small areas in games that just weren’t fully optimized, and slowdown occurs as a result. I never encountered any slowdown in Gungriffon, and its more detailed than some 2D Saturn games I’ve played that have this slowdown problem!

If you’re looking for a great game to add to your Saturn collection then consider Gungriffon, its a joy to play and is not too pricy. North American copies are around $25 right now, with import copies from Japan running around half of that after shipping. Gungriffon is easy to pick up and play in short or long bursts, and it may help to satisfy an itch to fire up the Saturn if you’re not in a fighting game mood.

Psychotic Reviews: Virtua Cop

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Help Wanted: Those who prefer to shoot first and ask questions later. Virtua City is looking to hire special detectives for missions that require fast trigger fingers. Recruits will be highly trained and put in great peril as they tackle the most dangerous missions to clean this city’s dirty streets. Are you man enough to be a hero? Play as special detectives Michael Hardy and James Cools and take on a huge job that will clean the streets of futuristic, man-made Virtua City.

Again we travel to the lonely lands of Sega’s oft forgotten home console, the Saturn. Virtua Cop started its life in the arcade and upon release became the latest in a long string of hits by Sega Amusement Machine Research and Development Department 2, or AM 2, in 1994. Virtua Cop is a genre defining game, as it broke new ground for on-rail light gun shooters by allowing far more interactivity with the enemies, based on where they are struck by a bullet. Different animations and scores come out for hitting different parts of the bodies of Virtua City’s criminal scum. The graphics are also full, 3-D polygons, which is obviously what Yu Suzuki and crew used after the massive success of Virtua Fighter a year earlier.

Virtua Cop became the primary influence for light gun shooters after its release. Sega would use the game as the backbone for The House of the Dead, Namco came out with its long running Time Crisis series, and even Goldeneye’s aiming on N64 is basically Virtua Cop, admittedly so by the developers. This success is likely a result of the jump to 3-D, which made Virtua Cop feel much more modern than even the best 2-D, arcade light gun shooters that came out just a few years earlier. The extra interactivity adds a layer that makes the game feel fresh even though its based on patterns and memorization to get through the levels. The levels are the basic style of Sega’s arcade level design of the time, with a Beginner, Medium, and Expert stage.

Many shortcomings for the Saturn are well known, but one thing that AM 2 nailed were the console ports of their own arcade games. When other teams were struggling to make use of the unique and confusing arrangement of the Saturn’s hardware, AM 2’s arcade ports were all games that are now staples of the modern Saturn collector’s library. Surprisingly, all these arcade ports are some of the most common and affordable games for the Saturn in all regions where it was released! Despite the less than stellar success of the Saturn outside of Japan, the arcade scene itself was experiencing a revival in North America at the time Virtua Cop released. Street Fighter II’s success got a new generation, myself included, to visit the arcades that had defined cutting edge game design and technology for almost 20 years. The remaining Western arcade developers took advantage of this revival to limp their way into the 21st century, while the Japanese developers flourished as a result of a stronger showing in what is only one of many markets for them.

Playing the game and hearing the soundtrack again caused memories of sights and sounds of the mid 90’s to come flooding back. During this time, I started visiting my local arcades weekly until both of them closed their doors in the early 2000’s. Part of my revived sensation comes from the fact that Virtua Cop, enjoyed with the Saturn’s Stunner light gun, feels so authentic to the original arcade experience. The soundtrack is a giant dose of 90’s nostalgia, and fits the pacing of each stage perfectly. The action is wonderfully framed, and all the different enemy spawns and shooting timers make use of different reaction speeds and player instincts. The Saturn release has many different difficulties to select from, so you can play around and find the one that gives you the perfect challenge. Like all arcade games, practice makes perfect!

Standing up, shooting bad guys, and having to fire off screen, all with the non-stop action of enemies popping up in front of you, makes Virtua Cop stand out as one of the arcade classics of the mid 90’s. If you don’t want to haul around an arcade cabinet, then owning the Saturn port is a fine consolation. Another port was released on the PC a year after the Saturn release, but this version only has mouse support. Another version was also released by Tiger for its R-Zone.

Psychotic Reviews: Panzer Dragoon

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Sega’s surprise launch of the Saturn in North America caught retailers and developers off guard. As a result the pickings were slim. The Saturn’s Japan launch happened only six months before the North American launch so most Japanese third parties did not have anything ready for international release either. The originally announced launch date was in September of 1995 for North America, but then they decided to launch it in May, right in the middle of E3! For a gamer that was anxiously anticipating the Saturn that might sound like a good deal at first, but that also meant that many games would be a full four months behind the launch. As a result, only Sega’s own first party games were available at first, but there was a decent spread of genres available. Panzer Dragoon was Sega’s cinematic action game for the North American launch.

After playing through Panzer Dragoon a few times I can say that it feels heavily inspired by Sega’s own arcade history. This game feels like a modernized (for the mid 90’s), cinematic version of Space Harrier. There’s even a code to put in at the title screen that will derender the dragon and let you fly around by yourself, and its called Space Harrier Mode because of this! Team Andromeda was founded specifically to develop this game, and they delivered one of the all time classic launch games.

Panzer Dragoon is so well polished that it shouldn’t feel like a launch game, and to be fair it was not available at the Japanese launch. The Japanese Saturn launch was dominated by Virtua Fighter. In Panzer Dragoon you fly on a dragon, unless you decide to go in Space Harrier Mode, and your mission is to stop the Black Dragon. There are six levels, called episodes to fly through, with five of them having bosses to fight at the end. The sixth boss is in the seventh episode, and that episode only carries the final fight against the end boss.

The game is set far into the future, long beyond the modern pinnacle of technology and into an apocalyptic view of a world post industry and with only a tyrannical government adding any new technology to the world. Of course these new pieces of tech are only available to the military to keep the government in power. Since old tech is much more advanced they are ravenous in their search for it in ruins that are scattered across the landscape. The unnamed character, or Keil Fluge in other versions, is approached by the dying rider of a blue dragon after he is shot by a black dragon. Keil then carries out the rest of the rider’s mission, stopping the black dragon! Enter the player, and you’re off to the first episode.

Remembering that this game is an early 3D game is kind of hard at times. It runs smoothly and the graphics in the world and characters are quite detailed for an early Saturn game, especially with its lacking 3D capabilities compared to its competition. The controls will pan the camera slightly from side to side as you move the dragon. The aiming reticle that pans moves quite smoothly during this panning, and while I only played with a D-Pad it would likely feel better to play it with a Saturn arcade stick. This game does feel like it would be right at home in an upright cabinet with a stick, fire button, zoom button, and camera switch button. Those are the only three controls in the game, movement, shooting, and moving the camera to see your flanks, behind you, and zoom in and out.

The weapon’s mechanic does have a lock on feature. By holding down any fire button you can lock onto any enemies you swing your reticle over, and then launch your lasers when you release the button. The firing button does not autofire, but you can alternate presses of A, B, and C to get a series of rapid fire shots. Depending on the area it may be more useful to lock on, or it may be better to use rapid fire. The shoulder buttons are used to switch the camera’s focus from side to side. L swings it left, L again swings it behind the dragon, L again goes to the right flank, and one more press of it brings you back to the front quickly. After one press you can slowly aim your way around your flanks and back as well, but the shoulder buttons are useful for quick switches. Finally, X, Y, and Z set to different camera zooms.

This is a game about memorization. Its not overly difficult, but each level does increase the difficulty over the previous level. You should not have much trouble getting through the first level the first time you play the game, but getting through level 5 or 6 the first time you see them is a more daunting task. Panzer Dragoon does offer different level difficulties, but playing on Easy only lets you get through level 4, you have to play on Normal to actually get the chance to beat the game. Easy can be used to master those first four levels so when you do move up to normal you will know the enemy patterns. Taking out a high percentage of enemies will give you an extra life, or continue in this game, at the end of each level. Getting close to a perfect will give you two continues. If you want to see the real ending of the game you have the beat this game on Hard! The best way to beat the game on hard is to memorize everything in all six main flying levels so nothing can threaten you.

Thankfully the game is short. Each level only takes a few minutes, and the bosses don’t take long to defeat once you figure out their pattern, where their weak spot is, and what attack method works the best on them. A playthrough of the game takes around an hour from start to finish. The challenge comes from having to memorize the game and then increase the difficulty to get the true ending. Since the game is so fun and easy to pick up and play with a short time constraint I can forgive it for all this memorization.

Spooky Plays: D

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Welcome back to a world of horror and fright. You may remember last year when I did a review of a game that not many would think of when pondering the options to step into a good atmosphere that sends chills down spines and squeals up throats. Thief: The Dark Project was that game, and the horror came from the masterpiece’s years spent in development hell when its focus was changed about a half dozen times. Well, if you want to read more about that game check it out right here: https://whydidiplaythis.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/unexpectedly-spooky-thief-the-dark-project/ . In contrast to a jumbled mess of juxtaposed design and experimentation that somehow worked brilliantly, this year I bring you D. Just D. The letter D. No more. No less. D.

D is a horror puzzle game developed by WARP and published by Acclaim. It was originally created and released on the 3DO, but given the system’s less than stellar sales records, the game was ported over to Sega’s Saturn and Sony’s Playstation, as well as DOS in the Western markets. In Japan, the Saturn release was a smash hit, debuting at the top of the sales chart. Acclaim insisted on porting it over to the other consoles themselves, and localizing it for the international market. The Saturn port was also successful on the sales charts in the West despite that console’s lukewarm reception. Sadly, Sony did not manufacture enough copies to even dream of satisfing pre-order demands for the Playstation release, and few more were ever produced. This leads to the oddity of the Saturn version being the easiest to find in the US. There’s not too much difference in price between the two though, Saturn averages out to be cheaper. The 3DO version stands up as the hardest to find and most expensive release. I blame this on the fact that searching for just “D” leads to so many other results that its annoying to find this specific game for any of its systems.

The game’s development is a wonderful tale in and of itself, with Kenji Eno going to extreme lengths to keep the real story of the game hidden, even from his coworkers, in an attempt to sort of cheat his way into a publishing deal. He made the game appear more like it was a clean cut adventure game with high quality graphics, not unlike Myst before it. Since Kenji Eno personally visited manufacturers in the USA to switch out his clean version from the real version he also bypassed any possibility of censorship.

Even today the horror imagery and well detailed (for the time) art design and environments stand out among its peers in the genre. Where Resident Evil would release after this game and rely on bad voice acting and jump scares, D does an excellent job of instilling a creepy atmosphere around the player and the young woman you control, WARP’s digital actress Laura Harris.

One interesting way that this atmosphere was achieved is a design choice that forces the player to sit and play the game. There is no saving or pausing. You have two hours of real time to finish the game from start to ending. That may seem like a short time, but I ended up being about ten minutes shy of beating it when I first played it. The second time was the charm for me.

One of the reasons you might get stopped and take a bit longer to finish the game is the puzzle design. Its quite reminiscent of point and click adventure games, but given its short length, most of these puzzles lack the depth or insane difficulty of some PC adventure games that are similar to D’s presentation. The exploration and movement works well for being limited to a controller. The odd part about the game’s movement design is that some rooms have paths that go all over the place. One example of this is in one of the bedrooms. You’ll step inside and be looking at a painting, and you can only walk towards this painting at first. Later you’ll need to get into a table to the right of the painting, but to get to the table from the painting you have to turn left, walk to the other door, then turn and step to the bed, turn to the left again, and then step forward to the table. You can’t just turn right when you’re already standing next to the table.

The game certainly feels aged though. Compared to other horror games its quite tame. As you play you’ll find the atmosphere is where the real tension is, and there are some creepy images and unexplained phenomena throughout this mansion Laura finds herself in. The occasional dessicated corpse catches her by surprise, and a wall of spikes early in the game might be only real jump scares in the game, but none of them are harmful. This game did influence later titles when it comes to presentation though. D’s unexpected success in all markets is simultaneously a beginning and an ending, as slower FMV puzzle games were nearing their twilight. D’s future influence lies in its tight artistic designs, well produced visuals, and its use of sound to create a setting and experience that will stick to the player. Its length actually helps it in this case. Since the game is so short everything that happens gets stuck in your mind, and you’ll rarely find yourself scratching your chin trying to remember something like you might with a long winded RPG or even other horror games!

If you have about $20-40 burning up your pocket or paypal balance, and you want a good, creepy experience that doesn’t require a long term commitment, then D is a fantastic purchase.

Psychotic Reviews: Dragon Force

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Holy crap this game rules! Dragon Force is a rather unique strategy game for the Sega Saturn that mixes turn based strategy with real time tactical movement, decision making, and party building. Development was started by a company called J-Force, but Sega itself eventually took it over and finished it. In North America it was localized and released by Working Designs. Sega used Working Designs’ English translation for the European release of the game.

Dragon Force focuses on a continent wide war between various kingdoms and empires. The continent is called Legendra, which is a terrible name. There are eight total kingdoms to choose from, but only six are initially available. The rest are unlocked after the first time beating the game.

Each kingdom gets control of various Generals, either by recruiting them by searching in various castles, or by recruiting captured commanders. There are ten different types of Generals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. There are ten main types of common soldier types as well, and each of these have strengths and weaknesses as well. The manual includes a table detailing the effects that common soldiers have against other types.

Now, with so many different countries and stories to choose from the game is built in with plenty of replayability. For this review I just played one scenario from start to finish and dabbled in a few others. I picked Highland as my main campaign, and after playing it this one does seem to be designed to be a tutorial type of campaign. Highland is rather isolated so you do not have to worry about border wars early on, and there is an easy peaceful annexation of Palemoon. It makes me think that Lord Wein and the elf Queen Teiris will be more than friends after this giant war.

Given this easy annexation I then stormed Tristan to basically conquer the entire Eastern half of Legendra. The rest of the conquest then focused on the Western half, picking off kingdom after kingdom until I finally took down Goldark. The threat continues as the evil being Madruk is still working to be awakened, so simply conquering Legendra is basically the first half of the game.

This game is quite fast paced in the beginning, but gets bogged down in the middle. You can just run around and storm castles all day long, making sure your enemies have little and later, nothing to counter your assault with. Once you’ve finished the conquest absolute chaos ensues but you can basically spend the time just grinding levels until you’re ready to easily blitz through the rest of the game. Turns start taking quite a long time though when you’re storming castle after castle and being counterattacked. Just before I was done conquering it wasn’t unfounded to have single turns take nearly an hour or more! So this game ends up being a major time sink, and its why I’ve just been pecking at it for months while I stroll through other games.

Each one of these scenarios by itself is quite long and rewarding, and if you could only pick one Saturn game to have on the system until the end of time, and only that one game, this would be a great candidate. Is it worth the price tag? It is if you enjoy the game and play through every single campaign to see the story unfold from so many different perspectives. This game is not cheap though, so in most cases it may be one of the last games that anybody collecting for the Saturn will pick up.

Psychotic Reviews: The Legend of Oasis

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The Legend of Oasis is the followup/prequel to Beyond Oasis. It was also developed by Ancient and composed by the studio’s founder Yuzo Koshiro. It was released in 1996 for the Sega Saturn and was built off of the same engine that powered Beyond Oasis (The Story of Thor for those outside North America). The Legend of Oasis keeps the same feeling and exploration style of the first game while introducing new puzzles and a new map.

The Legend of Oasis features beautiful, hand drawn 2D art and characters and shows off the system’s 2D capabilities quite well. The first game looked great on the Genesis, and the followup also looks great on the Saturn. Despite being scored by Koshiro, the music seems to take a backseat for the most part. Its rather quiet and reserved, and there are long pauses between tracks, even when the track is on a loop. The voice samples used are of high quality and Koshiro makes good use of the available CD audio, both of which put his accomplished sound design abilities on display.

In The Legend of Oasis, there are more spirits to recruit and use. On top of the original four from Beyond Oasis (Bow was renamed to Bawu for this game), there are two additional spirits, Brass and Airl. Brass has the power of sound, which can shatter crystals and break up electrical currents, and Airl has the power of air. The four returning spirits play the same roles as they did in Beyond Oasis. Bawu has some added voice samples including a chuckle when he gets bored and a sigh when he doesn’t have anything to eat.

One significant change in The Legend of Oasis is that weapons no longer break, and level up by finding newer versions of them in dungeons. There are also scrolls that unlock special abilities for the weapons, and orbs which can power them. The use of food items has also changed in that now you are instantly healed when you pick them up instead of being stored as inventory items to use when you need them.

Unlike the first game, there is a much greater emphasis on the dungeons instead of a more balanced mixture between dungeon diving and overworld exploration. I feel like this is a step back, given that the outdoor areas in Beyond Oasis were filled with secrets and mini games. The overworld also served as a great way to separate dungeons from each other and give the player some breathing room. In The Legend of Oasis there are dungeon entrances within the depths of other dungeons, such as Shade’s Shrine of Darkness located within Brass’ Forest of Sound.

Overall, it feels like The Legend of Oasis was a step down from its Genesis predecessor. The Story of Thor series was laid to rest in only two games and ended on a rather mediocre adventure. However, one highlight of this game is that it does show you how the additional two spirits were to be used, since that weren’t in the Genesis game.

Psychotic Reviews: Beyond Oasis

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Beyond Oasis is an action/adventure game developed by Ancient for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. It released quite late in the system’s lifecycle, late 1994 for Japan and 1995 everywhere else. Since Ancient was founded by Yuzo Koshiro it also includes a soundtrack composed by him. This is most likely Sega’s answer to The Legend of Zelda mixed with some Mana series since there are many similarities in gameplay design, puzzle solving, and progression.

You play as Prince Ali of the Kingdom of Oasis, and some bad stuff is starting to go down. One day while digging in an old ruin Prince Ali finds a gold armlet, which fixes itself to his wrist and tells him of his destiny to save Oasis. Clothing style and culture shows that the game is based on Middle Eastern mythology and literature such as the 1001 Arabian Nights. The gold armlet has the ability to control spirits, one of which is named after the class of infernal djinni Efreet.

There are differences with the weapon and item systems, as well as abilities. Ali starts off with a knife as your default weapon, this knife has unlimited uses but a short reach. You can pick up other weapons such as a bow, sword, and bombs for damage boosts, but these all break after a certain number of uses. Planning when and where to use your stronger weapons is a must, I usually saved them for boss battles.

Combat is quite fun as it offers great depth. It feels like you’re playing a brawler within your adventure game as Ali has kicks, swipes, stabs, jump kicks, flying stabs and slashes, flip attacks, and a spin attack. A lot of these attacks can only be used with your first knife though, so heavy damage weapons that can break are best used for more predictable fights like bosses. Each spirit has its own attacks as well, and these take large chunks of your SP down. Just having a spirit out will slowly deplete your SP bar.

The items you find mostly heal you. Ali has two stats to worry about, HP and SP. HP is your health, like it is every game that has HP. SP are your Spell Points, and these are used up just by having a spirit out or using a spirit’s magical abilities. These healing items are certain food items. Items like meat or cheese heals your HP while fruits heal your SP, still others heal both stats! You can also pick up powerups for your spirits, various weapons, and healing items in treasure chests scattered throughout Oasis.

There are plenty of secrets to find while exploring the world, even some hidden mini games that give quite nice rewards. In terms of following the storyline though the game is just as linear as any Zelda game. Beyond Oasis has the built in feature known as the “go-here” arrow when you’re off doing your quest. The map is stylized and fairly difficult to read when you’re first starting the game though. Once you’ve explored most of it the map will make sense.

The game feels quite balanced in its world design. You usually have nice area of outdoor overworld to explore while you make your way from dungeon to dungeon. The game also has a natural break between spirits. You can find the first two spirits quickly, but then Ali starts to work to unfold more of this mysterious group that is threatening his Kingdom before working to get the last two. Its a nice break between the two and lets the story keep you interested in what’s happening instead of breaking it up like this: get all spirits, uncover mystery.

A physical copy for the Genesis seems to be a bit uncommon, and its price ranges from $15-25 for a loose cartridge. This game has seen various digital releases and is on some modern compilations such as Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection and Steam.

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