Monday, September 29, 2014

Pocky & Rocky with Becky (GBA) Review

Received: December 25th, 2013 / Written: September 28th-29th, 2014
(As played on Game Boy Player)
Year: 2001 | Developed by: Altron | Published by: Natsume | Distributed by: Taito
Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit.  I may not have played Taito's original 1986 KiKi KaiKai arcade game Knight Boy, but I have played the two Pocky & Rocky games on the SNES by Nasume.  =)
One of 1992's best Nintendo 16-bit offerings ever
The first Pocky & Rocky from 1992 was a near excellent shoot'em up with lots of Japanese culture and influence lingering throughout.  It's a very fun and charming game to play, especially with another gamer by your side.  Even on the easiest difficulty setting it is very challenging to beat, but that just adds even more replay value to the package in my opinion.  =)  It also introduced the raccoon character Rocky who's very amiable to play as.  And despite being an SNES exclusive game it plays and feels like an arcade game, which makes it even better.  Very underrated, and if I had to choose between this game and The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, I would choose this one in a heartbeat... mostly because Konami's game is highly overrated personally speaking.
Not quite up there with the original, but all
things considered it's still on fire
The 1994 sequel Pocky & Rocky 2 is a game I may have a lot of personal qualms with, but I still believe that it's a really solid sequel.  With much of the gameplay left in tact from its predecessor, there were lots of other gameplay elements that made it feel fresh.  The nonlinear area designs, shops, and the Alcahest/Magic Sword-like CPU (or second player) characters following you around all the time lessen the arcade feel, but that's not so much a big issue.  This time around there was a password system which was nice and there were new characters that could accompany you but I can't help but feel that Natsume may have been very lenient this time around as even on the hardest difficulty setting this is a very manageable game.  I don't think it's quite worth the $hundreds price tag, but I still feel that it's a great game... just not as near excellent as the original.  =)
Since I really enjoyed the two Pocky & Rocky ventures and consider myself a fan of them, I thought it was time to try the Game Boy Advance installment Pocky & Rocky with Becky.  The only difference was that this game was developed by Altron, much like the two SNES entries were developed by Natsume; licensed and distributed by Taito.  When I looked up info on this game in the past I looked up that it was not very well received by critics, gamers, and fans alike.  But with Altron onboard, how can you go wrong?
Where do I start?  =<
How about by saying Altron does not get Pocky & Rocky and their so-called "effort" disappoints.  But hey, I'm getting ahead of myself; what's the story about?
A long time ago there was a ghostly hydra that was rampaging the land, until he was stopped by a Shinto priestess (the actual game calls her a Goddess, which considering the image at this point is off base) and sealed up indefinitely.
Unfortunately he has recently escaped from his life prison, planning to wreak havoc once again.  Now it is up to the experienced Shinto priestess Pocky, everyone's favorite pudgy Nopino goblin raccoon Rocky, and a new member of the group, Pocky's young priestess apprentice Becky to put an end to all this.
In this installment you have the choice to either play as Pocky, Rocky, or Becky, one of which you'll be sticking with until you either start all over or beat the game.
Hey, to this game's very little credit, at least its title isn't a lie like "Pocky & Rocky 2", where Pocky was always the main character while Rocky was an optional secondary member to accompany (unless you kept it that way).
Isn't that right, additional secondary characters that were also companions in the previous iteration?

The adventure begins again... unfortunately
Like its two predecessors Pocky & Rocky with Becky is the Japanese folklore and culture-inspired equivalent of a shoot'em up, where you can move around and shoot in all eight directions.  Pocky and Becky's regular weapon comprises of cards, while Rocky's normal attack consists of leaves; but there are other implementations to your attack that will increase its strength or alter its outlook in the form of colored cards.  It is also possible to deflect enemy projectiles by tapping the B button, even when you're moving around.  There is also a special magic attack which can be used to defeat all onscreen enemies by pressing either the L or R shoulder buttons.  The stage ends with a boss fight, and once you defeat it you'll move on to the next one.

I didn't expect InuYasha to make an appearance
Okay, it doesn't sound so bad judging from what you just read, you must be thinking.  Well, trust me when I say that the gameplay for this installment is not as fun as I make it sound.  =(  What was fun and fresh in the SNES games is stale and repetitive this time around.  But how could that be?  There are only so many things to list what this game does wrong, and sadly the gameplay is one of them.  Altron got the basic essentials, but the execution is less than stellar.  They also fudged up along the way, which I'll explain in detail.  Whenever you start a new stage or use a life you start with a health of two, but once you lose half a heart there is no way to replenish it at all.

Proceeding ahead vanquishing enemies
In the last two games it was possible to recoup a bit of health, but not here.  The enemies still pop up and will try to ambush you, but they're not as fast as they were in the past.  And even if that's not an issue, you still have to defeat them by either throwing your cards or using your non-stationary deflector technique, the latter of which you'll find yourself doing a lot.  That's not strategic, that's just effortless; but not all enemies can be bounced back that way.  From time to time you'll come across torches, which you must be smack dab in front of in order to get the colored card after knocking at it.

Gang way!
The yellow card is the secondary basic attack, the blue card involves more power and range, the red card makes you shoot fire which is stronger than any other attack, and the purple card enables the character's personal specialty card trick.  Pocky's special is exploding (which the cards do if they hit the enemies), Rocky's special involves enemy seeking, while Becky's is relegated to two-way diagonal card throwing.  Sometimes you'll be looking around for keys, which are necessary to unlock mandatory paths.  Pocky & Rocky 2 had you look for keys too, but those were for treasure chests and locks, which were optional.  And if you think you'll end up keeping the power ups that you gathered after you died, you would be sorely mistaken I'm afraid.  =(

... to your doom!
The magic attack that can be used against enemies cannot be used against boss guardians.  Well what the hell is the point of having magic if you can't conjure it against them?  At least the last two games let you do that.  Which means that your only option against them is by throwing an endless amount of cards, for which you have to tap the A button in order to throw numerous amounts as opposed to holding down the button like the last two Pocky & Rocky ventures.  The boss' health is signified by the candles in the upper right screen, which cleverly melt with each hit that you land on them.  But you want to know what the worst part is?  Losing a life (which will happen often while playing this game) will send you back to a checkpoint.  o_o  Freakin' WHAT?!?

One of the many saving graces of Pocky & Rocky and Pocky & Rocky 2 was that if you lost a life you respawned at that exact point where you died.  You did not have to begin again from a checkpoint, and it made things less frustrating this way.
This is freakin' inexcusableD=<  You could make the argument that the SNES offerings lessened a bit of their challenge by letting you resume in the exact spot you died in, but I'll take that over frustratingly unreasonable like Pocky & Rocky with Becky.
The itsy bitsy spider grew thrice as tall
I did say that controls were "stale and repetitive" before.  I've gone over what made them stale, but now let's talk about what made them repetitive.  The thing about starting over from a checkpoint (whether far or nearby) is that you have to trek all the way to that destination again, which I wouldn't mind so much if the game was fun.  Alas, it's more frustrating than fun (due to its cheap structure), and when that happens (which is often) it can get very redundant.  I also say that because every time you get to the boss (whether it be the first time or no), they say their exact same dialogue before the fight begins.  EVERY. SINGLE. TIME!!!  I thought it was annoying enough when the old fisherman in The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening kept repeating himself, but this is just a hundred times worse!  =(  Does this game really think that gamers have such short attention spans that it feels the dire need to constantly remind them what they already know?  That's just offensive!
And oh my God, now I'm the one making that "is current media generation ADD?" style comment in my review.  <={
Oh, the spider I forgive.  The developers, on the other hand...
Ah, it's the graveyard of the ghostflies
*ahem* Like the second Pocky & Rocky there is a password between each stage, but while the aforementioned game only had four characters' worth of passwords, Pocky & Rocky with Becky ups it to nine characters' worth, involving letters, numbers, and symbols.  Oh, well, can't complain over small favors.  Another downside is that there is zero story progression; none whatsoever.  Just to show how "pressing" and "urgent" this all is, after you defeat the boss and cross the portal to pass you to the next stage: you immediately get to the following stage.  No inbetween story-developing cutscene like the last two games; just "get on your way now; keep going".  If you didn't want to show any inbetween cutscenes, then perhaps you shouldn't have had a story>o<  You can't possibly hope anyone will get invested by just going by the plot you were given in the introduction and nothing else, Altron!
Marching along
Visually the game is fairly adequate for Game Boy Advance standards, but that's par for the course for the handheld and is nothing really worth writing about at home.  For the most part the colors are well chosen and the settings are various and inspired by Japanese culture, like graveyards with mist, snow-capped landscapes, green mazes, rocky paths, and an overpass with a nice view in the distance among others.  They're also fairly detailed, but compared to the areas in the SNES games, they're fairly plain and unmemorable.
What gives the previous two SNES classics an edge over the Game Boy Advance installment is that they were very bright and colorful, and were fun to look at.  The areas in the two titles were also filled with imagination.  It's a shame then, that a lot of its visual charms were lost on this handheld venture.  =(  Even when playing Pocky & Rocky with Becky on the Game Boy Player add-on for the GameCube its visuals pale in comparison to its two older siblings.
That's not to say that that there aren't any positives in the visuals, however.  For starters, the redesigns of the main characters aren't so bad, and Rocky looks cuter than before (even though he looks like a child this time).
It's funny how this is the third time that both Pocky and Rocky been redesigned in the series, and how each redesign makes them look a little bit different than the last.
As I mentioned before, the view on the overpass in the sixth stage is quite good (even though its backdrop layer is stationary), the psychedelic background in the last chapter is interesting, and some of the boss designs don't look too shabby.  Notable examples of this are the Tengu crow, the skull surrounded by blue flames, a snow queen of sorts, a giant spider, and the final form of the final boss too.  Some of them animate well while others are done on the cheap.  Speaking of: the animation in general for the characters and enemies are very choppy (not at all fluid like in the SNES chapters) and without any charm.  There is a moment when the boulders are coming down towards you in the sixth area, but they don't even animate on the way down; that's very embarrassing for 2001 standards.  Also of note is that Becky, the new character of the series, is almost an exact palette swap of Pocky; if not for the differing special purple card powers they would've been 100% the same.  There is a fair amount of Mode 7 in the mix, but they're only relegated to the color cards that you find and when throwing certain power ups as well as one of the bosses' attacks, so they're rather minor.
Let it go!  Let it go!
For a long time I've always taken issue with the Game Boy Advance sound capacities, largely because they are very weak.  That, and when numerous SNES games got ported to the handheld in the early '00s, the graceful and beautiful sounds that inhabited the 16-bit originals got destroyed by an ironically 32-bit handheld in the transition.  But hey, as long as it's a GBA original no harm done, right?  Well... that depends on the game in question.  The oriental-sounding themes are clearly evident, but out of all the Pocky & Rocky soundtracks not only is it the weakest but it is also the most forgettable of the three.
Enjoy this view while it lasts
I guess it doesn't help that the melodies of the songs aren't all that catchy or spectacular in the long run.  Part of the blame goes to the Game Boy Advance, for which listening to it there isn't really much volume.  Not even the main and final boss themes sound all that energetic; and that's the main thing missing from the music: energy.  The closest I found of the soundtrack to be very decent was the ending music, but even then the lack of energy in sound prevents it from being all that affecting.  The SNES benefitted from strong sound samples, that's why many games on that console had great soundtracks; the Game Boy Advance could've benefitted having what the SNES had, but since it didn't, its sound samples come across as flat and weak.  The sound effects are serviceable enough, but nothing too great.  I realize that sounds harsh, but what do you expect from an audiophile such as myself?  =(
One of the biggest misfires of this game, which ends up plaguing it a lot, is its cheap structure.  Cheap structure does not make difficult games; challenging difficulty makes difficult games.  So if you lose a life you begin from the nearest checkpoint with the weakest power-up, but losing all your lives on that stage and continuing after game over sends you back at the beginning of the stage.  And ultimately its due to the cheap structure which ends up making for bad design.  What I couldn't help but notice is that once in awhile in most stages when you move your character to a certain direction of the screen heading that direction, sometimes the screen will remain still as opposed to scrolling continuously, until you're near the edge of the side you're going in.  Not just that, but during boss fights you're in a square battlefield for which the Game Boy Advance crops a part of unless you scroll upwards or downwards.
If you recall the last two titles you'll remember that the boss battles took place on one stationary square, no matter where you moved on the screen.  The big ratio also helped you see everything in your path.  Sometimes the bosses will go offscreen and then enter the screen again in Pocky & Rocky with Becky, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but a lot of the time you have to move around consistently as sometimes their projectiles will come from offscreen.  It also makes beating them without losing a life a big task if you're not careful, and even if you are you have to contend with the not fluid controls.  =(
So if you manage to beat the game, it's all over, right?  Wrong!  Not only is it not over, like the hydra implies, but after the ending you're given a code that must be enabled during the title screen.  Once entered you'll hear a cue and the selection color will change color.
Almost done?
But unless you're either a completest or a real masochist however I say to you don't bother.  =<  It's the same game as the first quest, however there are more enemies this time around and the bosses are differently colored.  Unfortunately because there's more going on in the second quest it's twice as tedious, twice as repetitive, and twice as frustrating as before.  Some of the bosses speak different dialogue when you confront them and after you defeat them, but others don't really say much different.  Passwords can still be used, thank God, but it's still not fun.  -_-  I only beat Expert mode once, and I really don't wish to go through that torment again.
By the power of Gray Skull
Before I played this game (and even after having seen one gameplay video of it on YouTube) I was hoping against hope that Pocky & Rocky with Becky would not be as bad or unremarkable as I had previously heard it to be.  I don't understand what happened here.  How do you make a series which started out as fun and enjoyable as the previous two Pocky & Rocky games and then follow it up with something so boring?  Not just boring, but frustrating too; how you go wrong?  <=(  Natsume had a better understanding of Taito's KiKi KaiKai then Altron ever did!
Beams ahoy!
And that's another thing: Altron simply did not get its direct predecessors and missed the entire point.  I know Taito's arcade game did not exactly garner rave reviews, but certainly it can't be as poor a product as this.  Pocky & Rocky with Becky is so poor that, I swear I'm not even joking, it's become a hat trick.  Not only does it do a great disservice to the two Pocky & Rocky gems, not only does it fail as the finale of the canon KiKi KaiKai series, but even as the fifteenth anniversary of the arcade coin-op it is very bad.  Space Invaders Anniversary did a better job serving as a (twenty-fifth) anniversary piece to the game that started it all than this iteration ever didEVER DID!!  >.<
To say that this Game Boy Advance outing was a disappointment is a very grave understatement.
I keep bringing up the SNES games in my review, and all for good reason.  The thing about the two SNES Pocky & Rocky games was that they were fast-paced, they were charming, they were legitimately challenging, they were well-polished, and they were a lot of fun.  Natsume's underrated duo of games were never games I considered tedious, redundant, or even all that frustrating (I mean, yeah, the first game is super hard, but i's not frustrating).  These games deserve their cult status from gamers.
Altron may have put in the basic essentials of the gameplay, but ultimately they failed to understand what made the earlier games fun.  What should've been fun and responsive controls here instead got turned into the line of repetitiously stale; it may have gone back to the roots of the first Pocky & Rocky in that it's more linear, but it's still an unenjoyable exercise in impatience.  This does not excuse its frustration factor, which is high.  This is also the only Pocky & Rocky game that did not enable multiplayer gameplay; you can't make a Pocky & Rocky game without a two-player option, it's like making a Super Mario game without the invincibility star from time to time.  Altron couldn't have bothered to add an option to link a Game Boy Advance to another one?  Mario Kart: Super Circuit and Super Mario Advance had multiplayer linking options, and they came out in 2001 as well.
Crow Tengu
This game seriously let me down as a staunch fan of Pocky & Rocky and Pocky & Rocky 2, moreso than Yoshi's New Island did months ago as a staunch fan of the original Yoshi's Island.  I really wanted it to be better than it was, I really did; but alas, it wasn't meant to be.  Europe never officially had the game released in that continent (the previous two did), which I can't say is a bad thing because they're not really missing out much here.  It's not the worst game I've ever played, but it is still very bad.  Games like these just come to show that sometimes you cannot beat the original, no matter how hard you try.  =(
For those who do not have the patience
to drudge through the game
As a sequel it really disappoints, but even as a standalone it's not worth investing time towards.  I feel bad for anyone that's played this game but not the previous two games beforehand, because Pocky & Rocky with Becky is simply put not the best the series has to offer.  Unless you're a collector or feel that you have to play every KiKi KaiKai related game, don't even play it.  Had it been more polished and fun perhaps I wouldn't mind some of the changes, but the frustration factor keeps it from being good.  Heed my advice: stick with the SNES classics; you'll have a much better time.
But you know what the sad thing is?  It's not the end of it, for in 2007 there was similar game for the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 2 called Heavenly Guardian.  ...  Well, can't stoop any lower than this, I'm pretty sure of that much.
,( -_-)>TO EACH THEIR OWN<(-_- ),
P.S. Man, now I understand how fans of The Land Before Time felt when it came to its dozen made for TV sequels; now I understand how fans of Superman felt after watching Superman III; now I understand how The Spoony One felt when reviewing Ultima IX: Ascension: betrayed.  =(
Thank you for reading my review, please leave a comment and let me know what you think.  Take care!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Space Invaders Anniversary (PS2) Review

Written: September 23rd, 2014
Image from MobyGames
Year: 2003 | Developed by: Empire Interactive | Published by: Taito | [|O|]
It's incredible how Space Invaders has been around for thirty-six years now.  When it first came out in arcades in 1978 it must've been quite the phenomenon that took gamers by storm; so much so that it got high acclaim and got ported, rereleased, and remade for almost every console since.  But how does one look at it from today's perspective?  After all, gaming has evolved a lot since then, and I don't think it would be fair to judge it by its age, but my thoughts on the game are: it's okay.
Don't get me wrong, it does earn its place in the history books as one of the first (if not the first) shoot'em ups ever made, not to mention a lot of the games in the genre owe a lot to this game.  But the thing about Space Invaders was that it was a '70s arcade game, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it's a game I find fun enough to play in short bursts.  I don't know, maybe it's because I've grown too attached to console gaming that I feel this way.  Or maybe it's because I recently played more than one version of the same game on my cousin's PlayStation 2 European-exclusive compilation commemorating its 25th anniversary Space Invaders Anniversary.
One of the most interesting aspects of the original Space Invaders was that it had four versions made for it: the monochromatic version that was black and white, the cellophane version where there several layers of colors that make it look colorful, the version where everything had its own color, and an upright version with a background.  Usually there's only one version when it comes to classic games, but with Space Invaders is an interesting case.  I guess the problem with having four versions of the same game is that while they look different they ultimately play the same.  But hey, while I think the game is okay, I do acknowledge it as a classic: hell, this compilation wouldn't even exist had it not taken gamers by storm, or any of its sequels or reiterations for that matter.
I believe the main draw to the compilation is that there are "nine versions of the classic" as claimed on the cover.  On one hand, it's enticing; but on the other hand, it can be worrying because Space Invaders is not exactly a game that's best played in long bursts.  Fortunately there are plenty of aspects that make this compilation worth experiencing... a little.  Among the nine selections are: the first game (four versions), Space Invaders Part II (two versions), Space Invaders Vs, Space Invaders 3D, and Space Invaders Doubles.  The story is not very complex: alien spaceships have come to invade, and it's up to you to stop them in their tracks.
While I have played Space Invaders prior to having experienced this compilation, this was the first time I got to play its 1979 follow-up Space Invaders Part II (or Deluxe for America).  Aside from a neat title sequence, the alien spaceships creeping down and getting into position before the area starts, invaders being split and being turned invisible, and cutscenes that were implemented after each stage has been beaten, it's really more of the same; in that I also think it's okay.  What happens is that the armada sidles over to the left or right, and once they do they'll go down a row and move the opposite direction; when you get close to shooting all of them they'll start to move very fast (even on the last ship).  There are four barriers that separate you from the aliens, which can be shot at from both sides; and when that happens it slowly gets torn apart.  The game is over if either you lose all your lives, or the some of the last space invaders reach your zone (regardless of how many lives you have) ending up killing you.  You can only move left and right, and from time to time there are saucers which pop up from time to time which are worth extra points if you manage to shoot it.
Space Invaders Vs is the competitive (and colorful) version of the game, much like Pac-Man Vs was the competitive version of Pac-Man, and what's neat is how it's split-screen with the adversary being played by either the computer or the second player.  The gameplay is the same as the arcade predecessor, but there is a twist: you are able to shoot to the upper side (while the enemy tries to shoot you at the lower side) as well.  There are a few difficulty settings, and you can choose how many sets (1, 3, or 5) you would like to play.  It's actually pretty fun, and the added difficulty settings lend it replay value.  Space Invaders Doubles is to the original Space Invaders what Pong Doubles is to the original Pong: a simultaneous cooperative version of the game.
But the best game in the compilation I feel is Space Invaders 3D, which is exactly as it sounds: a 3D version of the classic.  While the ship you control is comprised of a vector shape, everything else has got a 3D look to it.  And if that's not enough, it's also possible to enable up to one of five points of view, whether it be first person, third person, seen in a way which shows everything, et al.  It makes things pretty exciting that way, and while it plays the same it's rather fun.  The main menu has you surrounded by arcade machines, several of which consist of any of the nine games in question; what I find a little cool (albeit a bit disorienting at times) is how in the other eight titles you can also enable different perspectives.
Usually when it comes to game compilations they would show you the game either in its original aspect ratio or stretched out to the size of the screen; Space Invaders Anniversary does things different in that once you select the game the camera will be dragged to said arcade machine; and then you can either have the screen be shown close up, see the game from far away, or have it be shown where the upper corners are farther while the lower corners are closer.  I don't know exactly the word for it, but it looks something like this:
Screenshot from MobyGames
It's pretty cool, actually.  Makes me wonder how cool it would be if other arcade collections had that feature; then again it would be a pretty complex process to go through, but I like that these titles had that.
Not enough, you say?  Well, are you tired of hearing the same Space Invaders sound bytes over and over and over again?  Don't worry, Empire Interactive has got your back, for while the game is paused you can select the central song of other Taito arcade classics such as Night Striker, Elevator Action, The Legend of Kage, Darius, and even Bubble Bobble to fill the background.  That's awesome; who wouldn't want to play Space Invaders with Bubble Bobble music?  The same music that you choose will especially play while you're in the menu; it reminds me of how Intellivision Lives! did it (a little).  As for extras, you can view some nice sketches, schematics, and even promotional posters of the game; sadly you cannot zoom in to appreciate every detail like you could in most compilations (I did find it curious how one of the posters involved polar bears; what?)
Space Invaders Anniversary only saw release in Europe (despite the fact that Empire had the rights to release it in America as well), which is a shame because it's not a bad compilation at all.  The only downside is that there are mostly versions of the same game, which can be a bit redundant if you're not in the proper mood to play the arcade classic.  I may find Space Invaders okay, but it doesn't mean that I wish to dissuade gamers from trying it (on this compilation even).  I recommend you try the compilation for Space Invaders 3D and Space Invaders Vs, as well as the chance to play these games while listening to the awesome music of Taito's gems from yesteryear as well as the multiple viewpoints that you choose to view the games.  If you're curious, I say give it a go (or import it if you live in America or Japan); if you haven't played the game before (and how could you not have, it's been available on almost every system now) this isn't a bad place to start.  As far as classics compilations go, this one's not too shabby.

<(^o^)^TO EACH THEIR OWN^(^o^)>
Thank you for reading my review, please leave a comment and let me know what you thought.  Take care.  =)