Sunday, June 15, 2014

Level Up: Astal

People talk about underrated games a lot, and I can understand why: uncovering those hidden gems that no one got the chance to appreciate feels like getting that new game you always wanted. However, these underrated gems always seem to come from the most highly rated game systems: it’s easy for someone to talk about Totally Rad on the NES, but when you have a system that no one’s played with a game that no one’s played, you have something no one’s ever played (I think I’m done hyperbolizing for now). So this week I’m looking at Astal for the Sega Saturn.
Astal stars the title character, which has many similarities to Knuckles: he’s a gruff loner who is in charge of protecting a giant green gem of amazing powers that gets stolen to start off our game. He even looks a bit like Knuckles, with a focus on his big hands and the color red. Anyways, the whole back story of Astal is really more complicated than it needs to be, but I supposed they wanted to establish a story arc for Astal where he changes over time to become less jaded. That does happen, thanks to a tiny bird that he saves and befriends him over time. As often with platformers, it’s not something that hasn’t been done before, and in this case the story doesn’t affect the game all that much, but it is cool that they tried to have the events and the journey affect the hero as it goes, instead of just a basically going back to the status quo at the end.
As already mentioned, Astal is pretty much a typical platformer, but it’s so polished and well done. It’s not one of those speed based ones, like a Mario or Sonic though. If I’d have to compare this to another game, I’d have to say it’s more like the original Rayman or Ristar (another failed Sega mascot series). The challenge comes not from wanting to move quickly and figuring out how to avoid obstacles in time, but more from how to deal with what the environment is throwing at you.
Oddly enough, another thing that makes Astal like Ristar is the fact that his main skill is grabbing. Most of the time he’ll just grab baddies and throw them aside for a kill, but there are moment where it gets used for puzzles (though, never really that creatively). However, Astal has other skills, such as a ground pound and super breath. If that’s not good enough for the scenario, the bird that he rescues can lend a hand, either by pin-balling across the screen and attacking all the enemies, or by bringing Astal some health, both of which are more potent depending on when you use them. All this makes for a game that is very intuitive, but still presents enough of a challenge.
As the game revolves around gems and crystals, it’s no surprise that Astal is a beautiful game. Although this game is in 2D, Sega decided to put the extra capabilities of the Sega Saturn to good use. Sure, it’s not enough to warrant a whole new system, but it’s still stunning. The game makers really dedicate themselves to the gem/jewel motif for everything and it really works in the game’s favor.
On the side of audio, it’s ok. The music suits the atmosphere fine in that somewhat mystical sense, but never really gets me pumped or excited. The sound effects kind of have that element to them as well, especially when you toss an enemy to have him break into pieces. However, I think the cut scenes have the most interesting audio since it’s just still images. The music is kind of too soft and the voice acting is really awkward. However, as I said earlier, I don’t think the plot is all that amazing, so it doesn’t take away too much from it.
That’s all I can really say about Astal (once of the few times I’ve managed to talk about story, game play AND esthetics). It’s just a really competently put together platformer video game. The only thing that works against it is that it plays it pretty safe (despite the risk of being on the Saturn- heeeyyyyooo). There’s no moment where it gets really intense or tries for some unexpected twist, and there’s nothing that keeps you coming back for any reason. Other than that, this is a really good game, and if it were on the Genesis, I have no doubt it would be fondly remembered and often talked about. However, this isn’t what’s expected out of a new console. With the cost of the system and the game itself starting online at around 30$, it’s just not worth it for most people, but as someone who tumbled upon it, I was pleasantly surprised. I give Astal for the Sega Saturn 9 levels out 10.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Level Up: RoboCop

RoboCop is kind of a weird phenomenon to me, because despite everyone knowing the name, in my experience only a fraction of those people have ever actually seen the movie. That might have changed now thanks to the remake which comes out on DVD soon, and though my thoughts on the remake are a little complex, the original movie is GLORIOUS and should be seen. RoboCop is easily one of my favorite super heroes, and with his premise you’d think he’d be a great concept for an NES side-scroller, right? Let’s check it out with RoboCop for the NES.
Graphically speaking this game is not great. I get that, back in the NES days, it was hard to make a game look like the movie, but there is still much to be desired. RoboCop himself doesn’t look too bad, but he’s washed out in teal and looks really scrawny for someone who is supposed to be a walking tank. Other people look like brown smudges and other odd color choices. Though, for how bad the graphics are, the animation is what bugs me. The way Alex Murphy walks (especially on stairs) can look like he’s walking backwards, and while he moves slowly, his punch is a really quick animation. There’s even a part where you can only aim upwards while facing one side, making it awkward to set yourself up for the shot you WANT to make. Probably not the worst looking game, but it’s obvious just by looking at it that this was one of those rushed movie tie-ins the NES was infamous for.
As for the sounds, while I do like the chiptune version of the RoboCop theme, the sound effects are really lacking. Though the gun noise is pretty cool, the dog ones are pathetic (both the barking and dying). The punch noise seems to have the same problem as the animation (in that it’s very quick and without the visual, you’d have a hard time knowing that’s what it’s for.
However, the big issue with audio visuals is the mission titles. After some fairly decent animation, they all seem to feature an awkward drawing of RoboCop sometimes with his mouth flapping about, and an annoying beeping as the letters spell out. I don’t need to know the mission, I saw the movie! I just want to go shoot some dudes!
The game play of RoboCop is… not too good either. Yeah, if you didn’t get the hint when talking about the animations, it makes a lot of things really awkward (I’m saying that a lot this review). RoboCop himself plays pretty stiff. I know that he’s not the fastest moving character in the movie, but just doing something simple like trying to dodge someone’s attack feels really slow. Also, there are parts where you need to use stairs and finding the right spot can be a task. Even something as simple as shooting or hitting someone becomes questionable, as your hit box seems be more easily in your opponent’s reach that their hit box is to yours, and because of that weird punching animation, your window of opportunity is so small. Eventually you learn how to time things correctly, but you only get that due to trial and error: it’s not intuitive at all! This is one of those games where you have to do things mostly just the way the makers intended you to. Like, they have to program you to play this one certain way, like some kind of machine or a Robo- WHOA TOO META!
It’s sad to say, but yeah, RoboCop on NES is just one of those games that confirm the stereotype of licenced games not being very good. Granted, this could have been a lot worse, but there are too many simple things that are done wrong; moving, hitting, sounds, the look, etc… it has such an awkward feeling. The game is beatable, that much is true, but it’s not really fun at any point. There are even moments where what you need to do is just a bit too hard to guess for my liking (like a room where you need to punch a wall MULTIPLE times before it gives out despite showing no weakness as you punch it). It’s not a terribly frustrating game, it just really shouldn’t be this much of a chore to get through. I give RoboCop for the NES 4 levels out of 10.