A little look at…Melty Lancer

As with many nineties games starring a gaggle of walking clich├ęs in anime lady form it looks like the developers of Melty Lancer had dreams of conquering the world through a mixture of tie-in TV shows, drama CDs, and any other related merchandise they could slap the game’s logo on. This worked out just fine for some games but for others… not so much. The Melty Lancer we’re going to look at today is the very first game in the series, a PC-98 simulation game that would go on to be remade for the Saturn (1996) and PlayStation (1997) under the slightly frillier title Melty Lancer ~Galaxy Police Girls 2086~. As far as I’ve been able to tell the content between them is nigh-on identical, meaning the only major difference is the additional voice acting and the more colourful graphics found in the console ports, although I’d question whether the latter is an improvement over the crisp pixel art found here.

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Your task, faceless and nameable but definitely male individual, is to spend one year at the GPO - that’s the Galaxy Police Organisation to normal people – and whip your rag-tag team of Lancers into shape (not literally, mind – it’s not that sort of game), keep the streets safe-ish, and make sure you pursue any bad guy or girl important enough to have a name and a portrait when they speak. Anyone who’s spent some time with either the Princess Maker or Tokimeki Memorial series will immediately feel right at home here, being as it is a Japanese-style ‘simulation’ game that’s all about keeping track of and improving a mountain of attributes while battling with a rigid timetable.

Many of the statistics are the usual sort of thing you’d expect from any game that involves beating people up: health, attack power, speed… typical RPG stuff. But simulation games are never content to leave it at that, and Melty Lancer obliges by assigning not only numerical values to things like ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘self belief’ but super-secret hidden stats that determine whether your favourite policewoman will go out with you at Christmas or if you’ll get to see her in a swimsuit during the summer months.

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Improving these various abilities is handled via the weekly staff rota: just before the start of each week you get to split each officer’s schedule into chunks of patrolling, special tasks, and rest periods and then optionally talk to one of the six Lancers. This is your one chance a week to charm them with your deep understanding of their personal concerns and troubles as well as personally assign their training or even give them a little time off. The benefits of doling out a specific task rather than leaving it up to them (as is what happens to every other Lancer you don’t talk to) is that assigned training is slightly more effective than self-appointed practise and you obviously get to choose exactly what they’re up to rather than hoping for the best. A little tip for anyone thinking of playing the game: raising anything other than agility (effects chance to hit in battles) and investigation (used as the main stat in an awful lot of special jobs) is by and large a waste of time – you need these stats to be as high as possible as quickly as you can, whereas everything else tends to take care of itself.

Once that’s all taken care of it’s on to the week’s (galaxy) policing – we’ll look at patrolling first as that’s the more straightforward of the two main areas of GPO work.

Before deciding where to send someone off to patrol you’ll be shown a small map of the city divided into nine zones, with each zone being rated from 1-100 – the higher the number, the safer it is. Of course with nine zones and at most six Lancers even if you have everyone on patrol all the time (absolutely not recommended) you can’t keep an eye on everywhere every day, making this something of a whack-a-mole scenario as you try to keep it all under control. Most of the time when a Lancer goes off to have a look around nothing will happen other than a small boost to the civility of the area, but on occasion she’ll be forced to fight off either generic thugs or a previously encountered boss by herself. Battling is simplistic with little control – you can attack, auto (attack until one of you falls over), move them about the field (doesn’t do much, in my experience) or try to capture the lawless individual on the other side of the screen. In theory arresting individuals makes for a better officer than the sort that beats criminals to a bloody pulp but with the success rate being so low it’s often best to just hit auto and pray your Lancer’s stats are better than theirs. If they do happen to lose their fight then the officer has to sit out for a few days until their health recovers, wasting precious number-building time.

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The other main aspect of weekly GPO duties are the special jobs you can send them off to complete; every day a short list of generic tasks pops up and if someone’s not on patrol or having a rest day then you have to give them one of these jobs to do. The tasks are entirely automated but there is a little strategy involved here as each one has a difficulty rating as well as a particular attribute assigned to it, both of which have a direct effect on whether your chosen Lancer will complete the task within a day without even breaking a sweat or give up after spending three days on it and got nowhere. Sometimes enthusiastic team members will go off and try to complete jobs for themselves without any prompting from you beforehand – they don’t always pick the most appropriate jobs but as you almost always get some stat boosts from simply attempting a mission it’s usually better than them sitting around twiddling their thumbs. 

Mixed in with these generic jobs at apparently random points are ‘event’ tasks – plot-relevant emergencies and incidents that occur in a set order and further the story. Some of them just require your presence to clear, others need your team to be in top condition and ready for a tough battle. Failing in these scuffles means having to wait until whenever the same event decides to show up in your job list again, eating up valuable time as you bumble around raising stats as best you can and hoping your next chance comes around soon. About twenty events make up this main storyline, and you’ll need to knuckle down if you want to get through them all before your year at the GPO runs out. To further complicate matters at the year’s end your behaviour towards the Lancers as well as your management of them in the field will determine which one of six possible endings you’ll end up with, ranging from marriage to career glory to what amounts to ‘Don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out’.

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Leaving your fate mostly up to the unpredictable whims of your Lancers attribute gains doesn’t make for a whole lot of ‘game’ in the traditional meaning of the term but the characters are pleasant enough (if predictable) when you do get to interact with them, the pixel art’s top notch, and as it can be beaten in a day you don’t feel too cheated if you don’t get the ending you hoped for. With most simulation games I tend to get fed up after a while and start skipping things just to reach the end even when I know it’ll mean getting an undesirable ending – that didn’t happen with Melty Lancer, and after polishing this off I’m looking forward to playing through the Saturn port I’ve got lurking somewhere around here as well as the two sequels beyond it at some point in the future.

If you want a more involved game starring a clutch of unlikely near-future women kicking backside then Tuned Heart or even Galaxy Angel are both games you should probably look at first, but if you enjoyed Princess Maker and its ilk and fancy more of the same then Melty Lancer should scratch your stat-building itch well enough even if it is a little less refined.

Want to have a go yourself? Melty Lancer’s on Project EGG! It does cost twice as much as a normal game but on the other hand they went to the trouble of preinstalling it to a virtual HDD so all you have to do is click and play rather than wrestle with 3947 floppy disc swaps.

A little look at… Legend of Heroes I (Mega Drive)

Falcom RPGs are always a welcome sight but for Sega perhaps never more so than back in 1994 when they were pushing their ‘Mega Role Play Project’: a series of mostly unrelated games across the Mega Drive and Mega CD designed to prove there was a role-playing alternative to the almighty SNES. It’s fair to say that at best this little marketing idea could be described as too little, too late - when the opposition’s doling out genre classics like sweets you’re just not going to win with games that can be described as ARPG by that Streets of Rage guy Game Gear SRPG remakes on CD’ and ‘Zelda with animals.

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So Sega played what they hoped would be their trump card; a partnership with Falcom that would see some of their popular games brought to Sega’s 16-bit systems - not mere licensed re-imaginings like the majority of Hudson’s PC-Engine output or the weak ports found on the Super Famicom, but quality transplants that stayed true to the originals but also fit their target hardware like a glove.

And so we come to Dragon Slayer: Legend of Heroes on the Mega Drive, a game that managed to be both the sixth entry in one series and the first in another. We probably need quick history lesson here: Once upon a time Falcom made a game called Dragon Slayer and followed it up over the years with various other completely different games under the same ‘umbrella’, for example: Xanadu (Dragon Slayer II), Romancia (Dragon Slayer Jr), and Sorcerian (Dragon Slayer V) – not one of these games have anything to do with each other or Legend of Heroes. Falcom decided to then continue Legend of Heroes as a spinoff series in its own right, which again can be split into its own separate chunks – I and II form a complete story, as do III-V, then we hit Legend of Heroes VI and the ongoing tangled web that is the [Word] no Kiseki series. The first Legend of Heroes can be considered broadly analogous to Enix’s first Dragon Quest; a generally straightforward but charming story-driven RPG with several grinding ‘checkpoints’ that must be tediously gnawed through to progress.

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This heavy grinding may be an absolute necessity but Falcom did at least to go some serious lengths to make it a little more bearable: health and magic are completely refilled when you gain a level, clever party battle AI that lets you decide exactly who will and won’t use spells, items, or healing magic during a fight, but best of all is definitely the game over screen that allows you the choice of either waking up at the nearest safe town with all the XP and items you’d gained up to that point intact or to restart on the world map/in the dungeon a split second before the battle that killed you started, giving you just enough time to run away from the on-screen enemy or charge in for another go. It’s fair to say that an even better feature would have been to slash the XP needed to reach every level by 75% (or more) so you didn’t have to to tape down right on your d-pad and walk away for an hour, but at least this way there’s only one pain in the arse to deal with rather than mountains of annoyances piled on top of time-sucking tedium.

Levelling may take forever but mercifully the story, when you can get to it, is pleasant and to the point - more towards the Ancient Land of Ys than Ao no Kiseki end of the Official Falcom Scale of Plot-Related Gabbing™, but still filled with the sort of interesting characters and exciting scenarios you’d expect from the legendary developer. I also want to take a moment here to praise the game’s dungeon design – I tend to curl up in fear at the thought of navigating old computer-based caves and labyrinths, but the areas found here tend to be on the smaller side and without the lengthy corridors leading to soul-crushing dead ends found in similar titles. Being able to see enemies running about definitely helps to alleviate the sting of frequent battling as you can at least see how many enemies are lining up to bash your head in, and as an added bonus they don’t tend to respawn unless you switch floors or leave the area.

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Unfortunately the Mega Drive port of Legend of Heroes biggest problem is that the game is ‘just’ a good port of a decent RPG – an RPG that when it came out had already been on every other major Japanese computer system and console going. As an attempt to bolster Sega’s RPG line-up it failed completely, coming out so late that even Turbo Duo-owning US gamers were able to play it in English several years before this otherwise competent port, and Super Famicom gamers were too busy with Final Fantasy VI or looking forward to Chrono Trigger to care about the crisp graphics and beautiful soundtrack on a game Epoch had already brought to Nintendo’s RPG-loving format back in 1992.

Today the Mega Drive version of Legend of Heroes should be considered a good port of a good game, just one that lacks the raw authenticity of the computer originals (some of which are now available on Project EGG) or the extra flash of the PC Engine or later Windows and Saturn/Playstation remakes. If you like what you see and you can find it for a decent price then you won’t be disappointed, but there’s no reason to seek out this particular release over any other.

A little look at… GG Aleste II

You might have heard of this 1993 Game Gear title under its European/Brazilian name Power Strike II, a game which has nothing to do with the other Power Strike II, even though they’re both Sega-based shmups created by Compile in 1993. Confused? All we can do is be grateful this blog post’s not about the tangled mess that is WonderBoy/Monster World/Adventure Island.

GG Aleste II ended up being the final game in Compile’s long-running series, an 8-bit handheld title that somehow still managed to follow the winning formula of it’s more powerful console and computer counterparts, all little support craft stuffed with power chips and multiple sub-weapons to help you blow to pieces absolutely everything that crosses your path.

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These four sub-weapons all fill a distinct enemy-crushing niche and compliment a particular style of play, running the whole gamut from almost entirely defensive spheres to full-on giant death lasers that leave you highly vulnerable to incoming shots, with a napalm spread and homing missiles sitting somewhere in between these two extremes. A simple but very welcome gesture allows you to choose which one of the four to start with (and you may re-pick if you use a continue), meaning you can always set off with a weapon that matches your mood, or at the very least have the opportunity to try them all out from the beginning and find the one you like the most. No matter what you settle on the other three do still appear as pick-ups during the game as normal, so you don’t have to fear being locked in to the ‘wrong’ choice forever if you’re not gelling with your chosen power up.

It’s a good idea to learn how they all work anyway as enemies and bullets are plentiful right form the start – the game’s only got six short stages but it’s determined to make you work for that ending, especially on the super-hard ‘Mania’ difficulty. Thankfully enemy shots were designed with the Game Gear’s fuzzy little screen in mind and there’s no danger of these giant blobs and chunky missiles getting lost in the middle of the action. Sprites follow the same sensible design plan too, always clear and distinct even in the midst of a screen-wibbling ‘G Strike’ bomb blast. There is some occasional flicker and even a touch of slowdown on the higher difficulty settings as there’s simply more going on, but as it only occurs briefly and only when the screen gets really packed - and we also take a moment to remember that this is running on hardware that predates even the humble Game Boy Colour by about five years - it doesn’t feel unreasonable or intrusive.

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If you do still struggle to avoid incoming fire then GG Aleste II’s subtle adaptive difficulty should help you out a bit, with the getting adjusting attack patterns on the fly to give you a break if you’re struggling or turning things up for those who think they know the game inside-out. It’s a Compile trick that’s been around for a long time but it’s still unquestionably more effort than you’d expect to see in a portable game that’s this old, a light touch that doesn’t make the inexperienced feel stupid for finding things tough or allow the hardcore to get too comfortable.

Two 3D bonus stages offer a bit of a break from the regular vertical shmupping, although while they look as slick and smooth as anything else in this already stunning package I have to admit they’re around the ‘So what?’ end of the gameplay scale, with a weird score system that judges you on the accuracy of your shots over the number of enemies killed. Giving players a bit of a diversion is always a nice idea, but on balance these would have probably been best left on the cutting room floor.

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GG Aleste II is a wonderful game considering the hardware it’s running on, but it’s a shame this was how the series ended as for all their effort the Game Gear just wasn’t up to the task of sending Aleste off with the bang it deserved. The problem is an odd one; the game is almost too good for Sega’s AA-devouring portable - the only real giveaway that this is anything other than an early nineties console game is the low resolution, making it harder to appreciate in a bubble twenty three years on just how far above and beyond the competition of the time this game was. If you can make the effort to douse yourself in some 1993 context before playing you’ll find GG Aleste II to be an entertaining shmup that looks brilliant and can be difficult enough for some very enjoyable extended play sessions but at it’s current price point (approx. $120~160USD/105~150EUR depending on region and condition) I have to admit there are plenty of other old and new shmups I’d recommend buying first.