Bits and bobs: Beatmania LCD games!

Back in the mists of time when a Japanese game purchase involved picking up a telephone to order a hot new release like Lunar 2: Eternal Blue, my regular import shop also stocked an unusual assortment of knick-knacks that I’ll call “Stuff their supplier scooped up on the cheap”, and it was in one of these random assortments that I came across the (slightly dusty) Bemani Pocket 2 pictured below:

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I’ve always quite enjoyed these nifty little LCD games and I thought I’d done quite well finding two Bemani Pockets and a Hello Kitty-themed DDR game in the early 00’s (no, I’m not ashamed of owning a skeleton-pink DDR game with matching Hello Kitty toy), but as it turns out they were far more popular than I ever realised – there are a total of eighteen Bemani LCD games (including two based on Tokimeki Memorial, of all things), and the entire range of DDR, Guitar Freaks, Pop’n Music and Para Para Paradise LCD games spans twenty six individual releases.

Here are a few painfully low resolution photographs pilfered from the internet just to give you some idea of the broad similarities across the range:

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As you can see they’re all pretty much cut from the same cloth, having a play area for notes/steps on the left, a dot matrix “video” display on the right, and a “groove gauge” at the bottom. Pop’n Music and Para Para Paradise have a slightly different screen layout (Pop’n Music loses the “video” to accommodate the wider play area), but no drastic changes. The Bemani and DDR games have a standard headphone jack on the left hand side – I would assume, but don’t know, that this is also the case for the Guitar Freaks, etc games as well.

The most important thing though in any rhythm game is obviously the sound, and these little Konami wonders have a love-it-or-loath-it gritty chiptune sound rather like an original Game Boy trying to punch well above its weight and very nearly pulling it off. There’s also the odd scratchy voice sample in there too for those craving the most authentic of 90’s rave experiences. The speaker on the back of the unit is pretty damned loud even on the lowest of the three available settings, ensuring everyone nearby can Get Up and Boogie™ to your hot DJ beats.

These games tend to have around six or seven tunes on them and two difficulty levels – Practise and Normal. There’s also an “Auto” mode if you fancy seeing (and hearing) the game played perfectly without you having to do anything complicated, such as have the reflexes and dexterity to play Beatmania games properly.

All in all these are rather sweet little things that are more fun than a mass-manufactured “Quick! Abuse the IP while it’s hot!” cash-in really should be, and if you do stumble across one while you’re doing a bit of retro import shopping I’d recommend picking it up.

If you’d like to see more blog posts like this one I’ve done the unthinkable (and terrifying) and set up a proper GoFundMe campaign - http://www.gofundme.com/zs4xvs Absolutely any amount at all helps me out and would be very gratefully received!

Scary stories done right: Play Novel Silent Hill

I’ve recently been able to get my grubby mitts on Corpse Party: Book of Shadows; the PSP visual novel sequel we weren’t sure we wanted but got anyway. I’d been really looking forward to it as I loved both the original Corpse Party: Blood Covered and Corpse Party 2: Dead Patient (what little there is of it at the moment, anyway) but after playing it through it felt like… how to phrase this… a complete waste of time – and it certainly wasn’t scary (I found myself more repulsed by the gratuitous “fan service” than any of the genuine attempts to scare). My main issue though was that the change from a free-roaming RPG-like adventure to visual novel had removed all the tension from the game – you never  felt you were in any personal danger even with all the potential WRONG ENDs floating around.

So it got me thinking – how do you do a good horror visual novel?

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As you’ve hopefully guessed from the unsettling gif above, not to mention the flippin’ title of this blog post, Konami (remember when they weren’t self-destructing?) got it spot on in 2001 on the relatively humble GBA with Play Novel Silent Hill.

The game opens with some reasonable-quality FMV set to a recognisable albeit weedy rendition of Silent Hill’s iconic theme tune (blame the GBA’s sub-par sound capabilities for that), and as you play you’ll find there’s more than a few FMV sequences, moving screen-filling enemies, and animated backgrounds in there. These all work very well, occurring often enough to breath some life into the locations but still held back enough that when you do see them you feel something significant is happening.

As I mentioned above music has never been the GBA’s strength, but while the opening theme isn’t the best the rest of the tracks made specifically for the game (if memory serves, anyway) suit it well and do help create a more frightening experience for the player.

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While the graphics and audio do help to create the atmosphere a visual novel is nothing without its text, and thankfully Play Novel Silent Hill’s very well written. The plot is unfailingly to the point, leaving out the fetch-and-carry gameplay of the original and replacing it with a tightly focussed experience that’s all about forcing you into as many unsettling situations as possible and then describing them to you with enough creepy details to make for some uncomfortable reading.

There are a lot of route variations in this game – some are minor and only effect a few lines, but others create sudden and seismic shifts in the plot. Even better, those who have played the original to death will still find plenty of unexpected twists and turns in here as there are far more alternative possibilities and endings than can be found in the Playstation classic.

But how do you keep track of all these branching paths?

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That’s easy – by using in built-in flowchart! This incredibly handy menu lets you see exactly what chapter you’re on and where you are, and you can even hop around at will to try a different route. This makes ferreting out alternative scenarios and endings a piece of cake, and has the added bonus of stopping you from permanently committing yourself to a path you really didn’t want to take.

What makes a lot of these choices especially interesting is that instead of using a typical -

“Harry finds himself [place], a [thing] is on the ground.”

“Harry…. A)<picks it up> B)<leaves it alone>”

- structure some choices effect exactly what’s going on before your eyes, reading more like this -

“Cybil reaches out her hand and finds… A)<Thing A> B)<Completely different Thing B>”

These choices make the game feel not only more unpredictable but also more interactive, changing the player from a mere reactionary observer to an active participant in the story. The combination of the plot pulling you along and you pushing against it when you can rather suits Silent Hill, don’t you think?

Oh yes, did I forget to mention that you can also play as Cybil in an all-new side story that directly ties in with Harry’s adventures? You’d think that revealing exactly (possibly) what Cybil was (could have been) up to would ruin some of the mystery and allure of the main game, but as it turns out such fears are completely unfounded. Cybil’s adventures go off in all sorts of interesting directions; some could work perfectly as a compliment to Harry’s Playstation scenario, others go off on unexpected but not illogical tangents that still manage to offer a new insight into the lives, personalities, and problems of Silent Hill’s small character list.

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But even with all the thoughtful extras I’ve already talked about Konami still weren’t done dishing out goodies – a third scenario starring Cheryl’s seven year old neighbour Andy was made available exclusively over the long shut down “Mobile GB” service. It appears that these four short chapters (titled Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter) were actual real downloads and not squirreled away behind a cheeky digital key, which means you’re not getting at them on a real cart without a Japanese mobile phone, a GBA->Jp phone adapter… and a time machine. I’d love to tell you more, but it looks like nobody anywhere ever actually used Nintendo’s Mobile GB service, leaving details of this extra story currently lost to time.

Once you’ve reached an ending (there are fourteen possible outcomes between Harry and Cybil) you’re rewarded with a few “digital trading cards” – these are rather underwhelming art cards showing a person, place, or object of some significance to the plot, although they’re so small there’s the distinct impression that the title on each of them was added to aid identification more than anything. It’s not all bad though – as they’re all tied to specific endings they soon add up to a nice (probably not the right word, considering the subject) photo album full of horrific images and they serve well enough as an in-game marker of your achievements and progress.

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Play Novel Silent Hill does everything right, and stands up well as both an unsettling GBA horror title as well as an excellent expansion of the characters and themes in the original. Just for once I’ve got some good news on the language front too! You can find a flowchart complete with fully-translated text (and accompanying images!) here - http://www.silenthillmemories.net/sh_pn/info_en.htm and if you’d like to have a go at playing the game in English yourself there’s a reasonable approximation here - http://alchemillahospital.net/online-shpn/ It’s not perfect (the creator makes a note of some issues/bugs/missing items on the same page), but it’s still a damned sight better than anyone else has managed.

If you’ve played it or plan to play it leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter!

A little look at… Baroque Typing

Not that I wish to confuse you, but this is actually a post about Type da Puyo Puyo, a PC typing tutor game (by Biox, creators of the excellent Samurai Kid).

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Or it would have been if I could find a working link to the demo, anyway.

So while it looks like I may be about a decade too late to snag that particular treasure (and currently lacking the time, money, and energy to grab a proper release copy off of Amazon Japan) I am pleased to report that while I was fruitlessly scouring the remnants of last century’s internet for a Puyo-themed typing game demo I did end up stumbling on something that might be even better, or at least something that confirms my suspicion that Japanese developers have been secretly engaged in an underground “My typing game’s more obscure than yours” battle for decades…

Do you remember Baroque, the rather strange roguelike-ish RPG for the Saturn (and Playstation, and Playstation 2, and Wii)? While it could never be considered the most popular RPG around it did nevertheless manage to spawn a manga, visual novel, a shmup (weird, huh?) and the point of this entire blog post - Baroque Typing.

Why anyone ever thought this would be a great idea I’ll never know, but if being sensible was a requirement in game design we’d never have been blessed with a zombie-flavoured arcade game turned typing tutor turned English learning aid, so sometimes it’s best just to smile, nod, and go with the flow.

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As if being a PC typing game based on a console-only JRPG wasn’t odd enough, the game refuses to even boot in a typical manner. Once you’ve clicked the little .exe a small window will pop up on your desktop, and repeated prodding will make your rather curt angelic aide offer up a few lines of dialogue, or the current time, or perhaps ask you if you’d like to try playing the game itself (should this feel too imprecise, a single right-click will bring up a full list of available options).

Once you’re in the game proper there are three modes of play – a story mode that takes you through various “floors”, a CPU VS mode that allows you to fight against any opponents defeated in story mode (your adversary appears to only effect the words that show up on screen, there’s no true Puyo-like dual-typing-field setting), and a network VS mode against another human, although I have to admit I have no idea whatsoever how that works.

Items and combos make things a little more game-like, although really they all amount to variations of “destroying more than one line of text in a cloud of feathers at a time” making for a practical, if not particularly exciting, random little addition to your finger training.

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At the end of the day Baroque Typing suffers from being neither the best Baroque spinoff or an especially engaging typing-based tie-in. It doesn’t revel in sheer bananas-ness the way the Typing of the Dead series (yes, it is funny how that’s become a series in its own right) does, making it more a typical typing-tutor with some rather restrained Baroque window-dressing than an attempt at a true fusion of the two.

Still its not the biggest waste of bandwidth out there either, so if you’d like to try this oddball little slice of history you can still find the original website (with working download links) here - http://www.sting.co.jp/play/b-typing/

Fanzines and Fatal Fury

I grew up reading the likes of C&VG, Super Play, and Edge, and like many people at the time I longed to do something similar myself – I only lacked the talent, time, and a computer to create my amazing and “hilarious” fanzine with. Fast forward twenty (!!) or so years later and I now find myself with a computer of my very own, which is why I’m able to share the aberrations below with you. They’re written “in character”, and the page design I’ve been holding myself to is “90’s UK gaming magazine via Sonic the Hedgehog’s Japanese cover” so, uh, enjoy?

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Kimimi’s adventures in Rockman 2 land

OK, confession time: until a few day ago I’d never played a Rockman game.  Technically I had, but only in a “Right what’s all the fuss about then? *fiddles with game* *gets distracted by something shiny*” sort of way, rather than properly sitting down with a specific single title and spending more than five whole minutes on it. Just about everyone I asked told me to play Rockman 2 if I was only going to play one of them, and so that’s what I did (Japanese standalone Playstation port for convenience’s sake, hence the watermarks on the screenshots below).

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I wasn’t expecting much to be honest, so I was surprised to find myself having a good time! The stages are actually quite short once you’ve stopped dying in them and the chunky sprites worked well within the NES’ limitations, making for an expressive cast with more superfluous animations than I was expecting from a game published at the tail end of 1988 on a relatively weedy console. The music wasn’t bad either, although as a lady raised on delicious 80’s Euro chiptune I don’t think I’ll ever really find a stock-hardware NES soundtrack that clicks with me.

I found the “defeat the boss, get their weapon” system… OK. In some parts I was shocked at how well they thought it through – using the Leaf Shield to clog Airman up was such a stroke of real-world common sense I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see logic like that applied in a game today, never mind decades ago, and the rest generally rewarded players that applied a little thought or had paid attention to weaponry behaviour beforehand.

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Then came Quickman (yes I’m going to complain about Quickman).

It’s as if the reason why everything else in the game is so progressive and fun is because they took all the usual 80’s platformer traps and, unable to destroy the vile monster they had created, imprisoned it within a single stage instead. I have no problem with games being hard - I like hard. What I do have a problem with is blind memorisation trying to pass itself off as skilful play. A stage designed to be hard-but-fair would allow you to see where the danger lies beforehand and make the challenge how to negotiate it safely (Heatman’s instakill lava pits, for example), or it’d be obvious where the enemy was coming from and you’d have time to react (Woodman’s robo-chicken things). However Quickman’s BS Energy Lasers Of Doom expect you to have positioned yourself correctly before you’re even on the same screen as the lasers you’re falling in to.

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When Rockman 2’s not assuming its players are masters of clairvoyance I thought it was an exciting and creative adventure, but there are times when it slips into the worst of 80’s platforming ruts – and ultimately a stage-long memory test isn’t something I enjoyed back then and I certainly don’t have the patience for it now, which is why this game’s been shelved while I go and find a slightly more balanced gaming experience, like whatever SNK can come up with.

But the good news is I can at least now see why people think so fondly of it even if I’ll probably never finish the game myself, so all in all I’ll consider this little history lesson 600-ish yen well spent.