Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Virtua Fighter Training Pack

Sega's 32X didn't exactly have a lot going for it. Soon after being released, the system was dropped, not only in price, but by Sega altogether in favor of the Saturn.

That's not to say the 32X didn't have its moments, though. Virtua Fighter made its way to the system in pretty good form. While there's no way it could be called arcade perfect, or even Saturn-quality, it did prove that the clunker sitting on top of the Genesis had at least a little bit of power.

To help promote the game, Sega released a special "Virtua Fighter Training Pack." Inside was a cheesy video (all of about 9 minutes) with a voiceover explaining how to do moves that were already in the instruction manual, an XL t-shirt sporting the VF crew in front of a 32X logo, and most importantly, a $20 rebate for the 32X version of Virtua Fighter (which after buying this pack, meant you only actually saved $10).

Regardless, I ended up the proud owner of, not one, but a couple of these packs. The proofs of purchases and videos are long gone, but I'm sad to say that thirteen years later, I still see my brother sporting a VF t-shirt every now and then.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sega Ages 2500 Vol.16: Virtual On Review

Volume 31 in the Sega Ages line-up is Virtual On (aka VO: Operation Moongate, OMG, Dennou-Senki). The game had a limited arcade release in the U.S. and is most known for the Saturn version, where many, including myself, happened upon the game.

The first time I played Virtual On was at a Saturn demo kiosk at Toys R Us. Being a big Mechwarrior fan, I saw fighting robots and decided to give the game a whirl. I walked out with a copy that night and I've been hooked since. While the Saturn was still Virtual On, it was cut down graphically from the Model2 version and the gameplay was tweaked for the control pads with pauses removed after dashing. It didn't matter - the game still rocked.

So now Virtual On finds its way to the PS2 by way of the Sega Ages series.

The Sega Ages line-up began as a thought. "Nobody plays old games because of the old graphics. If they had better graphics, people would play them." So the series started off as Sega classics on the PS2 with new graphics, effectively alienating people that wanted the original and others that were interested in a new game. Regardless, the line had a reputation for not being too good. As new titles came out, this has started to change.

Virtual On hits the Ages series on a high point. The game is (from what I can tell and hear) nearly arcade perfect. The emulation is top notch. Now running at 60 (or 57.5) frames per second and at a higher resolution, it is much better looking than its Saturn and PC counterparts.

It controls well, too. While I hear many people say the only way to play the game is with the twin sticks, I never had the arcade experience. I thought the Saturn pad did a good job. VO:OT on the Dreamcast, not so much. The dual shock on the PS2 holds up well. While the analog controllers may feel a bit soft and the shoulder buttons squeak, this a problem with Sony's controller itself, not how the game handles.

Virtual On holds up well, even today. I really would consider this the high point of the series, with Tangram being a close second. There are eight playable VRs, ranging from the speedy (Fei-Yen, Cypher) to average (Temjin, Apharmd) to heavy (Dorkas, Belgdor, Raiden) to just plain sucky (Bal-Bas-Bow). After playing Marz, I'd forgotten just how fast this game is. Robots speed around firing at each other, ramming swords, tongfers, and anything else they can. Basically, it's what you'd want in a good arcade game - quick fights full of fun.

I probably would've been happy with just the game itself, but what would a good re-release be without extras? VO comes with a gallery including original artwork for the game. There's a robot viewing mode to check out the animation for the VRs, but then there's some weirder things. There's the big-head mode, which plays the same, but VRs look... odd. Extra options for an infight and ranking mode are included. If you wiz through the game there's a new boss and oddly enough, for the first time ever, Z-Gradt becomes playable.

As with other Sega Ages titles, for the dedicated arcaders, there's three resolution options, settings for game's speed in frames per second, and even the option to link up with another PS2 or, for full effect, even four to have multiple battles with separate spectator screens.

Is it all worth it? Definitely.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yakuza Review

After hearing Sega was taking another stab at the Shenmue formula, Yakuza caught my interest. It also seemed to be one of the few games to come out of Sega lately that didn't suck. (Shadow the Hedgehog, anyone?) That was really all I had heard about the game before playing it. While I can see the Shenmue comparisons, the game is really a beat-em-up, like Die Hard Arcade or even Zombie Revenge, with exploration areas to get to the action.

Shenmue was about being able to explore everything, for better or for worse, and getting caught up in everyday life. To really enjoy the game, it had to be played with a "stop and smell the roses" attitude. Rush through the main objectives and the game could last about 10 hours. On the other hand, spending time talking to characters about finding sailors, going through every drawer in the house, or standing in a parking lot hitting the punch button repeatedly is not everyone's idea of a good time. The pace was definitely slow as the game tried to mimic reality, sometimes down to the boring parts, like waiting for a shop to open. The fighting engine was great, at least for the few fights in the game.

While not a direct off-shoot, Yakuza seems to take Shenmue and redirect its concepts towards action. You can't go and walk into every single building, but for every building you can get inside, there's something to buy or do (as opposed to hearing how they didn't see anything unusual on the day with the strange weather). Fights are way more frequent and follow the standard beat-em-up, rather than Shenmue's VF-based style. Grab objects and knock some fools out just like the arcade games.

At first, world of the game felt fairly limited - it's not massive like the GTA series and not nearly as detailed as Shenmue. After becoming familiar with it, the place did grow on me. There are plenty of people bustling around and enough familiar characters to make the world seem alive.

Speaking of which, the story is pretty important to the game, but with a huge range of characters, it can get hard to keep track of who's who at times. In a nutshell, it involves the Yakuza Kazuma taking the spill for his mentor's murder. Ten years later, he's out of jail and finds himself caught up in a huge mess that involves an orphaned girl and a ton of money. The story is told through cut scenes, where the voice work is decent, but nothing spectacular. There's an overabundance of f-bombs and the voices loop over and over during fights, which can get grating. The biggest problem is that the dialogue was matched up with the lip movements of the characters when they were speaking Japanese, creating several unnatural pauses in speech.

Fighting is pretty much standard for the genre, with punches, kicks, blocks, dodges, and lots of items laying around, waiting to be used as weapons. To mix things up, the game utilizes a HEAT mode. As enemies are beaten up, the HEAT gauge fills and special moves become available. Every enemy defeated will add to the experience points. Get enough of these, and Kazuma can power up and develop new attacks. This keeps the fights interesting, as there's always a new move to try out.

The biggest problem with the fighting mode is the camera, which seems to be an issue in a lot of 3D games. During fighting, the camera can move and swing around, but it doesn't guarantee that Kazuma and his opponents are all in the screen at the same time. The game buffers all of the commands, meaning button-presses can be input while other motions are going on in the screen. This isn't necessarily good or bad one way or the other, but it does give the fighting a "canned" feel.

The other part of the game is the adventure - walking around town, talking to people, keeping up with the plot of the story. This is where people like to compare the game to the GTA series or Shenmue. It's not a completely open-ended game since the story must be followed, but in between missions, side quests can be taken on and the town can be explored. There's over 40 of side quests in the game, which range from helping people find their glasses to playing bouncer for a night. The place is littered with mini-games in the form of hostess bars, massage parlors, casinos and arcades. Of course, walking around without being able to get into trouble isn't fun, and there are plenty of battles along the way.

This is one of the biggest complaints I've heard about the game - the random battles. Honestly, barring a couple of exceptions, I haven't had a problem with them. This is a fighting game. The goal is to take a large street cone and whack punk over the head with it. I will admit that it can be annoying when a fight happens right before hopping into a burger shop for some much-needed health, but I'll pay the price and keep the random battles.

Complaint number two? Load times. When walking from one scene to the next, there is a short pause as the game loads. In between every movie (sometimes scenes between movies), there is a load. Is this a valid complaint? Yes, and it does seem to be a problem. Fortunately, it's nowhere near the ridiculousness of VO: Marz.

Overall, Yakuza is really an evolution of the beat-em-up genre. In an arcade, someone could throw a few quarters in the machine and they'd get the chance to beat the snot out of some chumps for a while, but on a console, more is demanded than these short and to-the-point arcade games of the past. Take the basic fighting, and mix it up with an adventure mode to the give the player greater room to interact with the city and walk off the beaten path. That's the basis for Yakuza, and it finds success in updating the genre.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Funky Head Boxers

In the mind-90s, the arcade scene was still going strong and three-dimensional games had become as popular as ever. With the success of games like Daytona USA, Virtua Fighter, and Virtua Cop, Sega continued to churn out even more 3D games. It was in this environment that Funky Head Boxers came to be.

Released to the arcades on Sega's ST-V (Saturn-based) board in 1996, Funky Head Boxers stylishly pits two fighters with texture-mapped cubes for heads against one another. The game takes a comic approach to boxing, with fighters donning, in additional to the usual cuts and bruises, some off-the-wall expressions, tears, and even runny noses as they take hits. After a heavy blow, the fighters' heads change expressions and deform. The unique style of the game isn't limited to the fighters though. The audience has the same funky skulls and even the ref is a "block head" with the word "referee" is scrawled over his face.

The game can be played in a first-person or third-person mode, and the controls allow for guarding, punching, and dodging, as well as for special moves that will cause lightning strikes or super moves that need to wind-up for full effect. In between rounds and as a boxer is knocked down, health can be regained by tapping the buttons.

Funky Head Boxers found its way to the Sega Saturn in 1997, but only in Japan. While the game may not be remembered today, it represents a time when the arcades were successful and developers were willing to create games that, if nothing else, at least had unique and novel style of their own.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A New Beginning

Hello and welcome to Club SEGA. As you know, Sega’s history has had many ups and downs, from the success of the Genesis and Sonic the Hedgehog to the complete exit of the hardware market to now, where the company is turning a profit once again.

It’s in the post-Genesis years that this blog will largely focus – primarily on the games of the Saturn, Dreamcast, and Sega’s arcade division of this era, but also on current offerings, where Sega stands as one of the largest third-party software publishers.

I’ve been running The Local Ditch Gaming Emporium for about 10 years (for better or for worse), which at one point in time was a moderately popular site for Activision’s Interstate ’76 and Battlezone Series. The site has a Sega section which will be run in tandem to this blog. Shorter articles and Sega-specific editorials will be posted here, while more background information will be available at the sister site.

Since I’m new to the blog-world, I’m expecting the site to go through a few growing pains at the beginning. I will try to post at least once a week, covering games, history, and anything else Sega-related.