Friday, February 29, 2008

Daytona USA: Secrets of Success

Daytona USA was special for a lot of reasons and as a result, became the highest-grossing arcade game of all time. No small feat, indeed, but what was the secret ingredient that made Daytona so successful? Some argue it was the then-stellar Model 2 graphics and the unique soundtrack. Others point to the game's physics and handling, as cars slid around corners and sped past the scenery. Myself? Maybe it was just the all-around polish that the game was given, with the classic Sega flair thrown in for good measure.

Let's take a look:
Hop on the Intermediate track (later known as "Dinosaur Canyon"), spin your car around and drive up the road to find this wonderful message. Way to impress those sponsors with your reasoning skills.
As if racing by a huge canyon with a fossilized dinosaur wasn't enough, apparently land in Tucson can be used to raise the critters.The wonderful horses from the Expert track have entertained many people by giving them something to aim their cars at. If you can't win the race, at least you can say, "I hit a bunch of horses." Or, more appropriately, "I almost hit one of the horses."It's a guest appearance from Virtua Fighter's own Jeffrey McWild, apparently taking enough time off from letting the devil sharks of the world kick his ass in order to have a statue made.
Mash the start button around him about 15 times, and he'll do a handstand. "I win."Why all of these crazy game names in the sound test? If you place in the top ranks and enter the game's initials, you'll hear their corresponding music.Some things go hand in hand - like recycling and 40 cars dirtying the air while guzzling fossil fuels.This seagull flies nearby in the Expert course. While not too exciting itself, if you jam on the start button before starting the can grow to bizarrely large sizes.Every great painter signs their work somewhere. Daytona USA is no exception.Remember the days when it wasn't an embarrassment to have Sonic in a game?
After a long day of fighting, shooting baddies, or racing, this is where the Virtua kids like to hang out. Cheap meals, too.
Subliminal messages? Couldn't be. The entire thing reads. "You can't be satisfied without Model 2." I think at last we've found the secret to Daytona USA's success.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Sega Ages 2500 Vol. 16: Virtua Fighter 2 Review

While the original Virtua Fighter was a solid game that helped introduce 3D fighters to the world, its sequel, Virtua Fighter 2, was where the series really found its rhythm. Running on Sega's new Model 2 board, the graphics had been improved dramatically from the original, adding texture maps and nearly doubling the polygon count. The fighting system had been reworked as well. Though still relying on only three buttons, almost all areas were expanded, adding more moves, more characters (Shun and Lion), and more depth, while still retaining the basic VF formula. With the booming arcade scene of the time and the demand for fighting games, Virtua Fighter 2 was a success in Japan and America. (On a side note, my small, redneck hometown had a Virtua Fighter 3 machine at the local Wal-Mart. In hindsight, I'm completely baffled as to why.) VF2 was the right game at the right time - having some of the greatest graphics of the era, amazing gameplay, and players willing to pump quarter after quarter into the machine.

With a game this successful, it was only a matter of time before a console version came around, and Sega delivered VF2 to the Saturn in 1995. Though the Model 2 board was more powerful than the Saturn, the AM2 developers were able to crunch out a great, though graphically reduced, port of the game. The 3D backgrounds and Shun's infamous bridge were removed, while polygons were cut out of the characters. Even so, VF2 was one of the few games to run in the Saturn's high-res mode, even higher than its arcade counterpart. Gameplay was ported intact, with every character’s moves making the transition. Although hardcore VF2 players might have complained about subtle differences from the arcade version, it was an amazing conversion. GamePlayers (or was it Ultra GamePlayers by now?) gave the VF2 a score of 9.9 - at that point, their highest ever.Ten years later, Virtua Fighter 2 finds itself on the PS2, a machine that is more than capable of handling this game. Somehow, things got lost along the way. This was the first Model 2 port in the Sega Ages line, and unfortunately, I think that is the game's real downfall, as later games in the Ages line-up would be free of the flaws in this one. Rather than take the time to fix the bugs on this release, it was thrown out the door before it was fully cooked.

The graphics have taken the biggest hit, and this a pretty big disappointment. For the most part, the game looks like the arcade VF2, but some things have gone awry. Upon entering the character select screen, it is evident something has not gone right. The eyebrows and facial features of the characters have become a pixelated mess, as all of the textures have been significantly blurred or downgraded. Supposedly, the original source code wasn't available, so the game was emulated rather than being programmed directly for the PS2. This really shouldn't be that big of a problem, since the other Model 2 Sega Ages games are being emulated as well.

As far as playing the game, the ugly textures don’t really have an effect, but it is disappointing to see a ten year old game with these graphical flaws. Background textures have been reduced. Some seem to have been changed. Character faces and clothes are blurry. But not every texture is like this. Sometimes the ground looks great, while other times, it looks like a blurry mess. It's better than the Saturn, but not arcade-perfect.
Fortunately, all of the geometry from the arcade is there. This means that the 3D backgrounds are intact and Shun's bridge finally makes its way to a home console. Other elements left out from the Saturn version are included, such as the smoke in Pai's stage and the light posts for Wolf's cage. Small touches, such as coconuts dropping in Jeffrey's stage and birds flying in Lau’s, are nice to finally see at home. Characters look slightly blockier than the Saturn version, apparently due to the gouraud shading that was applied in that release.

Other reviews have pointed out that the colors on this release are darker than the arcade or Saturn. Just in general, things are off, color-wise. While it is noticeable, as backgrounds and blacks look partially washed out, it really wasn't as bad as I was expecting. It is still, however, there. This too probably has to do with the emulation of Model 2 lighting effects, as PC emulation for certain Model2 games (such as Daytona USA) seems to have similar problems. In an article on Sega of Japan's website, the programmers for the port posted their problems in attempting to emulate the Model 2's handling of lights and textures.

Now for some good news: The music from the game sounds great. Tunes from the arcade original or the Saturn version are available, and blast in all of their digital glory. And some bad news: The rest of the sounds don't seem to hold up so well, though. The voices and sound effects are grainy, like they've been recorded at a really low sample rate. There's little "oomph" to the kicks and punches and everything sounds grainy. I broke out my Saturn to compare, and it’s got the same problems. Fortunately, all of the original sounds from the arcade make it in, as several had been cut from the Saturn's VF2.The game plays like it should, running, for the most part, at the arcades 57.5 frames per second. This is slightly slower than the Saturn version, which is barely a noticeable difference. Characters do float a bit differently than on the Saturn, as well. Despite the graphical issues, play-wise, this is the arcade game. Occasionally, the frame-rate drops below the 57.5 it should run at, which is frustrating not only while trying to time attacks, but that it shouldn't be happening on a game that was created over 10 years ago. It really is just the sign of a lazy port.

The PS2 controller rears its ugly head again. It's not it's uncomfortable to hold, but that the direction pad is just awful for fighters. I'm really surprised I made it through VF4: Evo with the thing, not to mention the troubles I'm having with VF2.

From the select screen, arcade, versus, or ranking mode can be selected. Expert mode is not available right off of the bat, though it can still be accessed using the arcade code. I'm not sure why exactly it was left out from the selection screen while ranking mode can still be selected right from the get-go. I guess it's not that big of a deal, but it just seems to be another sign of a lazy port.If you've got Virtua Fighter 2 on the Saturn, there is really no reason to get this version. While it's the first time that the 3D backgrounds have come over intact in a home port of VF2, it's still not an arcade-perfect version, and the backgrounds alone aren't worth the price. Ultimately, it's still the same game that's been on the Saturn all of these years. There are differences between that Saturn and the arcade VF2, but anyone who is still worried about it at this point probably already has the PCB sitting in their home.


Comparison shots taken from this forum post.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Importers R Us

Importing games involves a bit of trust. If you can't fly out to Japan and pick up some of the titles that haven't made it westward, you'll be at the mercy of letting someone else take your money, while hopefully delivering the goods in return. Many of these places do business from Hong Kong (where international law is a bit muddy) and quite a few seem a little shady, to put it nicely. While many are good, I've been burnt (or am in the process of being burnt) by some of them, so here's a rundown on my experiences.

Play-Asia - This is quite possibly the best import site around. Their large selection is updated constantly and I've had several good experiences with them, as they ship quickly and send notifications when an item is shipped or delayed. However, at the moment I do have an outstanding order for Fighting Vipers that was supposed to ship on January 29th.

Yamato-Export - Even though it's a French website, they've got English pages, too. I believe it's run by just one person, though it looks quite large. It's one of the few places I've been able to find a new Sega Ages Virtua Fighter 2. And for a price, they'll also scour Yahoo Auctions Japan to get that hard-to-find game.

DCS Links - Again, in the search for VF2, I came across this site. While they had it listed on their website, they didn't have it in stock. Fortunately, within about 12 hours (which I'm sure was due to the time difference), they e-mailed me, notifying that they didn't have the game and I was never charged. While I can't speak for shipment, customer service seemed good.

Toys N Joys - About two seconds after I placed an order, I read the review of this place and got the bad news. Everything bad you've heard is true. Even though it's a physical store based in Hawaii, their online counterpart sucks. Out-of-stock games are listed on their site, there is little to no customer support, and worst of all, they'll still take your money without having or intending to deliver your order.

Oddly enough, just as I was writing this, I finally received my order, two months after initially placing it. Though I'd paid extra for a tracking number, they didn't send it to me. In fact, they have failed to contact me for any reason, whether to notify me that the game had shipped or that they didn't have it in stock. Fortunately, I did receive all of my order, but everything was open and obviously used. I really don't feel like dealing with Toys N Joys anymore at this point, so I'm just going to be happy that I got anything at all and chalk it up to experience. What is the point of this?


One last note: While I can't remember its name, I tried to order Fighting Vipers 2 from a German site that was primarily an Atari dealer. I contacted them beforehand about the game and received a reply within minutes, so I thought all was well. After I placed the order, I never heard back, despite repeated contact attempts. Nevertheless, I wasn't charged, so no harm, no foul, I guess.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Rez Review

After spending some time with Panzer Dragoon, I decided to try out Rez, which I've been hearing good things about since the death of the Dreamcast. Rather than shell out $40 plus shipping on eBay, I called up a local Gamestop, and sure enough, they had it. (It’s not the cheapest used game, but it's no Panzer Dragoon Saga either.) Whether it was playable or not was a different question. Regardless, I had them hold the game for me and I picked it up after work. The case was a little beat up, the manual was pristine, but the CD was pretty questionable. I threw it in the PS2 and felt a sigh of relief as the disc began to spin. Rez fired up without a hitch.

As the game loads, a screen pops up advising players to wear headphones or make sure they are in a quality listening environment – already a good sign for an audio fanatic. Upon first seeing the game, I could tell it was something different. The audio and visuals blend well to create a unique style that’s akin to a psychedelic Tron. The environments are rendered in wireframe with objects flying around and exploding in sparks of color, a contrast to the digital world that surrounds them. As enemies fly around the screen and weapons blast, the game pumps along at about 60 fps. Sometimes, I wonder why many modern games only try to make things look more realistic when modern consoles have the power to create a different universe altogether. Rez takes the latter approach and the results are pretty goddamn good.

In the story, Eden, a self-aware computer system has fallen into an existential funk and is shutting itself down. The goal: hack the system, destroy any viruses and firewalls and ultimately find Eden to save her from herself. While the storyline is fairly basic, there have been some interesting interpretations of what's actually going on during the game. Originally titled K-Project in development, the stylish imagery of the game was inspired by the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, who suffered from the synesthesia (the bleeding of one sense into another, like seeing sound or hearing color) around which his artwork was based. Others have seen the game as a telling of human evolution, as the player transforms and the game's worlds gradually grow and morph along the history of society.As far as playing the game, it's a standard on-rails shooter. Take Panzer Dragoon and remove the rotation and dragon movement. Now you've got the controls down. What separates Rez from the other shooters, though, is the use of sound when playing the game. Every time the fire button is pressed or an enemy is shot, a sound plays. Hold down the fire button and link up to eight shots together, creating a small melodic line. The trance (house, or whatever electronic style) music in the background pumps along, while all of the shots and destruction of the enemies add accents and melodies on top of the beat. Music has been able to evoke an emotional response, and Rez relies on this to create a result that is strangely immersive.

Enemies aren't the only things floating around, as certain objects will allow you to evolve. Collect enough of these and your character will change to a higher form, mixing in different sounds and providing a higher firing speed, not to mention more intense visuals. Take a hit, though, and the character devolves. Take one at the lowest form and it's game over. Overdrive object can be collected and, if things get too crazy, used to attack everything on the screen at once. As the level progresses, the music and visuals intensify.

Each level ends with a firewall, the game's term for a boss. These are the big bad guys (or gals) and their life bar will appear on the screen. Take them out and survive long enough to finish off the level. The bosses themselves are pretty impressive and get more interesting as the game progresses. With the intense visuals and crazy sounds, I'd describe them as being able to play a Blue Man concert.Rez is a game that is definitely greater than the sum of its part. Just the shooting alone would be a solid, but not spectacular, game. Sound pumps in an out, but without being integrated into the firing and controlling, it wouldn't have the same effect. The visuals are unique and would most likely turn a few heads, but it's really the combination of these elements that makes the game truly unique. Everything seems to blend together in a way that feels like playing the game, mixing music, and toying with the colors on the screen are one.

Though hard to find, the infamous Trance Vibrator is supported, which may or may not have been intended for use as a sex toy. It’s a small vibrating pad that can be placed in pockets or sat upon and will vibrate along with the beats, the idea being to make the player feel even more connected with the game. With the Dual Shock controller, the vibration is built in, but I'll be honest, I've not been much of a fan of vibration in games. If you've got a decent sub, just crank up the volume. It's much more natural than having the controller leap out of your hands.To keep interest in the game, there are several other modes in addition to the normal play. Score Attack mixes up the enemies and allows players to compete for the most points. There's a traveling mode for practicing or just relaxing. After completion, a beyond mode opens, with an extra level, a direct assault (play through all stages) and a variety of unlockable cheats. Despite this, the game is relatively short. There's a lot to unlock, but ultimately, there's really only about five and a half levels to the game, which is not to say that the game isn't fun or hasn't held my attention. Despite this, it's a game that I find myself drawn to play over and over.

Ultimately, Rez is a game that is all about the experience. The music, the visuals, the controls, and even the vibration all combine to create something that is greater than their individual components. It could looked at as just what it is - a shooting game, but or those willing to soak up what Rez has to offer, it's well worth it.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

Winners Don't Use Violence

Included with Sonic Jam on the Saturn was this amazing piece of memorabilia reminding kids that it's not right to fight. That is, if they want to be cool. Sonic the Hedgehog, along with Knuckles and Tails, appears on this card in dazzling color that will capture the attention of kids everywhere. On the back side, there's another message from Sonic reminding the world that nobody will win with violence.

It seems a bit odd that this would come packed in a game, but Sega must have felt some responsibility for the beatings that the game’s young players were always receiving. Or maybe it was just a sign of the cultural climate, as Sega put anti-drug warnings on several of their American arcade games at the time.

The worst part of it all is that I've actually held on to the card for all of these years.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Sega Ages 2500 Vol. 27: Panzer Dragoon Review

In the summer of 1995, Sega launched a surprise attack by delivering the Saturn several months ahead of its original release date, alienating vendors and third-party publishers alike, while leaving only a handful of games available at the system's launch. One of which was Sega's own Panzer Dragoon. The first time I touched the game was at a demo kiosk inside of a Toys R Us, but unlike Virtual On, I didn't buy this one. The game disoriented my preteen mind and had received mixed reviews. Eventually, I did spend some time with the game's demo (or was it Zwei?), but I was never really motivated to buy it. That is, until recently.

Panzer Dragoon is an on-rails shooter, a la Star fox or Space Harrier, in which players control the protagonist Keil and a flying dragon, blasting enemies out of the sky. The mission: destroy everything and survive to the next round. A twist on the old formula, Dragoon allows the player to rotate as they attack and defend from every side. Press the fire button once to shoot or hold it down to lock on to several enemies and release homing shots simultaneously.

For the most part, the game plays like a standard shooter. I'm going to put this into the same category as I do light-gun games: they're all pretty similar, so fans of the genre will enjoy it. If you like shooters, this game will deliver. While there's nothing frustrating about the way that the game controls, it doesn't seem to do spectacularly either.What sets Panzer Dragoon apart from other shooters, though, is its setting and style. The game has a distinctive art direction that is part prehistoric and part mechanical. There are lots of flying creatures, all of which look vaguely dragon or dinosaur-like. Some of the bosses have mechanical and electronic parts to them, creating a pretty bizarre, though unique, style.

The music, though, is something else. At the beginning of the game, the music is really atmospheric and orchestral, almost reminiscent of Shenmue. Other times, it's a bit more arcadish, but not as disposable. Remember the music from Virtua Cop? Of course not. Combine elements of that - the beats, the accents - but add a longer, melancholy chord progression to the whole thing. It's kind of like an arcade game meets a movie, which seems to describe the state of gaming at the time - not yet a cinematic experience, but definitely not just an arcade imitator.

Flying through the world itself would probably be interesting enough, but the music puts it over the top, making it that much more surreal. In the second episode, as the gigantic worms are flying in and out of the desert sand, the music seems otherworldly. It all reminds me of MechWarrior 2, another game which had an outstanding soundtrack. The sound and music really do add much more to the experience and help create the game’s atmosphere.As another selection in the Sega Ages series, Panzer Dragoon finds itself on the PS2 with updated visuals and the addition of the "Pandora's Box" that would appear in its sequels. Available to play from the start is the improved "Arrange Mode" and the "Saturn Mode." Unless you feel really nostalgic seeing the grainy Saturn graphics, stick with the arrange mode. The visuals do look better, but most of the improvements stem from being at a higher resolution. The dragon and some enemies have been remodeled with more polygons, and while the graphics look better overall, the frame rate is identical to the Saturn. Apparently, changing this would've affected the speed of the game.

Inside Pandora's Box are several unlockables (available after finishing the game on normal or hard mode), including unlimited life, different weapons, level select, and both U.S. and Japanese difficulties. Most of the modes were available in the Saturn version via codes, so although it's nice to have easy access to these, they are by no means new. A couple of things have been added for this release, including viewable artwork, original game design documentation, a 100% play through movie, and director commentary. I'm sure the commentary would be interesting (there are comments in the manual as well), but I don't speak a lick of Japanese.While the extras do add to the replayability of the game, overall, it's pretty short. Since PD flows along a predetermined path, once you've finished it, you'll have seen everything in the game. After playing through the levels, you'll be ranked based on how many enemies were destroyed, but oddly enough, there's no scoring system. Other than feeling the joy of getting 100% completion on all levels, there's not much more reason to keep playing.

All in all, the game is enjoyable, but it definitely wouldn't warrant a purchase if you've already got the Saturn version or Orta on the X-Box. The extra gameplay features are available on the Saturn, and unless you're a huge PD fan, the commentaries and images aren't really worth it. As a shooter, the game is good, but what really makes Panzer Dragoon special, is its ability to transport players to another world.


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Virtua Ex

Yes, it's old news, but I guess some things just bear repeating. Maybe it's a tale of caution. Maybe it's a tale of stupidity. Maybe it's just sad all around.

Courtesy of the Onion, here is a story of love, betrayal, and Virtua Fighter:

Ex-Girlfriend Playing Virtua Fighter With Some Other Guy Now

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Sega Rally Championship 1995 Review

Though intended to be one of the last games for the Model 1 arcade board, Sega Rally was shifted to its successor as the board's production diminished. After a graphical update, Sega Rally was released on the Model 2 board in 1995 and Sega had another arcade hit.

The game was a different type of racer - different than Daytona USA and Virtua Racing released before it. Instead of being glued to an asphalt track, the cars in Sega Rally were driving on dirt, pavement, mud, through water, and hopping through the air. Not only was it new territory graphically, but the cars reacted differently to every surface, just as they should. The same addictive qualities of Sega's other racers were there, but Rally was a beast of its own.

As with many of Sega's other arcade hits, the game eventually arrived on the Saturn, where it was heavily promoted (along with Virtua Fighter 2 and Virtua Cop) in a last-ditch effort to save the failing system. Though graphically inferior to the arcade (and from what I've heard, plays differently as well), it made up for it with a ton of extra features.

While Sega Rally was a must-have game for the Saturn, I never actually owned it. That doesn't mean I haven't spent some time with the game, having rented it and played Forest level demo too much. I've kept up with the series and, though I hate to admit it, logged in far too many hours for my level of suckage at the Dreamcast's Sega Rally 2.

Now, over ten years later, I finally get my chance at Sega Rally Championship. Included with Sega Rally 2006 for the PS2 is the original Sega Rally. Even though it's part of a bundle, the game is packaged separately as Sega Rally 1995.

This is as bare-bones as it gets. There's no multiplayer (unless you count the second controller also being able to control the car), no extras, no additions - just exactly what was in the arcade, minus the other kids telling you how much better they are at the game.

This is the arcade version of Sega Rally Championship running on the PS2 via emulation. My guess is that it's from the same code base that has been used in other PS2 Model 2 ports in the Sega Ages series. As far as I can tell, the graphics have come over intact. Sometimes the textures look a little nasty as they get close to the screen, but this may have very well happened in the arcade version. On occasion, polygons will clip, though usually just on the ground right before the race or on the car immediately after finishing a race. Other than that, the game looks very good and arcade accurate, running at a solid 60 (or is it 57.5?) frames a second.

I don't think a person has made it through a Sega Rally review without mentioning the music. It all comes over intact and sound great, ready to get the subwoofer pumping. Before you ask, the answer is, "Yes." The "Game Over, Yeah!" is here in all of its glory, working as a positive reinforcement for giving away your quarters.

More importantly, though, is that the game plays exactly like the arcade. Steering can be done with the d-pad or the left analog controller while acceleration can be controlled with the right analog pad or with the controller buttons. Gear selection and views are controlled using the shoulder buttons.

On a side note, I really miss the Dreamcast pad for racers. The analog triggers were great, finally adding some subtlety in the controls that was only available with a wheel/pedal combo. With the PS2, I find myself using the face buttons rather than the up down motions on the right analog stick, so it's either pedal-to-the-metal or nothing.

They physics are great - the cars feel thick as they bounce and slide all over the track and even though it's an arcade racer, it doesn't feel like the cars should have a massive antenna on top and while you're holding a remote control in your hands. The game really does hold up after all of these years. It's a fun drive through the courses while drifting, sliding, and shooting for the fastest time. And that's where the challenge lies - trying to get the best time possible. Each turn has to be mastered in order to shave off fractions of a second. All these years later, it's still fun. And all these years later, I still suck at it.

As would be expected with a game of this age, it really does feel like it's from a different time. There are only two different cars available right off the bat and a total of four tracks. Would this ever pass today? No, and only just barely did on the Saturn. But as a bonus and a chance to play a nearly arcade-perfect of Sega Rally, it's worth it.

If you already have the Saturn version, is there a real reason to get this? Not really. But the game is still just as fun as it was back in 1995, and that's what matters.