Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sega Ages Vol. 26: Dynamite Deka Review

In 1996, American-based Sega Technical Institute (of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 fame) and the Japanese AM1 teamed up to develop Die Hard Arcade/Dynamite Deka (Die Hard was licensed for use in the western release) for the Saturn-offshoot ST-V arcade system. Naturally, the game made its way home, giving Saturn players a taste of the game's beat-em-up action. Now, PS2 owners get the chance, as Dynamite Deka clocks in at volume 26 in the Sega Ages series.

The Saturn version was pretty much a straight port of its arcade counterpart, with the addition of Deep Scan - a 2D bomb-toss from Sega's yesteryear used to rack up extra credits. DD's goal is simple: take control with three buttons and the D-pad and try to rescue the president's (very ugly, might I add) daughter as a John McClane look-a-like. At the time, it was another solid arcade conversion for the Saturn, but how does it hold up years later?

As with other Ages titles, DD comes with a graphical update. But unlike most of the games in the series, this is a major overhaul. It almost looks like a different game as almost everything has been remodeled and re-textured. New effects have been added making the visuals much crisper and sharper overall. Case in point: the football player boss that appeared to have manboobs in the original actually just looks like he's wearing pads now.

Sounds, however, are a different story - they're the exact same as the Saturn version, and they weren't too good to begin with. It is a bit weird to have the new updated graphics paired up with the same old sounds. Death screams and voices are particularly bad, sounding like they were recorded through a telephone. Music, on the other hand, is still crystal clear. But with only a few moments of playtime on each song, the tunes don't stand out too much.The game controls and responds exactly as it did on the Saturn and in the arcade. Showing its roots as a quarter-muncher, controls can be a bit frustrating at times and enemies will dish out plenty of cheap shots. Since there are only three buttons (punch, kick, and jump) to control a wide variety of attacks, it's easy to pull off a wrong move accidentally. Sometimes it leads to a "Wow, that's cool" moment, but for the most part, it just makes things a little tricky.
Even though DD is a 3D beat-em-up, the action only takes place on a horizontal 2D plane. This means that if an opponent is below on the screen, players have to move directly in front or behind them instead of being able to attack downwards. The fighting is broken up with QTEs between scenes - having players press the appropriate button with the commands on the screen. Unfortunately, this is one of the few things in the game that is written in Japanese, making it hard to nail these. With that being said, DD is still a fun game, while it lasts. Again pointing back to its arcade roots, the game is really short, clocking in at around a half hour. To drag it out, the game starts with an impossibly low five credits.

To earn more credits, another game from Sega's past is used. Instead of Deep Scan, this time it's an electronic version the 1966 Periscope. Point the periscope at a moving ship. Hit fire. Wait. After a few seconds, it's pretty easy to time and leaves little challenge. While it's an interesting bit of history, other than racking up credits, there's not much play value here. After gaining a sufficient number of credits, it's only a matter of time and determination to get through the game. So, for replay value, several additional modes become available after completion via code, each putting a unique spin on the game. This is where the Sega Ages release begins to shine.Available in the bonus modes are extra costumes, which, depending on how you look at them, are either goofy or great. Characters can be dressed as Elvis, Ax and Tyris from Golden Axe, Altered Beast, or even... Segata Sanshiro himself.

One shot kill mode is exactly what it sounds like - one shot, one kill. That goes for the player and the opponents, so while it only takes one shot to finish them off, take one and it's game over. Arrest mode adds challenge by making the only way to finish an enemy arresting them, a tricky feat in itself. Fortunately, it's good practice because arresting baddies is the fastest way to take them out for deadline mode, where there's only a given amount of time to finish the level. Time limits are short, so a single mistake can cost the game. Finally, there's Altered Beast mode where you've got to keep gobbling up green blobs in order to survive. These extra modes are challenging and should give even seasoned players a run for their money.The levels themselves are slightly altered in the new modes, adding in hints of some of Sega's older games, including different music, different items, and some interesting background sequences. Completing these will release a password to unlock extra content on the Japanese Ages website, where unfortunately, a lot is lost in translation. Lastly, the extras in the release are rounded out with an image gallery, a sound test, and a Japanese commercial for the game.

Dynamite Deka/Die Hard Arcade is a little bit dated, mechanics-wise - it definitely feels like it's a few years old, even with the new graphics. But despite that, it's still a fun game to play, especially multiplayer. Racking up the credits, grabbing a friend, and beating up an old man with a knife stuck through your chest is a good way to fill an afternoon. The extras really do add a lot to the game and are done with style and as an homage to Sega's past. This is what the Sega Ages line-up set out to do, and Vol. 26 is a high point in the series.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sega Superstars Tennis Review

Although technically the second game in the Sega Superstars lineup (the first being Sega Superstars, for use exclusively with the Eye Toy), its theme is the same: take classic Sega characters, throw them into one game, and watch the fun begin. The only problem: it’s a tennis game.

While tennis wouldn’t exactly be my subject of choice, the good news is that there’s actually not a whole lot of tennis in the game. The main “Superstars Mode” is about tearing through a number of mini-games, which, more often than not, have little to do with tennis. These are set in several different worlds based on some of Sega’s existing franchises from the past and present. By completing the mini-games, unlockable prizes, including music tracks, extra characters, and more gaming worlds, become available.

After selecting a world and a mini-game, players are asked to choose a character. Initially, only half of the roster is available, while the rest are unlocked through finishing off mini-games. Characters seem to be focused primarily on Sega’s Dreamcast era and shortly thereafter, including Sonic, Tails, Eggman, Ulala (Space Channel 5), Amigo (Samba de Amigo), Nights, Beat (Jet Grind Radio), and Aiai (Monkeyball).

Unlike the other Superstars game, there aren’t any “realistic” looking characters, like Akira from Virtua Fighter or Ryo Hazuki from Shenmue. While I understand that the developers wanted to stay with the cartoonish look of the game, I still would’ve liked to have seen more character variety. Many of the bonus characters are nearly identical to their initial counterparts. Do we really need Shadow and Sonic, Ulala and Pudding, Nights and Reala? (On a side note, I never, ever want to hear Nights speak in a game again.) It would’ve been nice to see some of the Crazy Taxi characters or the evolving hacker from Rez.The mini-games take the tennis theme and run with it, tying in to that particular game’s world. Choose the Sonic world and games involve running around Green Hill Zone collecting rings and avoiding enemies. For Jet Grind Radio, players lob balls of paint across the net to tag the other side of the court, all the while being taught valuable lessons of ball control. Puyo Pop Fever has players swinging balls to take out colored puyo orbs. The Space Harrier levels are basically Space Harrier on a tennis court. House of the Dead? It’s like being stuck in a HotD game with only a racket and endless supply of tennis balls. Virtua Cop isn’t even like tennis – it’s just VC without a gun.

Unfortunately, the mini-games aren’t dispersed evenly. While the initial worlds have several games and levels, many of the later ones only have one or two. Bonus courts like Outrun only have a couple of tennis matches, meaning besides the music and beach, it lacks the uniqueness of the other worlds. Whether by design or just lack of time, the Golden Axe and Alex Kidd worlds don’t even have their own courts.SST controls well enough, if not a bit simplistically. To serve, hit a button and a star meter pops up. As it fluctuates, hit the ball at the max star level. The higher it is, the more likely the opponent will have a problem returning the serve. After that, chase the ball down, hit a button to swing or lob, and then point a direction to try to aim the ball. Rinse. Repeat. To help break up the formula, each character has a Superstar move, which will shoot the ball in crazy directions to throw the opponents off. Though they can help seal off a match (and look fancy enough, the first time or two), they don't really add a whole lot to the game.

Game AI seems fair for the most part, minus the exceptionally hard Alex Kidd. There are some inconsistencies with the real world in scoring, as it seems that an extra game is needed to win a set.While SST is a short burst of fun, after I finished it, I never had an itch to play it again. Though there are other modes available (a singles or doubles arcade mode and direct access to some of the mini-games) there’s really no reason play them, as it's just more of the same.

All in all, Sega Superstars Tennis is fun, at least while it lasts. For Sega fans, it’s nice to see these characters back in action and see the company give a nod to its fans and its past. The game is a worth a rent, but overall it’s pretty average.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Space Channel 5 Special Edition Review

From Sega's UGA team (the masterminds behind Rez) also comes Space Channel 5. For me, SC5 is most memorable for the huge marketing push that it was given, followed by its ubiquity in the dollar bin at just about everywhere games are sold. The game didn't really look that interesting to me, despite all of the Sega fans saying how it was a really good, unique game.

Now, years later, for three dollars, I bit the bullet and picked up the Space Channel 5 Special Edition which includes not only the original SC5, but part two of the series as well.

Ever play Simon, that electronic take on "Simon Says" where players match oversize, color-coded buttons to the order that they would light up? SC5 is just a glorified version of that. Some crazy aliens have decided that best way to enslave the human race is by forcing them to dance, and the only way to kick their ass is for Ulala, reporter for Space Channel 5, to match their dance moves.

This boils down to you mimicking the aliens on the screen as they shout out what buttons to push. They yell the commands and do their dance. Then, it's your turn. Spit those crazy moves back at them in the right rhythm, and you'll be good to go.

Keep it up and that's the two games in a nutshell. The most baffling part, in my eyes, is why Sega would come to the conclusion that this would be the game to save the Dreamcast. It's quirky and unique, yes, but ultimately, it just doesn't seem to do much. DDR has the novelty of the having to use your feet. Guitar Hero's hook is its controller. SC5's catch: a crazy story and a guest appearance by Michael Jackson. That’s about it. Maybe having Ulala make an appearance at the MTV VMAs wasn't the greatest idea.

In order for a game like this to be successful, it has to have catchy tunes. The music fits the part, but ultimately, it comes across like the tunes in Sonic Adventure - they serve their purpose, but they're not specifically memorable. Graphically, not a whole lot happens on the screen. Some ultra-soft-looking, marshmallow aliens are blasted while the rescuees dance along with Ulala. If it weren't for saving hostages, you could close your eyes and play the game with your head underneath the couch.Somewhere out on the web, another person commented that this game is like a spiritual brother to Jet Grind Radio. I agree, in that they both had unique premises and music was a big part of the games' personalities. While the two were developed by different teams, their integration of music and its application to the game have a shared ambition.

Unfortunately, Jet Grind is fun to play, while this Space Channel 5 is just a glorified "Simon Says."

[On a side note, I've sat on this review for quite a while, hoping the game would grow on me, but it just hasn't.]