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Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Unique Games! - Part 6


Once again, Happy New Year, readers! As promised, 2015 will begin with the first proper Unique Games entry in a long while, even though the previous entry in the series was written less than a month ago. We will start the year off with a list of mostly unique and/or exclusive familiar titles for mostly familiar machines, and save the more obscure ones for the later entries to keep things more interesting. So, without further ado, let's get on with it...





NINTENDO ENTERTAIMENT SYSTEM / FAMICOM


1. Kart Fighter (Ge De Industry Co., 1993)

This peculiar title was one of the first unlicensed games I ever came across after getting into my first retro phase with emulation. In 1993, Super Mario Kart was the newest title in the Mario franchise, and at the same time, Street Fighter II was the most popular head-to-head martial arts fighting game, so the developers (Hummer Team) combined the two franchises into Kart Fighter. The problem was, of course, that both the source games were made for the 16-bit machines, and Kart Fighter was made for the 8-bit Famicom.

At the time I had my first experiences with Kart Fighter, the game felt incredibly clumsy and glitchy, and I rarely revisited it afterwards, even though I kept the image file as a relic of the time. Now, though, I decided to take a better look at it, because since the Super Smash Bros. series took off, Kart Fighter has received some surprisingly positive reviews.


Although emulators have certainly improved since 1997 or thereabouts, the graphics in this game are still quite flickery, but it's not as bad as I remembered it to be. In fact, the game plays surprisingly well for an 8-bit fighter game, and indeed, better than most two-dimensional one-on-one round-based fighting games on the NES. Even with just two action buttons, there are a surprising amount of different moves and animations included to feel as closely related to Street Fighter II as possible. There is a story mode of sorts, even though there isn't a proper ending made for the game, and five difficulty levels to go with it. A two-player versus mode is also included, but then again, that's a given for this sort of a game, even on the 8-bits. But what makes this game unique is that in its own particular way, it paved the way for the likes of Super Smash Bros., because it was the first fighting game that featured characters from another franchise, that had not utilised its characters in such a way before... even if it is an unofficial one. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it very highly, but it is an interesting piece of gaming history, and worth a look at, particularly if you're a fan of any of the franchises.


2. Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode (Vic Tokai, 1988)


According to Wikipedia, Golgo 13 is one of the first NES games to feature sex, drug use and graphic violence. Of course, it had to be that way, considering the source material, which is a crime-related action manga series about a professional assassin for hire. As it happens, Golgo 13 is the oldest manga still in publication, so for any serious Seinen manga fans out there, this should be one not to miss.

Of course, for the North American market, the violence and other points of special interest had to be watered down a bit, because of their strict censorship policies, but the game content is more or less the same. During the game, you get to play at least 4 different genres: a side-scrolling street brawler, a stealth adventure, a first person shooter of sorts and a side-scrolling air shooter. What I mean by "at least", is that I haven't gotten too far in the game myself to know exactly what kinds of challenges await the player after the first half an hour.



For a change, Golgo 13 is actually quite a unique game in addition to the rather interesting combination of genres. The game's story runs in 13 acts, which are intended to be played out as though they were a limited number of episodes in a television series or something of the kind. Keeping the jargon out of the equation, you basically have fifty-two lives to complete all thirteen acts before the game is properly over. It's not as bad as it sounds, though: you have an energy meter which declines continuously, but gets increased by destroying enemies. Also, killing enemies gives you more bullets. Although there is no such deep game mechanics as, say, Metal Gear or the Legend of Zelda has, Golgo 13 offers you a fair challenge and a rather unique gaming experience. Unfortunately, for all its variety and charm, the gameplay seems to always leave you wanting for something more polished. But I do still recommend it. The only thing that doesn't make it as unique as it could be, is its sequel, The Mafat Conspiracy, which has a similar combination of gameplay elements, but considering the sequel is also only available for the NES/Famicom, it doesn't make the case much worse for Golgo 13.


3. The Mutant Virus: Crisis in a Computer World (American Softworks Corporation, 1992)


For the third and final NES/Famicom title for now, we have a properly interesting one. The plot of The Mutant Virus goes something like this: Ron, the protagonist, controls a miniature "space ship" inside a computer world, where a virus is spreading, and you need to shoot anti-virus and other variations of the weapon to try to contain the virus in each room. What makes the game interesting, at least for some of us, is that the virus in the game is a cellular automaton following the rules of Conway's Game of Life. I, for one, have never seen it elsewhere in such use.



What the game feels like, however, is not that unique. It's basically a top-down 2D shoot'em-up, in which you float around in a manner that feels very close to Gravitar, Thrust and the alike, and shoot your anti-virus in a continuous spread method (a flamethrower, anyone?), which isn't a particularly unique thing either. But it is a charming little latter times NES title, and well worth a look.


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SUPER NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM / SUPER FAMICOM


1. Biker Mice From Mars (Konami, 1994)

Right off the bat, I have to admit that I never really liked the animated series, and I still have no idea whether it ever had a comic book version around. The lack of interest on my part wasn't because Biker Mice From Mars was another cartoon pastiche to B-movies, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was made to be, but because here in Finland, we were only shown a horribly dubbed version of the series, and I just cannot bear to watch dubbed cartoons, even when they're relatively well made.

So when my friend Sami introduced me to this game on the Super Nintendo, I was astonished at the lack of badness that the dubbed cartoon series exhibited. Eventually, Biker Mice From Mars became one of the rare titles that I would actually complete fair and square on the SNES, before the age of emulation. On further thought, a big part of the reason for my acceptance of the game was most likely due to the sponsor from Snickers. Only later I found out that all the Snickers advertisements were only featured on the European release.

The game itself is a variation on the isometric racing game genre, which was basically established with Racing Destruction Set by Electronic Arts in 1985, and later popularized on the Nintendo systems with the R.C. Pro Am series, Cobra Triangle, RPM Racing and Rock 'n' Roll Racing. This time, you are racing around circuit tracks on motorbikes in various different environments, wielding various different weapons and collecting bonuses. It's not too different from other games of the genre, but it does offer some unique stylistic touches, great soundtrack and great gameplay. Another solid effort from Konami, and a very recommendable SNES exclusive.


2. Snoopy Concert (Mitsu Fudosan Co. Ltd./Dentsu, Inc., 1995)

The other two SNES items were only ever released in Japan, which is an enormous pity, because most of us will can never be bothered to learn the language in order to be able to play them. Happily, some helpful hackers have made a translation the first one of them for us to enjoy.

First, here's the only Peanuts-related game I have ever played that is properly worth anyone's time. Not only does it feature a very faithfully arranged soundtrack of quite a few of the animated movies' soundtracks by the great and late Vince Guaraldi, but it is actually a rather playable mouse-driven point-and-click adventure game, which is a rarity in the SNES library as it is.



You control Woodstock (as the cursor), who tells Snoopy to do things in the areas you go around in. There are six different missions to complete, all of which are more or less filled with puzzles of varying degrees. The great graphics and a top quality soundtrack are the selling points here, but for a Peanuts game, it's probably the best one around. It's a Super Nintendo exclusive, and one of the hidden gems for the platform, particularly for all the Peanuts fans.


3. Tower Dream (ASCII, 1996)


This one doesn't appear to have a translation anywhere, so it's a difficult one to handle at the best of times. But once you get past the initial setup screens, you're in for a rare treat of a rather curious board game-a-like experience, inspired heavily by Monopoly and Acquire.

The basic idea is to get a hold of properties and buy towers to attract revenue from the other players. While you're at it, the game will throw four different kinds of Monopoly-like cards and a slot machine to make the game more unpredictable. I could copy most of the information I got of the game from Wikipedia and paste it here, but perhaps it's just easier for you to click on this link and read more about it there. It's an interesting and unique non-board game, once you get past the language barriers, and I can only recommend it with caution.


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ACORN ELECTRON / BBC MICRO


1. Labyrinth (Acornsoft, 1984)

Acornsoft's Labyrinth is a BBC Micro exclusive maze-shooter, which includes some adventuring elements. You control a man inside a complex labyrinth made up of multiple levels. Each level has 16 rooms, and there are 8 levels in a labyrinth. Each level contains two special rooms: the Gate room and the Key room. The Gate room containts an impenetrable gate, beyond which lies the next level. To open the gate, you must collect a jewel-shaped key from the Key room. Most of the labyrinth's rooms are populated with a variety of monsters, which become increasingly dangerous and numerous as you progress in the game, and the Key room is usually the most monster-populated room of all. You are able to shoot the monsters with a raygun, as well as squash them with a boulder, which can be pushed around the labyrinth as you travel. You have a finite amount of energy, which consistently decreases little by little, but you can replenish the energy by eating different types of fruit scattered throughout the labyrinth.



So, that's the basic setting. For a rather unspectacular idea, the game is surprisingly addictive and well made, particularly for an Acorn game from 1984. At the time of release, it was a highly acclaimed release, and is clearly still one of the more popular BBC Micro titles. In gameplay, it's very good, if nothing truly special or unique. The graphics, however, considering Acorn standards, are rather spectacular. Even if Labyrinth cannot be honestly called a unique game, it serves a purpose, and is well worth having in any BBC Micro fan's game library.


2. Spycat (Superior Software, 1988)

Here's one of the more interesting titles I have come across for the Acorn computers. Spycat is loosely based on the scandal surrounding the release of Spycatcher, the memoirs of former MI5 officer and Assistant Director, Peter Wright. In the game, you step into the shoes of the Spycat, a.k.a. Peter Correct, who has worked for MI4-and-a-half for fifty years, and has found out that he is to be forced to retire with a low pension. You must find classified research documents and some other important items, and then flee to Greenland to write your memoirs. So, essentially, the game is thoroughly a parody.

The game plays more or less in the style of the Dizzy series or other similar games, but has its own singular icon-driven menu system, which can be a bit troublesome, but at least it's different. Unlike in the Dizzy games, for instance, you can use the menus while moving around, so once you get accustomed to it, it can become even a better system than the pausing item menu, but then again, it's a bit uncomfortable, having to choose your action from the menus as well as the current item to use. But all in all, it's definitely one of the better Acorn titles out there, which manages to be both exclusive and even somewhat unique.


3. Elixir (Superior Software, 1987)

Elixir is not much more than just another one in a series of exclusive, but not unique games. Like so many other Acorn exclusives, it's an arcade adventure platformer with some logical puzzles. Perhaps the story is something you could even consider underutilized...

You control a scientist named Cyril, who has accidentally managed to shrink himself, and your mission is to get around your laboratory, collect vitamin pills and find the elixir which will restore you to your proper size. The playability is rather good, albeit unimaginative and ultimately boring, but it's certainly not the worst game you will ever play. If you're an Acorn collector, you could find many worse games for its exclusive library.


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COMMODORE 64


1. The Detective Game (Argus Press, 1986)


Don't we all just love a good mystery? Particularly when you are given the opportunity to solve one? Well, our first game for the C64 list this time is one of the best sleuthing games on any of the 8-bits. Very aptly named The Detective Game is a sort of an isometric 3D adventure inside a big mansion full of strange characters and you, the detective. The gameplay is closer to the isometric adventure games by Ultimate Play the Game on the C64 (Dragonskulle, Entombed, etc.) than on the Spectrum (Alien 8, Knight Lore, etc.).

You are called in to solve the case of the murder of Angus McFungus at the McFungus estate in London. As you start the game, the butler of the house leads you to your room, during which you can view some of the house's structure, and after which the game fully begins. You must snoop all around the house, examine the furniture and all the items you find to collect 10 pieces of evidence and eventually reveal the murder. The game functions on a strict time limit, and the more you spend time on gathering the evidence, the larger the amount of victims will be. So the game will be lost if you cannot find the murderer in time. The game is entirely joystick-controlled, and the icon-based menus can be a bit awkward to use at first, but once you get used to it, The Detective Game can be an exceedingly immersive experience. As it was only ever released for the Commodore 64, it's an exclusive title, if not exactly the most unique games - even within the genre, but it is a must-have for all you murder-mystery fans out there.


2. Melonmania (Interceptor Software, 1986)

Sweden, our favourite neighbour, have their own fair share of legendary game developers. Although Digital Illusions (currently DICE) are most likely one of the best-known Swedish dev teams of all time, there were some other rather prolific game programmers from the country. One of my favourite Swedish game programmers of all time is Karl Hörnell, who is responsible for such classics as Fungus, Clean Up Service, the two Velocipede games, and then this one.

Melonmania was probably the last game ever to be published under the British company Interceptor Micro's Interceptor Software label, before launched their Players label, for which Hörnell continued to produce games for.

The game is a strange side-scrolling maze of sorts. You walk around in an obviously Swedish countryside, where areas are linked with door-like passageways in a similar manner to Garfield and Black Lamp, if you know what I'm talking about. Your mission is to collect melons and bring them back home, one by one. While you're trying your hardest to collect the melons, you will be constantly harrassed by all sorts of nasties, which you will be able to shoot with your bubble gun on whatever it's called. A gun that shoots bubbles. Or maybe you're belching, what do I know. Good thing about it is, you can point your bubbles straight forwards or in the two diagonals in front of you, so it's not completely useless. You have an energy bar that will deplete quickly every time you make contact with one of the nasties, but your energy will be replenished slowly while you are walking. It's a very difficult game, but it has a unique sort of charm to it, and offers plenty of replay value. If you're a collector with plenty of money to throw around, here's a good addition to your collection.


3. P.C. Fuzz (Anirog Software, 1984)


Here's another one in a series of "so bad it's good" games. Anirog's P.C. Fuzz places you in the shoes of a police officer on a unicycle, if that's what he's riding on. That's already a rather singular idea. Being a side-scrolling shoot'em-up of sorts is not that singular. At least it's an exclusive for the C64, if all other excuses fail.

The problem is, the game moves forward in a snail's pace, and the controls are a bit wonky, so it'll take a few goes to adjust yourself to the sheer lack of polish this game exhibits. Your only weapon is your police baton, which you can throw in a boomerang-like manner, either straight forward or above with a bit of a starter curve. It's hard to explain, so perhaps you might as well try it out for yourself, not that I particularly recommend it. Unfortunately, your baton affects the actual crime-doers very little, so your only hope is to minimize the damage they're doing in any of the crime scenes. Whether this is an accurate representation of the British law enforcement of the time is unknown to me, but it's as hilarious as it is useless.


4. Web Dimension (Activision, 1985)

I wanted to include this strange item here for one selfish reason: I happen to own this one. It's not a particularly good title - in fact, it's hardly even a game, but it's a C64-exclusive, and certainly a unique one at that. To describe the game, here's the full description from the game's cover inlay: "There is no time limit. There is no scoring. There are no 'lives' to lose. And, there are very few rules. What you're about to feel, hear and witness is a totally new approach to home computer entertainment. A unique computerized music video with an electrifying evolutionary web rocked by exquisite visual effects and eleven outrageous tunes."

As well as being quite possibly one of the least-played Activision titles of all time, it is also very likely to be one of the most misunderstood Activision titles of all time. Although the game wants to be considered to be based on music, rather than your actions, the harsh truth is, that you do control a character on the web, and your mission is to first catch five organism at the web's numerous nodes - without actually touching the organisms; then, you must go around the web, going over the five clusters without colliding with your path. Once you have completed this mission, you're in for a brief psychedelic sequence and then you move on to the next level, which is just repetition of the above. It's not a very interesting piece as a game, but since it has such a nice soundtrack, the waste of time is reasonably compensated. Read more about Web Dimension at Simple Games blog, where you can also see the game in action, if you're not exactly convinced of digging up the game for yourself.


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SINCLAIR ZX SPECTRUM


1. Knot in 3D (New Generation Software, 1983)

The first game for the Spectrum list this time is one I learned about through the RetroRemakes 2006 competition, for which Nenad Jalsovec (16x16) remade this as Counterclockwise. About five years later, I bought the original for my Spectrum, and only then was I able to see the sheer genius of the game. The remake only seemed a bit too confusing at the time, so I suppose the relative visual simplicity of the original game made it more suitable for my challenged mind. Of course, now the remake makes more sense to me as well.

In Knot in 3D, the idea is nothing more or less than for you to try to move a "rope" of sorts in first person view around a seemingly endless empty 3D arena and try to make as dense a knot as you possibly can. The score is given by the knot's density and the number of collisions you make with yourself. The game can be played with either a joystick or keyboard, and you have three speed settings to choose from, so there's plenty of challenge for such a simple concept. In its original form, Knot in 3D is a highly recommendable exclusive for the ZX Spectrum, but the remake is very good as well. More than that, this actually is a rather unique game as well.


2. The Train Game (Microsphere, 1983)

Here's one of the most intriguing ways to get to know your keyboard. Luckily, you're not required to type any words or such, but keep a close eye on what's happening on the screen, while knowing where to put your fingers. The tape inlay has a very elaborate plotline for the game, but basically, it's a game of controlling three trains and 26 rail switch points.



The game can be played at one of 7 levels, all of which have a number of sub-levels. Each of the sub-levels has a unique combination of trains and speeds. The basic idea is to score points by stopping at stations and picking up passengers. After reaching the goal of 25 passengers, you are allowed to go on to the next sub-level. After having completed the required amount of sub-levels, you move on to the next level. The game also has two track layouts, which are recorded on each side of the game cassette.

Of course, gamers familiar with Donald Duck's Playground will be vaguely familiar with this sort of gameplay, but I do have to say it's a case of a small omelette vs. a family-sized pizza, this being the latter choice. It's heavy duty railway management, and it's quite addictive. Exclusive and unique, too.


3. Monty Is Innocent (Gremlin Graphics, 1985)


For whatever reason, the second game in the Monty Mole series is the one I played the last, and that I did only after buying it for my collection. If you have played it, you won't be much surprised that I wasn't very impressed with it, although I have to say, it wasn't quite as bad as I had imagined it to be. Being the only commercial game in the series (unless you count Moley Christmas) that doesn't have any conversions only manages to make it all the more intriguing.


This is the only game in the series, in which you don't play as Monty, which correlates with the fact that this also happens to be the only game in the series not written by Peter Harrap. Instead, you control Sam Stoat, also known as the Safebreaker, to free your friend Monty from his wrongful imprisonment at the Scudmore Prison. Unlike the other Monty games, this one is an 2D arcade-adventure in a semi-3D environment. On your way, you will find helpful items such as guns and invulnerability potions, but to free Monty, you will need to pick up keys from the Governor's office to open the cell doors. This, of course, will not be a walk in the park, since you will be faced with angry policemen, axe murderers, ghosts, skeletons and who knows what other sorts of horrors. The most horrific thing about the game, to be honest, is the unnecessarily strict collision detection, which will get you trapped in all sorts of circumstances, and with four lives, you will not be having much of a chance. In any case, Monty fans should take a look at it, and any Gremlin games collector should be happy to own a copy.


4. Collision Course (Americana Software, 1987)

We end the Spectrum section with a game that looks curiously like a Costa Panayi game. Collision Course is an isometric 3D flip-screen collect'em-up with a space-theme, and was written by someone called H. Ziehms of Black Run Software, who only ever released three games. This one happens to be the only one of the three currently available at the World of Spectrum archive. That it also happens to be an exclusive game for the ZX Spectrum is a nice little coincidence, but I'm not sure if it's a particularly unique one.



You control a space craft around maps consisting of hexagonal platforms, collecting floating objects while dodging enemy crafts and keeping an eye on your timer. Collecting certain items increases your time, which helps to keep you on your way to finding the exit to the next area. You can move your space craft in all three dimensions, which is rather helpful once you get used to it. So, considering all the basic rules of the game, it does feel like a lost Costa Panayi game, but perhaps it doesn't have as much depth to it. For a budget title, it certainly offers more than its worth, and it's an exclusive Spectrum title well worth owning.

--UPDATE! 6th of January, 2015--
A World of Spectrum user by the name of Sokurah informed me on my thread at the WOS forum, that the game has been confirmed to be a Costa Panayi game after all. Apparently, he released it with a pseudonym, because he didn't feel like it was up to his standards. This, of course, makes the two lost H. Ziehms penned games much more interesting.



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ATARI ST/STE


1. Verminator (Rainbird, 1989)

Due to a reader's request/suggestion, I'm including the currently final Atari ST/STE section for the foreseeable future now, until you readers can inform me of more properly exclusive ST/STE games, that are preferably also unique while at it. Starting with the said suggestion, here's a strange little multi-screen platformer called Verminator. As I was told, the 16-bit Atari is the only platform it was ever released on, although it was supposed to be out for some other machines as well.


The idea is to kill all sorts of vermin that you come across within a time limit, then receive payment for your work and invest it for better weapons, extra lives or other useful things. If you run out of money, you can lend some from the bank in return to heavy interests. An alternative way to gain money is gambling in the casino. So, already, we are talking about a game with properly unique set of gameplay mechanics - at least for an action-platformer. Even though your verminator is able to turn his walk into run after a while, it might become a bit tedious to wander around the scum-infested underworld, but to help you get around quicker are teleporters, for which you need a permission to use. And, until you get a proper weapon to replace your wooden hammer, you'll be having a hard time getting anywhere without killing yourself with enemy contact. It's mostly a game of trial and error before you get into the rhythm of it, but even afterwards, it's very time-consuming and unimpressive in the long run. Still, it's certainly a unique title.


2. Truck (FIL, 1988)

Continuing in the form: just because a game is unique, it doesn't necessarily mean it's all that good. FIL's Truck is another one of those games. It's basically three mini-games in one, but none of the mini-games are very playable. But considering the subject matter, it's a rather curious piece of work, and I might even call it unique.


The first mini-game of the three is a behind-view racer in the style of Out Run and similar games, but you are not allowed to bump into anything - otherwise it's game over. Although the controls were good enough, I couldn't bother to try it out more than once. The second mini-game is a side-viewed stunt event, where you accelerate your truck and try to hit a ramp to perform a jump, but after 5 attempts, I couldn't hit the ramp. See, the truck makes a bit of automatic steering during the run, and the ramp is a bit off of the middle, so it's a bit too difficult to hit the ramp. Very annoying. The third mini-game is an over-head test track thing, where you need to slalom between the cones on an otherwise straight track. Not very interesting, but still the most playable of the lot.

It's too bad, really, because the graphics are pretty much acceptable, and the basic gameplay isn't bad either, but since it's been attempted to be made realistic (at least, I think it has, and they've royally failed at it) while having an arcade sense of aesthetics, so it just doesn't work at all. Also, the loading times are too long, particularly when compared to how long you will likely be able to play any of the mini-games at once. So, while it's possible that FIL's Truck could be considered somewhat unique, it's definitely not a very recommendable game.


3. MIDI Maze (Hybrid Arts Inc., 1987)

Once again, I'm stretching my own rules quite a bit here, since this is neither particularly unique nor even a very exclusive game. In addition to needing some more games for the ST list, the only other reason I'm actually including MIDI Maze here is because it's the earliest currently known FPS game that featured the concept of deathmatch combat. Up to 16 computers could be networked in a "MIDI Ring" by connecting one computer's MIDI-OUT to the next computer's MIDI-IN port, although the connection loop correctly in order for it to work with more than 4 players.


The basic idea is very much the same as in the first game of the genre, Maze War from 1974. You play as a smiley face resembling Pac-Man, and you roam around in a maze, hunting for other differently coloured Pac-Man-alikes. The game was ported to Game Boy (with full 16-player support, requiring seven four-player adapters!!), Game Gear and SNES, but all three conversions differ from the original enough to be considered different adaptations of the game. In fact, they even have a different title: Faceball 2000. So, in a way, you could consider the original MIDI Maze almost an exclusive for the Atari ST. Almost. But it's certainly an important piece of gaming history.

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So there you have it, another new year started off with another list of unique and/or exclusive titles for your favourite machines and then some. Hope you enjoyed it, see you next time with the year's first comparison! Comments, suggestions and corrections are as welcome as last year!

1 comment:

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