23/06/2017

ENDURO RACER (ARCADE)

I hadn’t actually intended on writing about today’s game, but the other day I had twenty minutes to while away so I turned to Sega’s super-scaler arcade games of the mid eighties. A pretty decent shout as a time-passer, I’m sure you’ll agree, and the game in question was the 1986 dirt-bike-em-up Enduro Racer. And, hey, I’ve played it now, so I might as well write an article about it. You know, after I’d gone back to it a bit later and put some practise in because it’s very unlikely I’d reach the end of any Sega arcade racer with only twenty minutes of practice.

Here is a dirt bike now, taking pride of place on the title screen. Having said that, motorcycle aficionados would probably tell me that “dirt bike” refers to a specific kind of off-road bike and the one pictured here doesn’t fall into that category, thus exposing my lack of motorcycle knowledge for all the world to see. I’m not worried about that, though. Not knowing what I’m talking about has never stopped me writing these articles before.
Also on the title screen is the titular racer themselves, currently attempting to bunny-hop over the game’s logo. What a great logo it is too, check out that colour palette. I believe it’s what the kids these days would call “aesthetic,” but which I would describe as “kinda like the logo from the old Visionaries toy line.” Oh, and “enduro” is a kind of mostly off-road motorcycle race. Well, I think that’s the title screen covered, I should probably play the actual game.


Vroom vroom, beep beep – in the biggest shock at VGJunk since Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus wasn’t terrible, it turns out that a game called Enduro Racer is a racing game. An against-the-clock checkpoint racer, to be precise, so very much in line with Sega’s other super-scaler racing games like OutRun and Hang-On. There are other motorcyclists on the track, but they’re just there to get in the way and to stop our racer from feeling too lonely: the goal is simply to pass each checkpoint before you run out of time.


When Enduro Racer came out, Sega had already released a much-loved arcade motorbike racing game in the form of the previously-mentioned Hang-On. So, what does Enduro Racer do differently to Hang-On? Well, for one thing you can perform wheelies. Pull back on the handlebars to pop a wheelie, as seen above. It has no practical use when you’re racing on flat ground, but then if practicality is at the forefront of your mind when pulling a wheelie then you’re doing it wrong.


The other thing Enduro Racer has is jumps. In fact, jumps are the games most prominent mechanic besides "driving fast" and the most frequent cause of crashes and accidents. You can see one coming up, it’s the ridge of dirt on the track’s horizon. When you hit it, your bike will fly into the air, but you have two options when it comes to getting airborne.


Option one is to drive straight into them. You’ll hop a reasonable height into the air, but this comes with downsides. The first is that if you don’t pull back on the handlebars to correct your flight, your racer will land heavily on their front wheel and fall arse-over-tit, coming off their bike, flopping at the side of the road and experiencing an unpleasant mix of pain, embarrassment and terror at the huge bike repair bills they’ve just accrued. The other downside is that, as you can see above, when they’re in the air your racer positions themselves in an extremely unflattering pose seemingly based on a splay-legged frog and designed to force the viewer to ponder the rider’s perineum.


The roadside signs promising delicious, refreshing beer serve only to further mock the rider as they lay sprawled on the ground. I have to say, the player character of Enduro Racer does come across as a very ungainly sort, their limbs flailing in the breeze as they make barely-controlled jumps, their mangled body tossed around by each crash and collision in the manner of a ragdoll filled with wet tissue. And here I thought the entire point of riding a motorbike was to look cool.


Alternatively, if you’re pulling a wheelie when you hit a jump, you jump. You launch, you soar, you become a goddamn one-man space program. You also give up any control over your bike for a long period of time, which makes landing tricky, to put it mildly. If you perform one of these huge jumps on a ramp just before a corner, tough luck. You’re going to fly off the side of the course and probably straight into something solid, because you can’t steer in mid-air. However, you can jump over a lot of obstacles this way, which is useful because Enduro Racer’s designers were very fond of placing sections packed with smaller obstacles such as rocks just after a jump. That means you’ve got two choices: do a short jump for greater aerial control but then you have to slalom though the obstacles, or risk the big jump, go right over all the obstacles and pray you don’t land in a roadside tree.


Jumping aside, Enduro Racer is very much what you’d expect from a Sega arcade racer of the time. It’s fast, the super-scaler sprite manipulation gives a great feeling of depth and while the handling on your bike is perhaps not quite as tight as it is in some of Enduro Racer's fellow arcade driving games, it’s still good and there’s a lot of fun to be had as you weave your way through the other riders and see your rider kick their leg out for balance as you scream around a tight corner.


After the gentle green countryside of the first zone, passing through the checkpoint takes our racer into a dusty desert scene of parched earth, boulders and hollow, dead trees that are still just as sturdy as their healthier counterparts in the last scene and will make your bike explode if you ride into them at two hundred kilometres an hour.
Disappointingly, there’s only one route through Enduro Racer, with neither the branching paths found in OutRun nor the different courses of Hang-On. This rather limits the replayability of the game, but what is there looks nice, at least.


Okay, “looks nice” might not be the perfect phrasing when we’re looking at the extreme wedgie suffered by the rider. He’s going to need a motorised winch to drag his leathers out of his arsecrack once this race is over, the poor bastard.


As well as other bikers, there are also jeeps patrolling the course and generally getting in your way. I’m not sure whether they’re supposed to be part of the same race as you or not. They’re definitely driving fast enough to suggest they're part of a race, so maybe there was a mix-up with the local 4X4 racer’s group and the track was double-booked.


Stage three is a watery landscape of bushes and ancient ruins. And, you know, water. It’s also where Enduro Racer’s difficulty starts to pick up, and make no mistake – beating the timer and reaching the final goal is no easy task, even when you fiddle with the game’s dipswitches and lower the difficulty level. Time limits are extremely tight, and collisions – which Enduro Racer seems much more keen about foisting on you than in other Sega racers – eat up a lot of precious seconds. This shouldn’t be too surprising, though. All of Sega’s other super-scaler racers are bloody hard, too. I think it’s fair to say I’ve played a lot of OutRun and I’m nowhere near able to consistently reach the goal on the default difficulty.


It doesn’t help that there’s no clear definition about which bits of the water you can ride on. You can get away with going off the course a little bit, but stray too far out and you’ll sink to the briny depths, ruing the decision to hold a motorcycle race on The Fens.


There are also a few sections where you have to use the wheelie-powered mega jump to clear long stretches of water, and if you don’t make the jump then you’ll slowly trundle through the shallow water as the other bikers sail over your head.
Enduro Racer’s relationship with its own jumping mechanics is a strange one. For one thing, they turn large segments of the game into almost a memory test – can you remember which jumps have enough straight road beyond them to make a big jump worthwhile and which ones have a curve viciously placed straight afterwards that will make you crash if you don’t use the small jump? Sometimes you can make a decision based on the track you can see coming up, but because Enduro Racer’s courses are full of hills and dips it’s not always possible to see what’s coming up. Then there’s the issue of fun. You’re including the ability to perform ridiculously huge jumps in your racing game, but then asking me not to make ridiculous jumps every time the opportunity presents itself? C’mon, man, that’s not right. If there’s one thing I don’t associate with Sega’s eighties arcade games, it’s the concept of restraint.



The next stage goes back to the desert, but there’s a twist: your bike skids a lot more when turning corners, presumably because you’re racing on loose sand. Hey, I didn’t say it was an exciting twist. Okay, that’s a bit unfair, I did actually enjoy the lowered traction in this stage, it mixed up the gameplay a bit in a way that felt appropriate.


Is there anything else to add about this stage? Erm, no, not really. You race, you slide around, you consider a new career as a crash test dummy because at least that way some useful scientific data might come out of you embedding your ribcage into a tree trunk.


Lastly we’re at the beach, that classic staple of Sega’s racing games. The sea is blue, the sand is white, the palm trees sway in the breeze and it all looks rather nice. Enduro Racer is a nice-looking game, especially in motion, and when you combine that with the possibility of playing it on an arcade cabinet shaped like an actual motorbike and mix in a catchy musical theme by OutRun composer Hiroshi Kawaguchi, it’s easy to overlook Enduro Racer’s gameplay failings and enjoy it as a spectacle.


I don’t think this spectator is going to being enjoying the spectacle in about half a second, when I wedge my front tyre right up against his uvula. I was trying to avoid the jeeps, you see, and I may have gone a little off-piste.


There’s the finish line, and happily there’s a jump right before the goal so you can hit it and leap right over the entire thing, clearing the advertising hoardings completely and ending the game as I played most of it: in mid-air.


Rather than ending the game with some special artwork or a brief animation in the vein of OutRun’s endings, Enduro Racer takes a different tack and goes with a heartfelt speech that boils down to “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.” Here it is in full:
“Enduro” is a symbolic journey through life via the media of a race. The results are insignificant and what really counts is competing. Of particular importance are the lessons to be learned concerning one’s self from the various encounters you experience along the way. There is no victor or loser in this test of endurance. The only thing that really matters is that you make a commitment to begin the long and trying trek. This game is dedicated to all of the “life riders” who have started out on the solitary trip to find their own individual limits.
Last but not least may we sincerely congratulate you on a perfect run.
I’m surprised it didn’t end with “love and kisses, Sega,” frankly. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting soppier in my old age, but I genuinely found this message heartwarming, because it’s true – who gives a shit whether you’re “good” at videogames? Play ‘em, have fun, find your own individual limits. I found my own individual limit for Enduro Racer, that’s for sure – about half-an-hour’s play at a time, on the lowest difficulty setting.


So, Enduro Racer isn’t quite an enduring classic. It’s a good game, a solid game, a game with issues but one that still provides high-speed racing action in Sega’s trademark vibrant style… but it can’t quite keep up with its contemporaries. Part of that is that familiarity breeds contempt, and if you’ve already played Hang-On then you’ll probably feel that Enduro Racer is more of the same but with the occasionally frustrating jumping mechanics bolted on. Beyond that, though, Enduro Racer is just lacking that certain spark that so many other Sega super-scaler games possessed. It doesn’t have the intensity of Afterburner, the bonkers-ness of Space Harrier or the sheer cool of OutRun – but if that’s the level of game you’re falling just short of, then you’re not doing bad. Speaking of OutRun, according to Wikipedia (so take it with a pinch of salt) both OutRun and Enduro Racer were released on the same day, and if that’s the case and they were being developed concurrently then I can imagine OutRun being prioritised over Enduro Racer.
To return to the beginning of the article: when I was looking for a fun, simple game to fill twenty minutes and decided on Enduro Racer, did I make a good choice? I think I did. It’s not the greatest, but then it didn’t have to be. Did you learn nothing from that ending text?

20/06/2017

BARBIE AND THE MAGIC OF PEGASUS (GAME BOY ADVANCE)

After playing Golden Axe last time out, I’ve been left with a desire for more magic, mystery and rideable fantasy creatures. Videogames offer plenty of options when it comes to the genre, but which one shall I play? The reassuringly familiar JRPG action of a Final Fantasy? The epic scope of your Skyrims and Oblivions and such? Well, no. I don’t have time for that, for one thing. Instead I’ve turned to one Barbara Millicent Roberts – that’s Barbie to you and me – with the 2005 Game Boy Advance wand-em-up Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus! 


This being a Barbie game doesn’t exactly bode well. The last Barbie game I covered was the execrable Barbie: Fashion Pack Games, which contained neither games nor fashion but was definitely a pack of something. However, this particular Barbie adventure was developed by WayForward, who are best known for the well-liked Shantae games and Duck Tales Remastered, so I’d be very surprised if this was anywhere near as bad as dreck like Barbie: Fashion Pack Games.


After starting the game and selecting my difficulty – I went with “normal,” because even I have too much pride to play a Barbie game on “easy” - the action begins with the shocking revelation that you don’t actually play as Barbie in this game. Instead, you’re in control of one Princess Annika, and it’s her birthday. Why, her friends and family are even throwing her a surprise party! I must admit, if someone threw me a party and invited a polar bear I’d definitely be surprised. Don’t worry, the bear isn’t dangerous, and it’s very much a Disney-movie-style animal friend. “Disney-style” is right, too: Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus desperately wants to be a Disney product, and it’s full of princesses in ball gowns and animal sidekicks, but of course it’s not the genuine Disney article and as such BatMoP (and the CGI movie of the same name that this game is based on) has the feel of a pound-shop knock-off.


Suddenly, tragedy strikes – everyone at the party (apart from Annika) is turned to stone! Fair enough, that’s the kind of thing you’d expect to happen at a fairytale party that’s been crashed by an evil wizard. The wizard’s name is Wenlock, and while he is evil, he’s also horny. He wants Annika to marry him and has eliminated all the competition to make this happen, but Annika’s having none of it. Instead, she resolves to find the Wand of Light, a sacred magical relic that can undo Wenlock’s foul sorcery and save the kingdom’s inhabitants from an eternity of being shat on by pigeons. Thus begins Annika’s mighty quest to retrieve the wand, and what a legendary adventure it promises to be! We can only imagine the far-flung places and perilous locales our plucky young heroine must traverse. Will she travel the briny depths of a bottle-green ocean? Must she scale the crystal spires of the distant, soaring mountains? Maybe she’ll oh wait, she’s found the wand.


Turns out it was in the same room as the party. That’s rather a stroke of luck, isn’t it? I’ll be honest, I was expecting a slightly more involved quest than that but I guess we’re done here. Annika saves the day, and I’ll see you next time.


No, of course not. Getting the wand was just the beginning, now Annika has to walk up to each statue one at a time and bop ‘em with the wand, reverting them to their usual fleshy selves. You can see this happening above. Pay particular attention to the lady on the right. When I first set her free, I misread her wide, slack-jawed mouth as a black moustache, which when coupled with her green cap and denim-blue dress momentarily made me think I’d rescued Luigi from the wizard’s spell.


Having seen that Annika has almost immediately foiled his plan, the wizard Wenlock makes a personal appearance. He’s still intent on getting Annika to marry him. I think that boat has sailed, buster. You probably should have gone with a “romantic trip to Paris” style of proposal rather than “condemn my fiancĂ©e’s loved ones to an agonising fate worse than death.” Also, calling her “dollface” probably didn’t help, although as Annika is a kind of Barbie I suppose it’s technically accurate.
Wenlock reveals that he’s turned everyone in the kingdom to stone, so it’s up to Annika to travel the land, dishing out individual wand-bashings. Oh, and Wenlock turns Annika’s sister Brietta into a pegasus. Erm, thanks, I guess? Even the characters comment that this is very helpful because now Annika’s got a magical steed to travel around on. I’m not sure what Wenlock’s end-game was with the whole pegasus thing.


Now the game proper can begin, and Annika finds herself in the Cloud Palace with a simple mission – find all the petrified people and restore their human forms. To accomplish this, she must perform a bunch of very simple platforming, jumping between the different areas of the (very lightly) maze-like castle and using her wand to set people free and destroying stone blocks that obstruct her path. By combining up or down on the d-pad with attack, you can swing the wand in a low sweep or an uppercut, which is handy for reaching awkwardly-placed blocks.


There are a few enemies knocking about, too. They can also be dispatched with a solid wand-whacking. Presumably they’re the minions of Wenlock, although they don’t seem much concerned about stopping Annika. Mostly they’re just there, and when you take damage from them ninety percent of the time it’ll be because you couldn’t see them before you jumped onto the screen. On the plus side, and admittedly this is the most tenuous of connections, fighting ravens in a castle hallway filled with diagonal staircases and floating platforms gives BatMoP a very slight tinge of the Castlevanias.


There’s not much else to say about the gameplay – hop, wander around, half-heartedly bat aside critters with your wand – until you reach the end of the Cloud Palace’s first stage (of three). There you find a new power for your wand: the “twirl” power, which works as a high-jump with the wand dragging Annika behind it as it soars into the sky. You switch between the two functions of the wand by pressing the R button, and spoilers – this will cause problems later on. For now, though, the twirl power is a welcome addition that provides some variety to the slow-paced platforming.


This being a giant castle, naturally there are secret rooms. If you can find both the key – one of the petrified people always has it – and the door, you can enter the secret room and play a very short block-clearing challenge to unlock a new costume for Annika. So, it’s a secret closet, then? It’s a nice enough addition I suppose, and it’d be weird to have a Barbie game that didn’t involve dressing up at some point. Go on, then, let’s have a look at Annika’s new clothes.


Well, they’re definitely very Barbie.
As I mentioned, there are three stages in each “world,” and while the Cloud Palace does become slightly more complex as you progress it obviously never gets too ambitious. Of course it doesn’t, this is a game designed for young children, and about the most complex part of the Cloud Palace are the moving platforms that travel along clearly-defined pathways. Still, what’s there isn’t bad. Annika controls well, with consistent jumping and sharp hitboxes, and while the stages are somewhat maze-like to facilitate the “hunt for statue people” gameplay they’re never too frustrating in their layouts and you get a counter at the bottom-left that tells you how many people are left to find.


At the end of the Cloud Palace, Wenlock shows up for a boss battle. This really isn’t helping on your quest for matrimony, man. Can’t you just live the life of a regular evil wizard, sitting alone in your mountaintop castle, spending vast sums of money on elaborate candle set-up and binding books in human skin, rather than making me participate in a frankly rather dull boss battle? To win, you use the twirl power to climb on top of the chandelier, which then falls down, hopefully on Wenlock’s head. Do this three times and you’ve won. Wenlock survives, despite having a huge chandelier dropped on his head three times. I suppose I’d better chase after him, then.


These between-worlds flying stages are where you really see the benefit of being on good terms with a pegasus. Sure, you have to overcome the awkwardness of, ahem, mounting your sister, but once you do you can fly around by tapping the jump button to gain altitude, bouncing on top of clouds to reveal the coins they’re hiding. Collect ten coins and win a special prize, namely an extra heart for your life meter and a still from the movie that’s so heavily compressed it might as well be composed of Stickle Bricks.
There’s a flying stage between each of the worlds, all with the goal of collecting ten coins, sometimes by flying through rings or just flying into floating, unobscured coins. It’s a decent change of pace, I suppose, and the developers had to get the pegasus involved in the game somehow.


It’s on to the snowy village for the next world, and already BatMoP has settled into a fixed routine. Find all the villagers in the three stages of each world, collect a new power for the wand and a new costume, beat the boss and ride your sister to the next world.


In this case, the new wand power is a variation on the twirl that carries Annika a longer distance horizontally rather than vertically, and the new costume is the same as the last costume, only green. Turquoise, maybe. Personally, I was hoping for a scarf and mittens. Something seasonally appropriate, you know.
The snowy village is a much more open and expansive place than the Cloud Palace, but fortunately the developers didn’t go too mad when they were hiding the villagers. Normally I’m really not fond of games where you have to collect every single example of something, especially when there’s no indication of where those items might be,  but as long as you remember to look on top of houses you shouldn’t have much trouble finding everyone. It definitely feels like WayForward found a decent balance for younger players, with the statues placed in locations that require some exploration but which are unlikely to become frustrating (partly because the stages aren’t all that big).


The boss battle is against Wenlock’s griffon, which I had trouble getting a decent screenshot of because it spends most of the fight flying around off the top of the screen. The trick here is that you have to bait the griffon into slamming beak-first into the wooden bridges along the path, a la the final fight in Super Mario Bros. 3, and it’s not difficult when you can twirl horizontally to get out of the way. BatMoP makes damn sure that you’re going to do the boss fights correctly – not only does it tell you exactly what you need to do in order to win, but it even removes superfluous wand powers so you don’t waste time, I dunno, twirling upwards when you should be going sideways.


Next up is the Forbidden Forest – although sadly not the fascinatingly bizarre Commodore 64 game of the same name – and Annika’s wand now has the power to turn animals into “plants.” “Plants” is a very loose description for this wand power, and while some enemies like the dangling spiders are transformed into flowers, take a look at the platform Annika is riding. That used to be a small griffon, but our heroine has transmogrified it into a flying log. The log still has a griffon’s face, which raises some disturbing questions about how much sentience remains in the newly-timbered creature.


The main use of Annika’s new flower power is curing goblinism. Some of the people have been turned into goblins, like the one over on the right. He kinda reminds me of the shopkeepers from the excellent SNES adventure Demon’s Crest, but I digress. You’ve got to hit them with the flower wand, which somehow doesn’t turn them into a plant, but rather back into statue that can then be destroyed. It might seem like an unnecessarily complicated extra step in Wenlock’s plan for him to turn these statues into Shrek’s distant relatives, but I’m glad he did – the goblins make grunting noises, so they’re much easier to track down than the other statues.


What else is new in the forest world? Well, there are a lot of tall trees to climb using mushroom platforms, and the flower wand can transform certain plants into springboards for rapid ascents. Unfortunately, they are some of the worst, jankiest springboards I have ever had the displeasure of interacting with in a videogame. When you stand on one, Annika is fired into the air in such a juddering, awkward manner that they feel more like teleporters with severe mechanical defects than springboards, with the “camera” struggling to keep up as Annika moves from one point to another, higher point with no animation or movement in between. They genuinely feel broken, as though someone completely forgot to test them during the game’s QA phase, and it’s especially weird because the rest of the game is technically very competent.
Aside from those things and the new goblin-fixing portions of the gameplay, there are a few new creatures out for your blood. Spiders, mostly. I must admit, it feels a bit strange to be playing as a character that for all intents and purposes is a Disney princess who travels through the forest battering woodland creatures with a stick.


The boss of the woods is Ollie the Giant, and he lives up to his name. By being a giant, I mean, it’s not like he’s kicking out rad skateboard tricks. Ollie’s got a big ol’ sprite, and I’ll say this for Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus – it looks good. Nice sprites that are really well animated and backgrounds that aren’t quite as good but certainly aren’t bad and do their job well without being cluttered and confusing. WayForward definitely went the extra mile on the graphics. I’m getting a bit of a She-Ra vibe from it, which is fine by me. I used to love She-Ra as a kid, which is not something you could really admit as a young male child in the late eighties. But it was basically more He-Man (which I was obsessed with) and it had Hordak in it, so I was bound to love it.
Oh, right, the boss battle. Mini-griffons fly in, you use the flower power to turn them into logs, the giant trips over the logs and hurts himself. I felt kinda bad for the big dope, honestly. He’s just out there in the woods, living his life, until some princess turns out and starts giving him stubbed toes for no adequately explained reason.


The final world takes place in some ice caverns, and fortuitously there’s a power-up for the wand in here that allows Annika to melt ice blocks. Guess what you’re going to be spending most of the stage doing? That’s right, sliding around on slippery floors. Okay, they’re not too bad, because you can use the horizontal twirl to float over most of them.


We’re nearly at the end of the game now, and you know what? On the whole Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus isn’t bad at all. It’s solidly built for the most part, it tries its best to include new features with each stage and I’d say that as a game for young kids it pitches itself at just the right level of complexity. It never gets difficult, per se, but there are some sections that the little ‘uns will have to think about in order to clear, and it never feels patronising or lazily slapped together as so many kid’s games do. There was definitely a fair amount of effort expended on this game, and while you and I are unlikely to be captivated by it I don’t think very small children would have felt cheated had they spent their precious pocket money on it.


It still has its problems, though. There are a few too many blind drops for my liking – in the screenshot above there’s a pool of health-draining water just below the bottom of the screen, and there’s no way to pan the camera down. There were several times when I had to guess that I should be using the horizontal twirl power rather than just jumping, and as I said earlier most of the damage I took from monsters was because I couldn’t see the bloody things before jumping off a platform.
However, the one issue with BatMoP that really set my teeth on edge was cycling through your wand powers. It’s fine early in the game when you only have two or three, but when you’re in the last stage and you have to press R five times to reach the fire power, melt a few ice cubes, switch to the regular wand to free a statue and then cycle back around to the fire power seconds later, it gets frustrating. Any time a monster that I could see damaged me, it was because I had the wrong wand power selected and I couldn’t switch back fast enough – an issue aggravated by the inconsistency of the wand’s powers. The twirling powers will destroy regular blocks but can’t harm enemies, and for some reason the flame wand doesn’t damage enemies either. It’s a real pain in the arse, and what makes it worse is that this situation could have been hugely mitigated simply by having the unused L button let you cycle backwards through your powers. Isn’t this really just an annoying but relatively minor foible? Yes, absolutely. Did it make me emit a near-constant groaning sound during the final stages? Also yes.


There’s a one-off stage right at the end where Annika is chased by a rolling snowball and has to melt the ice barriers that block her path before she’s squashed. It’s pleasant enough, although it’s really only notable for Wenlock turning up just before Annika drops into the icy chute and making a terrible “she’s falling for me” pun.


At last, it’s the final encounter with Wenlock. It’s an odd one, because Annika has already totally foiled Wenlock’s evil schemes. All the people have been freed from the statue curse and it was mentioned right at the start of the game that Annika could easily change her sister from a pegasus back into a human but she didn’t because having a winged horse was super useful. I can’t imagine she’s about to straight-up murder Wenlock, though, so this fight must just be about teaching him a lesson.
It’s a two-part fight. The first part is the same as the chandelier-dropping battle from the first stage, except now there are two chandeliers.


The second half is a three-card monte deal, where Wenlock makes three statue clones of himself and you have to keep an eye on where the real Wenlock is before bashing him with your wand. If you can manage to do that three times – and trust me, you really can, I believe in you – then the game is over and Annika can get back to her opulent lifestyle of leisure and carefree whimsy.


Wenlock finally gets the hint that Annika doesn’t want to marry him. I imagine he’s off to post a lengthy rant on some internet forum about how females don’t appreciate nice guys.


Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus ends as it began: with Annika celebrating her birthday. After she’s turned her sister back into a human, of course. Everyone wants to be the centre of attention at their own birthday party but that ain’t gonna happen if one of the guests is a flying horse.


Well, that was something of a relief, huh? A Barbie game that not only wasn’t terrible on a gameplay level but managed to avoid feeling like a rushed, cynical hack-job. It’s far from perfect, but I think many young Barbie fans would enjoy it without feeling like they’re being patronised, and the graphics are rather nice. Speaking of the graphics, I noticed one Paul Robertson credited for “Character Animation” - that would be the same Paul Robertson who’s a pixel artist famous for his work on (amongst other things) the Scott Pilgrim game, Mercenary Kings and his complex, bonkers promos for Adult Swim. No wonder the game looks nice.
I’m not sure why they called it “the Magic of Pegasus”, mind you. It was Wenlock and Annika who did all the magic. Maybe if the pegasus had a routine where it caught a bullet in its teeth, I could accept that title. I’d have given the game an extra gold star, that’s for sure.

15/06/2017

GOLDEN AXE (ARCADE)

Hone your blade, strap on your battle bikini and, I dunno, prepare to ponder the riddle of steel – it’s time to slap some skeletons and snake-men with Sega’s 1989 arcade classic Golden Axe!


That’s right, it’s the Conan-inspired barbarian beat-em-up we all know and love… except I don’t know it that well. Of the Golden Axe games that are traditional side-scrolling brawlers, this is the one I’ve played the least – although Golden Axe 2 is so similar I’m sure I won’t have any trouble figuring it out.
Hopefully I’ll enjoy it as much as I do Golden Axe 2. Whenever I cover a game that has achieved some degree of consensus as a “classic,” I’m always a little worried it’s going to turn out to not be very good. Happily, this is rarely the case, and most classic games I’ve covered have held up very well indeed – which I suppose is why they’re considered classics. Before we get into the game itself, though, let’s meet the ragtag group of heroes who have risen up to protect the land from evil.


Ax Equals Battler? What is this, a maths test? No, thank god, Sega just went with the design decision of putting an equals sign between everyone’s name in Golden Axe. I have no idea why. Flair, I suppose. Ax Battler is an underpants-clad barbarian, and the first thing you might notice about him (besides the pants) is that he fights with a sword, not an axe. Presumably this is an act of rebellion against the parents who named him “Ax,” thus forcing him into a life of adventure and mortal peril. Well, he was never going to be an accountant with a name like “Ax,” was he? Death Adder, the villainous warlord and Golden Axe’s antagonist, killed Ax Battler’s mum, so he’s got a solid motivation for joining the fight.


Next up is the amazon, Tyris Flare. Not wanting to be outdone by Ax Battler, Tyris’ mother and father were killed by Death Adder, giving her twice the impetus for her quest of bloody revenge. Tyris is the more magically-inclined of the three playable characters, plus she’s got a fantastic running kick move that must go down as one of the most satisfying attacks to land in any side-scrolling beat-em-up. Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing might imply her name is pronounced “Tirris,” but she’ll always be “Tie-ris” to me.


Last and by no means least – unless we’re talking purely about height – is Gilius Thunderhead, the axe-wielding dwarf. The titular golden axe, even. Despite it being the title of the game, Golden Axe never actually mentions the weapon for which it is named, so I’m forced to assume Gilius’ weapon is just a regular ol’ axe that he’s spraypainted gold for a little extra pizazz. Gilius Thunderhead’s family name comes from his clan’s love of headbutting people, and his brother was killed by natural causes. No, of course not, it was Death Adder. He doesn’t half get about, that guy.


And here is Death Adder himself. Shadowy helmet that obscures his face, extremely well-armoured shins, prominent codpiece: yes, Death Adder cuts a figure of pure malice whose evil reign must be destroyed. I’ll get right on that, then.


Once you’ve selected your character – I went with Gilius, for no real reason – you’re given a brief introductory scene where a wounded soldier named Alex informs you that Death Adder has kidnapped the regent and the princess. He’s got an appreciation for the classics, has Death Adder. Alex then beseeches you to “revenge them for me,” and of course having played Metal Gear Rising Revengeance I immediately started hearing “Rules of Nature” in my head.


Okay then, time for some fighting. Golden Axe is a side-scrolling beat-em-up, which tells you eighty percent of how the gameplay works. In most other beat-em-ups it’d tell you one hundred percent of how the gameplay works, but Golden Axe has a few unique flourishes. Basic combat is still the same as ever: you’ve got an attack button and a jump button, you can keep tapping attack for a combo of blows, there are jumping attacks, and you can dash by double-tapping the joystick. You can follow up your dashes with a charging attack, which I recommend you do frequently. Not only is a good attack for knocking enemies away and clearing space, as I mentioned earlier it is an intensely satisfying move to pull off thanks to the sense of solidity Sega have managed to capture as you blows thud into the enemies. You’ve also got a special move activated by pressing jump and attack at the same time, naturally, but unlike most brawlers this isn’t a wide-ranging spin attack that costs you some health to perform. Instead, it attacks any enemies directly behind you with a whirling chop (or a rolling stab, in Gilius’ case) and it feels very Double Dragon-y.


The other thing is magic. There’s a reason the genre’s called swords and sorcery, you know? We’ll see some magic spells in a while, but before you can use them you have to fill up your magic bar, which you can see at the top of the screen. To do so, you must collect potions. You probably already know this – it might well be Golden Axe’s most famous feature – but to get potions you have to beat them out of the small blue imps that appear during stages. Don’t hold back, run right up to that imp and give it a hefty kick up the arse. We’re only a couple of screens in and already Golden Axe has given us two wonderfully satisfying types of attack, and clobbering the small, defenceless imps and harvesting their magical juice never gets old. Thanks for turning me into a bully, Golden Axe. I was always told bullies are just cowards, but it turns out sometimes bullying is just fun.


So on we go, chopping down any of Death Adder’s troops that stand in our way, and during these early areas it’s pretty easy going. Gilius’ axe has a wide hitbox and the enemies aren’t that intelligent, as encapsulated by this minion who refuses to stop harassing a poor villager even as a furious dwarf with a huge axe advances on him with murderous intent.


The action takes a different tack with the introduction of rideable dragon-creatures, including the beaked pink thing pictured above. You might recognise them from their appearance as monsters in Altered Beast. They’re called “Chicken Legs,” apparently. If I saw one of those things my first thought would not be “they’ve got legs like chickens,” but hey. Both the player and enemies can ride the dragons, and can be unseated from said dragons with a well-placed attack. The dragons have their own unique attacks – in Chicken Leg’s case, it sweeps in front of it with its tail – and they change up the gameplay considerably. They’re more powerful than your non-dragon attacks, but riding one makes you a bigger, slower target, so it’s easier for enemies to surround you and if you miss with an attack you’re left vulnerable.


Soon after, the game’s first boss battle begins. These two large chaps are called the Bad Bros., presumably because they’re bad at dressing themselves. If I was that tall and I was about to fight a dwarf, I’d make damn sure I wasn’t drawing so much attention to my crotch. The Bad Bros. have a rather simple fighting strategy, which mostly involves trying to get on either side of you and bash your head in with their hammers. Keeping on the move to prevent this from happening is (as it is in almost every other beat-em-up) a good strategy, and you can whittle down their health safely enough if you don’t take too many risks.


Alternatively, you can use Gilius’ magic powers to call down a ferocious barrage of lightning that hits everything on the screen. Erm, including Gilius, by the looks of things. Well, if you are going to summon lightning while carrying a large metal implement this is going to happen. Not to worry, though, Gilius is not harmed by his own magic but the Bad Bros. most certainly are. Not enough to defeat them in one magical attack, sure, but it turns the fight from a long, drawn-out battle into mopping up duty.


Between the main stages, there’s a mini-round of sorts. The imps harass your mighty champion of justice while they’re sleeping, because the imps are apparently intensely stupid. You wake up, see the imps and realise it’s all-you-can-eat at the magic potion buffet, so you slap the imps around to collect a few potions before the next stage starts. In later iterations, there are also green imps that drop health items rather than potions. The health comes in the form of big cartoony slabs on meat on the bone, because this is an arcade beat-em-up from 1989.


You even get a brief interlude showing a map between stages, complete with scrawls and scribbles to show the route our heroes have taken That’s a really nice touch. You can also see that the map says “Sega” on it. This becomes a common theme during the game, as though Sega really wanted to make sure you remember who developed Golden Axe, and their name can be spotted on backgrounds throughout the game. As for me, I guess I’m off to the Turtle Village.


Judging by the very obvious shell around this “island,” I’m going to say that Turtle Village is a very literal name.


As the villagers flee in panic, Ax Battler wades into the fray and immediately boots a lady off a dragon. That sounds like something Conan would do, which is appropriate because Ax Battler is definitely inspired by Conan the Barbarian. The whole game is, obviously, and I think Sega have even admitted as much just in case the story of a brawny barbarian and his companions hacking their way through the minions of a snake-themed villain wasn’t enough to tip you off. There are even some direct references, like Ax Battler’s extremely Conan-esque backwards spinning strike, and some of the enemy death screams being ripped directly from the movie. That’s fine by me, though. I think one of the reasons I like Golden Axe so much is that it is such a Conan rip-off, a hack-and-slash barbarian adventure played straight. Sometimes it’s nice to just be a hulking muscle-man slaughtering his way through a horde of villains with extravagant shoulder-pads. It occurs to me that this might also be why I like Fist of the North Star so much.


Ax Battler climbs aboard a new type of dragon. This one breaths a jet of fire just in front of it. It’s called, erm, “Blue Dragon,” Sega having seemingly expended their dragon-naming talents after the mighty Chicken Leg. That reminds me, I should get something out of the freezer for my dinner. Anyway, this is a good dragon with a powerful attack, so it’s a shame I’m about to lose control of it when the amazon woman currently hurtling towards Ax’s exposed back at one thousand miles an hour makes contact.


Frankly, I should have my dragon license revoked.
There’s not much else to say about the rest of this stage. It’s just good, solid hack-and-slash action, enlivened by the introduction of skeleton warriors. I don’t think I’ve ever not enjoyed fighting a skeleton in a videogame. I even like the Bonewheels in Dark Souls, because dodging past them as they roll towards you like some undead matador is fantastic.


Yes, Turtle Village was on the back of a turtle. Quelle surprise. Forget that, though, and imagine Ax Battler sitting at the camp fire, his tongue sticking out of his mouth as he concentrates really hard on drawing a little picture of the Turtle Village onto the map without smashing his red crayon to pieces in his enormous meaty hands.


On to stage five, which is really stage three because for some reason the imp-kickin’ intermissions are counted as full stages. For the first half of the stage you’re still fighting on the back of the turtle, an area heavily populated by dragons. A little too heavily populated, in fact.  Because it’s often easier to knock enemies off their dragons while you’re on foot, there’s a decent chance you’ll want to spend a fair portion of this stage not riding a dragon… but because you immediately hop on to any vacant dragon when you approach it, if can be difficult to move around without unexpectedly mounting a dragon only to be immediately pummelled by the two enemy dragons.
On the plus side, the red dragons – imaginatively called “Red Dragons” - can shoot a fiery projectile across the screen, a useful skill to have in a beat-em-up.


Here’s the turtle’s head. I think it’s pretty bloody ungrateful to build a jetty directly on top of his bonce after he’s given you his whole shell to work with, people. I was half-expecting the turtle to say “it’s a living” as I leap off his uncomfortable hat and onto solid ground, but the stoic turtle remained silent. That might be because the legs of the jetty have lobotomised him, though.


Waiting in the town beyond is the next boss. His name is Lieutenant Bitter, and he’s the knight with the big shield and a much better understanding of the concept of “armour” than his companions. Bitter’s main shtick, besides the ludicrous range granted to him by his massive sword, is that he’s got a small army of regular minions ready to back him up in the fight. I think such a large number of foes calls for Ax Battler to unleash his magic powers, don’t you?


I suppose to the relatively unadvanced inhabitants of Golden Axe’s world, a nuclear weapon would seem like magic, yes.


Each character actually has multiple levels of power for their magic spell, which is why the power bar at the top is divided into sections. After unleashing Ax’s maximum-power magic, there was a potion kicking around so I got to use a level one attack, too. It summons a rain of small meteors, which is nice for distracting your opponents if nothing else. I feel like the extra magic levels are kinda wasted on me, honestly. I’ve never been able to resist saving up for the biggest magic spell I can, because a) the lower-tier spells don’t do much damage and are useful mostly because they knock enemies down and b) the big spells look cooler.


Moving on to the next stage, and I’ve taken control of Tyris Flare for the remainder of the game. She’s got the biggest magic bar of the lot, and being the game’s female character you’d expect her to be weaker but faster than the others. Well, she isn’t, not really. In fact, magic spells aside there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between the characters, and I certainly didn’t feel like I was having to hit enemies more times with Tyris than I did with Ax Battler or Gilius. On the flip side, it’s not like I managed to dodge more attacks with Tyris either, so swings and roundabouts.


Most of this stage takes place on the rocky back of a huge eagle soaring through the skies. You might wonder how the eagle can fly when some thoughtless bastard has installed a patio on its back, but in this case the answer might literally be “a wizard did it.” More importantly, the majority of enemies in this stage are skeletons who dig themselves out of the “ground” - which means that some slain warriors were buried with their swords and shields atop a colossal eagle. It doesn’t get much more metal than that, folks. Quite how Helloween haven’t written a song about the subject is beyond me.


It’s not just a great eagle, folks. It’s a great, great eagle. And that’s a great drawing of an eagle, Tyris, although if it were me I wouldn’t have been able to resist drawing a bunch of little skeletons on its back.


Having reached the next stage and disembarked the eagle, Tyris is accosted by two Bitters at once. God damn but I do love that flying kick. Anyway, things get pretty difficult at this point. Golden Axe’s only real trick to increase the level of challenge it offers is to throw more enemies at you. This is especially noticeable when you’re forced the two Bitters on a narrow pathway, their long, pink weapons with bulbous tips battering you from either side. If I wasn’t scrabbling around for potions so I could see Tyris’ fully-powered magic attack, I would have rained fire upon them both: as it was, I had to resort to running away and repeated dash-kicks.


After that, it’s time for the final confrontation with Death Adder himself. He starts off as a mound of dead bodies, before multitudinous snakes slither into the corpse-pile and form themselves into the hulking form of the Death Adder we all know and love. It’s a fantastic introduction and manages to even out-metal the flying eagle graveyard, but it could have been better. For starters, it’s difficult to take in the full majesty of Death Adder’s introduction when you’re having your head bashed in by more powerful versions of the Bad Bros. and their assorted companions. Also, because Death Adder’s still transforming when you get there, the whole scene has the feeling of walking in on someone just as they’re getting out of the shower. The snakes are basically the same as hastily wrapping a towel around your shame, you see.


Mental note: don’t get too close to Death Adder, he did not appreciate my criticism of his introduction.
As you can see, Golden Axe’s final battle is a hectic struggle against overwhelming odds and shoulderpads of all shapes and sizes. Suspended above the battlefield are the prince and princess. I hope for their sake they’re wearing their most fireproof finery.


Was it worth saving up for Tyris’ fully-powered magic attack? It most definitely was. Just look at that thing! The fire-breathing dragon is in the best Sega tradition of dazzling arcade graphics, its fiery breath has laid waste to (most of) my foes and best of all Death Adder was just about to punch me in the head when I unleashed this spell and froze (actually, “froze” might not be the best word choice here) him in place. Job’s a good ‘un.


There is a reason that Death Adder has surrounded himself with so many minions: it’s to disguise the fact that he’s not really much good in a fight. Oh, sure, he’s seen Gilius’ golden axe and thought to himself “pshaw, you call that an axe?” but his axe is no use to him if he can’t hit me with it. If you keep your distance from Death Adder, he resorts to a different move: he punches the floor, sending a shockwave along the ground. The shockwave is easily avoided by walking upwards slightly, which is unfortunate for Death Adder because it takes him ages to stand back up again. Simply walk over to him while he’s recovering from the shockwave, clobber him a few times and then retreat to a safe distance and repeat the process. Of course, this is easier said than done if you’ve got a horde of skeleton warrior interrupting your plans with some impromptu kidney surgery, but once the chaos of the battlefield has died down a little you’ll have Death Adder at your mercy and Golden Axe will soon be over.


Then you get to see the ending, and what a wonderful ending it is too. In a parallel universe, some kids are in an arcade playing “Great Axe” when the villains from Golden Axe jump out of the cabinet and into the “real” world, pursued by Ax, Tyris and Gilius.


There go the villains, pouring onto the streets of an unsuspecting city and embarking on a brutal reign of carnage and terror that lasts about five minutes until the police show up. I don’t care how much shin armour you’re wearing, it’s not going to protect you from a tazer. Sadly you don’t actually get to see the bad guys being zapped and cuffed, but I think it’s fair to assume that’s what happens.


With the sounds of clashing steel and the minions’ “oh goaaahhh!” death-cry still ringing in my ears, Golden Axe draws to a close. What a fun little romp it is! It’s clear why it’s still fondly-remembered today, because it’s a simple-but-effective dose of villain-chopping action with enough interesting twists to the formula in the form of the magic system and the dragons to elevate it above many of its contemporaries. It’s quite a slow, methodical game, but thankfully it’s short enough that it never becomes a slog. My major gripe with it is that it can be a little bland-looking sometimes, with most of the backgrounds being quite sparse and rendered in the same dull, earthy tone, and that’s why I think I prefer Golden Axe 2. The sequel does all the same things as the original, but it’s a bit brighter, a little more visually appealing and it has a better soundtrack. Not that the original Golden Axe’s soundtrack is bad, of course. It’s actually rather good, especially the theme from the first stage.


All in all, it’s another classic that just about deserves the title, even if it isn’t as good as Final Fight. Maybe if Ax Battler got rid of the sword and dished out more spinning piledrivers, I’d revise that opinion. I’d still recommend Golden Axe, though. It’d be difficult not to recommend a game where you can beat up skeletons by knocking them to their knees and then bopping them on the top of their skulls with the pommel of your sword.

VGJUNK Archive

Search This Blog

Followers