Thursday, September 27, 2012

Gaia Seed

 Being one of the Playstation’s rarest import shooters Gaia Seed has always been tantalisingly out of reach of most people such as me. As of writing the cheapest copy on eBay is currently $159. Thanks to the advent of digital distribution it can thankfully be picked up for cheap on PSN. Monkeypaw games even brought the game to the US and EU so there’s no need to mess about setting up a Japanese account and paying a premium for Japanese PSN cards. I was looking forward to playing this game. It’s always good to play an old-school hori shooter in a similar mould to R-type or Gradius since I’m not a fan of the bullet hell genre. Unfortunately the steep price of the physical release doesn’t reflect the quality of the game.

Gaia Seed isn’t very complex. There are only two weapons to choose from, a spread weapon and a more powerful laser weapon. The two varieties of sub-weapon similarly lack excitement, both are slow moving projectiles and depending on what item you pick up you can trade power for spread. What is different about this game is the shield gauge. Gaia Seed is very lenient in comparison to other games in the genre. You can take multiple hits, only losing a life if your shield gauge is depleted. Your shield gauge will regenerate over time meaning it’s possible to come back from near death experiences. Unfortunately this makes the game very easy to complete. I’m no expert at shooter games but I managed to beat it on my first go with no continues. There’s also a super weapon that once used recharges over time in a similar manner to the shield bar.

 Graphically the game seems a bit cheap. Games like Symphony of the Night, Gradius Gaiden, etc., have shown that the Playstation is no slouch in the 2D department. Gaia Seed rarely displays anything that would trouble a SNES. There’s a smattering of mode 7 type effects and the game throws around a decent amount of objects, particularly the opening stage, with no slow down. Many times the visuals take a turn for the surreal and trippy. These moments are interspersed with some rather lazy backgrounds that don’t even bother to use parallax scrolling to give them depth. This laziness extends to the level design which rarely gets hectic. There are no standout set pieces and it just feels bland overall. Boss designs are a little bit more interesting but there are a few too many that are non-descript grey ships. There are two ways to beat bosses, let a 2 minute timer run down or shoot them. Whichever way you kill them makes no difference except for the final boss. The only way to see the true ending and get to the real final boss is by running the time down. The one standout in the game is the soundtrack which is a pretty strange mix of genres but suits the strange mood and visuals of the game.

There is a story in Gaia Seed although I’m not sure what it is. It has quite a surreal attract screen which is narrated in hilariously bad ‘Engrish’ by someone that has probably never spoken a word of English in their life. It doesn’t help that he is barely audible. Both endings are narrated by the same guy and I’m still not sure what happened in either of them.

 Gaia Seed is a mediocre game that is totally outclassed by many games in its genre. There are far better shooters on PSN including Gradius Gaiden, Raystorm and Einhander to name three. Its trippy visuals and music never come close to the likes of G Darius, a far superior game to Gaia Seed. I am glad that a PSN release has finally made this game available at an affordable price and I commend Monkeypaw games for releasing it in the West. More of these obscure forgotten games need to get exposure on digital download services and it’s good to see other games like Tomba get the same treatment. For the price I was glad to get to experience it even if it was ultimately disappointing.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles

Castlevania Rondo of Blood was always one of my Holy Grail games. I’m a massive Castlevania fan and being denied the ability to play what many consider to be the best game in the series was maddening. The original was only ever released in Japan and on the PC-Engine CD, an obscure piece of hardware that was never released in Europe. I was pretty excited to find out that the original game was coming to PSP.

This release is a remake of the original game with new 3D graphics replacing the 2D artwork of the original. I’d normally complain about this because the new 3D makeover looks poor in comparison to the original which had some of the best pixel art of the 16-bit generation. However the original Rondo of Blood is included as an unlockable secret as well as the PS1 classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It’s worth mentioning that SotN comes with some improvements in this version, Richter is playable from the start, as is Maria who was cut from the original game and only appeared in the disappointing Saturn port of the game. My one complaint is that these games should have been available from the start and not as unlockables but if you want to unlock them quickly just check a FAQ.

I’ll start with the original Rondo of Blood. It’s one of the all time great 16-bit games. Rondo of Blood is unlike many CD-ROM based games of the time. The extra storage space afforded by the CD-ROM format wasn’t used for grainy FMV cutscenes. Instead the developers choose to pack each level with unique enemies, animations and intricate background details. The sprites and animation are so good that many have been reused in Symphony of the Night and the GBA/DS Castlevania games. There are some cutscenes but they are elaborate fully voiced animations rather than grainy low quality FMV. A special mention must go to the excellent sound effects and especially the music. As per usual for a Castlevania game it delivers some excellent tune, this time streamed in high quality from the CD.

The stages themselves are huge. The majority of stages are filled with secrets and alternative routes. In a way it’s very like Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse where you can take completely different paths through the game. The game lets you revisit stages at will to try and discover secrets and alternative stages, a nice touch that avoids needlessly replaying early stages of the game. There are four maidens hidden in the game that must be found before you can get the real ending which is another reason to explore the game. One of the maidens, Maria, can act as a playable character. She takes more damage than Richter but her animal based attacks are a bit overpowered to compensate. Unlike Super Castlevania IV Richter can only whip in one direction but has moderate control while jumping. It makes the game less frustrating than the NES games but the whip is not so overpowered that subweapons become useless like in Super Castlevania.

Overall Rondo of Blood is one of the best games of the 16-bit era. While I prefer Dracula’s Curse and Super Castlevania IV it’s still one of the very best Castlevania games. It looks gorgeous, level design is superb and there are a huge amount of alternative routes and stages to discover which gives the game replayability that previous linear Castlevania games couldn’t provide. It also has some of the best boss battles of the series.

The main game on Dracula X Chronicles is a remake of Rondo of Blood. While in many ways I feel it’s an excellent remake there is one problem with the game. While Rondo of Blood is one of the best looking games ever made with some of the best pixel art to grace any game the remake uses 3D visuals that are less colourful and dull in comparison. Thankfully it’s not all bad news. The remake adds its own subtle improvements to Rondo of Blood differentiating it from the original and thus making the remake worth playing. Many of the stages have received subtle additions and changes that will surprise veterans of the PC-Engine original. Bosses as well have been tweaked to keep them challenging and fresh. There are some big changes as well. The alternative stage 5 has been completely replaced with a brand new stage. In the original game this stage seemed like a bit of an afterthought and didn’t even have a boss. The new stage is much better with a boss battle that might just be the highlight of the remake. Another new boss has been added just before the final fight with Dracula if you don’t find all the maidens before the end of the game. This one is also great so is worth experiencing. If you do find all the maidens you can skip this boss. However the final fight with Dracula adds new a rock hard third form to the boss battle. Not present in the original.

Usually I’d be against changes being made to the original games vision but in this case since the original game is included I’m much more receptive. The extra bosses are a welcome addition and the new alternative stage 5 is an improvement over the original game. I’d go so far to say that if the remake had the gorgeous 2D art of the original then it would be the better game. One small complaint I have about the original is that the 2D graphics don’t really suit the PSP-1000 screen. Blurring is much more noticeable than in the 3D remake.  I didn’t really play SotN but it’s a nice addition. If you haven’t played Symphony of the Night then it’s a great way to experience it, it really is one of the greatest game ever made. The emulation of Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night isn’t perfect but it’s more than serviceable and if you are a stickler for good emulation then the Virtual console version of Rondo is the one to go for.

Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles is pretty much a must own for Castlevania fans and PSP owners. You can’t go wrong with two of the best games ever made and an excellent remake of Rondo of Blood in the same package.