Tag Archives: capcom

Then and Now – UN Squadron

23 Feb


This was a special one, to me at least. I only managed to pick a copy up for myself in recent weeks, but UN Squadron was one of my favourite SNES games. I had to spend plenty of time in a friend’s house to play it, but it all seemed worthwhile when I was dropping bombs and blowing stealth fighters out of the sky. The game was fast and tough, but I adored it, from the variety of planes on offer, to the bombing run bonus stages, there was something in UN Squadron that spoke to me. It was a reflex test, bullets filling the screen and enemies on the ground as well as in the sky. After spending the early years of my gaming life playing the similarly themed Harrier Attack on the Amstrad CPC, this was like someone switching the lights on. From the monochromatic to the intensely colourful, the basic to the complex, UN Squadron was like playing something that flew in from the future, a glimpse of what I was missing before I finally owned a Super Nintendo of my own. UN Squadron returned to my life in secondary school, after I turned compute classes into gaming sessions by putting emulators onto the school PCs. A surprise hit, most of my class ended up playing UN Squadron over Mario, Street Fighter and the few other games I downloaded. Yes, this was a special one alright.

The bosses are large and detailed


I hadn’t really considered that UN Squadron could be bad, it’s one of those games that holds an appeal for me that I can never quantify, everyone has a few of these and it’s hard to be critical. I realise however, that I was playing the game in situations where it was guaranteed a level of appreciation it may not garner when played in isolation. In a friend’s house it had the advantage of being one of my few 16-bit experiences before I owned a console with that kind of power. In school it benefitted from a simpler control scheme that suited play from a keyboard, no wonder it beat out Mario for popularity. Extended play could be its downfall, could destroy my love for it. Its times like this I start to question revisiting old games in such a critical manner. I could just boot it up every once in a while and play it for 10 minutes, I’d never know if it might let me down. Of course, once I started playing UN Squadron again, it wasn’t a case of not wanting to stop, more a case of not being able to.

Developed by Capcom for the CPS arcade system originally, UN Squadron was known as Area 88 in Japan, based on a Manga of the same name. It first appeared in arcades in 1989, and made it to the SNES in 1991. With three playable characters, a range of weapons and 10 distinct levels, there was a lot to like about the game, but arcade games can often suffer in conversion to home console, and it was the Mega Drive, Street Fighter the exception, that offered the best home versions of the coin guzzlers. Of course, not every port was a failure, so there seems little point in judging in advance, yet a palpable sense of trepidation took hold when I first picked up the controller and re-enlisted to the squadron.

Bright, colourful graphics help make the game accessible

The first thing that stands out with UN Squadron is the music. After the classic Capcom sound plays (and the mind recalls Street Fighter almost instantaneously) the games music kicks in, and it has the same instant catchiness of the best 16-bit soundtracks. It’s infectious, both setting the scene as you choose a level and aircraft and elevating the spirit, drawing the player into the cartoon-like visuals of the character select screen. The character models are large, anime styled pilots, stereotypical now, but unique then. There’s the floppy haired Shin, the ubiquitous ‘Top Gun’ aping Mickey and the ever-present older man, who’s rugged, has seen it all before and yet still smiles through it all. After that comes the plane selection, limited to a single choice at first, but after playing a few levels and earning cash, the dynamic of choosing aircraft and weapons comes into play. There are various fighters, each more powerful than the last, and with every enemy shot down more money is earned, with which to buy more powerful craft. The special weapons though, also command your coin, and finding a balance between a better plane and the bombs, napalm, shells and missiles needed to complete a stage without losing a life adds a welcome element of strategy which, while shallow, gives Squadron a unique selling point other side scrollers lack.

Of course, gameplay is what matters, and all the money earning and weapon buying becomes a cheap gimmick if the actual meat of the game can’t provide a worthwhile experience. It becomes almost immediately apparent that this won’t be an easy game. After a first wave of harmless helicopters, suddenly tanks and anti-aircraft guns are littering the sky with flashing balls of death, as the same helicopters fly suicidally towards you. This isn’t quite bullet hell, but it’s not far off at times, and when, after exhausting a life or two making your plane that little bit more powerful (power ups are not lost after loss of a life, rather your plane gains levels of experience) and buying some extra special weapons, the first boss fills the screen and promptly knocks you out of the sky. One continue lost, and back to the drawing board. With only three continues available to finish the game, this is a massive challenge, ten levels deep. What keeps UN Squadron’s appeal though, is not the weapon and plane upgrading, but the fact that, like all the best side scrolling shooters, it’s never cheap.

There's plenty of variation in locales

There is not one death that is unavoidable, when a hit is taken, there are so many empty spaces on screen that could have been occupied by the player it seems like the next time will be easy. Often it is, until the next section that knocks you back. With each character offering different abilities, such as less time to recover from a hit, or faster levelling up of weapons, there is a character to suit your play style, and that helps immensely. I immediately chose the character who upgraded the main gun of their plane fastest, and could finish the first level with ease after a little practice. Future levels though made me wish I’d chosen the faster recovery, as I’d suddenly find myself besieged by bullets and enemies. Helpfully, levels can be tackled in different orders, and bonus levels help add to the cash available to get a better plane. This ability to take on a different level makes getting stuck less likely, and keeps things interesting.

With all the additional features UN Squadron brings to 2D shooting, it would be easy to forget the impressive gameplay, were it not so wonderfully crafted. Squadron has the perfect level of challenge, even for a beginner. It never, ever feels impossible, just very, very difficult, and yet each level is incredibly good fun, and with that ability to return after death with a better plane and more weapons, means that no effort is wasted. Without the cheapness of some similar games, which just have far too much going on, UN Squadron still manages to move along at a consistently frantic pace, allowing only just enough time to take a breath before each fresh wave of enemies. It’s relentless and absolutely addictive, just as a good shooter should be. I needn’t have worried about this one, it’s still special.


No More Zombie Games, Please

18 Feb

If the videogames industry is anything to go by, I’m the only person who isn’t sick of zombies. After watching the Dead Island trailer, which seems to be getting a lot of viral hype, I was remarkably underwhelmed. It was dramatic, probably overly so, and interestingly put together, but nothing altogether new. Adding a melodramatic score and the harrowing death of a child did nothing to move me. This must be what it’s like to be a Saw fan, sitting at the sixth or seventh movie, popcorn in hand, gleefully awaiting another grisly death in the hopes that my bloodlust is ignited. Dead Island just held no appeal. The apparent depth on offer was just cheaply achieved, with no real weight. I know the same methods are used to sell movies and such, but with zombies in a game, well, it’s just too late for me.

Capcom share much of the blame for the current zombie holocaust affecting videogames. Resident Evil was the first game to offer that horror movie experience, and did so very well indeed. By the time Dead Rising appeared the potential for zombies had been realised, they are easy to kill. Shambling around the screen slowly, human yet inhuman, mowing them down (literally with a lawnmower) en masse had a certain appeal, and I don’t criticise Capcom too much, because they have at least attempted to innovate, even moving away from zombies to slightly more human foes in Resident Evil 4. The villains of the piece, as usual, are Activision. Nazi Zombies gave gamers with little imagination just what they wanted, cheap, repetitive gameplay with a zombie twist. Plus they’re Nazis, all bases are covered. This has led to more zombie antics in the latest Call of Duty and a mission pack for the otherwise thoughtful and occasionally poignant Red Dead Redemption. Everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon, yet no one wants to do anything all that interesting with the undead.

Zombie game law #17 - Must have the word 'Dead' in the title

I may be a little harsh in making this assumption, but part of the reason zombies seem popular with developers, rather than gamers, is that they take the effort out of programming. There’s no need to give them any proper AI, they just shamble about, or move toward the protagonist. They can all look similar too, no need for much variety in enemy when they’re all grey, bloodied corpses. Left4Dead at least took a unique slant, giving some ‘personalities’ but they were simple in terms of actions. Humans attempt to use tactics, change approaches and may require complex interactions. Zombies are a facile way for developers to add mission packs and little more. It’s lucky really, that gamers seem so obsessed with the groaning hordes. There’s also the reliance on cheap shocks and gore, which are ever popular. Games seem to have, for the most part, missed the point of zombies in terms of storytelling.

Humans are interesting, there will never be a shortage of things to say about humans. We’re multi-faceted, with emotional depth. Games, movies and literature tell us about ourselves because we have personalities, and we can identify with characters. Zombies in media exist to facilitate the stories of people and society. George Romero understood this more than anyone. Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead brought zombies to popularity in cinema, both of which dealt with social issues through the medium of horror. The former dealt with racism, particularly in its poignant closing scene, and the latter consumerism. The zombies were there to illustrate and explore aspects of humanity, rather than cheaply frighten. The tension was created by adding depth to the characters in ways Frank West in a dress could never have. Even Resident Evil knew this. The first two games were about the folly of man, the greed of large corporations and the lust for power of Wesker leading to an interesting plot twist.

Why are there always cornfields?

In their desire to appeal to the zeitgeist, developers have entirely missed the point with zombies, they have attempted to make them the focus, rather than looking at the humans involved. While comic book ‘The Walking Dead’ garners praise for its use of a tired concept in interesting ways, games fail to offer any compelling reason to keep playing the same thing. Games do have a certain amount of leeway to just create a fun experience, but Left4Dead and Dead Rising have covered that already. The subject material just isn’t interesting anymore. It could be if someone tries to tell a compelling story that just happens to involve zombies, and Dead Island may do just that. From what the trailer told me though, it’s just another zombie game, with the same old mechanics. The only difference is some schmaltzy emotional rubbish about a family, or some such nonsense.

Looking at gameplay screenshots only exacerbates my fears for the game, the ‘tank’ enemy of Left4Dead returns, but in a straitjacket. This is a game about survival on an island that wouldn’t have guns and the like. It wants to be taken seriously, but what tropical resort has a local mental asylum? Taking liberties with realism is fine, but not when you’re asking for an emotional response as that trailer does. That requires a certain level of consistency. Zombies can be interesting, and zombies can be part of a great story, but not unless the human element is the focus. Nazi Zombies may have been a fun diversion, but now developers seem more and more willing to structure an entire game around what is little more than a gimmick, no amount of overwrought drama playing out in slow motion and in reverse will make it worth playing.

The Five Worst Movies Based On Games

25 Jan

I may not be a classical hero, but I can say with more than a little confidence that a special corner of the underworld is reserved for those in the movie industry who decide games should be turned into the most hideous and insulting of cinematic creations. There may be the occasional film related to games that actually deserves to be watched, such as ‘The King of Kong’ or… well it’s not exactly the most artistic of genres. With that in mind, I’m going to try to choose the worst five. I have friends who know film, but who, like me, are entirely willing to forgo our intelligence, values and tastes to watch the latest Resident Evil, or sit through another abomination directed by Uwe Boll, so I can claim a small level of expertise in the field. Before we go any furhter, honourable mention to a few who just weren’t quite awful enough to make the list (or in the case of DOA, that I forgot about until I was finished)
Resident Evil: Extinction, Dead or Alive, Silent Hill, Wing Commander, Hitman, Max Payne and Prince of Persia. Yes, they are mostly awful, but that’s only a taste of the horrors ahead. It’s about to get a lot worse.

At number five, we find that most hideous of creations, the ‘good’ game movie. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’ had an enormous budget, was marketed heavily, and had the backing of one of the few mainstream publishers of games who focus heavily on story. Why it became so unwatchable is beyond me. Credit where it’s due, the effects are phenomenal. This looks better than CG movies do now, but with a loyal fan base rabidly expecting a strong plot and great performances from the voice actors, it should come as some surprise that the movie was a confused mess of incoherent plot. Of course, for those of us initiated to Squaresoft, this came as no surprise. Production values through the roof, marketing which promised a true epic… Final Fantasy VIII anyone? What we got, after so much to look forward to, was a story which was excruciatingly dull. But it looked pretty, so pretty.

Thankfully, most game movies are well aware that they’re bad. They don’t pretend, they don’t try to be clever, they just give gamers what they love in movie form. What’s not to like? Well, frankly, a lot. Doom took one of gaming’s most beloved franchises and assumed this would be enough to make a successful movie. Quick pop quiz – What is Doom’s plot? Even if you know that it’s about space marines stranded on a planet full of hostile creatures from Hell (or something), it hardly screams ‘Oscar nomination’ does it? Featuring a particularly wooden performance from The Rock, who actually salvages some credibility with a fun, WWE-esque heel turn, (um, spoiler) the movie is an abomination. The plot is actually quite close to the game, which hardly helps matters, and the performances are so poor they make Steven Seagal look like Sidney Poitier. Close your eyes during the first person ‘nod’ to the source material, or you may suffer motion sickness. I’m not kidding.

Kylie Minogue, Jean Claude Van Damme, Raul Julia… yes, that’s right, people you may have heard of. (If you haven’t heard of Raul Julia, shame on you.) And yes, I’m talking about Street Fighter: The Movie. You’ve seen it, I know you have. No gamer hasn’t, and no gamer doesn’t regret it. Ok, it has a certain appeal that increases after a few beers and an inventive drinking game, but this is still a hideous effort at creating a movie based on a game. Featuring most of the classic characters in bit part roles, we follow Guile (Van Damme) as he tries to stop the evil M. Bison. (Julia) This involves a battle between the U.N. and Shadaloo, E Honda as a cameraman, Dee Jay as an I.T. worker in Shadaloo HQ and Cammy as Kylie Minogue. No, I don’t know what’s going on either. At least the screenwriters here tried to create a plot (unlike the Neanderthals who worked on Doom) but what they created made little to no sense, and all attempts to include as many characters as possible seemed to just exacerbate how poor each interpretation of said character was. Re-imaginings of classic characters don’t get worse than this…

OH WAIT! Super Mario Bros. Yes, the lovable plumber’s pipe-diving adventures were considered plot-heavy enough for a movie adaptation. Of course, the imaginative and interesting world of Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom isn’t Hollywood ready. It needed some grit, some edge, some more moronic buzz-words. So it got a makeover, a darker, more mature one. With Goombas now 7-foot tall beefcakes with pinheads, Yoshi a velociraptor and Dennis Hopper as ‘King Koopa’ phoning in one of the worst performances of his career, this could only be awful, and awful it was. Bob Hoskins, another credible actor, sells his soul for the attempt to flush his career away as Mario, while John Leguizamo finds as many ways as possible to make the audience cringe as Luigi. Somehow all the Koopas are gangsters in an alternate universe that looks like the set designers drunkenly recreated Total Recall’s Mars. How this film ever made it past so many executives, producers, editors and actual talented actors without being canned is a testament to the folly of man more damning than any act of evil I can think of*.

Coming in at number one, with a bullet (I can hope) is not one movie, but a man. A man who has sullied the name of many a beloved franchise, who has done more to upset gamers than the Australian government’s policy on censorship. (Presumably) Well actually, that’s kind of unfair, because House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark and Bloodrayne are hardly ‘beloved franchises’ but he still butchers them with aplomb. Let’s start with Alone in the Dark, which stars ‘ham for hire’ Christian Slater in what is easily the worst performance of his career, and that’s saying something. Slater veers between overacting and barely being awake, and his co-stars are far worse. They fight monsters, and supermen, and monsters and eventually he sleeps with the female lead in the kind of love scene that makes you wonder if Slater has ever actually seen a woman. So, awful then. House of the Dead is horrible too, but for different reasons. It starts off similarly to most generic horror movies, but suddenly angry and confused zombies in Halloween outfits are running around like headless chickens. The scenes are shot in a way that I’m sure Boll thought would make the viewer disoriented and afraid, but it just makes one confused and upset. Unfortunately I’m yet to subject myself to Postal, Bloodrayne, Bloodrayne 2, Bloodrayne (not joking here) 3, Far Cry, Rampage or any of Boll’s other works. Boll is so unpopular, and his critics so vocal, that he felt the need to challenge some of them to a boxing match (see main image for proof). In true moronic schoolyard bully fashion, Boll failed to reveal his semi-professional ability and he unfortunately got to cause some pain to the critics who stung him with words. An online petition even exists to try force him to retire. He’s been panned across the board, his films are considered some of the worst of all time, yet the fact I’ve seen two of them, one on non-satellite television no less, really speaks for his audience. We gamers are not a discriminating bunch.

*(Dramatisation – may not have happened)