Robots! Aliens! Mammoths! Turtles! [Time] Gals!

If we continue with the last blog post’s ‘adorable anime ladies with laser guns’ theme we end up bumping into Taito’s 1985 arcade game Time Gal, or more specifically it’s all-new (and currently Japan only) iOS/Android port.

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Before you run off screaming at the thought of reading any more than you have to about one of those dreaded FMV games let’s squeeze in a little context that’ll hopefully help Time Gal out. We’ll start with the timeframe: This game came out in 1985 – that’s the same year Yie-Ar Kung Fu, Gradius, and Gauntlet hit arcades; and at home Super Mario Bros was a hot new game for that fancy ‘Nintendo Entertainment System’ all the (US) kids were talking about. It’s easy to forget how primitive games looked back then, and by extension just how much of a show-stopper a ‘playable anime’ would have been sitting in an arcade next to Marble Madness and Pac-Land.

There’s also the thorny issue of first times – for most of us our initial experience of this game and titles like it would have been a sub-par home remake, superficially close enough to pass as the arcade experience in your living room yet still lacking that je ne sais quoi that made us long to play these games in the first place, and always released years after the arcade buzz had worn off. It’s fair to say that while a run through ‘real’ Time Gal (i.e. ‘Anything but the Mega CD port’) doesn’t reveal any hidden depths or lost content when compared to its most well-known home release it does at least highlight how much of a difference polish and presentation can make to game: Imagine playing Doom on the SNES and then declaring you couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, or watching this clip of the Game.com port of Resident Evil 2 and wondering why people say the game’s scary – Time Gal may not be affected to quite the same degree as those examples, but in a game that’s all about the graphics it’s fair to say the better Time Gal looks, the better Time Gal feels.

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Which was something of a problem as until just the other week your options for proper Time Gal were the ‘It’s OK, I like eating nothing but packet ramen for the rest of my life’ priced X1, MSX, and Mega LD versions of the game or alternatively the Saturn/PlayStation port that’s falls within the cheaper ‘I wouldn’t pay that much for an FMV game if you put a gun to my head’ price range, which is why this new phone port as part of the ‘Taito Classics’ range has caused such a stir amongst ga… OK, just me and the people I’ve forced my stirrings upon. At just ¥840 and in theoretically infinite supply on two of the most popular and easily accessible formats around the game suddenly has a lot going for it, and it’s short length and simplistic controls go from the issue they were when sitting in front of an expensive console add-on or a Japanese computer to working in its favour on ‘casual’ portable devices. It’s a shame it’s taken thirty-two years for the game to find a comfortable home, but at least we got there in the end.

The good news is it was worth the wait: The video quality is good even if it’s not as crisp as the original laserdisc footage (it’s worth pointing out that it’s close enough I had to go double check video of the arcade version to be certain) and on a device with a 5 inch-ish screen you’d have to be pretty picky to notice the difference. Which you probably are if you’re the sort of person who goes through all the fuss of setting up a Japanese iTunes account just to buy region-locked games and music and then writes a blog post about the game. OK, OK… I mean me. [cough] If you’re not me, and I don’t think you are, you shouldn’t have any bones to pick with the quality of the video here, and Taito were sensible enough to simply have it fill a 4:3 hole in the center of your device and not try to crop or stretch the image to fill the screen.

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Useful extras come in the form of a practise mode that lets you play any stage you’ve already seen in isolation, and if that sounds like too much you work can watch either a perfect run through any stage completed or view all the comedy death scenes you’ve encountered on the way. There’s an options menu too - it isn’t anything exciting but it does have everything you’d expect it to, allowing you to alter number of lives, difficulty, and even switch all in-game text to English.

Sadly even with these added features Time Gal can’t quite escape mobile gaming’s worst feature – the dreaded in-app purchase. Time Gal has two optional extras, a gallery of pre-production artwork (¥480) and a navigation box (¥120) that allows you to see the next input before it comes up, and both fall into an awkward place where they’re nice enough features that you’d like to have them yet unimportant enough that you feel aggrieved at having to cough up the extra cash, and their omission from the base package feels more like content that has been deliberately held back rather than an optional layer of bonus material.

Another minor irritant is the lack of a quick save feature meaning that if you get a call, need to check your email, or just want to take a break from chasing laughing villains across time and space to have a cup of tea all you can do is minimize the app and hope your phone’s kept the game suspended while you do whatever it was that needed doing. A complete play through may only take fifteen to twenty minutes even with mistakes it’s objectively not a huge loss if you do have to start over from the beginning… but the ability to properly suspend/quick save is also not an unusual for a modern mobile game to have and one that’s conspicuous by its absence here.

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If you can tolerate those missteps Time Gal, AKA: ‘The World’s Most Anime QTE Sequence’ is an impressive game stuffed to the gills with character thanks to Toei Animation's excellent work on both Time Gal Reika herself as well as the dinosaurs, planes, skeletons and giant meteors she meets along the way; and Reika’s enthusiasm is enough to jolly the player along even when she’s being repeatedly squished underfoot, electrocuted, or bit on the bottom by something with more teeth than a sack full of hamsters. In an ideal world the game would have received a clean up along the lines of Dragon's Lair HD, but all things considered this is a competent port of an otherwise expensive and hard to get game on a format that compliments the game’s pick-up-and-play style perfectly, and if you have the means to do so I’d recommend picking it up.

Welcome to the world of tomorrow! Galaxy Fraulein Yuna

I’ve written a few love letters before on this blog, although going over these random older posts reveals a rather limited range of games that can be boiled down to little more than hard, weird, and anime Lost Planet 2. Galaxy Fraulein Yuna’s entry into this unesteemed field broadens the net to include ‘Nineties visual novels starring adorable space idol singers’, a somewhat exclusive genre that I feel we can all agree deserves putting on a pedestal for the concept alone.

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It’s clear right from the start of this twenty-five year old game that Hudson/Red Company were keen to show off the love and care they’d lavished on Yuna as players are treated to not only a fully-voiced pre-title sequence but also a post-title song that serves much the same purpose as the plot/character primers found in the intros of certain quality cartoons (not sorry) I used to watch when I was younger. It looks fantastic, gets you up to speed on Yuna’s life so far without bogging the opening act down in avoidable exposition, and perfectly sets the tone of things to come.

Once that visual extravaganza’s out of the way players find themselves thrust into the distant future of 2299; a strange and unknowable land where fan letters arrive on pieces of paper sent through the mail, nobody has a mobile phone, and public libraries are large and well funded. If that’s not outlandish enough there’s also commercial space travel, cute android friends, and black holes that make Yuna and friends look a bit wibbly. Hard sci-fi this isn’t, but Yuna’s view of the 23rd century is pleasant and cohesive; an charming setting where galactic idol singers engage in karaoke battles with their teachers, adversaries self-identify as ‘Frauleins of Darkness’, and being kind and enthusiastic is enough to see the heroes win the day. It’s a huge dollop of well-meaning fun that’s been polished until you can see your face reflected in Yuna’s beaming smile, and the plot moves forward at a fair clip even with multiple planets to visit and a baker’s dozen of opponents to insult into oblivion.

While a fair bit of this brisk pacing is down to the game’s bright-n-breezy style it’s also aided immensely by a streamlined UI that, much like PC-98 adventure Makyouden, flat-out removes all of those overly-specific adventure game commands that aren’t really necessary and as such Yuna’s only methods of interaction are to look, speak, and move. There are occasions when you need to be more specific, but it’s never anything more demanding than ‘Look at the hot dog stand or the couple on the bench’ or ‘Go down the corridor on the left or the right?’ – no pixel hunting, no wondering if you should pull a cupboard or open it, or if you should have used talk/look/look instead of look/look/talk. Another positive is the way the Yuna removes the move command entirely when you start a sequence of events, ensuring you absolutely cannot leave an area until whatever short scenes, from plot-important discoveries to amusing side conversations, are completely done and dusted. The concept of returning to check an area one more time just in case you didn’t correctly finish off a conversation simply doesn’t exist here.

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These small and simple gestures remove most of the usual fears often found within the adventuring genre, which has the knock-on effect of making any optional scenes and one-off choices you can stumble upon feel like enjoyable extras where players have some real influence (however small): Should Yuna wear a cute or sexy costume for the swimsuit competition? Should she enter the middle or side elevators first? There are no wrong choices, ‘bad ends’, or anything important to miss, which means that when a selection of possibilities comes up they feel more like chances to exercise your curiosity instead of irritating distractions trying to obscure the ‘right’ path.

Battles are equally stress-free - if you’re capable of pressing a button on a pad then you’ll definitely win. Strictly speaking you’ve got two different attacks and ‘hurl insults’ as your offensive options as well as the ability to defend, run away, and ‘be sweet’ (recover Fraulein Points) to give battles some tactical depth, but unlike Bubblegum Crash the scraps here are most definitely weighted in your favour – a change of scenery and a bit of excitement, but nothing for you to worry about.

As such your one and only tactic should be to insult Yuna’s opponent until her Fraulein Points run out (mildly bitchy back-and-forths may do a lot of damage but they are rather unladylike after all), try both standard attacks available and note the one that does the most damage, then use that until the other person falls down. Obviously in just about any other genre a system as simplistic as this would be a huge problem, but I feel Yuna gets away with it as these segments are clearly an extension in both tone and execution of the standard adventure gameplay – the game isn’t trying to convince you that there’s a complex fighting mechanic working away in the background, it’s all just for fun.

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If you take a detached and clinical look at it Yuna really isn’t all that special:  The title doesn’t do anything particularly inventive within its genre and the story won’t surprise anyone who’s ever seen a light-hearted OVA from around the same sort of time, but it succeeds because Yuna knew exactly what it wanted to achieve and every effort was then channelled into making the game the best version of itself possible. It’s a cheerful experience that really does feel like an interactive cartoon, a game that won’t leave you feeling enlightened but will leave you smiling. Yuna may not have ended up a merchandising juggernaut like Sakura Taisen or Tokimeki Memorial, but her brief time in the limelight did leave us with an endearing clutch of games that speak to their system’s strengths and remain as enjoyable now as they ever were.

At this point you might be wondering whether to go for the PC Engine original, the Saturn Remix, or the PSP version of Yuna’s adventure; as the game itself is virtually identical between the original and Remix your decision really hinges on whether you prefer the look of the original’s pixel event scenes or the Saturn’s scanned artwork.

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PC Engine: This is obviously where it all began, and boasts crisp pixel art with an impressive amount of unique images and animations, and an awful lot of speech for a game that only occupies a single CD. The HuVideo variant includes the standard game (identical in every way to the regular release) and a second CD containing some digitised illustrations and a sixty second FMV sequence. This version’s nice to have just because you get more Yuna, but it’s a set of extras so bare-boned they didn’t even bother to include a title screen or a menu, just straight into the FMV on boot then once that’s finished you’re immediately kicked over to an extremely grainy art gallery. If you’re holding both in your hands and they’re around the same price then you may as well buy the one with the extra disc, but otherwise you’ll be fine with whichever’s the first one you come across.

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Saturn: Technically superior in every way to the original as events now use scanned images that cover the entire screen – fancy! However the PCE’s pixel art renditions look sharper as they’ve been drawn specifically with the limitations of the hardware in mind while the Saturn images are clearly downgraded scans of traditional art so every scene reminds you that you’re not getting the best version of the image shown, just a pretty good facsimile. There’s no question that short of a Windows 95 port running in glorious 640x480 (a release that sadly only exists within my sweetest dreams) you won’t have played a better-looking version of Yuna before or since, but as we’re now spoiled by phones that can play anything from arcade-quality Time Gal (coming up next!) to online co-op Monster Hunter in 1080p there’s a lingering feeling that the PCE’s pixel art’s aged better.

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PSP: The PSP port is a great value se- [checks current selling price online] ABOUT NINETY SODDING POUNDS THESE DAYS, which is terrible value if you just want to play the PC Engine Yunas but unfortunately still by far the cheapest way to play legendary PC Engine shmup Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire (do ignore those sealed/mint £70-ish Sapphires you’ll find on eBay, they’re all ‘reproductions’). The included bonus art galleries are really very nice (much better quality and different art to the images included on the HuVideo CD) and I’ve never had any issues with Hudson’s PCE-on-PSP emulation, but it’s really not worth seeking out at the current asking price if you’re only interested in playing Yuna.

Overlooked and undersold: Gunners Heaven

No matter how excited you are for a new console from your favourite company there are always a few games released in the launch window that, if you’re honest with yourself, really only exist to tide enthusiastic early adopters over until the real deal comes out: The Saturn’s opening platformer Clockwork Knight would struggle to come out on top in a fight against even the most average of 16-bit equivalents, and for all the fondness I have for Battle Arena Toshinden it can’t honestly compete with the likes of Tekken, Dead or Alive, or even Squaresoft’s Tobal.

Yet for all these early-days missteps Gunners Heaven (Rapid Reload for lucky European players), a total one-off by the team best known for the Wild West[ish] RPG series Wild Arms, somehow avoided falling into this usual rut and instead ended up as something even worse – a perfectly good game that nobody bought.

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Often simply dismissed as ‘the PlayStation game that ripped off Gunstar Heroes’ – a fate somehow avoided by Resident Evil [Alone in the Dark], Star Fox [Galaxy Force II],  and almost every FPS/fighting game released in a post Street Fighter II/Quake world - it is fair to say that Media Vision’s 1995 run-n-gun plays like a love letter to Treasure’s Mega Drive classic, featuring as it does a hyperactive gun-toting duo who can throw enemies about the place and blow up everything else with an assortment of colourful bullets, but the similarities, while obvious, don’t run all that deep. Most importantly Gunners Heaven eschews Treasure’s mix-and-match power up system for a permanent set of four different weapons that can be switched between at will – a standard rapid fire gun, a weak-but-useful homing shot, a powerful-but-limited flame shot and last of all, the not-entirely-sure-what-to-do-with-it rebound shot. To give players some variety playable characters Axel and Ruka each have their own unique takes on these destructive archetypes – Ruka’s homing shot is a free roaming ‘worm’ laser, while Axel’s is a multi-target lightning blast anchored to the end of his gun. To give another example Ruka’s flame shot is a traditional short range flamethrower, whereas Axel’s fires two slow but powerful flame shots right across the screen. Learning to use the right weapon for the right situation is an essential part of making it through to the ending as in some sections you’ll do better by being cautious and focusing more on avoiding incoming shots, while for others it’s best to plough on ahead and never give the enemy the chance to fire at all.

Axel and Ruka’s regular shots can be improved by collecting P chips from defeated enemies for a time-limited boost, or grabbing the rare ultra-strong Boost pickups that let you go really nuts for a short period of time. Unfortunately there’s little tactical thought to this system as you can’t store them for a particular moment or force enemies to produce them the way you can Alien Soldier's health drops; but on the other hand you never need to as while the powered shot is always better the damage dealt by standard weaponry is mercifully a million miles away from being Gradius-like peashooters.

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Gunners Heaven’s not just about rushing forward on the offensive – well… it is but – as you’ve got a small but versatile set of defensive moves too! Crouching and throwing people-sized enemies are the two you’re most likely to do by accident, and on top of that you can also perform a short low slide forwards, or fire off a grappling hook and quickly zip away to safety. There’s not much that feels better in an action game than effortlessly sliding under an incoming Giant Laser of Death to unleash a bomb in a boss’ face or pulling yourself up high and then raining bullets on a horde of enemies below!

You’ve got six stages to unleash your skills and firepower upon, which doesn’t sound like an awful lot until you discover how hard the game can be – even with the Japanese version’s unlimited continues you’re not going to breeze through this one in a lazy weekend. But it’s worth the struggle as the lush graphics remain a fine example of excellent 2D pixel art even all these years later, and whether you’re shooting at robo-dragons in rainy skies or wading through ancient forest rivers battling giant robo-scorpions each stage feels like a visual treat. Gunners Heaven may not feature the most inventive uses of 2D art or push the PlayStation in an obvious way, but there’s never any question that it’s a next generation game (for 1995, anyway) and looking back we’re all better off for Media Vision sticking to doing one particular thing very well rather than falling into the trap of playing with every toy in the PlayStation’s toolbox just because it was there.

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One point that’s often picked up on as a negative, and often mentioned in the same breath as the ‘like Gunstar Heroes’ problem (please add your own airquotes action there) is that Gunners Heaven lacks any sort of cooperative play, just like Alien Soldier, Alisia Dragoon, Shinobi, El Viento, Castlevania:Take Your Pick From Just About All Of Them Bar That Weird One On XBLA, and… you get the idea. Would co-op have been better? Of course! But then again co-op’s always better in my book, and in any case the point I’m trying to make here is that Gunners Heaven isn’t the only 2D action game that could’ve have co-op play, but didn’t.

One point that’s not picked up on because most people don’t get to play Gunners Heaven often enough is that later boss health bars range from ‘too much’ to ‘maybe I should’ve booked a week off work to get through this’, an issue that can definitely take the shine off what was oh-so-nearly a tense and impressive encounter with a screen-sized opponent bristling with exotic death lasers. The good news is that these overly-long tussles usually feature multiple forms with their own unique attack patterns so there’s still a feeling of progression and variety even when things start to drag on a bit too much, but in an ideal world boss HP would have had a good chunk lopped off too.

But that’s really about as harsh as I can be on this action-packed and beautiful game. It’s a lot of fun, tough-but-fair, and offers two extremely likeable and stylish characters to power through the game’s action-packed stages with. As good as Gunstar Heroes? No – but what is? Even Treasure have had trouble making games that could stand up to their previous works, and to base every game’s worth only in comparison to widely recognised and universally accepted classics is more than a little unfair – it’d be like burning every painting that wasn’t on a par with Rembrandt. Gunners Heaven is ‘just’ a generally well made game that’s a lot of fun to play and can be yours for just 617yen if you have access to Japan’s PSN store, or is still cheap enough in physical form to be more than worth ordering from your favourite importer.