Retro Corner: Pokémon Snap

Pokémon

Lord knows that the pokémon have been shafted into all kinds of ridiculous spin-offs in their time. That crappy DS launch game where you rubbed Pikachu’s butt to run, that voice-recognition thing that had absolutely no clue what you were saying… there have certainly been some stinkers.

But Pokémon Snap. Pokémon freaking Snap. This little doozy makes us forgive all of the hideous abominations the ‘mon have spawned.

A 1999 N64 release, this was one of the series’ early attempts at this newfangled ‘3D’ thing. But that doesn’t make it a conventional entry by any means. It’s an on-rails photograph ‘em up (because that’s a thing), which is the kind of crazy proposition you have to hear more about.

You play as Todd, a curly-haired little dude who has never appeared in the franchise before, a trainee working for Professor Oak (who most certainly has). He has dispatched you to Pokémon Island, one of the world’s few undisturbed poké-sactuaries. There, you are to document them in their natural habitat, and relay the photographs back to the professor.

You follow a brief course around the area, aiming and shooting as the wild pokémon cavort around you/ignore you entirely/use Explosion and presumably kill themselves. At the end of the stage, you review the snaps you’ve taken and pass the best of them on to Oak to be judged. He scores each on pose, centering within the frame, whether there are others of the same species in the picture, that sort of caper. Perform well enough, and you’ll be authorised to continue to the next area on the island.

Yep, that's a Pikachu riding an Electrode. What of it?
Yep, that’s a Pikachu riding an Electrode. What of it?

The levels are fairly standard: your regular woodland place, cave-y place, volcano-y place, and so forth. Each are populated by the appropriate Pokémon, and fans will love seeing their old favourites in their natural setting. You know, sort of.

Pokémon Snap seems quite a brief, rudimentary game, but there are some hidden depths. Later, the Professor will give you three different items, which allow you to interact with the wildlife rather more. In the very first stage, for instance, there’s a sleeping Snorlax. A photograph is worthless, as you can only see its stomach from that angle; it doesn’t even register as a Snorlax. After you’re given the Poké Flute, you can return and wake it up.

The joy of the game is in replaying levels, and discovering secrets you didn’t know of. Safari Zone-style pokémon food can coax out something that was hiding, and Pester Balls will cause all kinds of reactions. With these, you can return again and again to experiment, and reap the rewards. High scoring photos result if you can capture something special.

When you perfectly time a shot of a band of Pidgey attacking a Meowth with Gust, you appreciate the bizarre majesty that is Pokémon Snap.

“How’s THIS for an Idea for a Game?” #1- The Murderous Monkeys of ‘Ape Escape’

Monkeys

Ah, chimps. We all know how adorable these hairy little buggers are. Monkeys are, of course, undeniably brilliant, but chimps just take the cake. They’re mischievous, intelligent and aren’t averse to playing with themselves in zoos regardless of who’s watching. What’s not to like?

Still, like all cutesy things we love, monkeys have a dark side. We’ve heard horror stories of people falling into baboon enclosures and having their faces chewed on as a low-fat entree, but it gets worse. Apes aren’t above making tiny spacecraft and shooting you with lasers.

We’re not talking Planet of the Apes, although that would have been a fantastic little touch. This is Ape Escape, right here, home of the most sadistic simians you ever saw.

True enough, these little guys weren’t evil to begin with. They were corrupted by their leader, Specter, a performing monkey who happens upon a super-smart helmet made by a local mad scientist. Jamming it on his furry head, he gets all magalomaniacal. Crafting many more helmets for his hairy legions, he send them off into the past and future –the mad scientist also has a time machine, naturally– to shape history to his own design.

Yes, this really is the story of Ape Escape. I’ve no idea where this demented business came from either.

You don't see that every day.
You don’t see that every day.

In this 1999 PlayStation classic, you play as the professor’s young friend Spike. His objective is to follow the marauding monkeys through time and catch them (literally, in a high-tech net), depositing them back in their own time. It’s a rather brilliant platformer, and the first title designed exclusively for the console’s fancy new dual analog controller.

Most importantly, though, it featured a huge library of these dudes. Each had their own personality and stats, and a cheeky personality to boot. Some couldn’t fight back, simply dropping banana skins as they ran from you to make your pursuit more of a pain in the butt. In later levels, which were set in a more futuristic time, they were truly troublesome. They were armed with rifles and other weaponry, and would even pursue you in tanks or aeroplanes. Smarter than the average monkey, for sure.

A certain amount of them were required to complete levels, but each had a further quota of hidden apes. Oftentimes, you’d have to acquire a certain gadget later before returning to the stage in question. When caught, each had their own entry in an album of sorts, which was amusing enough in itself to make your thorough completion worthwhile.

They were real little pests too. At one point, you had to steer a tiny RC car around an elaborate maze to scare the lil’ guy, so he’d flee from his safe area and you could give chase. Ape Escape was brilliantly toontastic, innovative and a little more devious than its adorable facade suggests.

Retro Corner: Gunstar Heroes

Gunstar

Ah, Treasure. You crazy guys, with your legendary reputation for bullet-flailing, toontastic madness. These guys brought us Gunstar Alien Soldier, the lost classic in which a creepy bird-freak in a spacesuit blows up everything ever with absurd weaponry.

In the same vein, we have today’s slice of retro crazy. Feast your eyes on Gunstar Heroes.

This 1993 Mega Drive run and gunner is a game of simple tastes. It likes hordes of marauding enemies, far too many darn explosions, and ridiculous bosses. Naturally, we’d expect nothing less. Let’s take a look.

Gunstar Heroes is the tale of the titular Gunstars: Red, Blue, Yellow and Green. They’re heroic do-gooders of some sort or another, a kind of camp cross between the Power Rangers and the A-Team. When the world (which is to say, a world) is threatened by nefarious forces trying to reawaken a catastrophic power, they’re on the case instantly.

The Japanese and Western releases of the game have dramatically diverging plot lines. For the sake of familiarity, here we’re concerned only with the much-less-demented Western version. The robotic menace Golden Silver was once incarcerated by Professor White, and the gems that powered it scattered. This belligerent bot wanted to suck the planet’s resources dry, which is the kind of behavior that can ruin your whole weekend. Years later, the Empire want to gather the gems and release Golden Silver from its planet on an orbiting moon.

Gunstar Heroes 2

The game’s four main opening levels can be completed in any order, and a gem awaits at the end of each. They are in possession of some fearsome/ridiculous/ridiculously fearsome bosses, of course, so this is quite a challenge right here.

You play as either Gunstar Red or Blue, who play slightly differently. Blue can fire in eight directions, but cannot move while firing. Red, conversely, is more manouverable but less versatile in that sense. It’s standard left-to-right carnage-ery, with the addition of Treasure’s typical customizable weapons. Here, you have two weapon slots, and four varieties of shot to mix and match: Flame, Force, Chaser and Lightning. These have all kinds of effects when paired together (a close-range but deadly flamethrower/blowtorchy thing, a weaker but rapid-firing machine gun and the like), and are a lot of fun to experiment with.

Gunstar Heroes is a cult classic for its perfectly honed genre gameplay, its challenge and its pure imagination. Black’s Dice Maze is perhaps the most brilliantly odd stage a shooter has ever seen. As for the bosses, all you need to know is that this is the home of legendary transforming death-bot Seven Force.

My favourite Mega Drive game by a country mile, and a contender for my most beloved of all time.

The Best Games You’ve Never Heard Of: Unit 13

Games

PS Vita hasn’t been the most stellar of success stories. Much of this is due to a failure to utilize its impressive potential. In the technical stakes, it’s quite the I-think-I-just-wet-myself-a-little powerhouse; in handheld console terms. But what of the most crucial factor, the games themselves?

The portable Uncharted that released with it was a bold effort, and showed that the big PlayStation franchises could translate quite well to the handheld. It’s just a shame that they haven’t been given the chance since.

While the AAA gaming elite haven’t graced the system much, it hasn’t been without quality and impressive games. One of these was slightly-late-for-launch title Unit 13.

This TPS was the last game developed by Zipper Interactive, and a system exclusive. It’s the tale of a man-tastic, studly band of special forces guys (think the helicopter drop-off scene from Predator and you’re just about there), in the fight against international threats.

Well, ‘tale’ may not be the word. There’s very little in the way of plotting to be had here. All you really get is a few lines of dialogue between missions, explaining how you’re shooting right up, where you’re shooting them right up and why you’re shooting them right up. But that’s more than enough to get us into the action.

Unit 13 2

The aforementioned action is very well done. Gameplay is of the SOCOM variety, with particularly cover-heavy combat and objectives to complete. The controls feel spot on, with a few scant touchscreen shortcuts that aren’t intrusive or shoehorned in. It all looks suitably sharp too.

There isn’t a huge crop of missions, but each offer different ‘styles’ which change the way you approach your objectives. The stealthy-stealth mode is much different to the blow-the-hell-out-of-everything-like-Arnold-Schwarzenegger mode (the real names of which elude me). There’s further replay value in leveling up your squad, each of which are better suited to certain styles of play. The frail sniper, the tanky dude, they’re all here.

The primary appeal to Unit 13 is for high score hunters, who will find more points multiplying opportunities than they know what to do with. The game was a great showcase for the Vita’s capabilities in all kinds of ways, from a technical standpoint. Another of these was the community aspect, with scoreboards and such always displayed. If you’re a shooter fan looking for that community sense, and a real challenge, this slightly obscure title is a fine way to go.

The VGamerZ Monster Files: The Koopas

Koopas

Let’s be frank: the underlings of the Mushroom Kingdom are fairly sucktacular. When your enemies consist of Goombas and Koopas, you’re not in any kind of darn trouble at all. You’re hardly in rapper in constant danger of being ‘popped’ in ‘da hood’ territory, right here.

Goombas don’t even have any arms, and they look to be about a foot tall. It’s safe to say you won’t need a bulletproof Popemobile.

Still, let’s curtail this snark, because the Koopas at least can get serious when they want to. The charming turtle dudes go by the rather funky name of Nokonoko in Japan, and are sometimes known as Koopa Troopas (probably because Nintendo’s pun department cannot and will not be stopped). They’re based on the legendary water spirit kappa, and have been lurking about the Mario franchise since 1983.

Sometimes, they even ride Y... wait, what?
Sometimes, they even ride Y… wait, what?

They first appeared in Mario Bros. Here, they weren’t the anthropomorphic boot-wearing funsters they would become, but they’re just about recognisable. You’d bump the platform beneath them to make them retreat into their shells, then proceed to throw them at other enemies/players. The very essence of Koopaness was right there from the start.

Which is just what makes them so terrifying. Hold on to your pants, because turtle terror is coming.

Yep, as we know, Koopas generally just cruise about with a shirt-drooling-simpleton grin on their faces. In more recent games, they even bop along to the tune of the background music. But then you jump on their heads (Mario’s murder methods 101), and the trouble begins. How many of us have inadvertently lost a life when our own thrown shell collides with our faces? All of us, that’s who.

And therein lies the true evil of the Koopas. They shuffle about harmlessly enough, but they know that you can’t resist jumping on their heads and throwing their shells about. An unfortunate ricochet will be your downfall. The sly buggers.

But they’ve also evolved a little beyond this. Look out for Paratroopas, Hammer Bros. and more.

Retro Corner: Resident Evil

Evil

Ah, the Evil that started it all.

Few games have had such a seminal impact on a genre as Resident Evil. These are gaming’s defining moments, the yardsticks by which future releases are compared. In the case, it’s pretty well the source of the zombies that are every-darn-where in games just now. You can hardly turn around for rotting shamblers chewing on your undercrackers, and it’s all thanks to this 1996 classic.

But hey, let’s not hold that against it.

Resident Evil hit the PlayStation eighteen years ago. You’re presumably familiar with the sorry tale of Jill Valetine and Chris Redfield, but here’s a quick recap. The elite S.T.A.R.S team has been dispatched to investigate a series of horrific murders in Raccoon City. Contact with the Bravo team is lost in the Arklay Mountains, which prompts a rescue-the-rescuers effort from Alpha squad.

And so begins that classic romp through the forest we all know so well. There’ll be a dodgy mansion to cruise through, rabid hellhounds gnawing at delicate fleshy bits and Wesker wearing his sunglasses indoors like a foolish fool.

Fans will fondly remember that opening cutscene, and how utterly cheesetastic it was. But somewhere in that big ol’ display of awful, awful acting, survival horror history was being made. Jill, Chris, Barry (with his ever-brilliant ginger beard) and co seek refuge in the Spencer Mansion. Once inside, they discover zombies and all manner of other festering secrets. Betrayal, secret super-villainy, elaborate faked deaths, it’s quite the drama.

Under the bed? That's like SO last century. For today's discerning monster, in the wardrobe is the fashionable place to lurk.
Under the bed? That’s like SO last century. For today’s discerning monster, in the wardrobe is the fashionable place to lurk.

I’m sure I don’t have to go into the gameplay. As either Chris or Jill, you’ll traverse the mansion and piece together its secrets. Through the magic of static camera angles and infamously tanky controls, you explore and take out the fiends that now inhabit the cursed place. It isn’t just combat, either, with a range of different kind of puzzles to tackle; most of which involve some irritating inventory-flailing.

While bumbling around, and enduring cryptically crap clues from your fellows, you piece together the mystery. These strange beasts are the results of unholy experiments by the pharmaceutical company, Umbrella Corporation. That darn T-virus (‘Angry Mutants in a Can!’).

Survival horror as a genre was… severely lacking in 1996. Resident Evil served as the template for ‘doing it right,’ and has brought us almost two decades of bizarre plotlines and fun with zombies since. More recent releases may be more questionable, but that’s a story for another day.

The Best Games You’ve Never Heard of: Dark Spirits

Dark Spirits

Now, it’s safe to say that Nintendo’s Go Series doesn’t have a vast army of rabid fans (forgive me, lone crazy dude who loves them, but we’re hardly talking Call of Duty’s lofty levels of fame right here). This initiative brought a selection of odd little games to the DSi store, across all genres, at a budget price.

As grandma always said, buy cheap, buy twice. Or, you get what you pay for. Whichever. Grandma was a canny ol’ bird, always passing off these well-known cliches as her own work. There’s not much fun to be had in the home, after all. Anywho, she was wrong, because sometimes a remarkable little gem comes along for a great price.

One such instance would be Dark Spirits. It’s a retrotastic scrolling shooter/Castlevania hybrid. Can you argue with that kind of concept? You cannot.

For all intents and purposes, it’s a standard-issue old style blaster. You cruise from left to right, propelling bullet-flavored steely fury at anything and every-darn-thing that crosses your path. The occasional boss lumbers into view, hoping to rearrange your ship into a tiny, shattered heap of twisted metal, blood and bitter tears. You eradicate them too.

But what Dark Spirits does is deftly add a whole bucketful of creepy demon-ness to proceedings. And a unique power-up system. But mostly the macabre weirdery.

Dark Spirits

You take the role of an identikit vampire dude. Flow-y black cape, equally flow-y grey hair, you know the score. As he proceeds through the stage, he’s beset by all kinds of freaky flesh-things. These buggers wouldn’t look out of place in Castlevania. To combat them, you engage the number of odd magical orbs that are orbiting your body. Which is where it gets a little complex.

Enemies will drop pick-ups of different colours, which you must ‘catch’ with one of your own orbs. This will give you a certain kind of shot (weaker rapid fire, more powerful but slow shots and so forth), but only affects the orb that collected it. The same type of pick-up again will level up that particular orb, but it’ll reset any different ones it touches and change them to its own type.

It’s a very novel system, and one sure to elicit howls of rage and/or despair when you slip and reset an orb you’d been working on building up for three levels. It happens.

It happens to me, at any rate.

So, sure, Dark Spirits can be a pain. Nevertheless, it struck a real chord with me for its bold, brash and bizarre presentation, its macabre atmosphere, that compulsive-yet-punishing gameplay and the wonderfully electro soundtrack.

Hey, Drifloon! What’s Your Deal?

Drifloon

As we know, Nintendo isn’t the most hardcore, horrortastic of games companies. Their family friendly, rainbows-puppies-and-gambolling-pink-unicorns outlook is refreshing in a cynical world, but it’s really against the grain.

Of all their exports, the one most of derided for being ‘childish’ is Pokémon. Y’know, toontastic creatures, the adorable little furry yellow rat-thing Pikachu… none of it screams manliness. But even so, Pokémon has a dark side. And it’s darker than a very dark, dark dark thing. With extra darkness sauce and a dark side salad.

Take a look at Drifloon. It’s a harmless, moron-grinning balloon dude. Who’d be afraid of this little bugger? Nobody, that’s who. You could probably give it away at carnivals to pestilential children, who will whine for it and then release the damn thing seconds later and howl as it floats skywards.

Or so you’d think. Then the pokédex comes in, and everything becomes all terrifying and horror-filmy.

Drifloon 2

For the uninitiated, the pokédex gives details on every species of pokémon you’ve caught. Its height, weight, habitat, that sort of business. There’s also an outlandish and ridiculous fact about them, something like Magmar’s core temperature being 8 billion degrees or some dumbassery like that.

The ability to melt your face right off from a whole continent away notwithstanding, let’s look at little closer. At Drifloon’s creeptastic pokédex entries through the generations, more specifically.

This thing is known as The Signpost for Wandering Spirits. It lures children to take hold of it, and they then mysteriously disappear. I don’t want to dwell upon the whys and then-whats of this, so let’s just file it into the drawer marked what the hell. Ghosts in the Pokémon world are mean, as we’ll see later.

The VgamerZ Monster Files: The Zombies (Plants vs Zombies)

Plants

Yes indeed. These moldy buggers have been de rigueur in games for some time now. Hardly worthy of a place in the hall of fame that is the VgamerZ Monster Files, you’d think. And you’d (generally) be right, if a little cynical. In this instance, though, we’re going to have to make an exception.

The undead of Plants vs Zombies are different. They’re adorably toontastic, they have a zombie yeti in their ranks, and some of them can bungee jump. Some of them wear some rather spangly suits, like the fashion gurus they are. In short, these guys are just far too cool. This is zombies as they should be done, right here.

Presumably, you’re familiar with the game. PopCap’s 2009 tower defense title was a real phenomenon, for dedicated gamers and dabblers alike. It all came from one brilliantly nutty concept: what’s the most ridiculous way to repel an encroaching horde of zombies? By throwing your angry anthropomorphic plants at them. Obviously.

These guys are you last line of defense, and the only thing that stands between the horde and your sweet, sweet juicy brain-juice. Fortuitously, they’re more than up to the job. You place plants of various sorts into any spare square on the lawn, and they’ll (generally) fire projectiles at the shamblers. It must have been a riot to come up with the 50+ type of vicious vegetable, which vaguely pertain to their real-life counterparts.

Plants vs Zombies 2

The squash, for instance, is a a chunky, grumpy looking dude, which will leap into the air and ‘squash’ opponents that blunder into its range. The peashooter, meanwhile, is a little turret that shoots peas. You get the idea.

But the real stars of the show are the zombies. When you see the flag zombie that leads the charge during the final waves, you KNOW something is about to hit the fan. There’s a great balance about the plants and zombies, with each new variant of opponent comes a warrior of your own to counter it. The miner zombie is immune to most of your attackers, as it tunnels beneath them first and eats its way through your ranks from behind. Just as he appears, though, you’re given access to a special mutant peashooter which can fire in both directions.

It’s precisely this aspect that makes the game’s undead so memorable. The guys in the football gear, the bobsleigh team, the dancing Michael Jackson-alike who was hastily changed to generic-disco-dude-with-afro… Best. Zombies. Ever.

The VGamerZ Monster Files: Mewtwo

Mewtwo

GAH! Hold on to your underpants and lock grandma in the closet (for her own protection, naturally), it’s Mewtwo!

Anybody who vainly endeavored to catch this bugger back in 1998 knows what a fiend Mewtwo is. Your buddy Brian lied and told you that hammering the Up and A buttons helped, but it didn’t. It didn’t. What the hell, Brian? It was a long ol’ slog to catch this thing, which cemented its position as the ultimate Pokémon.

This mutated monstrosity was the result of –once again– scientists playing around with things that should really be left darn well alone. In this instance, experiments with the DNA of Mew. Now, ‘horrific gene splicing’ isn’t a phrase you’ll find in many of Nintendo’s family friendly games, so you know the brown stuff has hit the fan right here.

The result was a terrifying, remorseless feline death machine of deathly death. With death on.

In the original Red and Blue games, it could be encountered only after defeating the Elite Four. This would allow you access to the cave it resides in, where you’d have quite the fight on your hands. This guy had Master Ball written all over it, what with its high level and steadfast insistence on breaking out of every other darn kind. That Recover spam was probably the first thing in video games I ever raged at.

I STILL don't know why the little one has a tail growing out of the back of its head.
I STILL don’t know why the little one has a tail growing out of the back of its head.

Back then, the Psychic type was king, and Mewtwo was its… king. (I didn’t think that sentence all the way through.) Still among the most fearsome special attackers in the game, Mewtwo remains among the ‘Uber’ pokemon banned from standard play. It certainly isn’t moving any time soon.

With the release of X and Y, this beastly beast was given two Mega forms. Only Charizard shares that honour, which says a lot about the villain’s popularity. As does the clamour for Number 150 to return to Smash Bros. Now there’s an added element of mystery about this titan, as it may also morph into a physical attacker (Mega Mewtwo Y) and beat on you from a whole different angle. Just to add to the fun.