Death by Degrees [Playstation 2]

Year: 2005 // Developer: Namco // Publisher: Namco // Also On: N/A

THE LEGEND OF TEKKEN’S FIRST LADY BEGINS HERE, the back of Death by Degrees‘ box proudly claims. And why not? Nina Williams was/is one of Tekken‘s most popular mainstays, and there was no reason why an action-based spin-off shouldn’t work when the Tekken team had previously ventured outside of the standard 1-v-1 fighting with the Tekken Force modes. Unfortunately, Nina’s solo adventure received poor to (at best) lukewarm review scores on release, and I even recall seeing Death by Degrees in a countdown of worst games for the PS2. I disagreed with these scores vehemently back in the day and, after revisiting the game in 2020, I can honestly say that I still enjoy this game.

Is it a misunderstood gem? No. There are loads of things about Death by Degrees that piss me off and were rightly criticised in period, but I feel that the good outweighs the crappy to enough of a degree (get it?) that I feel motivated to defend Namco’s Tekken spin-off.

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Rejecting the revolution

Before I get into this rant, it’s important for me – critical, even – to outline just how much I loved the Valkyria Chronicles series. I played the first three games to absolute death, and bought the thick-ass art books for all three (something I might show here on DS90 at some point). I don’t think that Sega ever managed to re-capture the magic of the original with the two PSP sequels, but they were still highly-enjoyable RPGs that must have done things right for me to invest so many hours into them.

With that background knowledge in mind, I suppose it was only natural that I didn’t want to believe the hate for Valkyria Revolution. Surely it couldn’t be that bad? Well, put it this way: there’s a reason why you can still easily pick up a brand-new, sealed copy of the (so-called) Limited Edition for less than £10.

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Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance [Playstation 2]

Every so often I will actively purge my videogame collection of all the games I know I’ll never play again, or those that I haven’t touched for years. I used to keep everything but, over time, I’ve managed to wrestle the inner hoarder into partial submission. After all, there isn’t the time to keep up with new releases let alone return to everything I’ve already experienced. You have to be realistic sometimes and simply let go. Tying in with this philosophy, I recently decided to turn a critical eye towards my PS2 collection. I’ve long considered this shelf to be slimmed down to the bare essentials but when “essentials” is still around fifty titles, there remains space for improvement.

Rather than simply get shot however, I’ve decided to play some of these games again to see whether or not they actually hold up in the harsh light of 2020. First up, Beat Down: Fists of Vengeance, a 2005 beat ’em up from Capcom. When I originally played this, I loved it. I considered it to be underrated; a hidden gem if you will.

But how does the 2020 edition of me feel about Beat Down?

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Well THAT was epic

If you read my recent post regarding my thoughts on Yakuza 6, you might have been under the impression that I was speaking about the game from the perspective of somebody who’d actually completed it. Well, confession time: I hadn’t. But I have now. And what an ending it was too.

But this was more than just the conclusion of yet another Yakuza game: this was the finale of Kiryu Kazuma’s story – an epic, and emotional story that spanned seven main series entries, over a decade of Yakuza/Ryu Ga Gotoku releases (the first being the PS2 original which hit Japan in 2005), and an in-game timeline that began in the late 80’s with Yakuza 0. It’s fair to say that Kiryu went through a lot during that time. He’s been embroiled in countless Yakuza conflicts and shadow games involving corrupt officials, lost countless friends and loved ones to said conflicts, and been shot, stabbed and beaten more times than I’ve had hot dinners.

The Yakuza series has always been OTT, with characters that can survive a highly unrealistic quota of explosions and bullets, but there came a point where Kiryu’s tale simply became far-fetched, so I can understand why Sega decided that it was time to retire the Dragon of Dojima. Nevertheless, I wasn’t particularly happy about said decision when Kiryu and his allies have become much-loved staples of my personal gaming landscape. So this Yakuza 6 ending NEEDED to be pretty good.

[Spoilers ahead, obviously]

Continue reading “Well THAT was epic”

Yakuza 6 is the worst in the series

Hopefully I’ve hooked you in with that clickbait-esque title BUT, before you berate me for using such shady tactics, I do actually mean what I say…sort of. Yakuza 6 IS the worst game that I have played in the main series (ignoring the Dead Souls spin-off) but it is still a Yakuza game. Branding the sixth chronological installment of Sega’s beloved franchise as the worst one is like being presented with a group of semi-naked Playboy bunnies and being asked to select your least favourite.

What I’m saying is that Yakuza 6 ranks bottom for me, but it’s still a fantastic game regardless of its issues.

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Walking the Streets of Rage once again…

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It’s been a while since I posted something here on Darkstalker90. There are various reasons for that but I won’t bore you with those because that’s not why you’re here, is it? You’re here for some gaming-related content so I’ve skipped over the (frankly embarassing) backlog of semi-completed drafts to talk about a game that has commanded my attention over the last week or so: the mighty Streets of Rage 4.

Go back just a few years, and SoR4 would have been just a fantasy – one of those games that cropped up on many a retro-head’s I-wish-they-would-make-this-but-they-probably-never-will list. The franchise’s future seemed to be confined to re-releases on retro Sega compilations and those iffy plug ‘n play devices. Sega themselves had tried and failed in the 90’s to develop a Streets of Rage 4, and the popularity of the side-scrolling beat ’em up had rapidly waned with the demise of arcade-style gaming.

So it was a pretty earth-shaking shock to say the least when Streets of Rage 4 was first shown in 2018. With Sega acting solely as a licensor this time, it was down to the collaboration of Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush games to do the series justice and deliver on twenty-six years of fan anticipation. No pressure, then… Continue reading “Walking the Streets of Rage once again…”

Mini Review: Tombi (Playstation)

Mini Reviews: I played it…I just don’t have a lot to say about it.

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Nobody is more disappointed than me to be writing a Mini Review of Tombi (Tomba to you fine American folks) rather than a full-fat verdict. But after finally playing this game (after a looooooooong wait), I felt so “meh” towards it that I’m struggling to work out what to say.

It’s imperative to understand that my interest in this game goes all the way back to the late 90’s when my Dad surprised us all by coming home one day with a Playstation under his arm. Included in the box was the latest version of the legendary ‘Demo 1’ disc and one of the games previewed on there was Tombi. I think I played the Tombi demo more than any of the full games that we had for the Playstation. I just couldn’t get enough of the comical, extremely exaggerated visuals, vibrant colours, dangerously addictive music and the game world itself, which seemed to be packed with places to explore and secrets to uncover.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get the full game but I frequently returned to the demo for my Tombi fix. Eventually I grew up (in physical age at least…the jury’s still out on my mental maturity) and acquired a disposable income as well as a keen interest in retro gaming. I still wasn’t able to buy a copy of Tombi however, because it turned out that the game was quite rare. You couldn’t find it on the pre-owned racks in physical shops and ebayers wanted big money for this OMG L@@K!!!! MEGA RARE VINTAGE PS1 SONY GAME – something that hasn’t changed when used copies still sell for anywhere between £100-£150 on ebay.

Thankfully, the game was made available in 2012 for a much more sensible price on Sony’s Playstation Network (£6.49 at the time of writing), something that surprised me when I (wrongly) assumed that it would be a niche game lost to the mists of time, or swallowed up in a licensing/rights hell. Even so, I was tardy at downloading Tombi and didn’t get around to it until this year.

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So…that’s eight years after it was re-released and a whopping twenty-three years since the game was originally published. It’s fair to say that my anticipation was sky-high, and I was genuinely excited as I watched the progress of the download on my Vita.

They do warn against meeting your heroes however and I’m afraid that I may have fallen foul of this slice of philosophy given how I put a healthy wedge of hours into Tombi but haven’t touched it again since.

Now don’t get me wrong: the game still absolutely oozes with charm and, being a 2D game, it has aged very well compared to all those (then) cutting-edge 3D Playstation games that look rougher than a badger’s arse in 2020. I’m still head-over-heels for the game’s visual style, music and playful humour. I also appreciate the game’s non-linear structure. You will collect loads of items on your adventure, for example, and have to go back to previous areas to complete quests or access new places. There’s a vague Metroidvania feel to things with new areas linking up to older ones in unexpected ways.

And, while Tombi is a 2D platformer, you are able to traverse both the foreground and background. There are also areas that rotate and allow you to explore all four sides of a structure. It’s a creative and clever game that tries to do something different and shake up the 2D platform formula.

Unfortunately, the charm and nice ideas only carried Tombi so far and I rapidly tired of the game, much to my disappointment. Perhaps I expected too much, or had waited far too long. Maybe I had built the game up in my head to be something that it was never going to live up to. More likely, it was the deciphering of cryptic clues to make progress. The difficulty ramps up very quickly too, demanding uber-precision from the player. A challenge is no bad thing in a game (it’s entirely necessary) but when it saps the enjoyment out of the experience, then all the aesthetic charm in the universe can’t compensate for getting pissed off at cheap deaths, being expected to make super-precise jumps and having to constantly re-load my save to try again. I wanted to enjoy the game for all the positive, happy things that I previously mentioned, but ultimately found that I couldn’t be bothered to continue with it.

Will I be selecting Tombi from my Vita’s home screen again? Well, never say never. There is that small voice in the back of my head suggesting that I may have thrown the towel in prematurely rather than rising to the challenge. That said, Tombi is – and always has been – all about the art direction and creativity for me and I’d really rather not spoil those things by persisting with unsatisfying, often frustrating platforming mechanics.

Mini Review: Overboard! (Playstation)

Mini Reviews: I played it…I just don’t have a lot to say about it.

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Prior to playing Overboard! (known as Shipwreckers! to my NTSC-U readers) on the Playstation, I had heard a lot about it. The game does, after all, crop up on many people’s “hidden gems” lists and “cult classics” countdowns. It’s also a rare thing: a game for Sony’s debut console that comes with a good rep and doesn’t cost the earth to source from the likes of ebay.

Unfortunately, I will have to burst the nostalgia bubble and say that I didn’t really get on with Overboard! but I can, nevertheless, see why the game has the following that it does.

You guide a dinky pirate ship through maze-like waterways, fending off enemies and circumventing all manner of hazards in your quest to collect treasure and capture ports. Your galleon boasts a hell of a lot of cartoon-ish charm, as do the enemies and overall visual style. It’s these appealing aesthetics and enjoyable music that form the bulk of Overboard!‘s appeal but it also controls well and does a deft job of staggering the introduction of new weapons, enemy types and mechanics.

Overboard! is a piece of simple but effective puzzle/action game design that doesn’t need discs full of CGI or an unnecessary storyline and, as much as I enjoy those things, I’m all for a more straight-forward, unbloated experience that prioritises gameplay. It reminds me of Kula World in that respect, and that should be a good thing.

So I was surprised to feel a dull apathy towards Overboard! once I’d finished appreciating the presentation and fun tone.

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First of all, it’s incredibly easy lose your ship to enemies and hazards, especially fire-based obstacles. You have the weapons to deal with enemies but I found it extremely fiddly to switch between them on the wheel-like selector, and often skipped past the one I wanted in my rush to get to it before my vessel was sent to Davy Jones’ locker. It was a problem compounded by being attacked from the sea and by bomb-dropping birds from above at the same time. I tended to try and ready the weapon I wanted before advancing into a new area and it usually turned out to be the wrong one for the situation, resulting in a lot of health lost.

Having to restart also means dealing with sluggish load times, something we were liberated from a long time ago with modern games and now struggle to accept when getting our retro fix. I could suffer this though because I expect it. What I couldn’t suffer was the way in which you can save yourself into a corner. The game allows you to save to the memory card after completing each level. Unfortunately, it also saves your lives and ammunition and doesn’t allow you to have another go at a failed stage with replenished lives/weapons. You have to re-load your save and start again with whatever you had at the point of saving, so it’s entirely possible to save with zero spare lives and be stuck with that bum deal every time you load up.

Overboard! is one of those games that I desperately wanted to like because it has a lot going for it. Sadly, I couldn’t gel with the weapon selector, being constantly killed by hazards that I wasn’t prepared for, and the save system. It’s by no means a bad game at all but I also have no desire to play it again.

 

Review – Rival Schools: United by Fate (Playstation)

rival-schools-1Platform(s): Playstation (reviewed), Arcade
Year: 1998 (Playstation version), 1997 (Arcade)
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Virgin Interactive (PAL), Capcom (North America/Japan)
Genre: Fighting

Whenever there’s a discussion about which of Capcom’s forgotten fighting games (so anything other than flippin’ Street Fighter, then…) should be brought back in a blaze of current-gen glory, there’s usually only one franchise that tops the polls: Darkstalkers. As a huge fan of the Darkstalkers, I can’t suppress the fanboy in me very effectively and I tend to agree. That said, there is another fighting game with a cult following that has been pushed to the back of Capcom’s storage locker for far too long: Rival Schools.

I’ve always been aware of Rival Schools but it was one of those games that I didn’t get around to playing in period. Until recently, the closest I came to the franchise was playing as Kyosuke in Capcom Vs SNK 2 and Batsu in Tatsunoko Vs Capcom. That all changed when I was slimming down my collection and testing out game discs (many of which I’d bought years ago and never played) before listing them for sale on ebay. The Playstation port of Rival Schools: United by Fate was one such game and there was a part of me that had to wonder why I had shoved this to the back of the shelves and ignored it for so long, especially since I’m a big fan of classic Capcom.

It’s what’s inside that counts

The first hurdle that needs to be cleared, when playing Rival Schools for the first time in 2020, are the horribly outdated visuals. Look, I’m no graphics whore. I grew up playing the Playstation and I’ve also enjoyed Sega Saturn and 3DO games long after they were “current” systems, so I’m no snob when it comes to old 3D. But it’s an unavoidable fact that we’ve been spoilt by the realistic graphics of the last few hardware generations, so returning to the era that pushed crude textures and pioneering polygons into the mainstream is always going to be jarring and requires a brief adjustment.

As such, I was initially taken aback by the character models in Rival Schools when I first booted up the game. Perhaps I’d just become accustomed to the perfect curvature of Sophitia’s bosom in Soulcalibur VI, or maybe it was because I’d not played Rival Schools before so my eyes weren’t prepared. Whatever the case, some of the most enjoyable fighting games of the 90’s – Tekken 2, Street Fighter EX and Virtua Fighter 2 – all look pretty blocky these days but that shouldn’t (and doesn’t) detract from the quality of the games.

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Spoilt for choice. Some fantastic portrait art too.

So once I’d acclimatised to some of the derpy expressions and Tiffany’s cubism-inspired tits (complete with a primitive jiggle effect), I found myself enjoying the game, warts and all. In truth, the characters only look janky up close during win animations. During regular gameplay, they actually look pretty good for their age and you’d be a fool to expect much better from the original Playstation. Perhaps Tekken 3 and Soulblade are a little easier on the eyes but Rival Schools isn’t that far behind.

But it really is what’s under the skin that counts.

Rival Schools is presented as a three-dimensional fighting game fit for the late 90’s but, in truth, it’s a bit of a hybrid. While it does have a sidestep feature and dynamic camera angles to capture the crazy super moves, it still feels like a 2D fighting game. That’s because it uses the familiar Street Fighter-style inputs on the d-pad and a light/heavy attack set-up over on the buttons.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing however because I immediately knew what I was doing, allowing me to pick the game up quickly and concentrate solely on getting to grips with Rival Schools‘ unique mechanics.

First up, Rival Schools is a tag-team fighting game of sorts. I say “of sorts” because you can’t actively tag back and forth between your two characters, as in the Marvel Vs series, but you can switch in between rounds. You can also utilise your partner for powerful combination super move known as a Team Up Technique. Depending on your partner, the Team Up move can be an outrageous tag-team super move for big damage, a stat boost, or even a cheeky health boost. I really like this tag-team system because it injects strategy into a fighting game; do you choose a partner that can restore health and simply use them solely for that purpose or do you forfeit the stat/health boosts, select two characters that you are competent with, continuously switch between them and opt for the big damage Team Up Techniques?

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Tiffany’s kiss restores health. She doesn’t discriminate between boys and girls either…

Each character also has a selection of “Burning Vigour” super move attacks. These and the dual-character Team Up Techniques are all ridiculously awesome because they are incredibly over-the-top and feel stupidly OP. These crazy moves also tend to be shown off with different camera angles, taking advantage of the game’s 3D engine. I’ve played a lot of Capcom fighting games and I have to say that the Burning Vigour and Team-Up Techniques in Rival Schools are probably some of the most visually satisfying of the lot.

rival-schools-4You also get plenty of access to these attacks too because the super guage fills up faster than The Flash on Speed. Some may criticise this because it makes the game feel easy and the super moves throwaway. I get that, and agree to a small extent, but Rival Schools is more about the entertainment factor than being a serious tournament game.

But there’s still more to the core gameplay. For instance, there is the Textbook Combo (a nice school-themed pun!) which is the ability to string together a short sequence of light and heavy hits, similar to Darkstalkers‘ Chain Combo system. You can also launch enemies skyward then jump up to hit them with a Textbook Combo in mid-air and even cancel into Burning Vigour supers. If it sounds similar to the the Vs series’ air combos then that’s because it feels exactly like that, down to the launcher input being the same.

There are also Defensive Fall and Get Up Attack techniques, as well as dash attacks. Finally, there is the Dodge ability that snaps you out of the 2D plane and back into the 3D realm. You can dodge sideways in either direction and, if you time it just right, you can evade an incoming attack at the very last moment and slide all the way around to your opponent’s back to catch them off-guard with a combo or deliver a different, more powerful throw attack that can only be used at an rival’s back.

A loaded package

Away from the actual gameplay, Rival Schools is simply bursting with charm and it’s easy to see why so many people love this neglected series. The characters are bold and full of personality, the music is terribly catchy and there is a big effort put into the presentation of the game. There is an anime-style intro upon booting the game up, for example, multiple animated endings and every character has their own unique illustrated endings to their stories. It’s one of those games where even the sound effects for selecting menu items are endearing.

The characters all feel unique to play as, and there are twenty of them to choose from as standard. That said, the veteran fighting game player will spot some cheeky imitations in amongst the roster, such as Hideo who is essentially the Ryu of Rival Schools with Shoto-style special moves. Roy seems to have borrowed Ken’s Shoryu-Reppa super move and Street Fighter Alpha‘s Sakura is included in the line-up. Overall however, the roster isn’t simply a copy-paste job; the majority of the fighters have their own style and are fun to experiment with.

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Capcom really went all out with the Playstation conversion of this game too. There are two discs: an Arcade disc and the Evolution disc. The Arcade disc alone would have been acceptable enough since it features a fantastic conversion of the arcade original, a training mode and extra, bonus features. But Capcom also threw in the Evolution disc which is just so much more.

The Evolution disc contains an optimised, more balanced version of the game and more characters. As well as unlockable, alternate outfit versions of four of Rival Schools‘ female characters (complete with unique Team Up Techniques), there are 24 pre-edited special characters – mash-ups of the original characters and their moves. You also have the new Group Battle, League Battle and Tournament Battle modes, as well as the Cooperate Battle which allows four players to get in on the tag-team fighting with the assistance of the Playstation Multi-Tap. Finally, there is a “Lesson” mode and an art gallery. Phew!

It seems surreal in this post-Street Fighter V age to be playing a Capcom fighting game that had a warehouse of kitchen sinks thrown at it. To any younger readers of this blog, I would say this: go play PS1 Rival Schools and you’ll understand why us grumpy old farts moan about the bare-bones menu screens on modern fighting games, and the way that there is nothing to unlock (unless you are paying by credit card).

Conclusion

Rival Schools: United by Fate was an incredibly pleasant surprise and I think I need to be sent back to education myself for making the schoolboy error of not playing this sooner (enough with the school jokes!). After spending a good amount of time with the game, I can definitely confirm that the characters have just as much charm and appeal as Morrigan and co. from Darkstalkers. What’s more, the fighting system is excellent and strikes a perfect balance between the technical stuff and accessible, mental fun. It certainly wouldn’t need much to be brought up to scratch for a modern revival, something I’m now very much all for.

The only downside is that the Playstation port isn’t the cheapest used game to pick up these days, and it hasn’t been re-released on PSN outside of Japan (reportedly due to licensing issues) which certainly doesn’t help. That said, I think that Rival Schools is worth every penny of your money if you are a fighting game nut or a fan of classic Capcom.