23/05/2015

SOOTY AND SWEEP (COMMODORE 64)

British people of a certain age, brace for a possible attack of The Nostalgias. Everyone else, prepare to learn a little about British children's television. Every one of us should buckle in for a bumpy ride, though, because today's game is a Commodore 64 platformer based on a beloved children's character and we all know how well that can pan out - it's Enigma Variations' 1989 izzy-wizzy-let's-get-busy-em-up Sooty and Sweep!


There are Sooty and Sweep now, throwing a chocolate eclair back and forth. Well, you have to make your own fun when you're trapped in a featureless black void. Their pastry-based game of catch isn't nearly as weird as seeing Sooty and Sweep with legs, mind you, because usually they're hand puppets.


Sooty is the yellow bear, and Sweep is the grey dog. Sooty is yanking on Sweep's ear because he can be a nasty little shit sometimes, and poor old Sweep is too gentle to retaliate.
A regularly-recurring fixture of British kid's TV for over sixty years now, Sooty was created in 1948 by Harry Corbett, although I and many others are more familiar with seeing Sooty operated by Harry's son Matthew Corbett during the eighties. Corbett played the father figure role to Sooty, a bear whose disposition flits around a scale ranging from "cheeky" to "hurtful." Sooty never speaks, but people can understand him if he whispers in their ear, a behaviour that comes across as sort of creepy now I've seen it written out. Also in Sooty's extended family are Sweep, the dopey dog pictured above. Sweep can talk out loud, although you might wish he couldn't because he speaks in high-pitched kazoo noises. There's also Soo, a female panda with the rare power of intelligible human speech, who occupies the slightly stern and sensible "older sister" role that female characters in kids TV seem to get saddled with a lot of the time. Sooty and his friends get into the usual scrapes and comical mishaps, like soaking people with water pistols and accidentally bashing thumbs with hammers, and most of the time Sooty himself the sweet and loveable face of a more gentle era of children's programming.


This is not the case on Sooty and Sweep's loading screen, where Sooty's face has taken on a disturbing expression, especially around the eyes. He looks like a different puppet wearing a mask made from Sooty's flayed face. Sooty also has a magic wand that shoots out tiny crucifixes (not sure the Church will approve of that, it being witchcraft and all) and Sweep's ears are strangely ragged, as though something has been gnawing at them. Oh, wait, we just saw Sooty pulling his ears, I guess that explains that.


Sweep's character portrait isn't much better. If you're trying to draw a cute puppet dog-face, then beady red eyes are probably not the most appropriate aesthetic choice. He looks like Cujo Junior.
You can play as whichever puppet is your favourite, unless your favourite is Soo. She is in the game, but as a non-playable... I was going to say "character", but "character" implies at least a line of speech or something rather than standing motionless in the background, staring out at the player with her dead panda eyes, which is her role in this game. I'll be playing as Sooty, mostly because I don't want him to get angry and zap me with his Magic Jesus Beam.


Okay, here we go. The game begins, and Sooty has a problem - Sweep has left his "dirty old bones" scattered around the house. That kind of behaviour is more acceptable when you're a cartoon dog than if you were, say, a human drifter with a hook for a hand, but still, no-one wants rotting bones down the back of the sofa and so Sooty takes it upon himself to clean up before Matthew returns home. To achieve his goals, Sooty must run and jump through the house, grabbing all the bones and keys he can find. It was mentioned in the instructions that once you have the bones you have to give them to Soo, who then unlocks more rooms of the house, but because it's impossible to get anywhere without walking right past Soo it's a moot point.


You know what I hate? When you set up a romantic candlelit dinner for two and your idiot dog friend has put a bone on the curtain pole and a frog jumps on the table and the frog is a highly toxic rainforest tree frog that paralyses you if you touch it. It doesn't kill you, though, at least not on the easier difficulty mode, and touching any enemy just causes Sooty to be stunned for a moment. You can still run out of time and get a game over that way, but if you're playing on easy then the worst the enemies can do is make you stand still for a couple of seconds.


What a lot of enemies there are too, most of them insects. This is to be expected in a household that has bones laying around all over the place, and you can't even get rid of them. You can render them temporarily harmless, though, because pressing the fire button makes Sooty launch paralysing sprinkles from his magic wands. It has barely any range and won't hit anything that's even slightly higher up than you, but it's helpful none-the-less. There is no speech sample of Sooty's famous sorcerous catchphrase - "izzy-wizzy let's get busy" - but that doesn't mean Sooty isn't saying it. You just wouldn't be able to tell, because he's Sooty and his enslaved Renfield-style human host isn't around to transmit his soundless words. On the audio front Sooty and Sweep does include a fairly accurate rendition of the theme song from the eighties Sooty TV show played on a loop, which is notable for two reasons: the incredible speed at which it becomes agonisingly repetitive, and the section where the SID chip bleeps in such a way that it starts to sound like it's saying "mammy, mammy, mammy" after enough loops, turning the Sooty theme into the soundtrack for an all-Irish re-imagining of Friday the 13th.


Two points of interest here. One, the staircase in Sooty's house is made from fish fingers. Two, that grey thing on the right of the screen is an umbrella stand made from an elephant's foot. I don't know whether this is common knowledge or not, but making umbrella stands out of an elephant's foot used to be a thing that people did, because nothing says "class" like a severed animal appendage parked next to your front door.


Bloody hell, they've got another elephant's foot umbrella stand? How many umbrellas does Sooty's family own that one elephant's foot is simply not enough to contain them all? Oh well, on the bright side it means that Sooty didn't butcher an entire elephant just to get one umbrella stand. Maybe he even used all of the elephant in various places throughout the house. Now that I think about it, he does have a grey leather sofa.


I should probably talk about the gameplay a bit. Umm, there is some? That's about all I've got. Sooty and Sweep was obviously aimed squarely at a very young market, and as such it's incredibly basic. The enemies all move along very clearly defined left-and-right paths, so all there is to it is timing your movements or wand attacks to get past them (or not, if you're playing on easy and can't be bothered). That said, the controls are above average for a licensed Commodore 64 platformer, with consistent jumping arcs and and responsive movements, and even the collision detection is decent if a shade ungenerous. Overall, better than I expected but my expectations were so low they were in danger of being melted by the heat of the Earth's core.


At last, the age-old question of just where bears shit has finally been answered. They use the indoor toilet, they're not animals. Aside from being bears, I mean. They haven't quite mastered the human rules of bathroom etiquette yet, though. Standing just outside the open bathroom door while I'm in here is a bit weird, Soo.


Sooty and Sweep is a little bit weird all around, if I'm honest. For starters there's the basic premise, with Sooty walking around on his little bear legs that you never usually see, collecting bones instead of getting up to his usual array of mischief and unimpressive magic tricks. Along with that is the slightly creepy vibe that permeates the game: the stark black backgrounds, the off-kilter music, the unpleasant renditions of Sooty's face, it all adds up to an experience that don't feel quite right.


For example, why does the Sooty family own more than one hand sickle? Just how much reaping are they doing, that they would require multiple sickles? Is Matthew going out to work in the garden and dual-wielding them or something? I have so many questions.


Questions like "where did you get this chest full of treasure from, Sooty?" You're probably thinking that it's the proceeds from Sooty's sixty years of working in showbiz, but look closer. It's all grey. That's right, it's more elephant parts. Sooty's just waiting for the right time to turn them into a shower curtain or a set of occasional tables.


"Now the police will never find the evidence."
It did not take long to find all the bones, thanks to a combination of Sooty's invincibility and Sweep's inability to hide them in places less obvious than "right there, right in front of your face you dope." Speaking of Sweep, I suppose I should take him out for a spin.


Hang on, I'm sure I selected "play as Sweep", where the bloody hell is he? Oh, right, he's camouflaged against the sofa. That's not very helpful, especially now that I've turned the game up to hard mode, where there are more (and much faster) enemies and you can actually run out of lives. Sweep plays exactly the same as Sooty - he uses a water pistol instead of Sooty's magic wand, but it's only a cosmetic difference - so I'd suggest you stick to playing as Sooty because there's a lot of grey in this backgrounds and it's pretty easy to lose track of Sweep.


Sooty and Sweep is a computer game, of that much I am certain. Beyond that, what can I say about it? For adults and semi-adult man-children like myself, it offers such a slender, brief gameplay experience as to be almost non-existent, but looking at in context - as a game to be played by five-year-olds in 1989 - it's definitely passable. It's probably hypocritical of me to defend it's simplicity when I have complained about the contempt shown towards the young 'uns by other children's games in the past, but it works well enough and isn't completely without challenge when played on hard mode, so if you were a very young child with a Commodore 64 (or one of the other home computer formats this game appeared on) then Sooty and Sweep would not have been a terrible place to start your gaming career. There's even a simultaneous two-player mode, making it perfect for parents who had more than one child to keep quiet at once. I'm certainly not suggesting that you actually play Sooty and Sweep, I hasten to add; life is short, and there are better ways to spend it than guiding a small bear puppet through a house decorated entirely with bones and elephant parts.

19/05/2015

TIMECOP (SNES)

Timecop is the story of Johnny Time, a tough but honest cop who performs his duties admirably. There's just one problem: he never has enough time, not to bust all the perps in the city and still have room in his schedule for his new wife, Mrs. Cynthia Time. One fateful night, while trying to prevent the theft of Greek antiquities from a local museum, Johnny Time cries out in anguish "if only there was more time!"... but the gods of Ancient Greece were listening, and they are both cruel and capricious. They used their powers to freeze time across the world - apart from Johnny Time, who now has all the time in the world. Can he find a way to reverse his terrible fate and reunite with his beloved wife? The only way to find out is to play Cryo Interactive's 1995 SNES adventure Timecop!


And now join me back in our dismal and joyless real-world universe, where I can tell you that Timecop on the SNES is actually a terrible action-platformer loosely based on the Jean-Claude Van Damme film of the same name. That's the film where JCVD is a cop who travels through time, stopping villains before they can irreperably damage the present by fiddling with the past. The most memorable part of the movie is when Van Damme's character defeats the villainous senator McComb - played by Ron Silver in a manner that suggests the producers really wanted Alan Rickman circa Die Hard - by kicking him into a version of himself from the past, and when the two senators touch they freak out and melt like a slug dipped in salt. This is because "same matter cannot occupy same space," apparently. Look, if you want a movie that features good, solid scientific theory then don't watch one about time-travel.


Rather than following the plot of the film, Timecop: The Videogame goes down the route of creating a sequel, because the world the original movie created was too rich and detailed to be allowed to go unexploited. So, Max Walker, the hero of the movie and not played by Van Damme in this game, is about to retire from the Time Enforcement Commision, turning over his role as protector of the time-tubes to a new system called Timescan. Then Walker notices that some equipment in the lab has a new logo on it, and he uses this information to surmise that history is being altered by one Dr. Hans Kleindast, original inventor of the time-travel process. From what I can tell, Kleindast was believed to have died during the first time-travel experiments, but it turns out he's very much alive. Well, apart for the piece of his brain that tells him how to dress, that's long since perished.


Maniacal dentists... of the future!!  Professor Kleindast, ladies and gentlemen. Fair play to the developers, he definitely looks like a villain from a vaguely-cyberpunkish nineties videogame. He also looks like a proper tit. I can't tell if those are supposed to be mechanical attachments above his glasses or giant Groucho Marx eyebrows. At least he seems to be having fun.


Kleindast's complete mastery over the flow of time means that he's grown bored, so instead of the usual plot of a hero trying to stop a villain for truth and justice and soforth, the set-up for Timecop is actually that Kleindast picked Walker to do battle with throughout the ages as "a worthy opponent on the board of time," and to that end Walker is strapped into a time machine and launched into the unknown. "Let the duel begins!" says Professor Kleindast, who is not a professor of English it seems, and thus begins Timecop.


The first stage is TEC Headquarters in 2005. 2005 was the future when this game was released, but it's the past now and it's the present day in terms of the game's setting, so Timecop really does have time covered in all directions.


TEC Headquarters is a hostile place, patrolled by naval officers in dress uniform whose anger at the constant wisecracks about An Officer and a Gentleman has been channelled into their relentless efforts to see Walker dead. That's Walker in the black, fending off a navy man with the rarely-seen "Drunkard Climbs the Fence" style of kung-fu. Timecop is a standard walk-and-bash adventure for the most part - Walker can kick, punch and fire his gun to defeat his foes, (who are also his co-workers, I guess?) but unfortunately his physical attacks have the range, power and speed of a seaslug who's only taking karate lessons because his parents forced him to, and his gun has a very limited amount of ammunition. Enemies also take multiple hits to defeat however you attack them, but I'll leave it to you to decide whether that means Walker's punches are as powerful as a bullet or if his superiors issued him with pistol that has the stopping power of a gentle kick to the ankle. To help you make your mind up, I should point out that the TEC building runs on steam power, and hazardous gouts of boiling water randomly spray out at you as you traverse the level. Maybe there was a typo and I've actually been sent back to 1905.


Making your way through Timecop's early levels is a simple if not very enjoyable matter of walking along for a while until you find an elevator, punching - or more likely crouch-kicking  - any resistance in your path. Then you ride the elevator up or down to a new floor of the building, where you do the same thing again until you happen across the blinking exit sign. The whole of the TEC building feels like the level designer slapped it together at 5:25 on Friday afternoon, which is at least consistent with the overall quality of the game. After only a couple of minutes playing it is immediately that Timecop is a very bad game and deep down you know, no matter how much you wish it wasn't true, that it's only going to get worse. For starters this is a very ugly game, but I can maybe chalk that up to personal preference because I bloody hate digitised sprites. Then there's the gameplay, which is as smooth and flowing as trying to piss out a golf ball: you plod forwards, stop to fight an enemy, move five for six paces and then stop again to fight, and again, and again. You could try turning around and running in the opposite direction when you see danger ahead, but if you do that Walker flails around and keeps sliding in the same direction thanks to his Wile E. Coyote levels of momentum... but only if you turn around while running. If you just let go of the d-pad he stops immediately. He also stops dead if you crouch. Your attacks come out slow and combat is tedious thanks to a lack of combos and miserly ammunition pick-ups. "Maybe Walker has a special move," I thought to myself, and to my surprise he does. It's an uppercut. Would you like to see it?


Wow. It has less range that your normal attacks with the added drawback of having more set-up than Noah building the bloody ark. I don't think it even does any extra damage, although that is hard to verify because I couldn't hit anything with it.



Also of note: the music in the first couple of levels. I was not looking forward to Timecop's aural delights when I heard the theme on the title screen, which was full of grating guitar samples that gave me vivid, harrowing flashbacks to the Wayne's World game, but this one isn't bad at all. I like the choice of voice sample. "FBI, get on it," it says. I wish the FBI would get on it. Maybe they could close down the TEC and take over my responsibilities so I would have to play this game any more.


After a few stages of elevator action, (but not Elevator Action, which is a far superior game,) the developers got worried that the player might be struggling with the twin concepts of horizontal and vertical movement so they chucked in a stage which is nothing but a single flat room packed with enemies. There are many small robots mixed in with the naval officers now, but that is small comfort, especially when the robots don't look like anything at all. On the plus side the flat layout means I could avoid more combat by jumping over the enemies and running away, and at least here's an in-universe reason for the flatness: this is the launching runway for Walker's time machine.


It is not a cool-looking time machine. Seeing Walker's head framed by the time machine's window like that really lets me appreciate just how utterly characterless he is. The sprites in Sensible Soccer had more personality than this, and they had less pixels in their heads than Walker does in his right foot.


With access to his time-travelling rocket sled, Walker makes his way to the San Andreas Fault circa 1945 to stop Kleindast from mining some minerals or something. Look, I wasn't really paying attention, okay? It's an underwater stage, joy of joys, and having removed any sense of verticality at the end of the last stage the developers go even further by taking away Walker's ability to punch or kick while he's underwater. I'm looking forward to stage five, which at this rate will be Walker standing in an empty black room, completely unable to move. That would be a considerable improvement on this stage, where endless octopus swarms with an unquenchable hatred for time travellers try to strangle Walker while Kleindast's troops shoot at him. When Walker jumps underwater, he does his usual walking animation, which looks as ridiculous as it sounds.


"Hey, I don't care if the playtesters hated them, it took me six months to digitise this octopus sprite and by God I'm going to make sure it sees plenty of use in this game!"


My current theory is that Cryo Interactive actually wanted to make Octopus Slaughter Simulator '95: Tons o' Tentacles Edition, but the outcry from animal welfare groups forced them to pretend they were actually making a Timecop game.


There's even an octopus boss. An octoboss, if you like. It has sad eyes. Probably because I've just killed hundreds of its children.


The final damning piece of evidence that proves Timecop was designed solely and specifically to cause me pain arrives after the octoboss, as you're forced into side-scrolling shooter segment, piloting the dorkiest-looking submarine ever to sink beneath the ocean waves through a sparse field of underwater mines and the final remnants of the now-extinct octopus species. You may have noticed that your submarine is ridiculously large, so you won't be shocked to learn that this is no Gradius-style thrill ride of near-misses and daring piloting manoeuvres between deadly obstacles. It's boring, is what it is. Very, very boring and very, very ugly. Bitter experience has taught me that you should try to avoid saying "I could do better than that" lest someone call you on it, but in this case I am one hundred percent certain that I could design a more interesting submarine than that. I have designed a more interesting submarine than that, I had some Underwater Lego when I was a kid. My Lego submarines will have had fins and rocket launchers and thematically inappropriate decorations taken from the Castle sets, which would obviously be a clear improvement on whatever this thing is supposed to be.


That's more like it: a good, sensible plan to gain vast wealth using the power of time-travel. A little prosaic for a mad scientist named Professor Kleindast who dresses like an alien ambassador from a severely underfunded episode of Star Trek, but reasonable enough. Hang on, New York 1929? This stage is going to be Mafia-themed, isn't it?


I suddenly have a newfound appreciation for Empire City 1931.
Having become tired of running extortion rackets and illegal gambling, the New York mob have returned to what they love doing best: leaning out of windows and taking pot-shots at anyone who happens to be passing. The really lucky gangsters get to lean out of the window of a moving car, which must be terrible exciting for them, their tongues flapping as the breeze ruffles their fur. No, wait, that's dogs. The upshot of facing all these snipers is that I found out Walker can aim his gun upwards. Who knew? Not me, but then again I'd never had a reason to try shooting upwards until I reached this stage.


And what a stage it is, another flat and featureless area packed with enough hard-to-hit enemies to send the fun-o-meter's needle crashing from "boring" to "frustrating." Most of the action takes place in New York's famous newsstand and drugstore district - yes, if you're ever in the Big Apple, make sure you stop by this historic part of the city and you'll never worry again about where your next bottle of aspirin or celebrity gossip magazine is coming for because there's a drugstore or a newstand literally every twenty feet!


After a couple of fairly long stages spent roaming the streets of New York, Walker finds himself in the not-at-all-suspiciously named Kleindast Brokerage Bank. I suppose when you command the very power of time itself you don't need to worry so much about keeping your history-altering plans hush-hush, but Kleindast said he wanted to have a duel of wits against Walker, didn't he? A very small duel, it seems. Like, a thumb war of wits. A game of Snap of wits.
The multi-storied level "design" of the first couple of stages has returned, and it makes a welcome change from the tedium of recent levels in the the same way that developing spontaneous blindness is a welcome change from watching your parents have sex. It at least evens out the wear on the left and right buttons of my d-pad.


There's a boss at the end of the stage - a bipedal robot so ugly that I honestly thought there was a problem with its sprite, a graphical glitch, but no. It's supposed to look like that. I mean, I'm sure the artists didn't intend to create a robot so dorky that even C3PO would beat it up for it's dinner money, but that is how the finished sprite was meant to be displayed.
The robot jumps across the screen and then walks around near you on the off-chance that you'll collide and Walker will take damage, so make sure you duck under the robot when it jumps and crouch-kick it when you get the chance until it explodes. Truly, a duel of wits rarely seen outside the stories of Holmes and Moriarty!


Now Walker finds himself in the Second World War, because every time-travel game has to have a level where you fight against Nazis. Kleindast has gone back to 1944 to help the Nazis win the war, which is a helluva step up on the Ladder O' Evil from getting rich by manipulating the stock market. Kleindast hasn't left himself anywhere to go with that move, once you've become a Literal Nazi it's difficult to become more evil short of destroying the entire planet.
As for the stage itself, the briefing says that Kleindast has given the Germans advanced weaponry. This is a bare-faced lie. The Nazis have the same pitiful guns that fire the same slow-moving videogame projectiles as always, and their mortars are so weak that they barely have the velocity required to reach Walker's chest, never mind enemy lines. So Kleindast is a good guy after all, then? A double agent, a saboteur? Maybe history will vindicate Kleindast in hindsight.


At the end of the stage Walker has to fight a tank, and in this case "fight" means "stand next to and keep firing your gun." You can also use your limited supply of screen-clearing bombs, they can do the boss some damage. As long as you don't stand right in front of the tank's cannon you'll be fine, and I do mean right in front of it - because Walker is short enough to stand underneath the tank's barrel, when the tank fires a shell it kind of... dribbles out of the end of the cannon and falls in a pathetic arc, because that's the only way it can hit Walker while he's standing next to the tank. I never thought I'd know what an impotent tank would look like, but now I do. Thanks, Timecop.


Once your brief sojourn through Nazi Germany is over - and it was very brief, clocking in at about two minutes if you jump over most of the Wehrmacht, as is most expedient - Walker moves forward in time to a future Los Angeles. Kleindast holds the city in his grip thanks to that most cyberpunk-ish of plot devices: the super-drug that is wired directly into the brain. In this case it's called Brainblast, a name that makes it sound as though it comes in a tangy cherry flavour.


There's very little to say about the gameplay here, because it's exactly the same as all the other ponderous single-plane stages. A couple of aesthetic details do stand out, though. For one, it's clear that some people appreciate everything Kleindast has done for the city, because that graffiti in the background says "Kleindast Rules." There's also graffiti that simply reads BRAINBLAST, just like when you see COCAINE or MARIJUANA painted on walls in the real world.
LA is also full of these street punks, which means an actual human person once dressed like that and allowed themselves to be filmed and digitised for inclusion in this game. There is little Timecop could do now that would make playing it a worthwhile experience, but being able to see the original footage of these punks would definitely soften the blow somewhat.


Kleindast ramps up his sinister scheme by building a rocket that will disperse Brainblast (now in Sour Tangerine Zing flavour!) into the atmosphere, causing anyone who breathes it in to become addicted. Walker rushes to the famous Los Angeles Rocket Factory, which is composed of fifty percent conveyor belts and fifty percent killer robots. In a rare flicker of humour - that's how I'm choosing to interpret it, anyway - there are signs everywhere that say "do not step on the conveyor belt." I'm going to imagine that Kleindast put these signs up in the desperate hope that Walker is such a stickler for the rules that he will be unable to disobey them and thus won't reach Kleindast before he can put his plan into motion.


Sadly for the villain, Walker is a maverick who has no problem stepping all over those conveyor belts like this game has stepped all over my desire to play another SNES game ever again, and soon he has Kleindast cornered. I hope I've made it clear to you by now that Timecop is an especially wretched game, but if you're still not getting it then here's the moment that should push you over the edge - Walker does battle with Kleindast, the game's main villain,and  Kleindast fights and behaves in exactly the same way as the regular white-suited minions from the very first stage of the game, only with a bigger health bar. I've played some crap in my time but the lack of imagination shown here is truly staggering. It's like getting to the end of Final Fantasy VII and discovering that Sephiroth is just another Shinra grunt with 99,9999 HP.


Somehow, Timecop lumbers on - Kleindast managed to escape the thorough beating I gave him a moment ago - as Walker makes his way through a half-built skyscraper packed with worksite health and safety violations. Or maybe the swinging girders suspended from ropes are a decorative feature, a brutalist windchime. Whatever the case, it's the same walk right, ride an elevator, walk left, ride an elevator, repeat gameplay as before, only with the added complication of occasionally standing on a piece of wood with a nail sticking out of it. Walker's extreme susceptibility to tetanus represents one of the most ignoble deaths I've ever experienced in a videogame, so at the very least Timecop will be remembered for that.


The climactic battle arrives, and to my surprise it's something different! Walker and Kleindast fight to the death in the manner of the ancient gladiators: while flying around in jetpacks that are heavily affected by momentum. You float around taking shots at each other, and while the fact that Kleindast spends most of the battle hovering off the top of the screen where you can't reach him means I'd hesitate to call the fight fun it is leagues ahead of every other boss battle in the game and as I say, it is at least different. Some effort was expended in coming up with a unique encounter, and for that I am grateful. It's also much easier than the rest of the games "big" fights, and I'm grateful for that too.


Your reward for saving history is a full-screen image of Kleindast's jagged, pixellated mug. Then he explodes. "Reward" may have been the wrong word to use there. "Final kick in the groin" would have more appropriate.


That's Timecop, then: a terrible game that you definitely should not play. It commits every sin that an action game can - the level design is completely lacking in imagination, your character is slow and awkward to control, the boss fights are laughable and it's pretty unpleasant to look at. I don't really blame the developers though, not entirely, because Timecop has the unmistakeable air of a rush-job. I'd be shocked if Cryo weren't given an extremely tight time-frame to get this game made, resulting in it feeling almost unfinished. Still, don't play it. If you're really desperate for a Timecop fix, then watch the original movie, or Timecop: The Television Series, which has the benefit of starring the always-wonderful Kurt Fuller. Hell, you could even watch Timecop 2: The Berlin Decision. Just don't come crying to me if you do.

08/05/2015

EMPIRE CITY 1931 (ARCADE)

Today at VGJunk: crime! Prohibition-era gangster crime, with tommyguns and men in hats and everything. Most of the crime is perpetrated by the hero, who murders an absolute ton of people. He's not so much an Untouchable as an Unhinged Lunatic, and he's determined to clean up the streets of New York in Taito's 1986 you-dirty-rat-em-up Empire City 1931. That's cleaning up the streets in a metaphorical sense, because the expended shell casings and rivers of blood are going to take a long time for some poor mug to actually clean up.


Yes, it's New York in the age of speakeasies and bootleg rum, when gangster hid their guns in violin cases and violins across the country were irreparably damaged with nothing to protect them! A time of wise-guys and dames and vicious men who end all their sentences with the word "See?"!


A time of men in comically oversized trenchcoats! Now I know why they're called trenchcoats, it's because you could fit an entire army regiment in one of them as they await their almost inevitable deaths on some god-forsaken Belgian field.


Some of these men can pull off the "coat that looks like the cardboard box your refrigerator came in" look quite well, mind you. These two, for example, look just about mean and moody enough to get away with it.


You're welcome.
Empire City does have a two-player mode, so presumably these two palookas are the playable characters. That's a bit odd, because the game's story - as provided by the arcade flyer but not at any point in the game itself - concerns a lone vigilante's efforts to rub out the Mafia. Two Mafia gangs killed his family when they were caught in the crossfire of a turf war, you see, and now the hero is going to avenge his loved ones and punish the Mafia like some kind of punish-er.


The game begins, and it wastes no time in throwing you right into the action. There' sno explanation as to what's going on, but luckily it's all very straightforward. You're controlling a cross hair, there's a mobster holding a dame or possibly a broad hostage, I'm sure you can figure it out. A quick swipe of the reticule, a tap of the fire button and the lady is free, free to go about her day and to probably be abducted again immediately because she's a) in a videogame b) female and c) wearing red clothes. Red clothes on a female videogame character are like a red rag to a bull, if bulls were predisposed towards kidnapping: Jessica from Final Fight, Marian from Double Dragon, even Donkey Kong's Pauline. Maybe gangsters, be they the Mafia variety or just common street punks, have different colour receptors on their retinas or something, like criminal bees or something.


Of course, taking out one gangster isn't enough to satisfy our hero's roaring lust for revenge, and immediately after whacking his first target another villain pops up to take his place. This man's crime? He stole Dick Tracy's hat. What a bastard.


And so Empire City 1931 continues, the player wiping out crime one gangster at a time. Literally one at a time, the next target not appearing until you've plugged the previous one. They can appear anywhere on the stage, so most of the game is spent sweeping your crosshair around trying to find them. Arrows at the left or right of the screen give you an indication of which direction the bad guys are located in and moving your crosshair to the edge of the screen scrolls the view across, although it wasn't until someone leaning out of an office window shot and killed me that I realised you can also pan the screen up and down. That's a handy thing to know when the Mafia are using the classic clock tower sniper's perch, although the slow-ish speed of the screen panning does raise some questions about exactly how our hero is moving about. I can understand that his side-to-side movements might be him walking left or right and therefore represent a careful, measured tread but looking up and down? That should be a more... responsive movement, rather than feeling like our hero is winching his neck up with a hand crank every time he raises his eyes above street level.


After shooting few more goon, Empire City abruptly lurches into stage two. It's night-time in the Big Apple, or there's at least a blue filter over the lens and honestly I rather like the "day for night" look - it gives proceedings a cinematic flair, which is presumably what the developers were going for, and it's a nice shake-up of the already-familiar alleys and warehouses that make up most of the game's backgrounds.
The darkness offers no respite from the constant danger of a sudden lead enema - this is the City That Never Sleeps, after all - but the darkness doesn't really affect the gameplay much as the gangsters are still clearly visible against the scenery. Plus, you have a helpful tool for knowing when you're about to be perforated: it's the speech bubble in the corner of the screen. It counts down from five to zero as an enemy draws a bead on you, and if you haven't dealt with them when it reaches zero then a shot rings out and our hero is killed.


Oof, look at that, they got him right in the corner of the mouth. He's going to need some chapstick for that.
Empire City has instant deaths, then. The bar at the bottom of the play screen isn't a health meter but an ammo gauge, and with a single gunshot wound proving fatal and the ability to lose a life just because you didn't pack enough bullets it feels like Taito had some vague notion about making this game "realistic." It definitely adds a note of tension to the game, this kill-or-be-killed atmosphere, but I'm not convinced it wouldn't have been more fun with a health bar and more than one enemy on screen at once. At least our hero can carry quite a lot of bullets, which solves the mystery of why everyone's coat is big enough to double as a five-man tent. He must sound like a sack of nails falling down a staircase when he runs anywhere.


I promised tommyguns, and I am a man of my word. This guy is a man of his tommygun, though, and tommyguns beat words so he killed me a few times. Enemies can kill you from off-screen, and by this point I was dying frequently without even managing to see the goon who shot me. "This can't be right," I thought to myself, and as my character bled to death in the street for the fiftieth time I realised that maybe I should try pressing some of the other buttons. I don't think I should be judged too harshly for this not occurring to me sooner. I'm kinda surprised there were any buttons besides "fire" in this, a game purely about shooting people.


There's a dodge button! Well, that'll come in handy. Pressing the dodge button make a giant picture of your character appear on screen, obscuring your vision and dragging your cursor in a random direction. These are minor prices to pay for not being dead. Dodging does stop you from being dead as long as it's active while the gunshot countdown clock reaches zero, despite the picture making it look like our hero isn't dodging but has simply raised his arm to protect himself from any incoming projectiles. It's surprisingly effective. Why not dodge all the time then? Because you can't control the crosshair while you're doing it, for starters, and you also lose some ammo every time you dodge. Your evasive manoeuvres presumably cause ammo depletion because your character's spare bullets fall out of his pockets while he's rolling around on the floor.


With mastery of the dodge button firmly under my control, Empire City 1931 falls into a rigid pattern of dodging around each area until you spot your next target, and then trying to eliminate said target using as few bullets as possible because with all this dodging nibbling away at your ammunition there's a real chance you could fail the stage by running out of bullets, the most embarrassing possible end to your vigilante justice crusade short of your trousers falling down as your mother's church group drives past. At least immediate and unseen death isn't as much of an issue now, and after playing for a while you'll stop looking at the shot timer and instead rely on listening to the beeps it makes as it counts down to let you know when you need to dodge.


And thus proceeds Empire City 1931, the basic gameplay never deviating from this very simple formula, the only changes being a gradual increase in difficulty and the occasional new background. I do mean "occasional," too, because I don't count "the same background with with a blue filter on it" as a new background. This indoor area is definitely new, although it doesn't change the gameplay any. Popping out of a doorway is functionally identical to popping up from behind a crate in an alleyway, although the reduced verticality of the stage means I'm not going to be aiming up much.


Apart from to shoot this guy, I mean. No, I have no idea how he got up there, but mentally listing the possible explanations is more entertaining that the game itself, which is rapidly becoming stagnant. My favourite explanations are stilts, that he has terrifying Lovecraftian tentacles from the waist down, or best of all that he's the pinnacle of a totem pole made of Mafia thugs sitting on each others' shoulders, all of whom are complaining about who gets to be at the top in caricatured Noo Joisey accents.


By now you've seen almost everything Empire City has to offer, so I'll just mention a few little bits before we get to the end. There are items to collect, after a fashion: small wooden crates appear on the floor sometimes, and you can shoot them for either extra ammo or the chance to earn some points by shooting a sack of money. You can juggle the sack of money by repeatedly shooting it to get more and more points, although this process is bogged down by the complications of your crosshair not being very accurate, the random and jerky flight of the bag and the fact that in the later stages you have to dodge every two seconds or be killed. Two seconds isn't much of an exaggeration, either, because the later gangsters' shooting countdown starts at at three or two instead of the rather more generous five.


Can you believe that shooting the red oil drum pictured above doesn't cause an explosion that takes out any nearby enemies? I know, what a disgrace. I have been playing videogames for decades now, and I have come to expect certain standard practises, like anything red and shootable packing the explosive force of a nuclear bomb, especially if enemies are stupid enough to use it as cover.
There aren't really anything you'd call "boss battles" in Empire City 1931, but at the end of some stages you might encounter a slightly bigger coat than usual who, unlike every other enemy in the game, takes more than one bullet to kill. After the first time I fought one of these grande cappotti, where I hit him and assumed he was dead only for him to immediately gun me down, they stopped being any kind of threat because you can hold them in place by just blasting away at them until they die. It's not like our hero needs to reload or anything.


By the end of the game, the difficulty stems from simply not being able to find the person you're supposed to killing, especially when the need for near-constant dodging means your cursor is being dragged this way and that. One more than one occasion I simply let the mobster shoot me, because once they do the camera moves to show you where they are. It doesn't help you any, because when you lose a life you start the stage from scratch, but at least it gives you some idea of where they might be hiding for next time. Of course, if you keep doing that you'll run out of lives.


Praise be, it's Tunicael, Angel of Coats, come to take me away to heaven where I will be reunited with my loving family. They will be very pleased by all the murder and death I wrought in their memory, I'm sure. Envelop me in your waterproof embrace, my saviour!


Never mind, it's just a Mafia hitman who executes our hero in a gutter if you don't hit continue. As Game Over screens go, that's pretty grim. To make it less depressing, I'm going to pretend that I was assassinated by myself... from the future. Look, this game needs spicing up somehow, alright?


Then, when you reach the last stage, Empire City finally tries to do something a bit different. The Boss of all the Mafia ever is nearby, and you must kill him at a shot. Also with a shot, one assumes.


It's a sniping mini-game! I wasn't expecting that, but I will gratefully take it because the last few stages had congealed into a dull, samey mess. It's a simple set-up: the screen is fuzzy aside from the bit highlighted by your sniper scope. The Boss paces around the building opposite like a man awaiting the birth of his child or (a more likely scenario) the verdict of a court case, and you have fifteen seconds and one bullet to get him in your sights and take him out.


Naturally, I missed the first time I tried it. "You fell down on the job," it says, which must be 1930's gangster slang for "you were spotted and then shot fifty time by the Boss' bodyguards." Such a rich and vibrant lexicon. Anyway, missing the shot sends you back to the start of the previous stage, and once you've fought your way through that again you get another chance.


I made no mistake this time. Well, I did, but I also save-stated here because I really didn't want to have to go through the previous stage again, but the third time was the charm and the Boss got whacked, taken out, bumped, clipped, etcetera etcetera. Dead by shooting, it says. I prefer to think of it as dead by justice. Jazz music plays, a spinning newspaper headline reads MOB BOSS SLAIN, DEAD BY SHOOTING, there's a scene of our hero throwing barrels of illegal hooch into a river. That last bit is in my imagination, because Empire City doesn't have an ending sequence and instead sends you straight into a second loop of the game which I think I'll skip. I've already seen enough of this one.


Empire City 1931 is one of those games that I went into with a degree of optimism, but in the end I wanted to like it much more than I actually did like it. I like the prohibition-era setting, I like crosshair shooters and I like the big sprites and even bigger coats of the game's presentation, but any flair in the gameplay is almost immediately crushed beneath the repetition of the both the action and your surroundings. Shooting the same couple of villains in the same couple of locations quickly becomes tired, and matters aren't helped by your gun's and the game's hit detection not being particularly cooperative. Hunting for off-screen enemies makes the game feel like less a test of skill and more a test of how lucky you are at guessing where the bad guys are hiding. The dodging mechanic is interesting, or at least it is until you reach the point in the game where you're dodging all the time, and in the end I'd have to put this on my "not recommended" pile. If you're still interested, I suggest only playing the first few stages, or better yet playing Taito's own (and much superior) Dead Connection instead. Someone must have like Empire City 1931, enough that it was ported to several home formats and later received a sequel, and maybe I'm judging it a little harshly considering it was released in 1986, but that someone is not me. Nice coats, mind you.

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