18/07/2017

EPHEMERA: SILENT HILL 2 EDITION

We’re going from the ridiculous to the sublime at VGJunk today, because after writing about “worst game ever” contender Rhythm Beat last time out I decided to give myself a break and play through the best game ever, Silent Hill 2. Okay, okay, I know that’s subjective. It’s my favourite game ever, though, and probably always will be if even Bloodborne couldn’t shift it from its lofty perch.


I usually play through Silent Hill 2 at least once a year. Not last year, though – I played Silent Hill 4 instead for the purposes of this article, so never let it be said that I don’t suffer for my art. That just means I’m really looking forward to playing SH2 again, though, and in this article I’ll be pointing out a few of the things that caught my attention during what was my thirtieth-ish playthrough. With that in mind, this article will contain spoilers. Lots and lots of huge, end-game spoilers right from the beginning of the article, so if you’ve never played Silent Hill 2 but you’d like to one day then skip this article. Seriously, if there’s any game where spoilers should absolutely be avoided, it’s Silent Hill 2. To reiterate: watch out for spoilers. Okay? Okay. Right, let’s get started.


I’ll begin in the very first area of the game: a disgusting, piss-drenched men’s toilet! This neatly sidesteps the issue of why you never see protagonists go to the bathroom – in Silent Hill 2’s case, it because protagonist James Sunderland has thoroughly evacuated himself before embarking on his adventure. That’s not why I’m talking about the toilet, though. Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to this strange piece of graffiti on the bathroom wall. Weird bowling-pin creatures with shocked expressions make an interesting change from the usual “LEEDS UTD 4EVA” or “Dazs mum is a slag” you see scrawled on toilet walls, but I’m more interested in the writing around the graffiti man. Here’s a closer look:


That certainly looks like Hebrew writing to me. But what does it say? Sorry, but that’s where my knowledge of Hebrew ends, I’m afraid. I tried to puzzle it out on my own and didn’t get very far. A bit of internet research suggest a few other people have also tried to figure it out, with the result that the writing might be a list of names for God in Hebrew. The one just to the left of the little dude’s neck looks like it could be “Adonai,” for instance. Personally, I’m not so sure. It depends on whether this image was taken from somewhere or if it was created specifically for the game by SH2’s graphic artists. There are other instances in the game of text in different alphabets, (and we’ll get to that in a bit,) where Konami simply replaced the English letter with its closest equivalent from the Greek alphabet, so that might also be what’s happening here only with the Hebrew alphabet. You’re all welcome to have a crack at deciphering this thing, but I’m happy enough just to use it as an example of Silent Hill 2 hiding mysterious titbits that may or may not have a deeper meaning amongst the game’s graphics.

A little further in, and James encounters both the game’s first monster – which he promptly batters to death with a stick – and the franchise’s iconic radio, which emits static as a warning when monsters are nearby. However, in Silent Hill 2 the radio serves another purpose: it sends James a message from his dead wife Mary, encouraging him to hurry up and find her. Just to make one hundred per cent sure you get it, here come some enormous spoilers. Don’t say you weren’t warned.


The message you hear is garbled and patchy… but not as garbled and patchy as the game wants you to think it is. Check out the subtitles in the screenshot above – you can see there are only snippets of the message coming through, until you stop reading the subtitles and actually listen.



At about 23 seconds into the clip above, you can clearly hear James’ wife say “why did you kill me?” thus revealing Silent Hill 2’s most shocking plot twist about five minutes into the game. That’s what you call a ballsy manoeuvre, folks. The thing is, out of all the people I know in real life who’ve played Silent Hill 2 not one of them has ever noticed Mary spoiling the game. I know I didn’t, I had it pointed out to me years later. It’s pretty amazing, really. My explanation as to why so few people pick up on this is that a) you’re not expecting to be told the game’s plot twist right off the bat, b) people assume that there’s nothing to hear because they take the game’s insistence that the message is garbled as fact and c) you’re actually reading the subtitles, assuming that they’ll tell you any important information. It’s a fascinating psychological trick, honestly. Risky, but I think it pays off nicely.

Now that James has a weapon and a radio, he can spend some time wandering around the foggy streets of Silent Hill trying to figure out where to go next. Or, you can take in the town’s architecture at your leisure, because it’s not exactly difficult to avoid the monsters. That way you get so see what Silent Hill has to offer as a resort town, including a couple of cafes and bars, a restaurant that promises “humongous burritos” and whatever this place sells.


I had a hard time picking a favourite shop name from Silent Hill 2, especially when you consider other contenders are a shop called “I Love Groovy Music” and the ultra-appropriately named “Cafe Mist” but in the end I had to go with “Magical Envelopes” because, c’mon, magical envelopes? On one level I appreciate the absurdity of it, because quite possibly the least magical thing I can think of is a manila envelope. On the other hand, Silent Hill 2 does literally start with James receiving a magical envelope, so now we know where the dark forces of Silent Hill do their stationary shopping.


Moving on to the apartment building portion of the game, and here’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen mentioned anywhere before: this spooky picture. The one on the right. What do you mean, “it just looks like trees?” Let’s zoom in and enhance:


There are a couple of skulls on that picture, and there’s nowt more spooky than skulls. It’s perhaps a little too obviously spooky for a Silent Hill game, a series whose sense of dread usually comes from unsettling weirdness. It definitely leans towards the “lenticular Halloween decoration” end of the fear scale but again, it shows there’s always something in Silent Hill 2 worth keeping your eyes peeled for.

The apartment building is also where you meet Pyramid Head for the first time, and one of the most iconic monsters in modern videogaming gets a suitably powerful introduction. Now, I suspect that when most people think of Pyramid Head’s introduction they think of the cutscene where Pyramid Head attacks some other monsters while James hides in a wardrobe, and I can see why: it’s a disturbing, aggressive scene that quickly cements Pyramid Head as something even more dangerous than the other creatures in the game. However, I much prefer the moment you get your very first look at Pyramid Head.


For me, it’s the single most effective “scary” moment in videogaming, and all Pyramid Head does is stand there, basking in a faint red glow. James’ monster-detecting radio is going bananas so you know that this mysterious figure is a monster, but beyond that you know nothing about it as it stands there and watches you from behind the metal gate, just obscured enough that you can’t make out its exact form. The dread comes from not knowing what Pyramid Head’s intentions are – other monsters would be jerking and flailing towards James in an attempt to kill him, not calmly surveying the scene. It’s the opposite of a jump-scare, I suppose, and it’s extremely effective in instilling an extra layer of uncertainty and nervousness in the player.


Speaking of Pyramid Head, here’s the first time you have to fight him. When you “win,” Pyramid Head simply turns around and walks away, but I totally forgot that if you chase after him he will turn around and start trying to kill you again. Man, that’d be a really embarrassing way to die in Silent Hill 2, huh? Killed by a boss you’ve already beaten. What kind of sap would fall for that, he chuckled awkwardly to himself as he loaded his last save file.


Before we leave the apartment building, I’ll take this opportunity to mention (again) that there’s a message hidden around the edges of the coins used in the coin puzzle.

After trekking through the apartment building, James meets up with Maria. She’s a (more spoilers) not-real duplicate of his dead wife with a more licentious personality and Christina Aguilera’s wardrobe. James and Maria eventually make their way to the hospital, but the exertion is all too much for Maria and she has to have a little lie down.


There’s definitely humour to be found in someone laying on a bare, stained mattress in a filthy abandoned mental hospital full of monsters and saying “Mmm. So comfy...” A pitch-black kind of humour to be sure, but it’s still there. Of course, now I’m wondering whether Maria’s exaggerated assessment of the hospital’s sleeping arrangements is completely intentional and she’s trying to convince James to stay with her, maybe get on the bed with her and give up looking for his dead wife. If that’s the case, she should have probably picked a location that doesn’t look like a nightmare scene from Jacob’s Ladder.


Here’s a save point adorning the wall of one of the other hospital rooms. I love that the save points in Silent Hill 2 are just… red squares. Pieces of paper, possibly. Their very simplicity makes them mysterious, especially when James comments that it feels as though “someone’s groping around in (his) skull” when he looks at them. I think one of the reasons SH2 is so effective at unnerving the player is that it’s so close to being almost over-familiar, but then it veers away into the kind of strangeness you might not expect. This is presumably the result of a Japanese team of game developers making a game that’s hugely inspired by “Western” horror – the works of Stephen King and David Lynch, for instance – but then adding their own sensibilities to it, creating something at once familiar and alien. I mentioned this in a previous article, but take Pyramid Head’s design, for instance: the way he looks in the Silent Hill movies, with the extra greeblies on the helmet and the sheer pointiness of it all – that’s how you’d expect him to look in a Hollywood horror movie. His original game design, however, is both clearly monstrous but unnervingly abstract, and it lets you know that Pyramid Head is something other than just a monster.
Where was I? Oh yeah, save points. As well as being mysterious, their simple shape and vivid colour also makes them easy to spot while you’re traversing the town, which is nice.


There’s also this scene right near the end of the game, where the developers made damn sure you knew it was time to save your progress while simultaneously making you dread whatever’s coming up next. It’s something so horrible it requires nine goddamn save points! Good job on making even such a basic mechanical element as saving your game a vehicle for horror, Team Silent.


In the hospital’s shower room, there’s a trail of fluorescent green goop running down the drain. Given that this is Silent Hill, this fluid could be all manner of unpleasant substances, but I’m going to assume that it’s a reference to the undead resurrecting serum from the Re-Animator movies. Do I have any evidence to support this claim? No, I do not. I just like Re-Animator, and I especially like the idea of Herbert West pitching up in Silent Hill. He’d probably love it in Silent Hill. There’s a regular supply of dead bodies to re-animate and enough mysterious disappearances that it’ll be ages before anyone even suspects him. Presumably Herbert West would inhabit the regular, non-nightmarish Silent Hill, though. The haunted, psychological-torture version of the town only seems to ensnare those with deeply repressed guilt, and Herbert West has never felt guilty about anything in his life.

After the hospital, James heads to the Silent Hill Historical Society. Open Friday-to-Monday, kids under five go free, ask us about the town’s history of evil religious cults and lake tragedies. There are a few notable relics of Silent Hill’s past in the Historical Society, mostly in the form of paintings. The most famous is that huge painting of Pyramid Head that dominates one wall, but some of the others are interesting, too.


For instance, this fairly unremarkable picture actually depicts the room where you fight the game’s final boss, a nice little piece of foreshadowing.


There’s also this one, called “Crimson and White Banquet for the Gods.” It’s a little hard to see here, but that’s okay, I’ve got a close-up.


As you can see, it shows some people participating in a ceremony, including someone wearing robes and a big, red, triangular hood. Hmm. I’ve always been partial to the theory that on James’ first visit to Silent Hill – back before he killed his wife and descended into a nightmarish psychological hellscape – he saw this picture on a trip to the Historical Society and it stuck with him, later informing the appearance that Pyramid Head takes as it is manifested from James’ mind. The chap in the red hood, one Jimmy Stone, also pops up in Silent Hill 4 as one of the ghosts, because one of the big themes in Silent Hill 4 is taking minor world-building elements from Silent Hill 2 and making them more “important.”

Via the expedient method of jumping down some seemingly bottomless pits, James finds himself in a prison for the next portion of the game. One great thing about the prison is that it shows how much you can get out of playing through Silent Hill 2 multiple times. On your first playthrough, the prison seems appropriate because it could represent how trapped James is feeling by his situation, his inability to protect Maria and his reluctance to accept his wife’s death. On later playthroughs, however, and especially if you got the ending that explains James killed his sick wife for selfish reasons, you’ve got an extra layer of meaning as you realise that prison might be where James belongs.


There are a few moments that hammer this home, some of them less subtle than other. James briefly gets trapped in a cell, and there’s a scene where he pulls down a noose so that it frames his head, that kind of thing. The moment pictured above is one I’ve never really thought about before, though, showing James on the “wrong” side of the visitor’s booth while the camera – that is, the player – views him through the security glass. It’s a wonderfully crafted little scene, and a pleasing reminder that even after playing SH2 dozens of times I’m still finding new ways to enjoy it.


On a lighter note, there’s a gallows in the prison. No, wait, bear with me. You see, you can climb up the gallows, and you can also fall off them.


James’ weird falling animation and comically heavy thud as he hits the ground provide a welcome moment of levity in a game of such unrelenting horror, and as such I chuck myself off this platform a few times every time I play through the game. Well, they do say nothing relieves a stressful situation like a little gallows humour. Oh, cool, that was the joke that finally killed my soul.


Also, the prison has some surprisingly cheerful signage on its bathroom doors.

The final area of the game is the hotel, and just outside there’s a fountain that’s making me question my conception of what a bird looks like. I always assumed it was supposed to be a fish, perhaps one that sprays water out of its mouth. You know, one of those sculptural fish you sometimes see that look like medieval drawings of dolphins. But no, James says it’s a bird and he’s looking right at it. Who am I to question his taxonomical skills? I can see it as maybe a stretched goose, I suppose, although rather than a fish or a bird it reminds me most of a sandworm from Beetlejuice.


Finally for today, it’s the moment just before you face the final boss. Visually, it’s a beautifully composed image: stark and plain, which I’ve always taken to represent James letting go of the delusions he’s been labouring under for the rest of the game. All that’s left is to confront “Mary” and bring it all to an end, whatever end that might be. One touch I really like is the quietness of the scene: as you approach this final encounter, there’s no music and the only sounds are James’ footsteps and a light rain. You get here by climbing up a huge metal staircase, and when you enter the room the staircase falls away beneath you to show that there’s no going back – but it does so silently, without the sound of crashing metal you might expect. I don’t know whether this was intentional or not, but it works out well because if there was a sudden loud noise it would really detract from the scene.


So that was a bunch of words about Silent Hill 2, huh? Yeah, it didn’t really fall into the usual Ephemera article style, but sometimes you’ve just got to write about what makes you happy and rambling on about SH2 does make me happy. Now I’ve just got to decide between playing through Silent Hill 2 again or moving on to Silent Hill 3.
 

13/07/2017

RHYTHM BEAT (PS1)

It might surprise you to learn that I’m not a great dancer. I know, right? Videogame blogger in “dances like electrocuted chicken” shocker. Well, that’s what videogames are for. They can help you pretend you’re good at things that you aren’t good at, like how years of playing Football Manager means I could definitely lead my local school’s under-fifteens football team to Champions League glory if they’d just give me a shot. Anyway, hopefully today’s game can protect my fragile ego and keep alive the dream that I am at least slightly funky – it’s Phoenix Game’s 2004 Playstation “dance” game Rhythm Beat!

Ah yes, Phoenix Games. You might be familiar with them already, because they’re famous as probably the worst publisher of the PS1 / PS2 era (and beyond,) a company that specialised in releasing ultra-low-budget games including digital colouring books, knock-offs of Disney properties and White Van Racer. That said, even if you didn’t know who Phoenix Games were this title screen simply screams “incompetent shovelware.” The WordArt-looking logo in a stock font, the low-effort graphics on the record, more lens flare than a five-hour documentary on J.J. Abrams’ directorial career: Rhythm Beat’s title screen has it all.


Things don’t look any more impressive once you get to the menu. I don’t care how many soft pastel colours you douse it in, that’s still a dinner plate in the background.
I think I’ll begin with Song Mode, because Collection Mode sounds like it’ll take a while and I need to find out just how terrible this game is before I commit my time to Collection Mode. Okay then, what songs do you have, Rhythm Beat?  The latest chart-topping smashes from the world’s greatest recording artists?


Or, you know, a bunch of tunes cobbled together in the cheapest music tracker software the developers could find. Fifteen tracks is actually way more than I was expecting this game to include, but obviously the best thing about them is their titles. Who could fail to be intrigued by a song called “Mutant’s Smile”? Then there’s “Bloddy (sic) Dusk,” which sounds like the subtitle to a bootleg Castlevania game, or “SMS Attack” which I assume is a three-hour rock opera about a Sega Master System laying waste to humanity. I honestly can’t decide which is my favourite. It’s either the sheer redundancy of “Flying Flies” or “Copy Paste,” which will seem pretty goddamn appropriate when we get to the gameplay.


Okay, so I picked a song and a blocky polygon man appeared and started dancing. Well, moving. Okay, jerking around the screen seemingly at random and in no way in time with the music. I don’t think he’s even supposed to be dancing, I think he’s desperately struggling to remove that shirt before it consumes him entirely. It’s not an item of clothing, it’s a parasitic life-form that has evolved that colouration to confuse the Predator’s heat vision. This is what Rhythm Beat offers in terms of graphics, then: shambling, barely human shapes in horrendous outfits. That’s right, “barely human shapes” plural, and they’re all quite upsetting to look at.


For instance, look at this guy with his “school classmate whose parents are weird religious types” haircut and his Voldemort nose. At least his outfit is better than the first guy’s, although the clown he stole those shoes from is going to hunt him down and extract his bloody revenge any minute now, I’m sure.


There are also some female dancers, and if you thought Lara Croft’s PS1-era triangular boobs were impressive then get a load of these. Now we know where the iceberg that sank the Titanic went.
Okay, okay, the gameplay. It’s Dance Dance Revolution. That’s it. An utterly shameless DDR knock-off with no attempt made to add anything new or unique. Arrows corresponding to directional inputs scroll down the screen, and you have to press the right direction on the d-pad (or the corresponding face button) as the arrow passes over the marker in the centre of the screen. You can use a dance mat peripheral too, if you like. Obviously I didn’t, because buying anything that makes videogames less sedentary is anathema to me, but the option is there. Hit a bunch of notes in a row and you’ll get points and a combo going, miss too many notes and you’ll fail.


Failing is exactly what I managed to accomplish the first time I played Rhythm Beat. “Disaster! Game Over!” it says, and, okay, two things: you’re really devaluing the word “disaster” here, and also I was awarded the rank of “Master” for my failure. Make up your goddamn mind, Rhythm Beat.


There was a very simple reason that I failed on my first attempt: I made the mistake of assuming the notes I had to hit were in some way synched up to the music. They are not, at all. The music and the note patterns are completely unrelated. You can turn the volume right down and it will actually make the gameplay easier, because you won’t be distracted by the beat of the music. It’s astonishing, it really is. Phoenix Games have created a rhythm action game with no action and no rhythm, completely ignoring the entire point of the genre and dragging Rhythm Beat down from merely a bad game to one that’s existence is absolutely pointless.


The very basics of the game might be horribly broken, but at least you get to see these characters busting out their dope dance moves. Apologies for the much-larger-than-usual GIF, but I’m sure you’ll agree it was important that I captured this in all its glory. Thanks, Rhythm Beat, for making me feel better about my own dancing skills.


I decided to give Collection Mode a go, which led me to the spectacularly unhelpful selection screen. Jumbo, Groovy and Gold might be good code-names for a disco-based superhero team, but they’re not exactly telling me what I’m letting myself in for here.


All right, so it turns out that in Collection Mode you just play through five song in a row. There’s nothing to collect or anything like that, and when you reach the end it just stops and you’re sent back to the title screen. Fortunately, I was ready for whatever Rhythm Beat could throw at me and I even moved up from easy to hard difficulty, which I aced because by this point I’d figured out Rhythm Beat’s mechanics. I’d already managed to mentally separate the arrow patterns from the music, but as it happens that doesn’t even matter and anyone can beat any song in this game on their first attempt.


Here’s the thing: there’s no punishment for hitting the buttons when the arrows aren’t in the right place. You’d expect a mistimed button press to count as a missed note or to at least make you drop your combo, but that’s not the case. So, let’s say the next note coming up is a right-facing arrow. Rather than waiting for it to line up with the hit marker and then pressing right, you can just keep tapping right on the d-pad / pressing circle / stomping on the “right” segment of your dance mat until the arrow reaches the hit zone and voilĂ , you’ve just hit the note. Sometime you have to hit two directions at once, for example up and down, but the window for success is generous enough that you can just flick both directions alternately and you’ll still hit the notes. It gets better, though: I played Rhythm Beat with a gamepad that has an analog stick rather than a d-pad, right? This meant I could clear every song without even looking at the screen simply by rotating the analog stick at a reasonable speed. So I did. Look, why should I bother playing this game properly if the developers couldn’t be bothered to make it properly?


Status: God. Thumb status: a little tired from rotating the analog stick for three minutes.
Hopefully all that has sufficiently explained that Rhythm Beat’s gameplay is so bad you’d be justified in saying it doesn’t even exist, and, well, you can see the graphics, but this is nominally a music-based game so what’s the music like? Actually – and this was a real shock for me – the music is the most competent part of the whole sorry affair. You couldn’t call any of it “good” (with maybe one or two exceptions) but for the most part it’s not nearly as bad as I was expecting.



This is “SMS Attack,” and it’s pretty typical of most of the music in Rhythm Beat: fairly generic electro/trance type tracks with the occasional strange flourish and a slower tempo than you might have expected from a dance game. They’re… inoffensive, that’s the word I’d use. However, some of the tracks go right off the rails when they try to use synthesised version of real instruments, which uniformly sound awful. There’s an electric guitar noise that sounds more like a malfunctioning electric toothbrush, for example, or some synth horns that must have been created by someone with a bitter grudge against the very concept of brass instruments.



There are one or two decent tracks, though. I genuinely like “Dead Impact,” especially after about thirty seconds in when the vaguely “Eastern” sounding synth lead kicks in. It’s got a pleasingly mysterious vibe to it – I could see this as the “exploration” theme in a cyberpunk dungeon-crawler, and it’s reminding me of Shin Megami Tensei without sounding much like it’s from a SMT game.


Apart from the music not quite being totally hateful, Rhythm Beat is a terrible game that fails on almost every conceivable level and as such it must go down as one of the worst games I’ve ever played… and yet I can’t bring myself to hate it. There’s something about its incredible dumbness that affords it a layer of protection, and while objectively I should be at least a little angry at the time I wasted playing it I can’t get mad about a music game with a track called “You’re Disgusting.” On top of that, ever since I played it I’ve had “Beat Surrender” stuck in my head, and considering the kind of music I usually get stuck in my head that is a bloody godsend.

10/07/2017

DRAGON FIGHTER (NES)

Today’s article is about Dragon Fighter, a 1990 NES adventure by Natsume starring a main character who can transform into a… what? We’re doing the other Dragon Fighter? Well, that seems like an extremely bad idea but okay, here we go – it’s Dragon Fighter, a mid-nineties NES / Famicom fighting game cobbled together from stolen parts and published by a company called Flying Star. If you’re upset because you thought you were going to be reading about Natsume’s Dragon Fighter, then all I can say is I’m definitely about to be punished for misleading you.

Disclaimer: you don’t fight any dragons in this game. Actually, I suppose that’s not technically true, but you certainly don’t get to clobber a giant fire-breathing lizard or anything like that. What you do get on the title screen is a picture of a dragon that’s probably been ripped from a different game, a logo that’s definitely ripped from Street Fighter II and a filthy lie in the phrase “Difficulty: Normal.” There ain’t nothing normal about this game’s difficulty level.


So the first thing you’re going to notice about Dragon Fighter is the character roster. There’s a lot of familiar faces here, to say the least. We’ll meet each of them in turn, but for now I need to pick a character. I’m going to go with the chap at the top-left, for two reasons. The main one is that he’s at the top-left of the character select screen, and the other is that his name is Dragon Lee and, well, this game is called Dragon Fighter. It seems appropriate.


With no other story or set-up it’s straight into the battle once you pick your character, and here’s the big reveal: Dragon Lee isn’t Dragon Lee, he’s Fei Long from Street Fighter. I have no idea why they bothered to change his name. Did they think Capcom were going to look at this game and say “well, we were going to sue for blatant copyright infringement but that guy’s actually called Dragon Lee, sorry about the mistake, please continue”? It’s especially strange because I’m fighting against Terry. Terry Bogard from SNK’s King of Fighters / Fatal Fury games, specifically, and they didn’t bother changing his name.


So yeah, this is one of those bootleg fighting game – a wonky combat engine packed with characters lifted from other games, their sprites crudely redrawn to accommodate the NES’s lower graphical power. At least they made some effort to keep the characters’ special moves intact: as you can see above, Terry can perform his Burn Knuckle dashing punch, as well as his Rising Tackle, although there are no super moves and he’s missing his Power Wave projectile. For Dragon Lee’s part, well, I think of all the characters he might have come out the worst when the special moves were being handed out. He’s got his rising dragon kick thing that he had in the Street Fighter games, except it’s much more vertical now and therefore much less useful, and it also doesn’t set his leg on fire when he performs it which makes it much less cool. As for his other special move, the developers took his forward-and-hard-kick attack, which makes Fei Long perform two kicks while stepping forward, and converted into a weird dashing kick thing where he prances across the screen waving his legs like a ballet dancer performing on a stage covered in upturned drawing pins. It’s kinda weird.


As for the gameplay, at a basic level it’s just your standard one-on-one fighter. Hit the other guy more times than they hit you, best of three rounds, special moves are performed with the usual quarter-circle-and-button type controller inputs, no win quotes, no bonus rounds and nothing else that might make the game a bit more interesting. I put the years I’ve spent playing this type of game to good use by repeatedly kicking Terry in the toes once I’d managed to get him in the corner. He didn’t seem to have much of a response to that, so I kept kicking him in the toes over and over. Eventually it began to feel like a scientific study into just how many times you have to kick someone’s foot before they’re knocked unconscious. It felt like the answer was “about fifty thousand times, good lord this is taking forever.”


On to the next fight, a gruelling battle against Missingno except the infamous glitched Pokemon now has a sword. No, of course not, this random agglomeration of pixels and graphical errors is supposed to be Haohmaru from SNK’s Samurai Spirits games. Dragon Fighter offers a valuable lesson about the folly of trying to compress SNK’s huge, detailed fighting game sprites into a NES game without completely redrawing them like they did with Terry. A result of Haohmaru looking like sentient computer virus from nineties kid’s cartoon is that it’s difficult to tell what he’s doing. Knowing what your opponent is doing is pretty important in a fighting game, right?


Fortunately, this is less of a problem than it could have been because Haohmaru only does one thing anyway. He uses his dash-across-the-screen special move over and over again, a move that’s incredibly fast, does a lot of damage and hits multiple time so even if you manage to block it you’re still going to take a considerable amount of chip damage. Once again, my only recourse was to trap my opponent in the corner. This time I used Fei Long’s – sorry, Dragon Lee’s – charging kick special move as often as I could get the damned game to recognise my controller inputs, so about one out of every ten attempts.


It’s Mortal Kombat’s Sonya Blade next, adding a third visual style to Dragon Fighter’s character roster; after the “realistic” Dragon Lee and the more cartoony Terry, Sonya has a look that’s sort of a midpoint of the two. Presumably this is a result of the original game sprites that Flying Star cannibalised for Dragon Fighter being of wildly different visual styles to start with, what with Mortal Kombat having digitised sprites and all. This results in an ugly mish-mash of styles, where the characters are recognisable as their “inspirations” but that’s the best you can say about them.


Also, there’s some intense sprite flickering in this game, it’s like trying to play Street Fighter with your head jammed inside a bucket full of strobe lights.
But is the gameplay any good? Well, here’s something that’s illustrated by the screenshot above. In almost every 2D fighting game, if your opponent fires a projectile at you and you jump over it quickly enough, that gives you the chance to land a free blow on your opponent while they’re recovering from throwing the projectile, right? That is a basic, iron-clad concept in fighting games. However, that is not how things work in Dragon Fighter, because the CPU characters don’t have to recover from their attacks. They can simply do whatever they want, whenever they want, and jumping over a fireball is a sure-fire way to get hit by some anti-air special move with a ridiculously large hitbox, like Sonya’s extremely weird-looking move where she climbs into the air by pedalling an imaginary bicycle with holding her lower back.


Now it’s time to face Super Woman. I had a bit of trouble placing her, but thanks to the Bootleg Games Wiki I now know that she’s supposed to be Wonder Woman, having been ripped from the Megadrive fighting game Justice League Task Force. If you want to get deeply nerdy about it – and I assume you do, if you’re reading about bootleg NES fighting games – then you could pretend that this is Wonder Woman’s alternate-reality evil duplicate and Crime Syndicate of America member Superwoman. Either way, she loves throwing boomerangs at you and performing flying punches. It was around this time that I realised you can press B for kick or A for punch, but if you hold the button you do a more powerful punch or kick. This meant I suddenly had access to Dragon Lee’s jumping hard kick, a wide, spinning affair that must be murder on his hips and against which Superwoman seemingly had no defence. Holding the button down for more powerful attacks might not be the most elegant solution to the NES controller’s lack of buttons, but it’s still better than only having one strength of attack.


Next up is Mortal Kombat’s Liu Kang, and what is it about Mortal Kombat characters and invisible bicycles? Liu Kang wants to ride his bicycle, he wants to ride his bike, and he will – all over your face, draining your health with a near-constant barrage of flying kicks.
Here’s the thing about Dragon Fighter: fighting against the AI is hard. Extremely hard. Painfully, spirit-sappingly, miserably hard, so hard that it makes playing the game in single player almost entirely pointless. The sheer cheapness of this game’s AI cannot be overstated. They spam their special moves over and over again and are entirely invincible while doing so. They completely ignore any recovery times on said special moves. Unlike the player, they don’t have to struggle with muddy, inaccurate controller inputs so if you do manage to avoid one of their special moves they’ll just do another one immediately afterwards with perfect accuracy. The hitboxes on their attacks are all over the place, stretching a ridiculous distance from their bodies. You could put this down to their aura of fighting spirit extending from their attacks, if you were a fan of creating bullshit excuses for god-awful fighting games. Aside from Superwoman, every battle I fought in this hellish arena of death consisted of me save-stating every time I landed a blow and then loading it a thousand times as I made a slight error in position or timing as was consequently beaten to death in one combo. Did I try playing the game on Easy mode? Of course I did, but as far as I can tell there is absolutely no difference between the difficulty levels. In short, you’d have more fun using your forehead to hammer red-hot steel into a large spike and then inserting said spike into the bodily orifice of your choosing than you would playing Dragon Fighter on your own.


Okay, what else have we got? Well, here’s a mirror-match against Dragon Lee. Thank god he doesn’t have a projectile, and he seemed much more inclined to walk into my crouching punch than all the other characters. That meant I spent this entire fight punching myself in the crotch, which is an excellent metaphor for playing Dragon Fighter.
It’s kinda weird that they went with Fei Long, though, isn’t it? There’s only one Street Fighter character in the game and they went with Fei Long, nobody’s favourite Street Fighter character? Don’t get me wrong, I like Fei Long because sometimes it’s fun to play as Bruce Lee, but including him over Ryu or Chun Li is a baffling decision. Perhaps Flying Star were based in Hong Kong and they picked Fei Long as a local pride thing.


Now I’m fighting Kitana, again from Mortal Kombat. She appears to be preparing to throw a rock at Dragon Lee’s head and frankly I would welcome such a straightforward method of attack, but I assume it’s supposed to be a fan. At least she's not riding an invisible pedalo at me. There’s not much else to say about Kitana, really. She’s got the same “projectile and flying attack” moveset as most of the other characters. At least the stage you fight her on doesn’t look too bad. It’s certainly a lot easier on the eye than whatever the hell was going on with Liu Kang’s stage and its enormous golden demon head.


Now I must face Flash Man, so I’ll use the Metal Blade or the Crash Bombs and this fight should be a piece of cake. Okay, so it’s actually DC Comic’s speed-based superhero The Flash, which is a goddamn shame because I would much rather be fighting a Mega Man villain. If you’re going to steal character from other games, you might as well go the whole hog and have Super Mario versus the Ghost of Richard Nixon or something.
Anyway, the most notable thing about The Flash is that he isn’t any faster than the other characters. If he doesn’t have super-speed, The Flash is just a bloke in a red spandex jumpsuit, so it’s hard to get excited about kicking him in the head. Also, Flash Man has a projectile attack where he throws a lump of… something at you. I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. A chunk of the Speed Force? Relatedly, if you want to learn about The Flash, don’t try to read a wiki article about the “Speed Force” that acts as the source of his powers. Trust me, I’m trying to protect you from headaches and a general feeling of confusion.


We’re getting towards the end of the game now, and your penultimate opponent is Mortal Kombat’s thunder god and inconsistent-name-speller Rayden (or Raiden, if you like). In the original games he was played by Carlos Pesina, in the Mortal Kombat movie he was played by Christopher Lambert and in this game Rayden is portrayed by the pure, unadulterated concept of malicious spite. You know all the problems with the game’s AI that I mentioned earlier? Rayden has all of those. However, on top of that he also has a move that lets him teleport across the screen, which he can perform at will and with no set-up, making simply getting close enough to Rayden to hit him an agonisingly frustrating ordeal. Sounds pretty bad, yeah? It is, it’s very, very bad, but it gets worse because you know Rayden’s famous human torpedo move? The one where he flies across the screen with his arms outstretched, sort of like M. Bison’s Psycho Crusher? He can do that move too, and he can block while he’s doing it. Even in the murky, quarter-arsed world of bootleg NES games I have rarely come across such complete and utter bullshit.


Your final opponent is the mighty Fire Devil, and it’s a bloody good job I already knew that some of this game’s character are taken from Justice League Task Force because otherwise I’d have had no idea who this was. Turns out it’s Despero, one of the Martian Manhunter’s foes. Yeah, me neither. Apparently he has a magic third eye that gives him a load of mind-powers, but none of that is included in this game. He fights the same way as all the other characters: relentlessly, with constant special moves and projectiles that you have no way of countering without cheating. Oh, and Despero can taunt the player with a couple of different animations, just in case you’d reached this point without developing a complete loathing for the game.


However, the golden light of hope unexpectedly pierced the gloom, and the fight against the Fire Devil ended up being the easiest in the game. What happened was that I managed to hit the Fire Devil for a little damage while he was in the corner. Then I stood there and tapped kick for the minute or two it took for the round timer to run out. Unable to figure out a way to escape from Dragon Lee’s repeated light kicks and resolutely unwilling to take any damage, the Fire Devil crouched in the corner and blocked until I won by a time out. That’s brains over brawn, that is.


To my considerable shock, Dragon Fighter has an ending beyond the misspelled “congratulations” message I was expecting. You get a brief scene of each character performing their special moves, complete with the button commands you use to perform those moves. You might think that this is pretty useless considering you’ve already finished the game, but you’d be wrong. Because you’re shown it for completing the single-player mode, it might as well not even exist, which is a step down from useless.


The thing is, I’ve played fighting games, both legit and bootleg, that were worse than Dragon Fighter. The basic mechanics aren’t great but neither are they too awful, falling somewhere in the middle of the pirate fighting game spectrum in terms of speed and the responsiveness of the controls. Sure, the graphics are an ugly sludge of mismatched elements and sprite errors, but you could have ten minutes of fun playing it in two-player mode and the weird roster of characters is good for another ten minutes of entertainment. But then there’s that single player mode, which is so hatefully unfair and completely un-fun to play that it ruins the entire game. I’m getting angry just thinking about it. So, if you’re going to play Dragon Fighter, for the love of god make sure you do it two-player, or alternatively play a good fighting game. I hear those can be fun.

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