23/06/2011

AVENGING SPIRIT

Ghosts: so often in the world of videogames, from Pac-Man to Luigi's Mansion, the restless spirits of the dead decide that rather than spending their eternal afterlife doing something useful like finally putting those shelves up in the bathroom, they're going to get their incorporeal asses right in the way and attempt to kill any videogame hero they come across. Not today, though. Oh no, for the dark powers of spiritual possession are finally being used by the forces of justice in Jaleco's 1991 arcade possess-em-up Avenging Spirit.

So, what's the story here? Our hero is enjoying a pleasant stroll with his orange-haired girlfriend, when two villains attack them.

Well, I'm sure the hero will be fine. We haven't even started the game yet.

Oh. Well, that could put a dampener on things. It turns out that your girlfriend's father is an expert on "ghost energy", whatever the hell that is, and they kidnapped his daughter so they could ransom her for his data on ghost energy.

"Ghost Energy" may sound like a clear, refreshing health drink from Japan, but it is in fact some kind of cosmic force that allows our hero to manifest as a goofy little ghost.

He looks pretty cheerful for someone who was just murdered whilst watching their girlfriend get abducted. Judging by his expression he's higher than a giraffe on stilts anyway, so now he can mellowly float his way to the start of the game.
This is where Avenging Spirit's gimmick of forcible phantasmic possession is explained to you. Four enemies are placed on the screen, and you can select one of them to control by moving your ghost over them and pressing attack. The ghost wriggles his way into the hosts body, taking control of them like some hideous ectoplasmic parasite and giving you full control over their actions.

The controls are, well, they're in that picture above. They're pretty basic: Avenging Spirit is, at its heart, a cutesy version of Contra with the added mechanic of undead parasitism. Jump around, shoot things, get to the end of the stage.
AS's more unique aspects are represent by the two health bars in the screenshot above. The bottom purple bar is the health of your current host body: when they get hit too much, their body gives out and our ghostly friend is forcibly ejected. This is where the top red bar comes into play, because that's your "Ghost Energy". It constantly depletes when you're in ghost form, so it's (usually) in your best interests to jump into an enemy as soon as possible. It also decreases a little when you get hit, and when your Ghost Energy runs out you, uh, die? Un-die? Perhaps when your Ghost Energy runs out your soul is completely erased from all planes of reality, as though you never existed. Cheerful!

I decided to start out as a ninja, (and why wouldn't you,) and you're instantly faced with an assortment of tommygun-wielding gangsters and anime-style heroines to defeat. Or, if you prefer, you can dodge as many enemies as possible, try and preserve your Ghost Energy and just head for the exit. That's a valid tactic, too... if you're a wuss. You're a ninja for chrissakes, get out there and ninj something!
The levels themselves as fairly large, with plenty of scope for up and down movement as well as the standard left-to-right, giving you more than one path to take in each stage. It's a good job you've got the vertical space, too, because this ninja jumps like someone riding a pogo stick into a minefield: straight up. The "feel" of their jumps is one of the differences between each of your potential flesh puppets, but more on that in a while. For now, just enjoy the ninja's face when he jumps:

"I have no idea what I'm doing," that expression seems to say, or possibly "did I remember to turn my ninja oven off?"
Personally, it was the graphics that caught my attention with this one: I'm just a sucker for the big, cartoony pixel style of the early '90s, I guess. What AS reminds me of most is Metal Slug, although obviously without quite the same level of beautiful, beautiful sprite work as MS. I mean, look at the guy in red at the bottom of this screenshot:

Now tell me he doesn't look like he belongs in a Metal Slug game. Also pictured: a giant GO! sign. That marks the end of the stage proper and the entrance to the boss' lair. Yes, Avenging Spirit has bosses, but sadly they aren't all that interesting.

First up, a robot snake in a trash compactor, which makes about as much sense as anything else in Avenging Spirit. He bears something of a resemblance to the giant snakes from Mega Man 3, as seen in Spark Man's stage. No, I'm kidding, they're in Snake Man's stage - he had the decency to pick a theme for his stage and stick with it. Not like Top Man, because what the hell does some futuristic garden have to do with spinning tops? Anyway, I digress. Defeat the boss, and you get a little bit of story and you move onto the next stage.

So, that's the gameplay: move through the stage, possess a bad guy, use your unearthly powers to make them kill their own comrades against their will in a prolonged orgy of mind-rape, defeat the boss and move on. Now, the interesting bit: there are a fair few types of bad guys to possess, so let's have a look at the various categories.

Ninjas

Really fearful looking ninjas, it has to be said. Perhaps ghosts are the mortal enemies of ninjas, as ghosts are the only things more stealthy and mysterious than they are. They don't want ghosts horning in on their territory: ghost ninjas would be far superior at ninja-ing, and due to not needing to buy food and clothes and things they could constantly underbid regular ninjas for valuable assassination contracts.
Ninjas are fairly common and come in two flavours: blue throws shurikens and red has a ball-and-chain to attack with. Both types jump around like a cat with a firework up its arse, and I think red ninja is probably the best "unit" in the game due to his power and speed.

Gangsters

Entry-level mafia goons who have moved away from illegal gambling and into the (I imagine far less lucrative) ghost-hunting business. Imagine Tony Soprano in an episode of Scooby Doo. They attack with pistols, and there are purple ones later on who have tommyguns.

Anime Girls

Acrobatic, miniskirted ladies who look like every anime heroine ever. As I'm sure you've already guessed, they're real quick and they can jump well. They attack with punches and kicks, and the purple-haired one can shoot crescents of energy (standard, not Ghost) out of her feet, but the best way to use them is to avoid the fighting and run the hell away.

Soldiers

Some big, burly fellows with headbands have taken refuge from the likes of Contra and pitched up in the cutesy world of Avenging Spirit. They didn't leave their murderin' ways behind them though, because they attack with either an uzi or hand grenades. All round, they're pretty handy and they look as though they're battle-hardened enough that an undead phantom invading their body won't really faze them - in fact, it'd probably be more traumatic for our ghostly friend as he becomes party to all the dark and terrible things they've done on the battlefield. That's what you get for creeping into other people's brains, you ghostly little twat.

Snow Women

You know what's better than bullets for killing your enemies? Snow! No, of course it isn't, although it's not far off. Madam Sasquatch here has the power to roll balls of snow across the screen, although sadly they don't get bigger the more they roll. However, they don't travel that fast and you can only have three on the screen at once. This can lead to the unfortunate situation of not being able to fire when you need to, leaving you to curse your decision to possess this old lady when there're guys with guns around.

Wizards

So, you spend years of your life learning the dark arts, gaining a mastery over the very elemental forces of nature itself, your body coursing with enough power to kill a man with a mere gesture... and then you go and ruin it all by wearing a pink robe with cat ears attached. It's like becoming the world boxing champ and nicknaming yourself "Powderpuff". Still, they are some pretty adorable wizards, especially their focused expressions when they're firing their magic. Because that's how they attack. With magic. Yup. The pink ones fire beam and the green ones a larger orb of death, and they're also quite good to use.

Elderly Baseball Players

Well, that about covers it. They baseball players, and they're elderly. What more do you need to know? That their moustaches flow mighitly, like the surging of some vast river? That they attack with baseball bats? Actually, the best thing about the baseball players is that they can reflect projectile by hitting them with the bat. It's just a shame they're so rare.

Vampires (in their underpants)

Also rare are these guys, my personal favourites. They look like regular vampires until they attack, at which point they whip open their cape to reveal their boxers. Oh, and some bats fly out and gnaw upon the faces of your enemies. It's all a bit Castlevania, truth be told, except I don't think Dracula ever fought the Belmonts dressed in his pants and a cape.

Fakirs

Mystic holy men who have developed the power of flight at the expense of their fashion sense. They're probably the least useful (and least interesting) enemy, because for some reason when you take control of them they forget how to fly. I guess that's the bit of knowledge that got pushed out of their head when our hero took up residence.

Hoppers

Well, that's what they are referred to as on the arcade flyer, anyway. They're almost exactly the same as the soldiers, except that they look like a cross between Lupin III and a Metal Slug character.

Holy Crap It's Dragons

Yep, dragons. Big ol' fire-breathing dragons. They got the job of guarding the kidnapped girl after mentioning their previous job, guarding a large pile of gold from would-be adventurers, during their interview with EvilCorp or whoever's behind all this. That's the kind of experience that money can't buy, and it's vital in the "protecting-strongholds-from-avenging-spirits" business. Plus they can breath fire, and they can take quite a lot of punishment.

And that's it for the possesable enemies (well, there's a robot too, but I forget to get a picture of him. He can fire missiles, but he's not very good). You choose your humanoid meat-vehicle and make your way through the game's six stages until you reach the end. The stages see you traveling through the city streets, through what might be either a construction site or a building made entirely of K'nex, across some rooftops, through the sewers and into the enemy fortress. It seems like a lot of sneaking around for an incorporeal being, but I guess he knows what he's doing.

The only major complication comes from collecting keys. You see, after the first stage you are told that the room holding your girlfriend is locked by three keys that you're going to need to find to free her. They're hidden about the levels, but they're pretty easy to find if you look around a little. The last key is on the final stage, and it makes you do a little puzzle (and I mean "puzzle" in the same way that writing your name or opening a can of Coke is a "puzzle") where you have to step on five blocks in sequence to spell a word, which opens a door so you can get the last key. The password your enemies chose? GHOST. GHOST!? That's hardly secure, is it? For a start, it's only five letters long, but that's not the point! Ghost? This whole thing has been about ghosts and their various energies, you could have at least picked the name of your pet dog or something. "We've got to keep these messages out of Nazi hands, so our clever chaps at Intelligence have come up with this code to make them unreadable. The keyword you will need to decipher them is BRITISHINTELLIGENCE. Carry on!"

To be fair, this is an organization that decided the best way of inputting said password would be a series of metal blocks protruding from the wall that require a grown man's weight on top of them to activate, so they're obviously not the sharpest group of minds in the world. What's wrong with a keypad, too gauche for you? Also, YOU'RE A GHOST. Just float through the fucking door! Aaaanyway, rescuing or not rescuing your girlfriend not only determines which ending you get, but also gives you a gameplay advantage if you perform your boyfriendly duty and get her out of her cell.

Yep, I possessed her good. She doesn't seem scared by the sudden appearance of the ghost of her dead boyfriend, more sort of angry. Still, he did just possess her. That's got to put a strain on any relationship.
Your reward for saving the girl is that you get to use her to fight the final boss, which is handy because she's much more powerful than every enemy you can pilot. She's got some kind of bracelet that fires laser, which rather begs the question "why the hell were you just sitting there in your cell instead of lasering yourself the fuck outta there?"

Here is the final boss. He looks like Archangel from Airwolf and he's riding around in a flying penguiny-ducky-lobstery thing. Considering he's the leader of a brutal evil organization that had no qualms about kidnapping and imprisoning a girl, murdering her boyfriend and holding her for ransom, he looks pretty goddamn goofy. That's okay though - I like goofy, especially when it comes in the form of an eyepatch-wearing, pompadour-sporting old man flying around in a vehicle that would look more appropriate floating in the lake of an amusement park.
Considering the standards set by most final bosses in arcade games, it's not a tough fight (especially if you're controlling the girlfriend) and soon you have emerged victorious.

If you got the good ending, the girlfriend is freed and our hero gets to enjoy the world one last time by hijacking the senses of his lady love. Then his ghost energy runs out and he fades away, content at a job well done. If you didn't manage to get the girl out and left her to rot in her cell...

The ghost, still looking baked as all hell but more sad-looking, hopes that the girl managed to escape. This doesn't seem very likely, because the enemy base is shown to have exploded, presumably vaporising the girl. Oh dear. Well, at least you stopped the evil villain from completing his plan to use Ghost Energy in some ill-defined but no doubt evil way. That's something, right? Right?

I gotta say, Avenging Spirit is really rather good. Personally, I've always found that Jaleco's games occupied a position where they were generally quite good but never really had that extra oomph that'd push them up to being real classics. While Avenging Spirit might not be in this very top class, it's definitely one of Jaleco's best and is something of a lost gem. The graphics are lovely, full of character and well animated, the music is really good (if occasionally repetitive) and the gameplay is really good fun. The possession gimmick lifts it out of standard action platformer territory, it controls well and it's not so difficult it becomes tedious, so all in all I've got no hesitation in recommending it if you fancy a quick blast of arcade fun. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to start studying for my PhD in Ghost Energy.

7 comments:

  1. Happy to see somebody else give this game some love. Never played the arcade version (I'm clueless as to how to use MAME) but I've played the gameboy version... which, as far as a I can tell, is actually an amazing port of the arcade game given the constraints on it. The graphics and sound take an understandable hit, there are a few less enemies (I think? Not sure how many less there are due to colours being indistinguishable) and the North American version has a stupid edited version of the opening/ending that makes even less sense than the entire game combined (Although the Japanese left it intact) but overall all the fun of the gameplay is still there. Thank you for giving me a better look at the obviously superior Arcade version, I'd love to play it at some point. :)

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  2. Rob: Thanks for the heads up, I didn't know there was a Gameboy port and it sounds like a good one so I'll have to check it out. I'm looking forward to seeing how it could make even less sense than this version!

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  3. The box art for the Game Boy port--incidentally, one of my favorite box arts ever--looks better suited for a hypothetical port of 64th Street than a game about a ghost.

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  4. You can actually fly while controlling the fakir by mashing the jump button!

    Nice review mate..

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