07/06/2011

UGOKU E VER. 2.0: ARYOL

There are certain things that, as a rule, you don't expect to have compelling storylines. Porn. Michael Bay movies. SNES games about doing jigsaws. Well, you can scratch that last one, because Altron's 1994 SNES picture-puzzle-em-up Ugoku E Ver. 2.0: Aryol features just that, along with more jigsaw action than the day room of an old folk's home. Okay, maybe not that much; they hardcore love jigsaws in those places. But yes, a videogame about jigsaws can tell a better story than Michael Bay. I'm sure you're all shocked.

A while ago, I wrote about Atlus' jigsaw title Pieces, and I made several comments along the lines of how doing jigsaws is a pastime of comparable dullness to sorting a bag of sugar by grain size, or even (God forbid) watching golf. However, the magical power of videogames can make almost anything fun. I'll happily spend time playing digital recreations of activities I wouldn't go anywhere near in the real world, like the aforementioned golf, or training small animals to fight for financial gain, or even doing jigsaws. That's because videogames can do things with these tedious pursuits that can't be done in the real world, such as forming a touching story of love between two fugitives around completing a series of jigsaw puzzles. You don't get that kind of inventiveness in a Michael Bay movie, now do you?! Okay, I'm going to shut up about Michael Bay now.

Right then. Aryol is the story of a small, featureless man in a green coat and hat and his aeronautically-obsessed girlfriend who dresses as a gendarme. The story his narrated between stages by our green-clad friend: normally this would just mean a wall of incomprehensible (to me, at least) Japanese text, but Aryol rather generously lets you change to language to English in the options, allowing me to learn all about how Girlfriend (neither of our heroes is ever given a real name) is obsessed with becoming a pilot. After years of being passed over for piloting jobs due to her gender, (and possibly the fact that she looks like a French policeman,) she decides the only way she'll be able to realise her dream is to rob a bank and start her own airline. Reasonable enough: after all, that's how Richard Branson got started.

This is the first puzzle. Green performs his pre-heist stretches while Girlfriend looks on blankly. Literally blankly, as she doesn't appear to have a face. That's got to be an advantage if you're a wanted criminal, you could just draw another face onto your freakishly smooth head for an instant disguise.
You're given a few seconds to look at the picture and then bam!

The picture explodes, and you're left to put the pieces back together. The cursor is a tiny version of our green-clad narrator, and you can use him to pick up tiles, rotate them, flip them and drop them into place. Get them in the right place and there's a satisfying "k'chunk" sound effect to let you know you're spot on. Complete the puzzle and your SNES explodes, killing you in a hail of molten plastic and shards of circuitboard. No, of course not, you get a bit more story and then it's on to the next stage.
But wait! This isn't your namby-pamby schoolgirl knitting club jigsaw puzzle: no sir, this is the top of the line, the super-deluxe, the very pinnacle of mankind's advanced jigsaw technology! These jigsaws... they move!

Yes, you have to piece together a little animated scene. Green's very happy to be there, it seems. I must admit, that seems like a good recreation of the kind of smile you'd find on a man wearing a wizard's hat and toying with a stick of dynamite.
Obviously, the animated puzzles make things a little more difficult: unless you like to drop acid before you sit down with a jigsaw, you've probably won't be used to the the pictures moving around. Occasionally Aryol throws a puzzle at you that takes the animation aspect and uses it to slap you in the metaphorical balls. For instance, there's a stage where the puzzle depicts a lighthouse. The lighthouse can shine it's beam all around, like a good lighthouse should; out to sea, along the dangerous, rocky coastline, and right into my eyes.

That view, the one that looks like a close-up of Big Bird's ballsack, is the one you get for roughly 50% of the lighthouse puzzle. Luckily the game doesn't pull this kind of bullshit very often and it's nice to see that kind of restraint from a developer: they could easily have made every puzzle like this, all the way up to the final stage which consists of a blank white screen where the word "JIGSAW" occasionally flashes up for four milliseconds like some Orwellian propaganda message.
So, Aryol rumbles on. Green and Girlfriend rob the bank and transfer the cash into a more manageable format by using it to buy a jewel-encrusted crown. That seems like a bad investment; I bet crowns depreciate more quickly than sports cars. Nobody wants a second-hand crown. Well, the heirs to various thrones do, I guess.

As you can probably imagine with a game about jigsaws, the gameplay doesn't really change much. Outside the basic placing of pieces in their correct positions, the only other complication is the inclusion of duplicate pieces. There are a couple in every puzzle: a pair of identical pieces, one of which has been designated "correct" and the other, um, "not correct". If you put the "wrong" piece in the spot where its angelic, blameless "good" counterpart should go, it explodes and pushes the surrounding pieces out of the way. This can be extremely frustrating, especially if you put one down in the middle of an otherwise-completed section. The most irritating thing about it is that there's no way to tell the two pieces apart, and it just comes down to a fifty-fifty guess.

Fortunately, that frustration is balanced somewhat by the "lucky" tiles. Also indistinguishable from a normal tile, when placed in the correct position they automatically fill in the gaps around them. Of course, this means it's down to chance how useful they are: get one as your final piece and you're going to feel a bit cheated, but put one down in the centre of an empty board and you'll feel as though Lady Luck herself is giving you a crafty hand shandy.

Having snuck onto the giant aircraft "Aryol" to evade the police, our heroes learn that a radical group has planted a bomb on the plane. Gasp! So, they jump out of the plane, which seems sensible enough. They try and warn the police but they're laughed at, possibly because Girlfriend has no face and Green is dressed as a tiny magician. So, they decide the only course of action is to get back onto the Aryol and take care of the bomb themselves.

Exciting, isn't it? Things start getting a bit trickier in the jigsaw department as the size of the tiles gets smaller and smaller. It was only at this late stage of the game that I realised that you can press the red dot at the top of the frame a few times per stage, and doing so lets you see the whole picture for a few seconds. It's extremely useful, but it came a little too late for me as I'd already paid a court sketch artist a bloody fortune to draw make an inaccurate pastel rendering of the complete picture the first time it appeared.

After various trials and tribulations, (including an encounter with a dragon,) Green and Girlfriend manage to get back onto the Aryol and shoot up the terrorists. Well, Girlfriend does: she's fearless bordering on psychotic, and I'd quite happily sit through a series of her adventures, kicking ass and stealing planes while Green hides and plays with his explosives. Overall, the story almost has the feel of a Studio Ghibli film, pitched somewhere between Porco Rosso and The Castle of Cagliostro, and I mean it when I say it's a great addition to the game and by far Aryol's best feature.

Of course the story must come to an end, and after twenty-five or so stages, the final stretch begins. Green's attempts to disarm the bomb come a bit unstuck when he makes a mistake and releases the detonation switch. The switch needs to be constantly held down; if it's let go, the bomb explodes. This is where the story takes a twist, because there are several endings that you can achieve. I'm not sure how you trigger them; I'd assume it's based on how quickly you finish the puzzles (or possibly just the final puzzle). I got the best ending, where Girlfriend ties the switch down with her bootlace, and she and Green escape with their crown.

Maybe I'm just a soppy old bastard, but I found it surprisingly touching. The other endings get gradually worse for our heroes: they leave the crown behind to hold the switch and get away with nothing, or they hold the switch down themselves, saving the passenger's lives but getting arrested in the process, or the plane explodes and everyone dies. I'm glad I didn't get that last one; I'm a delicate flower and I'm not sure I could have taken it.


If you get the good ending, Girlfriend uses the money from the crown to start her own airline, and everybody's happy. You might have noticed that there's some Russian written on the plane above. I think (with my non-existent Russian skills) that it says "ДРАКОН", which means dragon. There seems to be a bit of Russian theme to Aryol, actually. Omsk is mentioned, and there's some Russian on the title screen. The bottom word is (I think) "ДРАКОН" again, and the other two are possibly "ОРЁЛ" and "ЛЕГЕНДАРИ", which mean "Eagle" and "Legendary". In fact, the Russian for Eagle is "oryol", so I guess "Aryol" is one short step away. So, Girlfriend is a bank-robbing, plane-stealing badass Russian gendarme.

I've gotta say, it's difficult to recommend Ugoku E Ver. 2.0: Aryol as a gameplay experience. I mean, it's just jigsaws and nothing else. The graphics are average, the music is average and once you've seen all the puzzles you've seen everything (at least the alternate endings go some way to providing a little replayability). That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it, though, even if I did get all the enjoyment from the story. Perhaps it's because I've spent so much time writing about games with stories that are rarely more complex than "rescue girl X from villain Y", but whatever the reason it's something I'm glad I've experienced, you know? So, give it a go if you can - it doesn't take long. Or alternatively you can read the whole story here. Just don't let jigsaws creep into your real life; it's a dangerous slope that can only end in alienation, misery and an eventual murder spree.

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