17/01/2012

DAHNA: MEGAMI TANJOU (GEN)

Some games take you by the hand and guide you through a world of excitement and adventure. Some games present many obstacles to overcome, with each new challenge only surmountable through skillful and much-practised use of all your talents. Then there are some games that grab you firmly by the reproductive organs and whisper "you won't be getting much out of me, sunbeam". Dahna: Megami Tanjou is one of these games.

Dahna: Megami Tanjou is side-scrolling hack-n-slash platformer released in 1991 for the Megadrive / Genesis by a minor developer called Information Global Service, a charmingly expansive title for a barely-remembered third party videogame developer. Or maybe they're a huge multi-national player in the data management industry and they just developed Megadrive games on the side? Actually, that'd explain a few things about DMT.
It was never released outside Japan and all the in-game text is in Japanese, so you know what that means: time to make up a new story!

Dahna is an all-American teenager who is heading to her high school prom in her rented horse and cart. Suddenly mounted bandits attack! In a terrifying maelstrom of whirling blades and splattering gore, Dahna's classmates are slain and the deposit on the carriage is lost forever. Our heroine manages to scramble free in the confusion, and looks around to see her home town has been despoiled by an army of warriors with magical powers.

Arming herself with a sword looted from the still-warm corpse of a nearby LARPing Society member, Dahna vows to destroy the evil hordes and reach the prom. She was promised a magical evening symbolising her transition into adulthood, and by god she's going to get it even if it means slaughtering hundreds of trained, bloodthirsty soldiers and countless mythical beasts. In a stroke of good fortune, when choosing the evening's ensemble she went with some sensible sandals instead of the high heels. Truly, some higher force is looking out for her.

Of course, the real plot seems to be the usual Evil Wizard takeover attempt. Only one young lady can stop this tyranny: Dahna, the chosen one (and in this case "chosen" seems to mean "not dead").

Things seem like they might be going in Dahna favour when she starts the game riding an ogre, but don't let this fool you. You'll soon realise that you share a health bar with your cumbersome steed, and given that the ogre is too big and slow to avoid many attacks it quickly become clear that Dahna would be better off on foot. Still, the ogre can kill enemies simply by jumping on them like some grotesque fusion of Super Mario and the Incredible Hulk, so it's not all bad news.

Don't get too attached to him, though - he's soon killed by an evil wizard, and Dahna must head on alone. She'll never make it to the prom in time now! An enemy wearing even fewer clothes than our heroine appears, which is no mean feat in itself. The heat from the burning building he's guarding was simply too much for him and he just had to strip down to his underpants, although no force on Earth can separate him from his kicky legwarmers. I always thought the law stating that a character's toughness is inversely proportional to the amount of armour/clothing they're wearing only applied to females, but this guy's increased toughness implies that it can be applied to males on rare occasions.

For some reason, Dahna heads into the burning building. Quite why she didn't just walk around it is never explained, but I'm sure there must be an important reason. Even more baffling is the fact that there are enemies guarding the inside of the burning building, perhaps stationed there to make sure Dahna doesn't steal all this precious fire they've accumulated. It's an upward scrolling section filled with much leaping from platform to platform, and this is where a big problem with Dahna: Megami Tanjou becomes apparent: the wonky controls.

Dahna can jump. Of course she can, it's a videogame. I've played videogames where tanks can jump. Her ability to jump comes as no surprise, and nor does the fact that you press a button to jump, but the way that the system is handled is just downright wrong. Pressing the jump button makes our hero take a dainty hop upwards, much in the manner of a cheerful young person prancing over a puddle after a particularly pleasant romantic encounter. Obviously, this won't cut it in our current situation of being trapped in Frank Frazetta's version of The Towering Inferno. We need more height, and the way you accomplish this is by holding up on the d-pad as you jump. That's right, IGS thought it would be a great idea to make the jumping unnecessarily complicated instead of simply using the standard "hold button longer for higher jumps" mechanic. There's a reason it became the standard, you know. It wouldn't be so bad if Dahna's high-jumping was tight and controlled, but her ability to leap to ridiculous heights makes her feel like a sex doll that's been inflated with helium, floating around aimlessly and not doing as she's told.

If you make it through the bad guys' fire storage facility and down the other side, you'll eventually reach the first boss. It's a man on a horse! Considering this game's already featured ogres, winged devil creatures and evil wizards, this might seem somewhat anticlimactic, but give the guy a break - maybe this is his first day as a Stage Boss. Everyone's got to start somewhere, and he's still waiting to receive his Stage Boss Equipment from headquarters. If you'd shown up three to five days later, he totally would've had a sweet winged horse and horns on his helmet and everything. Oh man, it woulda been so cool! As it stands, he's just got a spear. I'd recommend defeating him by jumping above him when he charges and stabbing him with Dahna's downward stab attack, an attack that will look very familiar to anyone who's played Zelda II or used Link in Smash Bros.

That's stage one done, and to get through stage two Dahna steals the dead man's horse.

Well, he wasn't using it. It's the second creature-riding section, and some credit must go to IGS for at least trying to mix up the gameplay, even if it shows little to no originality in its execution. The first half of the stage has you running down a mountain in a forced scrolling section that begins to show the other major problem with DMT: the punishing difficulty level. It soon becomes obvious that the enemies are positioned in such a way that jumping over one almost invariably causes you to land right in the path of the next enemy's attack. Excellent tactical nous being shown by the bad guys there, but it makes for a pretty frustrating gameplay experience. The waves of enemies quickly whittle down your small health bar, and if you die it's back to the start of the level. Oh, and you only have five lives. Yup, five lives to complete the entire game, and as far as I could tell there's no way to get any extra lives. You can increase the length of your health bar by collecting a health pickup when you have full health, but this is made nigh-impossible by the fact that health items are incredibly rare, and I mean one per stage rare. And you don't get your health refilled when you finish a stage, either. The odds on you reaching a health pick-up without having taken even a single hit are vanishingly small. This is a game that sneers at your pain, revels in your multiple deaths and gleefully sends you back to the start of the stage each time. In short, this is not a friendly game.

After a platforming section that is mercifully conducted sans horse, an angry wizard appears to act as the stage's boss. I don't know what school of magic teaches the twin powers of levitation and rock manipulation, but this guy must have been top of the class. His only real moves are throwing rocks and making a big fist out of rocks, and given the difficulty of the preceding stage he seems suspiciously easy to beat. Maybe wrapping himself in a Persian rug somehow weakened his powers.

DMT hasn't exactly been overflowing with interesting new ideas so far, but stage three has at least one thing to catch the imagination: swarms of trained fish-men and their attendant keepers. Some of the more sensitive soldiers, unsuited for the rigours of martial combat and identifiable by their fetching lavender uniforms, are given the task of looking after the army's supply of swamp creatures. If they see you, they'll give a whistle and a group of fish-men leap from the sea and kill you faster than Showgirls killed Elizabeth Berkley's career. To prevent this, you've got to sneak up on the lilac fishmonger and stab him before he can summon his amphibious fighting force. It's a neat little section, although it is somewhat hampered by Dahna's peculiar jumping abilities.

It's not just Dahna's jumping that has control issues, either. Like most games of this ilk, Dahna can crouch. This would be fine except you don't hold down to crouch and release it to stand back up. Instead, you press down once to crouch, and Dahna stays crouched and unable to move until you press up on the d-pad to get her to stand. If you press down again when she's crouching, she'll lie down on her belly and crawl around like Solid Snake, except without any knowledge of CQC or basic survival techniques. I'm sure Snake would frown upon the use of a toga as battle attire at the very least, unless he was transported back to Ancient Rome and he had to infiltrate an orgy.
I originally thought that lying down was completely useless, especially given that you can't attack while you're in beached-whale mode, but it does come in handy when you're fighting these larger gentlemen. They become enraged after you land a few hits, and they start running around and wildly swinging their clubs like a highly-strung arachnophobe trying to kill an invisible spider. You can avoid this barrage by lying on the floor in front of them, presumably because they can't see you past their fat bellies.

The boss is this multi-limbed freak. He starts with two heads and four arms, but after carefully application of the pointy end of your sword he gradually loses his limbs and a large amount of blood. His cause is not helped by the fact that he can only scuttle sideways like some demented crab. Also, I've just noticed that the tower in the background has a face, complete with fiery hair.
After a set amount of stabbings, the boss retreats and Dahna is free to move onto stage four.

No, not really: we all know that griffins are proud, noble creatures who have dedicated their lives to helping girls reach the prom in time. Their reward is a free ticket and access to the buffet.

Suddenly DMT turns into a side-scrolling shooter, with waves of demonic enemies and the occasionally dragon to be dispatched by the griffin's fiery breath. You'd think that riding a powerful mythical beast would make this easy, but DMT is tougher than ever. If you let an enemy slip by, you'll quickly be overwhelmed as all his mates turn up and start getting in your way, usually resulting in death by countless small pokes from those demon's spears. They really are the Zubats of Dahna: Megami Tanjou. To get through this section at all, your only real hope is to memorise where the enemies appear and start firing before they get there. Again, this has to go down as a nice idea that was poorly executed.
If you make it through Griffin Gradius, you'll come to rest on the prow of a ship, just in time for the boss battle. You won't be alone, though...

Hey la, hey la, my ogre's back. Warning: he will smack you in the mouth if you get too close. He's still bitter about the first stage, the poor delicate flower. If you jump over him and destroy his shackles, you can boldly ride him into the fray. Dahna's legs are gonna atrophy at this rate.

There's some kind of huge protoplasmic octopus clinging to the ship, and he needs to be removed. This is where I completely lost track of exactly what the hell was going on - between the transparency effects, the driving rain and the complete lack of any indication as to a) what parts of the boss can damage you and b) what parts of the boss you can damage, everything devolves into a mass of flickering sprites and unfathomable hit detection. My advice is to give up any kind of strategy, take your ogre and jump on this son-of-a-bitch's face. Jump on that octopus like he was a bouncy castle and you're a five-year-old filled with cake and birthday party excitement (although you should try not to vomit all over the place). Just keep on jumping on his face(?) until all that remains is a sticky purple residue between your ogre's toes. Actually, it's sort of satisfying.

Stage five is... well, it's pretty much the same as stage one. You're riding your ogre, enemies appear, you jump on them. You know what DMT reminds me of? Golden Axe. A much less interesting and enjoyable version of Golden Axe played on a single plane, admittedly. I think it's the overall graphical style, and the palette-swapped soldiers. I'd rather be playing Golden Axe, trust me.
Dahna once again proves that she should not be allowed to look after any kind of animal / mythical creature, as she promptly loses the ogre down a hole. Or perhaps the ogre simply got tired of his servitude and leapt into a chasm to get away from Dahna and her ceaseless prattling about the prom.

After a quick climb up a tower, the multi-limbed boss from stage three reappears. Losing half of his appendages and roughly four hundred gallons of blood doesn't seem to have dampened his fighting spirit any. He seems angry, and justifiably so - now that he's only got one head and two arms, that fancy outfit that he had specially made to accommodate his freakishness is pointless unless someone invites him to a "wear the most hideous clothing you can find" party. He's still just as prone to getting stabbed as he was before, and even I had surprisingly little trouble beating him.

At last, it's the final stage! Hooray! It's more of the same. Boo. Here's my major problem with this game: there's no sense of flow to it. This is partly due to Dahna's unnecessarily awkward control system - it makes her feel sluggish and stubborn to control, as though she really doesn't want to be appearing in this videogame. Maybe she's pissed that she didn't get the Tyris Flare role in Golden Axe, I dunno. For example, Dahna can attack with an upwards thrust that is very useful on the upward-scrolling sections... or al least it would be if you didn't have to hold up for a second or so and wait for Dahna to move into her upwards-stabbing pose to do it. It doesn't sound like much, but in a game like this where fresh death is forever pouring in from all sides standing there doing a She-Ra impersonation is liable to get you killed.

It's not just the controls, either. Because enemies in groups of two or more will quickly overwhelm you, you spend most of the non-forced-scrolling sections tip-toeing forward as slowly as possible, hoping to activate one enemy at a time. This gets very tedious very quickly, and it means there's no sense of joy in the freedom of movement that a good platform hack-n-slash will offer. Dahna's a stiff-kneed, shuffling wreck of a main character. It's like playing as my Nan.

Aha, the final boss! It's a girl with a spear.

No, wait, it's a floating sorceress who's stolen Hugh Hefner's dressing gown. Magical powers in Dahna's universe seem to be mostly limited to floating and throwing things. Make the London Eye disappear or something, you unimaginative hack! She's still quite the challenge, mostly because you have to jump to hit her and we all know that Dahna jumps like a plastic bag fired from an air cannon. If you stab her enough times, she'll fall over...

...and summon every enemy in the game in a truly hideous ice-blue colour palette. This boss fight has now officially descended into unsalvageable tedium. It's a good job this is the final boss, because if it'd happened in an earlier level I'd have just stopped playing. As it is, I just about managed to summon the give-a-fuck-ness required to destroy all the bad guys and complete the game.

Except it's not over! Dahna has destroyed the evil empire too late and the school gymnasium is collapsing. Now the prom will have to be cancelled, or at least postponed until humanity has finished burying their dead and reformed some kind of government. In a rare moment of clemency, if you fall to your death here the game doesn't make you do the final boss fight again. Just imagine if you died here and it was your last life, though. I wonder how much pressure you have to put on a Megadrive pad until it explodes into a thousand glittering shards?

Dahna escapes (for some reason, she takes the evil sorceress with her) and they fly away on the griffin. She never gets to experience her high-school prom, leading to a sense of bitterness and resentment that haunts her well into her adult life, poisoning her relationships and leaving her with a strong persecution complex.

It's kind of a shame that Dahna: Megami Tanjou isn't better than it is. There are a few neat ideas scattered here and there, and the overall blandness is almost balanced by some decent animations and well above average music. The main sticking point is really the difficulty level. Have I been mollycoddled for too long by the much lower difficulty of most modern games? Probably, but it's not like I don't enjoy tough modern games - I loved Demon's Souls, for example. The difference is in how games are difficult. Painfully frugal lives and health power-ups and a need for memorisation are not a fun way of injecting challenge. Needing to learn the skills of the game and how best to use them, sure, but DMT goes down the retro route of not really giving you enough to do the job. The awful controls are just the bitter icing on an already underdone cake.

Overall, I'd have to say you should avoid this one. Play Golden Axe instead: at least when you lose your trusty steed in that it's usually your fault and not because the hero threw it down a hole.

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