09/06/2018

VR TROOPERS (MEGADRIVE / GENESIS)

In the spirit of furthering harmony and togetherness between all the nations of the world, I present a game that combines Japanese sci-fi action, American attempts to cash in on previous televisual successes and obscure British software creators: it’s Syrox Developments’ 1995 Megadrive / Genesis rubber-suits-em-up VR Troopers!


Oh hey, VR Troopers! I remember that show. Well, kinda. A little. Okay, so all I really remember about VR Troopers is that it was a “sister series” to Power Rangers and was made using the same methods: footage of costumed heroes and rubbery monsters from Japanese tokusatsu shows spliced with wholesome American teens (who may or may not have “attitude”) to create a show about heroes fighting villains, light comedy and marketing potential. Honestly, the thing I remember most vividly about VR Troopers is that their slogan was “We Are VR,” which ranks with “Hi, we’re also here” or “Hang on, just let me find my inhaler” as far as ferocious battle cries go. In short, VR Troopers is kids in super suits fighting evil and it’s not a patch on Big Bad Beetleborgs, which had both pretty neat toys and the ghostly twin of Jay Leno.


The game begins with what should be a cause for celebration: a new arcade cabinet has been delivered to the VR Troopers’ karate dojo. JB, Ryan and Kaitlin are puzzled, because it’s quite obviously an evil arcade cabinet. It’s shaped like Satan’s can opener!


Surprise surprise, the evil arcade cabinet is evil and sucks the VR Troopers into a digital nightmare from which they can only escape by using their Trooper powers to fight a series of villainous creatures under the command of the evil Grimlord. Grimlord. Even for Saban tokusatsu show Grimlord seems especially unsubtle. Picked his name out of a Warhammer 40,000 novel, I reckon. Oh well, I’m sure VR Troopers can’t be worse than the last game I covered about being sucked into an evil arcade cabinet, because that game was the execrable Wayne’s World.


Here’s Grimlord now, looking a lot like a Dr. Who villain. Davros in a tinfoil hat, that kinda thing. He’s sending out the fearsome warrior Tankotron to deal with the Troopers. Tankotron has a hard shell. That’s all I know about Tankotron. I keep wanting to sing Tankotron’s name along with the Megadeth song “Psychotron,” but then I spend a lot of time wanting to shoehorn random words into Megadeth songs.


Now, select your fighter! You can choose from JB Reese, Kaitlin Star and Ryan Steel – you know, the VR Troopers – and they’ve each got their own special moves, but they’re all quite similar to each other so do what I did and pick JB because he was the first one highlighted.


VR Troopers is a fighting game, then. A one-on-one fighting game, for the most part. Your chosen Trooper takes on one of Grimlord’s minions in hand-to-hand combat, with most of the trapping of the fighting game genre being present and correct. Best of three rounds, a timer, special moves, the works. The controls are simple enough, and because VR Troopers was designed specifically for the Megadrive it avoid the “not enough buttons” pitfall that plagues Megadrive fighting games like the Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat ports.


Special moves are executed with d-pad inputs and button presses, and they’re much closer in style to Mortal Kombat that Street Fighter: no quarter-circles or dragon-punch motions in this one, it’s more about tapping directions. For example, JB’s Laser Lance projectile is executed simply by pressing forward and punch, and the drill-kick pictured above is just down and kick in mid-air. This makes it sound like VR Troopers is going to be an easy game to get a handle on, and conceptually that is true.


However, as soon as you start fighting Tankotron you’ll realise that VR Troopers may have aimed for cozy simplicity but overshot and landed in the uncomfortable woollen sweater of frustration. Attack inputs are simple, but they require precise timing to activate and I spent a lot of time in VR Troopers trying to press forward and punch to throw a projectile only to move forward one pixel and punch the empty air. On top of that, half of your special moves are useless. JB’s Laser Lance, pictured above, is the most egregious offender, and I never once managed to hit my opponent with it. The problem, and it’s a problem shared by all the game’s projectiles, is that it’s so incredibly slow. It takes a good couple of seconds for the start-up animation to play out, by which time the enemy has jumped over your projectile one hundred percent of the time, usually kicking you in the face in the process.


Besides that, the first battle against Tankotron is a fairly standard fighting game affair. Jumping attacks work well, there’s a dedicated button for throws that can come in handy when Tankotron gets close and because JB’s drill kick is the one special move I could land with any kind of consistency I ended up using it a lot. For his part, Tankotron tried to shower me with projectiles both from the cannon he has instead of a hand and the landmines he can throw out in front of him – an attack that doesn’t have a hitbox so much as a hit shipping container.


Yep, jumping kicks are the way to go. Jumping kicks never let you down, and with enough of them applied to Tankotron’s hard shell the villain crumples in defeat, landing a pose that implies JB has shattered the poor creature’s spine. That’s not my problem, friends, and it’s onwards to the next battle!


First I’ve got to talk to this dog. I wasn’t expecting this. I know it’s easy to over-exaggerate how creepy these kind of things are but this dog is genuinely making me feel a bit uncomfortable. It’s the eyes – the tiny pinprick pupils, the fact that they’re the same colour as the rest of the dog, they way they seem to be carved into the dog’s flesh rather than being a separate, functioning organ. There’s a darkness behind those eyes, cruel and timeless. This might be the first ever dog that isn’t a good boy.
I was fascinated by this dog, so I looked him up and first things first, his name is Jeb. What kind of psychopath calls their dog Jeb? I think Jeb is actually the name of the turn-of-the-century cowboy who was murdered only for his unquiet spirit to take canine form. Also, all the descriptions of Jeb I saw say he electrocuted and gained the ability to speak… but with no mention that his intelligence increases, so we have to assume that all dogs in the VR Troopers universe have human-level intellects but simply cannot express themselves.


The next battle is a strange one, because it lasts for ten seconds and involves capering masked monsters attacking our hero two-at-a-time. Because it only lasts ten seconds I barely had time to figure out what the hell was going on, but I eventually realised it’s a survival challenge. The enemies respawn if you defeat them, and you have to survive the “onslaught” - perhaps not the right word for being attacked by two lycra-clad acrobats – until the timer runs out. It’s a dull, pointless interlude made even more banal once you figure out that crouching in a corner and kicking works one hundred percent of the time, so it’s a shame that this “Battle Grid Mode” appears between every full battle. Each time it appears you have to survive for an extra ten seconds, but the only potential pitfall here is that you might fall asleep and forget to press the kick button.


Here’s Dr. Horatio Hart, friend to the team and, as far as I can tell, VR Troopers’ equivalent to Power Rangers’ Zordon. Dr. Hart is trapped in a macabre digital quasi-life, not quite dead enough to give up on turtlenecks but with enough life force to warn you about which of Grimlord’s minions you’ll be fighting next. This time it’s Decimator, and while the pedant in me wants to make a joke about how he’ll only take ten percent of my health bar, the (admittedly small) part of me that isn’t a massive dork is saying “shut up, you massive dork.”


Decimator lives up to his menacing name by absolutely slaughtering me in single combat. He’s fast, he’s powerful, and what’s more he’s not afraid to repeatedly spam the move where teleports behind you can stabs you in the back. Poor old Kaitlin doesn’t stand a chance, not when it takes her three hours to unholster her pistol and another two to fire it.


Yes, VR Troopers is a difficult game. Very difficult, at least for me, and I’m only playing it on the default difficulty level although even knocking it down to “Kids” level didn’t make it that much easier. It’s a lot of little things that add up to make VR Troopers a pain in the arse, although the aforementioned sluggishness of your special moves is a major contributing factor. Take Street Fighter II, for example. Your opponent jumps towards you? Knock them out of the air with a Dragon Punch. Simple. However, that doesn’t work in VR Troopers because your special moves are too slow. You’re limited to your default punches and kicks for ninety-nine percent of the combat, although of course the monsters have no such limitations and will happily repeat the same highly damaging moves over and over again. Add to this the game’s occasionally wonky hitboxes and you’ve got a recipe for a stodgy, defensive fighter rather than something packed with free-flowing action.


Next up is Darkheart. I like Darkheart. He looks pretty cool, kind of part Kamen Rider-esque superhero, part bucket-headed Scooby Doo villain. It is a shame, then, that you don’t get to see Darkheart that much because his special power is to turn invisible. Ah yes, a fighting game where you can’t see your opponent – it’s as though the developers heard me complaining about Decimator and thought “oh, you thought that was unpleasant, you just stick around and see what else we’ve got for you.”


So here’s Ryan, getting blasted across the screen by a fireball thrown by The Invisible Prick. According to the VR Troopers wiki (of course there’s a wiki) Darkheart is secretly Ryan’s father Tyler Steele, brainwashed by Grimlord for the purposes of both evil and dramatic irony. Ryan should be grateful, there are a lot of teens out there who’d like to drop-kick their unseen father in the face but it’s Ryan who gets to live the dream.


Next up is KongBot, and I’m sure I can get a hearty “hell yeah” from everyone reading this because who doesn’t love a robot gorilla? Only the joyless and the damned, that’s who. As KongBot strides across the junkyard, swinging his massive steels fists, I’m left to reflect that whatever other flaws it has VR Troopers looks fantastic. Excellent sprites with lots of character, plenty of fancy visual effects and deep, detailed backgrounds make for a game that’s a genuine pleasure to look at.
Even the gameplay’s a bit more fun now, because KongBot is a noticeably easier opponent than the rest. This makes sense, because apparently KongBot was the first villain the Troopers ever fought in the show, so I wonder if he was originally intended to be the first opponent and the developers switched the order around later. KongBot’s a bit slower than the rest and his favourite charging ram attack is easier to avoid as a result, making for a fight that feels a damn sight fairer than Decimator’s teleporting bullshit or Darkheart’s invisibility.


Jeb might look creepy, but he’s definitely got his priorities straight.


Now we face The Magician, and you might be thinking he looks a lot more like a ninja than a magician. That’s because he is a ninja, especially in the original Japanese Choujinki Metalder series that his footage was spliced in from. He uses a lot of ninja magic, though, so that’s why he’s The Magician. Oh, and he can fire projectiles out of a top hat. If the world-conquering business doesn’t pan out he can always fall back on kid’s parties, I guess.
So The Magician is a ninja, and looking at him again I’m seeing a very specific kind of ninja – namely, the ninjas from Mortal Kombat. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about his stance that’s reminding me of Sub-Zero, Scorpion and all the other colours of the ninjutsu rainbow. This is hardly surprising, because after playing a bunch of VR Troopers it has become clear that Mortal Kombat was the template that the developers were working from. Some of this sensation resides in the murky, vague realm called “feel,” with an indescribable quality of Mortal-Kombat-ness pervading the game, but there are more concrete examples like the special move inputs, the animations of moves like the jumping punches or sweeps and that fact that if you keep tapping punch you’ll keep swinging with alternate fists, just like in a Mortal Kombat game. Perhaps this is why I didn’t get on with VR Troopers as much as I’d have liked to: I’ve never been particularly keen on the old MK games, and while the inclusion of robot gorillas is going some way towards making VR Troopers more palatable it’s still got that feeling of awkward stiffness that I associate with the MK games.


For the next three fights, you fight a clone version of each of the VR Troopers. This adds to the strange sensation that the game is getting easier as you progress, because having played as all the Troopers I know how their special moves work. If I couldn’t hit any bad guys with the Laser Lance,  then I’m sure as hell not going to get hit by it myself. As is becoming a theme in this game, jumping attacks are the way to go.


By this point, the survival rounds are otherwise identical but now last well over a minute, in this case requiring eighty seconds of crouching in a corner and pressing the kick button. The background never changes, and nor do the enemies you’re kicking, who I found out are Grimlord’s generic footsoldiers. They’re called Skugs, a name that makes me think they came out of the The Trapdoor. So the Skugs get kicked over and over again, and the whole thing feels like Manchurian Candidate brainwashing. One day in the future someone’s going to whisper “battle gird” in my ear and I’ll immediately retreat to the corner of the room and start shattering people’s ankles.


This demonic chap is Kamelion, a villain seemingly created specifically for this game. Being called Kamelion, you might expect him to have some kind of camouflage powers, which he does if you count “being able to transform into every other character and use all their special moves” as camouflage.  Sounds like a dangerously unpredictable foe, right? Well, he would be if he didn’t spend the entire fight using his “charge back and forth across the screen dealing loads of damage” move incessantly.


Yeah, that move. It either hits you, or you avoid it, but either way you don’t have much chance to deal any damage of your own. After the game’s difficulty level seemed to be evening out a bit, Kamelion ramps it right back up and honestly? I had to cheat to get past this fight in a reasonable amount of time. This doesn’t bode well for the final showdown with Grimlord, who will surely be even more powerful than Kamelion!


Except, surprise, you don’t have to fight Grimlord. You beat Kamelion, and that’s it, game over. What a cop out. Perhaps the idea is that Grimlord is more of an intellectual than a warrior and having a scene where you pummel a helpless dope who looks like a scrotum in a toy knight helmet might be a bit much. It still feels a bit underwhelming, though, which is a good description of VR Troopers overall.


This is a difficult game to sum up, because while I didn’t have that much fun with it, it’s clear that there was a real effort made to create something good and it gets very close to delivering on that promise. Obviously the graphics are excellent – but I suspect they were prioritised over the gameplay, and with more time spent on polishing things like the hitboxes or the special move inputs VR Troopers could have been a game I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. It’s certainly not terrible – although the difficulty level, the utterly pointless survival sections and the general clunkiness of the fighting keep it from being good. Perhaps Mortal Kombat fans will get more out of it than I did, but  even if they don’t we’ll always have KongBot.

4 comments:

  1. I did not care for this game. The quality of the graphics is subject to debate; for what it's worth I thought they suffered from the low color palette of the Genesis, with tons of dithering. Then again, they probably look better on a CRT television, where the pixels aren't so sharp and the colors tend to blend. I will give the designers credit for the intermission screens, which have a high-tech psychedelic quality that fits the virtual reality theme.

    By the way, if you did have access to a six button controller, all those crappy special moves can be assigned to the grey buttons on the top. It makes playing the game (slightly) less of a chore.

    (Heh, "let me get my inhaler." I've heard worse catch phrases!)

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  3. >>it avoid the “not enough buttons” pitfall that plagues Megadrive fighting games like the Street Fighter II or Mortal Kombat ports.

    Woah, wait, since when 6 buttons were not enough for MK...
    Okay, it's day when I learned that before MegaDrive2 they were selling 3 buttons gamepads =0
    Never seen 3-buttons pads.

    Had this game, remember it was not fun, and seen it rather as ugly, on CRT.
    Definitely not a Comix Zone.

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  4. The most I could take away from this show was that Grimlord looked like some sort of evil corporate executive in his human form and he had a pet iguana.

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