Let's be honest, it's too late for me to ever be truly great at something. I didn't take up a musical instrument while my age was still in single digits, I haven't spent countless hours honing my body to perfection (unless "grey and squishy" is your idea of perfection) and I'm terrible at studying. By now, I'm too old to ever become great at anything. "But VGJunk," I hear you cry, "you're great at writing long, meandering articles describing videogames nobody cares about!" Thank you, you're terribly sweet but your flattery will get you nowhere. Taito, on the other hand - they might get somewhere. They're offering me one last chance to become great, and that chance has come in the form of their 1984 arcade game Great Swordsman.

Great Swordsman is a one-on-one fighting game from the dark and murky time before Street Fighter II gave that particular genre a mighty kick up the arse, so I'm a little dubious about the kind of quality we're going to find here. Still, it's got "great" right there in the title, so it can't be that bad.

Yes, there are two things to do in this game - fight battles so exciting they requite two exclamation marks and enroll you name, hopefully into a good, respectable university.
Enrolling my name was easy enough, let's hope the battles are too.

Alright, it's a fencing simulator. I'm happy with that - I don't think I've ever played a fencing game , and as a kid I always quite fancied to get into the sport. I suspect this is true of many unathletic teenage boys who thought of Tolkien and Moorcock rather than a bikini car wash when they heard the word "fantasy." In the end I never got into fencing, partly due to the expense but mostly because I wasn't cool and I knew dressing like a cross between a beekeeper and a mattress wasn't going to change that.

I'm sure it's obvious to you, but your goal here is to stab your opponent. Specifically, you have to stab them five times to win the bout and move on to the next challenger, and to facilitate this whirling carnival of cold steel you have three attack buttons: high, middle and low. Press the high attack button to attack high, press low to strike low, you get the idea... although saying that you "press" the buttons is a little misleading because in order to perform your move in full you have to hold the button down. Just tapping the button makes you move your weapon to the desired height, which is helpful because it allows you to block attacks coming in on the same plane, but for those lunging blows you'll have to hold the button down for a good second or so.

Et voilà, one perforated C-3PO. So far, the most satisfying part of Great Swordsman is the noise your opponent makes when you poke them: they say "ow!" in a deep bass voice with an unmistakable trace of hurt feelings, like it was just a fun game that you've taken too far and they didn't really expect you to stab them in the face / protective colander.

Sometimes you're both great swordsmen, and you'll hit each other at the same time. If this happens you both get a point. Fencing is apparently unconcerned with the concept of defending yourself, as long as you get your licks in. That's fine by me, because so far the best strategy seems to be to pile unrelenting pressure on your foe by repeatedly trying to put their eye out with your knitting needle of a sword. I seemed to either hit them and get a point, or we both got stabbed and got a point, or I forced them to scuttle so far backwards that they went off the mat. Step off the mat twice and your opponent gets a point, and by following this simple tactic I managed to defeat the yellow fencer.

As you can see, my fencer celebrated in a very dignified manner that definitely couldn't be interpreted as him thrusting his crotch at his vanquished foe.

The yellow fencer was followed by a green fencer who had the same weakness to being jabbed in the eye, and the green fencer was followed by this red chap. It's been like fighting my way through a through a packet of armed jelly babies.
I've got to say, so far I've been impressed with Great Swordsman. My worries about it being a 2D fighter from before the Capcom revolution were assuaged once I realised that it's not that kind of game at all: it's slow, methodical and all about timing and measuring distances (and, in no small part, blind luck). There are no lightning-fast ripostes here, but your fencer's movements feel smooth and dense at the same time, like a good milkshake, and the fact that a single hit can make all the difference gives it a tense atmosphere that summons up fond memories of Squaresoft's PS1 samurai leg-breaking simulator Bushido Blade. Best of all, the hit detection - an especially vital aspect of the game - seems predictable and reliable. Thumbs up of Great Swordsman's early showing, then.

There are only three fencers to beat before you're crowned King of the Beekeeper Mattress Folk, and comely maidens from all corners of your dominion anoint your head with tossed bouquets of wild flowers. Now that he's unmasked, my fencer reminds me of Chris de Burgh. I really hope I'm not playing as Chris de Burgh. If I have to play as any singer, it should really be Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. He is a fencer who has competed at an international level, after all.

After becoming the world's top fencer, I was allowed to partake in a bonus game for extra points. The bonus game consists of a bizarre golem-like creature firing arrows at you. Block the arrows with your sword and get points, don't block the arrows and they slam into you with a disturbingly impactful "thud" sound and the round is over.

You lose the round as soon as the first arrow hits you, but that doesn't stop the sinister mannequin archer. He'll fire a few more off, just for good measure. I think this whole bonus round may have been constructed just to teach the player that being good with a sword will only get you so far in life, because there'll always be someone with the foresight to bring a ranged weapon.

From one form of swordplay to another as the middle portion of Great Swordsman becomes a kendo tournament. Unsurprisingly, the ancient Japanese art of whacking people with stick while wearing a wicker basket on your head plays almost identically to the fencing section, with high, middle and low attacks. The difference is that you only have to hit your opponent twice in order to beat them, presumably to authentically recreate the strength of a katana's superior Japanese steel when compared to the flimsy weapons of Europe.

The actual swings of your sword take on a slightly different form, too - rather than the epee's high attack of a jab to the face, performing a high attack during the kendo rounds will cause you to (hopefully) deliver a blow to the top of your opponent's head. The raw martial fury of this manoeuvre is somewhat diminished by the fact it looks like someone tapping a dog's head with a rolled-up newspaper.

Curious to see what would happen if I attempted to apply the serene teachings of Zen Buddhism to the art of kendo, I simply stood still in the centre of the ring, stopped moving and touched the tip of my sword against that of my opponents just to make it a little bit creepier. In a rather nice little touch, the green kendo man became understandably confused, as you can see by the little question mark that's popping out of his head. Then he slapped me in the ankles with his wooden sword, which apparently is a killing blow in this particular sport. So much for peaceful resistance.

I noticed a few fun details during the kendo bouts, like having my helmet knocked of and even being pushed to the ground, which doesn't usually happen because the game stops still when someone takes a hit like it was an improv session and the director just called "freeze."
You'll notice that all these little touches revolve around me getting hit. The kendo is definitely harder than the fencing, perhaps because the computer's AI is better or because the wider attacks of kendo leave you more open if you miss, but in the end I managed to defeat the five master swordsmen in front of me to add a kendo championship to the fencing title.

My prize was another assortment of loose flowers. If a man in Japanese armour runs over to your car while you're stopped in a traffic jam and tries to sell you a somewhat wilted bouquet, now you know why.

Another arrow-deflecting minigame followed, and the inscrutable homunculus with the bow has at least gotten into the spirit of the thing and put on some kendo armour. Kyudo, that's the name for traditional Japanese archery. I know you came here to read about videogames but don't worry, the extra cultural education is included in the ticket price.
Say goodbye to the archer, because we won't be seeing him again.

I have no idea if it's possible to beat the archer, by the way. If you survive his volley of arrows, he takes a step towards you and fires another twenty, block all those and... well, I assume he keeps stepping forwards but I never survived the second round so your guess is a good as mine.

For the final segment of Great Swordsman, you're transported back to the days of ancient Rome - where you must stab the very gods themselves! The first god is Mars. Mars, the God of War. I think I might be in over my head here.

You know, I think I might be okay. Mars doesn't seem quite on his game today.

Yep, that got him. The rules have changed once again for the gladiatorial area - there are now seven opponents to defeat, but it only takes a single hit to kill or be killed and there're no ring to be pushed out of. Get a clean hit in and you progress to the next god, take a hit and well, hope you had fun because that's a game over. This is Great Swordsman's brutal nature, and if you lose a battle then it's a straight game over with no way to continue. It's not so bad at the start of the game where the points system gives you a little more leeway, but when you reach the Colosseum and you're one strike away from death it can be a little aggravating.

Of course, this also means that the game can move a lot more quickly, with bouts sometimes being decided with the first strike, and on the whole it works fairly well. It's tense, flowing but still deliberate and just plain fun to play.

Please note that I am including this image solely because it's a rare occasion indeed when I can say "I stabbed Uranus" and it be technically accurate.

Your final battle is against Zeus. Zeus is, as I'm sure you know, a Greek god rather than a Roman one but I'll let Taito off - I'm fairly sure I'm not fighting Jupiter for the sole reason that "Jupiter" has one letter too many to fit into the space assigned for names.
Having left his lightning bolts on Mount Olympus, Zeus goes with a back-up strategy of trying to sever my feet. He didn't account for my nimble steps, however, and the fight dragged on for a long, long time. Well, a long time by the standards of Great Swordsman, so about four minutes. Eventually the Father of Gods and Men got bored and went for a stab in the gut, so I bashed his head in with my very blunt-looking sword, finally sealing the title of Great Swordsman.

Another semi-hidden flourish - your victorious fighter usually just stands there beneath the flower-shower, but if you waggle the joystick he'll say thank you to the crowd. The crowd that just watched him slaughter all the gods of their pantheon. They're either going to proclaim him their new celestial overlord, or he's not getting out of this arena alive.

After that, it's back to the start of the game for another run through but with slightly faster and more difficult-to-hit opponents. A tempting prospect, but I think it's time to draw a close to my quest to become a great swordsman. Retire at the top and always leave 'em wanting more, that's what I say.

Despite my early trepidation, Great Swordsman has really won me over and I've developed quite the soft spot for it. It can't compete with later one-on-one fighters, but that's okay because that's not what it's trying to do - this one's all about timing and precision, it does what it sets out to do nicely and as such it's a very jolly way to waste an hour or so. While the gameplay is certainly solid, it's the presentation that gives it that extra edge, with charming graphics and some fun voice samples that are very impressive for a game from 1984. The small touches that pop up unannounced and unexplained throughout the game are great too: I've already mentioned your opponent getting confused by your lack of movement, but my absolute favourite is in the fencing. If you repeatedly attack your opponent's weapon, eventually it'll fly out of their hand, spin through the air and land point-down in their skull.

This gets you the point, too. In a truly just world it'd score you extra points, but as it stands I'll settle for the self-satisfied grin it gave me.
The only real disappointment with Great Swordsman is the lack of a competitive two-player mode, but that aside this is a game that is definitely worth taking a shot at. Oh damn, I should have said "worth taking a stab at." Well, it's too late now.



These are the meandering word-puddles of the good ship VGJunk. Its mission: well, apparently it's to write about every entry in Konami's seemingly endless cavalcade of barely-remembered arcade games. Here's another one - it's 1988's drive-really-fast-em-up Hot Chase!

Okay, so that's not the most thrilling title screen I've ever seen. I didn't capture the part where four attack helicopters airlifted the title in, but it wasn't much more impressive than this road leading into eternal blackness. Konami obviously just want you to get on with the business at hand, so let's slam in some credits and get going.

There's a bomb in my car? I suppose I'd better get out of here, then. But not out of the car. I'll need the car. For driving, you see. I'll just have to drive fast enough to reach my destination before my car explodes with me inside it, condemning me to a fiery yet mercifully brief death.

I don't really want to leave, though. It looks nice here. The sea air, a beautiful sunset sky, the distant lights of the city twinkling across the harbour. It's got a sort of northern European feel, don't you think? The Netherlands or Denmark, somewhere like that. Maybe I'll just stay here forever.

Alright, fine, geez. I'll get moving. Just let me jump into my soon-to-explode Porsche and escape the recently-detonated part of northern Europe that I was enjoying so much. Looks like I'm going to be blowing up no matter what I do, so I might as well take out a bunch of fellow motorists when I do.

The central conceit of Hot Chase, then - you're a spy who has stolen the enemy country's armoured super-car, and this is important because in the Eighties a bulletproof car was a piece of military hardware so advanced it was worth risking outright war to obtain. Makes you wonder just how armoured this super car is: can it withstand a shell from a tank? Because tanks already exist, we have those, and armoured coupés aren't going to pose much of a threat to them. The only way an armoured car could outdo a tank would be if it had enough room in the back for the kids and the week's shopping, but the designers have negated even that advantage by making the supercar a two-door affair.
Not that it matters - I'm a government agent, and if they tell me to steal a car, I steal a car and then I drive it back towards my own country. The car with the bomb in it. There are flaws right the way through this plan, aren't there?

So, Hot Chase is a checkpoint racer. Obviously OutRun springs to mind, but then again this is me and OutRun is never far from my thoughts. You've got accelerate and brake, plus a gear shift for switching between high and low gears, and your goal is to reach each checkpoint before you run out of time and your car explodes. That does indeed sound a lot like OutRun, except the car blowing up part and the fact that there are enemy soldiers everywhere trying to kill you.
Right off the bat the helicopter gunships from the intro make a reappearance, trying to perforate your car with their huge guns. I guess the enemy country doesn't want their supercar back after all and they're just attacking me out of spite.

There are infantry men about, too. In a display of naivety that's almost sweet, they've put up some stop signs. They have about as much effect as you'd expect. They also have machineguns to shoot at you with, which seems a more reasonable solution to their problems, but you just drive between the lines of gunfire and the soldiers will leap aside as you pass.

The real challenge comes not from the enemy army but the obstacles in the road - the checkpoint times are tight, and you have to go full-tilt for the entire game or you're not going to make it. This is a problem when your escape route is littered with trams, pick-up trucks with poorly-secured cargoes of explosive oil drums that drop all over the street and railway crossings that have missed the fundamental concept of the railway crossing by having the locomotives just parked across the street. Fortunately, there's always a convenient car-carrier nearby to use as a ramp.

As you can see, I missed this particular ramp. Fair play to the supercar, it did survive the two hundred and seventy kilometre an hour collision with the train, and I flew through the air and landed on the other side anyway. Shame it's destined to explode, really.

With fifteen seconds to spare, I reached the first checkpoint and had my time refilled. To me this humanises the bomb - it wants to see something of the world, but it is very impatient and will explode if your don't satiate its lust for travel.
That's the first stage of Hot Chase completed, so what are my early impressions? Well, it's a mixed bag. At a basic level it's go all the ingredients of a game I should really enjoy - it's a pure arcade experience that offers only the promise of moving forward quickly, and that you most certainly do. It falls nicely into the range of nonsensical over-the-topness that I always like to see in an arcade game, and the soundtrack is pretty fantastic already. Here's the area one theme, a classically Konami-esque slice of Ebola-level catchiness with a demented bassline that could not be more suitable for a game about a man stealing an exploding car.

Sadly, not everything about Hot Chase lives up to the promise of the theme and the kickin' music. The gameplay is just about competent, but as super-scaler-style games go, this is not one of the finest examples. Your car feels rather floaty, drifting across the road only to flip over thanks to the woolly collision detection, and the deficiencies of the scaling graphics themselves make trying to predict what will happen ahead of you a bit of a pointless exercise. Worst of all is when you get shot. I understand that getting shot is a Bad Thing and should be avoided, but when you do get hit it makes your car slide off towards the side of the road in a very unsatisfying and unintuitive manner. I'd understand if you span out, or even lost control of the steering for a moment, but instead you get this weird effect like an invisible hand is sweeping you to the left.
So far, then, Hot Chase is in the balance, but we shall see how I feel after the rest of the game, starting with a trip to the countryside.

Right through the countryside, in fact, because if I was riding a car with a bomb inside I know I'd want to drive through a forest as fast as possible.
A feeling of deja vu hit me as I made my way through the second area, and I eventually figured out why: I'm playing a Konami arcade game where I'm in a sports car, being chased by people who want me dead. I started off in the city, and now I'm driving right through some woodland. Suddenly it becomes clear: Hot Chase is a sequel to Konami's own 1987 game City Bomber, but with the viewpoint shifted from top-down to behind the car. I wonder if that was the intention? I just hope I don't have to drive through a volcano again.

Not sure why there are so many cars in this forest, though. They don't try to interfere with you in any way, unless they're part of a plan to distract you into an accident by repeatedly slamming themselves into the nearby trees. Nice plan, fellas, but it won't work. I'm utterly hardened to human misery. Well, I have played N*Sync: Get to the Show, after all.
Section two isn't nearly as interesting as the first - Konami seem to have shot their proverbial bolt with all the fun and crazy hi-jinks going on in stage one, leaving nothing left over for stage two except trees and big ol' rocks.

Beyond the forest is the desert. Look at all those grey explosive barrels. It's like I'm trying to escape from an unimaginative Doom WAD.
The desert is more enjoyable to play than the forest, because the clearer playing area means that making progress is down more to your own skill than remembering exactly where and when a mighty oak is going to appear right in front of you, but it's still a bit... barren. I mean, of course it's barren, it's a desert, but that still doesn't make for a fun gameplay experience. Stick a camel or something in there, come on.

I also got shot a lot towards the end of the desert zone, which is unfortunate because it puts bullet holes in your screen that obscure your vision. They don't fade away, either, so if you get shot then you're going to know about it for the rest of the game. This is especially annoying if you go back to the opening scenes and check out the blueprint of the supercar. It clearly says the car has bulletproof glass, so why can't I see what I'm doing for all these bloody bullet holes? Unless that line on the blueprints means that the supercar only has bulletproof glass in the rear window. What, were they trying to save money or something? A misguided attempt to keep the racing weight down? The scientists - and by "scientists" I of course mean "mechanics" - who built this supercar must have been so confident of its blinding top speed that they never imagined anyone could get in front of it. Or, you know, be waiting for it, maybe as part of a roadside ambush. Honestly, I'm beginning to suspect this is just a normal car.

Yep, it even sinks like a normal car. I think the only aspect of this car that can be definitively stated to be "super" is the fuel efficiency, because I haven't had to fill her up since I set off, and even that factor is rather off-set by the fact there's a ruddy great bomb inside it.

Actually, credit where it's due, I suppose it does also get much better traction on sand than a normal car. That's useful, because there are a lot of cacti to dodge around here, and with Hot Chase's finicky hit detection they're a lot harder to avoid than perhaps they should be. It was a little frustrating, and I had a quiet little grumble to myself. Oh, if only I'd known what was coming up next. This cactus patch seems as soft and dreamlike as warm duvet by comparison. Shudder in terror as we enter... The Cave of Inestimable Bullshit!
I hope you all said "duhn duhn duuuhn!" in your heads when you read that.

That's right, it's a cave. A very large cave, granted - large enough to have its own lake - but still a cave. The cave is absolutely packed with columns of rock and whatever you call groups of stalagmites. A ball-ache of stalagmites, in this case. You're supposed to be driving through the cave as quickly as possible, but that's a bit difficult when every piece of rock sends you car flipping through the air, even if you drive into it as slowly as possible. That was the second technique I tried, after attempting to blast though at full speed. I slowed right down, but even at speeds that most tortoises would consider a bit sedate the slightest contact sends you hurtling into the air, costing you precious seconds as well as being really goddamn annoying.
I thought about giving up, because I was starting to get agitated and making wild threats about how I'd destroy all the Earth's rocks and that's not healthy.

Then I saw how close I was to the end, so I figured I'd give it another shot. Ninety-seven kilometres is not a long way to travel for the golden chalice of freedom, after all.

Eventually I made it through, and on the other side of the cave was a winter wonderland where the air is crisp, there are boulders in the road and men on snowmobiles tried to ram into me. This "enemy country" does not breed the most quick-witted of soldiers, but their commitment to stopping me - be it via erecting a strident and forceful STOP sign or flinging their squishy bodies against my supercar - is to be admired. Or pitied. Yeah, that one. Pitied.

This is the last stretch of the game, and there's even a final boss of sorts. A bomber lives up to its name and spends the final section dropping bombs onto the road ahead of you, which you must swerve around because they'll make your car blow up real good. It's hard, because as mentioned the scaling graphics are just a little bit off and it can be difficult to judge what'll count as a hit and what won't, but after that bloody cave it's like a heavenly chorus of angels come to gently sweep you toward the finish line.

There's the end now, just one barrier keeping me from delivering this highly-advanced supercar to my political masters.

A mission well done by our top agent. Maybe we should get him a shirt that fits properly as a reward. We'll definitely never be able to pin a medal to that thing. Right, hand us the keys, then.

Erm, what are you doing, top agent? Because it looks like you're spraying that car you just risked your life to steal with a hail of submachine gun fire.

Fantastic. Well, I'm glad that all my hard work was worth it. My contribution feels very valued. You do know that car had a bomb in it, right? You could have just waited sixteen seconds and had the same result without wasting all that ammunition.

Here's the ending text scroll, in case you can't read it in the screenshot.
"Mission Complete.
You have succeeded in stealing the enemy armoured car and have crossed the border to freedom
After a few days the enemy surrendered to our country.
You will be forever remembered for your brave deeds.
Thanks a million!!"
I have bolded the most interesting part. This incident - the theft and subsequent explosion of one car - caused the enemy to surrender. It must have been a Citroen. Ha ha, the French army, am I right? Honestly, though, the concept behind Hot Chase is blowing my mind. The enemy build a supercar. Our hero steals the car and drives it back to his own country, while the enemy try to blow the car up. Then our hero reaches his own country and blows the car up. This results in the unconditional surrender of the enemy forces. Don't try to make any sense of it - just enjoy it for the sheer nonsense of it all.
Finally on the subject, I'd like to think that all military commendations and battle reports end with the commanding officer giving a hearty "thanks a million!" to his assembled troops. You did a great job, what a swell bunch of guys! Now hit those showers!

I'm still not sure what I think of Hot Chase. It's got so many of the elements that I love about arcade games like this - it's simple, manic, fast-paced, it has a story so daft it makes Twilight look like a lost Nabokov novel and the soundtrack is great (and here's a reminder with the second stage theme).

Sadly, like an elderly relative who keeps calling you by the wrong name, Hot Chase is not quite all there. That section in the cave stands out as being particularly grating, but none of the game ever quite clicks and the slightly subpar graphical effects and unpredictable collisions kinds of drain the fun from the experience, and Konami seemed to have used up all their creative ideas in the first stage. A compromise, then: play through the first area, stop and listen to the soundtrack. Alternatively, go and play OutRun. If you're ever in doubt as to what the Official VGJunk Advice for any situation is, you won't go far wrong with "play some OutRun."

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