Review: Soukyugurentai for the Sega Saturn

One of the hardest to pronounce shoot'em ups for the Sega Saturn is one of my favorites, as I mentioned in my Top 10 Saturn Shooters post.

This game has so much going for it, and yet I think that it may be slightly under the radar, as It may be a tad intimidating due to all the Japanese menu text, and that fact that the title on the game is in Japanese as well. I had to consult a FAQ online to see what menu options there were, but once past that, the game can begin; there's no need for translation past that point.


The title screen suggests a language barrier, but solid gameplay is solid gameplay

One weird thing that I'll get out of the way first is that it was published only in Japan, and by Electronic Arts (EA)! At that time, they were known mostly for sports games like the Madden series, FIFA soccer, NBA Live, and so on, so when I saw this pop up on screen I was befuddled. Despite EA being the publisher,  the game developer was 8-ing or Raizing, or whichever one they were at the time. Popular titles they developed include Battle Garegga, Kingdom Grandprix, and others. I think that the company was formed after the demise of Compile, so there's some strong shoot'em up legacy there.
That's a lot of street lights below

The game opens with a cool launch sequence

The game is a vertically scrolling shooter, with co-op. The main feature is the web-targeting secondary weapon, similar to the one in Galactic Attack/Layer Section, but more satisfying in my opinion. If you hold down the targeting button, a large web projects out and any enemies within will be locked onto. Release the button and missiles/lasers will seek them out. There are three selectable ships, with different attributes and web patterns. I prefer the dome-shaped web, the one Dave and Joe from Game Sack affectionately refer to as a condom in one of their Let's Play episodes. Almost all enemies below you can be targeted, and this method seems to deal more damage than shooting them in the traditional manner. Using the web is so much fun, sometimes I forget to fire my primary weapon until I get to a boss.

Power ups can be picked up from shooting little supply ships, which release "P" icons. Collecting a certain amount of the small ones register a power up, and a large "P" icon will power you up automatically.

The web targeting mechanic is addictive

The visuals are gorgeous throughout the game. Much of the game seems to take place at night, and there are lighting effects on the streets and buildings that seem beyond a 32 bit console. The ships are brightly colored, almost cell-shaded before cell-shading was common. There is a lot of scaling as enemies change depth and swoop down from above or rise up from below.

The difficulty is adjustable, you just have to select the third menu from the start, and slide from 1 (easy) - 8 (hard). I usually start around level 3, as I like a balance of enjoyment and difficulty. Playing co-op is a blast, and it can get chaotic with all the web-targeting and firing from two ships at the same time.

I don't understand what this says, but it looks badass!

A neat feature is the boss warning HUD that appears right before a battle. I think it displays technical specs about the boss, such as weapon load out, name, favorite snacks, I don't know. An interesting fact: if you are using an Action Replay cart to play the Japanese imports, this screen gets all garbled and non-sensical. The rest of the game plays fine, though. I am using a Japanese Saturn, so there is no problem here. The game was reprinted with a slight change in title: Soukyugurentai Okuyo, which fixes the glitch.

There's a story in here somewhere, something about corporate battles and resources and bank accounts. I can't read it so maybe I made that up. It doesn't matter though, as the gameplay rocks. The music is another strong point for the game. Composed by Hitoshi Sakamoto, of Radiant Silvergun fame, it is a blend of classic orchestral and techno motifs. Definitely worth a listen on its own.

This game is not as ridiculously pricey as some of the other Saturn shooters, and can be found for around $40-50 at the time of this post. I completely recommend it, its a must have for fans of the genre.

Adult Gamer Stigma

I've debated about writing this topic for a while now. Its a personal subject, and one that some of you may be able to relate to. I don't know if I have the answer, I'm just looking for a little progress.

As an adult male, it seems the socially acceptable norms for recreation would be activities that are masculine, expensive, or both. Golf, gambling, cross-fit, hunting, drinking, and sports all expected forms of recreation for an American adult male. American culture has this set of machismo expectations for men, and gaming does not fit the profile. Video games are perceived to be something that kids and teenagers play in their parents' basement. Perhaps it has to do with mass media's portrayal of gamers, helping set an image of how a typical gamer looks and behaves. It would not be the first time that popular culture's concept of a stereotype bows to the lowest common denominator. Just look at The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, or South Park's portrayal of a gamer. There's instant ridicule there, the easy targets, the low-hanging fruit.

Because we did it as children, as adults we should no longer continue to do so, like playing with matchbox cars or dolls. However, we have been watching television, movies, and videos out whole lives, and yet these activities are not frowned upon as adults. When it comes up that it is a hobby of mine, I get looks of surprise and disappointment, as if I were terminally ill. The implication is that it is something that I should have "grown out of". In this modern age when casual gaming on mobile phones and tablets is widespread, why does console gaming carry a stigma? If someone's hobby is watching movies or television, no one bats an eye, but if one plays video games as a hobby, it is perceived as juvenile.

Video gaming is just as commercially influential as the movie industry. In 2014, the gaming industry accounted for nearly $84 billion dollars in revenue, compared to $36 billion dollars from the movie industry. For something so prevalent, gaming is still shunned. Aside from the commercial aspect, I would argue that gaming involves more thought and problem solving that simply watching a video. A good game will have the player observe, attempt tasks, figure out patterns, and apply previous knowledge. A person is engaged throughout, responding to stimuli, making decisions, and adapting to new scenarios or rules. This cognitive aspect of gaming is swiftly dismissed, as non-gamers make assumptions of what it means to play a video game.

Being a retro gamer, I have an ample collection of games displayed in my basement. It is always a source of wonder whenever someone new comes over and gasps at these relics. Sometimes I feel judged, as if I were a hoarder who can't let go of anything. I generally express my pride in my hobby, and try to assure the guest that I do not have psychological issues, but I still feel the awkwardness. I shouldn't feel this way, but societal pressure to be and act a certain way causes this. While I generally think of myself as indifferent to people's opinions of me, especially those of people I don't know, I would be lying if I said I was impervious to it. Everyone's experiences may differ, and the people you surround yourself with may be more or less supportive. Just like anything else, people who don't know anything about a subject seek generalizations to understand. Couple that with the notion its something for kids, and you have an uphill battle when trying to explain your hobby to someone, as if you have to justify it.  If I'm honest, its not unlike being a closet gamer. Its my hobby, It makes me happy, its not hurting anyone, why should I care what other people think?

As a kid, I remember seeing "Trekkies" on TV and wondering what would make people behave that way; to travel to conventions, dress up, and obsess over a TV show. As an adult with a hobby that is unconventional, I can now better understand their zeal and passion. As I get older I realize I like what what I like, and I start to care less about what people think. That's when I started writing this blog. My purpose was to write down my knowledge and experiences with retro gaming, and perhaps help inform others who would be interested in learning more about this topic. If one person reads a blogpost and finds the content helpful or interesting, I take it as a success.

For years I have felt like I was alone in this hobby, and with the advent of Facebook groups I can finally have discussions with people who share this same interest. These are discussions that would rarely happen organically in my daily life, as there are so few people around me that share the interest. I have joined a number of groups, and find solace in the company of so many others that are like-minded.

I suppose the point of me writing this is to encourage gamers to embrace what they love, and not let social pressures inhibit them. We tell our children not to blindly do what peer pressure suggests, so we need to live by that philosophy. What about you? Do you feel judged because others around you think that gaming is just for kids?

Arcade Stick or D-pad for Shoot 'em Ups?

If you have poked around on this blog at all, you may notice that many of my posts are based on shoot 'em ups. Systems like the Saturn, Genesis, PC-Engine, and Dreamcast most notably come to mind when tallying the vast riches of shoot'em ups. This post is not about is not what system reigns, or which games are the best; I wanted to discuss the type of controller that I use for shoot 'em ups.

It should be noted that the genre of shoot 'em ups has sub-generes, including but not limited to: traditional side-scrolling, traditional vertical scrolling, bullet hell, Euro shmup, on-rails, run'n gun, cute'em ups, isometric, and others. Depending on the type of gameplay, the preferred control scheme may change.

Older shooters had more environmental hazards

Older (traditional) shoot'em ups are generally slower-paced. Emphasis is placed on navigating environmental hazards as well as enemy fire and flying enemies themselves. Respawning after death occurs at checkpoints, often woefully underpowered. Memorization and reflexes are requisite skills here. Examples include Gradius, R-Type, Aleste, Darius, Star Soldier, Thunder Force, and others.

Modern shoot'em ups tend to be of the bullet-hell variety, where hundreds of bullets are spewed across the screen, and you have to navigate the slim pockets of empty space between them to survive. The hitboxes of your avatar are generously small, as you will need all the help you can get. With so many bullets on screen at once, the key to survival is small movements, taps at a time. It is with games like this where arcade sticks are beneficial to use over d-pads, as the small size of the d-pads can lead to unintentional input mistakes. Also, it is hard to enjoy the backrgound scenery (which is usually gorgeous) as you cannot take your eyes off of your craft.

Small movements are key to surviving bullet hell

I have played all types of shooters with both a standard d-pad and an arcade stick. The arcade stick presents better aesthetically. Larger buttons, a firm grip on the joystick, and solid base all recall (or simulate) the nostalgic arcade experience. Initially, I found that my performance lacked when using one; I would never seem to get as far in the game with the arcade stick. I learned later one that not all joysticks are created equally, and there are three subtle variables that affect how a joystick performs. 

The first is the the dead zone. The dead zone is the physical range in which the stick moves but does not register a movement. Large dead zones lead to wasted motion, delayed/inaccurate movement, and general suckiness. This is easy to notice on a stick that has microswitches, as you would hear the click as you move the stick. A good stick will have as small of a dead zone as possible. There is a lot of truth in the old adage: "you get what you pay for". 

The second is the throw distance. This is how far the joystick lever will actually move before it his a physical restriction, or gate. The shorter the gate, the less distance the stick has to travel to return to center, and thus the faster the next movement can be initiated. How short of a throw you want to have is a personal preference, and it may also depend on the type of game your are playing. For shooters, a short throw is helpful for tap-dodging in-between waves of bullets. Usually joysticks with smaller throw distances tend to have smaller dead zones.

I modded my DC stick with Sanwa parts.

The third variable is spring tension. inside the joystick shaft is a spring that pushes against the actuator, and the higher the tension the more resistance there is to movement, and also the faster the return to neutral. Again, some people like a stiffer joystick, some don't. There is a trade off between quick return to center, and the additional effort required to move the stick. Depending on how long your play sessions are, fatigue can set in. 

Newer arcade sticks can be easily upgraded/modded. It is common to swap the joystick and/or the buttons, since the variety of parts available make for nuanced preferences. I started with the consensus well-rounded performer, the Sanwa JLF joystick. I replaced the stick in my Dreamcast stick and was immediately surprised at how much better it felt to me. Movements were more precise and input was more responsive. The Sanwa buttons feel great as well, being sensitive enough to not need a lot of pressure to register. 

Later, I bought a second-hand Hori Real Arcade Pro 3 SA, which had Sanwa parts as stock. The controller was intended for PS3, but is useable on nearly every retro and modern console with the help of Brooke controller adapters. I have always thought that the arcade stick selection for the Genesis were meh. This was a game changer. After talking with people on various forums, it was suggested that I try the Seimitsu brand of joystick, so I bought one and installed it. It provided an even tighter movement, and is now my preference. 

Just like joysticks, not all d-pads are created equally. This is very much a "feel", and everyone will have their own preferences. My favorite d-pads are "floating" types: Saturn (model 2) and Genesis (6-buton). 
The Saturn pad has the perfect amount of range and cushiony resistance, and due to its circular base, all directions are equally and easily pressed. The Genesis 6-button has a very similar d-pad, so similar that it might be the same. The SNES pad has a cross base, much like the NES, yet is easier on the thumb than the NES d-pad. I don't like it quite as much as the diagonals are not as easy to press on a cross pad when compared to a circular based pad. I wish the PC-Engine controller had a better d-pad. It's ok, but its a tad smaller than the average d-pad and not as comfortable as the others mentioned.

The gold standard, in my opinion
Since we're on the topic of shoot'em up controls, I feel I must mention my disappointment in the Dreamcast controller, both the d-pad and the analog stick. The d-pad is raised fairly high above the controller base, and has sharper angles in its mold, making for painful use. The analog stick is plastic as well, and a bit slippery. There are texture bumps on the top, but they generally wear down quickly, so any controller used for an average amount of play has been worn down to a shine. For a system with a wealth of shoot'em ups, this is a major letdown. Luckily, the Total Control 3 adapter lets you use Saturn controllers for the Dreamcast. 

Top entries in the d-pad hall of shame
Saturn controls for the Dreamcast, anyone?

Another letdown is the Playstation (1,2,3) d-pad. Instead of a circular or cross base, there are 4 directional "bumps" that attempt to simulate a d-pad. This design is perhaps worse than that of Dreamcast. The amount of pressure needed to navigate diagonals is uncomfortably high, and blisters set in rather quickly. The Playstation 1 and 2 have a decent amount of quality shoot'em ups, so this is potentially a problem. There are a few arcade sticks available, and some third-party controllers to choose from. I was lucky enough to stumble upon what I consider the holy grail of PS1/2 shooter controllers: the official Sega Logistical Services Saturn pad for Playstation. It is a genuine Sega Saturn controller, made specifically for Playstation. These are kinda rare, yet so worth it.

Its not a myth

In conclusion, I feel that using a stick is better experience on shoot'em ups, but d-pads are more convenient and cost-effective. If I was to truly attempt to beat a game, I'd have to go with a stick. Everyone is different, this is just where I am at. I'm curious to see what others think on the matter.

I should mention that I use a lot of these sticks for 2D fighting games. I find I need the sticks for those types of games far more than I need them for shooters...but that's another story for another time.

Review: Retro Gamer Magazine

Before the internet, gamers had to get their news and reviews from magazines. There were a good amount of them during the 80's and 90's. As print media slowly becomes extinct, news racks are increasingly sparse; only the big name publications remain. Gaming magazines are virtually nonexistent, let alone niche topics like retro gaming. Not so in England, however. Retro Gamer Magazine has been going strong there since 2005. For whatever reason, the retro gaming community over there has numbers to support such a publication.

My first issue of Retro Gamer
I first saw a copy of Retro Gamer at a local Barnes and Noble book store. It was in the computers and technology rack, and I barely saw it peeking out over the Mac magazine. I was astonished that such a thing existed, and wondered how I could have not heard of it before. I examined it closely, it was issue #98, with Metal Slug feature on the cover. The gorgeous sprites of that seminal Neo Geo franchise jumped off the cover. I looked at the price in the corner, and was taken aback at its $9.99 asking price. Then I realized that it was imported, as I saw the 4.99 British Pound price. I flipped through it and made a quick decision to bring it home.

Visuals are bright and page-filling

The quality of paper is excellent. Each page has full color, and the cover is a full gloss and thick, it definitely can take a beating. I am starting to see why it costs as much as it does, considering that it is imported and the print quality is top notch.

The magazine boasts reviews, countdowns and lists, interviews, console specials, import reviews, buyers guides, and many other features. The quality of the writing is generally very good. There is an abundance of pictures and screen shots, all very well photographed with great detail. Ads are minimal and relegated to the back pages of the mag.

Some features are as great as they sound
The breadth of coverage is wider that I was expecting. It almost literally covers everything from Atari to the 6th generation. While this is awesome, a lot of coverage is on British gaming computers as well. This makes sense, as it is a British magazine. I find myself skipping over these pages, and unfortunately that means I'm skipping a good portion of the magazine, almost half. I don't have any interest in the Armstrad, Amiga, Zed Spectrum, BBC Micro, or any other such gaming computer, and I can't imagine any other American would.

It is for this reason that I have reservations for a whole hearted endorsement. The coverage on systems and games common to the U.S. and Britain is excellent, but the bias is present and noticeable. Its too bad that there is no American equivalent, as even in this day and age of digital press, there is a market for physical print, albeit a small one.

I have collected these and will continue to collect, but I'm crazier than most. So, if you don't mind approximately half a magazine on Retro Game coverage at a premium, this is a great read.

These look great on a shelf
Some covers...