SNES WEEK: Day 2
1) Pop'n Twinbee
2) Clock Tower: Love, Peas and Piece of Child
3) Area 88 (AKA UN Squadron)
1) Pop'n Twinbee - Rob Bowker (Hankwangford)
Konami owe much of their early successes to the traditional shooter and all of its variations. In the 80s and early 90s, they commanded much respect for their understanding of what made a shooter tick in both vertical and horizontal adoptions, with old school style gameplay in titles like Gradius and original gameplay in groundbreaking console games such as Axelay. One of the more famous icons within the company is the lovable Twinbee – a bright blue humanly formed aircraft. The star of numerous 8-bit based games, Konami certainly didn’t neglect the lovable rogue when the lure of the SNES began to pull developers into its inner circle, and as such Pop’n Twinbee was born.
An update of the original 80s Twinbee titles, Pop’n Twinbee takes the standard vertical shooter and injects it with a dose of cute that can only be measured on the My Little Pony scale. Pop’n Twinbee is a bright and bouncy title and makes no apologies for that; several enemies, upon being shot down, will blow up in comical ways, the little excerpts of speech that report you have a new weapon are high pitched and fluffy, and almost everything non-threatening has a smiling face beaming from its surface. If you were looking for a serious shooter, you won’t find one here.
The game houses 8 levels, packed full of foes with a tough boss creature sitting at the end to defeat. Each level has two planes – the foreground, where Twinbee and – if you have a second player – Winbee will do direct aerial battle against the opposition, and the background from where enemies will reinforce their attacks. Players have to deal with both layers by dropping bombs on those down below; thankfully, as long as Twinbee or Winbee move close enough, bombs automatically track their targets leaving you with no other task than to tap the relevant button. Throughout each stage, players will get an opportunity to collect different coloured bells, which gives a range of benefits from score, to new weapons, to raising the speed of your character. Each colour gives a different effect, and by shooting the bells and keeping them in the air, the colour of the bells can be changed, enabling the possibility of obtaining any weapon for any situation.
Assisting you in your task will be your ‘Options’, miniature versions of your craft that will – depending on how you assign them – follow you around the screen or rotate around your craft. They can shoot forwards, and do so when you hold the fire button, but they can’t provide any support down below. There is, also, the obligatory smart bomb that will wipe out anything on the screen except for bosses, which it will cause serious damage.
Pop’n Twinbee is infuriatingly difficult at times, even despite the energy bar. It’s a real challenge and certainly doesn’t play up to its cute style at all. The first stage is quite deceptive in its sedateness – shortly afterwards, things ramp up to a fast and furious level with bullets and suicidal opponents throwing themselves into the fray at the kind of rate that wouldn’t be out of place in a Contra game. As a result there is a real need to think and play tactically. Ignoring the background layer will make your options for bullet dodging limited, whilst failing to concentrate on the plethora of adversaries rushing you will soon find your energy trickling down. A keen understanding of strengths and weaknesses of each rival is needed to get very far.
Pop’N Twinbee’s lastability is the norm amongst shooters – once the 8 levels have been conquered, there’s always the desire to go back into the fray and defeat the game on the harder difficulty levels, or on one credit, and, of course, chase a record breaking hi-score.
Even today, Pop’n Twinbee stands up as a traditional shooter with a lot of style. Like most Nintendo developed games, its cutesy feel certainly doesn’t fit the difficulty level, yet it helps to deliver a charming and endearing game that certainly all shooter fans should try.
2) Clock Tower: Love, Peas and Pieces of Child - Simon Dominguez (NyarthMaul)
We in the world of New Games Journalism know that we have certain responsibilities. We know that pouring our free time into thousands of words in return for no money gives people the right to haughtily criticise our characters. We know that if we ever use the first person in a review then the NGJ Police will bang our doors down in the middle of the night and tell us that we'll never get a job on Edge now. Most of all though, we know that kids shoot each other when they hear bad words, so for the duration of this article when we want to say a very bad word that begins with "F" we will say "Love," and when we want to say a very bad word that begins with "S" we will say "Peas."
Now that we've established the ground rules, let's talk about more of them - namely, the ground rules of horror. Everyone knows that the worst thing you can be confronted with is when things turn out to be suddenly and horrifyingly different to how you thought they were - for example, cowering in your bed all night hearing something terrifying clawing at your front door, then getting up in the morning to find that the claw marks are on the INSIDE of the door. Excellent as a scare like this is, it's still flawed because of the fact that it's grounded in context and reality - joining the dots from point to point. Take the point where John Hurt gets a stomach ache in Alien - one of the definitive moments in horror for sure, but you're still making a rational realisation insofar as the phrase "Oh my god that thing wasn't trying to kill him it was loving him in the mouth" is a rational one.
The real kickers of horror, though, the real OMFG moments come from terror that has no base, no context and nothing for your mind to touch wood with. I'm talking about the first time you see the world change into the Otherworld in a Silent Hill game. I'm talking about the first time you read a Lovecraft book and the character ends up in a place where the angles are all wrong. The Juddermen in Jacob's Ladder. The magnificently retarded and meaningless conclusion to Don't Look Now. Moments in horror that allow your brain absolutely no safety rail to hang onto or any rationalisation for what you're seeing, and just leave it flapping in the wind shouting "OH LOVING HELL WHAT THE LOVE IS THAT OH GOD LOOK AT THOSE PEAS OH LOVE OH LOVE OH PEAS."
The greatest such moment of this ever achieved by cinema is Leatherface's first appearance in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the good one). Out of the house he comes lumbering at turbo speed, grabs Screaming Bitch round the waist and disappears into the basement. Yes, it's been said before by horror movie obsessives a thousand times over, but loving hell what a moment. No clue WHAT the love he's meant to be or where the peas he's meant to come from, he's just suddenly RIGHT THERE IN YOUR FACE with his leather apron, skin face and lumbering, childlike body language. In the immortal words of Matt from www.x-entertainment.com
, Leatherface isn't a movie monster - he's just a monster.
It's this spectacular flair for the genuinely macabre and surreal that Human's SNES graphic adventure Clocktower managed to tap beatifully. The game begins with the main character (Jennifer) being transferred, along with the other inmates of their orphanage, to a new home. Miss Mary (their matron and guardian) informs them that the eccentric millionaire Simon Burroughs (seemingly an expat Brit living in Scandanavia) has offered to allow the entire population of the establishment to come and live with him in luxury at his beautiful mansion, situated in a lush forest and overlooked by an antique Clocktower.
Lambs to the kebab shop, eh?
Within a few minutes of play, however, Clocktower is serving up nothing like what you thought you were in for. For a start, the automatic assumption is that creepy old Simon is a kiddyfiddler or murderer or whatever, and you're his latest prey. A-ha-ha-ha-ha. Nope. You go exploring the mansion, and within a short time you are suddenly and shockingly confronted by a HORRIFYING GREY LITTLE MAN WITH A GIGANTIC PAIR OF SCISSORS that just comes after you and comes after you and comes after you.
Congratulations. You just had your first meeting with Bobby, and you're back in the house with Leatherface again. Clocktower breaks all the rules of modern horror gaming spectacularly - there's no combat, no wandering monsters, nothing that could make you feel in the least bit competant or safe. You're just a little girl, hiding in a cupboard or under a bed or wherever, listening to the horrible dry SNAK-SNAK-SNAK of the scissors get closer and closer and silently thinking lovepeaslovepeaslovepeaslovepeas let him walk past please god let him walk past.
The fact that the game's big bad is undefeatable and you will never be completely safe sets a firm foundation. This is built on by a game structure which reacts to how you play, changing the layout of the mansion along with the scare effects and the moments at which Bobby will appear and when that noise you hear will just be a cat or the wind or something. What really makes Clocktower a winner, though, is the way the game plays - it's EXTREMELY short and it has a veritable bucketload of endings and ways in which the plot can turn out. This makes it light as a game and extremely heavy as an experience, leading to a powerfully addictive mix.
Of course, it also means you might think twice about it as an expensive import. Obviously we can't reccommend illegally downloading the fan translated ROM which puts the whole original experience in English, so you are left with the choice between the SNES cart or the "First Fear" Playstation disk. First Fear boosts the game in quite a few areas, such as better sound samples and restoration of all the dummied material. The problem with this is that the dummied material is RUBBISH. Having peas like a zombie in the cupboard that has to be stabbed with a knife completely contradicts the feel of the game, and was rightfully dropped from the original product.
Clocktower has received a handful of sequels which have been... well, interesting, to say the least. The first was Clocktower 2, released on the Playstation as Clocktower in the West. The sequel had Jennifer and the other survivors of the Clocktower massacre in therapy in Norway. Everything is going fine until it appears that Bobby is back, and "THE GIANT SCI-SORRRRS STALK AGAIN! WHO WILL SURVIVE THIS DEADLY GAME OF MURDERRRRRRRR?" Yes, sorry folks. Clocktower 2 features voice acting so loving peas that it makes Deep Fear on the Saturn look like Olivier. For all its faults though, Clocktower 2 is still a fairly engaging (if hilariously botched) attempt at psycho-drama in which there are three potential fake Scissormans (Scissormen? God, a degree in English and I still don't know how proper nouns work) which alter depending upon your route through the plot.
Skipping the rather odd and disgraceful Clocktower: Ghosthead (released in the West as Clocktower 2) which had nothing to do with the game's continuity, the most recent place that punters are likely to have heard of the series is with Clocktower 3, Capcom's official conclusion to the story. Unfortunately, though, Capcom didn't write it - Sunsoft did, and if there's one thing Sunsoft are famous for it's sodding off down the pub when the game's half finished. Clocktower 3 features a mind-blowingly excellent rewrite of the original panic system of the first two games which upgrades it to the point where, when your character gets their peas utterly ruined, they run around breathing heavily, flailing and falling over. Sadly it misses the point utterly by having every stage set against the assumption that you will be able to kill the level's big bad.
This is compounded by the fact that said villains are, rather than an exercise in Lovecraftian nuttiness, nothing much more than a bored afternoon for the National Enquirer's writers. Level 2 is particularly noteworthy, featuring the serial killer John George Hague - the man the Sun dubbed "Acid Bath Hague." The real Hague simply used acid to dispose of the bodies of his victims (coming a cropper, if memory serves, when the police found undissolvables like false teeth). Sunsoft's version is comedically titled "CORRODER," and in one of the most shriekingly over the top and sadistic scenes in video game history he crams a blind old woman head down into an oil can and covers her in acid. By level 3 there's barely any backplot for the villain any more and by the fourth Scissorman is back as some kind of Japanese clown, but the player has long since gone to sleep or strolled off down the video shop to re-rent Jacob's ladder.
Due to these blasphemous pretenders which never recapture the simple wierdness, the compulsive and speedy gameplay or the "OH LOVING PEAS WHAT THE LOVE IS THAT OH LOVE THOSE PEAS" element of the original, it remains relatively obscure. It would be a good thing if this changes, soon. After all, whether you're an import player looking to expand their encyclopaedic knowledge, a horror fan interested in the development of the survival genre or simply a slave to the "How many cool things are out there that I don't know about?" who happens to have a spare afternoon, then there's every reason in the world for you to go and give Clocktower a whirl.
3) Area 88 (AKA UN Squadron) - Matt Allen (Mayhem)
If you were to ask the average SNES fan what sort of genres they would associate with the machine, shooters would probably be somewhere down the list. The ironic thing is that many of them were classics: Super Aleste, Axelay, Parodius, Pop 'n Twin Bee... and then there is Area 88 aka UN Squadron in the West. Based on the manga of the same name, and taking its cue from the earlier arcade machine, Area 88 is a tour de force of how to do a scrolling shooter.
The arcade itself had a lukewarm reception, being ten stages of horizontal scrolling shooter mayhem with a boss at each end. What Capcom did with the conversion was to build upon the solid foundation of the arcade, add a lot of new ideas and features into the mix and produce something that really should have been released in the first place. But after all this time, we've come to somewhat expect that from Capcom, haven't we?
The most noticeable difference is that whilst there is still the same choice of pilots, they are not stuck with their own planes. Given enough money, up to five other aircraft can be bought and flown in any mission. Each plane has its advantages and disadvantages, and there is at least one stage where each comes to the fore. Likewise before there was only one special weapon available per stage, now a variety of old and new can be bought to wage destruction on the enemy.
In a similar vein, the linear nature of the game has been partially thrown away. Instead of progressing from level one to level two for example, there is usually the choice about which stage to tackle next in the slow progression towards the enemy base. Throw in the wandering air squadrons and attack-class submarine and you have some strategic elements based upon the current airplane inventory and the amount of money available to spend. Need some extra cash? Then go attack one of the enemy supply convoys. However it does mean certain roaming squads can get closer to Area 88.
It is these changes Capcom wrought to the base game that allow it to have such a wide amount of variety and tactics in dealing with clearing each mission. A general attack plan can be formulated but it is always changing depending on the success or failure of each mission undertaken. This is made harder by the fact that whilst the player is equipped with "lives", dying means having to replay a stage from the start AND losing all the weapons previously bought for it.
Make no mistake about it, Area 88 is hard even on the lower difficulty levels. Part of this is produced from the elegant and, at times, clever level designs, and part from what arsenal is available to take on said stages. Roughly half of the stages present are brought over from the arcade machine and half were created from scratch, giving not only a degree of familiarity but also a new sense of improvement and scale.
The addictiveness and "one more go" aspects of the game go hand in hand with the difficulty level. The game rarely seems overly unfair, it is down to the skill of the player and learning how each plane and weapon can be of benefit on a level that takes this shooter to whole new heights. That, and some of the boss set-pieces present (especially the strafe over the battleship) induce a certain wow factor, shortly followed by the thought on how on earth to survive it all. The levels have a greater freedom and variety of design that makes them all the more individual and unpredictable to complete.
Aesthetically it looks and sounds like a Super Nintendo game, and especially a Capcom production. They had a way of producing distinctive graphics and music for their 16-bit work and this is no exception. It carries over the style used for the arcade machine and adds to it with the new airplanes and weapons created. The music is maddeningly catchy, despite its somewhat short nature at times, and it is obvious this was produced by the same team that did such classics as Final Fight. They had their own keys and hooks, and these come through to perfectly compliment the shooting action.
Area 88 was an early Super Nintendo game, but stamped its own mark on the machine as the first definitive shoot 'em up for the machine. It not only surpassed everything that had been set by Capcom's earlier effort, but was to become a classic in its own right. Thankfully very little was lost or changed during its translation to the West which meant everyone on this side of the world got to experience something very special indeed. So Capcom... when can we expect a portable update of this a la Ghouls 'n Ghosts?
SNES Week: Day 1
SNES Week: Day 2
SNES Week: Day 3
SNES Week: Day 4
SNES Week: Day 5
SNES Week: Day 6