SNES WEEK: Day 3
1) Raccoon Rascal
2) Super Castlevania 4
3) Umihare Kawasi
1) Raccoon Rascal - Simon Dominguez (Nyarthmaul)
If we had the budget for a time machine here at Bordersdown, we know exactly what we'd do with it. We'd to back to early 20th century America and visit the great author Sterling North just after his mother died to offer him some words of consolation. "Sterling," we'd say. "Things seem bad right now, but take heart. One day you'll write all this down, and your autobiography will win you a clutch of literary awards. The simplicity and charm of your story will touch the hearts of millions. The most beloved filmmakers and animation directors from all over the world will want to pick it up for TV and cinema, and your pain now will bring hope and joy to children and adults from America to Japan. And then, and only then, will the blokes what made Langrisser make a game where a cutesy SD anime-fied version of you will run around placing brightly coloured squares to make lines and combos." Oh how we'd laugh, as we struggled to get his head out of the oven.
Kudos to Masaya for not wimping out with the usual licensing routes. This game is based on the TV animation Raccoon Rascal, produced by Hayao Miyazaki (it was his last series before he went onto movies) for the World Masterpiece Theatre series (the animation stable which also produced the anime versions of Heidi, Lassie, Anne of Green Gables and The Dog Of Flanders). Of course, this in turn was based on North's autobiographical work Rascal: A Chronicle Of A Better Time, so it would hardly make conventional license game material. Behold the platform level, where you must make your way across countryside in the dead of night before having a cry, kipping on your mother's grave then realising the futility of it all and going home! The driving game section where you must steer the car down a busy street as a result of your sister (at the wheel) finally being driven doodah by your endless wittering about a raccoon!
As previously mentioned, the SNES version of Rascal is a puzzler, which might also be a wimp's way it were it not for the fact that it's such an original and enjoyable one. Gameplay is, as is usually the case in these affairs, simple. Chipmunks drop blocks down into your playing area, and you have to rearrange them into rows of three or more to make them disappear. The twist is that you are actually standing inside the game arena, and must physically pick up and drop the puzzle pieces in order to get the desired results. This adds up to a kind of a cross between Solomon's Key and Columns which plays like being trapped in a giant ball pit as you desperately clamber over the rising piles of blocks in a fevered attempt to push and pull them into shape. Addictive? Fun? Frantic? Innovative? Ah-yup.
This is made even more compulsive by the inclusion of co-operative or competitive gameplay where both Rascal and Sterling can go at it. Needless to say, this naturally leads to the kind of spirited exchanges usually scene in the two player co-op mode of Tetris Absolute Grand Master. To wit.
STERLING: You got a pink one! You got a pink one! Quick! Put it over there! NOT THERE! I SAID THERE!
RASCAL: I DID put it there!
STERLING: You were meant to put it on the right!
RASCAL: That IS the right!
STERLING: Stop bickering and play it! AAGH! Now I'm trapped! Get me out!
RASCAL: I can't get you out, if I move that block we'll ruin our combo!
STERLING: AAAAAAAAH! WE'RE GOING TO DIE!
But wait! There's more! An extra mode includes an excellent assault course race where the obstacles include numerous block puzzles, causing the players to have to choose between hurling them out of the way for a fast time or zapping them all for a high score. The icing on the cake is the game's sound which features some lovely samples from the TV show including a sprite-based version of the anime intro and the sound of Rascal going "Waa!" every time the menu cursor is moved.
All in all, if you're a hardcore puzzle collector then this is one that should definitely be in your collection. It's not the tightest game in the world and your interest may tail off when the novely of the game's mechanic has worn itself thin, but every so often when it's too hot to go out and you've had enough Soul Calibur, you'll be glad you had a copy of this game and an extra SNES joypad in the house.
2) Super Castlevania 4 - Jamie Davies (Spatial101)
You'd think after all this time that someone would have told Simon Belmont and Co. that whipping a Vampire to death (more importantly Dracula, the lord of the Nosferatu) just isn't going to kill them forever. Not once in all the Castlevania games has anyone thought to return to the tried and tested method of a wooden stake through the heart, preferring instead to try and beat them into submission with a refined strip of animal hide.
Just as well, as if the Belmont's had done their homework early on, there would have been no scope for the fantastic Super Castlevania 4.
More of a reimagining than anything else, SC4 stuck to its traditional roots of the Belmont clan far before the series could become convoluted with Alacard's, Cornell's and Nathan Graves. Unleashed in the US in 1991, not too long after that for the Super Famicom's release, the game was an update that had fans of the series drooling, as well as attracting a whole new following. With Dracula once again risen from the grave and very little reason given as to the whys and wherefores, Simon Belmont was left to don his leather skirt and battle the forces of darkness, working his way through Dracula's castle and towards the final confrontation with his fanged nemesis.
Taking the tried and tested platforming recipe of Chapter's One through Three, the game featured some refinements to the series. Ditching the RPG feeling of Simon's Quest and the branching pathways of Dracula's Curse, SC4 returned to the action platforming linage that had first established it. This time around Simon was gifted with the power of an especially limp wrist, meaning that he was able to flail his whip around him when the player held down the attack button; a skill which came in handy for getting out of tight spots by destroying enemy projectiles or even weaker enemies themselves.
With the Super Famicom's Mode 7 being all the rage, SC4 made use of the much lauded feature in a number of unique ways. Simon was able to use his whip to latch on to nearby anchor points and swing himself from platform to platform. More than just a gimmick, some levels required the player to hang on for dear life as the whole room rotated around them (perilous spikes waiting to catch those whose finger couldn't hold down the button any longer). Other examples included enemies that shrunk or grew in size as you attacked, with one memorable boss character actually metastasising to fill the screen.
Over the course of ten stages, the player would traverse through the leafy grounds, echoey caverns and lofty towers of Dracula's castle, each of them packed with enemies ranging from water spitting Mermen and bullet firing skull towers, to flying Harpies and Medusa heads. The unique designs of the mid level and end of level boss characters (which have since been recycled over and over as the series progressed) still stand out as noteworthy mentions - the jewel encrusted Zapf bat, the stone behemoth Koranot, and even the three minions of Dracula that barred the way to his final encounter, are some notables that are all etched into the minds of players.
Even today, SC4 still cuts the musical mustard, with a brooding sound track that manages to feel Orchestral in scale, despite the clear limitations of the Super Famicom's 8 bit, 8 Channel sound. The fact that many videogame music remixers are still pushing out tunes based on the game goes to show just how memorable and influential some of the pieces actually were.
Despite having some niggling little flaws which are actually inherent to the series as a whole (such as getting knocked off a platform to your death despite having just come from that direction and knowing there's a platform directly beneath) overall SC4 is still a challenging and enjoyable game, even by todayís standards (something highlighted by the sucess of the more recent GBA titles). It remains a recommended play for those who haven't experienced it or simply want to recapture a quintessential slice of the burgeoning 16 bit era.
3) Umihare Kawasi - Jamie Davies (Spatial101)
Being importers, itís tough knowing that even the greatest of games sometimes donít make it off those Eastern shores. For each one that is picked up and given the chance to briefly shine in the West, there are countless others left behind. TNNís Umihara Kawase is one of those titles.
As a puzzle platformer the game doesnít attempt to insult you with bothersome details such as plot. It would seem that the titular star, Kawase, simply has a bit of an aversion to fish - possibly due to a traumatic `fishbone lodged in throat` incident. So you can imagine the sheer purgatory of it all when she finds herself trapped in numerous piscine infested levels.
These vertical and horizontal scrolling areas called `fields` are littered with platforms, ladders and conveyers, which our diminutive heroine would have a hard time traversing if it wasnít for her handy fish hook and extendable red and white line. Lets be honest, anyone with a deep seated fear of fish is going to be armed with these at all times, just in case.
At first glance the controls may seem a little limited, consisting of the D-pad to move Umihara, a button to perform an unimpressive jump, and another to fire her line and hook. It is only when you realise that the line is flexible that the controls open up a wealth of possibilities.
Like a pink backpack sporting, skirt wearing Bionic Commando, Umihara can latch onto platforms and conveyor belts in any direction to aid her in reaching the door to the next field. Once hooked onto something, she can swing across gaps, rappel off ledges, and even lower herself up and down the extended line. While tricky to get to grips with at first, once players nail the basics (with the aid of the mini tutorials at the start of each level), they will find themselves able to pull off gradually more and more impressive feats. For a title that was around long before game designers went physics crazy the game does an excellent job of providing a sense of Newtonian motion, with the wire flexing and bending around platforms as well as catapulting them over distances if the momentum is right.
Roaming the levels are all manner of ugly looking fish creatures, looking to give our star a bad time. Coming into contact with the larger grotesqueryís will result in loss of a life, with smaller enemies simply stunning Umihara and knocking her backwards (usually off a platform at the same time). To avoid any undue frustration, Umihara is still able to let fly with her hook when stunned, meaning a watery death can be avoided if you are quick enough. Using her hook, enemies can themselves be paralysed and with a flick of the wire, she can toss them out of harms way into her backpack (presumably to sell later at an inflated price down some dodgy fish market). In an inspired touch, even dazed enemies can be used as latching points, although players shouldnít be surprised when some enemies obey the aforementioned laws of Physics and begin moving, pulled along by the momentum.
Umihara Kawase is the embodiment of a cult title. Following the theory that it must be easy to play but difficult to fully master, the game gives you only 10 lives and no continues to complete it. Whilst this isnít impossible, there is a clear distinction between playing the game and playing it well. Like any hardcore title, there is plenty of opportunity to perfect the grappling ability and the time taken to progress through the levels. Indeed later levels feature some quite taxing level design, require the player to make full use of their skills with the fishing line if they are to make it to the exit. Players will also need to be wary, as enemies are not simply confined to one platform. In a puff of smoke they are able to travel to different parts of the levels, adding a certain random element for even those who have familiarised themselves with a fieldís layout and the tactics needs to traverse it.
Despite being given a limited, updated lease of life on the original PlayStation, the game certainly feels more suited to the 16-bit system. The memorable and catchy music has that delightful retro charm and overall itís an excellent title that will not disappoint. Itís quirkiness, settings and graphics will draw you in but it is the gameplay and challenge that will keep you coming back.
SNES Week: Day 1
SNES Week: Day 2
SNES Week: Day 3
SNES Week: Day 4
SNES Week: Day 5
SNES Week: Day 6