Party like it’s 1993: It’s Nexzr Special!

Back in the late eighties and early nineties Hudson’s summer caravan events were a bit of a big deal, with gamers across Japan practising that year’s official tournament soft for fame, glory, and whatever else came as the reward for beating everyone else after intense practise and blistered thumbs two decades ago (A speedboat? A teasmade?). In 1991 Naxat decided they wanted a taste of this success and gamer-worship for themselves, and took on the mighty Bomberman creator at their own game for with Spriggan, then Recca and Alzadick the year after, before finishing off their ‘carnivals’ in 1993 with Nexzr Special.

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The main game here is identical to the standard release from 1992 bar the removal of the (impressive) opening and pre-final boss cutscenes, which means you get a space-themed vertical shmup with an emphasis on memorisation. It’s also damned hard if you ask me, and after a few failed attempts to get anywhere I found myself scuttling off to the options menu with my tail between my legs ready to knock the difficulty down to easy only to find… there is no easy. As it turns out ‘normal’ is not only the default but also as laid-back as the game gets, with three harder difficulty settings (one hidden behind this cheat) but no way to make the game easier other than spending less time crying and more time practising – especially as the game uses a checkpoint-style restart system, making credit feeding as a means to stumble through the standard mode’s seven stages to see the ending in half an hour impossible.

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The shmupping itself is about as straightforward as the genre gets with just one button to rest your thumb on and no bombs, charge shots, power levels, or fancy R-Type-style ship attachments to worry about. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely devoid of collectibles, and Nexzr Special uses a simple mix-and-match weaponry system that lets you swap out your main and sub weapons independently of each other. Of the three main shot types the most useful is probably one of the two that let you fire at a 45° angle, as bullets tend to be small and fast or GIANT LASERS that appear with little warning, so keeping off to the side will increase your chances of survival immeasurably, arguably even more so than picking up the one-hit-and-it’s-gone shield that turns up every now and again.

You’ll need to get the hang of shooting down as many enemies as possible because even on normal a lot of the regular enemy ships will take a shot at you on the way down the screen, then cheekily fire another one backwards at you, when they’re almost off-screen if you don’t kill them before they pass you by. It took me a while to adjust to the way these little sods behaved, and even now I know it’s coming I still think it’s a rather mean-spirited tactic to include as a standard feature on ‘popcorn’ enemies.

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But if you’re interested in reading about Nexzr Special you’re probably here for the fast paced scoring challenges found in the ‘carnival’ mode, and the good news for the gamer lacking patience or skill (or both, if you’re like me) is that the score and time attack variants found here are both simultaneously more complex than the main game while also being a lot kinder to the player’s life counter.

The only objective in these modes is to rack up the biggest score you can, either the highest amount within a two minute time limit or the quickest to 1,000,000 points, depending on the mode you’ve picked. Memorisation is still important for the really high watch-me-on-YouTube scores but it definitely takes a back seat to playing aggressively and reacting on the fly to your immediate situation, which is always nice. The brevity of these modes and the general easing-off of enemy fire makes for a short but intense burst of shmupping that’s fun even if you’ve never been anywhere near the game before while still offering players with more free time a layered challenge that grows with their skills.

It’s easy to see why Nexzr Special’s got a good reputation, as it’s obscure and expensive a visually impressive shmup for 1993 with a lot of action and a lengthy challenge: but there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s not a cheap purchase, a fact that’s only highlighted by the centrepiece mode lasting just 120 seconds and the more fully-featured alternative being a re-release of a game from the year before with the fanciest bits taken out. But even with those issues Special’s exclusive carnival modes offer exactly the sort of pick-up-and-play depth I love, and being able to switch between the immediacy of Carnival and the more long-term challenge of standard Nexzr makes the game feel like a package with a bit of something for everyone. It’s fair to say that in an era where some of the PC Engine’s greatest shmups can be bought digitally for a mere ¥617 each, or for those who just can’t get enough of the real thing for prices that tend to be on the ‘less than Nexzr Special’ end of the scale, this isn’t the easiest recommendation in the world. But if you do find yourself in the mood for some premium-price shmupping then it’s unlikely that Nexzr Special would leave you disappointed.

Sega Bass Fishing is awesome

Some games are good but I need to be in the mood to play them. Others I can recognise as classics but I know they really aren’t ever going to be my cup of tea. Then there are those that always put a smile on my face, like Sega Bass Fishing.

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As with many of Sega’s all-time classics this glorious fusion of bass fishing and rock music started life as an arcade title, running on nothing less than the same hardware responsible for the much-maligned Virtua Fighter 3. The main gimmick there, as if having your ears caressed by hot guitar riffs while you battled with giant fish wasn’t enough, was a controller that either looked like an approximation of a proper fishing rod on the deluxe cabinet or a glorified force feedback joystick slapped onto a standard arcade cabinet if your local arcade operator was a bass-hating cheapskate - assuming you ever got to see an arcade cabinet at all, that is: the key selling point to arcade operators for Sega’s specialist title was ‘Fishing without the creepy worm’. Thankfully the game that apparently failed to set arcades alight found itself better received in gamer’s homes, with an expanded and tweaked (if graphically downgraded) Dreamcast port that would go on to serve as the foundation for the various Wii, 360, PlayStation 3, and PC releases over the following years.

Like simulated train rides and piloting commercial passenger flights, fishing for bass in a selection of peaceful locations is not something that naturally lends itself to arcade-style gamification but Sega’s AM1 division seemed to have a knack for this sort of madcap creativity, or at the very least the ear of the company cheque-writing guy, seeing as they managed to bring out not only Sega Bass Fishing in 1997 but also ‘Our hit zombie filled light gun arcade game, BUT AS A TYPING TUTOR’ almost two years later. What sets this game apart from the end less mountain of simulation-type fishing games that seem to exist only to pad out ‘Twenty Super Famicom games L@@K’ eBay auctions is that it hits the perfect balance between the two extreme ends of the design spectrum – removing enough of the realism to be immediately exciting without hacking out all the parts that bring depth and skill to the game. Between the arcade, tournament, and practise modes you’ve got every kind of game you could possibly need, so long as your gaming needs involve catching lots of bass, from intense sessions against the clock to lazy afternoons spent watching turtles go about their business and trying out new lure-waggling techniques.

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I have to admit that for all my love for the game, Sega Bass Fishing has never reviewed well. Having just a single breed of fish to duel with was generally seen as something of a negative – even when both the Japanese and international titles make it quite clear that it’s all about fishing for bass – but this is actually where the game’s strength lies. If they’d chucked in a load of disparate freshwater fish and called it a day then you’d have the superficial variety that reviewers craved but at the expense of the depth found in hunting one particular species; with just bass to focus on you notice things you perhaps otherwise wouldn’t (and may not have been present at all if the team had spread themselves out too thinly), such as the way different sizes of bass can be distinguished at a glance by their shape and colour, or how the fish behave differently in the rain, or the in warmer water, or at various times of day.

But impressive fish AI would mean nothing if you weren’t able to interact with them in a meaningful way, which in this case means outwitting your piscine prey and then yanking them out of the water for a quick weigh-in. Getting all a-flutter over fishing lures is easy thanks to arcade mode’s at-a-glance tips and the sheer variety of methods you have to learn use them properly – even when just looking at surface lures you’ll find the ‘popper’ and the ‘pencil bait’ need to be used in very different ways to be effective, while still being balanced enough that selecting a lure is more to do with your current situation and personal preferences than one being definitively better than another. It doesn’t take very long before you find you’ve got a preferred shallow-water lure and you like to catch fish just by the reeds in the morning and then… you’re hooked (teehee~).

Other details are the icing on top of the fishy cake: the endlessly enthusiastic commentator egging you on with ‘A big one’s close by!’ - it never fails to send a shiver of excitement down my spine even though I must have heard him say it a thousand times by this point, as does ‘Bite it!’ when you’re desperately jiggling a lure in front of the biggest bass in the lake. As you’d expect from a game born to cutting-edge arcade hardware there are some impressive visual flourishes too: the fish are obviously the stars here and everything else rightfully takes a back seat to their high-polygon sleek forms but Sega still took the time to make everything else more interesting than you’d think it would look, with a nice contrast between natural and man-made structures as well as a smattering of water-based wildlife that bring a touch of life and variety to the game.

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So now I’ve hopefully got your attention it’s time to answer the all-important question: ‘Kimimi, which version of Sega Bass Fishing do I buy?’. Let’s look at the Dreamcast version first of all: this has the benefit of giving you the warm fuzzy feeling that only comes with playing on Sega’s GD-ROM crunching hardware, but at the cost of some really awful random slowdown when underwater. The Dreamcast version also boasts that wonderful official rod too (the unofficial ‘Fission’ rod’s not too shabby either), which has the added benefit of bringing an extra five whole minutes of novelty rod-swishing play to Soul Calibur. Next up for consideration is the Wii port, which has a range of exclusive fishing locations as well as pretend rod-ing via the Wiimote/nunchuck combo but somehow feels a little less ‘authentic’ as its extras feel a little bit like a dilution of the original rather than an expansion to me. Last of all are the virtually identical PC/360/PlayStation 3 releases; taking the purity of the Dreamcast version while adding the fancy graphical effects found in the later Wii remake, then making everything all widescreen and pretty-like for modern TVs… but there’s no rod support for any of those, only plain old controllers. So the best version is… whatever’s most convenient for you, really – just have fun!

A little look at…Melty Lancer

As with many nineties games starring a gaggle of walking clich├ęs in anime lady form it looks like the developers of Melty Lancer had dreams of conquering the world through a mixture of tie-in TV shows, drama CDs, and any other related merchandise they could slap the game’s logo on. This worked out just fine for some games but for others… not so much. The Melty Lancer we’re going to look at today is the very first game in the series, a PC-98 simulation game that would go on to be remade for the Saturn (1996) and PlayStation (1997) under the slightly frillier title Melty Lancer ~Galaxy Police Girls 2086~. As far as I’ve been able to tell the content between them is nigh-on identical, meaning the only major difference is the additional voice acting and the more colourful graphics found in the console ports, although I’d question whether the latter is an improvement over the crisp pixel art found here.

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Your task, faceless and nameable but definitely male individual, is to spend one year at the GPO - that’s the Galaxy Police Organisation to normal people – and whip your rag-tag team of Lancers into shape (not literally, mind – it’s not that sort of game), keep the streets safe-ish, and make sure you pursue any bad guy or girl important enough to have a name and a portrait when they speak. Anyone who’s spent some time with either the Princess Maker or Tokimeki Memorial series will immediately feel right at home here, being as it is a Japanese-style ‘simulation’ game that’s all about keeping track of and improving a mountain of attributes while battling with a rigid timetable.

Many of the statistics are the usual sort of thing you’d expect from any game that involves beating people up: health, attack power, speed… typical RPG stuff. But simulation games are never content to leave it at that, and Melty Lancer obliges by assigning not only numerical values to things like ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘self belief’ but super-secret hidden stats that determine whether your favourite policewoman will go out with you at Christmas or if you’ll get to see her in a swimsuit during the summer months.

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Improving these various abilities is handled via the weekly staff rota: just before the start of each week you get to split each officer’s schedule into chunks of patrolling, special tasks, and rest periods and then optionally talk to one of the six Lancers. This is your one chance a week to charm them with your deep understanding of their personal concerns and troubles as well as personally assign their training or even give them a little time off. The benefits of doling out a specific task rather than leaving it up to them (as is what happens to every other Lancer you don’t talk to) is that assigned training is slightly more effective than self-appointed practise and you obviously get to choose exactly what they’re up to rather than hoping for the best. A little tip for anyone thinking of playing the game: raising anything other than agility (effects chance to hit in battles) and investigation (used as the main stat in an awful lot of special jobs) is by and large a waste of time – you need these stats to be as high as possible as quickly as you can, whereas everything else tends to take care of itself.

Once that’s all taken care of it’s on to the week’s (galaxy) policing – we’ll look at patrolling first as that’s the more straightforward of the two main areas of GPO work.

Before deciding where to send someone off to patrol you’ll be shown a small map of the city divided into nine zones, with each zone being rated from 1-100 – the higher the number, the safer it is. Of course with nine zones and at most six Lancers even if you have everyone on patrol all the time (absolutely not recommended) you can’t keep an eye on everywhere every day, making this something of a whack-a-mole scenario as you try to keep it all under control. Most of the time when a Lancer goes off to have a look around nothing will happen other than a small boost to the civility of the area, but on occasion she’ll be forced to fight off either generic thugs or a previously encountered boss by herself. Battling is simplistic with little control – you can attack, auto (attack until one of you falls over), move them about the field (doesn’t do much, in my experience) or try to capture the lawless individual on the other side of the screen. In theory arresting individuals makes for a better officer than the sort that beats criminals to a bloody pulp but with the success rate being so low it’s often best to just hit auto and pray your Lancer’s stats are better than theirs. If they do happen to lose their fight then the officer has to sit out for a few days until their health recovers, wasting precious number-building time.

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The other main aspect of weekly GPO duties are the special jobs you can send them off to complete; every day a short list of generic tasks pops up and if someone’s not on patrol or having a rest day then you have to give them one of these jobs to do. The tasks are entirely automated but there is a little strategy involved here as each one has a difficulty rating as well as a particular attribute assigned to it, both of which have a direct effect on whether your chosen Lancer will complete the task within a day without even breaking a sweat or give up after spending three days on it and got nowhere. Sometimes enthusiastic team members will go off and try to complete jobs for themselves without any prompting from you beforehand – they don’t always pick the most appropriate jobs but as you almost always get some stat boosts from simply attempting a mission it’s usually better than them sitting around twiddling their thumbs. 

Mixed in with these generic jobs at apparently random points are ‘event’ tasks – plot-relevant emergencies and incidents that occur in a set order and further the story. Some of them just require your presence to clear, others need your team to be in top condition and ready for a tough battle. Failing in these scuffles means having to wait until whenever the same event decides to show up in your job list again, eating up valuable time as you bumble around raising stats as best you can and hoping your next chance comes around soon. About twenty events make up this main storyline, and you’ll need to knuckle down if you want to get through them all before your year at the GPO runs out. To further complicate matters at the year’s end your behaviour towards the Lancers as well as your management of them in the field will determine which one of six possible endings you’ll end up with, ranging from marriage to career glory to what amounts to ‘Don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out’.

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Leaving your fate mostly up to the unpredictable whims of your Lancers attribute gains doesn’t make for a whole lot of ‘game’ in the traditional meaning of the term but the characters are pleasant enough (if predictable) when you do get to interact with them, the pixel art’s top notch, and as it can be beaten in a day you don’t feel too cheated if you don’t get the ending you hoped for. With most simulation games I tend to get fed up after a while and start skipping things just to reach the end even when I know it’ll mean getting an undesirable ending – that didn’t happen with Melty Lancer, and after polishing this off I’m looking forward to playing through the Saturn port I’ve got lurking somewhere around here as well as the two sequels beyond it at some point in the future.

If you want a more involved game starring a clutch of unlikely near-future women kicking backside then Tuned Heart or even Galaxy Angel are both games you should probably look at first, but if you enjoyed Princess Maker and its ilk and fancy more of the same then Melty Lancer should scratch your stat-building itch well enough even if it is a little less refined.

Want to have a go yourself? Melty Lancer’s on Project EGG! It does cost twice as much as a normal game but on the other hand they went to the trouble of preinstalling it to a virtual HDD so all you have to do is click and play rather than wrestle with 3947 floppy disc swaps.