Digging through the bookcase: Xian Jian Qi Xia Zhuan 5: Qing He Zhen Pian

This Xian Jian 5 tie-in manhua came out in November 2012, around a year and four months after the game. It’s a one-off retelling of the earliest parts of the excellent Chinese RPG Xian Jian 5 over 211 pages, and unlike some other attempts (Chinese and otherwise) to cash in on an existing title this has the honour being being written and illustrated by members of the original development team, making the experience as close to the real thing as possible without actually going through the immense hassle of reinstalling the game.

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While Qing He Zhen Pian may be a highly compressed retelling it doesn’t actually come across as feeling rushed – there’s always plenty of space for the fantastic line work and ethereal paintings to breathe and even with so much story to cram in panels are still given over to wordless expressions and actions, complimented by a few striking double page spreads and full page illustrations to really show off a particular character or scene. Even with the weight of a lengthy million-selling RPG resting on a single book’s shoulders there’s never a feeling of a tale that’s afraid to set its own tempo – a confidence that probably comes from being handled in-house by staff who already know the plot inside out and can pinpoint exactly which parts to focus on for maximum effect.

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IP-jun’s artwork conveys both kinetic battles and sillier scenes well, always in keeping with the game’s style whether drawing peaceful vistas, snarling monsters or even SD-style comedy faces. Overall the tone of the book is more towards the light-hearted end of the spectrum, partly because the adventure’s only really getting started for our heroes just as the book ends, but also because sticking with the smiles and silliness makes for a more pleasant and free-flowing read than having to stop and explain the numerous intertwined tragedies that go back generations for some of the characters in a mere handful of pages. There’s a sense that Qing He Zhen Pian was created more as a ‘victory lap’ for the development team and a tasty morsel for fans missing Xiao Man’s adorable bickering with Long You than an attempt to woo anyone who still hadn’t played the game - basic knowledge of Xian Jian 5’s characters and setting is assumed of the reader from the start, meaning there was no more need for this manhua to rake over the fine details of Xian Jian 5 any more than Advent Children did for Final Fantasy VII.

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Qing He Zhen Pian always leaves me with conflicting emotions when I come to read it as it’s simultaneously an excellent adaptation and yet also feels a bit disappointing when you reach the end, mostly because what’s here is so promising it’s practically begging for a full series even if it would have required some ridiculous One Piece-length endeavour to see through to the finish. Sadly it appears that scenario was never on the cards, so all we can do is enjoy this lovely little piece of ‘what if’ and hope that perhaps Softstar will reconsider one day and give Xian Jian 5 the spinoff manhua it really deserves.

Bomberman 94... on a CD?!

Well, yes and no. This Super CD-ROM really is an official Bomberman ‘94 release, but rather than the full game it’s a short demo that according to this fabulous Japanese website was given out at Hudson’s ‘Caravan’ events in Japan – basically gaming meetings for fans with a dash of corporate advertising thrown in for good measure. Whether these demos were considered prizes for competition participants or left in a ‘Please take one’ sort of pile appears to be anyone’s guess, the only thing we can say for sure is that they weren’t available for general sale. As an aside ‘PC Engine CD Rom Capsule 4’ magazine also included a disc containing a Bomberman ‘94 demo, although whether it’s the same as the onw shown here is currently unknown.

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Now then, onto the screenshots! As with my previous dive into the world of comparison screenshots images from the trial version are on the left, and the finals are on the right.

Actually, we need to take a quick look at something else before we get to the comparison screens – before the title appears this set of mysterious messages pops up:

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It seems to me like a rather odd thing to bring up before play, but I must admit to being completely ignorant of how desperate Japanese PC Engine fans were for the game at the time. Whether internal cock-ups or external shenanigans were responsible for this almost-apology there doesn’t appear to be any comment (that I’ve found) about it online, leaving the reason for its inclusion left to speculation.

Right, now we’re onto the comparison screens! The title’s rather lovely, and I had to admit I prefer it to the one used in the final game. I do like bomb in ‘Bomberman’, although the overall effect with the gradient on the text and the colour cycling on the ‘94 make it look a little too busy.

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A bit of amateurish poking around some save states didn’t unearth anything that suggested the demo was a cornucopia of alpha-grade unused material, but I did at least find this very interesting bit of title screen text -

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The Japanese text reads ‘キャラバン用限定非売品’which translates to something along the lines of  ‘Restricted Caravan use, not for sale’ – tying up neatly with the ‘Given away at Caravan events’ information in the link at the top. I was feeling quite pleased with myself for this little bit of behind-the-curtain peeking, then I found out that to get that text to show all anyone needs to do is hold left on the d-pad before the title screen pops up. One small mystery solved almost as soon as it was discovered, and all it cost was one slightly deflated gamer ego.

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Onto the most important part now – battling! There’s only one level, no CPU option, and no character select. The good news is up to five humans can play together in standard or team matches, so while it’s hugely cut down the core experience is still there. Eagle eyed readers might have spotted the different font for ‘MAN’ and the lack of ‘Please select a stage’ text in the demo screenshot.

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As you can see the stage itself is identical across both the trial and the final Hucard release, right down to the border animations. The only significant difference is the pause graphic, which was change d from ‘generic bouncing text’ to Best Pause Image Ever when the game finally went on sale.

(The following five are all trial images)

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All the usual power ups are present and work as intended, including multiple Louies (I have seen and used blue/pink/yellow/purple - a green one hasn’t popped up yet but it’s safe to assume it’s in there) and the skull power-downs. As expected when the final sixty seconds comes around the ‘Hurry up!’ text flashes across the screen and unbreakable blocks fall down around the edges in a clockwise manner, same as always. The only thing missing is the little victory animation you get for blowing everybody up.

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After your inevitable victory comes the tally and celebratory screens and these are clearly in a more preliminary state than the rest of the game; the victory marker looks more like a token or coin in the trial and the stage itself is missing a lot of detail. After this the trial loops back to the stage select menu.

While the demo shipped on a CD this was probably just to save costs as the audio is all generated internally – no fancy 90’s era redbook audio here! It’s all different from the final tracks too and probably placeholder music lifted from Bomberman ‘93, although as I’ve always stuck with ‘94 that’s a guess rather than a fact.

In my hunt for information on this disc I’ve seen a few websites quoting different production numbers – some claim only 10,000 were made, others say 20,000. The important thing to note is that none of them link back to a source and as I couldn’t find one either it’s best to leave the figures well alone and simply say ‘probably not a lot’ instead.

As a game there’s no reason to play this – it’s just battle-mode Bomberman ‘94 with far fewer options. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fascinating piece of gaming history, for being both a tiny glimpse into the development behind a wonderful game as well as a reminder of a long-gone era when getting a demo out to fans meant actually going out and pressing a disc straight into their hands.

A little look at… Metal Sight

Metal Sight’s a 1989 X68000 game by System Sacom, who’s most famous game is… probably this one, now I’ve written about it. Still, fame has never been any real measure of quality – Choujin’s a great example of a extremely playable one-hit wonder on the same hardware and from an even smaller team than Metal Sight’s.

The Space Harrier comparisons are inevitable and warranted, as they are with any 80’s game that involves high-speed into-the-screen action. Sacom’s title adds a little spice to proceedings by incorporating sprite-based ‘tunnels’ and ‘paths’ in parts of certain levels – nothing to the level of Sega’s glorious Galaxy Force II, but then again it would be entirely unreasonable to expect even the X68000 to go toe-to-toe with cutting-edge arcade hardware released just the year before.

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There are ten stages in total, with the player able to start from anywhere up to stage 5 via the options menu. Being able to start halfway through the game without any penalty beyond your end-of-level rank might sound like a bit of a cheat, but the game’s the sort of old-school hard that makes death a frequent and inescapable experience, so this little level select feels more like a welcome relief. Even so on any difficulty above easy stages can be over in mere seconds if you’re not paying attention, and that’s taking Metal Sight’s green/yellow/red/dead shield system into account. So after a many, many deaths you’ll decide it’s time to either put your fist through the keyboard, strap on a headband and practice in a suitably 80’s movie montage style, or take a breath and remember that this game came out when Harrier ‘em ups were a big deal in arcades never mind in your own home – the very genre itself was a fresh concept and everyone was trying to find their own way, so it’s no wonder Sacom’s title’s a little rough around the edges.

But this contextual leeway can only carry the game so far, and there are some areas that deserve unreserved criticism.  Stages - should you ever live long enough to finish one - simply fade to black in a very unsatisfying manner when you reach the end, as if there’s more to the level but you didn’t do well enough to see it. It’d feel like a lukewarm resolution in any game, but it’s especially jarring here given the intensity of the action happening mere seconds before. This fade-out can even occur while a boss is shooting at you, as if the designers felt obliged to include the artist’s sprite work but couldn’t be bothered to do anything with it. While the hardware obviously limits what could have been achieved to some extent, both Solid Lancer and Knight Arms did a much better job of creating spectacular and memorable encounters – and Solid Lancer’s running on significantly weaker hardware too.

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Overall Metal Sight’s still not an entirely enjoyment-free experience though, and if you have the patience to learn the ropes the game takes less than half an hour to play through from start to finish with a few disc swaps along the way. It’s just one of those games that’s technically impressive for the time but has little else going for it - which is something of a problem when the X68000 has a wealth of better shmups and action games readily available.


A little look at…Ragnarok Battle Offline

French Bread may be busy these days with the likes of Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax and the catchily-titled Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late, but back in 2004 they were a small doujin circle trying out everything from one-on-one beat ‘em ups to shoot ‘em ups and, to complete the classic trinity of ‘em-ups, this Ragnarok Online themed side-scrolling beat ‘em up.

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A quick note: the ‘Offline’ part of the title’s important, and suprisingly it’s not to distinguish the game from it’s Korean MMO big brother. Ragnarok Battle Offline actually started out (and was released as) Ragnarok Battle Online – a Flash game that appears to have either vanished from the web or simply lost in the cracks of the internet due to the title being an amalgam of two vastly more popular games.

The other thing I want to bring up is the classic story of Ragnarok’s official owners being so impressed with this game that they licensed it for proper release in South Korea – and this is true. But the really interesting titbit that’s often left unsaid is that the Japanese original’s near-as-dammit official in the first place, with the reverse of the box sporting an official Ragnarok Online holographic sticker – as do both soundtrack CDs.

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But that’s quite enough Ragnarok-related online/online[other]/offline[like online, No Not That One] talk, what makes this game special is that it’s still damned good fun even if you don’t know if a Poring’s something you hit, ride, or eat. It’s a mechanically sound beat ‘em up with all sorts of great touches that go far above and beyond the sort of quality and good design sense expected of a mere fan game – combos, air recovery, dashing (air dashing too) and the ability to block are all there for you to learn how to master, with Guardian Heroes-style skill/spell execution the icing on an already indulgent cake.

In keeping with Ragnarok Online’s gameplay stats, skills, and spells are learned and upgraded after gaining enough XP to level up, with some requiring a certain amount of points invested in a particular stat or skill to unlock. Not only does this give you free reign to tailor your chosen class to your personal tastes but it also means that by the time you’re ready for a new trick you’ve had plenty of time with the old one, creating an experience that layers extra complexity and tactics onto your chosen character the longer you play. The simple pleasure of watching my Magician grow from a walking glass cannon to a walking nuclear warhead helped immeasurably in making the stat allocation screen feel like an integral and enjoyable part of the game rather than fiddly busywork between zapping orcs and fish.

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Even with such engaging gameplay there’s always a danger of this sort of game turning into a dull conveyor belt of enemies to endlessly smack in the face until the designer decides you’re done even if you do have up to two extra friends in tow – but not so with Ragnarok Battle Offline! Here you’ll find yourself struggling to see in dark caves, running away from giant boulders, squaring up to an orc woman after destroying her washing line… the variety packed in is a delight both for completely new players as well as Ragnarok veterans, and indeed any MMO fan will chuckle at the bots in the background of certain stages or the panicked player streaking past with a line of aggro’d mobs on their tail. There’s a real love and respect for the source material here that thankfully never crossed over into blind hero-worship, always considering whether the little nod or cameo adds to the overall experience.

It’s not an especially long game (there are nine stages in total), but with classes playing very differently from each other and also changing again based on your chosen gender there’s an awful lot to discover, and mastery will take even longer still. The game is always keeping a record of your best times through every section of every stage, encouraging repeat play even after everything’s been seen and done. Those who really must have more Ragnarok Battle Offline will be happy to hear three expansion packs were released with a selection of all-new stages to conquer although actually buying them outside Japan is a pain in the rear (and not something I’ve been able to do myself, sadly). Anyone who’s spent a weekend on Gravity’s successful MMO will find something to raise a smile in here, and those that wouldn’t touch an online title even if their life depended on it will be left with ‘just’ a lively and incredibly enjoyable side-scrolling beat ‘em up.