Welcome to the world of tomorrow! Galaxy Fraulein Yuna

I’ve written a few love letters before on this blog, although going over these random older posts reveals a rather limited range of games that can be boiled down to little more than hard, weird, and anime Lost Planet 2. Galaxy Fraulein Yuna’s entry into this unesteemed field broadens the net to include ‘Nineties visual novels starring adorable space idol singers’, a somewhat exclusive genre that I feel we can all agree deserves putting on a pedestal for the concept alone.

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It’s clear right from the start of this twenty-five year old game that Hudson/Red Company were keen to show off the love and care they’d lavished on Yuna as players are treated to not only a fully-voiced pre-title sequence but also a post-title song that serves much the same purpose as the plot/character primers found in the intros of certain quality cartoons (not sorry) I used to watch when I was younger. It looks fantastic, gets you up to speed on Yuna’s life so far without bogging the opening act down in avoidable exposition, and perfectly sets the tone of things to come.

Once that visual extravaganza’s out of the way players find themselves thrust into the distant future of 2299; a strange and unknowable land where fan letters arrive on pieces of paper sent through the mail, nobody has a mobile phone, and public libraries are large and well funded. If that’s not outlandish enough there’s also commercial space travel, cute android friends, and black holes that make Yuna and friends look a bit wibbly. Hard sci-fi this isn’t, but Yuna’s view of the 23rd century is pleasant and cohesive; an charming setting where galactic idol singers engage in karaoke battles with their teachers, adversaries self-identify as ‘Frauleins of Darkness’, and being kind and enthusiastic is enough to see the heroes win the day. It’s a huge dollop of well-meaning fun that’s been polished until you can see your face reflected in Yuna’s beaming smile, and the plot moves forward at a fair clip even with multiple planets to visit and a baker’s dozen of opponents to insult into oblivion.

While a fair bit of this brisk pacing is down to the game’s bright-n-breezy style it’s also aided immensely by a streamlined UI that, much like PC-98 adventure Makyouden, flat-out removes all of those overly-specific adventure game commands that aren’t really necessary and as such Yuna’s only methods of interaction are to look, speak, and move. There are occasions when you need to be more specific, but it’s never anything more demanding than ‘Look at the hot dog stand or the couple on the bench’ or ‘Go down the corridor on the left or the right?’ – no pixel hunting, no wondering if you should pull a cupboard or open it, or if you should have used talk/look/look instead of look/look/talk. Another positive is the way the Yuna removes the move command entirely when you start a sequence of events, ensuring you absolutely cannot leave an area until whatever short scenes, from plot-important discoveries to amusing side conversations, are completely done and dusted. The concept of returning to check an area one more time just in case you didn’t correctly finish off a conversation simply doesn’t exist here.

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These small and simple gestures remove most of the usual fears often found within the adventuring genre, which has the knock-on effect of making any optional scenes and one-off choices you can stumble upon feel like enjoyable extras where players have some real influence (however small): Should Yuna wear a cute or sexy costume for the swimsuit competition? Should she enter the middle or side elevators first? There are no wrong choices, ‘bad ends’, or anything important to miss, which means that when a selection of possibilities comes up they feel more like chances to exercise your curiosity instead of irritating distractions trying to obscure the ‘right’ path.

Battles are equally stress-free - if you’re capable of pressing a button on a pad then you’ll definitely win. Strictly speaking you’ve got two different attacks and ‘hurl insults’ as your offensive options as well as the ability to defend, run away, and ‘be sweet’ (recover Fraulein Points) to give battles some tactical depth, but unlike Bubblegum Crash the scraps here are most definitely weighted in your favour – a change of scenery and a bit of excitement, but nothing for you to worry about.

As such your one and only tactic should be to insult Yuna’s opponent until her Fraulein Points run out (mildly bitchy back-and-forths may do a lot of damage but they are rather unladylike after all), try both standard attacks available and note the one that does the most damage, then use that until the other person falls down. Obviously in just about any other genre a system as simplistic as this would be a huge problem, but I feel Yuna gets away with it as these segments are clearly an extension in both tone and execution of the standard adventure gameplay – the game isn’t trying to convince you that there’s a complex fighting mechanic working away in the background, it’s all just for fun.

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If you take a detached and clinical look at it Yuna really isn’t all that special:  The title doesn’t do anything particularly inventive within its genre and the story won’t surprise anyone who’s ever seen a light-hearted OVA from around the same sort of time, but it succeeds because Yuna knew exactly what it wanted to achieve and every effort was then channelled into making the game the best version of itself possible. It’s a cheerful experience that really does feel like an interactive cartoon, a game that won’t leave you feeling enlightened but will leave you smiling. Yuna may not have ended up a merchandising juggernaut like Sakura Taisen or Tokimeki Memorial, but her brief time in the limelight did leave us with an endearing clutch of games that speak to their system’s strengths and remain as enjoyable now as they ever were.

At this point you might be wondering whether to go for the PC Engine original, the Saturn Remix, or the PSP version of Yuna’s adventure; as the game itself is virtually identical between the original and Remix your decision really hinges on whether you prefer the look of the original’s pixel event scenes or the Saturn’s scanned artwork.

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PC Engine: This is obviously where it all began, and boasts crisp pixel art with an impressive amount of unique images and animations, and an awful lot of speech for a game that only occupies a single CD. The HuVideo variant includes the standard game (identical in every way to the regular release) and a second CD containing some digitised illustrations and a sixty second FMV sequence. This version’s nice to have just because you get more Yuna, but it’s a set of extras so bare-boned they didn’t even bother to include a title screen or a menu, just straight into the FMV on boot then once that’s finished you’re immediately kicked over to an extremely grainy art gallery. If you’re holding both in your hands and they’re around the same price then you may as well buy the one with the extra disc, but otherwise you’ll be fine with whichever’s the first one you come across.

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Saturn: Technically superior in every way to the original as events now use scanned images that cover the entire screen – fancy! However the PCE’s pixel art renditions look sharper as they’ve been drawn specifically with the limitations of the hardware in mind while the Saturn images are clearly downgraded scans of traditional art so every scene reminds you that you’re not getting the best version of the image shown, just a pretty good facsimile. There’s no question that short of a Windows 95 port running in glorious 640x480 (a release that sadly only exists within my sweetest dreams) you won’t have played a better-looking version of Yuna before or since, but as we’re now spoiled by phones that can play anything from arcade-quality Time Gal (coming up next!) to online co-op Monster Hunter in 1080p there’s a lingering feeling that the PCE’s pixel art’s aged better.

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PSP: The PSP port is a great value se- [checks current selling price online] ABOUT NINETY SODDING POUNDS THESE DAYS, which is terrible value if you just want to play the PC Engine Yunas but unfortunately still by far the cheapest way to play legendary PC Engine shmup Ginga Fukei Densetsu Sapphire (do ignore those sealed/mint £70-ish Sapphires you’ll find on eBay, they’re all ‘reproductions’). The included bonus art galleries are really very nice (much better quality and different art to the images included on the HuVideo CD) and I’ve never had any issues with Hudson’s PCE-on-PSP emulation, but it’s really not worth seeking out at the current asking price if you’re only interested in playing Yuna.

Overlooked and undersold: Gunners Heaven

No matter how excited you are for a new console from your favourite company there are always a few games released in the launch window that, if you’re honest with yourself, really only exist to tide enthusiastic early adopters over until the real deal comes out: The Saturn’s opening platformer Clockwork Knight would struggle to come out on top in a fight against even the most average of 16-bit equivalents, and for all the fondness I have for Battle Arena Toshinden it can’t honestly compete with the likes of Tekken, Dead or Alive, or even Squaresoft’s Tobal.

Yet for all these early-days missteps Gunners Heaven (Rapid Reload for lucky European players), a total one-off by the team best known for the Wild West[ish] RPG series Wild Arms, somehow avoided falling into this usual rut and instead ended up as something even worse – a perfectly good game that nobody bought.

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Often simply dismissed as ‘the PlayStation game that ripped off Gunstar Heroes’ – a fate somehow avoided by Resident Evil [Alone in the Dark], Star Fox [Galaxy Force II],  and almost every FPS/fighting game released in a post Street Fighter II/Quake world - it is fair to say that Media Vision’s 1995 run-n-gun plays like a love letter to Treasure’s Mega Drive classic, featuring as it does a hyperactive gun-toting duo who can throw enemies about the place and blow up everything else with an assortment of colourful bullets, but the similarities, while obvious, don’t run all that deep. Most importantly Gunners Heaven eschews Treasure’s mix-and-match power up system for a permanent set of four different weapons that can be switched between at will – a standard rapid fire gun, a weak-but-useful homing shot, a powerful-but-limited flame shot and last of all, the not-entirely-sure-what-to-do-with-it rebound shot. To give players some variety playable characters Axel and Ruka each have their own unique takes on these destructive archetypes – Ruka’s homing shot is a free roaming ‘worm’ laser, while Axel’s is a multi-target lightning blast anchored to the end of his gun. To give another example Ruka’s flame shot is a traditional short range flamethrower, whereas Axel’s fires two slow but powerful flame shots right across the screen. Learning to use the right weapon for the right situation is an essential part of making it through to the ending as in some sections you’ll do better by being cautious and focusing more on avoiding incoming shots, while for others it’s best to plough on ahead and never give the enemy the chance to fire at all.

Axel and Ruka’s regular shots can be improved by collecting P chips from defeated enemies for a time-limited boost, or grabbing the rare ultra-strong Boost pickups that let you go really nuts for a short period of time. Unfortunately there’s little tactical thought to this system as you can’t store them for a particular moment or force enemies to produce them the way you can Alien Soldier's health drops; but on the other hand you never need to as while the powered shot is always better the damage dealt by standard weaponry is mercifully a million miles away from being Gradius-like peashooters.

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Gunners Heaven’s not just about rushing forward on the offensive – well… it is but – as you’ve got a small but versatile set of defensive moves too! Crouching and throwing people-sized enemies are the two you’re most likely to do by accident, and on top of that you can also perform a short low slide forwards, or fire off a grappling hook and quickly zip away to safety. There’s not much that feels better in an action game than effortlessly sliding under an incoming Giant Laser of Death to unleash a bomb in a boss’ face or pulling yourself up high and then raining bullets on a horde of enemies below!

You’ve got six stages to unleash your skills and firepower upon, which doesn’t sound like an awful lot until you discover how hard the game can be – even with the Japanese version’s unlimited continues you’re not going to breeze through this one in a lazy weekend. But it’s worth the struggle as the lush graphics remain a fine example of excellent 2D pixel art even all these years later, and whether you’re shooting at robo-dragons in rainy skies or wading through ancient forest rivers battling giant robo-scorpions each stage feels like a visual treat. Gunners Heaven may not feature the most inventive uses of 2D art or push the PlayStation in an obvious way, but there’s never any question that it’s a next generation game (for 1995, anyway) and looking back we’re all better off for Media Vision sticking to doing one particular thing very well rather than falling into the trap of playing with every toy in the PlayStation’s toolbox just because it was there.

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One point that’s often picked up on as a negative, and often mentioned in the same breath as the ‘like Gunstar Heroes’ problem (please add your own airquotes action there) is that Gunners Heaven lacks any sort of cooperative play, just like Alien Soldier, Alisia Dragoon, Shinobi, El Viento, Castlevania:Take Your Pick From Just About All Of Them Bar That Weird One On XBLA, and… you get the idea. Would co-op have been better? Of course! But then again co-op’s always better in my book, and in any case the point I’m trying to make here is that Gunners Heaven isn’t the only 2D action game that could’ve have co-op play, but didn’t.

One point that’s not picked up on because most people don’t get to play Gunners Heaven often enough is that later boss health bars range from ‘too much’ to ‘maybe I should’ve booked a week off work to get through this’, an issue that can definitely take the shine off what was oh-so-nearly a tense and impressive encounter with a screen-sized opponent bristling with exotic death lasers. The good news is that these overly-long tussles usually feature multiple forms with their own unique attack patterns so there’s still a feeling of progression and variety even when things start to drag on a bit too much, but in an ideal world boss HP would have had a good chunk lopped off too.

But that’s really about as harsh as I can be on this action-packed and beautiful game. It’s a lot of fun, tough-but-fair, and offers two extremely likeable and stylish characters to power through the game’s action-packed stages with. As good as Gunstar Heroes? No – but what is? Even Treasure have had trouble making games that could stand up to their previous works, and to base every game’s worth only in comparison to widely recognised and universally accepted classics is more than a little unfair – it’d be like burning every painting that wasn’t on a par with Rembrandt. Gunners Heaven is ‘just’ a generally well made game that’s a lot of fun to play and can be yours for just 617yen if you have access to Japan’s PSN store, or is still cheap enough in physical form to be more than worth ordering from your favourite importer.

A little look at… Tokyo Twilight Busters

Tokyo Twilight Busters is a 1995 PC-98 adventure game by Wolf Team, the Japanese developer responsible for El Viento, Tales Of…, and the Mega CD port of Time Gal. However Wolf Team’s take on ‘adventure’ is a little different from the usual as in this game’s case it means an intriguing fusion of the mundane with the occult in 1920’s Japan – absolutely my sort of thing – that moves back and forth between typical Snatcher/Psy-O-Blade/Bubblegum Crash J-adventuring and lengthy point ‘n’ click sections with a real-time twist.

The ever-present pocket watch on the right hand side of the game’s beautiful UI frame keeps track of the relentless passage of time in the game – an extremely important item in an adventure that has certain events only occur at particular times. From what I can gather from various Japanese FAQs and comments the game pushes on towards the ending even if you do spend a lot of time dawdling around, albeit with the better of the two conclusions reserved for players who don’t waste too much time on their adventure (a little like the much-maligned Castlevania 64 now I think about it).

Seeing as the game opens on a point ‘n’ click segment and they’re where you’ll be spending most of your time we’ll take a look at those first. During these parts of the game you are locked within a specific location and must furiously click away at the scenery until you either stumble across the correct doohickey or you waste enough time to inadvertently trigger the story scene that will move you on to the next chapter.

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Y’see, Tokyo Twilight Buster’s problems stem from having its fascinating setting hamstrung by some truly oddball design decisions.

Take item discovery, usage, and… well, items in general, really. The vast majority of the things you’ll find are generic goods that offer some sort of one-time use bonus (for example, combining a lantern with oil and then using a match grants the character in question a working light to illuminate darker areas) or can be used as breakable weaponry in battle (more on that later). Ordering one of your team of up to four party members to lunge wildly at an evil guard with a screwdriver you found in a battered container certainly adds a sense of personal improvisation to what is usually a very inflexible genre, but on the other hand it often leaves you with four inventories filled with items that are too useful to simply throw away, but not so useful that you’re relieved to discover yet more matches/nails/length of rope as you painstakingly sweep yet another room.

Filling up on these sundry items is impossible too, as unlike most of examples of this sort of gameplay almost all objects in Tokyo Twilight Busters are completely invisible and rely on the player performing a tedious Look->Examine->Search dance on every vaguely suspicious area of the screen to uncover them. To make matters worse searching, once you’ve finally clicked on an object enough times for that particular interactive option to appear, then requires squandering the game’s most precious resource – time – to actually uncover anything. Searching a hotspot means watching in-game time fly by as the party runs through an exaggerated ‘looking for things’ animation loop that may or may not result in them finding a key item (often literally a key) that’s fundamental to your progress, an assortment of wotsits that might possibly help in a scuffle, or nothing at all. There’s no way of knowing until you go looking and even the plainest corridor can have multiple searchable hotspots, leaving players forced to click their way around every room on the promise of a maybe, then do it one more time just in case.

It’s not as though you can methodically search your way through the locations on offer either, as the maps in these point ‘n’ click sections are extremely difficult to navigate. They’re certainly not miserable eighties labyrinths of corridors leading to corridors leading to dead ends, but a lot of the rooms are minor variations on a particular theme with very little to make one brick-walled corridor stand out from another. There’s also an unforgiveable ‘camera’ issue too - going ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the screen can result in the view silently switching around, so if forwards meant ‘walk to the left’ pre-transition it will mean ‘walk to the right’ the screen after, and there’s no map to guide you.

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The good news is puzzles never ask more of the you than ‘Have you found the hidden switch?’ or ‘Do you have the key to the locked door?’; the focus here is very much on experiencing the story and the surrounding game is really just a means to that end. There’s nothing especially unusual in that – Snatcher, Bubblegum Crash, and Psy-O-Blade are all designed with the same sort of priorities in mind – but as finding these items involves a lot of floundering around in the dark this part of the game may have benefitted from either making the important objects a lot easier to find or pushing towards the other end of the scale and integrating these game-extending wrinkles better by including actual puzzles over endless menu clicking.

It’s not all bad news though, and Tokyo Twilight Busters does have one very clever idea lurking in its side-on searchathons – guard patrols. You’ll sometimes earn a little unwanted attention while helping Sho unravel the mystery behind his father’s murder, and the game gives you several ways to deal with anyone pursuing your team.

The first is the the most obvious – don’t get caught! The game will let you know when people start looking for Sho and friends, so if you’ve got some idea of where you are in relation to them you can simply try to keep one step ahead – move fast and close doors behind you to give yourself a little more time. If that’s not an option then you can order your team to hide in appropriately-sized boxes, crates, or drums until the threat’s passed – these guys aren’t Metal Gear Solid-level soldiers so you don’t have to worry about getting caught out so long as you’re all tucked out of sight in time. The final option is to tackle them head-on, which shifts the action to an RPG-like battle screen. Battles operate on a typical turn-based system, with you issuing orders to each party member then sitting back and watching the action unfold. Unlike PC-98 adventure Makyouden the battles here require real thought and strategy from the player, especially as there’s no levelling or skill system in place (like Kurokishi no Kamen), so victory relies entirely on your ability to put whatever you’ve found to good use.

The rest of your time playing Tokyo Twilight Busters is spent bumbling around the adventure portion of the game, and this section mostly follows the typical Japanese formula for this sort of thing – there’s a large view window to show the current location (the monochrome digitised photographs used for the backgrounds here are incredibly stylish) and a selection of move/look/talk options that pop up on the right hand side as required. You’re given a lot of freedom to roam around an expansive list of Tokyo locations as you please, although you’re only ever really needed in two or three locations to continue the story. ‘Immersion’ comes in the form of having to literally wait in some locations for a particular event to start (for quite some time too, and repeatedly selecting the ‘let’s hang around here’ command over and over), meaning from the player’s perspective you can be in the right place and have done all the right things to get here… but still make no progress. This feels especially at odds with a game that relies on you reaching the end within a certain amount of time to receive the best ending – it may not be especially strict in that regard (nothing like Final Fantasy IX's Excalibur II), but it does feel as if the game’s trying to get you to hurry it up while also making you stand around and do nothing too.

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I’m pretty sure I’ve been a little too hard on Tokyo Twilight Busters in this blog post: It’s visually stunning, uses a sorely overlooked setting in an interesting way, and generally feels like a game with a lot of love and effort put into it. The problem is the flaws that it does have are utterly inescapable, and they drag down every part of the game. Am I not making progress here because I’ve missed something, or is it just the wrong time of day? Did I not find an item here because there’s nothing to find, or did I not let my characters search for long enough? You’re never quite sure if the fault lies with you or the game when things screech to a halt, leading to yet more clicking and backtracking in a game that already has you scouring the background for tiny objects of interest and ping-ponging between home/university/police station just to get things done.

If you have a clear schedule, the directional sense of a homing pigeon taped to a military-grade GPS and the steely determination to click on everything multiple times, and then click on everything two more times just to make sure, you’ll be rewarded with an intriguing tale and some of the finest pixel art I’ve ever seen on NEC’s wonderful hardware. Everyone else? Enjoy the screenshots here and elsewhere, then go pick up the 2010 DS remake of the game as it has a precious onscreen map for the point ‘n’ click segments.