I'm currently looking for paid writing gigs, so if you might want anything written shoot me a message (craighats at hotmail dot com).
In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
If there's any sort of (reasonable) inquiry you'd like me to address, please don't hesitate to be in touch.
Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
“ANOTHER ochige lesson?” Well, yes and no – while we are still dealing with “falling object” puzzlers here, remember, you’re Honors students by now. Puyo-Puyo and other instantly-recognizable ochige are but distant specks in your rear-view mirrors – these final three lessons completely abandon traditional color-matching and chaining in favor of mechanics rarely observed elsewhere, so if our previous “ochi” coverage failed to hook you, take one more look this week. Who knows – perhaps you’ll finally begin to see why your teacher is so powerfully (and slightly unsettlingly) drawn to departures from the norm.
What Is It? – Anyone remember the Landmaker lesson, in which I promised that developer Taito would be making another appearance before this series was over? That time has arrived: Cleo, which was created with some help from Natsume, became part of the former company’s storied puzzle lineup back in 1996 (which, appropriately enough, might as well be ancient times to most contemporary gamers). Just to be clear, this game has nothing to do with Jewels of Cleopatra or its sequel, which are (like almost every other puzzler released over the past few years) in the Bejeweled vein.
How Does It Work? – Cleo saddles players with four basic “types” of pieces: Blocks, Jewels, Sarcophagi, and Mummies. Blocks come in several shapes and sizes, and as you might expect are the most basic element: they can be cleared away by putting together unbroken horizontal rows a la Tetris. You definitely won’t want to get rid of every Block immediately, though: they play a separate and very important role in your strategy. This relates to the second type of piece, the Jewel: Jewels will also disappear if lined up across the field, but they’re not quite as common as Blocks, and thus tougher to group together in the appropriate fashion. More frequently, as it turns out, you’ll need some help from your Blocks to get rid of them. Here’s how it works: if you can arrange enough Blocks to completely surround a Jewel (or a group of several Jewels) on all sides, the latter will vanish. Once you’ve done this, the Blocks (and other pieces above them) will be free to drop into the now-vacant spaces below – set things up right, and You Can Haz Chain for a nice bonus.
The third type of piece, the Sarcophagus, works pretty much the same way as the Jewel, but it’s twice as lengthy, and thus more cumbersome to place effectively – the final variety, Mummies (which can be “tall” or “short”), are basically this game’s “garbage”. Again, full horizontal rows of these guys are instantly sent packing, but surrounding them with Blocks won’t do the trick, at least not on its own – to seal the deal you’ll need to wedge at least one Jewel or Sarcophagus in there with them to act as a “catalyst”. Understand how all of the pieces work? Various mixed-up combinations of the four will continuously fall, and your job is to keep up with the deluge as long as you can – toss in an occasional “Pyramid” bonus item which can instantly eradicate one type of piece from the screen, and that’s pretty much all you need to know about Cleopatra Fortune. The only default single-player variation is a “semi-endless” solo mode, but you can take on another person split-screen style in Versus.
Why Should I Play It? – The gameplay described above might sound a bit too forgiving on paper, but passivity will be your swift undoing should you dare take Cleopatra lightly – not only does the game’s pace become blistering before long, but some of the bizarrely-mismatched, fiendishly-arranged combinations of pieces you’re dealt make the square blocks from Tetris welcome houseguests in comparison. You will need EVERY last bit of leniency that the “surround” mechanic offers just to stay alive, to say nothing of scoring well: thanks to the varying sizes and properties of the pieces, putting together chains is tougher here than in most ochige (though if you want to see how it’s done, check out the latter half of this video). To its credit, [Cleo does grant players a bit of extra help when it comes to keeping their heads above water. After a cluster of pieces hits the bottom of the play area, there’s a very short delay before the next one appears: if you quickly move the joystick left or right during this brief interim, the next group will actually start its descent over to the side instead of from the center. Basically, you’re able to move your materials around a little before they’re even visible onscreen. It’s a small point in your favor, but can make all the difference once things start heating up.
While Cleo’s presentation won’t inspire the same sort of effusive praise (from me, anyway) that Landmaker’s does, she’s still got a good deal of charm about her, to be sure. The requisite “Ancient Egyptian” theme, with its inherent air of majesty and scale, is definitely front and center, but not to the point where it becomes stuffy or overbearing. This is personified by the game’s mascot, a cute, stumpy anime Cleopatra popularly known as “Patorako” or “Patra-kun”, who stands on the sidelines and cheers you on: in Versus mode she’ll actually “referee” in similar fashion to Kuroko (the veiled “umpire” guy) from Samurai Shodown, raising a colored flag to mark a victory by either side. Eventually she became popular enough to appear as a “guest” character in at least one other Taito title, complete with a remix of her theme music. Speaking of which, Zuntata is back on the job here, and while there’s not a great deal of variety to be found in this soundtrack they do a nice job with what’s here, blending tones of the exotic and mysterious with an infectious electronic energy. All in all, while Cleo’s accoutrements probably wouldn’t draw many comparisons to a queen’s most extravagant palace, they do capably call to mind an upscale summer home to which she might retreat for a little entertainment – not a bad distinction all around.
Where Can I Find It? – Cleo, luckily for gamers, has the potential to gain admirers as easily as her ancient inspiration, thanks to a plethora of home versions: for starters, the arcade original (which can also be emulated) made an appearance on the relatively easy-to-find Taito Legends 2 collection on the PS2, Xbox, and PC (in Japan it was included in the first Taito Memories Joukan volume). A Japan-only Saturn port also exists, and adds a new “Mystery” mode (wherein you need to clear a pre-set screen using a limited number of moves), but it’s rather expensive and hard to find.
The game was also released for PS1 across all 3 regions (under the slightly-altered title Cleopatra’s Fortune in the U.S.), but this edition was actually developed by Altron (the Waku Waku Monster guys) and is not quite the same – play-wise it hasn’t changed too much, but the graphics and sound have been redone (whether it’s an improvement or not depends on who you ask) and another new mode, “Time Attack”, is present along with “Mystery”. Finally, while I know little about it, a ridiculously rare and expensive Dreamcast version, also by Altron, hit Japanese shelves in 2001, and was used as the basis for the equally-rare Cleopatra Fortune Plus arcade board, which showed up around the same time. A mobile phone version is supposedly out there someplace too, but hard info on it is scarce, so the few listings that exist may well be errors.
Anything Else? – The closest equivalent to Cleopatra that I know if is Arika’s freeware PC puzzler Jewelry Master (and its XBLA Indie revision, Jewelry Master Twinkle); then there’s Kouyousha’s Sen-Know, which is primarily “path-based” but also allows you to get rid of stray pieces by surrounding them in a particular manner. For some reason I feel like I’m forgetting a bunch more…is it my imagination, or are you guys about to enlighten me on the subject? I’m more than okay with either possibility.
What Is It? – In case you’re not up on the anime/manga scene, Ranma ½ (aka Ranma Nibunnoichi) is a popular and long-running comedy/martial arts series. It centers around several characters who, due to an unusual curse, transform into various things (from animals to mythical creatures to an opposite-gender version of oneself) when splashed with cold water (and then back again with some hot water). Slapstick humor, nudity, and over-the-top brawls ensue: by happenstance, so does a 1995 puzzle game (along with a handful of other licensed releases, though most of them are pretty disposable). This title’s credited developer, Rumic Soft, is seldom mentioned in reference to any other work (chances are it’s a now-defunct subsidiary of mega-publisher Shogakukan): it’s unknown (to me, at least) whether its name is a reference to Ranma ½ creator Rumiko Takahashi, whose credits also include Inu-Yasha and Urusei Yatsura, among others.
How Does It Work? – Did any otaku readers out there pick up a gameplay hint from the title? “Janken”, as it happens, is short for “jan-ken-pon”, known to most of us as “rock-paper-scissors” - yup, as in Finger Flashing you’ll be playing the three parts of the equation against each other, albeit in a completely different way. The requisite hand-shaped pieces fall three at a time, arranged in straight horizontal lines – as in Columns you can shuffle their order, but cannot rotate the group’s orientation. To eliminate stuff you’ll need to work from the top down: for instance, placing a “scissors” piece directly above a “paper” one will eliminate the latter, though the former remains onscreen.
More to the point, if you manage to build up a straight vertical stack of “papers” before depositing that “scissors” at the very top, the latter will drill straight down through the whole thing, one piece at a time, before coming to rest on the floor – the taller the tower you vanquish, the more junk gets dumped onto the opponent (this gives the game a bit of kinship with the later-released Pochi & Nya). All three types of these “hand” pieces will also disappear if you form a complete horizontal or diagonal line of them, which won’t happen often, but it’s good to keep that fact in the back of your head.
Speaking of which, sprinkled amidst the rock/paper/scissors tokens you drop are balls, which basically act as garbage, but are much more easily exploited for fun and profit than you’re probably used to. As with “regular” pieces they can be cleared away if arranged into a horizontal or diagonal line, but an alternate strategy can bring about even better results – every time you eliminate a rock, paper or scissor anywhere on the board, ALL adjacent balls in its both its row AND its column instantly vanish, and any pieces suspended above them are free to drop. If you’ve planned ahead, hopefully the rock/paper/scissors bits from up top will fall onto a newly-exposed “vulnerable” spot, to keep the chain going – if you can put together a big-enough assault your character’s special attack is unleashed, which delivers even more misery and woe to the other side.
If you get in trouble, you’ve got one final ace in the hole: The Mighty Bucket o’ Water. Remember how some of the characters in Ranma ½ change shape when doused with cold H2O? At the start of every match you’ve got one loaded Bucket ready to go – activate it at any time, and your next piece will be the Bucket with garbage balls on either side. Place it, and all of whichever type of piece it hits will disappear from your well – moreover, your now-soaked opponent temporarily transforms, and his or her attacks will be much weaker than normal until the effect wears off. Use your Bucket wisely, and take this opportunity to get back on your feet – earning another one ain’t easy!
Why Should I Play It? – First things first, if a rock-paper-scissors tournament sounds like a flimsy plot premise for the martial artists of Ranma ½ to get together and face off, it’s really not as far from the spirit of the cartoons and comics as you might think – loony “battle” variations of everything from ice skating to gymnastics to tea ceremonies were featured in the original series, so this setting fits in just fine with the rest. More importantly, the character roster here is not merely licensed window dressing: I’m tempted to say that the selection process is more meaningfully-implemented than in almost any other puzzler I can think of.
Instead of simply featuring different garbage drop patterns like most do, Ranma’s half-dozen-strong cast fully lends itself to personalized play styles, via the quartet of stats attached to each. Not only are there standard “offense” and “defense” ratings to consider, but a separate “attack” category (which affects how sustained an effort is required to activate a special move) and even more interestingly a “speed” grade, which determines how quickly cleared pieces vanish off your screen. This might sound like a minor distinction, but it’s a huge factor in how your battles will progress – pick a slow fighter if you want more downtime to plan between actions, but use a quick one and you’ll be able to kick-start your next offensive much more swiftly. One particular character (aside from the final boss) is also immune to adverse effects from The Bucket, so you’ll definitely want to choose wisely.
Ougi Janken’s true defining characteristic, however, is the tempo of the action, and that tempo is FAST. Since pieces drop three at a time, can’t be rotated, and heavy attacks are commonplace, when you first start playing you’ll recoil in horror as your screen fills to the top in the blink of an eye – as you get used to how things work, however, you’ll find that a seemingly game-ending mess can be reduced back down to nothing just as quickly. This is not a game for the hesitant – at almost every juncture you need to think big. “Cornering” your opponent is nearly impossible since so many pieces can be easily vaporized in a single move, so you can’t afford to sit complacent for long. At least on default settings, anyway – if you’re willing to poke around the Options menu a bit there are plenty of ways to tweak things to your liking, from how many garbage blocks matches will clear, to whether enemy trash should take more than one hit to dispatch, or even if The Bucket keeps its “transformation” effect. Since everything’s in Japanese you might want to consult an FAQ for a bit of assistance.
Where Can I Find It? – The best-known version of Ougi Janken was released for the Super Famicom, and is not overly difficult to find, though it appears to have held onto more of its original value than many of its fellow puzzlers. There was also a port to the PC-98 computer, which features a more compact screen and different graphics – I doubt too many readers are in the market for that one, but in either case your only options are to emulate or import, since the game never strayed from its homeland.
Anything Else? – Apart from Columns and Pochi & Nya, both of which were referenced earlier, Ougi Janken stands as a pretty unique product in most respects. If you’re on the lookout for other anime-based puzzlers, though, a few of at least halfway-decent quality are Tenchi-Muyo! Rensa Hitsuyo, Nintama Rantarou Puzzle, Tetris With Card Captor Sakura, and SD Gundam Power Formation Puzzle. Also, while it’s not based on an anime, PD Ultraman Link might still appeal to those generally interested in Japanese entertainment culture. Be aware, however, that despite their high-profile brand affiliations several of these games play in a decidedly unorthodox fashion, and won’t appeal to everyone (though I still like them all better than any of the Sailor Moon games I’ve encountered).
What Is It? – Okay, before I go any further, a couple of necessary clarifications – these items are NOT in any way affiliated with the Kuru Kuru Kururin series, the Kororinpa marble-rolling games or the Kururinpa! shoujo manga (also known as Miracle Ice Angel). Nope, this is a completely different ball of wax altogether, consisting of two games, Kururin Pa! and its sequel, Shingata Kururin Pa!. They were released in 1995 and 1996 respectively by yet another anonymous developer, Sky Think System, whose only other known output is the equally-obscure (and equally-fun) scrolling shooter Harmful Park. This site is supposedly what’s left of them at present, though I can’t find any references to their purported video game-related past on there.
How Does It Work? – Let’s begin with the first Kururin-Pa!. There are three varieties of piece for you to deal with here, namely Fuses, Bombs, and Flames – I guess it’s pretty obvious what your overall goal is, huh? In practice, things aren’t as simple - while Bombs and Flames fall one at a time, Fuses (which show up most frequently) come in conjoined pairs, and frequently bend off at odd angles. To get the most out of them, you want as many Fuses as possible joined into one long rope, and must work to link their open ends into a single “path” as best you can – if you succeed, once you place a Flame onto an exposed wick (putting it almost anyplace else will simply fizzle it out), it’ll burn right on through the entire length, sending garbage (in the form of cheery snowman heads) to the other side in the process.
Of course, you won’t be able to arrange every Fuse perfectly no matter what, but this is where Bombs come in – when set off by a Flame (either directly or via a lit Fuse connected to it), a Bomb sends explosions out in all four cardinal directions, which will automatically ignite ANY adjacent Fuse, even if its end isn’t exposed (other bombs can be lit up too, of course). Wise placement and use of Bombs will allow you to both correct most mistakes and keep the symphony of destruction going long and strong.
Then there’s the matter of which character you’ve chosen – along with the trio of “standard” pieces discussed above, everyone will also occasionally drop a unique special item onto the field. Their uses vary widely – some act as “special Bombs” which can drill through garbage or possess a wider blast radius, others activate instantly to clear space or make a Fuse more potent, while still others will do nothing at all until activated with a press of the “C” button at an opportune moment. Make sure to become familiar with everyone’s abilites – whether you’re actually using someone or not, such knowledge can save your hide in a close match.
Now let’s move on to the second and final game in the series, Shingata Kururin Pa!. Aside from a near-total visual and aural overhaul, plus a new and expanded cast of characters, things look pretty familiar…until you drop a Flame onto an “empty” spot and it doesn’t vanish, but merely goes “dormant”. If grazed by another Flame, a burning Fuse, or a Bomb’s blast, it’ll wake back up, instantly igniting any flammable stuff nearby. Cool beans, but be advised, making use of these new “dormant” Flames is NOT optional: as the screenshots show, now you’ve got a “chain” counter which affects how strong your attacks are. As a result, simply lighting up a whole bunch of stuff all at once is no longer your most effective strategy: you must carefully space each destructive sequence out in order to build up the chain and max out your offensive power. This new technique obviously takes additional practice to master.
Why Should I Play It? – The greatest single achievement of the Kururin-Pa! games is the skillful balance struck between precision and spontaneity – cobbling together a lengthy single Fuse requires skillful planning, but the added kick from Bombs allows players to stretch their legs a bit and pick up the pace (of course, each character’s special ability loosens things up even further). Once you get to Shingata and its “Chain” mechanic, however, things swing back around in the previous direction, as successful sequences of explosions must be set much more carefully – which iteration of the game you prefer will depend largely on the sort of play style you’re most comfortable with, but puzzle fans of all stripes should have fun with both, regardless.
Especially after you’ve experienced it in person, the Kururin-Pa! series can be a tough one to dislike: while the graphics don’t go far past 16-bit on the technical front, Sky Think System displays an endearing penchant for amusing details (also evident in Harmful Park) – for example, if you place a Bomb in a spot where no open Fuses or other Bombs are connected to it, the poor little guy starts to sob (what meaning does a Bomb’s existence have, after all, if he doesn’t get to blow up?), but will immediately perk up once he gets some company. Even the snowy garbage pieces are a hoot – as they appear on your screen they greet you with a squeaky “konnichiwa!” (“hello!”) – it’s tough to stay too mad at them. And that’s without delving into the characters themselves, who put on a pretty good show of their own off to the sides. By the way, you MUST head to the Options menu in both games and check out the Sound Test. Not only are the tracks much richer and more listenable than most, but as seen in the embedded video the Engrish names tacked onto them are a riot – my personal favorite is “Give Me Cookies House”. Honest, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried - just watch out for the one random “f-bomb” in there.
Where Can I Find It? – Both Kururin-Pa! entries saw release on the Playstation and Saturn…as you might have guessed, however, neither one ever left Japan. The pair is not particularly common, but don’t usually cost an exorbitant amount when found, so patience is key if you want to pick either (or both) up.
Anything Else? – There are quite a few puzzlers based around some sort of “link the path together” mechanic – some quick examples are Cachat (aka Tube It) and the above-mentioned Sen-Know in arcades, Konductra and Electro for the DS, or even Extase on the Amiga. Of course, if you just like blowing stuff up, you might want to look into Panic Bomber, Bombliss (aka Tetris Blast), Bombastic (aka Xi Go, a sequel to Devil Dice), or maybe Bomb Link. If you hunger for both elements at the same time, though, the Kururin Pa! duo are the only games I know of which can scratch that particular itch.
Well, everyone, as I inferred in the beginning, those were the very last ochige on our list – from this point forward I hope you all…do I see a raised hand back there? …huh? “What’s next?” You do know that I’ve just exhausted the most common puzzle sub-genre, so it’s not like there’s much…yes, yes, I know that there are games I missed, but… *sigh* Okay, listen – feel free to stick your heads in here next week if you want, but I can’t guarantee anything else. I mean it – graduation is coming up!