Spend this Labor Day staring at a blackboard

As is fairly obvious from the things I write here, I’m a huge fan of the video game company Treasure, and strive to make games with the same feeling of innovation and wonder that they make. With only three games to his name (written in Multimedia Fusion, a game construction kit, no less) however, Joakim Sandberg is already leaps and bounds ahead of me in that regard.

Sandberg first appeared with a game called Noitu Love and the Army of Grinning Darns, an excellent and very Tresure-y, Mega-Man-like platformer where the main character evolves between a normal human form, a monkey, and a telekinetic future human to navigate through levels (“Noitu Love” is “evolution” spelled backwards, after all). The game was a little rough around the edges, but it featured some ingenious boss battles and a lot of clever level design.

His most recent game, however, is what prompted me to write this. Chalk is also written in a game construction kit, but you’d have no idea from looking at it, and all the little game-construction-kit obtusenesses that made Noitu Love a little klunky have been completely smoothed out in this game (although Sandberg warns that playing it full screen is a little buggy). All of the game’s graphics look like they were drawn in chalk on a blackboard, and more than anything the game reminds me of a cross between Kirby: Canvas Curse and my own unfinished game Sketchy; the former because the mechanics are centered around drawing lines on the screen while a meter tells you how much chalk you have left for the current line, and the latter because the game has a hand-drawn look and theme, and because you are simultaneously moving a character with the keyboard and moving a stylus with the mouse. If I had to pigeon-hole it into a genre, I’d say that it’s a shooter since much of the gameplay involves flying though a constantly-scrolling level and dodging enemy bullets and obstacles, but it’s certainly unlike any other shooter I’ve ever played. Sandberg says the game is “arcade-length”, which is an excellent description; each of the game’s first five levels features both a mid-boss, an end-boss and some excellently-balanced gameplay in between, and the sixth level starts with a boss rush of the first four levels’ end-bosses, finishing with an extremely Treasure-like final boss who combines all of the rules you’ve learned over the course of the game into one big fight. I also feel compelled to mention that the difficulty level of this game scales perfectly, which is very welcome since I’ve noticed lately that so many homebrew game developers tend to make games that are challenging to themselves, who have been playing the game over and over again during its development and know all of its tricks and secrets because they’re the developers, rather than making the game playable for anyone else who is picking it up for the first time. Sandberg understands that everyone except him will be playing this for the first time, and starts out the difficulty accordingly, but also does an excellent job of ramping up the difficulty to keep the player on his toes without making the game impossible or frustrating.

Oh! I forgot to mention the music and sound! The music and sound are also wonderful.

And if all that wasn’t enough to convince you to play it, Sandberg has released the entire game for free, so you have no excuse to not download and play it now. It’ll probably only take you an hour or two to beat, but you’ll enjoy every minute of it. The only thing that could possibly make this game better would be a DS port; maybe I can convince him to let me help him make one, so I could feel like I’m catching up with him rather than being left in his dust.

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all good quasi-legal things must come to an end

As you probably know if you’ve been reading Inverted Castle for a while, “doujin” (which literally translates to “do it yourself”) is the Japanese equivalent of homebrew comics, video games, and other media, most of which are parodies or homages of commercial works; i.e. “fanfic”. In addition to the gigantic, semi-annual Comiket doujin convention in Tokyo, there are countless other, smaller doujin conventions scattered all over the country and all over the calendar, to the point that a few hard-working “doujin circles” are actually able to make a living off of their derivative works.

Disney, Nintendo, and Konami are the three major companies who have “asked” (read “sued”) not to have their IPs depicted in doujin works, but otherwise copyright owners turn a blind eye to doujin, rightly believing that fanfic is free publicity and good for their business. The doujin work, being unauthorized use of copyrighted works, IS illegal, and the copyright owners could successfully sue them if they wanted to, but the system benefits both parties, so nobody rocks the boat.

That may all be about to change, however, because the Japanese government is considering a revision to copyright law that would give the police the power to crack down on copyright violation, even when the copyright owner does not want to pursue legal action. I’m predicting three results from this change: doujin circles creating their own characters who are just barely different enough from the copyrighted characters they’ve been using, more doujin circles creating their own, original IPs (this is already being done by a few doujin circles like Team Shanghai Alice and Type-Moon with favorable results), and a severe shrinkage of the doujin scene due to these concessions, because many doujin customers seek doujin of specific characters and IPs, and “similar but different” characters and IPs just aren’t gonna cut it.

No, it’s not really, but it should be.

My wife and I were sick this weekend, so we shuffled down to our local library and checked out some DVDs. One of the DVDs was The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, which we were surprised to discover is actually a videogame that plays on a normal DVD player and has slightly more interactivity than the latest Final Fantasy games (you can pause at any time, and you can skip forward AND backwards!). In the game, you play the titular piano tuner, and you have been hired by some sort of evil count or duke or psychiatrist or something to wander around his Myst-style island and “tune” all seven of his automatons before the next lunar eclipse. From the plot, it seems like the “normal” ending is that you tune all seven of the automatons and then go on your merry way and he uses them to take over the world or whatever, but the “best” ending is that you talk to the other people in his mansion and learn his secrets, and then you specifically “mis-tune” all of the automatons to do the very opposite of what he wants and foil his evil schemes and save the beautiful opera singer that he has enslaved. Unfortunately, since this is the Quay Brothers’ first foray into videogames, they spent too much time on the plot and the amazing graphics, and really didn’t put much work into the gameplay, so it’s only possible to get the “worst” ending, in which you don’t tune all of the automatons in time and you get stuck inside one of them. I was able to talk to the other people quite a bit, and intentionally mis-tune one of the automatons, but honestly that all pretty much happened without me touching the controls at all.

I really wish the Brothers Quay had asked me for a hand on this one, because it has a lot of potential and with only a little bit of gameplay tweaking this would have Game of the Year written all over it. More than anything it makes me want to remake it into the incredible game it was meant to be, but my version wouldn’t be nearly so pretty because I just don’t have the artistic skills of the Brothers Quay. Stephen, Timothy, if you happen to be reading this, drop me a line and maybe we could help each other out.

Why have I only just now finished Stretch Panic?

This is such a wonderful little game. Treasure just takes a simple mechanic and sees how many different boss fights they can make out of it. No levels, just a dozen good old boss fights (well, there are the filler levels with the giant-breasted women you can snap for extra points, but those are only handy when you’re running low on points, and not even necessary if you’re really good at the game because you can get points from the bosses, too, it’s just harder). For all its light-heartedness, it also contains the most disturbing scene in any videogame I’ve ever played, including the Silent Hills, Resident Evils, and Fatal Frames (when you lose to Demonika, the “haunted room” boss).

In case you’ve never heard of Stretch Panic, the title comes from the fact that the lead character is a little girl with a possessed scarf with a hand at one end, that she can use to grab and stretch enemies and the environment. Hurting enemies primarily revolves around stretching and “snapping” them, or grabbing onto them and wiggling the right stick until you send yourself flying through the air to headbutt them. Each boss has a different, secret method of scoring points, and points are used to unlock further bosses and also to use “scarf bombs” by pressing both analog sticks and then madly wiggling them, which do a lot of damage and are also the only way to exorcise the evil spirits from the bosses (who are all actually your sisters) and beat the game.

I think this game gets less love than it deserves because it’s so nice and simple, and because the controls take a little getting used to. Overall it’s just wonderfully creative, though, and oozes Treasure-y ingenuity.

It can also be found most places for $8 new, so if own a PS2 but you’ve never played it you really don’t have an excuse.

Pistol-packin’ nun versus Nazi Guile

Many dark aeons ago I wrote a round-up of various doujin fighting games, and one of the games I mentioned was an up-and-coming King-of-Fighters-esque game called Akatsuki BK. Now, Akatsuki BK has been released, and so far it looks like a very strong contender for Melty Blood ReACT‘s “best PC fighting game” crown.

The first thing you’ll notice about the gameplay is that it feels very “meaty”; the game has a certain weight to it that’s hard to describe, but will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time with the King of Fighters series. The most impressive aspect to me, especially for a doujin game, is the variety of play-styles among the characters. The main character, Akatsuki, is your standard Ken / Ryu, and another character, Electro Soldat, has Guile’s sonic boom and flash kick from Street Fighter II, but beyond that there’s a nun who fights exclusively with revolvers (the only other firearms-only fighting game character I’ve seen was in Toshinden 3), a witch with an over-abundance of special moves reminiscent of the Samurai Shodown series’ Basara, a towering man whose special moves are mostly buffs and debuffs, a petite woman whose special moves are only throws and counters, and Fritz, a grizzled swordfighter with no special moves at all except dashes. This certainly seems like an odd hodgepodge of very different styles, but from what I’ve seen so far it works and balances out just fine.

The game’s story and expository text are very kanji-heavy, and my kanji isn’t so good, but from what I can gather the game appears to take place in a dystopian alternate-present where Axis-like powers won a WWII-like war. I use “-like” a lot in that sentence because there are no swastikas or other direct references to Nazism (aside from Elektro Soldat’s ultimate move being called “Sieg Heil”) or fascist Italy, or any country for that matter, so the impression that I got was that the game’s artists just really liked drawing jackboots and 30’s-style uniforms, and set the game in a “similar-but-different” world so they could make sexy, fascist-looking people without making the social blunder of actually revering Nazis.

A free demo of the game is available on the official homepage, and the game itself is available in a number of doujin shops in Japan. Efforts are underway to bring the game to American shores, but an American release will be unofficial at best, since the game begins with a stern warning that it is for play in Japan only, and if you’re not in Japan you shouldn’t be playing it. Exactly why someone would put the effort into making and publishing something and then expressly forbid most people from enjoying it is beyond me, but fortunately there are no laws that actually support their strange demands, and all they can do is scowl as you purchase and enjoy the fruits of their labors and blow them kisses of appreciation.