Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 3/23/14: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyperstone Heist

at 7:03 PM
Everyone needs to let off a little steam sometimes. We here at GNG find that it helps to beat up as many people as possible at a regular interval. Luckily the video game medium has provided us with a safe, harmless environment in which to release our overflowing rage. That's why Golem and I are taking on one classic arcade-style beat-'em-up a week and bringing you this... questionnaire.

Game: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Hyper Stone Heist
Year: 1992
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Platform: Sega Genesis

The TMNT games are undisputed classics among brawlers and much of Konami's claim to fame as one of the brawler kings. Probably the least known and most disputed among them is Hyperstone Heist, the Genesis port/amalgam of the two arcade games, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Turtles in Time. Genesis wasn't exactly know for having the best version of... well... anything - typically it lagged behind SNES in just about every capability except music (and that comes down to personal preference).

So is Hyperstone Heist nothing more than a watered down port, or does it find an identity all its own in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Chronicles? And what the fuck man, why was it the last in this fantastic beat-em-up line?

Pro-run: We beat the game on Normal in a single try and only spent one credit between us (I'll admit, it was me who spent the credit)

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Golem: Surprisingly faithful to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. While lacking the acting talent of Megan Fox and the special effects budget found in all top-tier Michael Bay films (watch for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles later this year),  Hyperstone Heist still offers a vibrant, colorful set of graphics. In fact, even though the Genesis couldn't put out as many colors at once as the SNES could, Hyperstone Heist stands with others like Sonic 3 & Knuckles as one of those games that gives SNES colors a run for their money. It doesn't go for the high-contrast approach of most Genesis titles, yet it definitely pulls off the softer color style of a SNES game.
The music also makes the leap well, especially due to high-quality orchestra hit sampling--an instrument that all but defined Turtles IV's OST. Both the graphics and the music bring a lot of energy, which fits the fast-paced brawling style of the turtles.
Yourself: In some cases I actually preferred the bright hard-outlined Genesis sprites to the flatter, smoother looking SNES visuals. On the other hand, the speedier, squealier rendition of the soundtrack blurred together and didn't sound particularly great to me.

Hyperstone Heist (Genesis)
Turtles in Time (SNES)
How was the control and move variety?
Yourself: Hyperstone Heist has a decent set of highly specialized moves that I found little practical use for. There's your bread-and-butter attack combo that occasionally (seemingly randomly) sequenced into a devastating area slam (somewhat reminiscent of Combatribes spin-an-enemy-by-the-ankles, except the Turtles are even more over-the-top - they grab a ninja by his ankle and slam him back and forth over their head into the ground!). There's a dash button which sets up two different dash attacks: an unspectacular shoulder bash and a sliding kick that can bowl over a whole column of Footies. The slide-kick was a sweet move and particularly useful for assisting a bro-in-need, but had a pretty convoluted input that took a while to pull off. The array of jump attacks determined by where in the jump the attack button was pressed were a nice touch, but I never really found use for any but the quick dragon kick, particularly because needing to wait for a certain point in the jump really made the attacks difficult to aim.
Golem: On normal, most of the game is easily handled by your standard three-hit standing combo. On hard in single player, though, enemies became more aggressive, and in later levels I found myself regularly breaking that rhythm with both running and jumping tactics.
The three-hit sequence will always kill a standard Foot soldier at the end (even on hard!). Since it was reliable, I always wanted to use that sequence; eventually, the game weaned me off of it in two ways. First, by experimenting with the dashing shoulder bash, I could speed up the pace of combat and rip through enemies quicker, since the bash easily goes right into your normal combo. Second, enemies would often crowd me, meaning I had to corral them from a safe distance; since the turtles are very mobile in the air and have quite a bit of air time, jumping and attacking from above at the right time let me sequence into a standard combo while creating a safe space to do so. Knowing whether I wanted the slow attack, the fast vertical attack, or the long horizontal attack when I came back down was an important--if rare--decision.
The area for pulling off a grab-and-slam grapple is indeed too vague. I found I had more success when I stood as much in the same location as the enemy as possible while the enemy was stunned, but even this was not a guarantee. A shame, because when I could pull it off, it offered valuable invincibility time during the grabbing animation (for instance, letting me dodge a barrage of projectiles in Tatsu's boss fight in stage 3 or the wrecking balls of stage 5).

How was the player character variety?
Golem: To be honest, Leonardo, Donatello, and Michelangelo all blended together. Raphael, however, scurries across the screen at a noticeably faster clip and has the shortest range. The game feels balanced for the former three, since attacking at the right range is often important; for instance, beating the first instance of Rocksteady means staying out of his kicking range. On the other hand, because Turtles combat is always pretty speedy, Raphael feels like an expert mode catered to squeezing the quickest pace out of the game: needing to keep enemies close and having the walking speed to do so.
Yourself: Wow I totally forgot that I was playing for the blog and needed to try out all the characters. Whoops. I'm a Leo man myself.

How was the pick-up variety?
Yourself: There are only two pick-ups in this game. One is a gracious health recovery item and the other is a bomb pizza. As we all know from real life, a pizza with a bomb on the box signifies that it's Pizza Time - a wild and crazy invincible spinning attack. Pizza Time is essentially a screen clear, but since you still have to steer your turtle around the screen and try to hit as many enemies as possible, it's a lot more fun to use than similar items from the likes of Golden Axe that simply play a cut-scene. 

How was the stage variety?
Golem: At five stages, Hyperstone Heist keeps itself short and sweet. The first three stages feature a standard sequence of developing enemies and endbosses, letting me really dig into the core mechanics of the game. Stage four is a boss rush, but given the ease and quality of boss fights, this is a good thing; it's an intense moment against four big bads before stage five, a gauntlet where all the stops are pulled out. Stage five boasts the greatest enemy variety alongside gimmicks such as freezer turrets that pop up from the floor and wall-mounted laser cannons.
There is too much enemy repetition for my taste--I got the idea after the first four rounds against white and red ninjas grouped together. But, given the well-rounded enemies and fun mechanics, I'd say the overall pacing of the game works well.
Yourself:  I don't totally agree that the stages are short. They actually almost all overstay their welcome as far as I'm concerned. There may be less total than there are in TMNTIV, but most reuse the same battle at least four or five times. I'm a "never repeat the same fight" kinda guy. Not to pick on him, but Golem once told me that he never noticed that the stages in Streets of Rage 3 are long (they're unbearable). 

Surf's up, McNeilson! I also have to add that there is indeed a famous TMNT surf-stage here. It's kinda weird to describe one of the surfing stages to someone who hasn't played them - they're just so heavily ingrained into my consciousness as "the surfing stages from TMNT" yet they don't play exactly like anything else from another game. They're autoscrolling like a shmup, with damaging traps like sea mines and spiked logs, yet you have your standard jumping and attack moves from the rest of the game. Anyway, a neat novelty in this particular sea-surfing stage are the the fan-like patterns of flying Mausers that have to be whittled away. They're a middle ground between the stationary floating traps and the surf ninjas who tend to simply follow you around - they require the player to attack specific stable areas of the screen.

How was the enemy variety?
Yourself: There were quite a number of multicolored Klansmen who show up as soon as the first level, just about on par with the other Turtles games. Each colored Footie has a unique special attack, from the cross-screen leaps of the Blue Man Group to the wide range jumping dagger-chucks of the Honey Mustard Men. The primary behavior of these Foot soldiers was identical - dart around the screen and occasionally throw a punch - then they would each launch into their trademark special every few seconds left undisturbed. What that meant is that if you pursued one aggressively, it was easy to repress the special attacks and essentially force any Foot Ninja to fight the same. Maybe this wouldn't have been the case had the game used large groups of the same types of enemies, but... see below. There were also a handful of mixup enemies like Pizza Monsters, Mausers, and Those Lazer Whip Robots who provided the best variety, springing into stealth or swarm attacks. 
Golem: I found that on hard, red and blue enemies were more aggressive about watching my back and grabbing me when they could, setting up a double-team. If the other colors could grab me, I never came across it.

How were enemy groups formed?
Golem: Most of the game's groups took a squad of red ninjas and threw in a squad of some other color. If the enemies were not ninjas, they would all be of the same variety, whether that meant a group of three stone soldiers or a gaggle of (like five) mousers.
Yourself: There was some utilization of environmental traps to break up the repetition of enemy gangs, from the rushing cars of Stage 1 to the spiked ceilings of Stage 3 to the freeze-turrets of Stage 5. They didn't show up often, but the most memorable battles were those fought around these malingering threats - they put new rules on the space which played well into the approach-nature of the combat. 

How did combat work one-on-one?
Yourself: Once you get in close with an enemy there's not much going on - these guys really had no counter for even your basic combo. However, the Footies were quick on their feet, making that approach less trivial than it sounds. Though the game is so easy that tactics were hardly ever necessary (and admittedly I'm projecting a bit from my TMNTIV experience), most of the challenge was in landing that first hit. This is where the Turtles' jumping and dashing attacks really came into play - hitting an enemy without taking damage yourself came down to quickly lining up a jump kick or shoulder-bash. It's hard not to feel like a ninja making these precise distance strikes, even if the setup does tend to favor a frantically jump-kicking player.
Golem: Non-ninja enemies would deviate on this. Mousers jumped around, requiring precise timing to get that first hit, but those died in one hit anyway. On the other hand, stone soldiers took two full combos to fell, but their slow and lumbering movements made it easier to catch them with a hit.

How did combat work against crowds?
Golem: As I mentioned, most of the game's crowds combined a group of red ninjas and some other color of ninja. For instance, a yellow ninja might stand on the far left while three red ninjas approach from the right. I could reliably catch all three red guys in a combo and take them out pretty easily, but in the meantime, the yellow guy would've jumped and pegged me with a kunai. I could pretty easily take out the yellow one, but then I'd be surrounded by three red ninjas. So, combat became a matter of prioritization, speed and spacing. The multicolored ninjas were pretty shallow on their own, so networking like this played off of each ninja's unique skill for a cohesive challenge.
I also want to mention the second variety of white ninjas, those that blocked hits. Their block could be broken in a number of ways, the most obvious of which were A) the concluding hit of a three-hit combo and B) a shoulder bash. If red ninjas were onscreen, engaging them in a three-hit combo was the best course of action; I could deal damage to the red ninjas and occupy the white ones, even if their guard wouldn't break until the last hit in the string. On the other hand, if I had already cleared out the red ninjas, I couldn't waste time building up to that final hit, since another white ninja was likely to sneak around and attack me from behind while I was getting to it. In these cases, I had to land shoulder bashes quickly.

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Golem: The first three stages built bosses that would stand on one edge of the screen, receive one combo's worth of hits, and then cross over to the other side of the screen. Each one explored nuances within this structure; Leatherhead was a timing game, where I couldn't linger too long after the last hit in my combo, and Rocksteady was a spacing game, where I couldn't stand too close while hitting him or else he'd knock me back with a kick. Additionally, you can reflect Tatsu's kunai back at him for some good damage--cool stuff.

The latter bosses, Stockman and Krang, introduced a couple different strategies. For instance, I could attack Stockman from the ground and land the occasional hit while regularly clearing out his deadly mousers, or I could attack from the air to hit Stockman reliably but risk getting overrun by mousers. It felt a little odd, then, that Shredder himself was a pretty easy, clearly-telegraphed waiting game.
Krang was the only boss in the game who sometimes hit me without warning. Aside from that, bosses always revved up their attacks, giving me plenty of time to plan.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Golem: Pretty natural, aside from the repetition involved. New enemy types developed new skills in me, and the finer the skill was to execute, the later it came. For example, the guarding ninja is the last ninja to be introduced. It's also really satisfying to gradually wear down the bosses of stage 4 and make it to the downhill thrill ride of stage 5.
Yourself: Though I think the game was pretty slow on the front end (but for a surfing segment, Stages 1 and 2 are nearly identical) it was certainly exciting to see the bosses show up for a concerted premature retest. Re-using earlier bosses is a design pattern typical of beat-em-ups, but here you get some variation in that they're actually harder versions of the bosses and it's boss fight after boss fight after boss fight, significantly throwing the pace. It certainly helps that it comes right at the point in the game where boredom is likely to be setting in. 

Play again or recommend?
Yourself: Hyperstone Heist is a fun co-op game, but I'm not sure I would play it again. The boss fights were above standard brawler fare, but I can't say the stages left any impression - especially when there is a better version of the exact same gameplay in the other TMNT games. Recommended only to players looking for perspective on TMNTII, III, and IV. Or I guess those stuck with only a Genesis looking to get their Turtle fix!
Golem: I love the Turtle games, but boy can they be long. Hyperstone Heist might be my favorite so far, with the caveat that--as Yourself says--it's embarrassingly boring on normal. Do hard, even if you don't think you can beat it.

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