Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Weekly Beat-'Em-Up 3/8/14: Denjin Makai II: Guardians

at 6:39 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.

So far Golem and I have been sitting down and playing these games from beginning to end in one sitting for the first time ever, just quarter-feeding our way through. I haven't been super-happy with the occasions on which this's led us to write "there might be more depth to the bosses, I didn't have enough time to learn in one playthrough". There have been aspects of certain games (particularly the entirety of Growl) I've felt we may not have "got" because we weren't trying hard enough to play well, or at least weren't being forced to. A game can seem unfairly hard before you learn how to play it. So what we're going to do henceforth (starting with Guardians) is play each game twice - once from beginning to end as a "demo" play (so that we can tell you about all the characters and stages and bosses) and a second time as a "pro-run" with a fixed number of credits to be determined by our performance on the demo play.

Game: Denjin Makai II: Guardians
Year: 1995
Developer: Winky Soft
Publisher: Banpresto
Platform: Arcade

Hey, guy - whaddyou know about Denjin Makai? (that was kinda like a little song). "Little to nothing" is the correct answer. It's some 1994 beat-em-up by no-names Winky Soft with an unusually large (I think six-character) roster and decent move sets. It got a Super Famicom port called Ghost Chaser Densei and as the name suggests never made it out of Japan. The sequel, Guardians, followed a year later, expanding the roster and move-set even further. Of course, 1995 is awful late for a beat-em-up and way too late for any arcade game to survive outside of Japan, hence the obscurity of Guardians.

Guardians tells the story of, I really don't fucking know. The setting is futuristic but it is all over the place with weird robots and mutants and dinosaur-monsters and all kinds of shit. Golem and I weren't about to turn down a game with an eight-character line-up that was supposedly "all about special moves", so it's time to find out: does Guardians deliver? Can it live up to the standards of depth set by that other guardian-themed beat-em-up, Guardian Heroes?

Pro-run: 10 credits (shared), died on final boss

How was the game's aesthetic appeal?
Golem: The music was the weakest aspect of the game, featuring alright-but-forgettable rock tunes loaded with cheesy midi bass. The graphics, though, were bright, soft and colorful (more SNES than Genesis in its color choice, if that makes any sense), featuring lots of big, goofy sprites. One enemy was some kind of crocodile with a comically oversized head, followed later by human grunts wearing comically oversized crocodile head masks.
Yourself: Probably my biggest complaint about Guardians altogether would be the palette - every single sprite in this game is a goddamn rainbow. That might look great on the drawing board or in a screen cap, but in practice the action is unnecessarily difficult to follow. There aren't many beat-em-ups where I lose my character as often as I did in Guardians - it doesn't help that some enemies (and even one or two player characters!) are half the screen tall and a quarter of it wide, blocking a ton of real estate from view. 

How was the control and move variety?
Yourself: This is where Guardians "is the cake" so to speak. The move variety here is on par with '90s fighting games like Street Fighter II or Fatal Fury - each character has a unique set of specials (down-up+attack, left-right+attack, jump-jump+attack, etc.), a unique projectile (mapped to its own button), a handful of combo variations (performed by holding the joystick in any of the four cardinal directions while mashing attack), multiple throws (directional or jumping), and a block. Really the only sense in which these AREN'T fighting game controls is that there is only one attack button rather than the three to six seen in arcade fighters of the time. 
Golem: While there are character-specific inputs, I found enough variety just using the inputs shared by each character (those specified by Yourself). You also perform most special moves by inputting directions while blocking, which made control nice and simple.

How was the player character variety?
Golem: The difference in speed and power can really be felt between characters, but everybody had such a great variety of moves that I have a hard time figuring how distinct they are. One character's back-forward special move is a lunge forward with a sword, and another's is a lunge forward with her elbow, but is there a meaningful difference? In general there are a lot of fine details that Denjin Makai II has to explore, but it's so easy that I have a hard time valuing any of them.
Yourself: I don't think anyone had a lunge forward with a sword so that is just outright misinformation. One of the things I really appreciated about the variety were the characters' distinctive projectile attacks. If you're going to dedicate an entire button to the projectile, it's nice to see that it's better than just a Hadoken. One character had a freeze-beam that didn't do any damage but could lock a cadre of enemies in place for a big setup or a team attack. Another had a slower ground-following eye-lazer that could hit a whole line of enemies, while another had a free-aim machine gun and another had homing missiles.

I feel like we'd be doing the game a disservice not to mention it has the weirdest fucking character names ever: Girulian, Kurokishi, Tulks, P. Belva, Zeldia, Rou, Jinrei, and of course my favorite, Skullbyule.

How was the pick-up variety?
Yourself: Uh, heh. There were two weapon pick-ups and one more that was sort of hinted. I'll get to the latter in a second. The two actual weapons were a sword which varied in appearance, range, and speed from character to character (it's a rapier for Girulion, a bayonet for P. Belva, a broadsword for Tulks) and a grenade which is thrown instantly upon pick-up. Both showed up extremely infrequently and the move variety was so gigantic already that I had no desire to use the sword and only ever picked it up by accident. It kinda always just seemed to slow you down. The third hinted weapon was a bar... there was a weapon pick-up for a bar, but when you grabbed it, it just gave you points. I don't know if maybe only a specific character could use it or what. Was really confusing - there were other point items of course, but they didn't look like the weapon pick-ups. 
Golem: Given the large selection of characters and moves, I think it's only prudent to limit the pickup variety. That's not where the interesting gameplay is, after all.

How was the stage variety?
Golem: Denji Makai II offers a stage select (think Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom or Guardian Heroes), and it's pretty neat how distinct your stage selection can be. For example, in stage 2, you can ride a train where the boss of stage 1 harasses you, or you can stroll down a highway with no distinguishing features that I can name. That said, few individual stages left an impression on me. Enemy variety did progress throughout the game, though--for instance, the big guys introduced mid-game and the ED-209s introduced late-game.
Yourself: Oddly enough there was a single shooting-gallery bonus stage (think Wild Guns) - it's so brief that it hardly counts as "variety", but it's the kind of detail that makes a game feel really complete. Is anyone playing Guardians for the shooting stage? Nope, but Winky Soft threw it in anyway - cuz they wanted to make a fun game.

How was the enemy variety?
Yourself: Pretty decent. I can't think of any enemies that really stood out as totally unique to this game, but they covered a lot of good ground - stationary gunmen who liked to line-up and create a wall of bullet-hail, giant alligator monsters who breathed wide swaths of fire and grabbed the player (requiring hit-and-run tactics), and robot-men who did bombing run fly-bys that needed to be swatted out of the air. I was definitely most reminded of games like TMNTIV and X-Men that use a lot of projectile and knock-down enemies. 
Golem: While the enemies weren't strong enough that I had to make use of my entire moveset, there was enough of a variety that I found useful general approaches. This enemy works well with a special attack, this enemy group can be frozen together, that kind of thing.

How were enemy groups formed?
Golem: Often a combination of two enemy types, with maybe one new, distinct enemy and an older, more familiar sort. Actually, it would be neat to go back and take a closer look at how types got paired up, since it didn't feel as haphazard as some of the beat-em-ups from past weeks. On a few occasions, enough enemies would spawn in to make the action confusing, given the big sprites, but usually it was fine.
Yourself: These were structured waves - each enemy had enough personality that you couldn't throw more than three or four types together without the entire game breaking down. A typical conflict would ambush the player with a weapon-based foe (the fire-breathing alligators, the riflemen, the grenade-rappellers), then before they could clear the screen, bring in some brawlers to pound on them (anything from the standard goons to the speedy cockroach-men), then hit with another wave of ranged/splash damaging foes. This kept the player from ever gaining a solid footing in combat, making them constantly react to the introduction of new opponents.

How did combat work one-on-one?
Yourself: This is one game where I can truly say I never got a feel for the one-on-one combat. In a lot of beat-em-ups that stands as a sign of weakness (say Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, where the player dominates every head-to-head conflict), but Guardians kept things moving so quickly with enemies weaving in and out and relying on each other for combo attacks that I was never really exchanging blows with the same foe consecutively. 

How did combat work against crowds?
Golem: I often felt overpowered when taking on crowds, since it was possible to clear out swaths of foes all at once. That said, enemies were aggressive enough that I needed all my ducks in a row to pull off a combo. If I was going to dedicate myself to a lengthy move, I either needed every enemy in my range or everyone outside of my range to be far enough away that they couldn't get to me. The one woman's freezing move especially came in handy in this regard; I could freeze one group of enemies, then turn around to handle the others.
Yourself: Maybe it's because I never mastered the block move, but Guardians wasn't a game where I was ever able to hold my ground - crowd-fights were pretty typically run by using a special and then staying on the move until your meter recharged. Though perhaps the specials sometimes felt overpowered, the meter management did give the combat a nice rhythm. 

How was the boss variety and how did boss fights generally work?
Yourself: There was nothing all too impressive on the boss front - these guys were in fact on the easy side. I appreciated that I could use all of my moves on (almost all of) them - it's always satisfying to piledrive a towering monster of meat. One of the best parts about the boss-fights was the opportunity they offered for tag-team play - for instance, against the first boss (a standard grappler type), I could land a dashing special to free Golem from an attack and then he could follow it up by juggling the boss.
Golem: I had a hard time getting the hang of blocking during enemy squads, but boss fights gave me some time to practice with a single enemy. Having a large moveset to try out lends boss fights in Guardians more depth, or at least it kept me more interested than usual. It's also worth noting that the final boss, even with his multiple forms, was on the easy side.

How was the learning curve and difficulty?
Golem: At first, button mashing worked pretty well, so when I learned, it came more out of my interest to explore the character I had chosen. Granted, that learning definitely helped in the latter stages. I think Guardians could've benefitted from a steeper difficulty curve, since I always had the feeling that there was no wrong move--maybe a less effective one, but nothing that made me feel like I was ever doing anything wrong.
Yourself: The game could've had harder bosses at least - the only time I felt really pressured was when completely swarmed with enemies, and I only had one or two go-to moves in those scenarios. The best chances to use the variable move-set were against strong enemies, so the lack of truly tough big guys left the game with more of a sandbox feeling.

Play again or recommend?
Yourself: Guardians was a blast, I'd play it again in a heartbeat. Just learning all eight characters would be worth the time. It's a great game for beat-em-up newcomers and veterans alike, instantly gratifying with plenty of variety on offer. Seriously. Grab a friend and go play it. 
Golem: I'd like to get better at Guardians and make good use of its moveset. It's easy enough that I can see myself improving my performance, and there's plenty of avenues to explore, as well. Recommended to everyone forever.

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