Carrying on the Simple Spirit: Tekkou Hohei

Since the all-but-demise of D3 Publisher’s Simple series of budget games, I’ve missed its particular blend of hooks-and-wire, no-budget ingenuity in gaming. It’s improbable for that type of development model to exist in the form of disc- or cartridge-based releases in the game industry’s current climate, and D3 hasn’t moved its business model into the downloadable realm beyond a few token releases.

Lately, however, I’ve started looking at homebrew and otherwise independently-developed games available on Xbox Live Arcade’s Indie Games section. Certainly, there’s an awful lot of underdeveloped, unplayable, undergrad-CS projects full of programmer art among the 2000-plus titles available on the service. But at the same time, there are games that show plenty of ingenuity and make excellent use of the resources available to the small teams making them.

The first of these I want to look at is Tekkou Hohei (鉄鋼歩兵, which translates as Steel Infantry), a mecha shooter made by a Japanese team of two members. You pilot a robot that’s reminiscent of Front Mission and fight other robots in arena-like stages using small arms, rocket launchers, and plain old mecha fists.

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Project Minerva

Conventional wisdom states that you need to spend some time with a videogame, really dig in there, in order to review it. Most days I’m with conventional wisdom on that one: just not today. Lately, I played Project Minerva for a few hours, and it committed so many unpardonable sins out of the gate that I was already writing the review in a corner of my mind from the first moments of the game. I couldn’t help it. My brain needed some kind of other stimulus to make the time go by faster, as the heroine plodded, hunched over, across an endless grassy plain.

Before the game has even properly started, an uncanny valley effect hits: in the opening video you’ll notice that the heroine looks much more human than everybody around her. This is a D3 Publisher joint from 2001, early in the PS2’s life. Though D3 had not yet figured out the whole “Simple Series” business that would bring them to success, the production values are certainly on the same level as that series. Bare-minimum character models dance the robot through every animation and cutscene.

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Simple 2000 Series vol. 116: The Nekomura no Hitobito

Cover scanVingt-et-un Systems is showin’ em how it’s done. The Genshijin – just about to be released in the US as The Adventures of Darwin – was the highlight of D3′s Simple 2000 release schedule in 2006, and the peak of VSC’s creative output to date. This year’s spiritual sequel, The Nekomura no Hitobito, is even more polished and full of personality than The Genshijin, and it’s gone even further to demonstrate what can be done on the Simple 2000 budget.

The game is set in an Edo-era Japanese village populated not by humans, but by anthropomorphic cats. The Genshijin, for those unfamililar, was heavily based on Nintendo’s Pikmin series. And here, too, you directly control the leader of a team of these villagers. They follow you around as you navigate obstacles, and they attack enemies once you give the command to swarm.

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Chulip

Solid, but not spectatular. The cover, I mean.This year’s release schedule seems to be mopping up all sorts of titles from the previous generation that nearly slipped through the cracks. Chulip, like The Red Star, managed to slip from its originally-scheduled 2004 release until this year. Naturally, the title’s elusiveness has contributed to its allure, as has the reputation (by association) of developer Punchline’s relationship with the immensely creative developers Skip (Chibi-Robo, bit Generations) and Love-De-Lic (Moon, L.O.L.). So was it worth the wait? Continue reading

The Red Star

FEALTY IS DUEFor a game that spent three years in publishing-hell and entertains such lofty influences as Treasure’s Ikaruga and several of Konami’s classic 2D series, one might expect The Red Star to end up rather disappointing. This isn’t the case.

This is a no-nonsense deep-action game that successfully fuses bullet hell with beat-’em-up mechanics. Bullet patterns start off rather calm – almost patient – but by the end of the game things get as hairy as the latest Cave game. I’ve seen the melee mechanics compared to Streets of Rage or Final Fight, but there’s a lot more going on here than in the 2D classics. Branching combos, down attacks, fall recoveries, juggles, air combos, and more make for some seriously dynamic and (satisfyingly) abusable combat. And thanks to unique movesets and capabilities, each of the three characters must be taken on his or her own terms. Makita is all speed, Kyuzo is all power, and the unlockable Maya is somewhere in between yet almost entirely focused on ranged attacks and tricksy magic.

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