paris-dakar rally special

A wise philosopher once said: Video Games Can Be About Anything. Think about any game, and how truly out there and strange their settings are. A plumber saving a magical kingdom from a family of evil turtles. A man armed only with a pack of cigarettes taking down a nuclear-equipped terrorist group. A medieval Syrian assassin loaded up on cocaine time-travelling to the 1980s to kill Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. Games that we as an audience consider to be “normal” are pretty weird in actuality. Of course, there are simulation titles and sports games to keep things grounded a little bit (with some exceptions to be made there, as well).

The Paris-Dakar Rally is (or was) a rally race series that would begin in Paris, France and end in Dakar, Senegal. It was a very popular event, with musicians and actors competing in the race mixed in with all the professional drivers. Making a video game based on it seems like a no-brainer, right? Racing games tend to be fun, and even the worst ones sell decently enough for a company to make at least a small profit. So that is exactly what developer ISCO did, and now we have the Paris-Dakar Rally Special for the Famicom.

ISCO are a unique developer, we’ll say. They’re mostly known for their porting of other companies games, mostly Data East (Two Crude Dudes and Captain America and The Avengers on Sega Genesis being done by them). However, they did do their own original titles. And by “original titles,” I mean absolute fucking dog shit like Seikima II: Akuma no Gyakushu and Transformers Convoy no Nazo. The former is a terrible platformer with confusing level layouts and terrible music, which is an absolute insult given that it’s a game based on a really cool metal band from the 80s. The latter is that game we all played because we looked at a list of NES ROMs and thought that, holy shit, there’s a Transformers Nintendo game!? It has to be good! And then it wasn’t. So ISCO’s output is…something.

 

Okay, so ISCO struck out twice with their games so far. It would be pretty easy to think that Paris-Dakar Rally would suck too. Not only does the game not suck, but it may very well be one of the most, if not the most, imaginative of the 8-bit era.

The thing about this racing game is that the first thing you do is not race. Rather, you have to wander around Tokyo, talking to banks, corporate offices, and racing clubs to get a sponsorship and enough money to buy a car. It’s a nice bit of flavor, given that the real-life rally was a primarily privateer affair (privateer in this case meaning drivers who are not part of an auto manufacturer and must pay their way into a race).

Once all that’s out of the way, you then have to get yourself a navigator to help you with all the terrain on the desert tracks. You get assigned one based on how well you do on a reflex test? Okay, sure.

Now, as someone who has played through this game multiple times, I’ll straight up admit that I have no idea if this entire segment actually effects how the rest of the game is played; I have not noticed any difference in the cars regardless of my sponsor or navigator. But whatever, I appreciate the effort put into making all this.

Once all of that is out of the way, we fly to Paris and actually begin the race. Let me tell you all right now that this first level is by far the hardest of the bunch. If you’ve ever seen a video from the Japanese Retro side of Youtube, they tend to give up here. It’s simple enough in concept: you drive, trying to make it to the end of the course. You have to dodge other cars, obstacles in the road, and barrels being tossed onto the track. There will be cars that will suddenly speed up from behind you in an attempt to crash into you, and speeding up to maximum acceleration will only make them fly at you faster. At the same time, you can’t take the race slow, as you still want to get a good completion time, and you’ll run out of fuel. You get three hits and a full of tank of gas before you’re fucked, and if you’re fucked, then you get to restart the whole race from the beginning. It’s hard, but it’s definitely doable if you’re willing to put some time into pattern memorization and knowing when to speed up and slow down (kind of like real racing that way).

Then the second half of Paris begins. Now the course is a…maze? Like, a Pac-Man style maze where you need to dodge other cars, who are now very much trying to collide into you. Alright.

The next stop on the rally is leaving Paris and getting to Barcelona. That’s an easy enough race, simply avoid falling boulders, dodge eggs being laid by birds overhead, and if any lizards or sewer rats get in the way, shoot them with your gun!

Yes, okay, so P-DRS is not even remotely a realistic racing game. It’s not even an unrealistic racing game like Rad Racer or Outrun. Like I quoted at the beginning: Video Games Can Be About Anything. This is not the video game version of a realistic race, this is unbridled creativity and/or not giving a fuck. This is a race from Paris to Dakar as envisioned by a madman. Normally, a lesser reviewer who have made some tired crack along the lines of “heh, what were these guys on when they made this game, DRUGS!?” I will not be doing that, because that’s a disservice to this game that we have been given. It takes a special kind of person to take the concept of a racing game, then turn it into a side-scrolling shooter only part of the way through. A shooter where you need to get out of the car and solve some basic switch puzzles, sometimes walking on clouds to do so.

I need to make this clear: I am not being sarcastic, this is not some weird gimmick I’m doing. Paris-Dakar Rally Special rules. This game is really good, despite what its reputation would have you believe. It is an absolute work of art, this complete risk being taken to make something truly original, something I love about the 8-bit era of games where developers made whatever they wanted.

The next leg of the race is Barcelona to Alger. Geography students out there, or I guess anyone who looked at a map on Google, knows that there’s a pretty big body of water that separates these two places. You would think that maybe the race crews would take a ferry across, and continue the race.

Or, you know, just fucking drive through the ocean.

Much like the Mach 5, your Rally car is submersible, as are your guns. You’ll need those guns, because you have to face sharks, octopi, schools of fish, helicopters dropping bombs (as opposed to providing medical aid, something they are meant to do in the real rally), and missiles fired at you from an unknown source.

Emerging from the ocean, we arrive at the desert. The first half is fairly benign, with more shooting at animals the size of your car and sometimes navigating deep rivers. Snakes, camels, moles, stuff like that.

The second half, however, is much different. The organizers of the race didn’t seem to think that it was a bad idea to hold a race in the middle of an active war zone. Now my 4WD is taking out tanks, attack helicopters and fighter jets. I need to reiterate that this game rules.

You think after all of this, the final level in Dakar is going to be completely wild. Just the most off-the-wall shit imaginable. In a way, it kind of is, because it is simply a race on a dirt track in Dakar.

That’s the twist. After all these genre-changing levels, full of weird shit, the final level is an actual racing game. You know, ISCO could have made all of their levels like this. They could have done a regular racing game, and it probably would have been fine. Good, but not great. Instead, they made something that lives up to the name of Special. A wild, extremely memorable experience that I’m sure pissed off a few people expecting a playable version of the actual Paris-Dakar Rally. Like, there wouldn’t be a bait-and-switch in games this good until Solid Snake stopped being the protagonist in Metal Gear.

Look at this cover. Would you have had any idea of what was actually happening in this game?

Creativity like this is a rare unicorn; it’s not often that the whole “average video game concept turned on its ear in increasingly strange ways” actually works. I mean, sure, P-DRS isn’t exactly Mega Man 2 or something in terms of being technically good, but sometimes there’s more to being a game than technically good. Sometimes all a game needs to be good is to make you laugh at an absurd situation while you make an Abrams tank explode with a gun mounted to an brandless race car.

Video games can be about anything.

rediscovering an old game from my youth

In my recent spree of playing and replaying old Castlevanias and listening to all the Goth Metal I cast aside because I mistakenly thought that being a goth kid was “cringe” as soon as I hit adulthood, I had been struggling to try and remember another game I had played as a teen. I remembered downloading it along with a bunch of CV fangames during the early-2000s. Despite me grabbing it with all those fangames, this was very much its own thing; unique graphics, sound, atmosphere. Of course, the passage of time, and the continuous spiral of internet search engines becoming an SEO-driven joke instead of a source of information, have made trying to find this game again really hard. I’ll spare you any more suspense and tell you that I did eventually find it after a couple weeks of searching.

This game is called Vampire. A simple title that did nothing to make my search for it any easier. Vampire is a Windows ’95 game made by the doujin group Sprite. Unfortunately, the game was never finished, and is only a few levels long. It was released in 1997, the version I’m playing here is an updated release from 1999, and while there has been progress made on the game and shown online, it’s all from 2011. Needless to say, I’m pretty sure this is the only Vampire experience we’ll be getting.

Vampire is a game that wears its influences on its sleeve. The main character is a girl with a whip named Millenia, who fights skeletons and bats and various other monsters on her way to fighting, well, a vampire. Playing Vampire is pretty straightforward. You move from left to right (occasionally down to up, or up to down), whipping horror movie monsters in environments that look like an expensive Malice Mizer video. All the while you hear music that, while in MIDI format, definitely has that Goth Rock vibe, with synthesized bells and church organs. Though the game is unfinished, the few levels of action we get are enjoyable enough. I will give some criticisms here and say that the controls can be pretty sluggish; sometimes you may double-tap forward to run so as to get extra distance on a jump, only to slowly walk forward before jumping instead and fall way short of your target. Millenia has an attack where she can whip upwards, but it seems to have a terrible hitbox, as trying to hit things with it is nearly impossible. The last complaint I have is that level 3 has that “enemy that will always get in your way the moment you need to jump onto a platform” bull shit going on. These are complaints that might have been addressed in a future release, if we ever got one.

As it is, Vampire is still a pretty darn good game. But there’s more to a game than mechanics. Something Vampire has that a lot of independent games and even major studio games don’t have is atmosphere. Vampire, if nothing else, is cool. This is a game full of personality, despite the major handicap of not being finished. Each level is dark and oppressive. There are cliffsides full of large monsters. Villages that have been taken over by an army of skeletons and axe-wielding goat demons, displaying their human victims in the streets. Woods populated by harpies and dragons. The pathway to the castle, covered in snow (represented by some great particle effects) and guarded by Zeiram-esque body horror creatures. There is a Gothic aesthetic to Vampire that hasn’t really been matched outside of heavy hitters like Symphony of the Night or Bloodborne, which is all the more impressive given that this a small project made by a handful of people.

(Before anyone mentions anything, yes, I’m aware that at least a few art assets have been lifted from other games, including Symphony of the Night (see the background of that church screenshot). The original art, however, is still fantastic.)

In and of itself, Vampire is a good enough little game on its own. But there’s something to these smaller games essentially lost to time that I appreciate. I can’t quite figure out what that is, exactly. Maybe the whole idea of making a game for the sake of making the kind of game you want to make, and then doing it. Maybe it’s the fact that, again, this is an unfinished work, and that there has been no update on said work in nearly eleven years adds a bit of mystery to it. We as players only get a small glimpse of what could have been an indie classic. That’s some intriguing shit right there. As it is, Vampire is another relic of a bygone era that I have nostalgia for: that era of clicking around and finding cool stuff.

Now, you can’t really get Vampire anywhere, not even on its official site. So, to make things easier, I’ve gone ahead and uploaded the latest version right here.

4/9/2022

Hello everyone. I’ve taken the week off, as I had a death in my family on Sunday. This was kind of a big one, as this was one of the only people in my family that I didn’t have issues with. Because of that, I felt like it probably wasn’t super appropriate to write another “games are cool” post or go on Twitch and tell jokes. But it’s Saturday now, and I felt the need to write something this week. Admittedly, I sometimes get so wrapped up in the idea of “oh fuck, what am I writing about this week?” that I don’t get around to making posts that are like “hey how’s it going.” So I think I will simply talk about a bunch of thoughts and stuff I’ve been having.

The first thing, assuming you didn’t see me announce it elsewhere, is that I am now doing the “non-binary” thing. Now, unlike pretty much everything else I’ve ever done in my life, this was not an impulsive decision; it’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for about a year, and getting closer to the forefront for the last six months. Just a whole number of factors causing me to rethink things: I don’t mind being called “dude” or “bro.” I still enjoy traditional “guy” shit. I watch sports. I haven’t had a dysphoric episode in about three years. Now, you might be thinking, “well, that’s a lot of gender essentialist bull shit you’ve said.” You would be right! The thing is, it doesn’t matter if you are into all that stuff while having a different pronoun. Then I started thinking, well then, does it matter then if I start using “they” instead of “she?” Plus, my whole thing, especially over the last 2-3 years, is doing what I can to try and live life on my own terms. Doing what I want, existing outside of society’s expectations. A wise man, Daisuke Ishiwatari, once said of a non-binary character he created, “they’ve transcended humanity, just like me.” What a killer fucking line that is. That’s me, doing my own thing, but with a more ambiguous identity.

Another thing about all this, was the thought in my head: am I giving up? I mean, I’ve spent so many years, made so many enemies, got onto so many games industry blacklists, due to my unwillingness to sit back and deal with cis people and their inability to comprehend a world beyond their own limited worldview. Hell, only two posts ago I was ragging on these motherfuckers over them all wanting to buy J.K Rowling’s Jew Basher 2K22, once and for all proving that “support the developers” is a dog whistle. Am I throwing away years of my life, making me a coward? I was “angry tranny bitch” for so long, and now that’s not my gimmick anymore. But then it dawned on me that it doesn’t matter. Gender has never been my problem. Gender has always been everyone else’s problem. I didn’t like being a man, so I changed that. Seven years have gone by, and I’m realizing now that it’s better to be both genders and also neither. I simply changed my mind, and that doesn’t invalidate all things I’ve said and done to support binary trans people. Besides, it’s not I’m joining Buck Angel in a Zoom call with Graham Linehan, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Leigh Alexander or anything. I’ve spent all this time curating a space for me to do what I want, and my body is a space, so I should be able to do what I want with that too.

pac-man and ms pac-man, breaking up the text

That’s enough of the important shit. I’ve spent the last week processing a lot of things, and also losing myself in games and wrestling. The big thing in wrestling lately is that bitch coward sell-out Cody Rhodes going back to WWE. The biggest carny of them all, fuck him. You might think that I’m too old to be doing the whole “fandom” thing and getting back into that late-90s Monday Night Wars mentality, but also: FUCK THE WWE OH HELL YEAH

This isn’t a WWE vs AEW thing. Yes, I’m a big AEW fan; I’ve been buying and watching all their shows since last year. But I have also been getting into independent wrestling pretty hard. Stuff like Enjoy, GCW, TJPW, and Deadlock. In my mind, my love of wrestling is Literally Everything vs WWE. That company is the evil empire runs by soulless bigots that have legitimately worked their wrestlers to death, have covered up murders and sexual assaults, straight up killed Owen Hart via criminal negligence and then told his grieving friends to go wrestle in the hole his dead body created, provides propaganda for two shitty governments (America and Saudi Arabia) among a lot of other fucked up shit. AEW has faults, sure, but it’s not “covering up murders and child molestation rings” bad.

Even putting aside the moral issues, WWE is a company that has treated its audience with open contempt for decades. We’re talking about a shitty company run by a complete monster who is so fucking stupid that he didn’t see anything in Bret Hart, Steve Austin, Mick Foley, CM Punk, Bryan Danielson, Adam Cole, Keith Lee, Matt Cordona, Kofi Kingston, Big E Langston, Bray Wyatt, Scott Hall, Ricky Steamboat, Sting, among many other names I’m forgetting until circumstances forced their hand to either put them in the main event, or fire them. Hell, they didn’t even see anything in Cody Rhodes! At this point, if you’re working for WWE, you are either only a few years in the business and getting paid to sit in catering for a year will make you more money than getting booked on the indie scene, you are being paid so much money that nobody in your family will have to work another day in their lives until maybe your great-grandchildren are born, or you’re a fucking idiot/bigot who stands firmly in line with Vince McMahon’s bull shit. Cody might have been the worst part of AEW for a good couple years, true, but that doesn’t excuse spending six years creating an “Us vs Them” narrative and telling anyone who would listen that “wrestling is for everyone” before crawling back to a bunch of Trumpers who would rather “everyone” be put before a firing squad. It may seem childish for me to call a man I’ve never met a sell-out for going from one major company owned by a billionaire to another, but let me reiterate: FUCK THE WWE OH HELL YEAH and fuck Cody too.

Plus, the troll in me likes fucking with all the unhinged weirdos who call people like me an assortment of slurs because of the wrestling I watch. The sensible side of me knows that Tony Khan is not my friend; he is simply someone who puts on a show I enjoy, and have given him some walking around money as a result of that. But it is more fun to say that AEW is the greatest thing to ever happen to television since televisions inception, and Tony Khan is the only good billionaire. And FUCK THE WWE OH HELL YEAH!

As far as games go, I’ve been getting back into Monster Hunter real fucking hard. Both Rise and Generations Ultimate. And I must be still processing some grief, because I started a new game in Dark Souls 2 and I am somehow starting to “get” it. Getting it to the point where I’m actually starting to, dare I say it, enjoy the game. Maybe it’s all these recent months of getting into Western RPGs and rediscovering the mindset that one needs to play those. I’ve just finished getting the ring from Drangleic Castle, so I’ve got another 800 areas to get through before I reach the end.

Naturally, I’ve been plugging away at Guilty Gear Strive. Of course, given recent gender things, I’ve been playing as Testament. Testament is a fucking awesome character. Here is a screenshot of me getting a perfect on my friend Hazel. I had to screenshot this, because I don’t get many moments like this, because Hazel is really good and is still much better than me.

Testament’s new theme song is…fine, I guess. Fine in that it’s not as egregious as some of the other music in Strive (shout out to Potemkin). Still not a patch on their theme from GGX2, a game that I would say has the best soundtrack in the entire medium. Listening to that song again and it’s like, fuck dude, it seems so obvious in hindsight that being a moody, genderless thing who loves goth shit is what I was always meant to be.

I was planning on writing some more, but I’m already 1500 words in, so I should probably stop. I’ll be back to doing my usual thing of essays and streams in the coming week, just needed to take a quick break.

akumajou dracula

Lately, I’ve been rediscovering my goth side. Yes folks, believe it or not, I once had a wardrobe of entirely black clothing, with dyed hair and painted nails, listening to screaming metal music and visual-kei. Then my mid-20s happened, and for whatever reason, probably because I had a job with a degree of power and I wasn’t intent on sleeping in a car ever again, I repressed it all. I cut my hair, let the dye run out, went out into the world with regular nails, brought more colors into my closet, and tried to be a “normal adult,” whatever the fuck that is.

But fuck all that. I’m turning 36 this year. I’m not getting any younger, folks. I’ve also reached a point in my life where I’m significantly less invested in what people think of me; you already made up your mind about me back in 2015, and either you like me, or you curse the laws of this country for making murder illegal. For all the chest-beating and grandstanding about “keeping it real,” I haven’t been keeping it real to myself, and it’s time to change that. I’m getting fucking goth again in 2022. Let’s start by reading the rest of this post while listening to my favorite Malice Mizer track, Shiroi Hada ni Kuruu Ai to Kanashimi no RONDO:

Anyways, this has mostly been a long-winded way of saying that I’ve been playing Castlevania games again, as those were the games I played a lot of back when I was a proper Moody Teen™. It may seem weird that someone into morose shit like vampires and rainy nights and heavy music with church organs and wispy femboys with impossibly good skin would like a game where I have to kill the vampires, but uh, well, I never really gave much thought to that other than the games look cool.

The Castlevania that I just finished, and the one that I’ll be writing about, is the Sharp X68000 remake of the original NES Castlevania. This would itself eventually get remade for the Playstation and released as Catlevania Chronicles. Or as most of the world knows it, that one where Simon Belmont has pink hair.

I stuck with the original computer game for this post, because I wanted to see the game as it was originally designed, since the PSX version has some changes made to balance the difficulty. Also apparently, the PSX game did not include the third sound chip option that the X68k game has, which makes the music and sound even better.

Having played through the original, I can tell you that the difficulty is greatly over-exaggerated by the internet. Maybe it’s because I’m America’s Most Important Gamer, but I had very little trouble finishing Dracula X68k (as I will now refer to it). I lost maybe three lives, used zero continues, and did not use the modern-day emulation crutch of savestates. I sat down at my PC, and acted as though it were 1993 and I was sitting down in front of my X68000. Don’t get my wrong, it’s challenging, and may seem daunting at points, but it’s a very “doable” playable game. This isn’t exactly Castlevania 3 in terms of being really hard.

As I said earlier, Dracula x68k is a remake of the original Castlevania. It has some new enemies, two new levels, some slight layout changes, and Simon can whip downward while in the air. Other than that, it’s still Castlevania 1. The castle entrance is the exact same as it is in every subsequent CV, and you fight a giant bat at the end. You fight Medusa, Frankenstein’s Monster, Death, then Dracula himself. The mummy, Akmodan, is gone. In his place is a clone of Simon that bursts through a mirror. New bosses are a dragon skeleton, a wizard, and a werewolf. I think it’s a much cooler line-up, personally. The remake comes across as less hokey than the original, with the new bosses and the new art style, which is awesome. Monsters look more gruesome and the architecture is more detailed, which I appreciate. But where the art truly shines is in the remade level where you fight the Grim Reaper. It is the most gory, edgelord level, and I fucking love it. Dismembered and flayed bodies hanging on hooks with blood and guts all over the place. Babies bursting out of formaldehyde jars to attack you. Still-living humans trapped in a sentient paint canvas. It is so cool, like something out of a torture porn movie.

This level in particular goes a long way towards highlighting just how much the monsters in Dracula’s castle simply do not care for and even outright hate humanity. It reminds you that, oh yeah, the Belmonts are fighting for humanity’s survival in the face of nearly insurmountable evil, not dancing with a bunch of movie monsters once every 100 years. A nice mix of brutality with the elegant, decadent designs of the castle.

Dracula X68k is awesome. It’s another great quest through Dracula’s castle, fighting off the most evil of the evil, that looks and sounds great, and plays really well. Having finally played this, I’m kicking myself for waiting this long. This is an all-time great game in the series; I would put this up there with the likes of Symphony of the Night, Rondo of Blood, and Bloodlines. Just an absolute stone-cold classic that needs to be played, whether it be through emulating an old computer, or playing it on the Playstation. Better late than never to support Dracula X68k, I suppose.

naming save files is always fun lol