Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bounty Arms: The Demo

Bounty Arms shouldn’t be anything special. It’s a PlayStation action title from Data West, a boring software publisher that rarely made actual games. This particular game also revolves around an awkward idea: anime heroines using telescoping cybernetic arms as whips, grappling hooks, and flamethrowers. Besides, Bounty Arms was canceled, and that strongly implies something was wrong with it.

For those aware of it, Bounty Arms seemed unlikely to ever show itself. Unreleased Japanese games are hard to lay hand on, and Bounty Arms is quite low-profile. Yet part of it saw an official release. In 1995, a brief demo of the game appeared on the fifth volume of Demo Demo PlayStation, Sony’s early line of discs made for Japanese store kiosks. The demo is incomplete and barely lasts for two minutes of the game’s first stage (five minutes if you take it slow), but it might be all of Bounty Arms we’ll ever play. And it’s not that bad.

Data West planned to ship Bounty Arms in April 1995, the same month it appeared in Demo Demo PlayStation. Yet the demo included here isn’t finished. That much is apparent even on the title screen, which mentions a lack of “game balance." One can’t help but catch a whiff of desperation in it, as though Data West itself is confessing that their game isn’t ready and asking you to please patiently enjoy this fine product sample.


The character-select screen presents two playable leads: the dissatisfied, red-haired, red-eyed Rei Misazaki and the blonde, ponytailed, coquettishly grinning Chris Prenacaluto (which is how I’m spelling her mess of a last name until this contest is over). While the artwork recalls a low-rung (and possibly adults-only) 1990s Japanese PC game, it’s an improvement on the washed-out illustration that Data West used in a Bounty Arms ad, and the portraits come close to giving Chris and Rei trace amounts of personality, however stereotyped. They’re identical in gameplay except for one thing: Chris wears her Relic Arm on the right, Rei on the left. It’s a seemingly pointless distinction, but it has subtle effects in battle.

The first level of Bounty Arms is a jungle raid, just like Ikari Warriors and Mercs and every other top-down arcade shooter that might’ve inspired Bounty Arms. Once Chris and Rei get going, their Relic Arms show off the game’s novel approach. Press the one and only attack button, and Chris or Rei whips her Relic Arm like a Castlevania lead, lashing out and retracting the pointy, tentacle-like appendage. The Relic Arm does heavy damage, and any bullets it strikes are bounced back at enemies. Holding down the button charges a meter at the bottom of the screen, and releasing it makes our heroines whirl their Relic Arms in huge circles of flame.

Upon running into the demo’s first robot troops, one will notice that Chris and Rei are invincible. They even damage enemies simply by walking into them, be they steel tanks, android soldiers, or creeping ground-turrets. This would be that lack of “game balance” mentioned on the title screen. Just how hard would the game be if it had damage parameters? Well, the absence of a life meter suggests that Rei and Chris could take only one hit. Considering how tough Data West’s Rayxanber shooters were, Bounty Arms could’ve been quite the soul-crusher, revered among those lunatics who don’t believe in finishing games on more than one credit.


Completely devoid of challenge, the demo can be finished if Chris and Rei just keep walking forward. That’s no fun, of course, and playing it traditionally is far more engaging. While it sounds clumsy in concept, the Relic Arm works surprisingly well. It slices through enemies, reflects gunfire, spouts flames, grows longer with each power-up, and apparently reaches across gaps (the last of these feats, sadly, can't be seen in the demo). It also presents some careful techniques. Chris and Rei stand still while whipping their Arms, but they can move while pulling back the extending metal chain, snagging enemies and power-ups in the process. Other details emerge in the way certain bullets are reflected in different ways, and some of the larger enemies can be destroyed piece by piece.

Of course, the demo is still just half of the first stage of Bounty Arms, and it’s a basic introduction that ends before it can get truly interesting. The level is straightforward, and the enemies, while varied, aren’t stocked too heavily. Chris and Rei move slowly at first (though a speed-booster icon takes care of that), and they can’t attack in one direction while moving in another. Yet the game never suffers much for that. If the stage design picked up, Bounty Arms could've really impressed, and that’s a rare quality among canceled games.


As a traditional 2-D action title from the PlayStation's early days, Bounty Arms doesn't push visual boundaries. It resembles a mid-1990s arcade game, and the designers' idea of background flair is a parrot swooping across the screen. The enemies are all comparably mundane, with most of the graphical attention reserved for Chris and Rei. They don’t have faces, but they have distinct poses for each direction they can turn, and the developers went through the trouble of giving Chris a lopsided ponytail and Rei poor choice in pants. Bounty Arms also douses itself with plenty of explosive destruction, particularly when those circles of flame fill the screen and obliterate all they touch.

The demo’s music track is a forgettable, faux-jazzy mix apparently delivered by a Data West staffer's keyboard. I get the impression that I’ve heard it before, that it might be placeholder music stolen from another Data West game. Or perhaps the tune is just that generic.


The Bounty Arms demo’s jungle crawl ends with a fight against a huge tanklike litter carried by four robots. Once it and its commander mecha are destroyed, the game stutters to a halt and presents the player with a Game Over screen featuring... well, Chris and Rei’s rear ends. The women weren’t exactly dressed for combat in the first place, but their mannequin-like poses here are unintentionally hilarious. It also reveals the game’s most embarrassing secret: Rei’s wearing half-pants, a hideous combination of long pants and shorts. Japan’s anime and game industries thought that looked cool for a few months back in 1994.

Is that all there is to the demo? Perhaps not. A look at its files reveals things never seen in the playthrough: continue screens, a ravine, a huge log, and sprites of Chris and Rei using their Relic Arms to cross over pits. The most impressive hidden sight is a robotic snake boss that weaves in and out of a waterfall (and apparently has a tiny man riding in its head). It’s shown in screenshots and footage of the game, and it’s evidently the first level's ultimate boss. Perhaps that entire stage is in the demo, denied us only by some malicious scrap of coding.


I really like Bounty Arms, biased as I am. Hunting it was a side project of mine for the last five years, and I did my best to prepare for the ugly truth of the game being terrible. Yet the demo is intriguing, even without damage settings or a real boss. It’s enough just to screw around with the Relic Arms, their fiery attacks, their unintentionally nuanced methods, and their mixture of Castlevania and Bionic Commando. I was first drawn to Bounty Arms because it had many things I liked about games back in 1995: explosions, 2-D play, hand-drawn art, and, of course, sexy anime chicks. After I grew up a little, I kept searching because the game seemed a strange, one-of-a-kind creation. The demo suggests exactly that.

There’s no blunt greatness in the Bounty Arms demo. There’s only the promise of a solid action game with a creative twist on a genre that’s usually predictable and neglected. The demo’s a unique diversion that could easily grow better, and that’s reason enough to want more of it. Over a decade after Data West left it for dead, I’m still convinced that Bounty Arms deserves to be brought to the surface.

I’m also convinced that Bounty Arms should be played by anyone who wants it. You can grab the demo right here, extracted and neatly packaged with help from Lost Levels member Carnivol. It runs fine on ePSXe and comparable PlayStation emulators, though the apologetic title screen and ridiculous ending screen sometimes don’t display properly. If my emulator is any indication, you might also have to select the woman you don’t want as your avatar. Bounty Arms is all about breaking traditions.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bounty Arms: Visual Conversation

I recently rewrote my Bounty Arms article, partly to clear up errors and partly because I can’t forget about the game. There are scores of unreleased titles to obsess over, but Data West’s Bounty Arms draws my interest like nothing else. After all, I can’t think of another game that combines overhead perspectives, cybernetic grappling arms, flamethrowers, manga-eyed heroines, and strangely substandard production art.


For years my article meandered under the mistaken impression that Bounty Arms is a shooter like Ikari Warriors when the game’s really more like an overhead Bionic Commando with huge explosions. The new article is functional and curt, but it gets the point across. The point being that I want to find Bounty Arms. I’ve posted about it at Lost Levels, I edited Giant Bomb’s entry, and I even worked the game into a list of amazing unreleased things.

Perhaps a contest is the best way to drum up interest in Bounty Arms. See, I can’t translate the last name of Chris, one of the two Bounty Arms characters. Here’s the katakana for it.



The first word is, of course, “Chris,” but I’m mystified by the second one, separated from the first by a dot. The katakana comes out as “Purenakaruto,” which could turn into all sorts of bizarre phrases. None of them seems to be a typical surname, and someone suggested that the word is, in fact, just a bunch of gibberish that wasn’t supposed to be any familiar name.

So that’s the contest: come up with some interpretations of Chris’ last name and post it below. I’ll pick the one that makes the most sense (or, alternatively, amuses me the most). The winner gets a box full of crap, including games, anime DVDs, game-and-anime trinkets, and maybe some magazines. Here's a katakana chart for reference.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Dreamcast Day: Low-Effort Edition

It’s Dreamcast Day, when Sega fans everywhere look back fondly on the last time their favorite company had the remotest chance for widespread success. In truth, the Dreamcast was doomed from the get-go, but it was a fun little system. And I still have the box for mine!


That’s a smaller library than most Dreamcast owners could claim, but I didn’t care for some of the console’s biggest titles, including Shenmue, Skies of Arcadia, Space Channel 5, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, and Sonic Adventure. In fact, my collection could be smaller still. Ikaruga, Soul Calibur, and Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves are all out on Xbox Arcade, and there’s no reason to keep Guilty Gear X when you’ve got Guilty Gear XX #Reload. Perhaps I’m just fascinated by the cover’s juxtaposition of Ky’s head and Sol’s crotch.

The real oddity here is Evolution 2, which I’ve played for no more than twenty minutes. Yet I won it in a contest at the Gaming Intelligence Agency years ago, and I always find it hard to sell things I’ve won.

Speaking of the GIA, this is excellent. Edit: Or at least it was.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Policenauts: Bizarre Love Triangle

Last week saw a proud moment: a group of fans released a translation patch for the PlayStation version of Policenauts. Many thought that the game, a 1994 digital comic from Metal Gear Solid creator/destroyer Hideo Kojima, was too thick with detailed text for fans to render in English. Well, many were wrong.

I’m very glad to have Policenauts in a language I can understand, as I’ve wanted to play this ever since GameFan first described its sci-fi blend of near-future space colonization, drug-industry conspiracies, shooting interludes, and attempts at an anime version of Lethal Weapon.


Oh, and the New Order references. Kojima can't forget those.


The only troubling part of the game is the way Jonathan Ingram, the blue-haired Mel Gibson stand-in and main character, can grope a lot of the women he questions in his investigations. It’s played off as comedy, and that makes it all the more unnerving when women clearly don’t like Jonathan’s attentions.


Of course, the Policenauts fan’s knee-jerk defense is that the “touch” options don’t show up unless you actually move the cursor over boobs, meaning that you, the player, are the disgusting swine in all this. Not Kojima and his team. It’s not as though they actually made the game and credited a staffer with “breast bouncing supervision.” Oh no no no.

However, there’s something to be said for a game that leaves its worst moments optional and slightly obscured, making it possible to enjoy Policenauts without flicking a secretary’s cleavage. And Policenauts is otherwise enjoyable, as it has both Kojima’s characteristically thorough research and his willingness to continue stacking up plot twists well after everything’s toppled over and caught fire. That’s the good side of Kojima’s insanity, and Policenauts shows plenty of it.