Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War: Summary and Rating

A victory screen that I didn't get, courtesy of Old PC Games's YouTube review.
      
Cosmic Soldier: Psychic War
Japan
Kogado (developer and publisher); Brøderbund (U.S. distributor)
Released in 1987 for PC-88; 1988 for MSX, PC-98, and FM-7; 1989 for DOS
Date Started:  19 May 2017
Date Ended: 23 May 2017
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 22
Ranking at Time of Posting: 85/253 (34%)

It's possible that this one wouldn't have taken too long to win, but it was already getting pretty boring after the first space station and got even more so in the second. You have to be so quick-on-the-draw to hit SPACE the moment enemies appear that I ended up just holding down SPACE as I moved around the levels. There are really no tactics beyond that, at which point you watch your enemy's health slowly drain away. What killed my enthusiasm was watching a YouTube video of the endgame in which the enemies have thousands of hit points and it takes like a minute to kill some of them. The combat is no more dangerous during these encounters--just longer and more annoying. I wasn't interested in subjecting myself to it. As I think my track record shows, I will be challenged, even frustrated, even infuriated beyond my six hours, but I will not be bored.
    
Combat got boring fast.
      
I explored four levels of the section station, Sivad, found a "VIP Card" in one room and a locked door I couldn't get past on one of the levels. Judging by a walkthrough I consulted after giving up, the space stations are all fairly small, but multi-leveled, with numerous interconnected elevators that form a maze. The departure pad is always in a different location than the arrival pad, so you have to find that at the very least. Progress is slowed by enemy attacks, which occur both at fixed points and fixed intervals.
      
One of the space stations, from a Japanese walkthrough. The numerous up and down elevators create a vertical maze.
      
The rest of the space stations would have delivered a variety of passcards, passwords, and NPCs with special powers. At some point, I would have found a "turbogun" needed to kill "biochemical" monsters; this just adds one more key that you have to hold down to the combat "tactics."

Eventually, the player finds his way to "Melser," the final space station. There, he disables something called a "psycho-shield," navigates a maze, and inserts crystals found throughout the game into a computer to destroy it. (One wonders if this was influenced by Exodus: Ultima III.) At that point, he has limited time to escape the station before it blows up, and apparently this must be done with the "Mind Jump" abilities of an NPC named "Zupreen" as well as some object called a "Beefun." Upon achieving the victory screen, the game's NPCs do a happy line dance along the bottom of the screen.
      
Destroying the evil machine had something to do with slots.
     
As I was preparing this final review, commenter Daniel Spitzley helpfully provided the game manual. It offers a longer backstory than I covered last time, but most of it is just padding and unrelated to anything that happens in the game. Attempts to be dramatic come across as laughable in translation ("The 'ESP Battle of the Galaxy' destined to be talked about for many years to come will now begin"). A section called "secret information" provides outright spoilers for the game, including the locations of key items, and there are even maps of each of the stations so you can just annotate them instead of drawing them from scratch.
      
In the GIMLET, the game earns:
      
  • 2 points for a bare-bones framing story that's not really referenced in-game. I could have been anywhere, fighting anyone, for any reason.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. Characters do get notably more powerful as they level, but that's about it. There are no creation options and no role-playing.
  • 3 points for NPCs who will join the party or impart some hints. Different types of NPCs have strengths and weaknesses I didn't fully get a chance to explore.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. Enemies are distinguished by icon and not much else. Puzzle-solving is relegated to finding the right card to pass the right door.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. Combat couldn't be more boring: one button for psychic attack, one for blaster attack, one for shield. Just hold it down. And I'm not sure when you'd favor "Shield" over an attack. The non-combat psychic powers--basically spells--adds some small interest to those portions of the game.
  • 3 points for equipment. Mostly plot items and navigational aids. I guess there are some armor items and psychic enhancers, too.
     
Since "yontry" is both a healing/mana potion and occasional currency, this is an important find.
      
  • 1 point for the economy. There are a couple of times you can spend healing potions, which also act as a currency.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no options.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I don't like the graphics at all and there are no sound effects, so it gets both those points for an interface that isn't hard to figure out.
  • 2 points for linear, non-replayable, boring gameplay, but I suspect it would have at least been short.
           
That gives us a final score of 22. As I suspected at the outset, it underperforms its Japanese counterparts from this year that also had western DOS releases: Sorcerian (25), The Ancient Land of Ys (35), and Zeliard (37).
   
The cover to the Cosmic Soldier manual looks cooler than the game.
     
I can't find much evidence that the west took note of the release, but then again it was handled by Brøderbund, which had no experience with CRPGs by 1987 and wouldn't have much more in the after that. If it was ever reviewed or even publicized in a western magazine, I haven't been able to find it.

When it comes to games with plots as thin as this, I like to imagine that the story is being told in a more conventional way, perhaps around a fire or at the knee of a loving grandfather.
      
Storyteller: Once, an evil empire built an evil machine. But a cosmic soldier infiltrated the space station and destroyed it. The End.

Listener A: Okay, that isn't much of a s--

Listener B: I must hear more about this cosmic solder! I love him so much!
      
If it wasn't for Listener B, we wouldn't have half the sequels that we do, including Psychic War 2: Great Ash (2001) for Windows. A good article on the entire series at Hardcore Gaming 101 describes the plot as so:
          
There's now a cold war with the Quila Empire, which seems to never die. A terrorist group has obtained "great ash", which is something important, and wants to sell it to the Empire unless they get their demands met. The Alliance sends out 4 scantily clad women and an android to sort things out.
        
The same article notes that the universe of Cosmic Soldier is shared with a "text-heavy space strategy game" series called Schwarzschild (1988-1993) and that the Japanese computer magazine POPCOM briefly offered an unsuccessful comic based on Psychic War, "mainly featur[ing] naked drawings of the android."

At this point, I've played almost a dozen RPGs from Japan, but I've yet to play a classic "JRPG," with a heavy focus on plot using pre-defined characters. It's possible that with my PC-only rule in effect, I'll never encounter them. By 1987, we're not seeing enough similarities in games developed in Japan to consider them a "genre"; the four 1987 games are as different as any four titles could be: a side-scrolling single-character platformer, a side-scrolling multi-character dungeon crawler, a first-person dungeon crawler, and a top-down action RPG. As I said in my first post on Cosmic Solder, each title has been innovative in its own way, but not always in a good way. I've never seen anything quite like Cosmic Soldier's combat system, and I won't be disappointed if I never do again.


44 comments:

  1. Final Fantasy 1 was released in late 1987, and I posit that this is a game you'd at least moderately enjoy - as it was coded by an American programmer, with most of the rules/monsters taken straight out of D&D manual.
    (It was also re-released on a Japanese PC, which might skirt your 'no console' rule).

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    1. And by an American programmer, I mean Nasir Gebelli, who's name should mean a lot for you, provided you had Apple II.

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    2. I'm unclear on Chet's exact criteria for whether a game originally released for consoles and later ported to PC counts for his list. Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior got contemporary MSX ports, and many of the JRPGs of this era were eventually released on various online storefronts like xbox live arcade and steam.

      I believe he stated outright that he would not be covering Phantasy Star, which is a shame, because I'd be interested to see his take on what I consider to be one of the better ultima/wizardry-alikes.

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    3. He won't cover any of the Phantasy Star games because none were "properly" ported to PC. The versions available are essentially a ROM file prepackaged with an emulator. By his logic, playing them would be no different from just adding all the console games to his list and playing them normally.

      Games that were actually ported to run natively on PC are a different story.

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  2. >(One wonders if this was influenced by Exodus: Ultima III.)

    I wouldn't be surprised. Ultima III was immensely influential on Japanese RPGs, along with Wizardry. (You may already be aware of this, but Wizardry has had an extended afterlife in Japan, with something around 30 original games in addition to ports and remakes of the classic series.

    I still think, if you want to take a small detour, that it would be worth playing the original Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior) -- I think that with your experience in CRPGs you would be able to see a lot of the inspiration for the game and how it differs from the CRPGs of the time. But it's such a well known game it may not really be worth it.

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    1. Hah, beat me to it! :)
      After reading the blog post, this was exactly my thought:
      If Chet someday really wants to do a one-off console entry, Dragon Quest would be *the* game from a historical point of view, since it's such an exceptional nexus point. Firstly, it really kickstarted the JRPG as a subgenre (together with FF a year later), and secondly, the CRPG roots/influences are wonderfully distinguishable (with the creator refreshingly forthcoming about them).

      It would also help put in perspective later PC JRPGs from the master list.

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    2. The problem with DQ/DW 1 is that... it's pretty boring and simplistic. I'd rather he try a more fully formed example of the JRPG, such as FF1 or DQ/DW 2 or 3.

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    3. While dragon Warrior was rather simplistic, it pretty much established when we've come to expect out of pretty much every RPG from that point on: areas and equipment which are XP/GP gated, dragon fighting, princess rescuing, and even atrocious attempts at Middle English. Ahhh, the good 'ole days!

      Dragon Warrior was one of my favorite games ever. And then I got my hands on Final Fantasy 1...

      Honestly though, I know they were console-based, but for RPG's, they're pretty fundamental.

      Let's not forget Phantasy Star 1 and 2, both of which I thought were superb for the "sword swinging space travelling" genre...

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  3. You might cross more conventional JRPGS on the PC with Cobra Mission and Knights of Xentar, although they're even more japanese than you've asked for. You've been warned.:)

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  4. There are quite a lot of JRPGs that got released on Japanese PCs and ported to consoles later, though I don't know which of them ever got translated into English. Series like The Legend of Heroes, Dinosaur, and Amaranth come to mind. Koei also released a few RPG-hybrid games for PC-98 like Taiko Risshiden, Ishin no Arashi, and Inindo: Dato Nobunaga, the latter of which had a dreadful SNES port.

    As an aside, I'm looking forward to your upcoming coverage of Deathlord! It's decidedly not everyone's cup of tea and I bet it'll get a low GIMLET score--I think there will be no shame in not finishing it seeing how sadistic it gets.

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    1. ^Comments like this remind me that I hope Brain Breaker will start the "Japanese CRPG Addict" project (s)he mentioned a while back. I didn't know that the Inindo SNES port was butchered, for example, so it'd be interesting to see what the original's merits were.

      Deathlord is standing in between the Addict and two of the games I'm most interested in seeing him cover, The Dungeon Revealed (which I knew as Dungeon of Doom) and Gates of Delirium, so I hope it doesn't overstay its welcome too much.

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    2. Gates of Delirium, like the Yes song?

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    3. The Inindo port suffered from really bad UI changes and (oddly) much worse graphics, despite the jump up from 16 colors, and lost a bunch of quality-of-life improvements, plus some events like buying a house in a province neighboring Azuchi castle, marrying your childhood ninja friend and installing her there as a spy to infiltrate and sabotage Nobunaga's home domain.

      A lot of Koei's "Rekoeition" combination games were really good, it's just that few if any got translated. I don't know if there's any interest but I've been working on old obscure game walkthrough" project that's mostly for a handful of RL friends at the moment--I actually started with Deathlord myself, ironically enough--and was planning to do a few of Koei's old games like that at some point in the future, but if there's an existing project I wouldn't want to bother duplicating efforts.

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    5. I second the Japanese CRPG addict request; Chet himself also mentioned the idea in a response to me a few posts back.

      But this is why I put "port of PC game" as a potential reason to skip games in my Super Famicom blog -- there are some really lazy and poor ports of PC games in there.

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    6. Can confirm, Inindo was not very enjoyable.

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    7. Aye. Beating Oda Nobunaga was basically hoping that the RNG would not activate his full health heal instead of having sound tactics. I'd rather rip out my left nut than to try beating him again.

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  5. The JRPG as we know it today was birthed via Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy in 86 and 87 respectively. I suspect you'll not hit a Japanese PC RPG that gives you the vibe you're thinking of.

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  6. You will eventually hit JRPGs, if only because some of Square-Enix's offerings from around Final Fantasy VII onwards started getting eventual PC ports. It'll offer you a tough choice when you get to them, though - do you play the inferior PC port, because it's on PC, or do you dust off an emulator so you can get the experience that everyone else who's talking about that game actually had?

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    1. They've actually been going back and releasing better Final Fantasy ports for PC. Not all of them have been stellar, but done have been very good.

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    2. FFVII's PC port isn't that bad, and it supports the Beacause (not a typo) retranslation, which is a MUST. Also, if you're playing the original 1999 version, the music can sound like this with the right setup: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsoemvXFlDQ

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    3. The original FFVII and FFVIII ports were extremely difficult to get working back in the day, and are nigh-impossible now.

      The current Steam ports are much easier to work with, and are otherwise identical to what was released on disc back in the day.

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    4. They aren't QUITE for FFVII. They reported the PlayStation version and upscaled it, so for example the control scheme makes no sense whatsoever, so you'll probably want to use a controller, unless you want to have to use the Page Up and Page Down keys. There is a mod that changes the onscreen button prompts to match an XBox controller if you want though.

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  8. I'm pretty sure Septerra Core passes all of your criteria, and plays like a straight-up JRPG. That won't be for a while, though, and it's unfortunately a terrible game.

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  9. A couple of points:

    This game was actually released in the US in the second half of 1989, not 1987 (that was its Japanese release date). It was reviewed (rather positively) in the November, 1989 issue of Computer Entertainer newsletter, an excellent overall resource for contemporaneous coverage of the '80s US gaming scene which you might want to check out for future reference (almost fully scanned and available online thanks to game preservationist Frank Cifaldi).

    You mention Broderbund and their lack of experience with RPGs, but Psychic War, just like Ys, was released as part of their Kyodai sub-label. I wrote a bit about this in an article covering an unreleased C64 version of Hydlide 3 for the C64 Games That Weren't site a couple of years ago. From that article:
    "Enter Broderbund, whose dealings with the Japanese computer game scene stretched back even further than Sierra’s. In 1988 they formed a sub-label called Kyodai, meant to bring together around a dozen of Japan’s premier computer game publishers to help import their work to the US (a move curiously similar to Square’s “DOG” sub-label on the Famicom Disk System in Japan a couple of years prior, and involving some of the same publishers). Despite ambitious early plans, this proved to be a largely unsuccessful venture, and only a few games made it out.. It was a mostly IBM PC-centric effort, and the sole C64 game that came out of it was the rather obscure “Curse of Babylon” by XTALSOFT.
    However, it turns out that at least one other was planned. And that was of course Hydlide. Except, it wasn’t actually Hydlide that they planned to port, but rather Hydlide 3, even though they were simply going to call it “Hydlide”, despite the fact that FCI was just about to release the aforementioned NES port of the original Hydlide, also (rightfully!) entitled “Hydlide”."

    So there's a little more to the story here, although I do agree with your general assessment of the game.

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    1. Thanks for the history! The backstory is always interesting...

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    2. Also, Broderbund means "Brotherhood" in German while Kyodai in Japanese means "brothers".

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    3. Bruderschaft would be German. "ø" looks Scandinavian (the letter doesn't exist in the German language), but according to Wikipedia it's Afrikaans with an altered spelling.

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  10. Good news!
    Someone recently added a 1983 RPG to mobygames called "Karoths's Keep" (http://www.mobygames.com/game/dos/karkoths-keep). Seems like a dungeon crawler that's a bit more complex than most of its contemporaries and has some roguelike elements (fov, permadeath, but no random environments, apparently). I can't say if the inventory fullfills your criteria, so you might be able to skip it :P

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    1. At first glance, this seems to be a clear variant of the DND line. I'm surprised it hasn't come up before.

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    2. My googling skills might be temporarily unavailable, but I can't find a download link.

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  11. Such an ugly and uninteresting game! I feel for you that you had to endure this.

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Personally, I'd rather see 10,000 of these lesser-known "ugly and uninteresting games" than have any of them be skipped. This is a semi-exhaustive project, not "Happy Nostalgia Best Games Time".

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    3. Personally, I find this game extremely ugly and unappealing. And i still love this blog.

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  12. You'll hit Final Fantasy eventually. For a short while they would release them on Windows in English, so they'd hit ALL of your criteria: FFVII came out on PS1 in 1997, and Windows in 1998, and FFVIII came out on PS1 in 1999 and Windows in 2000. Both have modern steam releases that make them easy to run on current versions of windows.

    Where it is more complicated is the earlier ones. Final Fantasy I came out in 1987 in Japan, and 1990 in the USA on the NES. Not a computer, so doesn't meet your criteria. However, it was released on the MSX2 in 1989, which WAS a computer made by Microsoft, in Japanese. So, does the fact it is in English, AND was on a computer count given it was never on the same one, at the same time? And which year do you play it in, if so? Also, do you count phones as computers? If so, it is out for Android and iOS, though obviously much later in its lifespan.

    Next: Final Fantasy III. Came out in Japan in 1990. Came out in English in 2006, and was released on Windows in 2011, but that is a remake with upgraded graphics. That said, you've mentioned many times how you wouldn't be influenced by the graphics. So is that a 1990 game, a 2006 game or a 2011 game?

    FFIV: Came out in both Japanese and English in 1991, and on Windows in 2014 as a remake.

    FFV: SNES 1992, Windows 2014 (Remake)

    FFVI: SNES 1994, Windows 2015 (Remake)

    FFIX: PS1 1999, Windows 2016

    FFX: Console Only, doesn't meet rules

    FFXI: MMORPG, doesn't meet rules despite Windows version

    FFXII: Console only

    FFXIII: PS3 (JP) 2009, PS3 (ENG) 2010, Windows 2014

    FFXIV: MMO, doesn't meet rules

    FFXV: PS4 only, doesn't meet rules.

    So some do meet your rules, but you've gone back and forth on what year to put games that came out in different year son different platforms on.

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    1. If you look at the "A New Plan" posting, the Addict already concluded that FFIII and FFIV would be scheduled from the time the DS releases came out, as they are ports of that version.

      He hasn't commented on the Windows versions of V, VI, IX, or X/X-2. These are not full remakes - V and VI had the graphics slightly redrawn to not look awful at 1080 resolution, but nothing more, and X/X-2 are just the "International" re-release with higher-resolution textures ported from the PS3 version.

      At present, the only FF games without a PC release are 1,2,12, and 15. 12 will very likely be ported (there's a PS4 HD release coming out soon, and they've been porting those) based on Squeenix's current track history.

      If the Addict places the 16-bit games in the time of their original release, he'll hit the first one (FFV) in BY1992.

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    2. That makes sense since it is a 3D remake and probably controls a lot differently, so 2006 era makes sense.

      Yeah, the V and VI ones would make more sense in their original years probably, since they aren't full remakes? IX and X/X-2 doesn't matter, he can figure that out when he gets to the late 90s. Also VII and VIII don't matter: Just play them as the last game of the year and split the difference.

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    3. FFX/FFX-2 are on Steam. :)
      FFXV should come this/next year as well.

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  13. In addition to most of the Final Fantasy series as mentioned above, Falcom has ported a number of JRPGs (e.g. several entries in the Ys series, the Legend of Heroes Trails in the Sky subseries) and there are a few others like Elminage Gothic. And of course there are non-Japanese emulations of the style, including a hojillion RPG Maker games of which very few are at all notable. But most of that is years off still.

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  14. I was crazy/bored enough to play the first Cosmic Soldier (1985) to completion, and wrote that part of the HG101 article. What drove me in the end was the satisfaction to see it completed, but I can absolutely confirm it's a drag (not sure about Psychic War, but it seems so). Powering up the sexdroid was kind of fun, but the outcome of battles was mostly random... the same exact bunch of enemies could wipe your party off in a second, or be super weak after reloading. And I wouldn't have been able to finish it without maps and a walkthrough, the hints are so hidden and obscure and the map traps so annoying I would have probably lost my sanity. Overall I think the best way to enjoy it is to take a bite and get the gist of it, exactly what you did. By the way, cool to see it covered here!

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    1. Thank you for your contributions to that article. It really helped to place this game in the context of the series.

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