Thursday, 13 February 2020

VectorMan (Genesis/Mega Drive) - Guest Post

This week on Super Adventures, mecha-neko's back with another guest post for you! He's found a game all about robots, purple flags and twinkly stars, and some people reckon it's pretty good. You'll have to keep reading if you want to know what mecha-neko thinks of it though.

Hey everybody, guess what! It's time to play the Mega Drive exclusive VectorMan!

Developer:BlueSky Software|Release Date:October 24th, 1995|Systems:Mega Drive/Genesis

If you think this little fragment of the title screen is busy, believe me I'm letting you off easy. If you're really gutsy, take a look at the full animation. Be warned, it contains flashing images. (And boy howdy does it ever.) That warning goes for the rest of this post as well. Are you ready?



You all know VectorMan, right? You'll find him knocking around at the bottom of all those Genesis compilations, and Genesis system-on-chip licensed knock-off consoles, and even in Sonic Gems for some reason. He's all the way down there at the bottom, alphabetically and chronologically, somewhat forgotten and, as far as I can tell, nigh-unheard of here in the land of tea and toasted barmcakes.

Because of that, I own the thing at least twice, and since I've just bought another compilation where there's an Achievement for getting somewhere in VectorMan, I've gotta play it!

Earth, 2049. We've really funked up the planet, I'm afraid.

Industry has gotten so rampant that we hadn't even had time to cut down the forests and melt the icecaps before we covered them in toxic sludge. Instead of dealing with the toxic sludge, humanity collectively decided it would be quicker and simpler to evacuate the entire planet and delegate the task of cleaning up the place to a bunch of robots. Orbots. Or bots.

It was all going rather well, until one of those orbots accidentally connects a nuclear bomb to the guy in charge of the entire planet.

He doesn't take kindly to that (as one wouldn't), and now the mighty ``WarHead`` rules over the sludged up Earth, standing for tyranny, hatred and oppression. Oppression of who exactly, I'm not sure, since he was already in charge of every orbot on the planet anyway. Maybe he's got a bone to pick with a particularly belligerent tree? You've got to pass the time somehow until those humans get back. He'd possibly do well not to head-butt one though.

Our heroic golden orbot VectorMan returns from a day trip to the sun (landing at night otherwise it'd be too hot). Appalled at the prospect of seeing all his human friends return to a deadly, and most unforgivably still-sludged planet, he decides to star in a mid-90s Genesis game and save the day.

Day 1
TeRRaPoRt


Here I am. The gold... green hero, ready to kick Orbot butt and save the planet. It's a platformer!

The first thing that hits me is how much stuff is going on. I'll edit out the cloud layer so I can cram it all into a reasonably-sized GIF for you. (Plus Ray would kill me if I didn't include an animation of these damned flags!)

There we go! The slickness of all these animations has to be seen to be believed. Everything is moving. Or sliding. One touch of the directional buttons and VectorMan launches into a sprinting stomp with the camera swooping around trying to catch up.

VectorMan lives up to his name by... wait a minute! He's not made of vectors at all! He's not even pre-rendered! He's a collection of sprites all moving around in unison, like the fighters in Ballz. I feel a little had.

VectorMan's method of attack is to fire sparkling orbs from his palm, much like my buddy Cool Spot. Like so:

Yowza! What hit me, ref?

If you look very closely, you'll see the enemy robot, completely-unfazed by my orbs of carbonated goodness, fires off a little yellow and black sphere that's barely visible through my barrage of slow-moving shots. That's a bit naff, I think. I totally had him.

This is about a third of the speed the game runs, by the way. GIFs in the browser simply can't convey the amount of whoosh that happens when you touch the pad.

Yooooowwww...! Where'd the level go?

I've only just started and I'm completely disoriented.

Oof. More enemies, not that you can see them. The Mega Drive itself has a little problem displaying much of anything when there's more than one enemy on screen. Especially if there's projectiles, and there's gonna be projectiles because these big brown slabs of robots take a dozen blasts to kill, each, and they're both shooting right back at me.

Plonk! VectorMan is down. Smashed to bits.

I didn't even see the damn enemy bullet. I'm having real 'identifying stuff' problems in this game. The level just doesn't look like anything.

I've been seeing these floating TVs everywhere. I thought they were just part of the background - you know, just floating video-game background TVs and stuff. But they're actually like Sonic's monitors and you have to break them to get at the goodies inside. And unlike VectorMan himself, they actually are 3D rendered I think, which is why they look like a horrible indistinct mess when they rotate.

Ugh. Why does it have to do that? That's unhealthy. If you're going to make a game, keep the distracting screen-filling flashes to a minimum, for everyone's sake. This is also roughly how many shots it takes to smash one of those TVs, by the way.

This is a perfect analogy of what the sound design is like in this game, too. There's music, I can hear it. It's a fast-paced, sort-of aimless electronic dance track (YouTube link) that sounds like it's out of Wolfchild. Except, you'll never get to hear it because the sound effects absolutely obliterate the music, and there's never not a sound effect playing. A complete waste.


Aha! It's time to unleash VectorMan's signature power! Mario's got his caps and capes and clothes, Sonic's got his spin and his shields, Timet Mr. Nutz can fly...

VectorMan can, for incredibly brief, confusing periods, collect an icon in the level and turn into a sort of drill thing that wobbles about of its own volition and automatically destroys the floor below you, sending you tumbling into the complete unknown.

Hmm, I dunno. Usually when I pick up a mysterious power-up, I want to be yelling stuff like "Yes! Get 'em! Take that, suckers!" instead of "Oh no NO what's happening stop STOP!"

I'm on my last life already? When did that happen? Somehow I feel like I'm doing my very best and being a super sneakily sly mega robot, but I leave every screen with only a single hit-point to my name!

Whew.

That's that. One set of lives and you're done. It's wayyy back to the title screen for me. Let's give this another shot.

Now that I know what's coming, I can play properly: full violence, no mercy, action VectorMan running right at the enemy, blasting non-stop and... DAMN IT.

Here's a slow-mo instant replay.

What am I doing wrong? Why am I not liking this? I'm not much of an Earthworm Jim fan (that's Ray's review, but you can insert some audible teeth-grinding here and there to get my take), but I am a big fan of Wolfchild. I even got somewhere in the Amiga version of Turrican once or twice, if I remember right.

What do those games have that VectorMan doesn't? Enemies that you can see, cool guns, cool backgrounds, nice music... I won't judge VectorMan too harshly just yet. It's only Day 1, and there's plenty of time for it to...

What what WHERE?

OH. Those purple wasp things. Next to the flag. You think they're hard to see in a still, try it in motion.

Where in the blazes did they come from?

Slick, slick, slick. If there's one word that accurately describes VectorMan, it's slick. If you run up against a wall, he doesn't start trying to push it aside, he'll casually lean against it and start playing with his spheres.

The problem with 'slick' is that 'slick' lives next door to 'unpredictable'. And unpredictable leads to either unsatisfying, incomprehensible victories, or frustrating, inexplicable deaths.

Talk to the hand, robo-bozo!

That's weird. I think I've reached the end. That was surprisingly fast. The only way onwards is down another blind jump...

Where VectorMan must face off against a giant aircraft boss!

It swoops from left to right, tilting smoothly, dropping bombs on poor VM. The Mega Drive can't possibly do this... can it???

No, it can't! The Mega Drive's graphics processor, the VDP, can support two full-screen layers of tiles that can scroll about to make the level graphics and background, and a slew of sprites that can be placed freely for the player, enemies, collectables, bullets and so on. But it can't freely rotate them like, say, the Game Boy Advance can! Clearly, this is maaaagic.

It's still slick as hell, too. It makes most things on the Amiga look like flip-books.

Thank you, thank you, hold your applause please!

The bomber was no match for staying roughly in the centre of the screen, holding Up to aim at its cargo bay, and hammering the life out of the poor fire button.

Day 2
MeTaLHeaD


The game's suddenly a top-down shooter!

VectorMan's become a ramshackle train engine on a rotten train-track suspended in mid-air above some grassy fields with strange perspective effects making the whole experience a bit nauseating and there's a giant robot grasping at the rails and everything's gone all a bit Earthworm Jim 2 on me.

I'd say it was a coincidence, except some fellow called Mark Lorenzen was a designer on both...

SPLAT

Well. Okay. The longest I lasted against that boss was eleven seconds. I sure learned a lot.

Bonk!

How did I do so well the first time I got here?

The first attract mode shows you how to attack this boss properly: you're supposed to avoid the spiked balls by jumping over them. That's jumping through the wings and the jets. Hmm... no?

If Sonic's taught me anything, it's that the whole body of the boss is always dangerous, especially the parts spewing glowing plasma. I'll stick to my first plan of running like crazy whenever the bomber swoops and attacks me with his balls.

RIGHT. Streuth. Here we go.

I'm doing the best I can! I'm hitting the Fire button like a maniac shooting at the hands when they grab onto the track, and the boss loses his grip, but then he just jumps right back and grabs me and I blow up.

There are orbs circling the track that hurt you if they touch you, but you can't tell if they're above you or beneath you. I can move forwards and backwards very, very slightly, for all the good that does me.

The attract mode didn't give me any advice on this boss. In fact, the last time I watched it, the attract mode player died, which I found stupendously hilarious.

I'm dead. Inside.

And, please, click this and take a look at this damn title screen in its entirety if you didn't before. I have to sit through this entire mess every time I lose all my lives. All of it. The stretching, the 3D balls, the thumping techno, the rotating iris, the palette swapping, the flashing screen, the Space Harrier-like scrolling landscape, two different kinds of lens flares, the rotating pre-rendered logo, and a sprite-based gradual dissolve.

It's got everything except restraint. Or style.

Alright, this time around I'm going to play it smarter, not harder. No more running headlong into danger. That's dumb. I need lives. Lots and lots of lives.

I'm going to advance very, very slowly and keep bopping this fire button until I'm a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y certain it's safe to move on. That's not going to be easy. Despite the camera sliding around VectorMan nicely, I don't see far enough ahead of me to see enemies before they can attack.

Just look at how much of the brown enemy orbot is visible on screen on the right. And then check behind VectorMan on the left and see the enemy projectile which the enemy must've fired way before there was even a hint that he was there.

Mother of pearl, that's frustrating. These damn purple wasp bastards swoop down from the top of the screen and in a millisecond they're right in your face. They come in a Gradius-style formation, one after another, perfectly timed so the next one is ready to fly into your face the very instant your stingy invulnerability wears off.

Knock it off! I'm trying to enjoy VectorMan, here!

Ha HAH! At last! I did it!

Here's a spinning 1up I've rescued from a TV up at the top of a tower. "Sure, that's great and all, mecha," I hear you ask, "but what's so special about this 1up?"

VectorMan has a strange mechanic where you can pick up limited duration multipliers that affect the point values of things you pick up. They also work on hit-points you find in the level. And extra lives.

Although the items that drop from destroyed enemies are random, the items you get from TVs aren't. If you know where a x3 can be found, and know where a nearby 1up is hiding, you can combine the two to collect three extra lives at once! Or five! Or ten!

Of course, it's completely ruined by enemies respawning as you move back and forth through the level, and everything taking an ice age to kill and enemies flying at you from every angle and stuff shooting at you from off-screen, so you can't clear out the level and have an easy run from the multiplier to the 1up. Good in theory though. It would've given me some control over the game; let me get extra lives and so on through being clever, instead of the game being a drunken, lurching crap-shoot.

Fantastic.

There isn't any auto-fire option that I'd missed, in the end. In VectorMan's world, auto-fire is a luxury - it's a powerup you can find in one of the TVs. It lasts about ten seconds.

And the bullets for the machine-gun mode arc, so if you were to attempt to shoot a robot that was slightly elevated relative to you, by pulling a diagonal (very difficult on the Mega Drive pad I must point out), then this will happen.

Figure 1. A beautiful arc of indistinct splodges flying clean over the enemy's head.

And you don't stop running while you're aiming diagonally either. To pull a diagonal, you have to be pulling to the side, and pulling to the side makes VectorMan run. So, guess what! Yes, I'm running right into this golem's chops and taking tons of damage. Wahoo!

Despite the similarities to Cool Spot, there isn't any real reason to explore that I've found. This first level is really short when you know what you're doing. It's about eight screens across or something. If there weren't all those damn robots and purple wasps in the way, you could get there in under half a minute, plus you'd probably enjoy it a little.

There are Global Gladiators-esque floating invisible platforms that lead up, but when you get 'up' there's rarely anything there to find. VectorMan isn't a collect-'em-up - all these shiny, dangerous-looking floating stars are just for points - so searching around the levels is just asking to be ambushed.

Still, it'd be foolish to go up against the bomber without full health, so I'm backtracking a bit and using VectorMan's double-jump (which I keep forgetting he has because you can't see high enough up to see where a double-jumpable platform would be) to explore some platforms way up at the top of the level.

I'm a little worried that, well perhaps it's just me, but I can't tell what half the damn things in this game are supposed to be. I get that this level is supposed to be a series of scaffolds, but it's not registering in my mind as anything other than a bunch of grey lines. VectorMan is too big, and the doubly-cropped screen make it feel like I'm looking at the world from a distance with a painfully narrow field of view.

There's a powerup in the destroyed remains of that TV on the right, but which part of the graphic is the powerup and what it does are beyond me. It seriously took me seven or eight retries of the game before I realised that the extra hit-points for VectorMan look identical to his own spheres.

I've just thought of another hero who's made out of independent bits all moving together: Rayman. I wonder which game came first of the two? Don't be so quick to assume the PlayStation game came out later, since VectorMan came out in 1995, and I'm fairly sure the PS1 was even out in the UK at that point.

Looking it up, VectorMan came out seven weeks after Rayman. Oh man.

There we have it. I made it. I even made a video. Those thirteen frantic seconds comprised the entirety of Day 2. If anybody has any, any, idea what the hell is going on here, or how I won it, or how I could've avoided the damage, please write in and tell me.

Day 3
TIDaL SuRge


Now I've got just one hit point left to finish the game. Oh wait, defeating the train boss pushed my score high enough to give me an extra guy. Yay!

I'd like to give my special, personal thanks to whoever decided it would be clever to have the level begin right next to a damn turret...

And have beyond the turret a blind drop that's too deep to view by holding Down...

And have at the bottom of the drop an underwater depth mine.

No doubt about it. This is a game that's meant to be rehearsed and repeated. That's not bad in itself, but from the start, every time?

VectorMan has almost inaudible 'yeah' and 'wow' speech samples that trigger so rarely that you'll swear that you were imagining them. A big chunky robot equipping a new type of weapon needs to say its name out loud. It's the law.

Ahh. Rookie mistake there, trying to descend.

I didn't see the completely off-screen, very flat robot drone underwater and VectorMan takes a hit. And then another from his pal, for luck. VectorMan isn't the bunny from TinyToons, darnit. He's a great big robot bastard who's been to the Sun and back! If he landed on your car, he'd leave a mark.

So how does VectorMan control underwater? Surprisingly well. But that might be because this level consists of a straight line with no platforms except these floating crates. There's no bottomless pits or giant grabby robots to ruin VM's stride.

Ugh. UGH. I spoke too soon.

Can't jump on them, they hurt me. Can't shoot them because I can only fire horizontally and there's no good place to stand where I can hit them. If I try to jump to hit them I glide through the water and magnificently miss every target on my way down.

I don't want to sound like a broken record here, but I'm really, really having trouble hitting things in this game. I can't hit moving targets, can't hit stationary ones. Can't hit things when I'm in motion and I can't hit things when I stay still. Shooting enemies in this game is the complete opposite of satisfying.

This zapper in the pit isn't some predictable left-to-right affair. It's thrashing and unfolding in all directions, desperate to blast me.

I died.

I'm back to the start of Day 3, except the TVs haven't been restored, so there's no way for me to recover lost hit-points except hope enemies drop them. And if you smash a TV that contains a multiplier, you'd better hope the 1up is nearby, or you've just completely wasted it for this playthrough of the game.

Some way further along this completely flat, featureless level, I've acquired a swimming power up, turning VectorMan into a little dart, allowing him to swim faster and making him invulnerable. Though since he's still made of the same balls, it's not easy to tell whether you're in this state or not. They could've gone a little further and made him look like a shark or something.

Here's another one of VectorMan's patented morphs: a bomb. Just a bomb. Why does the bomb mode get a unique sprite and the drill and the dart don't? And I'm not convinced of the wisdom of becoming a bomb anyway - isn't VectorMan supposed to be a strictly anti-bomb kind of guy?

I've got this little secret figured out though. If I get my VectorBomb to flop its way back to the left, I can return to a concrete bunker I passed and destroy the reinforced wall to gain entry! Maximum smarts!

And within the bunker, past way too many wildly flailing articulated laser turrets lies a TV containing the prize.

Is it a 1up? A new weapon, maybe? An upgrade to VectorMan - perhaps some additional balls to strap onto his form to increase his (currently underwhelming) deadliness?

It was a devastating new weapon! A single-use power that made VectorMan emit a corona of rainbow-coloured lens flares and caused the entire screen to violently flash in negative colours while a deafening 'VROOORRRRRRRRP' blasted out of the TV.

And then it was done. That was exciting, huh?

Would've been real handy if, you know, it wasn't mapped to the standard damn shoot button so there was a way to save it instead of inadvertently using it on the next standard enemy that blocked my path.

On my way back, let's bask in the smoothness of the game in its full luxurious frame rate.

The artists even bothered to draw different graphics for each of VectorMan's component balls under the varying lighting conditions as he moves through the arc of each lamp, from dark to light and dark again.

Alright, enough basking, back to work!

Well. I don't think that's particularly cricket, do you?

Touching an articulated turret is damage? From below? From off-screen? At that distance?

And if I want another go, I have to replay the entire game to get up to this point? Get lost to heck with that, VectorMan.

It would only be twelve minutes, max, but they'd be really really frustrating minutes.

What a mess. Where do I start?

VectorMan's standard attack is almost useless and very aggravating to try to use. You don't increase in power as you go, you don't collect an array of spare cool guns to use later on. There's several gun power ups, but there's no point in describing them other than the auto-fire as they're all the same. Right at the start of Day 1 there's a powerup that gives VectorMan a 5-shot spread - and it still takes the same amount of shots to destroy one of those brown robots.

The morphing concept is completely wasted. You can't see which TVs give you a morph, you can't tell what morph you'll have before you destroy them, you can't tell what morph you'll have after you destroy them. You can't keep a box of cool morphs to solve problems with when you feel like it.

You could pick any platformer or run 'n' gun previous to VectorMan off a shelf and, regardless of how lame or annoying the game was overall, you could pick out at least one nice distinguishing feature it had that made it worth a look. Maybe it had cute metal robots and pretty trees, or a psionic anime werewolf, or a daft green rabbit with a honk-load of weapons, or even so much music the game is effectively a concept album with a super-suited space guy game included as a free gift.

VectorMan has nothing. Everything's just a blur of nasty nastiness, and there's no excuse. This is 1995, right at the end of the 16-bit era: all the good games had already come out with tons of good ideas to steal. Every awful thing about VectorMan's visual and gameplay styles was absolutely deliberate. Including not giving the player any continues, which is just plain malicious.

Let's be positive. What do I like about VectorMan? I like the multiplier system; I've not seen it before. And I like VectorMan himself, surprisingly. In this Sega interview with designer Rich Karpp, there's a whole bunch of VectorMan concept art that looks really cool, much cooler than the actual game itself. It's all... crinkly. Solid. Like VectorMan's robot jawline (which he's been unjustly robbed of in his in-game incarnation). Give me the VectorMan cartoon!

It's nice that Sega contacted the main guy and conducted that nice interview. Although being an official thing, it's not going to even approach being critical, and when you reach the end you'll find that it was all an advertisement for the iOS and Android re-release of VectorMan. They didn't change it, it's just the same game emulated. Except this time with whiffy on-screen phone controls and in-game advertisements. Oh, they added quick saves too! And saving makes an advert appear.

Well done, guys. You did great.


It's a known fact that mecha-neko's guest posts get more views than mine, you only have to check the 'Week's Most Viewed' chart on the right to see that, so I'll ask you to not share this article with your friends, and definitely don't post a link on Reddit/forums/twitter etc. The guy has enough reasons to be smug as it is, let's not give him more.

And don't leave him a comment either!

11 comments:

  1. Do you take requests for game reviews?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I stopped taking requests a long time ago when it became painfully obvious that people were able to suggest games a lot quicker than I was able to write about them.

      Delete
    2. I take requests, but I can't guarantee I'll do anything with them, especially if it's something I don't have, sorry.

      Delete
  2. I always thought this was a game I should like. I’ve tried it a bunch of times and it just never clicked for me. That’s what I thought anyway, maybe it’s just bad. You made it further than I did!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't like it more if it was just -easier-. It's almost like they forgot to put in the easy, ordinary levels at the start of the game - as if we've started VectorMan already two-thirds of the way through.

      I can't believe I made it further than someone... I was worried this entire post would just be pictures of the first level over and over again, thanks to that train boss.

      Delete
  3. I played Vectorman, also on a Sega compilation, and also to unlock an achievement, or a bonus game, or something like that anyway. I have no memory of the train track boss or the second level, so it couldn't have been a difficult achievement.

    I also don't remember anything about the game itself, so I probably didn't enjoy what little I played.

    The next game is Suikoden.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, next game is Suikoden. You win once again.

      Delete
    2. After the year I've had so far, I will take that victory!

      Delete
  4. Wow. That has to be the most Nineties title screen ever produced. It looks like the intro to an Xtreme sports show, or a middle school textbook cover come to life. It's... mesmerizing.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Just quick pointer:
    1) if you duck, your aim will follow the terrain for example is you crouch on slope your aim also elevated so no need for running and aiming diagonally
    2) You can see the morph icons do in help option along with what other pickup do
    3)On Day 2, you can dodge Metalhead's hand by jumping and watch out for his minion on the sides that shooting at you
    4) You can shoot down and diagonal down while jumping only
    5) Most morph only useful for exploration

    ReplyDelete
  6. Did anybody else notice the similarities between the premise for this and Wall-E?

    ReplyDelete

Semi-Random Game Box