Friday, December 29, 2006

Cybernator - Review

It took me a little while of playing this game to realize that its closest video game analog was that of Contra. The game has a lot of spit and polish and so many things you can do, it is almost overwhelming. Underneath it all, however, you are basically moving around on platforms and shooting at guys which makes it fall in the much-beloved category of run and gun.

In Cybernator, you play Jake, the pilot of a large mechanical humanoid robot (or mech). You are on one side of a war for the dwindling natural resources of earth. Your side isn't necessarily the "good" side or "right" side (though apparently you do adhere to the rules of war and attempt to minimize civilian casualties) which is an interesting twist. Your role is that of the weary soldier, loyal to his side but not fanatical and really just wanting all the fighting to be over. At least, that's what comes through in the dialog. This game's plot was notoriously clipped. Apparently there is also a romance between you and the communications officer, a kinship between you and your fellow mech pilots, and more of a rivalry between you and Beldark, but none of that really comes through. In essence, this kind of makes you feel like you are watching a badly dubbed Gundam anime.

Your mech is chock full of maneuvers. In addition to being able to move left and right (and up and down in zero gravity environments), you can jump, apply booster rockets after jumping to lift you up more or keep you from falling, and dash. The play control isn't precise, but it seems intended that way. You are controlling a multi-ton machine and your inertia logically carries you forward, making it impossible to turn or stop on a dime. The somewhat-sluggish control seems logical and works well. You won't be deftly jumping over all the bullets, but rather have to plan your moves to avoid where the bullets will be. Fortunately, you also have the ability to shield yourself from minor projectiles in the front (though I rarely used this) and you can take a few shots before you are destroyed.

You have multiple weapons which you can shoot in any of 16 directions. You use the D-Pad to determine where you shoot which can also mean that you accidentally move while aiming. This is solved by the ability to use the L button to lock your gun pointing in its current direction so that you can move about and still shoot in the direction you want. This ability is absolutely necessary in frenetic boss battles where you need to dodge projectiles and still want to be pointing toward the boss. You start with two weapons - the vulcan cannon which is relatively weak and can fire across the screen and a punch which is stronger but can only hit enemies in front of you. You can pick up other weapons such as missiles and a laser throughout the game and you can also pick up pods to upgrade the power of your existing weapons (each weapon has three power levels).

Most levels consist of moving from left to right, destroying enemies, and occasionally moving up or down to a platform. They are all well-designed and pretty much feel like the futuristic space station, asteroid field, or militarized city that they represent. Some levels are very bare bones and just involve straight left to right movement with enemies interspersed. Others involve more exploration and have multiple paths. These paths all eventually lead to the same place, but the more out-of-the-way ones involve weapons and health power-ups. Some levels take place in a zero gravity environment (or with your booster rockets permanently attached) meaning that you can move up or down at will and jumping becomes less important. There are even a few levels that automatically scroll, making them like shoot 'em ups. The variety is nice and really elevates the gameplay experience.

The enemies are also well-designed. They are what you would expect for a futuristic mech game like this, being robots, turrents, other mechs, or occasionally even people. They take a different amount of damage to destroy depending on what they are (people die in one shot, mechs take multiple). For the most part, they are cannon fodder, but every so often an enemy has an interesting movement or shot pattern that gives it some personality. Every level ends with at least one major boss. These bosses are one of the best parts of the game. They are all huge, taking up at least a good portion of the screen if not multiple screens. They each have their own individual quirks and patterns. Sometimes they are rockets or engines or large structures and at other times they are other mechs. They are pretty uniformly awesome. Except perhaps for the first boss, it takes at least one death to figure out the pattern and be able to survive your way through it. The multi-part last boss is a particular treat.

The game in general is fairly difficult, as run and gun games should be. It adheres to the old school philsophy that you get to a new area, try a few things, die, and then next game get to that area and do better because you are more aware of what you are doing. You have one life, so once your energy runs out the game is over, but you get three continues so you can think of it as having three lives. I have to admit that I used the cheat to get the napalm for the second level and even with this super-weapon, the game was still challenging. I can't really imagine how difficult it would have been if I had to destroy early enemies with a weak vulcan cannon or punch.

One place where this game really shines is the attention to detail. The graphics are big and bright and anime-inspired. The levels, especially those that take place on space-ships or space stations have highly-detailed background graphics that show thought was put into the design of these structures. Additionally, the movement of your mech and enemies is well-animated. Other little details, such as your bullets leaving marks where they hit the wall or pilots ejecting from vehicles that you destroy add to the feel and there are several mode-7 explosions to liven it up. If you have seen the detail of Metal Slug, this game is quite similar.

Remember how I said above that the story feels like a badly translated Gundam anime? The music adds to that mood. It is very Japanese giant robot anime-ish if you know what that means. If not, know that it doesn't stick with you, but feels appropriate to the game. The sounds tend to be minimal. They are limited to industrial, futuristic, robotic things like tank treads, metal clashing on metal, and explosions. They are quite nice and generally complement the graphic detail without distracting from it.

This game is well-designed and has a spectacular attention to detail. It is also ridiculously difficult and not terribly innovative. Most of the time, I really had fun with the game. It isn't too long and I had a constant sense of progress, never getting stuck on one level for too long. The ridiculous graphic detail can totally pull you into the world and for several days I had fantasies of driving my own giant mech and blowing stuff up. It definitely impressed me enough to want to check out its Genesis prequel, Target Earth. So, I generally had quite positive feelings toward, but the game itself didn't seem that special.

The issue is with the number. In my head, a 7 means that the game is good and recommended if you like that genre. An 8 means that a game is very good and something to check out if you get the chance. I gave Soul Blazer a 7, and I think that is appropriate. The game is fun, but isn't something I would recommend to everyone. Cybernator feels about the same way to me and yet I feel like it might deserve an 8 as it would be probably be on a list of top games for the system, albeit at the bottom. I'm guess I'm not too clear in my mind on what the difference between 8 and 9 in my mind is. I'll have to sit down and think about this. I also find it silly that I am spending so much time on picking the right number when I could have made this much easier for myself by cutting the ratings to a 5 point scale. It is an obvious 4 on that scale, but once I expand it, I have to decide what slot it fits into. I guess I'll just give a disclaimer that numerical ratings given up to this review are subject to change.

Rating: 7 / 10

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