Thursday, December 23, 2010

At Random: Low G Man (NES, 1990)

Once again I close my eyes and grope blindly into the stacks, coming up with an 8-bit NES game I have never before played or written about: Taxan's Low G Man (The Low Gravity Man). Taxan USA was the Western sibling of Japanese game publisher Naxat Soft (see what they did there?), both divisions of Kaga Electronics.  For some reason, the box features different logo artwork than the manual and the game itself:

I think the title screen version has more personality:

Low G Man is a side-scrolling action platformer of the type that dominated the 8- and 16-bit console generations; the hyperbolic gimmick here is that our hero can power up and jump higher than the screen, and some bosses are larger than one screen as well, so there's a lot of scrolling in both available 2-D dimensions.

The plotline, as breathlessly described on the back of the box, is fairly dramatic and wholly generic:

Your mission is to take back the robot-producing exploration planet from the evil aliens before they reprogram all of the robots for the destruction of the human race.

(As an IT professional by day, I kind of like this idea -- the aliens aren't going to attack us directly, but exploit our own technology to do us in by out-programming us.  The fiends!)

The gameplay is pretty standard, though the graphics are downsized a bit by NES standards to allow for a more epic scale.  This means that the character and vehicle sprites are detailed but fairly tiny -- they wouldn't have looked out of place, sizewise, on the pre-NES consoles or the Apple II.  The first-level palette choice is rather odd, as the primarily black background gives a misleading impression of the player character design -- he appears to be some kind of policeman, wearing a flat blue cap on his Pitfall Harry-style head.

It's only when we get to Chapter 1-2 that we can see the Low Gravity Man's unruly, punkish mob of black hair -- it even animates when he jumps (take that, Miyamoto-san!):

The game's most interesting mechanic is its complicated attack style -- the player can shoot an enemy to stun it, then jump and stab it from above or below to destroy it before it recovers.  This two-step process requires some finesse, timing and strategy, especially when there are multiple enemies onscreen.  It's also possible, but much riskier, to take enemies out without first freezing them -- they will yield powerups more readily when stabbed "live," but striking without taking damage is tricky.

There are also vehicles that our hero can commandeer, preserving his life bar while the fuel lasts and bringing more powerful weapons to bear.  (A bug/feature I discovered here -- if Low G Man takes fatal damage at the same time he's taking over a vehicle, he can drive around with no life left until the vehicle gives out, at which point he dies instantly.  Too bad this robot-producing world has no drive-thru pharmacies.)  This vehicle reminds me of He-Man's Wind Raider as seen in Mattel's Masters of the Universe game for the Intellivision:

There are also annoying power-downs -- Red Medicine bottles that actually reduce the player's life bar.  I found myself dying unpredictably often before I realized what was going on, and even then it's hard to break the habit of picking up every item that falls from a defeated enemy; there's not much time to recognize the nature of the dropped item before missing it altogether.  Walking into a boss battle with just a fraction of life bar left is not a good idea.

The game has 5 levels, each with two or more subchapters, and the bosses are nicely varied.  But like too many 8-bit platformers, the basic gameplay of Low G Man quickly becomes repetitive.  The challenge ramps up, with closer quarters and trickier jumps, but there isn't much truly new to see.  Worse, the designers' approach to increasing the difficulty often undermines the game's fundamental gimmick -- the player actually gets fewer opportunities to use the high-jump and take enemies out with powered-up weapons, and must instead slow down and maneuver carefully through tight corridors to avoid leaping blindly into the line of fire.

The powerups that can be acquired only apply to the current stage, and while a password system (prominently advertised on the box) allows us to continue next time we feel like playing, there's not a lot of incentive to do so.  Since I'm not terribly good at this game, I used a few passwords found online to sample the later levels and see the ending sequence.  While I didn't find the gameplay compelling, Low G Man does offer a lot of replay value -- the ending indicates that there are second and third quests ahead, and provides hints about how to discover a couple of hidden bonus levels.

Also, there's a final "If you think you're good" teaser for Taxan's upcoming NES game, based on a popular Hasbro action figure line:

Low G Man isn't an awful game, but it's no forgotten classic.  It's another case of an interesting play mechanic that doesn't fulfill its promise -- the idea works well for a couple of levels, but then has nowhere left to go.

This one hasn't surfaced on the Wii Virtual Console at this writing, though Naxat Soft has been an active VC publisher. Original NES cartridges are not hard to find, and can be purchased here:

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