One of the things I remember most fondly about the post-crash era of videogaming was the emergence of publishers with distinct visual personalities. On the Atari 2600 and Intellivision, everything tended to look about the same -- there wasn't enough graphical flexibility to allow for much distinction, and while some designers were better than others at getting the most out of the hardware, everyone was wearing the same straitjacket. When the 8-bit NES came along, suddenly there were enough pixels and colors available to suggest cuteness and grittiness, sharpness and subtlety; Super Mario Bros. looked distinctly different from Metal Gear and Mega Man.
I was reminded of this in the negative sense this week, as I fired up Masaya's L-Dis, a 1991 CD-ROM shoot-'em-up for the Japanese PC Engine. I've only played a few of Masaya's games, and my general impression of the company's work has been less than stellar; it's not so much that their games were bad, as that they were undistinguished. I have no sense of Masaya's "personality", so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Nippon Computer Systems' games division came up with a pretty strong game this time around.
The story is slightly more interesting than the standard ship-plus-stone-chinned-pilot-versus-universe conceit. The game's prologue introduces us to two young students, a boy and a girl, whose after-school chalk-drawing session is interrupted by evil forces from another dimension:
Whatever this entity is, it manages to kidnap the girl, and transform the kids' drawings into an array of villains. We pick one of three weapons options, and we're off to battle!
The game looks really good, with bright cartoon graphics and smooth animation, though there is a little bit of sprite-priority sloppiness causing flying enemies to move "between" ground-based foes and the background layer. The CD-Audio soundtrack cooks along nicely if unmemorably, and we get to face a good variety of small enemies and several bosses per level. The difficulty is also pitched well -- while I never quite managed to beat the first level during a quick sample of the game, I got consistently better and at least managed to make it TO the third boss with lives left.
The design is intentionally loose and silly -- all of the powerups are announced in a high-pitched child's voice, and nothing is taken seriously; weapons include ladies' footwear flung haphazardly at the enemy. The early part of the first level features a colorful sunset and a giant flying sharkish submarine:
Eventually we reach the apparent end of the level, and face a clam monster who initially faces the wrong way and is frightened of all the gunfire aimed at his backside:
After beating the clambot, we are transported into a strange dimension, with a bit of background parallax, to face this bug-eyed robot villain:
L-Dis isn't a spectacular game or a forgotten classic, but it's completely competent and pleasant to play, and its colorful visuals make for a nice change of pace from the usual 2-D side-scrolling shooters that were so common on the PC Engine. I will probably spend more time with this little cute-'em-up when I sit down to play just for fun.
This one's worth picking up -- you might be able to find it for sale here.