Friday, December 16, 2011

Of Import: Legion (1990)

I consider video games an art form, but it's a young art, and the vocabulary for its appreciation is still taking shape.  Sometimes it's easier to describe the aesthetic ideal by looking at a negative example -- a game that's clearly derivative, clumsy and artless, that does all the things wrong that a worthy effort does right.  Such a game is Legion, published by Renovation Game (a.k.a Renovation Soft) in 1990 for the PC Engine CD-ROM system.  While this Japanese game was never released in the US, for very good reasons, it's presented entirely in English -- even the voiceover narration is read by an American actor.

Developer Telenet produced a number of memorable and playworthy PC Engine titles -- the Valis series, Legend of Dekoboko, and others -- but Legion is deservedly forgotten.  It feels like some executive at Telenet looked at Gradius and R-Type and said, "Hey!  We can make one of those too!  Get it on my desk by tomorrow morning!"  It's so incredibly bad that I'm tempted to think it's an intentionally poor parody of sci-fi shooters... but sadly, it is not.  Rather than spend any time describing Legion's scrolling and shooting gameplay -- which is exactly what you'd expect -- I'm just going to list its myriad gameplay and design mistakes.

The first thing we notice is that the enemy flight paths are inelegant and hyper-fast -- they move quickly and turn instantaneously, leaving the player little time to react, and making the animation look amateurish, with no sense of weight or momentum.  This first level looks like a ripoff of Konami's Gradius -- and the comparison doesn't do Legion any favors:

The game is "hosted" by a pilot character who delivers an extended voice-over at the beginning of each level.  But he sounds bored, and disengaged, and -- well, the most appropriate word that comes to mind is stoned.  He claims the aliens in the first level are partying and dancing, and later complains that his ship's computer can't make conversation.  At one point midway through the game, he announces his opinion that we should just give up and go home, which will sound very appealing to any player who's bothered to make it this far.  (I did resort to a Magic Engine emulator cheat code to get through the game -- my initial attempts all ended midway through the second level as I ran out of continues, and I simply had to see what came next.  Or, more accurately, I just couldn't look away...)

When we reenter play after blowing up, our ship flashes and is momentarily invincible.  But the collision detection is democratic in the extreme -- we can't pick up powerups while we're flashing, either, which makes it very difficult to regain fighting form in the thick of battle.

The CD-based game uses PC Engine chiptunes for all of the main level action, only shifting to CD audio when the boss arrives (that is, after the boss graphics have been loaded.)  And the music is far from memorable -- in fact, it's credited in part to everybody's favorite video game composer, "Business Support Co., Ltd.," which likely means some of what we are hearing is off-the-shelf stock music.  Even the worst PC Engine CD games have a few memorable music tracks, but Legion falls down in this department as well.  I could accept the chiptune approach if there were any evidence that the game was streaming data off the disc, but the levels are mind-numbingly repetitive, with the same backgrounds and enemies repeating until we finally reach the boss. 

I should also mention that some of the backgrounds contain invisible hazards -- it's not at all clear why enemy robots can stroll blithely through an area that the player's ship crashes into as if it were a brick wall.

There are some choices to make -- we can take one of two branching paths at some points between levels -- but having "extra" poorly-designed levels is hardly a reason to play Legion more than once.  And the level progression doesn't exhibit any sense of storyline or challenge -- the scenarios seem thrown together, with difficulty ramping up and down at random.

Even the boss battles are repetitive and poorly designed.  In some cases, the player can't avoid a constant onslaught of missiles that spawn without warning or apparent mechanism, appearing from thin air within easy striking distance.  In other situations, we can simply park where no bullets ever stray and whittle the boss down at leisure.  In the case below, the player can disable all of the boss's weaponry -- and then there's nothing to do but sit and press the fire button repeatedly to take out the helpless core.  Challenge FAIL!

This is definitely the case with the final battle, clearly inspired by R-Type's first-level boss and, ironically, the easiest confrontation in the game.  The armored eyeball-and-wiring entity throws a paltry series of attacks out -- small, slow-moving shots, and rockets that fly across the screen, all in repetitive, predictable patterns that make absolutely no attempt to target the player.  For the most part, we can just find a safe spot, park there, and hit the fire button until various pieces of the boss blow up. 

The talkative pilot character doesn't bother to make any closing victory remarks -- perhaps he has fallen asleep during this round.  We just go immediately into the credits, where even the staff appears to have adopted pseudonyms to avoid any lasting association with Legion, though apparently some unpaid intern assigned to write up the credits has missed the point and given away everybody's real name anyway:

The PC Engine benefited from a large and generally high-quality library, but Legion is one of the worst games I've ever played on NEC's venerable machine.  Don't get me wrong -- I found it entertaining enough... but not for any of the right reasons.

Did you read what I've written above? If you simply must own one really awful game from the PC Engine era, you might be able to waste your hard-earned cash here.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

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