Wednesday 23 January 2013

Streemerz (NES)

Taking inspiration from the old arcade and NES classic Bionic Commando, Streemerz started life as a mock-NES game on Flash and the video game development tool, Multimedia Fusion, only to almost inevitably be reborn as the genuine NES article, one of a growing number of demakes spreading throughout the retro homebrew scene like Japanese knotweed.

Although the name might suggest otherwise, Streemerz is not a game where you run around throwing streamers into the air to enforce a children's party atmosphere wherever you go. In fact you are a member of the Super Strength Emergency Squad Zeta, (Streemerz, geddit?) who has just infiltrated one of the evil Master Y's (aka Derek Yu of TIGSource and Spelunky fame) flying fortresses and set a bomb to charge. With Master Y and his minions alerted to your presence, your mission is to ascend to the top of the fortress where a helicopter rescue awaits.

It is an action platformer in the classic mould that will be instantly familiar to anyone who played games in the 1980s, featuring a macho, grapple hook equipped protagonist manoeuvring through multiple screens while trying to avoid Master Y's deadly ... er .... balls. That's right; you get warned pretty early on not to touch Master Y's balls. If you do then it results in instant death, which sounds like the sort of regressive attitude I thought society had moved away from after the repeal of Section 28.

Other causes of death include coming into contact with a clown, which is understandable as no one likes clowns, and being hit by a pie, because, as the game says, 'pies are bad for your health', as if the Pasty Tax wasn't bad enough for the reputation of hot pastry products.

The game comes with all the modes of the original, Easy, Story, Time Attack, Superb Joe, Streeeeemerz and a secret mode that only unlocks if you collect 16 sacks of money throughout the game in story mode(*).

The story mode is the standard mode in the game, with the easy version stripping out many of the enemies and dangers. Time Attack strips the game of dialogue and tracks your time as you try to complete the game as quickly as possible, while Superb Joe gives you five minutes to successfully traverse a specially created level, for 'super players only'.

Streeeeemerz mode sees you play as Dr Tary, one of Master Y's scientists who developed the secret weapon, V6-15D, codenamed 'Cavanagh' (clearly a tribute to the creator of VVVVVV). After he flicks the switch to turn the weapon on it malfunctions and humorously converts his negative attitude to life ("Ego slightly bruised, weight over acceptable parameters") into negative weight, which he uses to his advantage to try escape from a furious Master Y and his vicious balls. Somewhat predictably, this switches the control mechanic from using 'streamers' to allowing you to flip gravity and run along floors and ceilings, providing a different and enjoyable way to play through the same game.

It's difficult, to a degree, to discuss demakes, particularly one such as this, because when discussing the story, dialogue, puzzles and whatever else you are essentially discussing somebody else's creation. On the other hand simply saying 'Everything is ported over' obviously won't do. Thus this review becomes an analysis both of the NES demake and the Flash/MMF original.

As the original Streemerz was originally written as a NES homage, it's pleasing that all the aspects of the game have made it onto the actual NES port intact. Often faux-retro games are created in such a fashion that it would actually be impossible to recreate them on the original machine they are imitating, so it's nice to see Streemerz recreated so fully on the machine it pays homage to.

Graphically the original game is well-done and almost entirely avoids the 'not really 8-Bit' style that is often used nowadays with only a couple of instances where the NES version feels more basic than the original. Most noticeably this is on the sprite of the player, which feels less crisp and on Master Y's demonic balls, although both instances are down to the limitations of the console rather than sloppy asset conversion. In addition to this, the larger screen size of the original is appropriately handled via horizontal scrolling.

The music is suitably retro and maintains a frantic pace that suits the game well, but at times feels a bit too 'busy'. There's a lot going on and it might have benefited from being stripped back slightly to allow the main melody to come through.

The controls are pretty easy to pick up once you get the hang of not being able to jump. Firing your hook into the wall is easy and moving around and over obstacles is broadly quite intuitive. I say broadly because the real key to effective movement is in understanding what sort of movement is necessary to get past each in particular set piece.

To climb up a wall, you allow yourself to be pulled right up to the wall before rapidly firing your hook, which will drag you further upwards. Sometimes however, the situation calls for a steadier hand as you need to alternate between a rapid firing of your hook and a slower, longer throw across dangerous obstacles that will pull you to safety. Understanding this is the key to progressing through the game.

Each screen is essentially a set-piece that you must successfully traverse. Armed with only your hook you don’t fight the enemies, instead your job is just to get past them alive. Regularly placed checkpoints mean you won't have to get past more than a couple of screens without a save too often in the game, which is a good thing given the devious nature of some of the layouts.

The game uses the modern convention of infinite lives, but given the many, many deaths you'll face from Mr Y's balls (and clowns and candles, it's not all about the balls you know), it's absolutely necessary.

Streemerz is of a consistently high quality, with slick gameplay that never feels unfairly punishing and some genuinely funny dialogue that really brings the game to life and lifts every aspect above itself, creating a new gem in the NES homebrew scene. Plus, with five different gameplay modes and a series of challenging screens, the game offers plenty of replayability and bang for your buck.

Download the original PC version here (from Mr Podunkian's website)
Download the NES demake here (from the Faux Game website).
Run it using Nestopia (freeware).

4.5 out of 5

(*) SPOILER ALERT - You can actually unlock the secret 'Master Y' mode by holding right on the d-pad and pressing the A button over the option in the menu. This game mode puts you in control of Master Y as he chases the Streemerz agent through his fortress trying to avoid his own obstacles and death-inducing 'die-tanium' balls. The game essentially plays the same but the new dialogue and text puts extra flesh on the bones of the story.

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