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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Obscusion B-Side: The Death Crimson Retrospective That Destroys Your Soul!

If you haven't noticed, I've been trying to do more Obscusion B-Side pieces in general, and so far this year all but three months have had either a B-Side or a B-List. Aside from trying to create some sort of consistency, there's another big reason for this: I wanted to hit my 20th B-Side this year. While I'm not sure if I'll do this like I do with my reviews, I thought that (since I don't do these quite as often) I should make every 20th piece a milestone for Obscusion B-Side. And since I was able to time this for Halloween, how about we look back at something horrifically terrible?

You have to admit, though...
That cover art is metal as all hell.

"The Emperor of Crappy Games", "The Lowest Emperor", & "Master Death"... They all are used by Japanese video game fans online to describe a single game: Death Crimson. A video game so infamous that even saying just its name can potentially deliver psychological pain to certain people. Housed within a single CD is a game for the Sega Saturn generally considered one of the absolute worst of all time, and I'm not doubting or refuting that consensus. That being said, though, there is more to Death Crimson than just a single game, but very few tend to put any focus towards the rest. Therefore, to celebrate 21st Anniversary of Death Crimson, which happened back on August 9 (the day the first game came out in Japan), I want to go over all three games in this infamous series. Did things improve in any way with time, or are all three worthy of such imperial nicknaming? Also, why the 21st Anniversary? Because I missed the actual 20th last year, though I think drinking age should be the more appropriate time to look back at something like this.

Before we get to Death Crimson, though, let's first quickly go over the man & development studio behind it...

Ecole Software was originally established in Minato-ku, Osaka, Japan back on March 31, 1989 by Yoshiyuki Manabe, a Nuclear Engineering graduate of Osaka University's Institute of Technology (though he dropped out of grad school). It got its start in CAD software development, making a small name for itself with a plumbing CAD program called ZetaWin. After a few years, though, Manabe & company decided to leave CAD & move into the video game business, debuting in late 1995 with Pappara Paoon, a sideways, Puyo Puyo-esque puzzle game for the Sega Saturn. After that game, though, would be the subject of our little retrospective, 1996's Death Crimson, which actually wound up selling 17,519 copies (according to Japan's Dreamcast Magazine back in 2000) because of how poorly it was received. While Manabe himself started work on a sequel, another team at Ecole would develop 1998's Segata Sanshiro Shinken Yugi, a minigame compilation for the Sega Saturn starring the system's mascot in Japan. Interestingly enough, Ecole isn't listed anywhere on the packaging or credited in-game, but is listed in the actual code of the game.

We'll get to the rest of Death Crimson in a moment, but following those games Ecole would develop 2002's Musapey's Choco Marker, a 3D action puzzle game for Sega's Naomi arcade hardware & Dreamcast that apparently received rather good reviews for its time. After that game, though, Ecole would find a new lease on life by working with another company. Melty Blood, a 2D fighting game on PC from 2002 that acted as a sequel to Type-Moon's Lunar Legend Tsukihime & Kagetsu Tohya, was receiving more & more notoriety & success after its ReACT upgrade in 2004, so the decision was made to make an arcade version, but doujin developer French Bread alone couldn't handle the port to the Naomi. 2005's Melty Blood: Act Cadenza would mark the beginning of a partnership between Ecole Software & French Bread that still exists to this very day, whether it was continual upgrades to Melty Blood up through 2011, creating original IP Under Night In-Birth in 2012, or making light novel crossover fighter Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax (both the 2014 "vanilla" original & the 2015 Ignition upgrade). But enough of what Ecole, which now operates out of Nishinomiya in Hyogo Prefecture (home of Koshien Stadium), has been doing for over a decade, let's get back to our main attraction! Time to take a deep breath...

Back in 1986, Kousuke "Combat" Echizen & his friends Danny Freeden & Greg Plewmel were mercenaries for the Marmara Army, when they came upon ruins while under attack. Inside were three doors, & Echizen chose to open the red one with a lamp figure on it, which housed a mysterious red gun called Crimson. In 1996, the now Dr. Echizen is trying to find a cure for the mysterious KOT Syndrome that's spreading across Europe. Unfortunately, a figure named Death Visnos has been looking for the Crimson for the past 10 years, and now that it has found who stole the gun, monsters have been sent after the good doctor, who is currently in the town of Saronika...

Oh boy, where does one start when it comes to the original Death Crimson? I guess, to be as fair as possible, we should start with how the game technically operates. It's a single-player "Dark Gun Shooting" light gun game comprised of eight "scenes" across three stages (Saronika, The Isqito River, & The Safar Ruins), with the objective simply being to shoot every enemy that appears on screen, getting them before they manage to hit you; you also have to avoid shooting the occasional friendly, else you lose a life. Enemies that are about to hit you get a reticle around them, ala Virtua Cop or any Time Crisis (after the first). Death Crimson changes things up a little by way of the Evolution Level Gauge, which raises with each hit & lowers with each miss. Once you fill up the gauge, you earn a new perk, which are given out each time you fill the gauge. Perk 1 gives you a "Sightscope", which is nothing more than a radar that shows where enemies are on screen, while Perk 2 gives you access to "Option Guns", which come in three switchable forms depending on which scene you're playing: A machine gun, missile launcher, & "bomb shot"; afterwards you get extra continues.

Yeah, not much of a looker, right?

Sadly, this doesn't really work out quite as it intends, simply because Death Crimson is a fundamentally broken game, so much so that it hurts in every way. This is indicated before you even start playing, because if you want to play with a light gun you have to first calibrate it... With a single shot to the center of the screen, and with no way to check if it works for you. You can use the gamepad, but the cursor moves way too fast for you to play with any sense of consistent accuracy at a pace to keep from getting hit. Apparently, you can also play with the Saturn's mouse, but Ecole supposedly forgot to map reloading to one of the mouse buttons, which makes it literally unplayable that way. Anyway, regardless of which method of input you play with, actually playing this game is a pain, for a variety of reasons. Easily the most aggravating problem is that enemies don't telegraph their attacks at all. While the reticle does indicate who will be attacking next, the actual enemy models don't change to reflect this, making for a strong disconnect between who is attacking & who isn't when hit with groups of enemies. There's also the fact that the pacing of the game is all over the place, going from slow paced & relatively easy to fast & impossible to not get hit in a blink of an eye, making it hard to keep up with the game very often. In fact, it's not uncommon to see an enemy get a reticle, only for the stage to auto-advance before the enemy can even get an attack off! Yes, the game can't even keep up with itself.

How about the Option Guns, which you use by holding your attack button/trigger until a meter at the top fills? They're a very unbalanced lot, with the machine gun being essentially useless because of the erratic pace of the game & generally slow firing rate, the missile launcher being downright broken because it's a literal screen-clearing bomb that you shoot at to explode, & the bomb shot is just the missile launcher, only without needing to shoot it to make it explode. Really, though, the entire game is just a mess to play, with stages that run for far too long & feel more like meandering instead of advancing (the camera goes all over, too, making it seem like Echizen can fly), weapons that aren't balanced one bit, & enemy placement & timing that makes the game downright unplayable. While I did technically "get better" as I kept trying, I just decided to cheat & activate invincibility (because I could never beat the first scene), and I could just tell that Death Crimson doesn't seem like it's something that a normal player can actually play through & beat legitimately, or at least do so with any semblance of "fun". Unfortunately, the game can't even let you cheat properly, as the debug mode (through which you activate invincibility) has to be activated at the start of every single stage with the Player 2 controller, and it doesn't even seem to work properly once you get the second boss! This game just actively tries its hardest to keep you from having fun & trying to understand just what exactly is going on.

As you can see, I didn't bring up the visuals, and that's simply because they're just as bad as everyone says online. It's nothing but a blocky & poorly modeled mess, with tons of pop-up (enemies often appear for a single second before disappearing, & sometimes they can even still be shot after disappearing!), & even the sprite work is pretty shoddy. On the other hand, the music, though not exactly well produced by any means, is actually kind of catchy in its awkward simplicity; it's honestly the "best" part of the game. While the game doesn't credit anyone for the voice work, it has since been discovered that Seijirou (Billy Kane in The King of Fighters 2003XIII, & Another Day) not only voiced "Combat" Echizen but also did every other piece of sound work (intro narration, shot innocents, & even the sound effects!), & he would return to voice Echizen for the sequel. Overall, Death Crimson more than deserves its status as one of the absolute worst video games ever made, but as I mentioned earlier, the game managed to sell well enough because of how terrible it was, so a sequel got greenlit.

In the town of Saronika in the year 2015 (you know, the future), a freelance photographer named Kou "Hachiko" Yanami visits the Rosenberg Clinic on Azarea St. run by Lily Rosenberg & her daughter Yuri, seemingly just for the fun of it since he finds its focus on psychosomatic medicine amusing. Also at the clinic is Dr. Greg Plewmel, a friend of "Combat" Echizen, the man who wielded the ancient weapon Crimson & went missing shortly after the incident that happened roughly 20 years ago in the same town. Suddenly, a friend of Lily's named Martha Freeden comes to the clinic to tell Lily that her husband Danny, another of Echizen's friends, has been killed by the mysterious SMO, and she feels that she's next. This is only the start of a new adventure involving the Crimson, which Kou & Lily must now wield against the SMO.

Death Crimson 2: The Altar of Melaneet, released on November 25, 1999 for the Sega Dreamcast, self-categorizes itself as "Dark Gal Game Shooting", and that's because it truly is a mixture of genres. There are parts where the game becomes an rail shooter, but those are more the climaxes to each section of the story, which themselves are split into two more genres. There are visual novel-esque sections where characters are simply talking to each other, and you occasionally get to choose from three or four responses, though they seem to be solely for the sake of flavor (i.e. different reactions, but the same end result). Then there are the free-roaming adventure sections, where you explore an environment to find out some information & add to your life meter for the successive rail shooting section. Compared to the first game, which told next to no story whatsoever (even for a rail shooter, it's dumbfoundingly vapid), Death Crimson 2 is a veritable bible's worth of exposition, with lots of conversations going on & a heavy focus on storytelling, most of which is fully voiced. While Seijirou returns for Echizen, we have Ken Kanno voicing Kou, MOMO playing Yuri, & Hiroka Kitamura voicing Patrick Lewis, a local teen who helps out our leads; no major voice actors, but none of the leads do terrible jobs. That being said, Seijirou gives Echizen this high-pitched voice that just doesn't seem to match the character on a visual level. He didn't say much in the first game, so it wasn't too odd, but now Echizen says a good bit more, and it just always sounds ill-fitting.

Remember, stronger hardware just means that the flaws
become all the more hideous in person.

Still, it doesn't matter if Death Crimson 2 expands heavily on gameplay variety if Manabe & his staff still made it all as terrible as the first game. Sadly, while the sequel does improve upon the original in various ways, usually on a technical level, the game itself winds up trying to be too many things at once, but without actually being good at any of them. The visual novel sections are the least offensive, but that's mainly because they're nothing more than seeing & hearing the characters talk, followed by a choice that makes next to no difference in the story, which in turn makes the choices effectively pointless. The adventure sections are all sorts of bizarre, starting with the controls. Similar to early Resident Evil games, Death Crimson 2 uses tank controls, but with some twists. You can control your speed while using the analog stick to move, & the L & R triggers rotate your character, but both are much too sensitive to really use well. It's simply better to use the d-pad & hold X to run, though holding X & a trigger makes your character spin around like he/she is Michael Jackson on speed; it's hilarious. So while walking & examining, you have to find "Death Cosmos" to fill up your life meter before you can continue, and the first section requires you to locate a couple of quizzes about the area you're in, all while you're on a time limit before a bomb explodes & kills you; from what I can tell, nothing like this ever happens again. Combine all of this with a reliance on cinematic camera angles that automatically move around depending on where you're moving, which can often result in you walking/running off-screen by accident, & the adventure sections are easily the worst part of the game. If you were to play this game, then just rely on a FAQ, because otherwise you'll wind up like me in my initial attempts to play, i.e. you'll get stuck & not have any idea what to do next before getting blown up by a timed bomb.

But what about the shooting sections, then? In terms of gameplay, they're admittedly a bit of a refined version of the original's style. You still get six shots per clip, and consistently shooting accurately increases your Evolution gauge so that you gain access to a secondary weapon. Instead of alternating what you get, though, the sequel sticks to just the machine gun, which is still charged up by holding the trigger to fill a gauge. Thankfully, the machine gun is useful now, shooting out a barrage of bullets very fast compared to the slow pace the original game did. There's also now an experience gauge as well, which when filled gives you extra credits/lives, & a karma gauge that I sadly could never figure out at all, though the manual seems to indicate that it carries over into other play modes like Mission Mode (where you can freely play the shooting stages on their own). Unfortunately, none of this matters when the stages are both downright boring & absurdly unfair. Either you're stuck fighting small little foes like bats or bugs, hitting humanoid enemies before they get close to even attacking you, or fighting gigantic hordes of SMO grunts who attack you without mercy. The last of which is especially unbalanced, since enemies will attack repeatedly with little to no wait between salvos, and there doesn't seem to be much in the way of post-damage invulnerability to make it easier to recover from a bad situation. In the end, the machine gun becomes a necessity more than an option, if only so that you can consistently hit enemies that bunch together.

All of this is wrapped in visuals that, though technically better than the first game, still look rather poor. Though the models are generally decent while still, they animate absolutely stiff, and some of the faces rendered look downright horrifying; Yuri is the worst offender here, delivering some truly frightening faces. Not just that, but the visual novel sections have each character fade in when they appear on screen, which results in split-second moments where you see just a character's eyes & teeth being rendered before anything else! As for the music, it's actually really good, with a lot of memorable compositions & catchy beats; if anything, it might be just a little too good for a game like this. Overall, Death Crimson 2: The Altar of Melaneet is truly worthy of its status as a kusoge, but I'm not quite sure if it's better or worse than the first game. Sure, the sequel looks & sounds better, and the ambitious concept is admirable, but when none of the genres are actually executed well, even the rail shooter bits, one starts to wonder if the original game, as terrible as it is, may actually be the better game. Really, what's worse: A game that's terrible in all regards but sticks to a single genre, or a game that is better on a technical level but still fails in every way possible & in multiple genres? Now, to be fair, Ecole tried a lot of things with this game, like allowing players to use the Dreamcast microphone to record their own voices for when damage is taken during the shooting sections, or even allowing up to four players to work together while shooting, but that just means you can finally share the pain of playing this elaborate mess of a game simultaneously & with you own voice!

In the end, Death Crimson 2 supposedly sold 10,905 copies on the Dreamcast; not as well as the first, but still decent enough for a smaller team like that of Ecole. Still, the first game was strictly a rail shooter, so maybe that turned off some people who ironically enjoyed the original but didn't find the multi-genre execution of the sequel interesting. Therefore, for the next game, Manabe's team took what they had & reworked it into something much more familiar...

"July 29, 2010. The once-beautiful town of Saronika was destroyed by the mysterious organization SMO. SMO had placed fighters called Subliminers everywhere to oppress the townspeople. The surviving people in town formed a Resistance to fight vigorously against SMO. The leader of the Resistance is Lily, an enigmatic woman who cooks a mean macaroni & cheese dish. Former SMO member Kou Yanami harbored doubts about SMO's ways, and joined the Resistance, taking two guns from the armory. These guns are known as Crimson, an ancient, extraordinary weapon. Lily sheltered Kou from SMO's relentless pursuit, and was kidnapped in Kou's place. Kou, along with Lily's daughter Yuri, is determined to get Lily back. SMO's Subliminers who get in the way shall all be shot with Crimson!" (taken from the game's translated intro)

After two games that featured light gun rail shooting as a major gameplay element, it only made sense for Ecole to finally move the series to arcades, and that's what happened with Death Crimson OX (and, yes, according to the katakana it's pronounced like the animal, not "O-Ex"). "OX" supposedly stands for "Zero, X", which represents a return to the origins of "gun shooting" games, a.k.a. its a traditional arcade light gun rail shooter. Originally released on the Naomi on October 30, 2000, with even support from Sega to allow arcade operators to convert House of the Dead 2 machines to OX, the original arcade machine stayed exclusive to Japan, but when it was ported to the Dreamcast on May 10, 2001, OX became the first entry to see release outside of Japan when Sammy Entertainment released the Dreamcast port in North America on August 5 that same year; some fans at the time felt that Sammy "chose the wrong game", picking it over Guilty Gear X. Then, in late 2003, it was ported over to the PlayStation 2 as Death Crimson OX+, which more or less just added a Time Attack mode, to go with the previously existing Mission Mode (play a single stage) & Bullet Mode (where you have limited ammo), & supported Namco's excellent GunCon 2 controller. Finally, in late 2004, OX+ was released in Europe by Play It under the odd name Guncom 2, made all the more bizarre by the fact that the GunCon 2 was only known as the G-Con 2 in that region.

Anyway, while it's plain to see that Death Crimson OX outright reused the environments & character models of Death Crimson 2, the plot indicates that this was not simply Ecole ripping the rail shooter segments out of the sequel & releasing them as their own game. Instead, OX is best taken as an alternate universe standalone game, using the same cast as DC2 but in different ways & with an alternate plot. The game itself also plays more like a traditional rail shooter, complete with two player support, having to avoid hitting innocent targets, & a generally fast pace all throughout. Enemies come out fast & furious, often taking multiple hits to defeat, your "Crimson" holds 10 bullets to accommodate tons of shooting, and there are some power ups you can rely on. Just like DC2, there's a bomb in certain locations you can shoot to destroy all enemies on screen, life up orbs appear every now & then, & filling the Experience gauge gives you extra credits (though it's much harder to do so here); there are even short segments where you can shoot series of targets, shooting gallery style, for extra points. Unlike the two games before it, though, OX doesn't rely on filling a gauge in order to earn the machine gun power up. Instead, you'll come across large flowers that you can shoot, which give you five machine gun shots that you charge up by holding the trigger to fill a small extra meter, & you can stock up to 10; using a continue removes all machine gun shots you've accumulated, though. Overall, from a sheer gameplay perspective, Death Crimson OX is actually pretty damn good, and well worth playing if you're a fan of rail shooters, with the last few stages definitely giving a great challenge, though bosses tend to be on the easy side (especially if you have some machine gun shots on hand). The music is filled with new arrangements of DC2's soundtrack, & it's actually both extremely fitting & very memorable; easily the best music of the entire series.

Still, it is a Death Crimson game, so something has to feel awkward & bizarre, & that all comes down to the presentation. While Kou & Yuri's voice clips when being hit remain in the game, the actual bits of story featured during & between stages have no voice work whatsoever to them, and when combined with the mannequin-like animation the character models exhibit, the game winds up having a really strong narmy charm to it; it's so awkwardly done that it's intensely amusing. This also applies to the story, which doesn't make a lick of sense, regardless of whether you have a translation or not. This is mainly because Ecole simply reused everything from DC2, right down to Stage 3 in OX being a near-exact copy of the same stage, but told its own original, self-contained story; in fact, "Combat" Echizen is nowhere to be seen or even referenced to here. While there is a general story here to follow, it's executed so inanely that it only increases the sheer narm factor to be found. Yes, Death Crimson OX is nowhere near as good as the likes of a House of the Dead or Time Crisis, but it's still a fun rail shooter that delivers the goods where it counts, & it's easily the best entry in the entire Death Crimson franchise. Definitely get it on Dreamcast or PS2 if you're a fan of light-gun games.

While this would technically be the end of Death Crimson as a series, it wouldn't be for a lack of interest from the man behind it all, Yoshiyuki Manabe.

In 2008, Ecole hosted a special event called "Death Cruise 2008 in Tomogashima", which was a bus ride featuring Yoshiyuki Manabe, & even Seijirou, that culminated in a tour of the area where the FMV intro for Death Crimson was shot, followed by an outdoor luncheon. Along with that came an online tell-all about the creation of the game that Ecole titled Freeze! -Death Crimson Resonance-; obviously, it's only in Japanese. In 2009, Ecole hosted a second event, Death Cave 2009, which was another bus trip lead by Manabe that culminated in a tour of the Ikuno Ginzan mine in Asago, Hyogo, which was the basis for the Elmide Mine that Death Crimson 2 & OX had their finales in. In fact, this became a yearly trip for Ecole, with the company's blog having posts about Death Jedi 2010 (a two-day trip to the Self Defense Force), Death Island 2011 in Inujima, & Death Hiking 2012 in Takarazuka. Supposedly, the 2010 trip was the 10th annual Death Crimson event Ecole hosted, but these are the only ones I could find.

Later in 2009, Ecole opened a new page with a simple message that a "Serious New Project" was "Coming Soon!". In 2010, that page would become the official site for Death Crimson 3 Gaiden: Beast War ~Spearcrow Chapter~. Ever since then, all that the page indicates to this very day is the following:
"Applicable Models/Things I Am Thinking Now:
-Genre: "Gun Shooter"/First-Person Shooter/Third-Person Shooter/Novel
-Release Schedule: Unknown if it Will be Rreleased
-Development Situation: Secret
-Frontispiece Character: Suzu-chan

It is a chilling & progressing project. I don't know when it will be completed, so please bear with me.

It's actually kind of unnerving that, for the past seven years, Suzu-chan has been doing nothing but stare at the rare person who visits that page, and at this point you have to wonder if Yoshiyuki Manabe will ever actually get Death Crimson 3 released, especially since Ecole Software has been surviving well enough with its partnership with French Bread for all these years.

So, what have all learned during this retrospective? First of all, the original Death Crimson is indeed all that it's chalked up to be, i.e. it's a truly terrible video game to look at pictures of, see footage of, & especially play. Still, it's that very infamy that has made the game a legend in its own right, and it's certainly earned itself a cult fanbase. In fact, in 2005 a fan by the name as Sumi Takamasa even created a gigantic custom light gun that was only meant for Death Crimson, since the Saturn was embedded into the model itself & glued shut with the game inside, & got it showcased at the Fukuoka Asia Art Museum; Yoshiyuki Manabe even checked it out in person. Combined with the yearly company tours inspired by the games, it's easy to see that Manabe has a lot of honest & earnest love for Death Crimson, and I can't actually call a potential third-numbered entry as vaporware, simply because you never know when Manabe might actually put it out; there could even be conceptual demos made that only those who work at Ecole know of.

As for the series itself, you can also see that Manabe essentially became like Icarus & aimed for sights much higher than he had any right to go for. The original Death Crimson was a completely polygonal game for the Saturn made by a studio that had only worked with CAD programs just a couple of years prior... And it shows. Death Crimson 2: The Altar of Melaneet wanted to be a visual novel, adventure game, & rail shooter all at the same time, which was definitely ambitious back then (it actually came out a month before Shenmue!), but once again it was developed by people who couldn't quite handle such a multipurpose task. By that regard, Death Crimson OX was kind of a step backwards, simplifying things by going back to being just a rail shooter, but at least by this point Manabe's team at Ecole got used to actually developing games, & the end result is the only legitimately enjoyable game of them all, though some narmy charm is there. After seeing all of this, though, it's no surprise that Manabe wanted a proper third game to once again try something new & different, because if there's one thing to admire this series for, it's that you can never truly predict what to expect from it next.

Happy Halloween!

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