The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

PC Denjin
(PC Engine - 1992)
CD Denjin (PC Engine Duo - 1993)

It would be easy to overlook these twin PC Engine releases, which at first glance appear to be nothing more than shameless attempts to cash in on the popularity of a popular mascot character. This would be a shame since PC Denjin (known as Air Zonk in the west) and CD Denjin (released as Super Air Zonk) remain some of the most original and charming games of the era. From a technical standpoint, these also showcase some of the most impressive releases for the platform. The games stand out with unique design and approach. This particularly true when it came to the classic shoot-'em-up, or shooter, genre. Many memorable titles were released for the platform, but not all of them had an immediately obvious origin. Take for example a unique manifestation of this phenemenon. Both releases offer a unique pairing of horizontally-scrolling shoot-'em-ups with surreal, over-the-top visuals to create a unique, highly enjoyable experience.

The first release gets things off to a stong, memorablke start. PC Gengin, known as "Bonk" in the west. Instead of a traditional platformer as seen in the previous installments, the developers decided to take chance and transported their versatile caveman character into the future. The first game released, PC Denjin, begins with a dynamic approach to the genre. Instead of throwing power-ups at the player randomly, the game allows you to select a companion character who appears alongside you to aid you in battle. There are about ten of these and each one brings a different weapon to the table. These characters' unique powers can be used to wipe the stages clean of enemies or to protect you from enemy fire. However, you need to choose carefully since you can only use one per-stage and can't repeat them on subsequent levels.

At start-up, Denjin has only a basic shot to use against attacking foes. This can be upgraded quickly by collecting power-pods and chained with other power-ups to create some massive firing melees that fill the screen with wild weapons such as playing cards, lightning bolts and, similar odd projectiles. One of the cooler aspects of the game is watching Denjin transform as he gains power, going from a simple small figure to an enlarged, more powerful and altogether crazier character that seems to be nearly invincible From a visual standpoint, you'll immediately be impressed with its bright, vivid stages. Its a refreshing change of pace from the usual dark sci-fi fare in most shooters. Here, the levels are alive with color, featuring multi-planed backgrounds, smooth scaling and superb animation. There's an impressive roster of enemies to attack and obstacles to avoid, which provide both challenge and opportunity, since some release power-ups, or bonus items such as extra-lives awhen shot.

PC Denjin unfolds at a relaxing start but builds to a frentic pace later on. This makes for a surprisingly approachable shooter, that achieves a fairly good balance throughout. Its mutlitude of beautifully-designed and richly-detailed stages unfold at a relativley fast rate that throws plenty at the you without becoming overwhelming. An appealing design-aesthetic brings a surreal, cartoonish dymanic to each stage. Every level comes alive wih richly implemented, instantly appealing and undeniably creative character designs. Its smooth scrolling backgrounds, richly-animated characters and wildly innovative levels, combine to makes PCD a pleaure to look at. Its easily one of the most-polished and beautifully designed games on the platform. This is all the more impressive since it only implements the Hu-Card, not the more elaborate CD titles.

PCD's stages unfold in two steps for the most part, as players battle towards a boss half-way through each level, and the final encounter with a much larger character at the end. Despite its hallucagenic character design, the gameplay is relatively straightforward, making it fairly easy to progress quickly. Several levels of difficulty and approachable gameplay give it a nearly timeless apppeal. Its controls are simple and while the power-up system seems a little odd, it works because it rewards players' efforts steadily, effectively creating motivation to keep going, when you encounter an occasional stretch of bad luck. Its pacing is nearly flawless, allowing you to build up skill and progress quickly wihout the steep, and excessively difficult learning curve other 'shooters' sometimes inflict on players.

PC Denjin's visuals remain impressiv, even by today's standards. Its vivid design gives it a unque look and feel are completely over-the-top. An appealing cast of characters, interesting enemies and an odd sense of humor keep the gameplay engaging and surprising throughout. This is a key element that sets it apart from the rather pedantic, straightforward approach most side-scrolling shooters implement. Freeing itself from the predictable conventions, the game's appeal is long lasting and its reputation well-earned. However, the adventure didn't end with a single title, there was an entirely new chapter released around a year later. Appearing on the Duo and CD attachments, CD Dengin took the unique aesthetic and appeal of the first game to another level. More than an upgrade, it was an entirely new game with unique stages and weapons. CDG's sturture was a little different, too. Players are no longer to choose a companion fighter, a unique one is assigned with each stage with is slightly disappointing. On the other hand, CDG allowed you to select from one of four stages, allowing for non-linear progression.

The over-the-top levels remain sharp, bright and crisp in design. It feels like they're longer and more elaborate than the first game while maintaining the over-the-top surreal, cartoonish vibe. A distinctive 'Rockabilly Paradise' soundtrack is surprisingly good and compliments the action flawlessly, giving the sequel a distinctly '1950's Doo-wop' vibe gives CDG an even more unhinged feel than the first game. There are more crazy boss-battles, wacky characters and surreal power-ups to encounter, creating a sense of controlled chaos few other games on the platform can match. In one unforgettable boss battle, Genjin transforms into an Elvis-Impersonator and fights a huge slot-machine while flinging out dozens of musical notes. Few other games of the era matched CD Genjin's sense of uncontrolled chaos, unfettered imagination and distinctive sense of humor. The gameplay remains as sharp and fluid as the original, with sleek controls and mechanics, making for a polished sequel improves on the original title without losing its essence. There are some difficult sections, but these can be overcome quickly with a little practice, some memorization or occasionally, plain old luck. CD Genjin a more elaborate and interesting follow-up to the first game that offers substantial challenge underneath its unapologetic strangeness.

Both of these games are fantastic examples of the unique and unmistakable style that NEC built as an alternative to the more traditional video games its competitors produced. There's definitely an unmistakably strange, yet immediately appealing energy that these two titles exude. An abundance of creativity and imaginatiom is evident throughout each stage. which seem to build into elaborate climaxes with increasingly insane boss batles. The level of polish in every detail is impressive. Both games effectively encapsulate the appeal of the PC Engine, showcasing the platforms technical agility, but more importantly, its aesthetic sensibility. PCG and CDG effortlessly define all the best features of the platform. They work together as effective bookends, representing an undeniable peak in the PC Engine's long, surprisingly influential, lifespan in terms of gameplay, technical approach, and mechanics. It's not surprising that both titles have held up well over the years, maintaining an appealing approach to the shooter genre that's refreshingly stylish and fun.

- Michael Palisano