Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Unearthed Treasures: Avenging Spirit (Arcade)

When you hear guys like me complain about the state of Nintendo's Virtual Console service and question the industry's seeming lack of enthusiasm for this whole "game preservation" thing, it's only because we agonize over what we believe to be so much lost potential. The reality is that there are literally thousands of obscure or overlooked video games wasting away in company vaults when they should instead be available for purchase on modern download services, readily accessible to modern consumers for whom these experiences would be brand new.

Take Avenging Spirit, for instance. Here's a property I probably wouldn't have known about had it not been for Jaleco Entertainments' effort to bring the Game Boy version to the 3DS Virtual Console. It didn't matter that it was a 20-year-old port of an arcade game released a year earlier--Avenging Spirit, with its innovative-sounding gameplay hook, registered with me as something genuinely new and interesting. I wound up enjoying it so much that I even felt compelled to hunt down and play the original work, and I likely would have downloaded a copy had the game been available on a pay service.

That's the "potential" to which I've been alluding.

So what about this Avenging Spirit? How does this original arcade version stack up to the Game Boy release? Does it inspire that same sense of discovery? Or is it another one of those unrealized arcade games whose concepts were salvaged in a superior home conversion? Let's take a look.  

From what I can gather, Avenging Spirit was released in 1991 at a very competitive time in arcade history and thus remained fairly obscure, which is a shame considering it boasted an innovative, intriguing premise: What if your hero is actually a free-form apparition whose only hope of achieving victory is to possess and control the enemies that stand in his way? This was the question proposed by developer C.P. Brain, which even whipped up a fitting backstory to explain the protagonist's ghostly plight. Really, it's a fairly disturbing plot for what otherwise appears to be a light-hearted platformer: The deceased was killed by members of a secret society who in following kidnapped his girlfriend, a ghost researcher, with the intent of extracting knowledge from her; her father, desperate to acquire means for saving his daughter's life, is somehow able to salvage the boy's waning spirit and begs that it acts rescue her.

So you're essentially a Boo Buddy bound by the depleting spiritual-energy meter seen atop the screen, though you won't remain as such for too long. Once the game begins, you're immediately give the choice of possessing one of four unresisting enemy types, who you'll continue controlling until his or her health meter (seen in the lower-left corner) is fully drained. The key to survival is learning how to properly utilize the enemies' distinct talents, each type boasting its own offensive capabilities (including the use of unique weapons) and physical attributes, with slight variances in the controls that govern their movements. Possessed enemies, on average, are fragile, their energy meters never filled beyond, say, the 30% mark, so it's admittedly difficult to maintain any form for too long.

If your host is slain, you'll return to ghost form, at which point your spiritual energy will begin draining; you'll then have to track down and possess your next victim before the meter fully depletes, lest you'll earn a decisive Game Over. There are two ways to prolong your existence: You can obtain red potions, which replenish your spiritual energy and buy you more time when you're in free-floating form, or grab yourself the comparatively rare heart capsules, which replenish the currently possessed's health meter.

It's imperative that you procure every healing item in sight, because Avenging Spirit really doesn't want you to hang around too long. It is an arcade game, after all. I was reminded of this fact whenever I was suddenly blitzed by a crowd of nimble enemies that appeared from seemingly out of nowhere and rendered my attacks ineffective as they aggressively rode right up on top of me. There's also an annoying chase algorithm that causes the enemies positioned both above and below to mimic your left-to-right movements, making it unlikely that you'll be able to jump up or drop down without colliding with them. And there are many instances of those Ninja Gaiden-style from-behind spawn points, which always seem to catch me off guard. Avenging Spirit plays it more fairly than most, but it's also prone to exhibit some of those cruel arcade values. 

Avenging Spirit isn't shy about plotting to drain your spiritual energy before you can even get a sense of what's going on, your meter depleting just as soon as the choose-your-character screen appears. I know that arcade games have a reputation for rushing you along and all, but maybe a better tactic would have been to present the player a ten-second time-limit before defaulting to the enemy closest in proximity. I initially read this as the game advertising a merciless difficulty-level, but I came to realize it was meant to be more of a blunt acclimation to the game's urgent possession system; it turns out that Avenging Spirit is a lot more forgiving than the average arcade game. I find that I'm able to survive for long periods of time and slowly trek along without the usual underlying stress, mostly because there's no time-limit, which I find very surprising. 

The game is linear at first--a little handholdy in how its blinking arrows appear near the screen's edge to point you in a specific direction--but it actually opens up quite a bit later on, offering multiple routes through stages and an added exploration factor.

The reason you'll be needing to explore becomes evident in the middle portion of Stage 2, where you detour into an opening building and pick up a key, which by its very appearance reveals a side-quest that can only be considered optional if you don't care about getting the "good" ending. Should you decide it's worth the effort (and the extra quarters you're likely going to have to pump into the machine), you can tackle this side mission by tracking down three keys for later use. This first one is simply handed to you, as mentioned, but the respective acquisitions of those in Stages 5 and 6 require exploration and even some additional exertion; in the latter instance, you have to find and activate five special blocks whose engravings spell out G-H-O-S-T. Subtle, I know.

If you corral all three of them, you can unlock your girlfriend's cell door on Stage 6 and rescue her in an unconventional way: Possessing her for some insufficiently explained reason. Whatever the case, she now becomes your permanent host for the rest of the game, which is close to over by this point anyway. She's essentially the Maria Renard of the Avenging Spirit, purposely overpowered with her enemy-flattening laser gun. She can use it to take down the final boss in seconds, which is why you might want to put in the effort to rescue her. At the least, it's a nice reward for all of the extra work. 

Otherwise, the level of challenge is largely dependent upon which enemies you're able to possess along the way. I don't know how to describe the enemy cast as anything other than Ninja Gaidenesque, a veritable freak show of disparate enemy types that appear as though they've been pooled from a dozen different games. It's not that any of one of them fails to convincingly fit into Avenging Spirit's world; it's that there's no cohesion to their collective. I don't really consider this to be a negative aspect of the game--I'm just observing that any gang whose members include mobsters, dragons, vampires and ninjas might have a little trouble getting along.

Naturally, you'll want to choose a host whose play-style best suits your needs. The list of oddballs at your disposal includes standard low-level gangsters, who can fire one or three bullets a time depending on their weapon. Scantily clad women who attack with punches and kicks, the stronger form unleashing deadly crescent scrolls in accessory. Fire-breathing lizard men. Grenade-throwing mavericks. High-jumping riflers. Two flavors of spell-casting tanookis. Laser-firing mechs. Snowball-rolling grandmas. Shuriken-throwing and chain-swinging ninjas. Projectile-deflecting baseball players. Bat-conjuring vampires. Rocket-firing commandos. And floating monks.

The way it's constructed, Avenging Spirit plays more like a console game than an arcade experience. There's no time-limit, as mentioned, which means you can move deliberately and investigate your surroundings in a more relaxed manner. You can sometimes rush past enemy hordes before they can fully materialize or initiate their attacks. Bosses are on the easy side, with exploitable weaknesses and little in the way of cheap, unavoidable attacks. And the side quest is more like something you'd find in a home conversion. I can definitely see why Jaleco thought it'd be a natural fit for the Game Boy, whose version of Avenging Spirit is remarkably similar to its arcade cousin and actually features more in the way of content; in fact, playing it on the Game Boy first allowed me to anticipate many of the arcade games challenges, which unfolded just as I expected them to.They even look similar graphically, which also surprised me. Though, the arcade game is obviously has the edge in terms of color and fidelity.

It's a rather nice-looking game, I think. What the artists do is create an interesting contrast: They craft a conceivable, somewhat-realistic world and then populate it with characters whose colorful, cartoony incongruity makes them stand out all the more. It reminds me a lot of the arcade version of Trojan in that regard. The first stage's two-layered background, for instance, features many buildings and other constructions, all loaded with enough detail to where they look tattered and lived-in. The second stage features an outdoor shopping center, its Chinese restaurant besieged by the denizens crowded around it. They're sights not unlike those you'd see on the average city street. But if a vampire ever strutted along and flashed his underwear, it might vie for your attention. See what I'm sayin'?

Also, the stages' distant backgrounds are often dominated by impressively rendered, large-scale images that are more persistent and scroll separately from the front layers, creating a wondrous sense of depth; these backdrops include the always-appreciated cityscapes (always among my favorite visuals in games) and even an airfield! It's too bad Avenging Spirit never made it to any of our 16-bit systems, where its visual spirit would have felt right at home. 

The accompanying stage music is high-energy and has a Japanese flair to it, which is not surprising considering it's an anime-inspired game. There are only five or six tracks in total, buy they're all solidly composed and work to keep you engaged; the catchy, head-boppin' Stage 1 theme, in particular, will get your blood pumping and put you in the mood to plow through the game's inexplicable assortment of crazies. It'll also play in your head for a few days in following. You know--as a bonus.

I haven't yet played it enough to where I can properly compare it to the Game Boy version, but I find it enjoyable all the same; it has good length and a lot of replayability thanks to the many permutations possible via its enemy-possessing mechanic. I'll make a final judgment in time, since I do plan to revisit the game in the future. Hopefully it'll be through more legitimate channels, though. I mean, Nintendo has an "arcade" category for its Virtual Console, and Jaleco is in a porting mood, so it makes sense that Avenging Spirit would appear on the service, right? Well, maybe. Considering the way Nintendo operates, it probably wouldn't be likely until the next console if even then. Sigh.

I realize that a lot of this is wishful thinking and there's a good chance that games like Avenging Spirit will remain shrouded in obscurity for a long, long time, but it's my hope that the emergence of series like Chrontendo helps to clear away the mist and generate some type of demand for their return. 

For my money, Avenging Spirit is one of the gems worthy of excavation and further appraisal.

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