Sunday, 16 July 2017

3D Platform Games #1

Ninpen Manmaru (1997)
By: Tamtam / Enix Genre: Platform Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: Sega Saturn
Also Available For: Nothing

Most retro gamers these days love the Saturn, and with good reason, but in its day owners were crying out for more 3D games, specifically some of the 3D platform games that owners of the PlayStation and N64 had been enjoying. As it turns out, it was receiving at least a few of them, it's just that us poor old Western gamers didn't get to play them! One example that has gone on to prove quite popular with collectors in the intervening years is Ninpen Manmaru. Unsurprisingly for a Japanese exclusive, it's based on a manga/anime series which stars Manmaru, a trainee at a ninja school. He is a blue bird of some sort, perhaps a penguin, while the other students consist of foxes, raccoons, monkeys, and dogs, many of whom you see in the game's intro and frequent cut-scenes. I can't tell you what they're about of course, but it seems that it's down to Manmaru to do... something.

Manmaru scampering around the first stage...
I actually assumed he was female based on his voice in the game but no, he is apparently male. Hmm, anyway, whatever his motivations (or gender) might be, it's his job to get through six stages with only his flappy feet and stumpy wings to assist him. The stages are split into four rounds with the object simply being to get Manmaru from the start-point to a similar finish-point on each of them, although this is usually about as far away as it could be within the confines of a round, naturally. There are a few enemies dotted about here and there as you would expect but a majority of your time will be spent running and leaping and clambering all over the place, including making use of a very-difficult-to-master somersault jump move, with most stages being one of two types - either more open arenas or ones that seem more like obstacle courses.

Part of a between-stage cut-scene...
The former is the first type you will encounter and they require a little more exploration than the others. There will generally be lots of climbing involved, usually by way of successions of small floaty platforms that move around (some side to side, others up and down), before the finish point is reached. The main danger here is missing a jump and falling. At best you'll just have to start climbing again but on some later stages you can fall into bottomless pits and lose a life. The other type of stage is usually a more linear point-to-point affair with the route filled with spiky traps, pits filled with damaging lava, bottomless chasms, enemy creatures, and other hazards. Of course, not all stages are strictly one type or the other, with many incorporating elements of both, but regardless of what form they might take, they each give you ten minutes to reach the end.

Eeek! Watch out for the pools of lava!
Things get tricky very quickly too. Manmaru actually has no means of attacking or hurting the enemies at all, so has little choice but to just avoid them. Fortunately there aren't too many and most of them move pretty slowly too, but they can certainly still get in the way and will drain one of your five hit points if you touch one. You will also get shunted forwards a little when you take damage which can prove far from handy when you're pootling around high up in a stage, and it's necessary to climb pretty high sometimes. You don't lose energy from falling (though you are stunned by running into scenery for some reason) but it's still a right pain to have to climb up again, especially with that time limit ticking away. It isn't only the enemies that can cause you to fall though - the controls don't usually cause a problem while running around at full speed, but it can be incredibly annoying trying to get Manmaru to do what you want at lower speeds.

Looks a bit like Green Hill Zone in the distance there...
It's not because things are overly complicated or anything - besides the d-pad and jump button, only the shoulder buttons are used (for sharper turning at speed or turning when standing still) - but it's all rather clunky and inaccurate and trying to perform intricate jumps or movements is rarely easy if you're not running full pelt. The stages make up for these problems to a degree though. While certainly not open-world, most of them have more to do than just running from point 'a' to point 'b'. There are a few power-ups - different coloured icons allow you to run faster (or slower), give you a higher jump, or replenish your energy, for example, and there are also coins to collect which come in large or small varieties and will (eventually) bestow an extra life upon the lucky/diligent collector. There are even boss battles against what I assume are other characters from the anime, which usually task you with collecting coins or avoiding contact or something.

Hooray! Get a nice panorama of the stage at the finish...
Something else that is likely to add considerable appeal to the game is its audio/visuals. The music is great - upbeat and catchy, though nothing groundbreaking, and there are plenty of voices in the cut-scenes, but the graphics are even better. Nothing is overly detailed but stages are nice and colourful, the draw distance is reasonable, and it all moves pretty smoothly. They are themed too, from the tropical-like opening stage to the volcanic second, the floaty/cloudy third, etc. There's even an ice/snow stage (how could there not be?). There is the odd glitch with platform collision-detection (you might look as though you've walked off the edge but still be standing on it, for example) and some of the textures are a bit ugly (like the floating platforms) but they are about the only negatives I can think of as far as the otherwise rather nice graphics are concerned.

An evil bunny approaches in this serene-looking area...
It makes me wonder why the game wasn't released outside of Japan too. Yes, it's based on an anime that hardly anyone here will know, but so what? There's no reason Western gamers wouldn't want to play it - we played plenty of weird and wacky Japanese games over the years, and this one is of a kind that most Saturn owners were looking for. Even the magazines that covered import games seemed to give this one a miss. It's weird, I'd have thought it would get a lot more press. It looks good - better than many thought a 3D Saturn game could look in fact; plus it sounds good, it has appealing characters, and it's challenging but also fun for the most part too. If it wasn't for those wonky controls and an over-reliance on the tricky somersault move it could've been a genuine Saturn great, but it's still a quality title and well worth seeking out anyway.

RKS Score: 7/10

Gameplay Video: here's a not particularly well edited compilation video showing several rounds of the game being played by one of the fellows at YouTube channel 'therealbluedragon' :)


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