Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I Have a Dream(cast) Review Vol #2: Tokyo Bus Guide

Availability: Released only in Japan. Was also an arcade release. Unsure of international ports and re-releases but there have been none in America. Making it still very much a Japan exclusive.

Region Played: Japanese version, obviously.

Review: I am really excited about this one because it will be my first Japanese exclusive review. This version of the game nor any of it's sequels ever got an American release on home consoles or in arcades (that I was able to find). And I must say there's a lot of excitement behind this for me. I haven't dabbled in the Japanese exclusive games in years. Mostly because I didn't have the money to import or consoles that were easy enough to work around or mod to allow imports to play. The last one was when I used to have a Sega Saturn with a special cartridge that allowed me to play them. I am kicking myself for not having that anymore. Otherwise I know the PS3 doesn't have a region lock, but there isn't a lot I'm interested in on it that are exclusive to Japan. Also those games are still wicked expensive to import. I'm just glad that Deadly Premonition recently got a PS3 release in America so I don't have to import it for $60+ (almost did). So when I picked up a Dreamcast again I wanted to jump back on the bandwagon right away. Granted this bandwagon is for a gaming console that is over ten years old but I digress.
I do have a theory on why this was never released in America. A theory I'm sure anyone who plays this game for more than five minutes can come up with. This is the type of game that would not appeal to the American audience in a mass market sense. This is a type of game that can fall under the work genre. Ironically there are a series of games out now that feel like work because they're so tedious but those are different than this and related games (See Densha De Go Go!). Where games like Farmville or Sim City thrive, those are based in point, click, point, click, reward. They're strict in a sense but can be played casually. The thing with Tokyo Bus Guide is that it requires as much concentration as actual driving can. And no I don't mean in the same sense playing a Gran Turismo game even though that's technically a simulation driving game. What sets this game apart and would make it unappealing to the average American audience is it's strictness. But before that, my initial impressions.

Not knowing what to expect I don't jump right into story mode. I knew I would need to get an idea on how this game wanted me to handle things and I wanted to be ready for when the game recorded my actions. So lucky for me there's a free play mode! I fire it up, I see all the people get on the bus, and I drive off. I barely left the bus station before the game failed me and I had to restart. I was really confused. I kept playing over and over seeing what each button does but I keep failing before I even get to the next stop! You see, whenever you do something wrong the game flashes up what you did wrong in bold red and then tells you how many points you lost. Your "health" bar in the bottom left corner tells you how much is left and if that goes empty that's when you lose, of course. Here's the problem, I don't speak or read a word of Japanese. The game tells me exactly what I'm doing wrong only I can't read it. After some more trial and error I went online to find out more info. Keep in mind I couldn't refer to the manual for obvious reasons. After I got the details down I was off and running for quite a while before the stage ended again. Still working through the kinks in my initial playthrough.

This is the number one reason why I don't think this game would fly in America, both today and when it originally came out in 1999. The game is very strict. Not only do you have to pay as much attention to how you drive as when you drive an actual car, you'll have to pay even more attention because you have more responsibilities. Here's a quick rundown of the basics. When you're ready to leave you first have to close the bus doors manually, then you signal to leave the stop you're at, slowly make your way onto the road (you can't ram the pedal and speed off), every turn you'll have to use your turn signal, stay in your lane when you do turn, make sure to follow each light properly, etc, etc, etc. So you have to follow every rules of the road but even more strict than you probably learned in driving school. Also since it's Japan they drive on the left side of the road and it could throw off American (Fuck yeah!) audiences. A minor thing but still something that could be a turn off. This is the same country where audiences will reject some of the best films ever created because there's subtitles. Playing through it's strict rules is tough and requires a lot of patience to get used to. This is especially the case if you're used to driving in games like Burnout or GTA.
Actually, my first playthrough of this game made me think of back in middle school when my friends and I would try to play good guy GTA. We would follow all the rules of the road and try to cause as little commotion as possible. It would only last about a couple minutes before we go on a mass genocide again. But the thing with other driving games like GTA are that they're built for mayhem. Those games are not realistic with their driving (well, maybe besides GTAIV but even that isn't quite "realistic" enough). Now comparing that to Tokyo Bus Guide it's somewhat more realistic than other driving games at the time. I'm glad it's not too realistic, though. It's hard enough to drive around without causing disasters in most video games. So while Tokyo Bus Guide is strict and challenging it's not that terrible difficult to get used to once you know what to do. You don't have to be constantly straightening out the bus while driving it like, well, you know, real life driving. Once you're on a long stretch of road across a bridge you can just hold your finger on that right trigger and you're off good until you hit a turn. Essentially the driving mechanics are pretty simple. However they are still tough to maintain because of gamer instincts fighting you the whole time to drive absolutely insane and kill some pedestrians.

I guess if this game is anything it's time consuming. There are actually a lot of levels to this and you can't just blaze through it. Because of it's strict nature it will force you to take your time. Because of that strictness you'll also want to keep going back to improve on your old score and see if you can do better. This makes it a great bang for your buck if it winds up being something you get into. I even didn't mind the music that accompanied the game. It's soft and soothing making for an easy ride. The only stressful parts are the rules of the road combined with the big red warnings telling you you're messing up. The only thing that may grow old is the visuals of the game.

To put it simply this game is not nice to look at. I always try to take things in within the context of the time. So when I play an NES game I want it to have that old-school 8-bit look and feel because that's what belongs there because that's what was there. The same goes for a modern console. It doesn't have to push boundaries but it should at least take somewhat advantage of the hardware at use. I'm immediately reminded of the White Knight Chronicle games which are surprisingly unappealing visually despite being first party Playstation 3 games. So when I play a Dreamcast game, a console that was technologically speaking absolutely incredible for the late 90s, I can't help but feel disappointed when I look at this game's visuals. In short, this game looks like it belongs on the Sega Saturn. It's visuals are pretty weak. When the passengers walk onto the bus it's not polygonal characters with actual motion, it's blurry 2D sprites that fade in an out to different areas on and off the bus to show movement. Compared to other third party Dreamcast games it's unacceptable. I'll accept the cutscenes which are static images of people on the bus because they're actually full on characters. But when you've got a game where the visuals in Blue Stinger (Which looks terrible despite being on the Dreamcast) look better you know you've got a problem. Come to think of it, the piss poor 2D sprites mixed into the 3D world in Super Mario 64 look better than this.
I'm coming down on the game a little too hard. After all I really do like it. Despite the poor visuals this game really is engaging. Luckily the visuals I mentioned only show up in a few spots. Most of the time you're looking at either the road from behind the bus or in the bus. And the visuals are still pretty poor polygons but not distractingly poor. Another one of those small details I feel is worth mentioning is that the game provides you with four angles to drive by. You can either have directly behind the bus, an awkward angle looking down at the bus, first person in the bus with a visual of the front window and steering wheel ahead of you, or the same first person but no extra visual of the front window. Personally my favorite is the last one listed. I like the inside visual without the extra stuff all around. The view from behind is fine except it's hard to tell when you're gonna run into the car in front of you. I don't like the overhead view because it's hard to navigate. Then lastly I don't like the view inside with the wheel and such because of how it treats turns. Whenever I turn so does the camera slightly as if it's the drivers head turning. I don't like this because I find it confusing and makes it harder to control. Otherwise I would love to have the wheel and everything for the aesthetic alone. Matter of fact, I really want to get a steering wheel controller just for this game to complete the experience.

I definitely would recommend this game if you can get your hands on it. It's one of the most unique games (as an American) you'll probably ever play. I haven't played the sequel(s) on the PS2 but I can't imagine they're a lot different. Outside of fine tuning some of the weaker points I can't imagine what else you could do to expand outside of new maps. And that's not a bad thing. The game knows what it wants to be and sticks to it. It is crazy strict but if it were easy and forgiving then it could be blazed through in no time at all, making it less interesting. I doubt it would ever be re-released in America but if you have a Dreamcast it's not hard to get. You can buy a special disc from NCSX to play imports and then go to Game of Japan where you can get it for a little under $20 (minus shipping). This was one of the first imports I got after re-buying a Dreamcast. Not the first import I ever got for it but it was for my most recent run with the Dreamcast. Give it a shot cause it is FAAAAAAAAANtastic!

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