Red Alarm/Virtual Boy Impressions

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that I had ordered a Japanese Virtual Boy console. Well, it took a while, but I finally received the actual game that I'd ordered separately (it's a long story, but it basically involves a mess up with Australia Post...figures).

The game I bought was Red Alarm, developed by T&E Soft.

Now, first of all, I have to point out that it's practically impossible to actually show you what this game really looks like unless you play it yourself. The screenshots (like the one above) show a blurry mess, as a result of the fact that you're looking at a stereoscopic image. Basically, think of how a 3D movie looks without 3D glasses and you're on the same page.

I could have chosen any Virtual Boy game; it didn't matter much to me. I just wanted to see what it was like to actually play this system. Maybe it's all just a morbid fascination to see just how bad this console and its games are.

If you're unfamiliar with Red Alarm, all you really need to know is that it's essentially an on-rails shooter. If I had to compare it to anything, I'd say it's most similar to Star Fox on SNES. You control a spacecraft that flies along a corridor. There are often various environmental obstacles to overcome (i.e. flying between tight columns or under/over cross-beams), as well as numerous enemies of different kinds.

At the end of each "corridor" level, the game changes format slightly and moves into a kind of arena - again, much like Star Fox. These arenas are essentially boss battles, but they often involve more than just a boss; usually you're also fighting off numerous other enemies who attack from all directions.

Within this basic gameplay structure, it's possible to grab various upgrades (some are just floating around while others appear after you've killed a particular enemy). So far I've only really seen upgrades for shield and weapon - there's only a single weapon at any time, so you can't switch between weapon types or anything like that.

All Virtual Boy games display in red and black, so there is never any colour. At first I thought this would be incredibly harsh on my eyes, but it really wasn't. The actual screenshots seem to portray a highly-saturated image, but the actual game has a far softer look. In the case of Red Alarm, as well, the graphics are all essentially made up of basic line work - almost like wireframe models.

It may seem that this would make things difficult to see - in other words, to differentiate objects and elements of the environment. But the key here is the stereoscopic 3D effect. This makes all the difference.

When playing Red Alarm - and with all the obvious flaws of the Virtual Boy console - I can really see what Gunpei Yokoi (VB's designer) was aiming for.

As soon as you look into the Virtual Boy's slightly claustrophobic visor, you are literally surrounded by the game world. It's actually a great effect. These blurry, retro-throwback screenshots simply don't do justice to the actual 3D effect, which works incredibly well.

The environments have a degree of depth that actually isn't present in a regular 3D polygonal game. I especially noticed this when fighting a boss on one of the "arena" stages, where he kept firing missiles at me, which barely swept past my ship and which circled ominously around me. As the missiles pass behind the craft, they actually zoom right past your eyes. It looks as though they are floating in the air in front of you.

So while I've really heard nothing but bad things about Virtual Boy - and perhaps my expectations were so low that I'd appreciate anything that didn't completely suck - I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by Red Alarm. The 3D effect works brilliantly, at least on this game. And it's quite integral to the whole experience.

Another element of the Virtual Boy that intrigued me was the unique controller. It's basically a completely symmetrical design, with a D-pad and two buttons on each side (so, two D-pads and four face buttons). The rear of the pad has two round "shoulder buttons" (one on each side) and there is a start and select button on the front as well (in addition to the power switch). The two prongs are surprisingly long and very comfortable.

While it must be said that games like Red Alarm would have benefited enormously from analogue control, it's also important to note that Virtual Boy arrived right at the cusp of analogue's popularity. It would take the arrival of Nintendo 64 to standardise analogue sticks on mainstream game controllers.

With that said, the Virtual Boy controller works quite well (at least for Red Alarm). The left D-pad controls up/down/left/right movement, while the right D-pad basically allows you to do a quick "dash" in any of those four directions. I quickly discovered that using both D-pads is absolutely vital, especially in later levels (by turning right and "dashing" left at the same time, for instance, you can essentially strafe around enemies in the arena mode - very useful indeed).

The left shoulder trigger allows you to do quick-turns. So I guess I'd say it's similar to upping the sensitivity on an analogue stick. It's tempting to just hold this down all the time, but I think it makes control too sensitive for the most part.

The right shoulder trigger fires your weapon and it doesn't seem that there's such thing as finite ammunition - you can literally hold this button down to keep firing constantly. This doesn't really make the game any easier, though. You'll still need to combine weapon firing with dashing/strafing in order to hit enemies while avoiding the constant streams of fire coming your way.

A and B control acceleration and brake (in which order, I forget). You basically have several set levels of speed, so it's possible to accelerate to the desired speed and then stay off the throttle completely - your ship will cruise at whatever speed you set. I find, though, that it's easier to constantly vary speed. It's also possible to hover and even reverse (and both are often necessary).

One feature that makes Red Alarm feel truly old school is the way its levels work. And by that I mean, you progress between stages and you have a set number of "continues", but you can never save your progress. If you die right at the end of a level and select "continue", you'll start that level again. In this way, Red Alarm is quite punishing. I can't really blame this approach on its era either, given that most SNES (and even later NES) games allowed players to save progress.

Another element of Red Alarm that surprised me in its old schoolness was the sound. I was really expecting something on a similar level to SNES. Maybe I was being naive with that thought, but the reality sits somewhere between GameBoy and NES. Red Alarm's sound isn't actually poor as such, just incredibly simplistic. Very simple beeps and boops are about all you'll hear and again, I don't say this particularly as a fault - just an observation that genuinely surprised me.

I suppose this has kind of became a game review, although I really just intended to express my general thoughts. Maybe I should actually do a proper review format for the next VB game I purchase?

In any case, my first real experience with Virtual Boy was pleasantly surprising. Red Alarm is actually great fun and the 3D visuals work quite well. Eye strain is a problem, but it's not nearly as terrible as I'd heard. I can understand, though, how people who suffer from motion sickness would be pretty much unable to play this console.