The GoodSharp X68000 was a Japanese-only computer that surfaced in what I perceive as the greatest era of video game-making yet: the first half of the 1990's. Together with its brethren PC-98 and FM Towns, it formed a triumvirate of Japanese PCs, being its "Amiga", ahead of its time in graphical power. The system is most known for its arcade conversions, but it also has a few great exclusives. Die Bahnwelt is one of them; Aquales is another.
This game was made by Exact, which are known to Western audiences for their later works such as Jumping Flash and Ghost in the Shell. Those titles clearly show the developers' talent and imagination, but I think Aquales is superior to them in level design and sheer gameplay perfection.
It is a damn shame so few people have heard of this game. Even fans of mecha platform action tend to overlook it due to the obscurity of the system it was released on. Now, thanks to the wonders of emulation, the game might begin to gain more recognition if we spread the word. And be sure to do that: if you like platformers in general and games like Cybernator in particular, chances are you'll love a game that predates and (in my opinion) beats it in some respects.
Aquales succeeds in everything it does. It is a towering proof that platformers could be as tightly designed and smoothly flowing on personal computers as they were on consoles. I couldn't have wished for better controls: the mecha jumps gracefully, shoots without delay, and moves about just as you would expect: rather slowly and heavily, but fast enough to deal with the enemies (most of which are mechas as well) swiftly and efficiently.
The grappling hook feature may have been borrowed from Bionic Commando, but it is by far not as overused. When it is needed to access high platforms you can't jump onto, it is handled with utmost simplicity and elegance. Hopping on platforms and occasionally using it gives the game a unique rhythm that is refreshingly different from what we usually see in platform games.
Aquales also excels in weapon design. You'll find various weapons throughout the course of the game; perhaps as many as twelve, divided into categories (fist, blade, shotgun, heavy firearms). Some of these weapons are just outstandingly cool, my favorite probably being the homing missile launcher, which allows you to hit any target without the trouble of aiming the gun. Speaking of which, the aiming is never troublesome, and shooting in eight directions with the weapons is always great fun.
The levels are gorgeous and varied. From the bottom of the ocean to mountains, from ascetic warehouses to ornate palaces, from moving mine carts to treacherous platforms in front of a waterfall, you'll visit diverse locations that alternate perfectly, never leaving you stuck in monotonous environments, always providing fresh ideas both visually and from the gameplay point of view. The game flows naturally, never loses the pace, and presses you forward, constantly keeping you curious about how the next stage will look like.
The stages are never confusingly maze-like, and yet always disguise their linearity very well. No matter where you are, you can intuitively find your path, but it's worthwhile to explore everything and get to that hard-to-jump platform for a full energy-restoring item or a new weapon. Aquales is also quite balanced in difficulty. Naturally, some stages are more challenging than others, and you might get a bit overwhelmed when a stage presents new enemies that attack you right off the bat in unfamiliar patterns; but overall, this is a game that rarely annoys you, and encourages you to try again to master those quick grappling hook manoeuvres or disposing of pesky robotic enemies. Your progress is saved after each stage, so you'll never have to deal with the maddening frustration of trying a whole game from the beginning
As icing on the cake, there are also RPG elements in the game. You gain experience points for defeating enemies and level up just like in any other RPG. The reason why Aquales cannot be really considered a true role-playing game is the very mild effect this leveling system has on the gameplay. You can finish the game without even noticing this feature exists. And yet, if you take the time to do some grinding, you'll feel how things flow a bit easier. This fits together with the game's personality: it was obviously created with a lot of consideration and understanding for the player, aiming for rewarding, yet comfortable experience, where every detail knows its place and every aspect of game design comes together to form a deeply satisfying whole.
The BadI know some people would probably appreciate more challenge in boss battles. I liked them the way they were, but some of the boss enemies are quite dumb and can be easily outsmarted and beaten almost without taking a scratch. There are a few that I found quite challenging; but, as an example, a battle against a slow robot who rushes to you and misses every single time just because you jump to a ledge slightly above him can get a bit anti-climatic. Regular enemy attack patterns also feel a bit too rigid and predictable.
Aquales is not too fast-paced, so don't expect a gun-blazing mecha shooter with all sorts of spectacular explosions everywhere. The action is kept steady at all times, and the game perhaps doesn't exploit its "robotic" premise completely; both you and your opponents are appropriately hard to kill, but otherwise the game feels more like a thoughtful, exploration-oriented platformer than a fully devoted mecha game with frantic combat.
The story is not that interesting. The premise is quite intriguing, but there is little personal involvement, and most of the plot progression boils down to "listen to another message from the obligatory supporting anime girl, go through the stage, beat the boss, and repeat". Perhaps some in-game dialogue and more interesting villains would have helped us to identify ourselves better with the silent protagonist. All this (and more) you can get in Front Mission: Gun Hazard.
The Bottom LineAquales transcends the limited appeal of mechas and emerges as one of the most lovingly crafted 2D platformers in history. It simply has it all: beautiful and varied locations, ultra-cool weapons, silky-smooth controls, perfect pacing, diversity, and just the right amount of challenge. Do yourself a favor and play it; thanks to the great advances in emulation there should be no problem in getting this game to work on everybody's home PC.