Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Trizeal (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Triangle Service
Published by Triangle Service in 2006

The complete name of the package is actually Shooting Love - Trizeal, but for all purposes it can just be referred to as Trizeal. Released only in Japan, at its core it’s exactly the same game that came out for the Dreamcast the year before, with perhaps a little more slowdown in a few places. The game is also an unofficial/spiritual sequel to XII Zeal / XII Stag, following on its footsteps of soft graphics and uneven design. Here the thrill of dodging is mixed with a simple scoring system based on medal chaining, which should please players who shun dense bullet curtains but still like to tackle a risk-reward challenge every now and then.

Trizeal on the Playstation 2 differs just a little from the Dreamcast version at the start screen because it makes you choose between the main game and an embrionary/demo version of the Shmups Skill Test game that appears in the arcade release Shooting Love 2007. With time Shmups Skill Test became a sort of guilty pleasure amongst players who know their way into the works of developer Triangle Service, but it just doesn’t have enough meat to keep me interested. Let alone a demo version of it. Composed of short mini-stages that succeed each other in random fashion and lack a proper set of basic rules, meaning that most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing or what I'm supposed to do, the game is just too weird for my liking.

Upon taking a look at the instruction manual I wished I could tell something about the story in Trizeal, since there's a whole wall of text on tiny fonts covering a full page. Unfortunately, so far no one has ever bothered translating it to English or any other Western language.

A quick snippet of Trizeal's first stage on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade Forever)

Starting the credit in Arcade mode leads to a brief animation showing the cockpit and the selected ship departing for battle. Basic gameplay inputs consist of shot (rapid shot actually, no one is crazy enough to face this without autofire), bomb and "trans" - from transformation. This last input selects the shot type, which is color coded and permanently shown at the lower right corner, shifting in the following order: red (wide/spread shot), green (missiles), blue (laser) and back to red, etc. The coolest thing about shot selection is that the spaceship actually transforms, assuming a different form on each shot type.

At every 15 enemies killed a power-up in the shape of a colored sphere is released. It upgrades only the currently selected weapon, so this means the player has total control of how he/she wants to power up the ship. Max power for each shot is achieved once you collect four power-ups, which is indicated by having five power cells shown in the weapons rotating hud. When one of the weapons has at least a power level of four it will also affect the other two, causing an overlap effect that increases the damage inflicted by the other shot types. However, besides this mixing effect the process of powering up different weapons has an immense influence on rank, as hinted by the increase in enemy bullet speed and the triggering of additional and dangerous patterns from bosses.

Amidst bullets and explosions, Trizeal is also marked by a constant shower of medals of varying sizes. Every single enemy destroyed releases one of these, and provided you catch them without letting any fall down the screen their value will eventually max out at 1.000 points each. Value progression starts with 10 and goes on with 20 - 30 - 40 - 50 - 100 - 500 and 1.000 points. Medals are generated at the current value but the quantity taken determines further value progression (for example, if 5 medals are created at once they'll all be worth 10 points, but then the 6th one will already give 100 points).

While medalling represents the bulk of the scoring system, bonuses at the end of the stage can also boost the score considerably. Destruction ratio percentage grants up to 100.000 points, but if you manage to achieve a 100% kill rate you also get an extra 50.000 points. Besides that, each bomb in stock is worth 10.000 points, with a maximum possible bonus of 50.000 points. Finally, every surplus power-up or bomb item is worth 1.000 points, while extra lives come with 900.000 and 2.700.000 points.

A mechanical crawling boss

Whenever a warning sign saying BREAK OUT! pops up players should destroy everything as fast as possible. By succeeding a giant medal worth 10.000 points falls and a special section in the level starts. These "hidden" areas appear in stages 1 and 4, with the second one being a nice homage to Space Invaders. By the way, the overal design of Trizeal does not veer away from the staples of the genre: an open cloudy stroll in stage 1, a slow scramble over bridges and towers in stage 2 (the only one with ground targets), a huge battleship in stage 3, an all-out space war prior to a meteor belt in stage 4, a long stretch with rotating turrets and descending shafts in stage 5 and the showdown against a robot and the core target of the enemy in the final level.

When speaking about shot types, I rarely use missiles as the main choice. The red spread is devastating at point blank distance, whereas the laser fires a piercing shot that's great to cause localized damage and induce extra slowdown. Repeatedly shifting weapons, especially with a maxed out arsenal, is particularly helpful at draining energy faster from bosses, hence the possibility of assigning a "rapid trans" function to one of the controller buttons. I used it, unlike the 30/sec rapid shot that's one of the innovations of the Playstation 2 port. This second rapid fire alternative is really strong and severely tones down the native difficulty of the game, so I decided not to use it (note how this faster firing rate is briefly active when you're respawned after dying). Another input in this port that I didn't use is the "dadada" shot, which is nothing more than rapid trans + 30/sec rapid shot.

Although I think there's a good deal of fun (and frustration) to be had with Trizeal due to the nature of its gameplay and the medalling system, the game somehow doesn't engage the way it should when you think about the possibilities. The whole second stage, for example, is a graphical (uninspired) and musical (boring) letdown. The fifth level is a tad too long and the final one a tad too short. I might be nitpicking though, considering there's a healthy amount of variety here and some of the music is rather decent, but alas! Ships from different player sides have notable differences, such as the narrower gap of the laser beams for player 2 (yellow; player 1 is red). The ship from XII Stag is hidden and can be activated with a code at the start screen (→, ←, ←, shot × 12).

By completing the stages players unlock them in Score Attack mode. Another unlockable inherited from the Dreamcast version is the Lifting mini-game. The Omake stage is absent though, probably replaced by the proto-version of Shmups Skill Test. TATE orientation, automatic saving and full controller configuration is available, thus making this a decent port that's on par with the Dreamcast version. My 1CC of Trizeal was achieved on Normal difficulty TATE mode with the second ship (player 2 side), using the regular rapid shot.

Note: Exzeal, the sequel to Trizeal, came out on consoles for the Xbox 360.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

TaleSpin (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Capcom in 1991

Even though I never paid much attention to the show, my impression is that TaleSpin was moderately successful among its target audience. Originally aired between 1990 and 1991, I didn’t see much appeal in adventurous Disney projects such as this one or DuckTales, and never really cared about either of them. However, ever since video games were invented there’s always been a good side to cartoons we didn’t like to watch. Such as that great DuckTales NES platformer, for example. Or Tiny Toon Adventures and Toxic Crusaders on the Mega Drive. Of course none of these will ever be covered in this blog, but out of three games based on its characters I was kinda thrilled to know that TaleSpin on the NES is actually a shmup.

Centered around the main characters from the show, the game is structured in eight stages where Baloo flies the Sea Duck cargo plane picking up stuff for delivery after beating the boss. Button B shoots and button A is used to revert the scrolling horizontal direction where applicable, allowing Baloo a little room to explore the level layouts and collect everything there is to be collected. When doing this you need to beware of respawning enemies because they’re regenerated really fast. At the beginning of the game each life comes with three hearts, and if you get hit on the last one the Sea Duck explodes and Baloo goes down hanging on to a parachute.

In order to see your score, life count, health and number of cargo boxes collected the player has to pause the game with START.

With the Ghotsbusters retired, it's Baloo's duty to cleanse a haunted house in stage 4

TaleSpin is a slow paced shooter, with little to offer in the way of excitement. No matter how you look at it, it’s just another run-of-the-mill effort by Capcom. And while it’s not hard by any stretch of the imagination, it does incur in one major anomaly at the very start: the speed of Baloo’s single round bullet. It’s so slow that it gets hard to hit most of those staggering or fast cruising enemies that populate the first level. And once a bullet is fired you need to wait for it to leave the screen to shoot another one, which almost turns the game into a pseudo gallery shooter. Granted, the closest you are to an obstacle or an enemy the fastest you’ll be able to shoot, but this certainly doesn’t help against moving foes.

The workaround for the slow shooting rate is buying the rapid fire enhancer offered by Wildcat in his shop before the start of the next level. Note that this item doesn’t really endow the Sea Duck with rapid fire, it merely allows two bullets on screen at once. That’s at least better than only one, of course. Purchasing items from Wildcat is made possible by collecting money bags and cargo boxes during the course of the stage, but these aren’t the only things you’ll come across when flying around. There are also lots of fruit, hearts (to refill lost health), 1UPs and hidden gateways to bonus areas. Hidden items, by the way, are scattered everywhere and reveal themselves when their location is shot. So it’s advisable to never stop shooting, and I also recommend shooting at every single corner and every little gap inside walls. After all, the chances of finding hidden items in these places are very high.

Other enhancements available at the shop hosted by Wildcat include a second firing rate enhancer (4 bullets on screen at once), an extra heart for more health, a single speed-up, extra lives and extra continues - the last two increase in value with every purchase, just like in Fantasy Zone. The items that matter are very expensive, and it’s very hard to buy more than one per level. Note that whenever you pick up all cargo boxes you achieve the "perfect" bonus score at the end of the stage, which gives you even more money to spend.

An important aspect of TaleSpin is that you don’t get any points from killing what you’d normally call regular enemies. Since some of them are very awkward to kill that’s a sort of unexpected relief, but if this is the case where do points come from? Answer: they come exclusively from fruit! Cherries, raspberries, bananas, strawberries (the most valuable, these ones), found in the wild or inside crates that float up or come floating towards you (shoot to release the item). Not only is it good to find hidden item spots to score higher, but you also should be able to find the entrances to bonus areas. In these sections Baloo steps aside so that you can control Kit Cloudkicker in his quest to pop hearts and take what’s inside before the time limit expires. There are only two types of bonus sections, and at least in one of them I was able to get all items.

Meet the biggest, baddest baseball you ever saw!
(courtesy of YouTube user Patrick So)

Capcom was nice enough to include some bits of story in the game to please fans of the show. At the start of every stage Rebecca briefs Baloo on what his objectives are and which type of enemies he’ll be facing. Most of them are comprised of Lord Karnage’s henchmen, with Karnage himself awaiting in his Iron Vulture warship at the end of the game. Graphics and colors are standard Nintendo 8-bit fare, and while some boss designs come out as rather interesting (ghost boss, the jungle alligator) they are mostly a joke to beat. I don’t know if the soundtrack reflects the music from the show though.

When Baloo flies to the left the sprite for the plane is shown upside-down, which sounds really odd, and whenever you’re briefly aligned with diagonals it’s also possible to fire in those directions. Diagonal firing is quite unreliable though, so I didn’t count on it at all. The only instance where I used diagonal shots was against the boss inside the cave level (tip: hug the rightmost side of the screen for a safe spot). This particular boss is also one of the enemies in TaleSpin whose designs remind me a lot of the Mega Man series. Too bad the difficulty here is the exact opposite of Mega Man, just check how the game hands out extra lives like candy.

Since the game halts at the ending screen after you beat that ridiculous last boss, you need to pause it before he goes down if you want to get a glimpse of your final score. Unfortunately you can't see your $ earnings in this screen, otherwise this could be another way of gauging your perfornece in the game. Here’s my final snapshot:

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

RayStorm (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1997

Following the good reception experienced by Taito with RayForce a couple of years prior, the company released the sequel RayStorm to great expectations. On the outside it represents a remarkable departure from the first game, since it uses 3D technology to render everything and comes presented in a vertizontal aspect (a vertical shooter on a 4:3 standard screen). Built and designed on polygons, the trademark gameplay involving traditional shooting and lock-ons is back with a slightly tilted perspective, a beefed-up scoring system and a more vicious challenge.

A brief note on the different regional versions of RayStorm for the Playstation: although exactly similar to its Japanese counterpart published by Taito, the North American disc published by Working Designs locks the default difficulty of the game at setting 5, which is 2 steps above the original default setting. Any difficulty lower than 5 cuts the game short at the fourth stage, so in order to see the whole game players are forced to start the credit at a higher difficulty. This is the reason why I decided to go for the Japanese release when I returned to the game a couple of months ago, and also why I recommend this to anyone who wants to have a less painful go at the Playstation port (I don’t know how the European version stands in comparison).

Dear readers, I know what some of you might be thinking. But I assure you all it's not a matter of chickening out and going for the “easier” version. RayStorm is pure evil and makes no concessions. The game is fun, has plenty of spectacle and comes with a nice varied soundtrack (an arrange version is included too), but it's also extremely unforgiving. In my opinion a good deal harder than RayForce, and people who say otherwise probably never took to themselves the task of beating it on a single credit. I gave up on it once and only got back to the game when I had a working PS1 emulator to practice.

Red R-Gray 2 is in deep trouble

The Playstation port of RayStorm offers two modes of play: Arcade and Extra. As its name implies, Arcade mode is a straight take on the arcade game, while Extra mode (or RayStorm Extra Edition) presents a similar experience albeit with new enemies, new bullet patterns, different colors, new visual effects and a different ending to the story happening in the 23rd century. Basic gameplay doesn't vary between modes though, as it all starts by choosing between two ships: the R-Gray 1 fires a vulcan shot with mild spread capability and a maximum of 8 lock-on lasers, whereas the R-Gray 2 fires a thin twin laser and a maximum of 16 lock-on lightning rays capable of "travelling" from one target to the next. You must also select Manual or Auto lock-on type: on Manual there are different buttons for shot and laser, on Auto both commands are mapped to the same button.

As was the case with the first game, locking on to multiple enemies is the secret to getting higher scores. Each successive lock-on doubles the multiplier applied on the enemy's base value, which means huge points can be gained by cleverly devised lock-on strategies. However, RayStorm takes a step further by allowing players to lock on to all enemies regardless of their standing layer/height (you couldn’t lock on to enemies at the same level of the ship in RayForce). This adds a whole new dimension to the risk-reward ratio, likewise boosting the rage factor that comes with it if you’re the kind of player who prefers to engage in scoring rather than survival.

Crystals released by red-colored enemies add to the ship’s power and lock-on arsenal. The main shot receives an upgrade for every three red crystals or a single yellow crystal collected, whereas each green crystal increases the maximum possible lock-ons by one. Dying strips you off a single level of both firepower and lock-on. On the other hand, when these resources are maxed out all items start giving points, eventually maxing out at 10.000 points each. Bombing is done by pressing both buttons at once (Manual) or the second input button (Auto), dropping a massive shower of explosions onto the screen provided the bomb energy bar is full (it's always full with each new life). After triggering the bomb, filling up the gauge is accomplished by using lock-on attacks.

Regardless of your current lock-on capacity, if you manage to place them all over a single target the result will be a localized and much more powerful blast. At full power these viole(n)t lock-on attacks can break complete parts of bosses. Boss parts, by the way, add to the end-of-stage bonus related to enemy destruction, so if you want to get 100% on that and 500.000 points be sure to kill everything in the level and completely dismantle the boss. The other bonus you get after beating the boss is lock-on shootdown, which relates to how effectively you're able to use your lock-ons. And again, the way you finish a boss is important because you need to dispatch those beasts with a lock-on to get 100% and another half million points.

Taking down Juda Central Core on a single credit

On all accounts, RayStorm is a beautiful game to look at. It’s got an incredible amount of shmup flair, all sorts of visual effects and explosions and it never slows down unless you’re bombing or being bombarded by the fiercest attacks from some of the bosses. The first three levels take place on Earth, the next two sees your ship being catapulted to outer space and the rest of the game puts the player against the alien armada in their own evil base. Each level is a challenge in itself, with varied terrains and enemy arrangements that only get more intricate the further you advance without dying. Rank is still something to be considered in the long run, especially when you realize that RayStorm has no extends of any kind. Die and watch as enemy bullet speed decreases instantly, followed by a similar breather in enemy/bullet density.

A further realization that took me a lot of time to adapt to is the absolutely organic nature of the challenge in this game. No matter how much you know the behavior of a particular enemy wave or how familiar you are with the attack patterns of a boss, no credit will ever be like the next one. Everything in RayStorm responds to your actual location and movement, so it’s not just a matter of dealing with aimed shots and bullet spreads. It’s as if the whole game was aimed at you. And the fact that the ship is almost always drifting towards the center of the screen by itself is an aspect that defies everything about the traditional approach in a shmup. Long story short, standing still is the fastest way to die horribly. So watch out for stray bullets, be on your guard, always be on the move and don’t underestimate even the tiniest cannon fodder coming up from below.

Regarding scoring, it doesn't take too much effort to see that R-Gray 2 is a better choice than R-Gray 1. After all, the travelling laser allows completely different lock-on paths with 8 more possible targets. Lock-on success requires good synch with enemy recharge routines, as well as figuring out point-blank safe zones and clean gaps between layers. It all boils down to finding the rhythm of the game, I’d say. As for ways to power up quicker, a single trick to get to 16 lock-ons faster for R-Gray 2 is to dispatch the giant snakes at the start of stage 2 as quick as you can in order to trigger additional waves of those little ships coming from the sides of the screen. By doing that you might even start the bulk of the level with maxed out lock-ons – or at least with only one still missing.

As far as presentation goes, the Japanese port of RayStorm is fantastic. Besides the rearranged Extra mode, it offers everything we've come to expect from a port (input configuration, automatic saving, sound test), as well as a few nice specials. Finishing a game mode unlocks its respective stage select, while finishing both modes (continues allowed) unlocks a special "13 players" mode. When available, all these extra features must be enabled in the configuration window of the main menu option screen. In 13 Players you get the chance to pilot all variarions of R-Gray 1/2 in Manual/Auto, finishing the credit with prototype ship R-Gray 0 (you can also tinker with ship type order if desired). This special mode is activated simply by setting your ship stock at 13.

I managed to 1CC the game in Arcade mode using R-Gray 2 on the player 2 side (blue ship / player 1 side always pilots a red ship), with difficulty set to level 3 throughout (unlike any other game I’ve ever seen, the difficulty level in RayStorm can be set for every single stage). In line with the previous port released for the platform, the Sega Saturn counterpart is named Layer Section II and is reportedly inferior to the Playstation disc. However, it does allow players to choose prototype ship R-Gray 0 in regular credits. The next game in the trilogy, RayCrisis, is actually a prequel storywise.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Gekirindan (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 2005

I feel kinda sorry for Gekirindan. For a sprite-based vertical shooter developed by Taito I can’t help but feel it was made from leftovers, before the company shifted to its infamous 3D efforts in games like Raystorm and G Darius. Just to have an idea, both Grid Seeker and Rayforce were released years before but in my opinion pack more punch than this game. I’m not saying that Gekirindan is bad, however it’s certainly a few notches below previous Taito shooters. One could say the gameplay is too conventional for a time frame that saw the shmup scene gearing towards bullet hell and 3D, let alone intricate scoring systems that required more than shooting and bombing.

Even with its ordinary nature, and much to the envy of other assumedly more accomplished arcade shooters at the time, Gekirindan made its way to at least three home consoles that I know of: the Saturn, the Xbox and the Playstation 2. I have just played it again on the PS2, by means of the Japanese Taito Memories Vol. 2 (Gekan) compilation. Unfortunately this particular disc in Taito’s precious arcade collection series (as well as the Taito Legends 2, which also has this game in it) does not offer TATE mode for the vertical shooters. Gekirindan seems to suffer a bit from this since the resolution feels a bit cramped and makes the game slightly harder on a first contact.

Hokuto unleashes the power of his ship

With a subtitle that translates to Time Travel Shooting, the action in this game revolves around three aircrafts from different historical periods pursuing a villain who’s able to travel through time. Each stage is set in a different year, presented with gigantic bold fonts as you come out of a time warp directly into the action. The chase starts in the future, continues during the World War II days and keeps going back and forth as the evil robotic figure flees from one area to the next. It’s a great idea that gets relatively well established by the graphics and the enemy gallery, only to be let down by the clunky gameplay and by a soundtrack that recycles only one theme from beginning to end. The music is not bad, but amidst the good you’ll also need to deal with gloomy and corny variations – and these are often the ones that stuck in my memory in between gaming sessions.

All ships in Gekirindan use the good old combo of shot + bomb to exert outer space justice. Incoming carriers and special crates release upgrade items in the form of powers-ups, extra bombs (B), shot type change (C) and a last one for auxiliary weapons. The item for auxiliary weapons cycles between napalm (N), missiles (M) and homing lasers (H). It takes 5 power-ups to max out the main shot, whereas the simultaneously fired subweapon has only a single power level activated at the collection of the respective item. These auxiliary weapons behave the same regardless of the chosen ship (see below). There are no extends, but a lonely 1UP can be grabbed if you manage to kill the mid-boss in stage 5 before it escapes.

There are three ship types to select, and two different pilots for each one depending on the side you choose to play (player 1 or 2). Type A, piloted by Hokuto (P1) or Grother (P2) fires a soft blue shot with a mild spread pattern and a 5-way lightning shot that latches onto enemies. Type B, piloted by Anne (P1) or Shario (P2) fires a straight laser shot and deploys trailing options. Type C, piloted by Dietza (P1) or the duo Orsa & Mayoru (P2), fires a vulcan spread shot and a pulsing wave shot. Shot types are switched/selected during gameplay by collecting the C item. Ship abilities and power can severely affect gameplay, especially when you figure out that type C on player 2 is the strongest selection you can make, easily overshadowing all other combinations of ship + pilot.

Anne follows bad guys through the rifts of time
(courtesy of YouTube user PickHutHG)

Scoring devices involve the classic NMNB approach (no miss, no bomb) since each spare bomb is worth 8.000 points at the end of the level. Another direct source of extra points are the golden badges collected from destroyed ground targets, each one worth 1.000 points and another 5.000 points at the end of the level. Finally, surplus power-up items give you 1.000 points. Despite a few easy tricks that help boost the score (destroy the first mid-boss fast to spawn an extra bomb, let the spider-tank destroy the houses in stage 2 for five extra badges), Gekirindan treads a very shady area when it comes to the scoring you can get from bosses. The second boss, for example, continues to puzzle me as to how many points I can get from killing him, and there are also several reports of the same thing happening with other bosses in the game.

Gekirindan is also known for its throwbacks to Toaplan, in a palpable homage to the then defunct Japanese developer. The napalm subweapon is a clear example of this, as well as the sharp bomb animations and the overall vibe of the whole game. Though some might think of this as an unexpected reverence/emulation of the competitor's style, we need to consider the fact that many Toaplan games were actually distributed/published by Taito across the most diverse platforms. These guys were not only great STG programmers, they were also classy gentlemen.

Click for the option menus translation for Gekirindan on Taito Memories Vol. 2

Compared to the Saturn port in YOKO orientation, this rendition of Gekirindan feels really squeezed but at least it does away with the vertical wobbling. Since I decided to stick to the type A ship I needed to refine some of my old strategies to account for the somewhat cramped resolution, which is a little troublesome even on a larger TV set. I was able to no miss the game on Normal with Grother (type A, player 2 side), although I did use a few bombs in the last stage.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Salamander 2 (Playstation)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1997

A few weeks ago I revisited Konami’s Salamander 2 on the Playstation. It’s the only sequel to both Salamander and Life Force, and all three games are bundled in a compilation called Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus. Cross-released for both the Playstation and the Sega Saturn, in my opinion either version of this disc is an essential part of any STG collection aiming at a minimum degree of respectability. Truth is if you consider yourself a true shmup enthusiast this is the closest you can get to approachable Gradius gameplay without resourcing to real arcades and PCBs.

Why do I mention approachable?

I know many people who don’t really dig the style of the Gradius franchise, which is famous for its checkpoints and dire recovery conditions upon death (except for Gradius V, of course). That said, it’s important to state that sequel Salamander 2 is more approachable than the first Salamander in pretty much all aspects that matter for the majority of people, which are eye candy, challenge and easiness of recovery upon death. It's developer Konami in top form, in a time before everything started falling apart inside their STG development team.

An animated opening that shows a different point of view for Salamander 2
(courtesy of YouTube user PickHutHG)

Besides allowing co-op simultaneous fun, Salamander 2 endows each player/ship with slightly different features, starting with the sprite for the main shot. Up front solo players must be aware that going for player 2 / the second ship (red-tinted Super Cobra) makes the game even more approachable than doing it with the first ship (player 1, classic blue-tinted Vic Viper). This difference is particularly noticeable during the second stage, a vertical scramble amidst sattelites that spit arching fire rings. Whenever you play with Vic Viper those satellites get a lot more aggressive.

In the classic Salamander universe stages alternate between horizontal and vertical scrolling, but here only stages 2 and 6 are of the vertical type. Pick-up items are released by colored enemies or by destroying complete enemy waves and consist of the following types: S (speed-up), M (missiles), L (laser), R (ripple laser), T (twin blade), option, option seed (a "half" option) and force field. Most of them are self-explanatory if you have at least a bit of contact with the classic Gradius gameplay, however Salamander 2 takes a step further in fleshing out the gameplay.

First of all, any of the main weapon enhancements (L, R or T) receives a power boost that lasts ten seconds whenever you pick up an item of the same type you're using. For every M collected missile behavior alternates between regular missiles and double missiles (these are fired below and above the ship, very helpful in stages 3 and 5). Lastly, it's possible to sacrifice an option in an attack that sends it homing towards the closest enemy and returns an option seed back for immedite collection. This is done by pressing a specific button, thus making the game at least a 2-button shmup - if you map shot and missile to the same button, I mean. And whenever you die with a whole set of options they will float on screen for you to pick up immediately.

"Where is that Golem?"

While the basic set of inputs is enough to have great fun with the game, a few secrets here and there serve to spice it up a little bit. For instance, that golem brain that appears halfway into the first stage and gets chewed by the boss can be destroyed for 100.000 points if you manage to power up the ship in a specific way. The same can be said about the spaceships at the start of stage 4: destroy them in an orderly manner to get another extra 100.000 points. Some bosses can be milked for a brief while for more points, as well as the flaming arches of stage 2 (don't ever stop shooting there).

With score-based extends happening at 200.000 and 500.000 points, conquering the first loop of Salamander 2 is a challenge that's very much achievable by everyone. During the first loop it's easy to notice that deaths completely reset the rank, instantly making enemy bullets travel much slower. Besides replacing an already awesome sountrack with remixes of the soundtrack for the first Salamander, the second loop adds suicide bullets and amps up the difficulty a good notch.

This time around I wasn't able to top the previous score I made on the Sega Saturn, again piloting Super Cobra (player 2). I only reached stage 2-3, but it was obviously fun to once again enjoy the game with friends from all around the world. Cheers!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Skull Fang (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Data East
Published by Data East in 1997

Skull Fang is the third chapter in an unofficial trilogy of arcade shooters that started with Vapor Trail (a.k.a. “Sky” Fang) and continued with the oddball horizontal hybrid Wolf Fang. As well as being a throwback to the gameplay of the first chapter, Skull Fang also tries to improve the original ideas in a few distinct directions (extra ship, time criteria, special moves, more special attacks). Do these work? How exactly did Data East fare in their reinterpretation of the first game, which was actually made less obscure to players around the world due to the port released for the Mega Drive?

I talk obscure because that’s exactly what Skull Fang is, even amongst the most dedicated fans of the shooting genre. The only console port of the game is this one, out exclusively in Japan for the Sega Saturn roughly a year after its original arcade release. For what it’s worth, at least it comes with a few extras beyond a straight arcade port, such as new game modes and automatic save function (plus TATE). However, given the drab nature of the game itself it’s no wonder it fails to garner any special attention. The little it offers up front is too thin to get people excited, and even if you decide to get serious with it chances are you’ll end up underwhelmed by the final experience.

As far as the story is concerned, it seems to be just a rehash of the first game (everything appears in Japanese text and dialogue). Earth is being attacked and you’re the hero, let your only energy bar go empty and watch as the planet gets nuked in a strikingly cruel GAME OVER animation. Besides, be warned that the selections you need to make before entering the cockpit in Skull Fang are a little more intricate than in most other shooters. Here you need to choose the ship, the pilot and a “throttle” style. The overall gameplay and the scoring possibilities can be severely affected depending on which choices you make.

Just a sneaky peek at Skull Fang
(courtesy of YouTube user Peter's Trophies)

The control layout in Skull Fang is button A for shot, B for throttle and C for special attack/bomb. Each jet is ranked in four categories: attack, defense, maneuver and “accelerate” (read more on this below). With the exception of the Silph-II, which is balanced in all four aspects, all other jets have the edge in a specific category while being weak in another. Their firepower, however, is what mostly defines which jet suits you best. There are four weapons selectable with appropriate items left by harmless carriers: V (vulcan cannon), C (cluster bullets), M (homing missiles) and L (laser gun). Shoot the item to cycle though weapon types and get the desired one, or make it explode into a weak smart bomb by shooting it for a while if you don’t want to take it. Regular power upgrades are achieved by collecting the P item.

After selecting the jet you either choose a fighter pilot (Sparrow or Hawk) or a bomber pilot (Raven or Crane). The difference between them is that fighters deploy the special attack as a rolling feature that renders the jet invincible for a while - as seen previously in Vapor Trail - whereas bombers just drop good old fashioned bombs as special attacks (deciding between the lad or the lady is just a cosmetic choice). Once a special attack is used you need to wait for its energy bar to refill in order to deploy it again. And then there’s the last option to be made before starting a credit, the throttle mode: auto, 2-speed or 5-speed. Contrary to anyone’s first impression, this isn’t related to jet speed/maneuver at all. Its purpose is to allow the selection of different thrust settings - or different scrolling speeds, in a more mundane approach. In auto there’s none, so the game just scrolls in its “natural” way. With the other options it’s possible to get through the stages faster or slower and to chase/intercept bosses as they move about during the fight, in what the jet specs call “accelerate”. Note that 2-speed throttle is exclusive to the Saturn, since the arcade game has selections for auto and 5-speed only (originally called CHASE mode).

Now what’s the purpose of finishing a stage faster? The reason behind this is a timer that appears on the top of the screen only when you select 2-speed or 5-speed throttle modes. Every second remaining when a boss is defeated is multiplied by 10.000 points, a very important bonus for score-chasers that makes auto throttle pretty much useless (even button B serves for something, since it fires single shots). Warning: don't go too slow all the way, otherwise you run the risk of timing out a level and getting an instant GAME OVER regardless of current energy.

On top of all of the above gameplay intricacies, the game also brings back the S-unit from Vapor Trail. A one-time item in every level, the S-unit endows each jet with a powerful upgrade that completely overrides regular weapons. It will remain active as long as you don’t press C, to which the jet reverts back to its original form after a quick explosion. Another aspect of the S-unit is that it allows an extra throttle switch to be activated (T for 2-speed and 6 for 5-speed) and an even more powerful discharge to be unveiled at fixed intervals, a feature that's absent when you choose to play the game in auto mode (no throttle control).

Silph-II, S-unit, 2-speed throttle and a rat's hair of health left

But wait, the gameplay description isn’t over yet. One very obscure trait of Skull Fang is that it allows fighter pilots to perform special moves that temporarily affect the jet’s firing direction, in the very same fashion as you would in a fighting game. For example, use →↓ + C or ←↓ + C to make it shoot left or right. Or ↑←↓ + C to shoot backwards, ↓ ↓ + C to make the jet perform a loop over whatever’s coming from below and →← + C or ←→ + C to trigger a more powerful rolling attack (you can see these moves performed during the attract mode). The catch here is that you can only take advantage of these inputs when the special attack gauge is full (blue). By pressing C it’s possible to cancel all commands before the gauge is depleted, hence recovering it faster for another use, but the inherent problem with fighting game styled commands is always there: in the heat of the battle you're prone to input mistakes, which might result in the regular rolling attack instead of the desired command effect.

Besides the items described above there are also other icons to be collected. If you’re lucky it’s possible to come across a LIFE icon that refills a portion of the lifebar (40% is automatically refilled in between stages). Every once in a while the carrier will drop small skulls worth 5.000 points each, whereas a large skull that bounces around the screen can be hammered for a varying amount of points. And stupidly enough speed-ups are labeled MNV, as in maneuver-up! Really, how dumb is that in a shooter, especially when the differences between jet speeds are minimal and it's impossible to get too fast? Anyway, all excess icons are worth something when collected, just beware of not putting yourself in danger when trying to get them.

When you think about all of the details involved in the gameplay it’s hard not to think well of Skull Fang (despite the convoluted options, of course). The truth of the matter, however, isn’t really that engaging. Even with all the confusion at least Data East tried to beef up the gameplay, but they should also have given some love to the art design. Graphics are samey and poor, and almost everything looks zoomed in for no purpose at all. The enemy gallery doesn’t fare better with its series of disjointed jet formations, a few tanks here and there and lots of those annoying mines that often catch you off guard. Almost every boss runs away from the fight to off-screen grounds, and initially I thought it was just an excuse to allow the special attack gauge to recover. You see them through a smaller window and while it's impossible to hit them in this situation they will launch several attacks against you from off screen. Handling the different throttle speeds is what allows you to alter the conditions of the fight in your favor.

All things considered the Saturn port is rather decent, with only a few flickering areas and slowdown during crowded sections. I also believe the health bars from bosses disappear for too long at times, but I might be nitpicking here. Normal mode corresponds to the arcade game (on Hard difficulty), Extra mode is a rearranged game with slighly different enemy formations/patterns and Trial mode is just your regular boss rush as a long or short campaign (the latter having only four bosses). Besides the timer bonus mentioned above, at the end of each level players receive rewards based on destruction ratio, no damage (1 million points!) and stage clear. These bonuses are the main source of points since regular enemies are worth peanuts.

I'll be honest and say I started having a little fun when I finally figured out what I was doing with my jet/pilot/throttle choices, but then I got fed up of the clunky gameplay and went on to the next challenge. Below is my final 1CC result for Skull Fang on Normal mode (Hard difficulty, TATE), achieved with the Silph-II jet, female pilot Crane and 5-speed throttle. Look how crappy the font for the high score board is, that 6 in the second place looks like a 4!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Override (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sting
Published by Data East in 1990

After playing Override for a little while it’s easy to notice a good amount of influence from two developers that helped shape the 8 and 16 bit console scene back in the day: Compile and Hudson Soft. As far as I know they have no saying at all in this relatively obscure vertical shooter, which has a counterpart for the Sharp X68000 computer system under the name Last Batallion. As usual in the case of obscure titles, both were only released in Japan.

The good news is that Override incorporates some of the best traits from 8/16-bit Compile, such as frantic action and a flashy weapon gallery, all of it exquisitely programmed to run with absolutely no slowdown. On the other side, the game fails to harness the potential to be one of the best shmup outings in the PC Engine library, mainly by looping eternally with little increase in difficulty while still preserving a generous extend scheme of an extra life for every 70.000 points scored. To keep it PC Engine only, it suffers from the same unfortunate fate of Toy Shop Boys, another example of wasted raw material.

Regardless of the above observations, there’s no denying that a good deal of quick fun awaits those who decide to try Override. The story goes that alien creatures once again were threatening the world, invading the underground and building secret bases in order to kill the planet from within. How do I know that? Because I’m a psychic and I have just concocted this story, of course! Outside from the cool display of the spaceship in the ending and the brief take-off animation after you press START, there are no other special frills in this game. So prep your controller, make up your own story and off you go blast aliens across six levels of decently sized duration.

Forests must be protected from alien scum

Command inputs are simple: button II shoots, button I switches between three preset speeds. Special harmless carriers zap across the screen from one side to the other at defined intervals and release items when hit. These stagger down slowly before disappearing, and range from the ever-present power-up (P) to color-coded weapon icons and energy recovery cells (E). Each E refills one lost cell in the energy gauge, which comes with three slots and allows a good survival window before you lose a life. P is responsible for upgrading the main shot, whereas auxiliary orbs are only generated after collecting the first colored weapon item.

Color items always cycle in the same order: blue (trailing options, forward laser), purple (fixed options, side shot), red (fixed options, 45ยบ shot with homing ability at max power), yellow (moving options, directional reverse-shot), green (rotating options, forward wave shot), then blue etc. The first color to emerge is always the next after the one you’re currently using, so if you want to take the same color for a much needed upgrade (maxes out at 4) just wait to take the item as it approaches the bottom of the screen. As a rule of thumb, unless you’re desperate for a specific item there’s no need to rush to get it.

The last observation about the gameplay is actually the most important one. By refraining from shooting you’ll notice a green flare appearing on the tip of the tank-shaped spaceship, and if you wait a little longer the ship will start to glow. Push the fire button and watch as an outward blast of pure awesomeness devastates everything in front of the ship, enemy firepower included. This special charge blast is in fact the most effective way to deal with bosses, especially when you start to notice their attack patterns are built around the recharging time of your ship. It’s also a very useful resource in offensive and defensive ways against a few enemies during the stages, and the best thing about it is that you can use it even with a bare ship.

Attract mode - Overriding evil with justice
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

If Override doesn’t thrill you on graphics, at least it excels at providing fast moving sprites and several sections with nice parallax levels. The soundtrack is fitting, but the highlight in my opinion is the BGM for the first level. An aspect that bugs me a little is that I found the first speed setting to be fast enough for the whole game, so I never used button I anymore once I figured that out. A clear point of unbalance in the overall challenge lies in the 4th stage - it's much harder than the others, with lots of walls, overlapping enemy waves and turrets firing heat-seeking lasers that pour down the screen while giving you little time to react. It’s an awesome, intense level, but it should’ve been moved to the end of the game since it doesn’t seem to fit the stage order. A boss parade precedes the final boss in the last level.

I haven’t delved deep into the Soldier series on the PC Engine yet, but many people consider that Override bears the same style and vibe of those games. Therefore if you have a soft spot for them you might also end up enjoying this little shooter. Sadly, when you go beyond the basics and start analyzing the game as a whole you can’t help but think it misses many opportunities to be a top shooter. Excess power-ups give absolutely no extra points. Since the health/life system with no checkpoints feels too generous (just like the extend scheme), why not apply special bonuses for extra lives upon completing the game and do away with the loops?

The above paragraph is just some food for thought, even though it's possible to simply break the scoring system by safely milking projectiles from bosses. In successively looping the game I at least tried to get a no-miss on stage 4. I failed it, then took this picture in stage 6-2 before turning off the console.