Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída (Master System)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tectoy / Sega
Published by Tectoy in 1995

Created by a talented cartoonist during the 80s and based on a famous Brazilian children's song, Sapo Xulé (which translates to something like "Stinky Feet Frog") was adopted by Tectoy and promoted to a local mascot a few years later. Starting with a plastic frog toy that exuded a bad odor when stripped off of his sneakers, the company soon followed with three video games released exclusively for the Master System.

The stinky detail about these games is that they are all official hacks, meaning they were all hacks officially endorsed by Sega at the time. Sapo Xulé Vs. Os Invasores do Brejo is a hack of Psycho Fox, whereas Sapo Xulé - O Mestre do Kung Fu uses Kung Fu Kid as a basic mold. In the case of Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída the game in question is Astro Warrior. The latter is also the only one that got an European release in Portugal.

All Sapo Xulé titles are nicely packaged in late Master System boxes, with sympathetic art, specific instruction manuals and rather detailed backstories. They are nice collector's items in their own right, but all they offer in terms of gameplay is an experience that's identical to the original template. In SOS Lagoa Poluída (or SOS Polluted Pond), Sapo Xulé must battle three underground areas in order to free his environment from evil greedy scientists. Astro Warrior's star-dotted backgrounds are recolored in green to resemble a swamp, and all sprites of the enemy gallery get replaced by cartoony renditions of garbage and a few random objects.

Meet Blublu

There's a single noticeable functional difference from this game and Astro Warrior: it's the number of starting spare lives, which in Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída is five, as opposed to the original two. Other than that the gameplay is exactly the same, down to enemy and boss behavior. Stage and boss names were altered to something more swampy though: Blurp Lake is protected by boss Plurb, Gulpb Lake is protected by boss Blublu, Sgurpb Lake is protected by boss Sblug. They all SURELY SURVIVE after defeat, meaning the game loops these three stages endlessly.

As you fly over terrain that resembles Star Soldier you can shoot around at will and collect the items that arrive floating in the middle of the screen. Even though these items seem to come at random spots as you play, they are actually spawned by destroying successive ground tiles. A red pepper serves as speed-up, a funny face is the power-up and a tiny thingie grants you a trailing option to increase firepower. It takes two power-ups and two options to achieve max power, with plenty of speed-ups to send you rocketing around the screen if you so wish. Beware not to let the option item pass by, if that happens you won't have the chance to collect another one for the duration of the current life. At one moment speed-ups stop appearing, but power-ups keep coming no matter how long it takes for you to pick them up.

By trying to make a sci-fi shooter look like a wacky cute'em up, Tectoy was only able to go halfway and doesn't really succeed. Sure, you will be shooting at rotten apples, dirty boots, banana peels, watermelon slices, amoeba flocks, matchsticks and other unidentified flying objects. Boss sprites are retouched in order to look like vehicles piloted by creatures from the pond (the detail of final boss Sblug's ugly face inside the cockpit is nice, for example). But that's it, essentially. Bullet patterns are unaltered and the music is unchanged. It's just like having a regionally different Astro Warrior. We couldn't ask much from a hack anyway, I guess.

Sapo Xulé to the rescue!
(courtesy of YouTube user Anarki)

With just three stages, Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída is a rather short game that loops forever, as I mentioned above. Difficulty is already maxed out on the second loop, however playing marathon runs isn't a trivial endeavor simply because recovering from deaths can be quite tricky. Blame it on the extremely slow default speed of our poor little stinky feet frog. And once all four extra lives are gained you won't get any more extends (the extend interval is 50.000 points, but note that the current score is only shown in between levels).

In my pursuit of a better performance in the game I had a few surprises. The first one was that upon beating Plurb again in stage 6.1 I noticed my score had rolled over on the mark of one million points. Suffice it to say my will to continue playing faded right there and then. However, upon reverting back to the start screen I found out the game actually has a counterstop on 999.900 points, as we can see in the picture below. Upon a quick research I discovered that this is also the case with Astro Warrior. Well, better late than never, I guess. Nonetheless I did have fun with SOS Lagoa Poluída, and I believe achieving the counterstop in either version still stands as a fun little challenge for all Master System owners.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Thunder Force V (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1997

When I think about the fact that Thunder Force V came out more than 20 years ago I can't help but feel a sting of nostalgia. Back then I had completely left video games in favor of college, and would only get to experience the game some ten years down the road. It was also the very first shmup I purchased for the Sega Saturn once I started collecting, so I guess that says a lot about my appreciation for the franchise. Why Sega and Technosoft didn't release the game out of Japan is beyond me. I absolutely don't buy the idea that a game like Thunder Force V wouldn't sell well in the West, or that shmups were already a dead genre by then.

The leap of Technosoft's most famous series into the 32-bit video game generation is everything fans could hope for. Granted, Thunder Force IV / Lightening Force set the Mega Drive on fire, something that can't be said about Thunder Force V and the Sega Saturn. Nonetheless the sequel successfully expanded on the ideas of previous chapters, taking the gameplay to new heights while remaining faithful to the atmosphere and the general feel of the series. It's still frantic, clearly methodical and heavily bent on memorization. Graphics are a mixture of regular sprites and 3D models based on polygons with varying textures. Even if they might seem dated to some people by today's standards, they've still got a lot of charm and a healthy dose of sleek cinematic transitions. Let's also not forget about the excellent soundtrack.

No blue? Really?

Following the trend of previous games in the series, the order of the three initial stages can be established as soon as you start the credit. Commands are fully configurable in the options and work with shot, two directions for weapon select (right/left), speed selection and overweapon. This overweapon input is the most important gameplay addition in Thunder Force V. Whenever you press this button the power of your current weapon is augmented at the cost of the energy of your options/claws/craws. Craws are single energy spheres that rotate around the ship, increase its firepower and protect it from regular bullets. You can have a maximum of three craws at any given time, but if they're hit while their energy is fully exhausted (by using an overweapon) they will disappear. Exhausted craws recover energy with time, but can be replenished faster by collecting new craws.

Craws are one of the items you get from harmless carriers or special enemies. Other items include the non-default weapons (wave, free range and hunter), shields and extra lives (1UP). The only weapons you don't lose when you die are the default ones (twin shot and back shot), all others are lost and need to be reactivated with another weapon item. Shields give you protection against three hits: a blue shield means you have 3 hits left, a green shield means you have 2 hits left and a brown shield means you can take only one shot before becoming vulnerable again. Once you die your craws will scatter around the screen and bounce for a while so that you can pick them up again. As for score-based extends, they are granted with 10, 50, 100 and 500 million points.

In line with the evolution of the genre by the late 90s, which demanded more than just mindless shooting and flashy explosions, Thunder Force V includes a scoring system of its own. It's essentially very simple: the faster you dispatch mid-sized and large enemies (including bosses) the more points you get based on a multiplier that goes from ×2 to ×16. There's also a completion bonus based on the chosen difficulty, the number of lives left and the final equipped weapons, which is once again a noble incentive for players to polish their performances as hard as they can. There's a catch related to this completion bonus though (keep reading).

As far as speed-killing goes, it doesn't take long for you to realize the extreme importance of the aiming and overweapon capabilities of the free range shot. When properly used, it's able to easily dispatch most enemies and several boss phases with ×16 multipliers (note that it does even more damage when enemies are hit within range 1). The other weapons are useful in their own right, but there's no doubt that dying and losing free range severely limits scoring and survival possibilities. Free range is, in fact, the reason of many complaints regarding gameplay balance in Thunder Force V. While that's a valid point, personally the only fault I could attribute to free range is making the game an easier ride. Once you learn how to lay waste to everything with it, of course.

Stage 2: Wood
(courtesy of YouTube user assomo5)

Each stage in Thunder Force V is quite unique in its environment. Sea, jungle and city precede a space station guarded by a transforming mecha boss. Then comes stage 5, which brings a treat for fans of the series, especially those who played the previous chapter. First you're propelled to outer space by docking to a sword-shaped shuttle with a shield bar and its own firepower capabilitites (two special weapons only used in that level), then you have to face none other than the Fire Leo-04 Rynex, the original ship from Thunder Force IV, as you listen to the epic opening theme of that game in one of the most iconic moments in the whole franchise. Defeat it and play the rest of the game with improved versions of the default weapons, the same ones seen in part VI (twin shot turns into blade and back shot becomes rail gun).

Thunder Force V also boasts a rather complicated storyline depicted in the animated opening, in the details shown prior to each boss fight and in the ending. There's a catch though: in order to see the good ending and understand how the story arc closes you need to beat the creepy insect-like last boss within a time limit. If he escapes you get a bad ending and you're denied the completion bonus. High score tables are segregated by difficulty and show a few stats for each logged run. Some extra tweaks can be applied to the game, such as setting the weapon HUD in different arrangements. Bonus note: beating the game on Hard unlocks a special Master difficulty.

Besides the regular retail release the Sega Saturn also received a special edition of the game called Thunder Force V Special Pack, which adds a bonus CD with rearranged tracks of previous games entitled The Best of Thunder Force. A port was released a year later for the Sony Playstation with the title Thunder Force V - Perfect System, and while it does look like the Saturn original there are still noticeable differences I intend to point out in the near future. As for the series progression, it would take more than ten years for the sequel Thunder Force VI to appear on the Playstation 2.

In revisiting the Saturn version, my best 1CC result in the Normal difficulty is the one shown below. It represents an improvement of 42% over my previous highest score, achieved when I didn't have much of a grasp of scoring systems at all.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Strike Force Hydra (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
2 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Ignition Entertainment
Published by Ignition Entertainment in 2003

There are shmups that defy genre conventions in the most diverse ways. Within this special category, there are those that succeed and those that fail. Within the batch that fails, there are those that at least manage not to do anything blatantly wrong and those that for some reason or another are barely playable, exhibit a few downright broken traits or adopt boredom as a defining element of their gameplay. If we're to choose one of these infamous categories for Strike Force Hydra, those who played the game will probably agree with me that it deserves to be included in the latter.

Strike Force Hydra is also a prime example of the backlash that befalls many shmups made by European developers. It's got pretty much all the aspects that made the "euroshmup" term so shameful, including uninspired stage/enemy design, unbalanced difficulty, health bar and inertia. The game was released alongside an identical version for the Game Boy Advance, so it's hard to tell if one of them was ported from the other. If that's the case, then it coming out for the handheld after a Playstation original would make a little more sense. The problem is that no real excitement is to be seen in either version of a stale hovership adventure that seems to be loosely inspired by River Raid.

Hovercraft strike over the river
(courtesy of YouTube user FunCade 64)

Levels in Strike Force Hydra are divided in three sections. In the first and the third sections you battle enemies and fight bosses in the end. The intermediary parts are simple corridor arrangements where you don't need to shoot, instead you're supposed to pilot the hovership in order to avoid walls or obstacles (the so-called "speed" section). Button × fires your main weapon, button □ fires a secondary weapon, L1 jumps and R1 activates a boost function. Every once in a while a wave of tiny rotating enemies will appear. Destroy most of them and you'll release an item: the red one powers up the main weapon and the green one powers up the secondary weapon.

Having both shot buttons pressed at all times is recommended since they come with autofire by default and the secondary attack is quite powerful even though it's got an extremely low rate of fire. Upgrades enhance them by a good margin. The maxed out main shot, for example, is a thick laser beam that melts everything in its path. The only problem is that it also overshadowns everything, including all regular bullets. For a while I avoided getting it for the sake of bullet visibility, but once I noticed it's much better to have power rather than visibility I changed my mind. The Whirl-Wind boss (stage 3.2), for example, can only be destroyed before its rotating kamikaze attack if you have the laser.

Speaking of bosses, if only they lived up to their badass names (such as Master-Laser, Attack Drone Alpha and Crab-a-rang) this game would be a completely different kind of beast. They all fire pathetic, predictable, extremely easy patterns with no variation whatsoever. As for regular enemies, they're a joke. It's either turrets on the sides or staggering ships/bots descending with little gusto. If by any chance you get cornered you can always use the jump input to quickly reach the other side of the screen and be safe. By the way, jumping is the second most important dodging resource in Strike Force Hydra, the first one being learning how to overcome inertia. The tip is to move slowly, enemy bullets are never fast anyway and the few dangerous attacks from bosses won't harm you if you use those jumps wisely.

Each credit offers five lives and no energy recovery of any kind. Energy is drained every time you touch a bullet, an enemy or a wall (in the speed sections that is). Deaths send you back to the beginning of the section and take away one power level of your weaponry. Even though that seems harsh, once you get the hang of things you'll realize how easy the game actually is. Environments alternate between jungle, ocean, ice and some sort of factory backdrop, with light techno themes that either fit the graphics (jungle part) or just resemble elevator music. Sound effects are extremely loud and practically engulf the music whenever there's any action going on.

Welcome to the jungle

No matter how lame the gameplay looks like, the scoring system is even worse. Never have I seen such disregard for the score mechanic in a shmup. You will see a display for your kills, but it's reset every time a new level starts after you're given some stupid ranking description for your performance. The instruction booklet even mentions the number of kills is only supposed to be reset upon death, but that's not the case. Talk about some dumb, useless alocation of programming resources!

By the way, the instruction booklet is riddled with false information on the gameplay, which is just another sign of the laziness that plagues Strike Force Hydra. It says there are two types of button layouts, but there's no option at all to switch to a different control setup from the one I described above. It also states you can recover health by figuring out the "secret" behind certain types of rotating enemies. Unless this secret involves some sort of arcane proceedings it's just not there, and so aren't the power-ups mentioned to be present in the toughest paths of the speed sections. There's even a proper score display in the snapshot for the screen description, which is of course nowhere to be found in the final product.

Alas, sometimes I wonder why I even bother. Saying Strike Force Hydra is bad is a gigantic euphemism. It's one of those games that can make people lose faith in the shooting genre, so be warned and warn your friends. The picture below appears briefly during the final credits, then you're back at the start screen with no bonus game to play after defeating the game on the Hard difficulty (another lie of the instruction manual), which I had just done. On a single credit, of course.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Galaxy Force (Master System)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Activision in 1989

I often ask myself if the the 8-bit generation was ready to handle arcade ports of rail shooters. Most examples say it wasn't, but when you realize several other rail shooters were also released for less powerful platforms then you can somehow forgive Galaxy Force on the Sega Master System. Never mind the confusion related to the arcade releases of Galaxy Force and Galaxy Force II, which widely replaced the former to the point almost no one ever saw it running. If you'd still like to have a glimpse of what it *looked like* you could try the Master System port, yet from the references I got it probably isn't the case.

Anyway, the only thing one can infer from playing this version of Galaxy Force is that little is to be expected that resembles the frantic, jaw-dropping action of the arcade game. Gone is the thrilling sensation of cruising through space taking down multiple targets. Just the basic framework was preserved in the transition: you fly a spaceship in rail shooter fashion through four different planets in any desired order, shooting down enemies until you enter a tunnel full of turns designed to test your piloting abilitites. For some cinematic flair, in every stage you see your ship taking off from a hangar.

Button 1 shoots single bullets, button 2 fires missiles that target enemies framed by your lock-on indicator. Button 1 has native autofire, button 2 doesn't. Ammo is unlimited for both.

Beware, floating platforms ahead

Stage selection is completely up to the player. The default order is an outer space station, then a volcanic planet, a plant world and a desertic landscape. Once all of them are conquered you will battle the final and only boss in the whole game. Yes, there's only one actual boss. Stages in Galaxy Force have no proper target cores at the end of the tunnel sections, which is one of the main sacrifices made to squeeze the game in the Master System cartridge (bosses are replaced by a brief animation showing the destruction of the planet). Sure, as the back of the box says it's got not double, not triple, but four times the playing power of a regular cartridge - meaning 4 Mega power! But hum... no, you don't get the hottest space combat, nor the baddest explosions. As for the sounds, well... at least we can say the soundtrack is undoubtedly the best thing about this port.

Many enemies are unique to this version, which tries to preserve the feel of the original game by means of the background scenery alone. Nevertheless the enemy gallery is practically the aspect that best conveys some sort of sprite scaling; tunnel sections use a flashing effect over static pillars to achieve the illusion of scrolling into the screen. For all it's worth, the trickery kinda works. The overall frame rate is still apalling and needs some getting used to. You still get to lock onto multiple enemies with your crosshair aim, but never in a reliable, repeatable fashion.

Another concession made on the port is the absence of the stage timer, and by extension the acceleration and break inputs. Everything is much more simple now, and your only concern while moving around in your killing spree is to preserve energy. The energy shield meter is color coded and changes as you get hit. As a general rule, the more red and flashing it gets the closer you are to biting the dust. Shield energy is automatically recovered at the end of the level after your bonus is calculated based on the amount of hits/kills you just achieved. Note that the more enemies you destroy the higher the bonus gets for each enemy in the final tallying.

Cruising the galaxy for justice
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)

The elimination of the timer element more than offsets the difficulty imposed by the confusing sprite scaling effect and the way the turns behave inside the tunnels. These turns vary a little in length with every new level, which means that each stage tunnel demands a certain tapping strategy for you to perform the movement without hitting the walls. After a while you notice that later levels are actually easier than the starting ones, at least this was my case. In fact, I even consider the first stage to be the hardest of them all by dint of the random nature of the meteors and the lack of ground scrolling for better evaluation of enemy approach. The turns inside the frst tunnel are also the hardest ones to perform.

Though considerably butchered in technical terms, my feeling after playing Galaxy Force on the Master System is that the game isn't a total wreck. It's fun in an awkward, nostalgic manner, with a final message that calls players out for using continues and advises them to beat the game again on a single credit if they want to watch the real ending (not the one where the ship crashes onto the landing platform). All in all, I liked that the difficulty was duly adapted to the console's limitations, unlike what happenened with the remarkably tough Space Harrier port.

Here's the final 1CC score I got for Galaxy Force on Sega's 8-bit machine:

Friday, November 29, 2019

Cloud Master (Master System)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hot-B / Taito
Published by Sega in 1989

Cloud Master, also known as Chuka Taisen, is the port of an arcade game of the same name. It stars a kid named Michael Chen, who flies on a cloud and shoots down enemies in ancient Japan. Michael is an apprentice and aspires to be considered a real "cloud master" by his enderly mentor. In order to achieve such honor he must get through five levels, destroying the incoming threats and defeating big bosses along the way.

The simple concept of this game fits the capabilities of the Master System much better than it did the arcade platform, especially when we consider design aspects such as the repetitive tiled backgrounds. Cloud Master on the Master System is an extremely colorful port that's rather competent in adapting the source material, with similar gameplay mechanics and faithful representation of both the enemy gallery and the stages (unlike the full-scale makeover seen in the PC Engine version). It's also no pushover, as one would imagine from the cute visuals. Hit detection is fine, a little flicker appears here and there and a sliver of slowdown might happen in crowded areas.

Flying over the Koh river

Controlling the kid on a cloud is extremely simple. Press button 1 to shoot and button 2 to fire a secondary attack. Upgrade items are released by destroying full enemy waves or specific enemies and consist of P (main shot power-up), S (two main shot power-ups), F (speed-up, means "fast"), A (autofire) and E (extra life). The evolution process of the main shot is very similar to that of Taito's own Darius II, in that each power-up adds another layer of power/spread to the current firing stream. When maxed out it assumes the form of a wave shot with regular bullets on the sides. Looking at it closely, the whole feel of the game and the upgrade system is like an amalgam of the first two Darius games.

Equally as important as the main shot is the secondary attack that's obtained by defeating a mid-boss and entering the door that he/she leaves behind. In there you'll be able to choose one of four special attacks, which remains active until you enter the next mid-boss door or die. Secondary attacks are automatically upgraded every time you enter one of these doors, even if you switch to a completely different type. Options include a rotating fire guard, spinning dragon fire, crescent arches, 2 or 3-way fireballs, a 4-way x-shaped mirror attack, bouncing/trailing fireballs and a scattering bomb that explodes when hitting the ground. I might be wrong here, but the impression I get is that the Master System port has more secondary attacks than the original arcade version, on top of allowing you to switch them even when at maximum power (doors don't stop coming when beating midbosses). 

Bowls of ramen, pigs with cannons, flying pig heads, bird flocks, large birds with human faces, tigers, pandas descending from clouds, dragons, turtles, monkeys, mushrooms, etc. With some exceptions there's always an animal or mythological creature appearing as basis for the enemy gallery. Regular enemies fire regular bullets, whereas midbosses and bosses shoot lightning bolts or round projectiles that force you to move more carefully due to their big sprites. From my experience at least three speed-ups are needed to fly around with decent maneuverability, just watch out for bullets that tend to travel slowly and might get mixed with backgrounds. You don't die by touching the short mounts of dirt at ground level, unless you get crushed by them at the edge of the screen.

Even with the hardware constraints of the platform it's nice to see a few animation details preserved, such as the character's eyes blinking and his hair and the cloud he rides on curling as he's moving around. On the other hand, graphics fade out before boss fights so that the Master System can handle their large figures. Eastern motifs rule the soundtrack, which fits the game but is otherwise pretty unremarkable.

Michael Chen starts his journey into enlightenment
(courtesy of YouTube user mrbeanchannel)

With two checkpoints per level, Cloud Master gets increasingly trickier to recover from death as the game progresses. Unless you play with some kind of turbo function doing it without the A power-up can be extremely demanding. Note that the rate of fire isn't the same at all power levels, which is the main reason why I avoided maxing out the main shot. If you keep your shot pattern at only two red blue balls or the spread before that you'll achieve a much better firing rate than the one you'd get with the maxed out wave shot. This is particularly important during boss fights, and you also need to consider hitting them at their weak points (mostly the head, or the belt for the shogun boss). You can kill them a lot quicker if you hammer them at point blank distance in between their attacks. Fun fact: the shogun is the last boss here instead of the dragon, which was demoted to guardian of the 4th level.

Besides the 1UPs you get with items, score-based extends are granted with 30.000 points and then at every 200.000 points afterwards. Attention: once you defeat the final boss and receive the definitive congrats from the elderly god figure there's a brief GAME OVER screen, but the game doesn't stop there. Wait a few seconds and it will start again in a second loop. The difficulty increase in further rounds is very subtle, the main difference I noticed is that the E item for extra lives does not appear anymore.

My best credit for Cloud Master on the Master System ended in stage 3-5. The unusual detail in this version, as you can see in the picture, is that the current score is on the right side of the panel and the high score is on the left side. It had me confused more than once as I was trying to figure out point values throughout the game.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

iS - Internal Section (Playstation)

Tube shooter
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Positron
Published by Square in 1999

Even for those who consider them part of the shmup genre, tube shooters were always a rare breed and barely get any discussion these days. The one game that comes to mind the most for pretty much everyone is Tempest and its sequels/clones, and Gyruss to a lesser extent. However, even though this particular subgenre never really thrived in a grand scale the truth is that the Sony Playstation was home to a few interesting tube shooters, one of which is iS - Internal Section. Unlike its bethren N2O - Nitrous Oxide, Nanotek Warrior and Tempest X3, it unfortunately never came out of Japan.

iS as trippy as it gets. The shaded forms in the tube surface and outer surroundings are constantly changing according to the electronic music, whereas enemies, bosses and bullets are formed by simple arrangements of polygons that fly around at varying speeds for an experience that some people consider an embrionary version of Rez. There are of course many similarities between both games, but iS is much more shooting-oriented rather than geared towards synesthesic player interactions. The good news is that the game is perfectly approachable, and even relaxing once you get more familiar with it. I daresay it's an excellent way to get acquainted with the world of tube shooters.

Dropping an eraser inside the tube

All game modes use the same control inputs, which are configurable in the options. One button shoots with natural autofire, two other buttons cycle through the available wepons and another one fires the so-called "eraser", the equivalent of a classic bomb. The eraser creates an energy circle that moves forward and sweeps all enemies across its path, including bullets. As for power-ups, you don't need to worry about them because there are none. Extra erasers are obtained every time you complete a new phase in the game, and all twelve weapons named after the Chinese zodiac are ready for immediate use. Part of the fun is in finding out which one works best in each situation, everything else revolves around shooting and dodging. It's that simple.

Quick note on my usage of weapons: favorite one for killing regular waves is Monkey, then Horse (which is good to hit enemies that float in the middle of the cylinder), Tiger (extremely powerful), Snake (good for some of the stronger waves and a few bosses/mid-bosses) and Bird (very efficient in specific areas); Sheep or Rat are best for hitting single spots (as in the riddles of the 6th stage), Ox is slow but blocks everything in its path; I practically never used Dog, Boar and Dragon, they're either clumsy or downright useless.

An interesting aspect, and in my opinion one that makes iS such an easy game to get into, is the fact that when you move the whole tube moves around you. You don't need to worry about the confusion of managing your craft's direction in a 360 degrees turn, as in Tempest or Gyruss. Both the gameplay and the actual difficulty benefit whenever this is implemented, after all moving around becomes easier regardless of what's coming ahead of you. Of course it wouldn't make a difference if the scrolling wasn't any good, but fortunately that's not the case with iS. The game never slips off its native framerate and is a beauty to look at when in motion.

Every stage has four "phases" prior to the boss, which is fought in an open plane in pure arena fashion. Phases are separated by a short section of invincible spinning blocks reminiscent of Xevious. Die anywhere, including during this block transition, and you have to restart the phase from the beginning. All enemies arrive and attack in specific formations with very rare instances of overlapping. There are lots of mini-bosses and a few surprising breaks in the game flow, such as the whole 6th stage and its block riddles, including a lengthy block maze in phase D. Even though the game adopts an abstract concept for graphics, each stage has a general theme that dictates the shapes forming everywhere around the player (gems, characters, bricks, outer space, etc.).

Stage 1
(courtesy of YouTube user plonk420)

For each fully destroyed wave and mini-boss an extra amount of points is obtained, as you can see from the bonus tags that float towards the player. Some of these small bonuses increase in value if you eliminate the opposition faster, and you can even trigger extra enemies by doing that (such as the extra laser snake in stage 5D). Regardless of how well you perform in killing everything, the bulk of the scoring system is actually in no-missing whole stages. Deaths are extremely detrimental to scoring because each death takes away a good chunk of the stage bonus completion. I couldn't grasp the exact rules, but from my brief experience with the game three deaths are enough to give you no bonus at all in any level. Besides, the amount of earned extends will be drastically reduced if you die, thus affecting the completion bonus of 30.000 points per extra life.

When you realize you can amass so many extra points and lives just by avoiding death, some of the most intricate full wave kills aren't worth the risk anymore. Keeping the finger on the trigger (as the announcer from Donpachi would say) is still good practice though, even when you're amidst the Xevious indestructible blocks. Sometimes you'll hit spots that hide fish, which then move out as if released from prison or something like it. Hitting fish spots gives you some points and perhaps a surprising view of an up close mackerel (saba) but that's it, just a quirky mysterious detail in a relatively straightforward shooting adventure.

Besides the Normal game mode, iS - Internal Section also has a few "arrange" modes such as Enhanced (which is considerably harder), Ambient 1/2/3 and Fullauto. I have no idea what's behind Fullauto, since the game doesn't respond to any input there and seems to play by itself. In all of the Ambient modes, which play just like Normal mode with minor difficulty alterations, you can select your own soundtrack by choosing a different song for any level or even swapping the disc for a music CD as soon as the credit starts (that's why you see a save moment before the start of any game). As mentioned above Options include button remapping as well as weapon edit (alter weapon cycling order), sound and screen adjustments and automatic saving.

I had great fun and urge everyone to try this neat little game. I tried to do my best in Normal mode, with the final results shown in the picture below. Cool detail: for all 1CC/ALL runs you're entitled to see a few extra stats just by pressing ○ at the highlighted score. I assume that "worst" section is supposed to save completion results with the lowest possible scores one can achieve, but I wasn't willing to test that.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle (Nintendo DS)

Horizontal / Rail
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Altron

Published by THQ in 2006

Danny Phantom was a relatively successful cartoon that aired on the Nickelodeon channel from 2004 to 2007, starring a teenage boy endowed with ghost-like supernatural powers who fights to protect his hometown from otherworldly menaces. One of the two video games to have come out from the show, Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle is based on a specific episode that gets reenacted in glorious shoot'em up fashion, full of all sorts of different weapons and colorful backgrounds. It only came out for two Nintendo handheld systems, the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS.

The DS version is of course the more accomplished of the two. Speaking of this particular version, while relatively competent in the art design front the game was obviously tailored to its target audience and doesn't demand much from the average player, serving solely as a breezy diversion from more serious shooting endeavors. Danny's two best friends are the main supporting characters and interact with him in between levels throughout the whole game, which should prove amusing for fans of the show at least. In both the cartoon and the game's story, an evil entity called Undergrowth attempts to turn the city into a warped jungle with an army of unfriendly ghosts. It's up to Danny to capture them and free the enslaved citizens.

Let's meet Undergrowth, shall we?
(courtesy of YouTube user IGN)

Each stage/world is comprised of two sections guarded by bosses and a bonus area where you must fulfill different tasks to improve your score. Danny shoots with button A and deploys his ghost powers with button B. These ghost powers are always selected before the stage section starts, from a gallery that starts off with the three most basic special attacks: the "phasing" (invencibiliy/invisibility), the boomerang and the thermos, a ray that weakens and sucks ghosts (yes, just like in that famous movie with Rick Moranis). Other ghost powers are unlocked as you get through the game, such as the ghostly ice/fire and other types of ghost-busting devices. Cycling through ghost powers is accomplished with button L, but you can also fire them directly by tapping the corresponding icon in the touch screen.

Besides the default main weapon (N), you'll also come across the piercing shot (P), the homing shot (H) and the laser (L). Non-default weapons are obtained by shooting and cycling the corresponding incoming icon. The departure from the norm here is that you must activate all of them in every single stage. There's also a charge shot that's activated by quickly tapping the shot button and holding it until you see Danny's hand glow. It's a very powerful attack that varies according to the current weapon. Green capsules upgrade the firepower and are also needed in every single level if you want to have a maxed out shot (three capsules needed). Buttons Y and X cycle through the available weapons, a selection that can also be made by means of the touch screen.

The last control input in Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle is button R, which toggles Danny's aura between red and blue. Each aura allows him to absorb bullets of the same color, just like in Ikaruga. Soaked bullets are the main way of filling up the gauge that provides energy for ghost attacks. You can also do it by trapping ghosts with the thermos: for a certain amount of ghosts trapped you acquire a special capsule that's stored in the lower left box in the touch panel; just touch one of them when you need to recover ghost power. Likewise, all hearts collected are stored in the upper left box in the touch panel, just touch one of them when you need to recover lost health. All ghost capsules and hearts in stock are wiped out when a new level starts.

As we can see, there's no shortage of resources in the gameplay and all buttons are put to good use. Unfortunately, the sheer number of survival aids is more than enough for you to cruise through the game on your first sitting, as was my case. What's left as a challenge, if you decide to do so, is exploring a few techniques to score higher. A chaining system is in place for successive enemy kills, where every enemy destroyed adds to a multiplier combo (approximately two seconds max between each kill). Besides, at the end of every level you're rewarded for the amount of ghosts/enemies you obliterated and also for speed-killing the boss.

I ain't 'fraid of no ghost

More than the lack of challenge, the aspect that undermines Urban Jungle's appreciation the most is certainly the repetitive gameplay. Little is to be expected besides taking down wave after wave of cannon fodder, the occasional medium-sized ghost and then the boss. Once you figure out how efficient the homing weapon is for crowd control there's little incentive to get out of your way to survive (for bosses the best one is the laser though). In a few levels you need to go around obstacles and walls, but that's it.

A glimpse of something more demanding appears in the area where you need to phase across buildings that block your whole path or else you'll take damage. No phasing available though? Don't worry, ramming across these buildings won't seriously impact your health meter. Another glimpse of diversity appears in the 4th world, which turns the game into a rail shooter where Danny pilots a spaceship. Gameplay rules change a little bit there, but everything is still as easy as the previous levels. What's left for real variety, strangely enough, are the bonus areas. The tasks you need to accomplish there are all different from each other. In one of them, for example, you're only allowed to soak bullets, whereas in another you're supposed to play for as long as you can if don't let a determined amount of ghosts escape.

All things considered, Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle at least serves as a good introductory shmup for kids. The cartoon seems to be a charming one from what I've quickly seen, so the fan service also represents a good part of the enjoyment factor. Beating the game unlocks a few extra things in the opening menu, such as a sound test and a boss battle mode that I didn't care to try. I just played two full credits in the main game on Normal difficulty, and the results for both are shown in the following high score table.