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, 45º 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.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Star Soldier (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
16 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Taxan in 1988

We all know that being late to the party often comes with some sort of loss, and chances are we’ll end up partying alone. Nevertheless there are occasions when this is actually a good thing, as in approaching a game that had a healthy share of praise and fame in the past only to find out it’s actually very disappointing at its core. And by keeping a distance from hype one gets to know the real content beneath raving reviews, nostalgia patrolling trolls and any sort of rose-tinted glasses devised by gaming or marketing phenomena.

In my humble ignorance for a long time I thought Star Soldier was originally an arcade title, mostly because it’s considered to be a spiritual sequel to Tecmo’s Star Force. Only very recently did I know that Star Soldier was actually born on home platforms, more specifically the NES and the MSX – since I can’t precise which one came first I’ll assume both were released simultaneously by Hudson Soft in Japan in 1986. For some reason I can only relate to clever reading of audience preferences back then, Star Soldier became very popular and spawned a series of similarly designed games, some of them as spin-offs and some as proper sequels.

Having played this for the first time ever, I was left wondering in what sort of trance gamers in the 80s were to even consider it a good game since almost everything about it rubs me the wrong way. Just for the sake of comparison, in my opinion Star Force for the NES is leaps and bounds a more pleasing experience in its basic yet brutal simplicity.

That's what a star brain looks like, Caesar!

On the outside Star Soldier looks a lot like Star Force. In every stage players fly through outer space then over terrain, destroying ground blocks and a series of different enemies that arrive in specific formations. The order of the enemy waves is always the same and no wave (or wave group) appears before the previous one has been obliterated or has left the screen, that’s why after a while you can have different enemies in the same places even between stages. The normal boss to be faced is the star brain, but every four levels you’ll be fighting a larger boss called super star brain. A hidden timer exists for every boss fight, and if you take too long to beat the boss you’ll have to replay half the level in order to have a second/final go against him. And if you time out again the boss will start to shoot nasty homing bullets.

Bullet count and overall enemy aggression is slowly increased as you make your way across 16 stages. These are of considerably repetitive nature since there’s no special aspect at all about the graphics, which basically just change colors and tiles from beginning to end. When you hit little Ps on the ground you release a floating S icon that serves as the basic power-up: the first one works as a speed-up and a firing rate enhancer, the second one adds an additional stream to the main shot an a single rear shot (2-way) and the third one grants the ship with the famous 5-way spread shot the game became known for, as well as providing a shield that protects the ship against bullets (collisions are fatal). Further power-ups will work as smart bombs and kill all enemies on the screen.

Besides the S power-up there’s also an extensive gallery of hidden items to be discovered, and this is one of the many aspects of Star Soldier that I seriously dislike. Just thinking about it makes me angry because what’s the objective point of having an item hidden in the scenery but only being able to uncover it if you have a certain combination of digits in your score? Make life unnecessarily harder, suck the fun out of the game? In all my sessions, for example, I was simply unable to collect any of the 1UPs even though I knew exactly where they were! I won’t discuss how you’re supposed to unveil this or all the other hidden tiles in Star Soldier, so I’ll just recommend the reader to check the Strategywiki page on the game. Suffice it to say, I think I haven’t dug up any of the other items except for a big P (instantaneous maximum power) maybe once or twice. It sucks, but at least you get three score extends at 50, 200 and 500 thousand points...

That being said, would it be okay to say that I probably lacked the patience to really appreciate Star Soldier? I don’t think so, especially when I remember how I first felt when my ship wasn’t able to shoot. When I started playing I thought those bursts of unresponsiveness were due to a faulty controller, but then I noticed there are chunks of the scenery where the ship “hides itself” from the enemy. It wouldn’t be that bad if it weren’t for the fact that you also can’t shoot while covered. Knowing when this cloaking effect will take place is impossible because there’s no clear border anywhere, and until you realize what’s really going on confusion kicks in hard, with the ship resurfacing over enemies and precious items being out of reach. Tip: if you find yourself hidden get out from the closest border and you’ll be able to fly back over the terrain.

Attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user GAMEINFO)

What makes me really sad about this game is that it comes out as a missed development opportunity over all the good there was in Star Force. As if the above annoyances weren’t enough, if you get hit with the 5-way weapon the ship is downgraded to 2-way but the next S item won’t restore 5-way. In order to recover the 5-way shot you need to take another 4 hits to lose the shield, only then being able to collect the S for the 5-way upgrade (successive power-ups while shielded in this condition will only result in the smart bomb). If things become too hectic while chasing bullets in order to get hit, guide yourself by the music. There are only two BGMs in the whole game after all, one for a default-powered ship and another that plays while you have an active shield (there's a very brief window of invincibility when you lose it).

Given all the weird traits I pointed above, what’s left to go for in Star Soldier? I’d say try to kill everything possible, including the big head that materializes from four pieces before these pieces are put together (80.000 points). There are six hidden X tiles in each stage that can be easily uncovered and destroyed while increasing in value, and if you find them all the last one will be worth 80.000 points (don’t wait to destroy them in the lower half of the screen though, they become “invincible” in their way out). And if you manage to blast both big eyes that precede the boss fight at around the same time you’ll also get 80.000 points. Lastly, don’t even think of entering the battle with a stock controller… Turbo function is a must, otherwise you can kiss goodbye to most of these bonuses.

Honestly, I don’t think I was ever this annoyed with an NES shmup. I don’t find the idea of hiding hidden items even more the least bit fun. Being hit to power back up again? No-no. Being prohibited from shooting? This last aspect only made a little sense in the last quarter of the game. At that point enemies start spitting the same timeout homing bullets from bosses, which remain on screen for a few seconds chasing you around and to which hiding beneath the ground does become a valid resource (another way to avoid the homing missiles is to downgrade the ship to its default firepower).

Compared to the evil difficulty of predecessor Star Force, Star Soldier is at least fairly manageable. Both bullet count and enemy speed aren’t as crazy, and the few overlapping waves aren’t nearly as brutal. I’m glad I’m done with it and I just hope the next chapters aren’t as annoying as this one. When the last super star brain explodes you’re treated with the following screen showing your completion score. I played it straight and didn’t time out any boss.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Thunder Force III (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft in 1989
Published by Technosoft in 1996

Thunder Force III on the Sega Saturn! In my case, through an S-video connection that surprisingly doesn’t make the game any more gorgeous than it is on a good old Mega Drive. Is that supposed to be bad, some people might wonder? Of course not! That just confirms how much of a 16-bit marvel this game actually is. Make no mistake, my friends: for those who lived that era to the fullest Thunder Force III was pure bliss. It was the bee’s knees. We were kids, gaming was naively fun and Technosoft was then a young god on the rise.

The success on the Mega Drive was such that years later a compilation titled Thunder Force Gold Pack 1 brought both Thunder Force II and Thunder Force III to Sega’s 32-bit platform, for the joy of nostalgia buffs everywhere. It’s been 20 years since this disc’s release, and here I am savoring the Saturn port for the first time. Blame it on a great bunch of shmupping peers who never cease to gleefully push me to play games I wouldn’t dare for the most different reasons. And the most interesting aspect in this case is that we were supposed to play it on Normal difficulty, something I never really cared about since I always went straight to Mania (Very Hard).

Why straight to Mania, you might ask?

Opening animation for Thunder Force Gold Pack 1
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Even though this game is known for wowing players and onlookers alike, it does have an inherent problem that might let many people down: it's just too darn easy in its default setting. Of course we all die here and there when we start to play it because of instant walls crushing you from the sides or enemies zapping quickly into the screen. However, Thunder Force III becomes a cakewalk once you memorize these obstacles, power up the ship and figure out the importance of the hunter (H) and sever (red S) upgrades. On top of that you get one of the most benevolent extend schemes of the genre, which grants extra lives like candy both by scoring and by collecting 1UP items.

For example, it's hard for evil final boss Orn to stand a chance when you get to him with more than 10 lives in reserve because even if you die plenty it's still possible to pound him away. The most logical challenge factor here, obviously, is to beat the game while losing the miminum amount of lives since each one will be worth 10.000 points in the end. Remaining credits are a no-brainer since you'll be conquering a 1CC, with a useless ×1 multiplier for playing on Normal difficulty. And then maximizing score comes down to killing everything in sight and milking the little drones or missiles you see coming out of hatches/enemies.

In order to try and boost my score this time around I started the game on planet Haides. By doing that you come out of the first level with the hunter weapon and a shield, resources that help greatly in scoring (you won't get those by starting on default planet Hydra). Shield is self-explanatory, but hunter is particularly useful because it will home on anything, including hidden items that must be shot at to be revealed. I don't want to repeat myself too much, so for further info on gameplay details please refer to the text I wrote on the Mega Drive original.

Gargoyle's lair is so cozy!

The important thing to note here is that Thunder Force III is still fun despite being too easy on Normal difficulty. I always crank up the volume when I'm playing it because the music is amazing, as well as the sense of flow it lends to the action. One little drawback of playing the Saturn port is that since the sound emulation had to be accomplished with CD tracks you need to cope with those brief pauses when the BGMs loop. Everything else about the game is just like in the original, with an added bonus of a nice low-res animated intro that plays before you choose which title you'll be playing.

My first 1LC when playing on Normal resulted in the score shown below. Then I found out that trying to maximize the score is a bit tricky, seeing that in a couple of further credits I thought I had killed more enemies even though my final score was lower.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

X-Multiply (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem in 1989
Published by Irem / Xing in 1998

I have mixed feelings towards X-Multiply. I do enjoy the organic setting that supposedly puts you inside the organs a living being. It's as if Irem had deviated from the path established by R-Type and somehow entered the world of Konami's Life Force. The issue here is that the game falls a little short in its graphic design, which at times lacks background detail and doesn't quite feel like an evolution from the company’s previous titles. The music, however, is absolutely superb in its otherworldly, deliciously eerie nature. All of this makes me think of X-Multiply as a lost link between the first wave of big horizontals and their sequels/progressions, seeing that it doesn’t really belong to either category.

As explicitly stated in the title, X-Multiply comes bundled with Image Fight in the Image Fight & X-Multiply compilation, released for the Sega Saturn and the Playstation only in Japan around ten years after both games were out in the arcade scene. Even though Image Fight is the superior one here, X-Multiply at least doesn't fail to provide decent atmosphere, fair challenge and reasonable recovery possibilities upon death. This last aspect of the game is what makes it relatively approachable especially when compared with Irem's own classic R-Type, where dying in certain parts of the credit pretty much meant a sorry GAME OVER.

X-Multiply on the Sega Saturn - Intro, attract mode and 1st stage
(courtesy of YouTube user Kylemeister13)

Throughout all seven stages of X-Multiply the player will be subject to a wide array of organic enemies, from a legion of spores glued on walls to deadly amoebas, pustulent orifices, tissue rashes releasing violent antibodies, moving bowels, acid droplets, invincible worms and alien parasites a.k.a. bosses. Gameplay couldn’t be more simple because only one button is used to shoot, with rapid fire naturally assigned to button B. Above all, the feature that defines this game is the moving pair of tentacles acquired by the spaceship as soon as the first power-up is collected. These tentacles bounce about gracefully as the player moves, resting in an elegant vertical alignment if you stop moving. And what a treat, the mechanical transmission of the tentacles is so advanced that not a single ounce of inertia exists! Thanks, Irem.

Not only do the tentacles increase your firepower and range, but they also provide protection against most enemy projectiles. Nonetheless special attention should be taken when moving them, since there’s always the risk of a stray bullet getting through. The first power-up collected will only activate the tentacles, but after the second one you’ll start to take advantage of their abilities according to a simple color code: red (lasers), blue (homing missiles) and yellow (directional shots – shoot backwards if you move forward and vice-versa). Since there’s no need to stick to the same item to upgrade your firepower just take whatever comes your way and be happy.

Other items available consist of speed-up (S), speed-down (Ƨ), ground bomb/missile (B) and extra life (1UP). Those Darius-like ground missiles can be fairly destructive when used at point blank distance (precious advice here), particularly after you take the second B, and while I do appreciate the ability to reduce speed if you happen to take successive speed-ups, in my opinion just one speed-up is enough to play through the whole game. No matter how many you decide to use, even the most simple memorization effort eventually leads to victory since this is a classic methodical shooter.

And even though it's definitely there, rank in X-Multiply seems to be simply related to the number of lives you have in stock (that's easily noticed when you die against one of the later bosses). Note that the only extra lives appear halfway into stages 3 and 6.

Come into my swift, swift arms

X-Multiply’s highlights are the bosses, a gallery of huge parasites that live up to the legacy started by Dobkeratops. Without a doubt they’re the best visual assets of the game, which might go unnoticed due to the amount of dodging you might need to execute at times. The fourth boss, for example, is nicely animated in its horrific representation, detaching the chest so that it chases you around amidst spreads of huge pink bullets, only then exposing the pulsating heart that needs to be destroyed for the battle to end.

Unfortunately, when talking about the porting job of this particular release I can’t help but show disappointment because X-Multiply suffers from the same resolution issue of Image Fight. Simply put, the game is just “too big” to fit a regular TV screen, to the point where the lower HUD won’t even show your score properly! To get around that the publisher added extra functions to the shoulder buttons: L moves the HUD into the visible area, R moves it back to its starting position. Don't get your hopes up though, seeing the HUD is totally detrimental to survival because it blocks a large chunk of the screen... And sadly there’s nothing to be done about the upper border, so I needed to educate myself on how far I could go in certain levels to not die by touching it. At the expense of sharpness, the Playstation port deals with that more gently.

Maybe retributing the move made by Irem, later on Konami took the concept of this game and further developed it into Xexex, a game that kinda turns X-Multiply into R-Type by having the tentacles detach from the ship just like the original force pod from the latter.

My best effort with the Saturn version of X-Multiply is below. I reached stage 2-6 playing on Normal difficulty.