Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Whip Rush (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Vic Tokai
Published by Renovation in 1990

The year is 2222 AD. Earth is under attack by the Voltegians, another alien menace that's about to crush our little planet into oblivion. As the pilot of the small spaceship Whip Rush, you're Earth's only hope of escaping a dreadful fate. So gear up and prepare to dart into a series of treacherous environments in a mission that owes more than it seems to R-Type, while building upon the rudimentary mold seen in Arrow Flash.

Regarding the console part of the previous sentence, it's clear to me that Sega must have had a powerful say in Whip Rush despite most sources stating the game was solely developed by Vic Tokai. In any case, it's easy to dismiss Whip Rush as another run of the mill 16-bit shmup. Graphics (simple) and music (mostly grating and unremarkable) are to blame for that, but as it sometimes happens with such games this is one of those cases where the act of pursuing a high score definitely shines. Behind the humble aesthetics lies a scoring system that's cleverly designed to reward the player's performance, as well as a difficulty slope that's a lot more obtuse than in your average 16-bit blaster.

In short, clearing Whip Rush isn't supposed to be hard. Scoring well, on the other hand, is a completely different matter.

The asteroid field of stage 4

All three original buttons in the Mega Drive controller are used to handle the spaceship. Fire with B, set flying speed with A and control the options with C (this setup is customizable). Autofire is enabled by default, there are 8 speed settings and a small gallery of power-ups makes it simple to manage your arsenal. Upon releasing an item it always cycles in the following order: L (laser weapon) → M (missile weapon) → F (fireball weapon) → P (power claw / option) → L → etc. Upgrading any of the three weapons is achieved by picking up successive items of the same type, a process that's maxed out once the third power-up is collected. If you get hit when using one of these weapons you're sent back to the default shot, only dying when hit in that condition.

Up to two options can be activated by collecting the P item, and while they naturally add more firepower to the bare ship it's the use of the C button that really makes them an incredible attack resource. Note that they don't possess any defensive capabilities and also don't cause any damage on contact when resting in their native spots. That said, the effect of the C button depends on whether you're firing or not. Whenever you're firing, options will bounce outward and inward really fast in a "whipping" effect, spreading your firepower and finally causing damage to the targeted enemies. If the ship is not firing, each press of the C button alternates option alignment from vertical to horizontal and vice-versa, thus slightly changing the reach and the firing pattern of your current weapon.

Though not bombastic in any specific area or section, Whip Rush has it all in terms of variety in the stage design, which gets more and more claustrophobic as the game progresses. The wide open screens of the first stages are nowhere to be seen in the second half of the game, which is prone to changing environments and scrolling direction more than once in the same level. Expect caverns, water, fortresses and moving blocks galore, as well as bosses that grow in size and ability to cover their weak spots. Did I say Whip Rush owes a lot to R-Type? Well, it does. And it does it really well if we consider inspiration alone.

With extends given with 50.000, 100.000 points and at every interval of 100.000 points after that, it's easy to see that life counter inflating after a while. Even more important for the scoring side of things is the fact that each remaining life is converted into 100.000 points upon beating the game. And considering that every surplus power-up of the same weapon type is worth 5.000 points once you're maxed out, cruising through the game unscathed should be every score chaser's primary aim (every time you get hit you'll lose at least 15.000 points, for example).

Deliver mankind from doom!
(courtesy of YouTube user FunCade 64)

A few factors are responsible for taking Whip Rush off the batch of regular 16-bit shooters. One of them is the exquisite balance between weapons. They are all useful but none of them will make you feel completely comfortable. The laser is the strongest one, but lacks any sort of rear firepower. Missiles are somewhat weaker, but can fire backwards and possess a faint homing ability. Unfortunately both laser and missiles lack a vertical shot, such as the one that comes with an option-laden default gun. On the other hand, this is somewhat provided by the counter-directional nature of the fireball, an all-around weapon that requires a higher degree of control to be properly used.

Rank is the other fine aspect of Whip Rush. If you manage to go on without getting hit the game will become harder and enemies will shoot more and more frequently. The aggression increase is rather subtle though, and mostly unnoticeable if you're constantly getting shot and having to repower the ship. Speaking of power-ups, note how the ship glows briefly whenever you pick up an item: at that very moment you're invincible, which means you can get through bullets and walls unharmed. Taking advantage of this extremely cool feature is definitely possible in several points throughout the game.

I admit it took me a long time and a little push from a few shmupper friends to play Whip Rush again, but I'm glad I did it. It's more fun than I had initially thought, and it also has what it takes to offer a decent challenge for the more ambitious players. My best 1CC high score on Normal difficulty was improved by 109%.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Soldier Blade (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Hudson Soft
in 1992

Whenever a video game series reaches its fourth chapter it's only natural for fans to expect nothing but greatness, is it not? I can't be considered a fan, but to me this is especially true in regards to the Star Soldier franchise, after all I wasn't the least thrilled by Final Soldier, the third game. The formula of Super Star Soldier seemed to have been copypasted without much enthusiasm, to the point where this particular style of sterile, alien landscapes started to feel samey.

That said, I'm glad I decided to tackle the next chapter right away, for not only does Soldier Blade dismiss the "final" epitaph from its predecessor, but it also presents shooting action over terrains that feel more down to earth. Granted, the overall style hasn't changed much, but the game certainly goes beyond the emphasis on sci-fi by adding a few military-themed areas and some sections with nice parallax scrolling. In addition to that, as it's possible to assert from the amount of influences seen both in the graphics and the gameplay, it was very wise from Hudson Soft to take a look at what the other companies were doing at the time.

In keeping with the series tradition, besides the main game the HuCard also includes 2 and 5 minute caravan modes. Gameplay rules aren't the same for all of these modes though. When playing caravan you're stuck with the vulcan weapon and it's not possible to sacrifice power-ups for special attacks as you do in the main course.

Blades over stars

The neverending battle for peace against outer space alien enemies is resumed as if nothing had changed, except for the arsenal your spaceship carries in its heroic quest. Commands work with shot in button II, special attack in button I and speed selection with SELECT (out of just two settings: low or high). There are three weapon types that change according to the color of the currently active power-up: classic Star Soldier 5-way vulcan shot (red), spread laser (blue) and wave shot (green). It takes only two power-ups of equal color to achieve maximum power, with every subsequent item of the same color resulting in a smart bomb that clears the screen of bullets and small enemies. Once any power-up is collected a single auxiliary invincible shadow ship starts trailing you around, improving your firepower a bit and blocking regular bullets. Every hit taken degrades firepower by one level, while deaths only occur if the ship is at its weakest condition.

I especially mentioned "currently active" above because of the way special attacks work. In the lower right corner there's a display that shows the last three collected power-ups. By pressing button I the current weapon is sacrificed into a special attack: if you're using vulcan the option homes in on the closest enemy, if you've got wave the option turns into a green cloud that travels around the screen damaging whatever lies in its path, if you've got laser the result is a thick laser beam. The good news is that the ship remains invincible during the whole special attack animation, and you can track how long it lasts by means of a small gauge that appears in the upper left corner of the screen. When the special attack is over the next weapon/power-up type in line takes over.

At first this mechanic of sacrifing weapons for special attacks doesn't seem to be so important. But once you get used to the different weapon types and the way they work you start noticing how well designed it actually is. Successively triggering all kinds of special attacks whenever you see a power-up coming is lots of fun, with the added benefit of making survival a tad easier if you're wise on your weapon choices. Most players will propably stick with the coverage provided by the blue laser inspired by Truxton, even though the other ones aren't too shabby either (the wave shot is clearly inspired by Thunder Force III). However, the best special attack by far is the vulcan's, simply because you're still allowed to shoot during the attack unlike with laser or wave. A vulcan special attack + point-blanking can be devastating against bosses, that's why a power-up stock of laser at the bottom and 1 or 2 vulcans at the front sounded like the perfect choice for me. Wave shot gets totally shafted in the end because its special attack is too slow against foes that move around a lot.

Soldier Blade's opening intro
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Just like in other Hudson Soft / Compile shooters, Soldier Blade has that split-second invincibility whenever you take a power-up. It does preserve the style of previous chapters while incorporating new elements that hint at a few external influences. I mentioned some of them above, but there's also an underlying touch of Raiden everywhere (the bridges above the city in stage 3 are a prime example) and a strong nod to MUSHA in stage 4. Bosses are obvious lightlights, often presenting themselves as multi-jointed ships that must be dismantled limb by limb. The final boss pesters you throughout the whole game in between mid-boss encounters, and upon defeat says "I'll be back" in a glorious scratchy digitized voice. And I know this might sound like a stretch, but the opening of the game has the honor of predating the awesome cinematics of the iconic opening to Thunder Force IV.

Difficultywise Soldier Blade shows a steady challenge slope with a generous extend scheme. The first extend comes with 100.000 points, and further ones will register at every 200.000 points afterwards. Dying can be severely aggravating though, even with that lone power-up that's left behind as your ship explodes. Bosses that tend to fill the screen with all sorts of attacks are particularly threatening, but only until you figure out their patterns. In any case, using special attacks wisely and trusting the protection provided by the option are the best advices players are bound to get when trying to beat this game.

Basic scoring is very straightforward, but unfortunately this is yet another case where the overall scoring system is broken. There are several boss encounters where it's possible to milk projectiles ad eternum with the use of the blue weapon (an easy example is in one of the phases of the tank boss in the third stage). Even though this certainly chips away some of the goodness in it, there's no doubt that Soldier Blade still stands as the most fun chapter of the series in HuCard form. The next installment is on the Nintendo 64 in the form of Star Soldier - Vanishing Earth, but there's also the spin-off comical spoof Star Parodier, which was released soon after Soldier Blade for the PC Engine CD.

And below is my second 1CC score for this episode (Normal difficulty). When the game halts at the final message after the credits just press SELECT + START to go back to the start screen and check out your high score.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Final Soldier (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Hudson Soft
in 1991

Another chapter in the Soldier series of shooting games, Final Soldier follows Super Star Soldier and thus keeps the franchise in the realm of the PC Engine console. There is a story going on involving aliens coming from the future to conquer Earth during the 23rd century and bla-bla-bla... That's the reason why the first stage takes place in what's called "future zone", which is then followed by our regular landscapes on the desert, over the ocean, in an urban area and then back to outer space and weird environments for the rest of the ship's mission.

Gameplay inputs consist of shot (button II), option explode (button I) and speed switch (SELECT, three settings available). Shot type is determined by the items you pick up from destroyed carriers, which include V (vulcan), L (laser), E (e-beam) and F (flamethrower), as well as auxiliary missiles (M) and options that provide extra firepower (a canister-like icon). What's specific to this chapter within the series is the fact that you can assign different behaviors to the L, E, F and M weapons in the SET-UP options at the start screen, prior to beginning the credit. So with the exception of the classic 5-way vulcan shot, the trademark of the series, each weapon can have three variations that work very distinctly from each other.

The process of weapon upgrading is very simple: just stick to the same item and collect two of them to reach maximum power. Every time you get hit the ship gets downgraded by one level, which means you die when shot at a default condition. While this is a very lenient scheme for a disguised health bar, dying in the busiest levels can be extremely aggravating because you're always respawned with the weakest ship configuration. That often leads to multiple deaths if you're not familiar with the area, leaving you close to a GAME OVER because the extend routine will "only" grant four extra lives throughout the whole credit, all of them acquired by the time you reach 600.000 points. Yes, Final Soldier can be considered one of the easiest in the series, but not due to excessive extra lives.

Attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

By pressing button I the player is able to sacrifice one of the options into a spiralling bomb with great destructive effect. It's an excellent way to deal with lots of enemies at once as well as inflicting damage on bosses. Speaking of which, they're preceded by one of more mid-bosses and are often quite large, making players move a lot around the screen. Some of them even offer several phases of resistance, such as the very last boss. He pesters the player during the whole final level while a seizure-inducing background scrolls by really fast as he comes and goes surrounded by a series of cannon fodder. And even though all boss fights are preceded by an ominous Darius-esque warning of ENEMY APPROACHING, I swear the announcer actually says AVIAN APPROACHING. Indeed there are a few bosses that can be categorized as "avian", but the overall game design does not emphasize this aspect at all.

Going all the way with maxed out weapons without getting hit and without sacrificing options is the key to achieving high scores the regular way. Each extra option collected is worth 1.000 points, and 2.000 points is what you get for an extra weapon power-up. Unfortunately the scoring in Final Soldier is broken: very early on you can exploit the first boss for his destructible projectiles, just kill the first mecha and damage the second one to the point he starts spewing lots of bullets, then park your ship on either side with a weapon of narrow reach or short range capability.

Even though there's nothing funtamentally wrong with Final Soldier besides the broken scoring system, there's no doubt the game suffers a bit from lack of character. On the outside very little seems to have changed from Super Star Soldier, except for maybe a little more color. Of all weapons available my feeling was that the best one for pretty much all situations is still the good old 5-way shot; the laser is too narrow and all flame variations are just too slow, but at least the e-beam can still be of some use due to its bending nature. As positive points, stages are of considerable length and the soundtrack certainly shines in the second half of the game.

Wiper electrical rings, lettuce flavor

For those who care, the HuCard includes the famous 2-minute and 5-minute Caravan modes, complete with those endless stretches of colored tiles and lots of staggering orbs like the ones seen in GunHed and Super Star Soldier. These modes are actually so different and detached from the game itself that I can't help but wonder if Hudson Soft just wanted to throw out another yearly Soldier game in order to fuel their Caravan tournaments, instead of actually putting a little more effort into the main product.

Is that perhaps why I've always considered this series so mundane? I never tried to hide my indifference for caravan variations, and I still hope this franchise is able to deliver more than what I've seen so far (the next chapter is Soldier Blade). Damn, I hope Hudson Soft learned something from their brief collaboration with Compile, which was probably the company most akin to them at the time and was certainly able to sustain a steadier level of diversity in their Aleste games, for example.

My weapons of choice while playing on Normal difficulty were all the defaults: short (L), wiper (E), burner (F) and homing (M). And my best 1CC result with no milking at all is shown below. See you next in Soldier Blade!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Dangerous Seed (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
4 Difficulty levels
12 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco in 1990

No matter where you come from or the influence you might carry from early gaming memories, there's no denying that insects in space is quite a charming idea for a shooter. Dangerous Seed on the Mega Drive is yet another attempt at an insect-based shmup as seen from the game cover, which shows your mighty spaceship dodging the web clots of a hideous-looking spider. The results are of the mixed kind though: there are some cool bits here and there, but later on the game kinda deviates from its core and ends up lacking any wow factor, such as those seen in Insector X or Bio-Hazard Battle. Or perhaps horis are better suited than verts for that, I don't know. At least during the 16-bit era.

Port of an arcade title released a year before, unfortunately Dangerous Seed didn't make it out of Japan. It also doesn't quite push the Mega Drive hardware in any way, both in terms of graphic design or gameplay, taking more than a few liberties with the source material in order to make it more forgiving. It sort of follows the path Namco was taking with its shooting division after the release of Dragon Spirit, even though I heard or read somewhere that the game was at one point supposed to be a spin-off sequel to Galaga. How weird is that?

Preparing to take on a mission across the Solar System
(courtesy of YouTube user 10min Gameplay)

The upgrade system is rather unique in Dangerous Seed. In the first couple of levels you play with the alpha (α) ship, then it gets combined with the beta (β) ship during stages 3 and 4 and finally merged with the gamma (γ) ship prior to stage 5. Each ship has its own 3-cell life bar, if you lose a ship you'll lose its power while the other ones remain, and if the last one crashes before you reach the boss the game sends you back to the start of the level (bosses are their own checkpoints). Commands work with A for shot, B for bomb and C for ship combination, meaning you always need to choose a leading ship if you've got more than one, that is, from stage 3 onwards. Each ship arrangement, called Moon Diver, provides distinct bomb types and a different shot pattern based on the power-up you've chosen with your item pick-ups. Come to think of it, it's actually a rather complicated system, one that I only really grasped after I had beaten the game once or twice.

Picking up the items released by specific enemies is essential to keep a steady survival chance throughout the game. You need at least two speed-ups (S) to dodge decently, and then five of the same colored power-ups (P) to max out your firepower. The colors cycle between green (default/forward shot), blue (thin laser) and red (wave shot), and as I mentioned above the effectiveness of each one is directly related to which ship you select as the leader (α, β or γ). Early on I decided to just avoid the laser like the plague, since it absolutely sucks no matter how strong it might be against bulky enemies, namely bosses.

Other less frequent items are energy recharge (looks like a little tube, refills the energy of a battered ship), ship revive (looks like a big ship, comes up instead of the energy recharge if a ship is down), extra bomb and option (O). The O only starts appearing a few stages into the game, but it becomes a great aid if you can collect four options without getting hit. Getting hit, by the way, causes the firepower of the leading ship to downgrade, and getting hit successively can even put you in a very weak status. Even though the game seems to grant you nine hits before dying (3 per ship) there's absolutely no recovery window upon taking damage, so beware. A complete, healthy ship can be instantly lost if you happen to crash against a large enemy.

Despite the departures from the arcade gameplay, all of which serve to make the port a much tamer challenge, Dangerous Seed at least keeps the original atmosphere. Pacing is overall slow despite some brief sections where the scrolling accelerates, with ship mechanics that share close traits with Terra Cresta and Slap Fight. Adding four extra short stages with recycled enemies and bosses at the end was an unnecessary move by Namco – instead the company could've used those resources to give a little more polish to graphics and music. They're not bad but not remarkable either, whereas the gameplay suffers from slowdown whenever the screen gets too cluttered. Well, at least the slowdown is not of the stuttering type, nor is it accompanied by flicker.

Are ring bombs good enough for bugs?

Chasing higher scores in this game involves everything you might expect from a 16-bit shooter, starting with "don't get hit and kill everything in sight". Sticking to the same power-up color is also interesting since each extra P when maxed out is worth 1.000 points. Milking checkpoints and projectiles is another possibility, one that fortunately doesn't break the game in regard to bosses. They're often very large and require you to move around a lot, so no matter how careful you are with your milking they will eventually receive enough damage and die. Still when it comes down to bosses, a nice treat that was preserved from the arcade is the choosing of alternate paths in stages 5 and 6: all you need to do is time out the boss to play different subsequent levels. Most of the changes are in enemy sprites being overhauled, but I haven't tried to see if the alternate stages have more scoring opportunities.

Another strange thing about the port are the Easy and "Digest" difficulties, which only let you play a few selected stages (9 on Easy, just 4 on Digest). Beating the game on any difficulty triggers expert mode, which increases the size of the enemy bullets and provides a whole different kind of challenge (it's possible to enable it any time at the start screen by pressing ↑ ↓ ← ← → → ↑ ↓ as soon as the attract mode begins). Extends are given with 100.000, 500.000 and one million points across all available modes.

When you figure out the power of the bombs and notice the absurd amount of bombs the game gives out like candy, Dangerous Seed becomes an even easier challenge. This doesn't take the fun out of it, nor does it improve its primitive fun factor if that counts for something. During my time with the game my favorite weapon was the wave shot (red) with formation led by the α ship, and here's my best 1CC high score on Normal:

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Prismatic Solid (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Yo1 Komori
Published by
Yo1 Komori in 2010

Sometimes protection is everything. Everybody knows how upsetting it is to play late stages of a Darius game with a bare ship. Or the despair that comes with cruising a tight area in any R-Type without the help of the force pod. It’s as if you’re missing an arm or a leg, that’s why in shmups shields are life. And if you’re the kind of player who cherishes shields and enjoys having them at all times regardless of how many bullets they need to block, then Prismatic Solid is right up your alley. It’s prismatic, it’s solid and it’s got shields. Of the colored type, on top of that. In fact, you can easily rename this game as "Color Orgy" if you so will.

Up front one thing is undeniable: the slick visuals and the spectacle of particles are amazing for a game released through XBLIG for a measly buck. Sparks and shards fly with gusto from every destroyed enemy as pulsating bullets and vivid lasers flood the screen once the action picks up. The adventure is eye-catching and oozes style, so it’s no wonder Prismatic Solid fulfills the initial tough task of luring players into the gameplay. Keeping the momentum, however, is always a whole different story.

Considering the Japanese are crazy for bullet barrages and intricate patterns, as far as difficulty goes the small Japanese developer responsible for this little game was certainly able to strike a decent balance between “casual” and “not so casual”. All things considered, it works. The array of influences includes the likes of Xexex and Silpheed, plus another one of those obvious nods to Xevious in the flying invincible monolith areas. “Destroy the core” is another unspoken staple of the genre – those familiar with any Gradius game know very well what I’m talking about.

A shardy-slimy first boss in the Ridge area

Most of the content of Prismatic Solid lies in the realm of abstract design, in a minimalistic approach that gets slowly beefed up as you reach successive loops. The difficulty increase during the levels themselves isn't that taxing, but all bosses are doubled in the second round and tripled in subsequent loops. It all starts with a bare ship, three upgrade bars for each shield filament (blue, yellow, red) and six weapons readily available for use. Fire with button A, cycle through weapons with the bumpers (LB and RB) and sacrifice a little of each color's power to trigger a bomb blast with buttons X, Y and B. For a faster grasp of the function of each button, note how all shields and their respective powers match the native colors of the Xbox 360's controller. And the spaceship is green, which is a pretty cool touch (in any case, controls are fully customizable).

Contrary to what we’d normally think, the little colored stars released by specific enemies in each level serve only to increase the reach of each corresponding shield and not to actually upgrade firepower, therefore weapons remain at the same power level at all times. From left to right you have homing (pink), split (Y-shaped yellow spread), 3way (red), rainbow (multicolored straight shot), shower (all-out blue spread) and snow (white all around scatter shot). Each selected weapon alters the position of the three shields, which are designed exclusively for defense and whose degree of frontal protection is inversely proportional to how focused/straight the shot type is. They can’t be tossed away like the flint from Xexex, and even though their filaments move around as you move the ship they never deviate from their fixed positions.

Such a defensive style of gameplay is bound to disappoint players who enjoy heavy dodging. Actually, if you stick to the shower weapon, which protects you from everything that comes from the front and the sides, you can bet your life Prismatic Solid gets heavily unbalanced towards defensive play. Okay, you might lose some points by sticking to shower, but it’s the safest way by far to advance in the game. Getting hit with the shower weapon is only possible in the case of collisions, large laser beams in the face or if you’re moving like crazy and a stray bullet manages to get through the moving strands of those maxed-out shields.

Some notes I can share on what I learned: the split shot is the best choice to create gaps during the xeviousy monolith areas; bombing comes with a brief stint of invincibility but my favorite one is the red, which sends an outward laser circle that's perfect to clean the screen of incoming enemies from all sides.

Ridge over troubled particles
(courtesy of YouTube user GameplaysELV)

Low difficulty aside, Prismatic Solid is a gorgeous game to look at, yet I can’t help but wonder what it could’ve achieved had the developer had more resources at hand. Polygons play a large part both in the enemy as well as in the stage design, that's why I expected a little more boldness from its usage in stages 3 and 5. They scream Silpheed all over but lack the cinematic edge that made it such a classic on the Sega CD. Granted, we still get trippy sections with lots of insect-based zakos that seem to have been lifted directly from Exed Exes. I like the fact that in further loops bosses finally put those shields to the test by cluttering the screen with thick lasers or solid matter, whereas textures and colors are drastically changed. The water level is particularly interesting since there comes a point where it seems you’re flying over a pool of blood instead of water.

To make up for the lenience on dodging, the good news is that there is at least a proper scoring system in place that rewards both survival and performance. For instance, every power-up star is worth 500 points once its energy bar is full, so it's possible to reap a nice deal of extra points for not bombing. Upon arriving at the terminal (a fancy expression for beating the game) all extra lives + energy are converted into points before the next loop starts with the default life stock. With an extend routine that grants an extra life at every 30.000 points, who can be blamed for adopting an overly defensive attitude just to squeeze the most of out this final bonus? Beware though: if you beat the 5th boss on your last life you get a negative reward!

Even if Prismatic Solid sounds like a wasted opportunity for something bombastic gameplaywise, it's still reasonably fun to warrant a little of anyone’s precious time. The game was also made available for download on the Playstation 4 in 2015, but I have no idea of any relevant differences from the original XBLIG version. As seen in the high score table below, in my best run I was able to reach stage 4-4.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Oh Noes!! 2: Attack of the Space Burger! (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
13 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Executive Iguana Studios
Published by Executive Iguana Studios in 2012

For this game I had initially written an introductory paragraph that made absolutely no sense whatsoever, thinking it was a fitting way to start the post. However, upon proofreading the whole text I realized it would only scare away the couple of readers who're still with me, so I changed my mind. Well, I'm a shmup buff and I would have been scared away... The reason for the unreason came from the concept of Oh Noes!! 2 and its assumed foolishness, let alone its supposed lack of value starting with the title. But you know what? Attack of Space Burger! totally makes up for that, it's what sold me in the first place!

Jokes aside, I did of my own sane volition decide to play this game. While playing I showed stills and videos of it through Whatsapp to a few friends who indulge themselves exclusively in current-gen racing and fighting games. What the fuck is this shit?!, they'd say. I giggled a bit and kept firing up some more credits. Because you know… in my opinion we need to have a dose of wacky shit in our video games every now and then, if only to break the pace of real life stuff and more serious gaming from time to time.

In essence, what we have here is the journey of a cosmic burger entity who descends on our planet to exert revenge upon humans for centuries of abuse against the burger master race, horribly tainted by hundreds of despicable, evil fast food chains. It’s a tale of apocalyptic reckoning, and I must confess that being able to incarnate a flying burger invested in a human killing frenzy does come with a singular, warped sense of humor.

Humans will suffer

Our gigantic foolish-looking burger, who’s probably got the largest hitbox I’ve ever seen, floats and abducts humans with his tractor beam while shooting deadly laser bursts from his piercing eyes. The left analog stick controls the burger, the right analog stick shoots/dictates shot direction and the tractor beam is always active. One point is scored for every human killed/abducted and also for every enemy vessel destroyed (machineguns, cars, tanks, jets), but if you want a score-hungry type of burger you’d better focus on flesh rather than metal since it takes only one shot to kill a human but several to destroy anything else.

Disincarnated humans scream in agony as their blood splashes onto the screen. In contrast with the black and white scrolling backgrounds, which just like the main character is openly inspired by old Hollywood movies, the resulting effect is visually pleasing and fun at the same time. Abducting humans is often better than killing them if you're going the survival route, simply because that’s the shortest way to fill up the blood lust gauge, a resource that allows you to unleash a series of special attacks by pressing button B. The type of attack depends on how full the gauge is (must be at least 50%) and include the burger dropping beans and humans from its ass, as well as good old godlike invincibility.

A single lifebar on the top left represents your whole health, so do your best not to get hammered to the point of dying, otherwise humanity will have won the war. Burger justice does not wait and the game goes on and on with no pause between levels, as indicated by the timer that shows how long it will take for the next “stage” to start. The good news is that with every new level (except for a boss fight) a small portion of your lifebar is refilled, alongside a message that doesn’t mean absolutely nothing regarding a leveling up effect. You’ll never earn any real upgrade for your eyes of wrath and no item of any kind whatsoever is to be expected, after all you’re a celestial burger, an all-powerful harbinger of death that should be worshipped by those puny humans for your default might and beauty alone.

A genocidal burger lands on your XBLIG
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Lee Philips)

But alas! Cosmic purging does not come without pain. Remember that touching humans won't harm you, but getting shot at and touching machinery will. There will also be stronger foes in your way, for humans are a sneaky little bastard race who’ll do whatever it takes to defend their fast food chains, including the slaving of innocent animals with the purpose to wage war. So prepare to face a ferocious boss at every fourth stage, including Ecco the Dolphin, poor old Red Crab and also the fallen protagonist of the first Oh Noes!!, which just happens to be the mightiest human-slaying chicken you’ll ever lay your eyes on. Seeing is believing, so if you doubt my words why not be a man and step up to the challenge?

As the second chapter in a series that had absolutely nothing serious to offer and would never be seen by any regular gamer, Oh Noes!! 2 is just proud to be one of those titles that makes lots of success with drunk people. Color me guilty! Every time I played it I was sipping something on the side, laughing and swearing in equal measure. The swear part came from the thermonuclear pidgeon that puts an end to the game after the 13th wave. At first I was really angry, but after giving it some thought it all made sense… Just like the most puzzling horror flicks of the 30s, this abrupt closure is absolutely in line with the mood of the game and terminates the experience on a high wacky note.

Since this is a shoot'em up, overall it's definitely an improvement over the limited, botched gameplay of the first Oh Noes!!. And this is the best 1CC high score my killing burger was able to achieve:

Saturday, February 4, 2017

XII Zeal (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Triangle Service
Published by Triangle Service in 2013

With the exception of a few hardcore arcade connoisseurs and some other privileged fellows, very few people were aware of the fact that the Shooting Love 10th Anniversary Japanese compilation released for the Xbox 360 in 2013 is in fact a throwback to the shady origins of developer Triangle Service. Their first official game, XII Zeal, received here its second console port (after the PS2 disc from 2006, which came out under the name XII Stag). ΔZeal, the other half of the package, is actually a revised version of G-Stream G 2020, which was developed by the same frontman but saw a very limited and bugged release under a different publishing company prior to the birth of Triangle Service, who owns the copyright to the game ever since.

Anyway, I wasn’t aware that ΔZeal was the older game in the disc, otherwise I would’ve started playing it instead before revisiting XII Zeal. Such are the meanders of ignorance! Thankfully that’s not the same as skipping chapters in an ongoing series, after all these Zeal games are only “spiritually” related. And as far as XII Zeal goes it's still a worthy little ride despite the cheapness that permeates a few sections. In a nutshell, it's a short, resource-driven and occasionally intense burst of fun. The only minor functional gripe in this version is the stuttering slowdown that follows every boss explosion, but that's totally innocuous in my opinion.

Control inputs are always shown to the right of the game screen

On the outside XII Zeal is a very straightforward game, with the classic combination of shot + bomb for inputs and eight stages of unevenly progressing difficulty (some are cakewalks, others can be nightmares). Blue power-up orbs upgrade the main shot, extra bombs add to the stock up to the maximum of 5. Surplus power-ups are worth 1.000 points each, surplus bombs 10.000 points. The single detail that sets the game off the conventional STG track is also the one that eventually justifies its name: whenever you quickly move the joystick from side to side a flash of energy comes out from the ship, and if it destroys an enemy a multiplier is generated. Provided you continue to dispatch enemies with this side attack within a certain time between each kill you'll eventually reach the maximum multiplier of ×12, which of course represents the key to higher scores. Of course the risk/reward ratio increases proportionally.

Using the side attack by manually wiggling the joystick is perfectly possible, but requires more practice, more focus from the player and is prone to break controllers (I broke mine when playing XII Stag). To overcome this there's the possibility to activate a separate button for RSA (Rapid Side Attack), thus eliminating the need to incur in risky jugglery. With the RSA enabled you'll also get the stronger 2-dash side attacks (bigger energy shards!) that cause the screen to constantly shake when used. Fortunately the screen shaking doesn't disrupt the gameplay in any way, the only side effect of using it non-stop is that the ship moves more slowly.

One final note about getting the multiplier up is that the ship's thrusters also contribute to the process by killing enemies that come from behind IF the contact is made with moderate relative speed. The first stage is the perfect place to test this, just park the ship at the mid-screen point and watch as you fart enemies away until the boss arrives.

I'd say XII Zeal is polished graphically, with sharp and decently animated sprites, but sadly it doesn't harness this design aspect the way it should. Don't be put off by the first couple of levels just because they're the total opposite of engaging, for example. It gets better after that because the game decides to get more aggressive, granting lots of extra possibilities for scoring. Speaking of which, all bullets caught in the radius of the bomb blast are melted into 1.000 points each. That's why choosing the best moments to bomb goes way beyond the simple act of protecting the ship from harm (the amount of extra bombs the game gives away isn't a coincidence at all).

Trailer for Shooting Love 10th Anniversary on the Xbox 360
(courtesy of YouTube user MrYoshimitsuHD)

There are several little secrets in XII Zeal that make the game behave differently depending on how you destroy specific batches of enemies, including fast kills, complete kills or getting rid of things in a certain way, which results in sections with extra enemy waves and more opportunities for scoring. I was able to trigger many of them up to the 5th stage, in line with my overall strategy to be extremely aggressive during these levels and cautious for the rest of the game, after all we only have three lives with no extends of any kind. In between stages a graph meter shows your scoring performance against previous credits, which is a nice way to know how far you have just pushed your risk/reward thresholds.

Practice aids exist in the form of individual score attack options for each level, unlocked as you reach them in regular play. That's one of the features that make this version of XII Zeal a very resourceful port, on top of the ability to save replays, online leaderboards and several kinds of filter/screen adjustments, TATE included. The Limited Edition release of Shooting Love 10th Anniversary includes an additional CD with the soundtracks to both games in the package, and since both disc variations are region-free they'll run nicely in any Xbox 360 around the world. Note: this disc was re-released some time later in a pack titled Shooting Love Collection, which also includes the previous region-locked Shooting Love 200X compilation.

The top spot of the high score table in the picture below shows my final 1CC result on Normal difficulty, RSA activated, player 1 side. Even though the game isn't bad per se, there's no denying that the final stretch is rather anticlimactic. The difficulty peaks in stage 6 so the remainder of the game is a total letdown in comparison, except perhaps for the 7th boss. Either the game had to be rushed out the door or the developer ran out of ideas, an issue that fortunately isn't present in Trizeal, the next title in this unofficial series.