Thursday, December 18, 2014

Flying Shark (FM Towns)

Vertical
Checkpoints ON
6 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Ving in 1993


Experienced arcade shooter fans know that Toaplan has an enthralling history. From the early days of Tiger-Heli to the swan song delivered in Batsugun, the company was always present in the arcade scene with trend-defining games, of which Flying Shark is certainly one of them. Known in Japan as Hishouzame and released in some areas around the world as Sky Shark, the game explicitly borrowed ideas from Capcom's 1942 while kickstarting a streak of in-house shmups that's recognized today as one of the most charming old school branches in the genre. It's also the first chapter of an unofficial series which also contains Fire Shark, released in the arcades roughly two years later.

Few systems received ports of Flying Shark soon after it came out. The only mainstream console adaptation is the NES version titled Sky Shark, while all other ports appeared in obscure home computers only. This FM Towns version is one of them, a very close take on the arcade game in both graphical and gameplay merits except for the characteristic screen ratio that turns the playing area slightly into a square. Since the porting job wasn't really optimized for this, the upper part of the screen is partially cropped and the player loses sight of what's going on up there. It's as if we could only view 85% of the original screen even though it seems to have been ported faithfully from the original game. As a result, there are several instances where enemy shots seem to be coming out of nowhere. It's a little disappointing, but at least it doesn't break the gameplay.

Take off every shark!

No frills and straightforward plane shooting action is what defines Flying Shark. Press B to fire your weapon and press A to bomb. If you see a wave of six red enemy planes kill them all to release a power-up labeled as S, take it to add an extra firing stream to your gun and see if you can survive to max it out at five powerful streams (meaning you max out with 4 power-ups). Most of the other characteristic six-plane waves are beige, and by destroying them you get an extra 1.000 points. And if you're lucky you might also come across the light blue wave, which will then release an extra life (1UP). Extra lives are also score-based and granted with 50.000 points and for every 150.000 points afterwards. Lastly, watch out for a red symbol that appears from a few ground enemies, each one of them adds an extra bomb to your stock. 

The overall setting of Flying Shark goes by the book and doesn't veer into anything extraordinary. Jungle, oceans, desert, variations of each, repeat. Small planes of all colors approach in the most different patterns (each color presents a particular behavior), larger planes cruise the screen from time to time and a few huge bombers appear here and there. Tanks, boats, turret-ridden ships and big mean railroad panzers compose the terrestrial resistance, which gets more and more aggressive the closer you get to the end of a level. Despite this humble collection of assets and the absence of regular bosses, the game succeeds at combining them to deliver a fun and challenging experience where natural progression mostly comes from memorization and clever crowd control. And let's not forget about the great music, which in this port received an awesome remix.

Part of the difficulty is directly related to the plane's firepower, since the more powered-up you are the faster enemy bullets will get. It's a rather simple rank system that benefits players by allowing them to predict how aggressive the game is about to become at any time during play. You just need to be careful not to let the power-up go away once it's released because as the icon comes down bouncing it won't return at all if you let it disappear at the bottom of the screen. Note that bombs can't be used as panic relief because they explode in a spiral pattern, blocking only the bullets that are close to the blast radius. Bombs are also a precious source of points because each bomb in stock is worth 3.000 points at the end of the level. No matter how you stand as you collect this bonus, the game will always reset your bomb stock to three before you take flight again.

A credit of Flying Shark on the FM Towns
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

Some details in the gameplay can certainly help the player survive longer. For example, each flying enemy that enters the screen will fire a single bullet only and follow its predefined path. There's a safety point blank distance in place for ground enemies (namely small tanks and turrets) where they won't be allowed to fire at you at all, so exploit that whenever possible. The six-plane waves will always appear on the same position and will never shoot any bullet, and if you lose a power-up or die they might switch colors in order to allow faster powering-up. Beware of slow planes coming up from the bottom of the screen and point blank whenever possible to kill them faster. And as a general rule, keep moving while avoiding to stay too close to corners.

Flying Shark adopts the same looping scheme previously used in Tiger-Heli: it disregards the first stage completely and also measures player performance by "areas" reached. As usual, each further loop increases enemy bullet speed considerably. Despite the image cropping issue, Flying Shark on the FM Towns is excellent for a home conversion. Mild quirks consist of brief loading times and an annoying continue countdown screen, where any button on the controller will trigger it. The only in-game limitation is related to a few severe bouts of slowdown, seeing that the game stutters heavily when you bomb at crowded spots (such as the huge plane bomber in stage 2 or the battleship that goes upwards at the end of stage 3). In the options screen you can select between four autofire settings, as well as choose between four display resolutions.

I had a blast playing this, with the results of a lazy relaxing afternoon shown below. I played on Normal with auto shot set to 4 and reached the third stage on the 2nd loop.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Gun Frontier (Playstation 2)

Vertical
Checkpoints ON/OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito in 1990
Published by Taito in 2005


When Taito designed Gun Frontier the world of vertical arcade shooters was starting to transition into something more complex, so the game already looked kinda old. Nevertheless its influence is not to be neglected no matter how obscure the game became over the years, after all it planted ideas that would somehow make their way into more famous titles such as RayForce, Battle Garegga and Under Defeat. On the Playstation 2 it's possible to play Gun Frontier by means of the Taito Memories Vol. 2 (Japan) or Taito Legends 2 (US and Europe) compilations.

Just a few notes of warning regarding these PS2 discs: 1) in the European edition of Taito Legends 2 all games run at a slower speed regardless of your console's native frequency; 2) on the Japanese disc Gun Frontier is initially locked, so in order to have access to it you must play a handful of other games for at least one hour each or simply go to the start screen, highlight "START" and enter L2, R2, R1, L1, SELECT and START; 3) unfortunately none of these collections has a TATE option for vertical shooters.

Though it might seem the case, this game has got nothing to do with the manga series of the same name produced in the 70s. In the year 2120 space pirates are attacking planet Gloria, which was colonized by humans and somehow developed as a mirror of the North American wild west era. The objective of the pirates is to extract the gold in the soil of Gloria, to which the only opposition is you as the pilot of a very special plane. Many people don't even notice this interesting detail, but take a closer look and you'll realize the plane is actually a gun with wings. How cool is that? The idea of guns in warfare design goes beyond that and encompasses the whole game, creating a unique setting that stands as the single most charming thing about Gun Frontier. On the other hand, gameplay couldn't be more dire due to the lack of autofire and the sluggish speed of the flying gun. Autofire can be at least artificially obtained with a turbo controller, and I heartily recommend that if you want to tackle this particular port. If you're one of those purists who think mashing buttons is the embodiment of fun, well... be my guest then. And good luck.

That beach is dangerous, don't go anywhere near it!

Following one of the spookiest intros to a shmup I have ever seen (it's borderline horror), the player is treated with a very cinematic and powerful entry for his fighter plane as soon as the credit starts. Only two buttons are used: one to fire your guns and another to bomb (both fully configurable, as well as the "insert coin" button). Simplicity is quite deceiving in this case, for success isn't directly related to blowing shit up from start to finish. Gun Frontier is a tough beast to tame, and "tame" is exactly the right word to be used because this game belongs to the category of shooters where enemies have random behavior, which throws strict memorization literally out the window. Not only it gets considerably harder as you approach the end, but it also increases bullet density the more lives you're able to stock. This rank system is as straightforward as it gets, but it can certainly kill a credit if the player isn't focused enough.

Powering up the main gun is accomplished by collecting the coins left behind by destroying a specific wave of five enemies that always arrive in a single horizontal line. It takes five coins to add one upgrade level to your firepower, max power comes with 25 coins and a few more will leave you with a reserve of 1-coin max power upon death. Dying will strip you off one upgrade level, which is good, but try not to die three or four times in a row or the credit will be in serious trouble because you'll be back to the weak default shot. Bombs are independent of life stock and depend on the gold bars collected from destroyed tanks. A new bomb is granted for every 25 bars you pick up, but even when you're out of "complete" bombs you can trigger whatever you have in stock, however with a less effective blast. By moving the ship upon detonating the bomb the player can control the direction where it will blow, kinda like in a napalm trail.

Gun Frontier adopts a rather singular checkpoint system: they're active during the levels themselves but completely absent during boss fights. And the further you are in the game the more spaced checkpoints get. This scheme leads to a few interesting approaches to the gameplay: is it better to use bombs to get through tricky sections, or should I just hammer it away in order to get the end-of-stage bonus no matter how many lives I lose? Each full bomb gives you 10.000 points (a single gold bar = 200 points). It might seem that lives don't interfere with the scoring system but they actually do: at the end of stage 5 you score 30.000 points for each life in stock. The final level behaves like a bonus round by making you invincible and granting you MANY points for destroying those flying guns. And then the final boss challenges you to a good old sunset duel: the plane is zoomed in and you get six bullets to try to hit him while his shields are down. Fail and gain a GAME OVER regardless of how many lives you have, a bad ending and no 1CC (the high score table will show your score ending in stage 6). Succeed and reap your 1CC reward.

By the way, succeeding in this game requires lots of practice. Every single bullet or enemy spread is aimed at the player. With very few exceptions bullets have this thin, elongated shape that take some getting used to as far as dodging goes. Ground enemies are easier to deal with, but learning how each specific flying enemy behaves is essential to stand a chance at winning. Some of them will tend to approach your position, others will ram into you and a few will just drop their bullets and leave. By far the most annoying ones are the blue ships that draw closer and closer (dark blue) or move around to fry you from the rear (light blue), as well as the green planes of the final level. Faced in small flocks they're not that problematic, but wait till several other types of enemies decide to unleash a simultaneous attack. Even though the term "bullet hell" wasn't around by 1990, it sure finds a home here. And the only way to win is by devising good placement strategies and raising your herding skills to the standards set by the game.

First stage of Gun Frontier on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user SILVERCHARIOT7)

Even though Gun Frontier might seem drab on the outside, it's obvious the game packs a remarkable challenge. Although visually similar to titles like Flying Shark or the 19XX series, it offers a completely different vibe altogether. Slowdown is minimal but you're already so slow that when it happens you won't get anything good out of it. There are a few secrets here and there related to specific places where bombing can result in sudden score spikes, namely the hidden spots for 10.000 points at the beginning of the 1st and 4th levels and the huge blue spaceships that clutter the screen in the 2nd stage. If you bomb at the right places it's possible to start the third level with five lives in reserve, considering you get an extra life with 20.000 points and another for each 80.000 points afterwards. As for the  soundtrack, I think it fits the game well. I quite like the theme for stage 2.

Much of the game's legacy can be measured by the outspoken praise given to it by Shinobu Yagawa, the strong man behind Raizing and one of Cave's main developers. Pretty much all of his games use the same bomb scheme of Gun Frontier. In the particular case of Battle Garegga the influence is also aesthetical, as indicated by the overall graphical style and enemies exploding in puffs of spiralling smoke here and there. There's an obscure reference to the game in the opening text of Metal Black, whose story was at one point supposed to connect to the story of Gun Frontier. And it might be just a coincidence, but the peculiar checkpoint system used here went on to appear in Warashi's Shienryu.

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

Besides the Playstation 2, Gun Frontier was additionally ported to the Windows PC, the Xbox (also Taito compilations) and the Saturn. It is known to be an easier game on the Sega Saturn due to the implemented autofire feature of that particular port. My period of fun with the PS2 version ended with the score below on Normal difficulty + a turbo controller. Going by the game's attract mode I reckon Gun Frontier must be a good pick to play with a friend in co-op. An extra winged gun would probably even the odds against that space pirate scum.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Verytex (Mega Drive)

Vertical
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Asmik
Published by Asmik in 1991


Developer Asmik never had any strong presence in the gaming world so to speak, let alone in the shmup realm. During the 16-bit era the company delivered one shmup to each of the main video game consoles, and considering the SNES received D-Force I guess we can all declare the Mega Drive the clear winner in this particular case. Granted, at the end of the day Verytex isn't anything special but it certainly trumps D-Force in all aspects except for difficulty, even with the cruel checkpoint system that makes you restart the stage from scratch every time you die. Oh yes, don't even think of biting the dust on bosses. Unless you want to exploit checkpoints for score, of course.

Almost everything about Verytex is as generic as it gets. Take graphics and gameplay, for instance. Although benefiting from good parallax, graphics are 90% tiled and cheaply designed. The sense of speed that comes with the overall faster scrolling helps disguise that, but when the gameplay allows you to cruise across the stages with very little effort due to the overpowered weapons you can't help but feel like you're playing a caravan game. That must have probably been the reason for the single checkpoints, otherwise Verytex would've been even easier. So buckle up for a relaxed ride and crank up the volume, after all this game definitely has one of the best soundtracks of its generation.

A fully powered blue weapon exerts interstellar justice

Controls are simple and effective: shoot with A, bomb with B and select flying speed with C. The starting weapon can be changed or upgraded by taking the colored icons that appear from destroyed little carriers. Yellow upgrades the default vulcan shot, which when maxed out fires three spread streams at the front and two at the rear. Blue creates a forward shot that maxes out to four staggering arches that cover a wide area on each side of the ship. Finally, red enables a straight thin laser that kinda resembles the blue weapon from Raiden. Besides power-up items you might also come across an M (homing missiles, take a few to max out), a B (three extra bombs) or an S (shield that protects the ship against a few hits).

Verytex has no options and no extra difficulties at all, and each credit starts with five lives in stock with no extends in sight (upon GAME OVER you can still continue from the start screen if you so wish). Contrary to most of the contemporary shooters of the time, bombs do not possess great power in this game. They're mostly good to kill cannon fodder and melt nearby bullets, and given that there's plenty of those B icons and no bonus for preserving bomb stock the conclusion is that there's no need to get stingy with them at all. Speed settings selected by button C are labeled as I, II and III, and my favorite choice for the most part was speed III. As for the shield, it will only be active until you beat the boss. The game strips you off the shield every time a new level/act starts.

Just like the gameplay itself, the scoring system here is very basic and revolves around getting every possible item (each one is worth 1.000 points) and killing all destructible projectiles fired at you. That once again opens the famous can of worms regarding milking and checkpoint exploitation, especially on the last level: die when you're about to kill the golem boss and repeat the stage to substantially inflate your score. So there remains one of the trickiest dilemmas of all checkpoint-based shooters: should we play for a 1-life victory or should we exploit checkpoints for score? My opinion is that these are two completely different kinds of challenge, and this time I decided to go with the first option.

The struggle to reach Syracuse planet has just started
(courtesy of YouTube user tiodrebin)

Graphic themes in Verytex range from the classic outer space setting of the first level to the organic womb of the enemy planet in the final stage, which is full of strange innards floating above a deep ravine. In between you fly over what appears to be the surface of a moon, rush amidst the clouds above a sunken city, patrol the orbit of a blue planet and fight a large battleship over a grid-like background. Some of the mid-bosses from previous levels return in the last stage, which ends on a battle against a very creepy boss. Hint: in his last form look for a safe spot in order to survive the laser shower.

As mentioned above, the backgrounds scroll slightly faster than usual for this type of game, creating a false feeling of it being frantic (there's very mild slowdown here and there). It works at an elementary level, but soon the impression fades and all that's left to be really appreciated is the great music. There's no other way to put it: the soundtrack is just too good for the game itself. I consider the theme for the first stage one of the greatest outer space anthems ever composed for a video game.

Below is my final 1CC score on Verytex, beating the game on one life without milking bosses (remember to pause instantly as you kill the last boss or you won't be able to see your score anymore). Unfortunately in the end there's no special bonus for life or bomb stock left, but you can certainly surpass one million points by exploiting the last level.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Pop'n TwinBee (SNES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1993


Every once in a while it’s good to be reminded of how great some companies were before entering a period of constant failure – with critics and gamers alike. Case in question: Konami, specifically the division that takes care of shoot’em ups. I’m not even fond of the gameplay concept behind the TwinBee series (or maybe I’m negatively biased by the excruciatingly raw difficulty of the first arcade game), and yet I consider Pop’n TwinBee a near masterpiece of the cute’em up subgenre. I revisited the game a few days ago after a long strenuous day, which probably left me in a predisposed condition to enjoy it in a single victorious credit. I played only once and looped it to top my previous best in more than a million points. The next day I came back to check if my understanding of bells was actually correct so that I could write about it.

Developed from the ground up for the Super Nintendo and released only in Japan and Europe, Pop’n TwinBee came after Detana!! TwinBee and before TwinBee Yahho!, the only real arcade sequels to the original TwinBee. Counting all chapters released until 1993 it’s the sixth entry in the series, and I guess Konami's cumulated experience is one of the reasons for the level of polish applied to every aspect of the game. Graphics, colors and music unite to provide one of the best examples of a great cute shooter, one that’s capable of truly wowing the player while leaving out undesirable characteristics such as drabness, stiffness, unfair or non-existent challenge and excessively quirky or sexualized character designs (okay, to be honest I don’t mind this last one).

There is a story going on involving two main characters (player 1 in blue as TwinBee, player 2 in pink as WinBee), a damsel in distress (rescued at the end of the first stage) and a mad scientist/villain that must be defeated in the final level. The beginning of this story is unveiled in the images shown during the game's attract mode.

First level of Pop'n TwinBee
(courtesy of YouTube user RudyC3)

After pressing start you'll be asked to enter your name and select one of three option configurations: trailing, rotating or forming a lateral moving barrier. Basic attacks remain the same as in previous games, which in the default configuration correspond to shot (B) and ground bombs (Y). Pop'n TwinBee expands on the basics by adding a stock-based smart bomb called chibi (A) and a powerful short-reach punch triggered by holding and releasing button Y (the chibi bomb makes you invincible while the ship expels lots of lethal bouncing miniatures of itself). Each cloud that appears in the horizon hides a bell, the secret to both powering up and scoring. Bells change colors as you hit them, and depending on their color when collected you'll receive a different upgrade or bonus. As they get hit bells switch back and forth between orange and other colors, as described below:
  • orange: gives a score bonus that starts at 500 and maxes out at 10.000 points if you don't let any bell fall down the screen;
  • gray: soft straight shot;
  • purple: 3-way shot that works somewhat in a scattered pattern;
  • green: option that provides additional firepower, up to 4 can be activated;
  • pink: shield, protects against 4 hits;
  • blue: speed-up (every 4th works as a speed-down, reverting the ship back to its default starting speed);
  • blinking gray: extra bomb.

Unlike in previous chapters, in this game lives are replaced by a single health bar that gets refilled at the start of every level. Each hit takes away a portion of the health bar and one of the options you have activated, while pink hearts uncovered by specific ground enemies serve to refill the health bar. Once the health bar is depleted it's game over, and that makes the shield the single most important item of the game: every time it was about to disappear (when it's pink) I would start cooking another pink bell to get it back to blue. My favorite weapon is the 3-way shot since it's more powerful and has side coverage, much useful to hit a few enemies and bosses without getting in front of their vertically aimed bullets.

At first I thought the punch move was useless, but then I changed my mind when I found out it's able to destroy some of the more resilient enemies in a single blow. Those seemingly invincible watermelons of the first stage, for instance, will be instantly sliced to pieces when you punch them. Granted, in later levels things get so hectic that using punches becomes naturally riskier, but whenever there's a breathing window it's always good to have a punch prepared to hit something. After all, it can even deflect bullets!

Flying grapes and rowing minions!

Pop'n TwinBee is artistically one of the most pleasing games in the SNES library. Lots of personality, varied design, catchy music and top notch animation on bosses are the obvious highlights, but the game also excels technically. I haven't tried playing in co-op, but on solo play there is no slowdown whatsoever. The graphic trip allows you to soar above castles and fortresses guarded by all sorts of cute creatures from vegetables to mechanical machines, as well as navigate deep oceans and take down a huge flying battleship. Most bosses are multi-jointed and rendered with cool effects, moving a lot around the screen as they try to crush the player. When they're defeated you're greeted with a shower of bells that can result in a huge amount of points if you're able to collect them all. I think at least two speed-ups are needed to succed at that.

Konami also infused the 2-player mode with extra bits of gameplay. From what I could check, if you're able to play with a friend you'll both be allowed to throw each other against enemies by using button R. And if your ally is low in health it's possible to transfer part of your own energy by pressing X. By switching GAME MODE from "normal" to "couple" in the options the computer will aim most attacks on player 1 instead of player 2, in a particularly clever way to allow less experienced players to tag along. Got kids or nephews? This seems perfect for you then!

I replayed the game on Normal (difficulty 4) with TwinBee (player 1) and selected the trailing options. I scored 52% more than my previous best and died in stage 2-3. It wasn't that hard, but I definitely had a blast doing it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair (Playstation 2)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
14 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega/Westone in 1988
Published by Sega in 2007


Even with so many games released for it I could never fathom the appeal of the Wonder Boy series. My only previous contact with it was on the Master System as I was very little, and I don’t even remember which game it was. Initially presented in the arcades as a pure platformer, the series soon incorporated other styles of gameplay, and as the shmup representative in this hybrid history Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair mixes platform sections with standard horizontal shooting. This game also bears the distinction of being the last arcade entry in the Wonder Boy series and the only chapter to allow 2-player simultaneous play. Player one controls a boy named Leo and player two controls a princess named Papillo.

The best option for those who want to know this universe better is volume 29 of the Sega Ages 2500 series for the Playstation 2, titled Monster World Complete Collection. It contains every single chapter and all their official variations, with the exception of the PC Engine port for Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair (which is understandable because it wasn’t handled by Sega).

Getting in the mood to play the arcade version of Wonder Boy III doesn’t require much if you’re fond of lighthearted 16-bit graphics. Everything is very bright and colorful, with a fluffy atmosphere that immediately evokes feelings of easygoing and joyous fun. But wait... Why then did I spend so much time with the game, and a good portion of it swearing at the TV screen as I got shafted over and over by cute representations of vultures and snowmen? Laugh at the cheesy graphics and mock me as you will, but to me Wonder Boy III is absolutely no piece of cake. It offers one of the most evil kinds of challenge you can have in a game, where failure is served on a plate with a happy face staring back at you (Twinkle Star Sprites, I haven’t forgotten thee).

Beach balls in the village!

Each one of the 14 stages/rounds in Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair has two parts. The first one is a platforming area with automatic scrolling (it scrolls even faster if you advance to the right side of the screen), and the second one has the character flying a pet dragon in order to face the stage boss in his “lair”. Themes vary throughout and include the typical tropical settings of previous Wonder Boy games as well as jungle, castle, villages, ice, desert and spaceship (last level only). There are no graphic frills whatsoever, it’s just the foreground and a layer of parallax in the background. Because the game is so long some of them get repeated after a while, and the same happens to the music. The enemy gallery consists of several sorts of animals, plants and weird creatures, all rendered with cute or goofy sprites. Bosses are quite amusing and remind me of Fantasy Zone, seeing that they’re generally large and shift from their natural colors to red as you hit them.

For the platform areas controls consist of jumping and shooting (configurable as you wish), with shot types switched by collecting weapon icons left by enemies. All six weapons are active for 10 seconds only and revert back to the default pea shot after a while: spread rings, two-way rocks, drill shot, exploding missiles, rotating shurikens and expanding fire circle. Weapon behavior is the same during the shmup section, but there are a few rules that should be noted if you want to stay alive in both parts of a level. For instance, it’s very important to collect the fruits/vegetables that appear hanging in the air during the platform areas, since they serve as fuel for the vitality gauge that determines your current life. This gauge is constantly drained while platforming and can only de replenished by taking fruits or weapon items. A life is lost either when it gets depleted or when you get touched by an enemy. With very few exceptions, all enemies in Wonder Boy III fire this single colored beach ball that takes away a small amount of health instead of killing you instantly. Even though avoiding/dodging beach balls is hardly needed when platforming, balls cause the character to trip uncontrollably into whatever lies ahead. That’s probably the main cause of death in this game, besides getting rammed by one of those cute creatures and falling into abysses due to poorly timed jumps.

Extracting more energy and more points from fruits is possible by hitting the ones that recognize hits and grow to explode into four fruits of the same kind (apples, lemons and pears). Another way to increase their energy and point value is by freeing and collecting the pink fairy. She shows up floating inside a bubble, moving three times in a wide open arch before fleeing. Once touched she will cast a spell on the character and turn all subsequent fruits into cakes for a brief while. Not only do cakes fill up the energy gauge faster, but they also give you more points than normal. Watch out for the blue fairy as well because she grants a very welcome invincibility window that can be used to get through lots of delicate parts without getting hit. Lastly, the black fairy is evil and should be avoided. Don’t fret if you get touched by it though, all it does is void whatever weapon you’re carrying at the moment.

What makes Wonder Boy III a tough challenge despite the childish looks is the autoscrolling nature of the platforming parts. It adds an extra layer of pressure that requires instant adaptation to enemies and weapons. Even when you have the stage fully figured out you can still die because of an inappropriate weapon or because a juicy fruit lured you into falling onto the enemy’s lap. Patience is key, but the more you know how to deal with weapons the more prepared you are to evade the traps set by the game. It’s possible, for instance, to enable a different shot button with autofire. The trick (or hindrance, depends on your point of view) is that some of the weapons behave differently with autofire. The default pea shot and the rotating shurikens will have very short reach due to their increased rate of fire, but the good news is that they are devastating at close range. Exploding rockets have a very specific behavior because they normally blow up at close range if you use either the regular or autofire buttons. However, if you just hold the regular shot they will travel the whole length of the screen.

Co-op credit feeding in the first two stages
(courtesy of YouTube user Randomized Gaming)

The shooting sections of the game are as straightforward as they get. You have to kill waves of a particular enemy before fighting the boss, both thematically related to the stage itself. These are the bosses, in stage order: a fish, a snake, a bat, a queen bee, a skull, a dodgeball match against a puppet, an ice gorilla, a cactus, a vampire, a mushroom mutated into a slot machine, a crab, an ogre, a knight with detachable hand and a space dragon. They’re mostly very large, and in my opinion the hardest ones are that awful cactus and the knight of stage 13. As for regular enemies, the most aggressive are the waves of mushrooms and snowmen. By far the best weapon against bosses is the exploding rocket, which can take some of them out in seconds. Just avoid taking the rotating shurikens unless you’re about to fight a boss where it’s undoubtedly useful, which in my case are the snake from stage 2 and the bat from stage 3. Hint: stay low and do not shoot while approaching the skull in stage 5 or you’ll die instantly (I actually don’t know if this is a bug or not).

Part of what makes up the scoring system of Wonder Boy III was already mentioned above (expanding fruits and cakes from the pink fairy). The other main source of points is in boss fights: a no-hit kill with a full vitality meter results in a full bonus of 5.600 points. That’s also good for survival because the remaining energy at the end of the level is always transported to the next stage (remember that when you die you’re respawned with only half the meter full). Finally, every single item is also worth some points, so the more you collect them the more you score. Speaking of which, collecting successive weapons of the same type extends its duration for a good amount of time. That’s very useful if you happen to come across multiple exploding rockets before the boss, for example.

If by any chance you decide to play this game be prepared for the huge difficulty leap that comes in stage 8. Everything in that level was designed to eat away our lives in a snap: cactuses explode into one or three beach balls, waves of vultures ram into your position at random, scorpions take lots of hits to die and snakes can only be killed if you carry certain weapons. On top of that, that cactus boss is totally unpredictable. In my worst credits I lost all my hard earned lives there, including the four extends gained with 50, 100, 180 and 300 thousand points. The rest of the later half of the game comes with trickier platforming hazards, such as exploding mushrooms and higher cliffs that must be “climbed” by hanging on to their tips (hold and release the jump button for better results).

At the time of its release the game was soon ported to the Mega Drive (in Japan only) and the PC Engine (Japan and US). Available options for the arcade version of Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair on the Playstation 2 include total customization of inputs and settings, gallery/library modes with lots of original material on the game, options to record/view replays and a handful of display settings. There's also a save function that must be done manually, with automatic loading while booting the disc. The arcade original is fun as a whole but also extremely punishing, and that’s why I feel I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had expected. Plus the weapon system randomly screwing the player doesn’t help at all in its appreciation. In my 1CC run on Normal I started the 13th level already on my last life, so I’m very proud of having played the rest of the game without dying... Those last levels are full of traps and that knight boss hates me!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Thunder Spirits (SNES)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft / Toshiba EMI
Published by Seika in 1991


If I was an SNES fan back in 1991 I would’ve wet my pants if I knew Thunder Force III was going to be released for the console. Fanboyism aside, I’d probably be aware of how awesome a shooter it was. A copyright issue concerning Sega and Technosoft led to the change in the game’s name, but this could also be related to the fact that Thunder Spirits is more an adaptation of the arcade port Thunder Force AC than Thunder Force III. I use to joke about this making it a second generation port, however there is absolutely no excuse as to why it resulted in such a disappointment, especially for those who had already been exposed to the wonders of Thunder Force III.

There’s no other way to put it, Thunder Spirits is the poor cousin and the black sheep in the mainstream Thunder Force family (meaning the part that doesn’t include the obscure first chapter). Thunder Spirits is also largely used by Sega fanboys who love to jest at the lower speed of the SNES processor. Looking at it bluntly one can’t help but agree with the derogatory statements, since the game seems to run in permanent slowdown whenever you’re shooting. I for one would blame Seika and Toshiba because there’s absolutely no explicit reason to have such a degraded adaptation on a 16-bit console that has grade-A stuff like Axelay, Macross and R-Type III. The SNES was perfectly capable to handle the port better.

That said, this game isn’t a total waste. It’s kinda like Raiden Trad, but a little better. You can’t really trash the influence of an excellent source, can you?

A little taste of Hydra on the SNES
(courtesy of YouTube user djgyixx)

The first thing you need to do in Thunder Spirits is to press SELECT + START at the start screen in order to toggle autofire on. Then you’re all set to enjoy eight stages of horizontal shooting fun modeled after Thunder Force AC, as initially indicated by the status bar positioned in the lower portion of the image. By default the controls work with A (fire), L (change speed) and R (select weapon), but you’re allowed to remap buttons at will at the options screen mentioned above. Everything about the gameplay remains the same: starting with two default weapons (twin shot and back-fire), win enhancements or other weapons by collecting their icons (red S, B, F, W and H); get the claw item to gain two rotating options that amplify firepower and provide protection against normal bullets; find the blue S item and get a 3-hit shield; find and grab 1UPs to increase both the life stock and the final bonus upon completing the game. Die and lose the weapon you're currently carrying, except for the default ones.

While there’s nothing blatantly wrong with how it plays, Thunder Spirits lacks the flair that made Thunder Force III a great experience. Graphics are fine throughout but voices now look like something out of a Parodius game. After you get the claw item slowdown kicks in because the game simply cannot handle the amount of on-screen action. The overall consequence is that at default conditions Thunder Spirits in even easier than Thunder Force III. Never mind bumping the difficulty to mania (very hard) because the challenge increase is pretty minimal and the rewards are the same in the end (there is no additional score bonus for playing in a higher difficulty setting). Extends are aplenty and come with 100.000 points and then for every 200.000 points afterwards.

Another aspect that brings Thunder Spirits down a bit is the lower tempo and the general subdued nature of the soundtrack – as opposed to the stronger emphasis easily noticed on sound effects, especially for the ship’s weapons. By the way, these have gone through minor changes in order to make them more powerful than before. For example, either enemies have gotten weaker or the efficiency of the fire and hunter weapons has been enhanced a good deal (besides them being slightly beefed up graphically). And note how most bosses won’t put up any decent fight. Poor Gargoyle doesn’t even have a chance to shoot his fireballs if you hit his weak spot with the lasers as he enters the screen. King Fish, one of the most feared opponents in previous incarnations, is left in severe disadvantage due to the massive slowdown.

The new battleship level in Thunder Spirits

If we plot a straight line starting in Thunder Force III and ending in Thunder Spirits to compare both titles, practically half the game is somewhat altered. Again, most changes derive directly from the treatment applied in Thunder Force AC, such as the player not being able to select the starting stages anymore, the new outer space level that replaces ice planet Ellis and the new level inspired by one of the stages from Thunder Force II, which replaces the caves from Haides. Exclusive to the SNES iteration are the reworked spaceship stage (plus a brand-new boss) and the additional stretch before the fight against a dumbed-down final boss. Having now played all of these versions, I honestly think that the original Ellis and Haides planets from Thunder Force III are the best-looking of them all and shouldn’t have been excluded.

In short, if you fancy an easygoing shooter on your Super Nintendo and you haven’t been exposed to Thunder Force III on the Mega Drive yet, Thunder Spirits will fit the bill. It’s not atrocious and it’s fun while it lasts. I just recommend trying the original game next so you’ll have an idea of how much cooler it is in comparison.

By beating Thunder Spirits you unlock special lines in the options screen, which allow you to listen to the game's soundtrack and tinker with the starting number of lives and the extend routine. I played at full defaults on Normal with autofire and cleared the game on one life. Each life left in the end is worth 1 million points regardless of the chosen difficulty.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Action Fighter (Master System)

Vertical
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed controllable / by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1986


Action Fighter didn’t really belong to the lower and more unknown rank of Sega arcade games, but it does seem to be the case considering how obscure it is. Coming out in between the most successful titles developed by the company, the arcade game got easily eclipsed by the likes of Out Run and Thunder Blade. Of all ports released for it, the most famous is probably the one made for the Master System soon after the arcade board hit the market. By all means it’s a very primitive-looking shooter, but given how early an entry it was in the console library I believe this 8-bit version of Action Fighter pulls quite a stunt with its meager 1 Mega power tag.

Taking direct inspiration from (not to say shamelessly cloning) Midway’s racing shooter Spy Hunter, Action Fighter blends the style of the competition with more traditional vertical shooting sections. Lots of compromises were made while adapting the arcade material, but at least the Master System game is able to retain the original frantic atmosphere that keeps you on your toes all the time. Make no mistake, the high degree of randomness in the gameplay makes Action Fighter one of the hardest shmups on the Master System. Nothing is etched in stone and lots of practice is needed to overcome the challenge of completing five missions commissioned by the president himself.

Some information sources point to the fact that the motorcycle you start the game with is the same one from Sega’s own classic Hang On. The initial objective of the player is to destroy enough enemies in order to collect the necessary alphabet letters to make this motorcycle turn into a car, these letters being A, B, C and D. Button 2 is used to shoot in both forms, while the combination of buttons 1 and 2 switches between motorcyle and car forms. By collecting further letters E and F you enable the car to automatically turn into a flying vehicle at a certain point in the stage’s course (prior to a bridge), and then this jet-car takes into the skies in standard shooting fashion. The action continues like that until the flying car lands by itself back into another driving area.


I want to fly!
(courtesy of YouTube user Enrique Garcia)

During the driving parts you’re allowed to go faster or slower depending on how high you are on the screen (press ↑ and ↓). While you need to pay attention to the road signs that warn you about turns and splits, it’s often safer to drive faster in order to avoid getting touched by vehicles coming from below, but not so fast as to overtake the incoming cars and trucks. Getting rammed by an enemy and sent against the sides is deadly. Powering up the vehicle is done by getting inside the SEGA truck that appears from time to time: just align the motorcycle/car with the truck and see it get in and out, first with a double missile upgrade, then with a homing missile to be fired against helicopters (only in motorcycle form) and finally with 15 seconds of invincibility. Dying rips you off everything, except for the alphabet letters already collected.

During the flying parts it’s obviously not possible to revert back to motorcycle or car forms. Button 1 is then used to drop ground bombs in the famous Xevious style. In these sections upgrading the jet car’s firepower is done by means of small colored Ps that appear randomly. A yellow P serves as a single weapon power-up (get missiles), a white P works as speed-up, the green P is a screen-clearing bomb, the brown P corresponds to an extra life and the blue P gives you the temporary invincibility. From my experience, the great majority of the items consist of yellow and white Ps (power-ups and speed-ups). The others are very rare and I never got more than one of each in any of my runs. Just to have an idea, I came across the invincibility item only once.

One might think that going from motorcycle to car and then a flying machine is the strangest aspect in Action Fighter, but that’s actually not true. Just like in its mold Spy Hunter, lives are treated in a very weird way. At the start of the level they’re padded by a timer that starts at 999, and as long as this timer doesn’t reach zero you’re allowed to die without any consequence on your actual life stock (at this point dying only slows you down). Once the timer expires you’ll finally be playing with the regular life stock, where dying takes away a life and brings you closer to the GAME OVER screen. The real purpose of the timer is to cut you some slack towards surviving, since the better you play at the start of the level the less you’ll need to rely on your life stock before reaching the boss. However, while this may be true in the first two stages, the later flying sections are so long that regardless of performance you’ll be pretty much at the end of the timer when starting the intermediate driving section.

There are almost no bullets to be dodged in the driving parts of Action Fighter. Danger comes almost exclusively from other vehicles trying to ram into you. By the way, don’t feel bad by taking down those ambulances, they won’t think twice before doing the same to you. The only driving enemies capable of shooting at you are the 3-wheel motorcycles that appear from stage 3 onwards and the helicopters that drop bombs when reaching the top of the screen. To get rid of them you need to revert back to the motorcycle form and fire guided missiles with button 1, provided you’re upgraded to level 2 at least. If not don’t worry: just revert back and forth from car → motorcycle → car. Most of the time the helicopter gets scared and runs away when you do this. Remember that the car form is a lot more stable than the motorcycle, which is weak and prone to being run off the road by any other type of vehicle.

Three tanks = first part of the third boss

Gameplay rules change dramatically as you enter the flying area. Helicopters, drones, rockets, dirigibles and heat-seeking missiles all appear in different formations, and each one of these enemies must be dealt with specific approaches. Tanks, boats and harmless buoys, hatches and cars comprise the terrestrial opposition, often overlapping their presence with some sort of aerial attack. This wave-based action resembles Star Force, but there are a few aggravating aspects to it such as bullets and enemies being camouflaged by clouds or the awkward hit detection that makes it hard to collect the tiny red flags. I’m not sure, but I suppose these red flags interfere with the item generation routine while adding something to the score (Action Fighter is one of those games that don’t show your score unless you die or pause). Watch out for the cat’s face appearing at random once you collect enough flags... I have no idea what it actually does!

Driving and flying don’t always come in the same order throughout the game. With the exception of the second boss, all other bosses must be defeated while flying. When that happens you’ll continue flying as the next stage starts, with a mandatory landing and another flying section before facing the next boss. The overall enemy firing rate increases level after level, whereas later bosses toughen up quite a bit. They shoot lots of bullets and require lots of dodging. Bosses were the reason why I gave up on the game years ago when playing it with one of those awful stock Master System controllers (everybody knows they suck for precise 8-way movement). This time I went into battle armed with a Mega Drive controller and a Rapid Fire unit. Action Fighter has no autofire, so unless you can mash that button 2 hard you’d better get yourself some means of turbo firing.

Final verdict on Action Fighter? I could say it’s fun, but I’d be partially lying. It's an intense challenge, but it's also repetitive in every aspect you can think of. The soundtrack lacks variety and comes with one recurring theme for each part of the game (driving, flying, boss), but at least the sound effects were handled rather nicely. The main issue, however, is that the game demands too much to start getting fun. Dodging feels a little clunky at first and there are no continues whatsoever. Bullets are always aimed but tend to vary in speed, often cornering you when you least expect it. Most scoring opportunities are left for the end of the game because the final boss is worth a lot more points than all previous bosses. There’s an extend routine that grants roughly one extra life per level, but you’ll only see changes in the life stock when the timer phase ends or when you pick up the brown P.

My 1CC high score is shown below. You need to enter your initials/name before starting the credit, just like in the arcade version of Side Arms.