Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Rendering Ranger R2 (SNES)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Rainbow Arts GmbH
Published by Virgin Interactive in 1995

Around here we would say that Rendering Ranger R2 is one of the white flies of the Super Nintendo library. Yes, I know white flies actually exist, it’s just that on a regular daily basis seeing a white fly anywhere is extremely rare. And the same applies to this infamous cartridge released in minuscule numbers only in Japan at the end of the console’s lifespan, which obviously helped its rarity index to increase even more. On the game’s behalf, at least one can state that its quality almost matches its scarcity on both gameplay fronts: the classic platforming elements are a trademark of developer Manfred Trenz (creator of the Turrican series), whereas the shooting sections leave nothing to be desired in regards to action and 16-bit eye candy.

The post-apocalyptic backdrop on the first stage absolutely sets the tone for the rest of the game even though the levels soon drift into mechanized bases, organic caves and all sorts of environments in the shoot’em up areas. It’s a complete and diverse adventure that tries to extract the best from Nintendo’s platform, oozing with transparencies, sweet animation and Mode-7 effects without a single ounce of slowdown. To enjoy all of this, however, it’s recommended to play the game on a native Japanese Super Famicom instead of an SNES, since it crashes randomly in consoles from other regions while also presenting occasional audio glitches such as the absence of music layers in the first level.

Rendering Ranger R2 has no continues at all, but by default comes with 5 lives and 5 health cells for each life, with the possibility of stocking up to three extra hits with providential shields. I guess this says a lot about how friendly the game is, right?

Boarding the ship at the end of the 2nd stage
(courtesy of YouTube user jbjefferson)

On the platforming areas the ranger is able to use his cannon to fire four types of weapons. Platforming inputs consist of shot, jump, weapon select and a "megaweapon", but you can also use the shoulder buttons to aim at diagonals without moving (L points up, R points down). Your only weapon at the start of the game is the vulcan spread shot (red), but you’ll eventually come across the other ones as the game progresses. All items are concealed inside small skulls or special parts of the scenery, floating up and down when released – note that if there’s no wall to bounce back they’ll go away. The other weapon types are the forward laser (blue), K-type shot (orange) and bouncing shards (green), with the remaining items consisting of an energy cell that provides health recovery or a shield if your health gauge is full. Each weapon is upgraded automatically when you collect their respective power-ups, and all surplus items are worth 5.000 points each.

Special attacks can be used with the "megaweapon" command, whose stock is shown on the lower left corner of the screen. Each weapon has its own special megaweapon: vulcan drops a series of impact bombs (very effective at close range), laser results in a powerful beam, K-shot fires a large wave arch forward and the shard shot emits an outward huge explosion. Since megaweapons are automatically (slowly) recharged after use there’s absolutely no need to refrain from using them. In fact, they’re great strategy aids during certain cramped or tricky parts.

The four main inputs are configurable at the options screen. My layout of choice was A (jump), B (shot), X (megaweapon), Y (weapon change). These commands are exactly the same during the shooting stages except for the jump input, which then assumes the task of turning the ship around so that you can shoot backwards/forwards. Shoulder buttons have no effect, but the speed of the ship can be toggled between four settings with the SELECT button. Pay attention to the ship’s exhaust flare to see in which setting you’re on.

Adding to the items of the platforming area, in the shmup parts there’s also a capsule that generates two options above and below the ship, increasing both its firepower and defensive capabilities (they absorb bullets). The action is constant and climaxes in a relentless battle in the final levels, always with amazing visuals and lots of unique bosses. Trenz obviously wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, opting otherwise to use inspiration from classics such as the Thunder Force series, as well as Gradius, Darius (particularly large enemies/bosses) and a few cool nods to Air Buster (the high speed tunnels), Hellfire (large turret-ridden ships) and Eliminate Down (the rocket storm). A tiny bit of an euroshmup touch is also there but it’s fairly negligible, while Turrican and Contra are the obvious references in the platforming realm.

Huge battleships creeping in

Even though the platforming sections (stages 1, 2, 5 and 9) have their charm, in my opinion the cream of the crop of Rendering Ranger R2 is in the shmup sections (stages 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8). All shooting stages lend a momentum to the game that’s just not sustained in the platforming parts. Both stage types share the same basic length, but once you’ve been through the latter the excitement kinda vanishes along with the challenge, whereas shooting stuff while moving around and dodging bullets gives you a lot more rush. After the first stage, for example, pits (the only hazard that takes away a complete life) will only reappear in the final level, which in turn feels like a weak, easy afterthought after the awesomeness of the 8th stage, action- and music-wise.

Speaking of lives, Rendering Ranger R2 suffers from the same problem of Thunder Force III: not only do you respawn right where you died, but there are also too many extra health and extra lives to help players out. Watch out for 1UPs in the form of helmets (platforming parts) and small ships (shmup parts). They certainly aren’t hidden, but tend to be located in unsuspected corners. Some other breathers that soften the difficulty even more are the full recovery of the energy bar in every new stage and the fact that upon dying you only lose the weapon you're currently shooting (in the case of the red type you're sent back to its default level).

While technically extremely competent, the game does incur in a little flicker during its platforming half, which sometimes makes you think you've been hit. Other than that, the only detrimental aspect here is that the scoring system is broken: you can amass as many points as you wish by destroying the shower of debris dropped by a hovering enemy during one of the platforming levels. There's also the abovementioned regional bug, but it stopped happening once I changed consoles. In the options players are able to map buttons, enable/disable autofire, choose a different color for the character/ship and view high scores.

I completed the game twice on Normal difficulty without the cheap milking of stage 5, and this was the result of my second try:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Last Hope (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by NG:Dev.Team
Published by NG:Dev.Team in 2005

Long after the Neo Geo was dead a small German company decided to declare its love to the platform by releasing Last Hope, a game strongly influenced by R-Type and Pulstar and in true Neo Geo fashion marketed as a “tactical shooting game”. Produced in extremely low quantities and involved in a small scandal about its cartridges being built by reusing the carcasses from old SNK games, Last Hope gained an infamous aura of being an extremely hard shooter due to bullets having the same colors as the debris coming out from regular explosions. As with many other cases of such undeserved fame, Last Hope is nothing of the sort, after all it doesn’t even top the difficulty level of the other two games mentioned in this paragraph.

Debunking the myth doesn’t take much, actually. Indeed the first stage of Last Hope is leaps and bounds above the difficulty of pretty much all first stages of any horizontal checkpoint-based shooter out there. However, when you finally come to grips with it and start progressing through the rest of the game you realize the developers seem to have tried to wow players in every way they could from the get go. Steep difficulty needed to be there in order to match the cool music and the awesome graphics – clearly above anything 16-bit – hence the excruciating wall of the first level. But hey, once this wall is climbed and passed everything feels more natural, to the point where Last Hope finally becomes an enjoyable experience.

Like most of the games explicitly inspired by R-Type, you only feel you have some chance of surviving the odds after you acquire the force pod, which in in this case is permanently attached to the ship and can be rotated around it and locked at 8 different positions with buttons B (counter-clockwise) and C (clockwise). Button A is used to shoot and to charge the plasma beam. The act of picking any power-up creates the force pod, which arrives slowly from the left side of the screen and initially latches to the front of the ship. The pod protects it against all sorts of regular/round enemy bullets while firing a single soft projectile alongside your regular shot/charge. Note however that it doesn’t inflict any damage whatsoever.

Creepy waters

Items can be either concealed inside slow carriers or appear floating from the right side of the screen. The brown ones are speed-ups, all others initially only provide the force pod. Upon collecting the second item you get a specific type of side weapon: cluster air/ground bombs are orange, straight “carbon” missiles are green and homing missiles are yellow. A third capsule of the same weapon will then upgrade its strength. All of them are useful, but the homing missiles are definitely not recommended against the most resilient enemies. I often try to keep them only during the 5th stage because they’re great against the kamizake ships that home into your position. On the other hand, straight missiles are a devastating aid if you decide to mash the button against bosses.

In the world of Last Hope memorization is king. Players will get nowhere without prior knowledge of what’s coming since all six stages have a good share of hazards and traps. Besides all the R-Type influence I can also see references to Parodius Da!, X-Multiply, Rayxanber and a general throwback to the euroshmup school of thought reminiscent of the Commodore Amiga days. Fortunately NG:Dev.Team uses the euroshmup inspiration wisely, as in the way enemy waves approach so that you’re able to finish them in one single blow with the plasma beam to collect the associated multiplier bonuses. Each successive enemy killed with the same shot adds ×1 to this instantaneous multiplier, which is then applied to the next enemy in the chain.

Chaining enemies with the plasma beam is the only real way to boost the score besides exploiting loose projectiles from enemies, picking up all those bits worth 500 points and not dying (when the stage is completed you get a bonus based on the amount of bits collected since your last death in the level). Certain places in the game are better suited to the plasma beam for higher multiplier points, as in the fight against the second boss (kill him while blowing up the bubble he spits) and the first checkpoint section of the third level. There’s a mild rank system in place that increases the amount and speed of enemy bullets the longer you survive. An interesting observation about the speed of the ship is that it gets reset in every level, so no matter how many speed-ups you take you'll always start the next stage with the default sluggish maneuverability. It's not as bad as it sounds, believe me.

Watch out for the burning sun
(courtesy of YouTube user Scott Galicki)

Speaking of checkpoints, there are three of them per level. And for a game that’s so demanding up front, having unlimited checkpoint continues is really welcome. From the enemy base of the first stage to the biologic mayhem of the final level, players still need to defeat the mandatory waterfall/corridor with rocketing enemies in the second area, followed by an outer space scramble into a dark lair in the third. Then there’s the odd mix of moving volcanoes and large battleship of the fourth stage, which leads to a moving hell of blocks, lasers and turrets in the second-to-last level. Despite its derivative nature I can’t help but praise the variety in the design of Last Hope, as well as the soft nature of the game as a whole, the great use of colors (lots of blue and green!) and the absolute lack of slowdown. The enemy gallery is equally diverse, and it’s particularly interesting to see the remarkable amount of invincible snakes everywhere. And I wouldn’t mind having those B&W animation snippets lasting a little longer in between levels, they’re quite impressive.

Such polish from an unlicensed independent shooter is definitely rare and must be commended, even if Last Hope incurs in some odd functional aspects. The fonts for the score display, for instance, are extremely small. The 50.000 points extend routine doesn’t always register in the life counter, and it’s not uncommon to hear that ominous 1UP voice in between levels or die on your last life and still come back for another final chance. After the first loop is completed the game keeps restarting in a harder setting, eventually locking on HARD for all eternity from what I heard.

The short demo shown in the attract mode can be accessed at any time from the start screen, as well as the options with alternatives to rearrange inputs and enable/disable the music. After coming out for the Neo Geo AES the game received some slight tweaks on the ports released for the Dreamcast and the Neo Geo CD. Later on a revision titled Last Hope Pink Bullets addressed the assumed high difficulty of the game by coloring its bullets pink and aggressively altering the original gameplay. Pink Bullets came out for the Dreamcast and the Neo Geo AES.

In the high score screen below I reached stage 2-5 on Normal difficulty. Those stats are a nice touch but don’t make much sense in the end. Let it be known that my cartridge is a conversion – the authentic one was and still is an extremely overpriced item for AES collectors.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Super Star Soldier (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Kaneko /
Inter State in 1990

Excluding related games such as Starship Hector and GunHed, this the first official sequel to the seminal NES/MSX Star Soldier. Of course the name Super Star Soldier is as obvious as it gets, even though the game shares little with its predecessor in regards to gameplay. In fact, the differences are grand enough to put it in a league of its own, which is much more akin to the style of a Compile shooter than the dire roots of Tecmo’s forefather Star Force. Tying all this together is Hudson Soft, the developer that used almost exclusively the Soldier games to promote the then famous Caravan console tournaments in Japan.

The style merging of Compile and Hudson Soft first seen with GunHed continues in Super Star Soldier. In a nutshell, it’s a steady slope of 8/16-bit flashiness punctuated by colorful weapons, large bosses and some exquisite frantic sections. Gone are the tiled terrains, the annoying hindrances and the turret-ridden enemies of its predecessor. Since players are welcomed by a game that spreads spikes and valleys evenly throughout eight stages without stupid little secrets, the result is definitely a more fun, straightforward and pleasing experience, one that rewards those who can cleverly manage its resources.

A mid-boss in stage 4

Controlling the spaceship at three different speeds is done at the press of the SELECT button. Button II shoots and button I has little influence in the gameplay, only becoming active when you pick-up the item for options – it just alternates the pod’s orientation between horizontal and vertical. Speaking of items, the main ones are the mandatory color-coded power-ups. Here we have four: yellow (flamethrower), green (lightning laser, 3-way at max power), blue (expanding rings) and red (vulcan, classic 5-way shot at max power). Upgrading is accomplished by sticking to the same item color, and once the ship is maxed out in power – after five consecutive items – the next one will work as a smart bomb, wiping out bullets and damaging all enemies on screen.

Auxiliary weapons exist in the form of option pods (O) and guided missiles (M), each with three upgrade levels each. Option pods are initially stationary and can have their alignment switched at the press of button I, but the next upgrade will make them rotate (an effect that can also be achieved with button I on the first phase if you have a turbo controller). Option pods do not add to the firepower, but inflict damage and provide protection against regular bullets. I always go for guided missiles though because I’d much rather adopt an offensive than a defensive attitude in games like this. Unlike the main shot types, secondary weapons do not result in smart bombs when taken in excess.

A 3-hit shield is acquired whenever the third power level is achieved with any weapon. It starts blue, and by the last hit it will go red. Regardless of your current firepower level, whenever you get hit the ship will revert back to a power level of 2. Being shieldless is okay if you’re in the first half of the game, but later on it’s kinda scary in a Darius-like way. The good news is that to get another shield you just need to rush to the next power-up of the same color. Beware though, Super Star Soldier is one of those games that shows no mercy when you die, often bringing about successive deaths in a row if you happen to bite the dust once. There's a very precious catch though: early on you’ll notice that some power-ups can be hit by your weapons; if you avoid shooting at them they will descend cycling through all main and secondary weapon types, but if you hit and keep them in place long enough they'll eventually acquire a blinking nature that explodes into a smart bomb when collected, as well as giving away 5.000 points and adding up to the a hidden instant respawn counter. In a nutshell, blinking items are great for both scoring and survival. Just don't let them reach the bottom or you'll lose them, this is not GunHed after all (thanks for the heads-up, Greg!).

An original TV ad for Super Star Soldier!
(courtesy of YouTube user ASSEMblergames.com)

All extra lives are score-based and come at fixed intervals: 50K, 100K, 200K and then at every 300 or 400 thousand points. Autofire is implemented by default. Besides the bonus points acquired from blinking pick-ups, many enemies release destructible bullets/parts and any regular item taken is worth 800 points each. Much later in the game golden orbs also start appearing for a few more points, which is kinda odd. Why take so long to include them? The first time I got there I thought they were harmful and dodged the things until more golden orbs showed up again in the escape sequence of the 7th stage!

Super Star Soldier offers some nice variety across its eight levels. Outer space alternates with action over watery and desertic areas, as well as satellite bases and alien landscapes. Some of the music is rather good and in general the soundtrack coexists with the sound effects harmoniously. One of the coolest aspects of the game is the inclusion of a few homages to other shooters. Konami seems to have had a good influence on Hudson Soft because it's easy to spot references to Gradius II (ice blocks/snakes in stage 5) and Salamander (the escape sequence mentioned above in stage 7). Bosses and midbosses range from a rehash of the star brain from Star Soldier and some bulky creatures such as that pricky mecha from stage 4 and the giant version of your own ship in the final level. My favorite weapon is the maxed out green lightning laser of doom, but I can also vouch for the effectiveness of the 5-way classic shot in stage 6.

It's safe to say the first half of the game is fairly easy, but after that Super Star Soldier starts showing some claws. The last couple of levels certainly demand a little more from the player, and it's always advisable to get there with the maximum amount possible of extra lives. Believe me, you do not want to trigger checkpoints in the final stage. Since it's not such a long campaign, I'd say the challenge is spot on. Caravan lovers are also well served with the additional 2- and 5-minute modes.

Below is my final 1CC score in the default settings (there's a code to activate higher difficulties, but it's too complicated and I didn't bother checking it out for real). Now for the next game in the series: Final Soldier.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Trizeal (Playstation 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mechanical crawling boss

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 5, 2016

TaleSpin (NES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

RayStorm (Playstation)

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

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

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

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

Red R-Gray 2 is in deep trouble

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

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

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

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

Taking down Juda Central Core on a single credit

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Gekirindan (Playstation 2)

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

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

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

Hokuto unleashes the power of his ship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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