Friday, January 6, 2023

Spacewing War (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Pneuma Games / eastasiasoft
Published by Red Art Games in 2022

It's a cyclic thing. Every now and then people start claiming that "the old is new again", throwing nostalgic testimonies everywhere. Video games are no different. A game like Spacewing War fits the bill and is certainly bound to tickle a few soft spots if you're a fan of old systems like the Game Boy and the Game Boy Color. Even the cover art of the glove that comes with the Playstation 4 release evokes this association, to the surprise of younger audiences puzzled by its odd layout. The fact the game design does stick to primitive graphics where each pixel is clearly visible on the TV screen isn't a surprise though, just like the 4:3 ratio adopted by the developer.

Visual simplicity notwithstanding, Spacewing War doesn't do anything to deviate from the very basic rules of a shmup, i.e. fly a spaceship, shoot enemies, defeat a boss and advance to the next stage. That's the structure of the initial and main game mode (Story), which comes with 7 levels divided in several sections each. The first one is very familiar since it's filled with landscapes that seem to have been taken directly from Super Mario Bros, only you're flying instead of jumping over pipes and grassy platforms. Later on you'll see echoes of Wonder Boy and Mega Man, as well as wacky bosses certainly inspired by the likes of Parodius, all rendered in a dual color style that can be changed any time by pausing and choosing a different color palette.

In Story mode a brief sequence of panels introduces the Spacewing ship and its mission to repel alien invaders from planet Mavros, then a short tutorial shows almost everything you need to know to play the game. Select one of four weapons with △ and shoot with ○ (single shot) or □ (autofire). Weapons consist of a pea shot, a two-way boomerang, a powerful bomb or a thee-way + backward shot combo with reduced reach. A health meter is given for each life, score-based extra lives are given at every 20.000 points and deaths happen when the health meter depletes or when you get crushed by a scrolling obstacle. There are no power-ups to be collected, and the only items you'll come across are hearts (for health refills), coins (bonus points), 1UP (extra life), a large S (extra shield) and a large H that increases the firing rate slightly.

Battle against the Avanto-darks with a green Spacewing

Some aspects of the gameplay are a little more intricate, such as the fact that you can be damaged by the explosion of your own bombs (the third weapon). Since they travel a certain distance and explode, players need to pay special attention in levels where the scrolling is faster than the bomb displacement (they go backwards a little prior to exploding) or in that level where you're being pushed forward by snow or rain. Some levels also have specific gimmicks, such as bombs that explode blocks à la Bomberman and bells that clear access gates. These are harmless though. Minor shifts in scrolling speeds and small portals that lead you forward can also appear here and there.

If only Spacewing War had a more enthusiastic and uplifting music perhaps it wouldn't be so underwhelming. The idea is interesting and the lighthearted humor is okay, but the action is stale, the sound effects lack punch and the game's execution follows a flatline that never deviates from average or mediocre, on top of being really confusing with walls at times. The colored star you take in the final stage is a glimpse of what the game could actually be, with an all-out destruction effect that feels great but is nerfed by the lack of opposition from the enemy gallery. This star upgrade seems to be there just to grant you lots of lives prior to facing the final boss, which is the only one that proves to be a real challenge.

By completing Story mode you unlock two additional game modes, which will also unlock further modes if you beat them. The extra modes available are:
  • Challenge mode — Basically the same as Story mode, only with faster scrolling and slightly more challenging enemies (I think).
  • Captain Uufoo's Quest — A special mode with no auto-scrolling starred by one of the enemy UFOs who wants to get back home and check if he really turned off his oven. There's only a single 4-way shot activated with □, while ○ fires one of seven spells chosen with △. Each spell consumes a varying amount of energy, which in turn is automatically accumulated as you destroy enemies. Even though it looks like Story mode, later on stage sections acquire a puzzle element with new hazards such as air currents that lift you upwards or impose mandatory descents. Performance is measured by scoring and by completion time, so my strategy to beat this mode was just to spam the first spell (shield) and use the huge laser to dispatch bosses quickly. The new final boss awaiting in the end is the only one that's a little more troublesome.
  • Break the Targets — Ten non-scrolling mazes where you must destroy a selected number of round targets within a certain time limit. The same 4-way shot above applies here, but there are no spells available. Each maze has its specific set of threats, and a new icon for speed-up can be found in this mode.
  • Boss Horde and Boss Horde+ — The difference between these two modes is that in the + variation you also face the final boss from Captain Uufoo's Quest and the colored upgrade star from Story/Challenge mode.

Release trailer for Spacewing War
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher eastasiasoft)

I beat Story mode, Captain Uufoo's Quest and all Break the Targets in the Normal difficulty. Then I got lazy and bumped the difficulty down to Easy to get the other unlocks and see what those two mysterious switches in the Options were. One of them turned out to be "color mode", which does away with the monochromatic color palette thing and paints the whole game with regular colors. Note: Normal difficulty has 6 health slots, Easy has 12, Hard has 3 and Extreme has only 1. On Easy your own bombs don't harm you anymore, and on Hard/Extreme you can't refill more than the initial amount of health even though there are 6 slots in the health meter.

Spacewing War keeps track of only a single high score for each game mode, regardless of the selected difficulty. Below are my final results in the Normal difficulty for Story mode and Captain Uufoo's Quest. I played them only once, which means they were both first attempt 1CCs. The high score shown at the start screen will always be the one you get for Story mode.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

GG Aleste (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile in 1991
Published by M2 in 2020

Having never seen a Game Gear personally, it was always hard for me to get a feeling for this long dead handheld system. All I've ever known is that it had a serious problem with battery life. GG Aleste is my first indirect experience with it, thanks to the fine folks at M2 and their undying love for the Aleste series. Part of the M2 Shottrigers series, Aleste Collection brings back all chapters of the franchise originally released for the Sega 8-bit platforms plus a brand-new sequel developed with the Game Gear in mind. Unfortunately for many shmup fans, this means none of the MSX or 16-bit games are included. Reserved for a further release, perhaps?

All the old titles in Aleste Collection are somewhat rare in their original incarnations, so this release is an excellent way to experience them in a real console. As usual, the amount of tweaks and gadgets provided by M2 in the porting process is a great differential. The only criticism I have on the Eastern Playstation 4 version is the lack of a language switch for the menus. They're partially in Japanese and partially in English, which in the end makes no sense at all. Anyway, once the desired game is selected from the initial screen, just press the touch pad button in the center of the controller to go to the options.

Click for the option menus translation for GG Aleste in the Aleste Colletion

GG Aleste was the first title made by Compile for the Game Gear. Generally regarded as technically impressive for the system, it adapts many elements seen in previous entries in the series such as Power Strike (also included in the Aleste Collection) and MUSHA. Even though GG is widely considered to be an acronym for Game Gear, it's in fact a short for Galvanic Gunner, in a very smart move by Compile to firmly position its well-known shooting brand in the new platform. It must have worked somehow, after all GG Aleste II followed a couple years later and now we have the brand-new GG Aleste III out in full 8-bit glory for the current generation of HD consoles. For many shmuppers GG Aleste III is the main reason to own the Aleste Collection.

Adapting the frantic Aleste gameplay to the small screen of the Game Gear did require some cutbacks, but nevertheless GG Aleste manages to keep the atmosphere seen in previous chapters. It might lack the enemy density, but everything is there otherwise. Only button 1 is used to fire. Amidst the constant arrival of aerial foes and several arrangements of ground turrets, power-ups are released either by incoming carriers or at specific ground spots. The main frontal shot is upgraded by taking power chips, small tokens that fall down the screen pretty fast, whereas the auxiliary shot is acquired and changed by picking up green icons with letters. There's L (Laser), H (Homing), W (Wave), D (Defence fire), N (Napalm runner) and S (mag Spread). Auxiliary weapons can only be upgraded by taking a red P power-up.

Where have we all seen this before?

There's nothing particularly outstanding about the stage design, which follows the rulebook of standard backdrops with a boss waiting at the end of all eight levels. It's all very well made though, with fast and varied scrolling directions all around. From a floating space city you go directly to an ocean stage, then followed by a ravine passage in the third level. The graphics for this specific stage are lifted directly from MUSHA, as are other parts of the game such as the intro panel showing heroine Ellinor preparing to take off. A huge battleship must be neutralized in stage 5, and in stage 6 you start a long stretch over the surface of the moon towards the chamber of the final boss. A bonus area appears at the beginning of stages 4 and 6, where you're expected to destroy a series of waves that release power chips and power-ups (kill them all for a special reward of 200.000 points each). 

Despite the shooting fun and the decent amount of action, GG Aleste's main game mode is clearly an easy shmup that can be beaten almost blindly if you're an averagely skilled player. I beat it on my first try solely by using the homing weapon, for instance. The punishment for dying is losing one power level of each shot (main and auxiliary), extra lives are granted at every 100.000 points and the invincibility short window you get when taking an item is certainly something you can work into your play style with a little practice. That said, the gadgets provided by M2 are an excellent help to understand these and many other aspects of the game, so I definitely recommend keeping them on screen at all times (just to have an idea of how useful they are, in the original Game Gear game you could only see your score in between levels).

Release trailer for Aleste Collection
(courtesy of YouTube user LimitedGameNews)

Aside from gadgets and expected features such as replay save/download, M2 also provided this collection with several other improvements worth mentioning. One of them is the so-called "comfort mode", which takes care of the sprite flickering and removes all the original slowdown when activated. Another welcome tweak is the possibility of applying an obscene amount of rapid fire to the shot input, capable of obliterating bosses in less than a second if you're using the appropriate weapon. Of course it's not necessary to use these rapid fire settings to beat the game, but it becomes a mandatory resource if you're trying to climb up the ranks in the online/offline scoreboards. Since GG Aleste can be indefinitely exploited for points during certain boss fights (3rd, 6th), completion time is the only performance tracking made available by M2.

The main game mode I mentioned above is aptly named Normal. However, apart from opting for Normal you can also select Special before starting the credit if you want to try a much harder challenge. In this mode every single flying enemy (except for mid-bosses or bosses) releases a suicide bullet upon death, which turns the game into a real nightmare very soon. Some weapons are capable of nullifying bullets but that's it. For example, in this mode there's no such thing as a sealing point-blank distance, a resource generally used in many other shmups to avoid suicide bullets from appearing. Those drones will shoot you in the face no matter how close you are when you kill them.

Once I beat Normal mode a couple of times I dedicated myself to improve my completion time with rapid fire set to 30 shots/s. As of the writing of this short essay I got the final result below, with no milking whatsoever and comfort mode always ON. I did get a better completion time after this one, but for a mysterious reason it didn't get transferred to the online leaderboard. I wonder if it's a system fluke or if it's because I got a slightly lower score then the one below.

Next: GG Aleste II.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Syvalion (Playstation 2)

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

Surely controlling dragons isn't unheard of in the history of shmups, but here's a game that's definitely deserving of the unique qualifier. After all, the dragon in Syvalion is a golden metallic creature whose segments expand and contract as you move around gracefully breathing fire inside mazes. The idea in itself is quite interesting, but the enormous size and hitbox of the dragon, the procedural generation of level layouts and the trackball controls were quite a novelty when the game hit the arcades back in 1988. As I said, unique, and certainly ahead of its time. Just like many of the endeavors put forward by Taito such as Darius and its triple-screen cabinets.

Syvalion is in fact a part of the Darius universe, with a few direct connections and many design elements for enemies/characters shared between both. Even the story is linked somehow, but be my guest finding these links in more than one hundred different possible endings to Syvalion. Unfortunately the version included in the Taito Memories Vol. 1 (Joukan) for the Playstation 2 is completely in Japanese so the story bits were unbeknownst to me. Players who own the Western release of Taito Legends 2 for the Playstation 2 can experience the game with a full English translation though (sadly the Xbox and Windows versions of this compilation don't have Syvalion included).

Once the credit is started you have to choose between two game courses. The upper choice is the "basic series" and comes with predefined levels, enemies and bosses. It's often referred to as a tutorial mode because it's a nice way to learn the game's mechanics. The lower choice is the "real combat series", where stages are generated on the fly and respond to the actions of Syvalion the dragon. Graphical themes, music, enemies and bosses are random and change from one credit to the next, so the experience is never the same. As a rule of thumb, the better you play the harder the game becomes, increasing the aggression and often making boss attacks more dangerous.
Justice comes in the way of fire
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade 60fps Attract Mode)

There's no automatic scrolling. The screen only moves when you move, and as you make your way across the level a large arrow points to the direction you're supposed to go within the maze. A single input is used to breath fire, but its reach is dimished after a while according to the red gauge at the bottom of the screen. It's refilled when you're not firing, but it recovers even faster if you're moving. While initially painted in gold, for each hit the dragon takes the segment closest to its tail loses its shiny golden hue and turns red. After six hits the dragon is completely red and totally vulnerable, dying horribly in a big explosion on the next blow. Hit detection is remarkably cruel in Syvalion, the whole dragon is a huge target and no grace period exists after it gets hit, that's why a string of tough hazards can quickly kill you. It takes some time to confidently move the dragon around, but what's important to have in mind is that all dragon segments go through the exact same path taken by the head.

Defeated enemies leave behind two types of items. The molecules are solely for scoring purposes, and the more you take within a certain time frame the more valuable they become. The second and less usual item is a triangle that provides +1, +2, +3 or even full health recovery if you're lucky. Items tend to drift down and away in varying speeds, and since health is not replenished in between levels there are moments when it's very tempting to get out of your way to pick up those precious triangles. Even considering that the dragon's breath can deflect almost all enemy bullets (not lasers), it still is quite risky to do that.

A full run of Syvalion takes around 10 to 12 minutes, depending on how fast you decide to get through the stages. Since they are all timed, exploration is out of the question and a good balance must be found between haste and caution, a relation that also applies to the scoring system. The less hits you take and the quicker you complete a level the higher the bonuses you get. Beating a stage without getting hit, for exemple, yields a special bonus of 2 million points in real combat mode (all points and bonuses are cut in half in the basic/tutorial mode). Of course that's easier said than done. Some bosses are just naturally harder than others, for example, and you might even face Syvalion itself as the final enemy. Additionally, all hazards that have a blue aura are invincible and must be completely avoided, such as spikes, bending plants, laser-firing turrets or those skulls that chase you around if you procrastinate for too long. The only blue enemies affected by dragon fire are the floating spores, which shrink quickly and disappear when hit.

"On my way to morph with Dark Helios"

Besides the randomized levels and the possibility of getting higher scores, real combat mode also allows players to get special enhancements whenever a new stage starts (except for the 1st level of course). The requirements to get these upgrades are a mystery, so when it happens you'd better make the most out of them because they're gone when you die. Players might be awarded with a long spell of invincibility, exploding balls, homing missiles, a trailing shooting orb, a rotating barrier or even a gold Silver Hawk that flies behind you and provides extra firepower. Since the game is so unpredictable, receiving any of these special powers can be a lifesaver and might ultimately represent the difference between failure and success.

Although unforgiving and claustrophobic most of the time, Syvalion is also extremely addictive once you get the hang of it. The action is always intense and never slows down, the music is catchy and the inherent weirdness is a real treat for those who enjoy different kinds of challenge. The feeling of being at the mercy of the game only subsides with lots of practice though. Once you realize that levels are created in familiar chunks connected one after the other the gameplay starts to make more sense. The next step is paying close attention to the threats ahead and how to best evade them without taking too long (timeout = life lost + 300 additional "seconds").

Click for the option menus translation for Syvalion on Taito Memories Vol. 1

Despite the innovative gameplay, Syvalion didn't evolve into anything other than sparse participations or mentions throughout the Darius series. It did however have some sort of visual influence in later shmups such as Saint Dragon or Dragon Breed. The game is perfectly emulated on MAME but being able to play it in a home console is a real kicker, so kudos to the ever-so-awesome existence of Taito Memories. The only weird detail is that the default number of lives in the Taito Memories Vol. 1 disc is 2, so I switched it to 3 to keep it in line with the arcade default. Regarding in-game extra lives, there's only one single extend awarded when you score 1,5 million points.

The high score table shows the best results for both game modes. Scores for real combat mode are on the left, scores for the basic/tutorial mode are on the right. I hammered the game for a couple of days until I got the clear in real combat mode, and only then had a few credits in the basic mode. Since the game is so short I might try to improve the high scores below if I have the chance, but first I'll probably tackle the port released for the Super Famicom in 1992.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Section Z (NES)

Checkpoints OFF / ON
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Capcom in 1987

One of the best impressions I ever had when playing an old video game for the first time was with arcade Section Z. Such a simple yet cool little game with a great sense of adventure and plenty of shooting action. Unfortunately a sequel was never made, instead Capcom decided to release a port for the Famicom Disk System and later the NES. I was really surprised when I finally got the chance to play the 8-bit version though. Except for a few basic concepts, the game doesn’t play like the arcade original at all.

Section Z on the NES looks and feels ordinary, but it’s far from being your regular type of shmup. Playing it as you’d play a normal shooter is more likely to drive you mad than to provide the amount of fun expected from even the most rudimentary 8-bit offering. Blame it on the non linear maze-like structure that makes getting through all 60 stage sections a living hell of trial and error. Definitely not my idea of fun, and up front I’ll admit I just printed out and used one of the stage guides you can easily find online. Props to those who were patient enough to pave the way for all of us peevish ones!

There’s absolutely no information on where you’re supposed to go in order to finish three huge stages comprised by 20 sections each, all of them labeled with numbers from 0 to 59 (0~19 is stage 1, 20-39 is stage 2 and 40-59 is stage 3). Players take control of Captain Commando (yes, that one) in a mission to fight an underground battle against an alien race called Balangool. He’s equipped with a spacesuit and fires right (button A) and left (button B) as the screen scrolls at different speeds through level sections of varying lengths. At the end of each section there are normally two teleport beams that lead to the next areas, but in certain cases you’ll just get through a single straight shaft to move on. 

The problem with Section Z is that you can’t tell where you’re going when entering the beams. You might skip a few sections, repeat the previous one or just go several steps backwards. Since the backgrounds are so repetitive, relying on the enemy types is a better way to memorize things, yet you can still get totally lost after a while.

Shed your earthly identity to become the one remaining astronaut in space!
(courtesy of YouTube user retrogameguidecom)

Survival depends on the energy level shown in the E indicator. You start with 20 energy points, which are deducted by 1 (when you get hit by a regular projectile), by 4 (when using one of the special weapons) or by 5 (when you die). Dying happens by losing all energy, touching an enemy or when you get crushed by a scrolling obstacle, whereas walking on surfaces or leaning against walls is safe. An extra punishment for losing all energy points is that you get sent back to the very start of the current stage (sections 0, 20 or 40). Note that life count is only shown when starting the game or when you’re spawned right after dying, and if all lives are lost the game is over regardless of your current energy stock. 

Recovering 3 points of lost energy is achieved by taking the appropriate icon left behind by enemies or by small brown containers glued to walls called “metal eaters”. Besides this item you can also come across speed-ups (S) and upgrades denoted by letters that show up to the right of the energy gauge. These can be F (flash buster, a short range 3-way spread), M (mega smasher, a powerful V-shaped straight shot) or B (barrier shield, which can withstand 32 frontal bullets). To activate any of them just move right or left and press SELECT when the desired letter is below the arrow marker. Be careful not to do it over the L, thus reverting back to the default laser shot. Finally, if you have an M activated and you collect another M you immediately get the mega buster, which is basically a 3-way megasmasher with reduced firing rate.

When you die the weapon you’re using is lost (except for the default laser of course), but the inventory will still be available to use in the next life. Important note: there’s no autofire at all in Section Z, so unless you don’t want to hurt your wrists by button mashing I definitely recommend using a turbo controller.

There are also special weapons the game calls “shells”. The megamissile is a slow moving missile, the flash bomb is a screen clearer and the crush ball creates a rotating barrier around Captain Commando. Summon and cycle through them by pressing A + B simultaneously, then pick them up and press either A or B to fire. You start the game with the megamissile, but the other two must be found in specific secret chambers/warps uncovered by shooting at certain spots in predefined sections. As pointed above, the cost of using a shell is 4 energy points. In my opinion they’re just not worth it, and I never used them in any of my attempts to beat the game.

Meet the first enemy generator

Even though Section Z isn’t essentially a hard game, it still has its share of traps and tricky parts. As a rule of thumb, you can never stand too close to the borders or you’ll risk getting killed instantly by an incoming enemy. If you see a red beam don’t go into it or you’ll die. In order to clear it and get through you have to find and destroy a generator mid-boss (two per stage). Generators are mostly very easy to beat and the first main boss is a joke, but the remaining bosses put up tougher fights. The good news is that you can regularly expand the energy bank by taking the capsules left behind by generators and bosses, which add 8 new energy points each. A reserve of almost 100 energy points will be in effect by the end of the game.

Due to the many possible paths allowed by the stage design, most but not all sections need to be played in order to beat Section Z. However, unless you’re stuck with the game for a long time or you have an elephant’s memory you’d better have a map or a well devised plan. That said, note that a few secret warps like the ones described above to collect shells can also lead you to new sections. And since it’s possible to replay levels forever there’s absolutely no point in talking about scoring here. On the other hand, scoring at least helps in the long run because you earn an extra life at every 100.000 points (a generous bonus of 3.000 points for each remaining energy point is given when you complete a full stage).

I paused the game and took the picture below as soon as the final boss went down. Then I saw the cool ending sequence and said goodbye to Section Z. Mission accomplished. Once again I thank those who mapped the whole game and made it public, for as long as I knew where I was going it was mildly fun. On a final note, the music – one BGM per stage – is certainly amusing.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Raiden III (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Moss
Published by UFO Interactive in 2007

In the gaming world eleven years is certainly a long time. Video game generations fade and give way to their successors during such a period, and even though new chapters of old franchises seem to be frequent these days it wasn’t really common in 2005. That’s exactly when Raiden III was released in the arcades, more than a decade after Raiden DX. Rising from the ashes of defunct developer Seibu Kaihatsu in the form of new company Moss, it was an important step ahead for the series not only because it reignited a flame that seemed to have faded, but also because it dared to update the formula into a more streamlined experience with sleek 3D visuals.

Even though many diehard fans weren’t receptive towards this third installment, claiming the series had peaked with Raiden DX, in my opinion Raiden III holds up nicely on its own. The game bears a distinct vibe, with gameplay differences that make it more approachable and friendly when compared with either DX or the spin-off Raiden Fighters franchise, whose last entry Raiden Fighters Jet had already been out for seven years. Come to think of it, “more friendly” might be indeed the key qualifier for Raiden III, especially after the overcomplicated or simply brutal nature of the other games mentioned in this short paragraph.

After debuting in the arcades, Raiden III soon found its way to the Playstation 2. The North American version took a little longer to arrive and is curiously known for the inversion of the well-known confirmation input button of Western games. Instead of using ×, everything is only registered if you press ○, as is common with Japanese releases. I’ve even heard of people returning the game to the shops believing it was broken!

Boss of the 4th stage hard at work

When resuming the battle against the evil crystals of doom you can choose either the red (player 1 side) or the blue ship (player 2 side), which behave exactly the same this time around. Gameplay basics are unchanged, with carriers that release color-cycling power-ups used to activate/upgrade all weapons. Main weapons consist of vulcan (red, default), straight laser (blue) and piercing proton laser (green), whereas missile subweapons can be of the nuke (M), homing (H) or radar type (R). The piercing green laser replaces the toothpaste purple laser of Raiden II / Raiden DX, while the brand new radar missiles move forward like the nukes with the added ability of seeking the closest targets ahead. In a nutshell, the green laser sucks and the radar missiles are awesome, easily surpassing the original nukes when it comes down to sheer destruction power.

Other types of items to pick up are extra bombs and the ground medals/orbs. There's no optimal timing to collect medals, which are all worth 500 points. Bombs are of a single type only and have panic function, meaning you can trigger them at any time to escape hairy situations. Their behavior is one of the main elements of departure from the preceding games in the series, seeing that previously you had to time your bomb blasts in order to take advantage or their protection radius. It’s one of the details that make Raiden III much more approachable than Raiden II or Raiden DX.

You can also find two hidden extra lives (1UPs) and two hidden fairies that grant you a bunch of power-ups upon death. The fairies are worth 10.000 points and are quite easy to uncover in stages 1 and 4, but the 1UPs require some work: the first one is obtained by destroying all cranes in stage 3 (not only the final four!), and the second is found by obliterating all turrets in the three rotating rings on the tower prior to the 6th boss. Finally, a small car passing over a bridge in the 1st level gives you 10.000 points. And that’s it for secrets, with no miclus to be found anywhere in this chapter. As for the precius P for maximum power, it appears only after you continue.

New to the table in Raiden III is the "flash shot" technique that applies a multiplier of up to ×2 to the base value of an enemy the quicker you're able to destroy it. It adds a new layer of risk versus reward that kinda leads the player into memorizing enemy spawning routines while looking out for faster kills whenever possible. Abusing point blanking is a key element in achieving this but you have to be careful the longer you go without dying, after all the game has rank. Rank is reset when you die, but so is a large part of your score depending on where it happens. Each medal collected since your last death is worth 10.000 points at the end-of stage bonus, a reward that also grants 10.000 points for each life you still have and 5.000 points for each spare bomb.

My 1CC run

Besides the new panic function provided by bombs, other tweaks have also been applied in order to make the gameplay less cruel and punishing. The most important one is probably the reduced hitbox of the ship, which also starts with a default vulcan shot that has a 3-way pattern instead of a single straight shot. Another very cool change of Raiden III is in the upgrading process not requiring players to stick to the same power-up color anymore. You can switch colors at will and the weapons will still be upgraded, which means full power is pretty much guaranteed whenever you die and collect the item shower from the fairy. Power-up cycling times are also fixed, so you can always trust you won’t be screwed when you decide to pick one up right after it's been released. Make no mistake though, if you're not fully alert the wrong power-up can quickly end a perfect credit.

Raiden III is definitely easier than Raiden DX, but that doesn't mean it's a pushover. Since the game doesn't loop, it tries to make the most out of its seven stages with a challenge progression that's remarkably balanced (the first three levels take place on Earth, the remaining four sees you flying into outer space). The game alters its pacing every now and then and never slows down, except during boss explosions. By the way, boss fights are fun and often benefit from switching to laser so that you can take them down faster. No strict routing is needed because the horizontal span of the screen is fixed, which means you can't be sniped anymore by enemies popping up right on your face. Nevertheless bullet herding, crowd control and the expected combo of tapping and well timed sweeps become more and more important the closer you get to the end.

The porting job for the Playstation 2 is excellent. By pressing △ in "Game Start" you can play the arcade course in three ways: Solo, Dual (regular co-op play) and Double. Double is one of the most interesting game variants I've ever played, a very fun and challenging mode where both ships are controlled by one player with 3 shared lives and a single score. "Boss Rush" is self-explanatory, while "Score Attack" lets you play individual stages you've already reached in a single credit. All game modes can be used for practice because you're able to select the starting stage in all of them. High scores are fully tracked across all modes, TATE mode is available and replay saving is possible, even though saves are accomplished by levels only (just press △ as soon as you see the message at the end of the level). Finally, in "Replay & Gallery" you can watch replays and prerecorded clips, as well as see special artwork for the game, ships and enemies.

My final 1CC result for Solo mode in the Arcade difficulty is below (the default difficulty is Normal). On a final assessment, I commend Raiden III for taking the necessary steps to steer the series towards a new direction. This new direction is further refined in Raiden IV, which I intend to play soon, perhaps after I've tried the Raiden III x Mikado Maniax late port on the Playstation 4. It supposedly addresses the only feature in this game that pales when compared with the previous chapters: the soundtrack. The sound design is great and the music is punchy enough to escort the action, but it somehow lacks the appeal of old/classic Raiden.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Project Starship X (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (minimum)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Panda Indie Studio
Published by eastasiasoft in 2021

I'm always skeptic whenever a new title arrives claiming to bring fresh ideas to the shmup genre. The main reason why these games are so fascinating is the simplicity of their gameplay: a few stages, power-ups, bosses, even a rudimentary scoring system and off you go, blast away and have fun. Even though these elements are all present in Project Starship X,  there's no denying that this game is also a true conundrum of uniqueness that's bound to puzzle shmup fans in the most diverse ways. After all, on top of the roguelite procedural generation it doesn't give anything away about the many intricacies you're bound to face.

Project Starship X is the third chapter in a trilogy that starts with Red Death and continues in Project Starship. Even though it ditches the use of the entire widescreen area, it's got much in common with the latter while expanding greatly over its assets and ideas. The main gimmick now is the X maneuver, a dash resource that makes the ship invincible and represents the bane of survival at several key points throughout the game. It's one of the two inputs available, the other one being the shot button. Both are permanently mapped to all buttons in the Playstation 4 controller, so that players can use the combination that suits them best. Note that the ship moves slower whenever you're holding shot, however the firing pattern doesn't change.

On a large scale, Project Starship X is a wacky venture into outer space that's extremely colorful and full of visual effects applied to the 8/16-bit styled graphics, joined by a cartoonish art design and chunks of lighthearted humor with no continues allowed. The game is extremely unpredictable and alternates regular sections with rather intense moments of bullet hell, in what the developer calls cosmic horror. This sort of makes sense when you get to face some of the later bosses, but Project Starship X is also a mess in terms of structure, with little to no information of what's supposed to happen in any regular run. Apparently figuring this out is an integral part of the challenge, an elusive ruse and for better or worse a true evidence of the game being unique even among its growing list of roguelite peers.

Released digitally across several platforms, Project Starship X also received a physical special edition for the Playstation 4. It comes in a very nice package that includes a CD with the charming chiptune soundtrack.

Playstation 4 launch trailer for Project Starship X
(courtesy of YouTube user VideoGamePhenom)

Initially there are two characters at the player's disposal, both returning from Project Starship. Garret Zepolla pilots the blue ship with a straight shot, whereas Gwen Rossi pilots the red ship with a spread pattern. She's slightly faster but starts with one life less. By regular playing you'll unlock John Johnson, who pilots the green ship and has more firepower at the cost of a lower firing rate, and Sophie Jefferson, who pilots the purple ship and always begins with random stats. Swagthulhu, the hidden fifth character, pilots a yellow ship and has the best combo of firepower + speed but starts with only one life. He's unlocked by shooting at and eventually defeating the shopkeeper that appears after stages 2 and 4.

In the world of Project Starship X most enemies appear only after being announced, which is pretty neat and avoids an unacceptable feeling of unfairness that's naturally present in the way stages and enemies are presented. Each stage has two or three variations chosen at random, each one with a specific theme, enemy gallery and boss(es). Some of the craziest levels are those modeled after the wild west, Super Mario (the Koopa boss!), a bowling alley (huge pac-man ghost awaiting at the end) and the one with an attracting sun (brought back from Project Starship). The action might be interrupted at any time by "mad events", brief interludes where you must fight or evade a special threat, although occasionally a shooting star might appear to grant you a free item. Items are in a category of their own, appearing randomly and requiring a certain level of familiarity so that the credit doesn't go to shreds lest you pick up a bad one.

The basic and most frequent items for survival are S (extra shield) and ♡ (+1 shield stock and an extra shield to fill it). All other items affect the ship in the most diverse ways. Permanent firepower enhancers include P (power-up), R (increases firing rate), three types of rotating orbs (replicated shot type, missile or laser), M (extra missiles), gattling gun (heavily increases the firing rate), double fire (doubles the current firing pattern) and scepter of Cthulhu (stronger power-up). Other items replace the current shot type, of which the only ones I'd take are the laser beam and the holy grail. The flamethrower, the virus and the crossbone are valid alternatives only after you've powered up the ship quite a bit, but I'd totally avoid the harpoon, the fist or the items that provide speed up (×) or down. Let's not even mention the poop and its shitty fire.

The remainder of the items appear more rarely and can be of the recovery type (morphine, the sun), temporary enhancers (lightning/overload, adrenaline, invincibility star) or three types of bombs you can use later (EMP, overload and invincibility). In order to use these bombs you need to double-tap the dash button, a move that unfortunately can't be used in certain situations. One of them is during the crawler mode activated in a few levels: you enter crawler mode when flying over surfaces, with the ship morphing into a spider-like vehicle that replaces the X maneuver with a jump function. During these parts the only items available are the red mushroom (same as S) and the fire flower (3-way shot, lost when you get hit).

A curious detail about item collection is that you need to dash into them in order to pick them up. Items bounce back upon contact, but will only register when dashed into (crawling areas are the only exception to this). The X maneuver allows some direction control but only forwards, not backwards, except when you see a dashing icon positioned to help you overcome obstacles. Finally, all items collected and installed – the game calls them "plugins" – can be seen in a special text log when you pause. This is a great way to know the actual function of the most mysterious icons.

Sophie Jefferson about to dash for great justice

Another very important thing you'll be picking up along the way are coins. For every in-stage enemy killed you get a certain number of them. They're used as currency to get additional items from the shopkeeper at the end of stages 2 and 4. Note that you can shoot and damage him twice for a few free coins, but if you continue to do that he'll get angry and fight you (thus allowing secret character Swagthulhu to be unlocked). Contrary to what you might expect coins have no influence on scoring, which is based on killing successive enemies for a multiplier of up to ×4 or ×8 when overloading (by picking the lightning bolt or activating its special bomb). Multiplier depletion is indicated by the thin light bar at the top of the screen, but transitions and mad events can freeze it temporarily.

With so much going on it can be tough to get a sense of what's really happening or what you should do to avoid horrible deaths due to a combination of lousy power-ups and crazy hazards. Eventually I learned to cope even with those annoying crawler areas. No matter how powered up the ship is, you'll have to go through them with that puny fire shot (tip: tap the button for a little more power). On the other hand, the Mario crawler area is quite rich in shield items, which is good even if your shield stock is maxed out because for every 5 extra shields taken you earn a new shield slot (same effect of the , just take a look at the bars that appear below the shield stock indicator). Another aspect that doesn't quite gel with the rest of the game is the tank module, which is awesome for sheer firepower but is a pain to deal with. It can appear normally during the start of the credit, otherwise whenever you complete a level without getting hit a free tank module will be awarded before the next stage starts.

Now for the weird stage arrangement. Even though it takes 5 stages to beat the game, players can extend its duration simply by avoiding to enter the final boss chamber at the end of the fifth stage. Don't dash into it and it will eventually go away, allowing you to continue playing. Subsequent levels are harder but they obviously make the scoring system moot since you can theoretically go on forever. Regardless of the number of stages played, in order to see the real ending to I had to beat Project Starship X at least four times, unlocking all available levels in the process and seeing most of the bosses except one. Upon initially booting the game I had "Tutorial" at the top of the start screen. I beat it once and it changed to "Shadow's Lies". I beat it again and it changed to "Geometries of Horror".

Completing the game one more time in the abovementioned phase not only changed it to "The End?", but also unlocked Hardcore and Ultra-hardcore modes (a red skull at the center of the screen when you start the credit, and a red skull with horns that comes right after you pick the first skull). The real ending was only shown when I beat "The End?", which shifted the game phase to "Game Over???" and unlocked Boss Rush mode and Chaos mode (a steaming skull to the left of the screen and a dice to the right when you start the credit). Beating "The End?" also enabled the appearance of doom letters, special alphabet bosses that show up randomly in the place of mad events and must be defeated for you to have access to true last boss Grandma-Thulhu. Since there are six of these letters and you only get one per level (when lucky), you need to play at least 6 stages in order to do it. If successful in killing the TLB, Doom mode will be unlocked (a red D to the right of the screen when you start the credit) and the game phase will finally settle in "Journey's End". The purpose of Doom mode is just to activate/deactivate the appearance of the doom letters. Chaos mode shuffles everything in the game (from stages to enemies and bosses), whereas Hardcore mode is a bit harder than normal and allows score multipliers of up to ×8 with ×16 when overloading. As for Ultra-Hardcore mode, on top of being much harder it also adds new gameplay elements that include freezing the ship in place if you don't adhere to certain rules (a heart attack).

As we can see, it's up to the player how far he/she wants to push into the depths of Project Starship X. The game speaks to very specific sensibilitites, but as far as roguelite shmups go it's definitely one of the best options out there. Is it fun? I would say it eventually becomes fun if you don't give up on it. The final boss is no pushover but the game as a whole isn't terribly hard, it's just very unfair at least until you start figuring out how to deal with all possible gameplay variables. Since the game allows co-op play, you can also do that with a friend.

I got the completion screen below by beating the regular game in the "The End?" phase with Garret Zeppola and no looping at all (only 5 stages played). Afterwards I did try to pursue the doom letters a few times but eventually gave up. For now I'll leave this final pursuit for another opportunity.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Life Force (NES)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1988

The remarkable success of Gradius in the 80s was a magical moment for Konami and shmup fans. Ported to a multitude of systems back in the day, the game also paved the way for a few spin-offs, of which the most famous for a while was Life Force, which in turn is the westernized name of the original Japanese Salamander. If you’re often confused by both names, suffice it to say that confusion is a common companion for this shmup duo, a fact that was duly cascaded from the arcade realm down to the Famicom/NES.

Despite the dubious nature of the ports, the success that Life Force had in the NES heyday is undeniable. Chances are 8 out of 10 people who lived through that era will choose it as a favorite. The dark and moody environment combined with a great soundtrack and sensible shooting action made for a winning combination that went beyond the mere mirroring of the arcade game. After all, it mixes some of the original material with completely new backgrounds and enemies. It’s not as visually cohesive, but 8-bit shooting fun never needed much consistency anyway.

At any rate, it's been a while since I played the Famicom version of Salamander (more than 11 years, time flies indeed). Secondary port Life Force served to rekindle my interest and overall knowledge with this confusing but otherwise fascinating franchise.

Vic Viper darts into the Bionic Germ area
(courtesy of YouTube user VideoGamePhenom)

The NES port of Life Force follows the basic structure of the latest arcade iteration, thus keeping the classic weapon array introduced in Gradius. This means the player needs to collect power-up capsules and activate them with button A as the slots in the weapon array are shifted to the right. Upgrades come in the following order: speed-up, missiles, ripple, laser, option and force field. Naturally, button B is used to shoot and can certainly use an additional turbo controller since no autofire is included. Just note that whenever laser is activated it’s better to turn off the turbo function.

Stage scrolling alternates between horizontal and vertical, but the idea of exploring the insides of a living organism isn't well implemented because there's absolutely no sprite reworking from what was first presented in Salamander (a convoluted story detailed in the instruction manual tries to fill this gap). The 2nd level mixes up stage 4 from the arcade with the Tetran boss, while the 3rd level seems beefed up in comparison even though you're still flying through fire arches, as opposed to the blue bursts of arcade Life Force. A new organic 4th level includes red blood cells and nerves expanding from diseased organs, culminating in a fight against a new skull boss. And then there's the weird departure of the Egyptian themed 5th level, which makes no sense at all given the overall design theme.

Even though the gameplay in Life Force and Salamander is identical, a few differences exist between both ports. The most notable one is that in Life Force you can only activate a total of two options, whereas in Salamander the player can have up to three. The HUD display is another clear indicator of which version you’re playing, but just like the cosmetic graphical and aural differences that give Salamander a slight edge in any comparision they have absolutely no relevance in the gameplay. Finally, the use of a few continues can lead to three different endings in Salamander, but there's just a single ending with no credits in Life Force.

New boss of the 4th stage

Surely this port doesn't hold a candle regarding difficulty when compared with the arcade, but that doesn't mean it's devoid of challenge. The third stage in particular is a destroyer of credits if you die and panic amidst fireballs and flaming dragons. Surviving can be made easier by a few nice resources though. Here it's possible to recover your options after dying, for example, however if you're standing too close to the rear border you won't be able to get them back. Score extends are granted with 10.000 points and for every 30.000 points after that, but you can also achieve extra lives by collecting blinking power-up capsules. As usual, the gray capsule acts as a screen-clearing smart bomb.

When talking about scoring there isn't much to be said about Life Force on the NES. Capsules give no points whatsoever, so it's just a matter of destroying everything and trying to milk enemies coming out of hatches. Unfortunately, just like in Salamander the game is broken because you can exploit it easily for a counterstop during the rematch against the three big cores halfway the 5th stage in the second loop. Just avoid destroying them and focus on the hatches that are spawned ad infinitum at ground level.

I quit the credit exactly at the spot mentioned above (stage 2-5) with the score shown below. Despite this oversight with the scoring system the game is definitely fun, with a second loop that adds a few more bullets, enemies and twists such as Tetran suddenly reverting the rotation of its arms.