Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Atlantean (PC Engine)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Aetherbyte

Published by Aetherbyte in 2014


In this day and age the PC Engine is all but a footnote in video game history for many people. Real video game lovers, however, cannot help but appreciate it as one of the most charming classic platforms, and having a new shooter released 20 years after its demise is nothing short of outstanding. Developed by an independent little studio, Atlantean has recently hit the market in full retail form with case, manual and the game in a proper HuCard – or AbCard, as baptized by developer Aetherbyte. For all purposes it’s the result of a labor of love targeted at the hardcore fan base, like many other examples that came before it in recent years.

Atlantean doesn’t try anything new or groundbreaking, and at first glance could be mistaken as a pseudo-sequel to the universally pawned Deep Blue. Fortunately the only thing in common between both games is the underwater theme, with actual gameplay being vastly different between each other. The homebrew homage to Defender is clearly evident in Atlantean, and since there’s no game with an equivalent style in the PC Engine library we can all hail this as the first one of its kind for NEC’s video game console. Granted, it only took more than 20 years to happen, but now that it’s here I guess a few more people will get a taste of the old Defender gameplay rush. Then we can all go play Resogun and meditate on all that stands between and at the same time unites the PC Engine and the Playstation 4 in this regard.

Anyway, in Atlantean the player’s mission is to guard the underwater inhabitants of planet Atlantis from being abducted by Aquanoid robotic invaders for unspeakable purposes (never mind the fact that the bad guys look just like sea creatures from Earth and the inhabitants look like statues of Baby Sinclair). In order to fulfill the heroic task you’re allowed to shoot (button II), trigger screen-clearing bombs (button I) and move horizontally at hyperspeed (START). The play field is the expected vertical cylinder, the scrolling speed is dictated by the player and an overhead radar tells you the location of all enemies and also the atlanteans you’re supposed to protect from abduction. Turning left and right needs to take into consideration the ongoing combination of speed and inertia.

Atlantean's release trailer
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Aetherbyte)

Each stage is comprised by five sections. In the first one you face three consecutive invader waves, in the second you’re brought to the middle of the screen in order to weave through the gaps of incoming mine walls and in the third part you face another invader wave. Then comes the stage “aqualord” boss, followed by a bonus section where you need to catch falling atlanteans for an opportunity to repopulate some of the inhabitants that were abducted or died. This bonus round is only absent in the 4th and last stage, since the game ends when the 4th aqualord is defeated. Besides the regular game you can also choose to play an “Endurance” mode that removes all bosses and supposedly has no ending. This is set in the options screen (note that the difficulty appears under the “speed” setting).

Survival play in Atlantean is quite easy. Extends come loosely at the ten thousand marks and extra bombs are added to the stock at key points, e.g. when a section is completed. Preventing atlanteans from being captured leads to slightly higher scores, I just couldn’t figure out a clear rule for how it works. Since the only type of enemy that’s capable of abducting atlanteans is the jellyfish, watch out for them and act preventively to stop them from taking their prey away. Even if you destroy the kidnapping jellyfish beware not to lose an atlantean by letting it fall from too high. However, a falling atlantean can be picked up, carried around and dropped safely anywhere you want at the bottom of the sea.

Sounds and graphics in Atlantean are fairly average for PC Engine standards. The complete lack of power-ups is a bit disappointing, but at least the core gameplay is enough to keep the interest going. Parallax layers are used throughout and may induce a little jerkiness (particularly in the mines section), while the colorful design feels samey and doesn’t allow any stage to stand out from the rest. There’s a wrecked Statue of Liberty somewhere in the game, but what’s it exactly doing in an alien planet? Jokes aside, while capable to deliver the goods, Atlantean fails to go beyond the basic level of accomplishment. On the whole, the only real downside in the actual gameplay is the considerable slowdown when you come across too many enemies at the same time, which briefly makes controls unresponsive and affects the firing/bombing functions.

Mines on the third stage

On the surface the scoring system appears to be very straightforward, but as I mentioned above you’re bound to score a little higher if you manage to avoid the abduction of atlanteans. Every stage has 9 atlanteans to be protected, and the more of them you lose the less you’ll score in the end. It doesn’t matter whether you carry them around (by recovering them after they’re been lifted) or just let them lie peacefully at the bottom of the sea. If all atlanteans are killed in a level the scenery explodes and you're left to deal with only one type of enemy that approaches from the right in concentrated flocks. In order to return the enemy gallery back to normal you need to start repopulating the bottom of the sea by collecting falling atlanteans in the bonus area.

While attempting to achieve the highest possible score in the game I have come across a weird programming bug: the sudden cumulating of an obscene amount of lives (one for each enemy killed). It usually kicks in by the time I reach the third stage and it seems to be related to how successful I am at keeping atlanteans alive. At one time I even rolled over the life count. Unfortunately I wasn't able to top the highest score in the default ranking table, and unless there's a deeply hidden secret in Atlantean's gameplay I have the feeling it might be just impossible to accomplish that. What a downer, really... Well, at least there are different tables for Normal and Endurance modes.

In the last credit I played I was able to keep all atlanteans alive across all four levels, but nonetheless I couldn't even reach my best result, which is shown below with the yellow arrow. The game was played on Normal speed/difficulty.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Strike Gunner S.T.G (SNES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Athena
Published by Vap Inc. in 1992


Ah, the appeal of war against intergalactic invaders! How could we, as shoot’em up fans, ever resist it? The publisher of Strike Gunner S.T.G came up with an extremely convoluted story just to tell you that but don’t worry, the animated intro is more than enough to show you everything that’s needed to, well… get you in the mood, I guess. It even includes a neat mode-7 effect that obviously isn’t present in the original attract mode of the arcade game. In the end it’s all about aliens attempting to conquer planet Earth in the year 2008, and scientists developing the Strike Gunner fighter to try and stop them.

Strike Gunner S.T.G on the SNES is a prime example of a shmup that hasn’t aged well at all. Originally a fast and frantic experience in its arcade form, the game was turned into a repetitive ordeal for the console format. Monotonous graphics, simplified enemies and increased stage duration are far from being an alluring combination in a 16-bit shooter. When I passed the first level for the first time I thought for a minute that I’d be stuck with that forest setting for the rest of the game! Anyway, the graphics did change but despite following the same stage progress originally presented in Raiden (first half of the game on Earth, second half in outer space) they lack color and overall it just feels you’re up against a gray-tinted alien army.

Maybe the reason for the subdued impression one gets when playing the game is the fact that the developer actually chose to focus on beefing up the simultaneous two-player mode, which seems to come with rather dynamic collaboration mechanics (check the instruction manual for specifics). Unfortunately I didn’t get to test that, nor do I know how faithful this part of the gameplay is when compared to the arcade original. I wonder if the SNES port would’ve been a better solo game if it had shunned the co-op thing. After all, it does add extra material such as five brand-new special weapons and new graphics: the sea stage is totally new, as well as the flight over the Moon in the 7th stage. Too bad the action is dull and boring for the most part.


"I never thought I'd be spraying missiles over a jungle"
(courtesy of YouTube user Diego Lima)

Button B shoots and button A fires special weapons. Before starting each stage the player must select a special weapon to be used throughout the level, initially from a list of 15 available options. Each special weapon may be selected only once, so think wisely before choosing the plasma shield, admittedly the best of the bunch. While the regular shot comes with unlimited ammo, special weapon usage is limited by an energy gauge, and the rate at which this gauge depletes depends on the weapon itself. Autoaim vulcan and homing missile drain it slowly, whereas the megabeam cannon consumes it all in just one powerful single blast. Therefore, out of the 15 special weapons 7 will not be used during any normal run. Don't take too log to choose one: if the timer reaches zero the game will assign the uppermost special weapon for you.

To refill the energy gauge you need to collect one of the items brought by a carrier arriving from the bottom of the screen (a stealth plane, a space shuttle or a rocket container). Other items include speed-up and the power-up for the main shot. Now for the weird news: item management is one of the most bungled features of Strike Gunner S.T.G. For example, out of a total of three speed-ups in the entire game, the first one only appears in stage 5. When you take it for the first time you’re left wondering what just happened to the ship’s speed. In my opinion you get too fast with this single speed-up, and considering that all items look like each other avoiding the speed-up requires you to devise some sort of visual recognition based on the details of the item sprites.

According to the instruction manual the game comes with four difficulties. The option screen, however, shows five different numbered settings with the default being 1. In this setting the ship starts with pre-upgraded firepower, which I thought was strange. When set to difficulty 2 you get the basic pea shot that must be powered up nine times to be maxed out into a double blue shot with greater destructive effect. I figured difficulty 2 corresponds to Normal, so that was my chosen setting. By doing that the player must be aware that dying comes with a huge power loss, to which the only remedy in later levels is to select a relatively powerful special weapon as compensation because power-ups are extremely scarce. Just to have an idea, most stages after the first one have only one power-up to be collected.

Megabeam cannon, sonic shooter, adhesive bomb, heavy vulcan and heat arrow can only be tried in the SNES version

Ordinary enemy behavior is the main culprit of the lack of appeal in Strike Gunner S.T.G. You'll be facing a long streak of choppers, tiny jets, boats, a handful of mid-bosses and weird creatures in the outer space levels. Pretty much all aerial foes arrive in mirrored patterns, so if a sequence of five choppers arrives from the left you can expect the same five arriving from the right. Most bosses were changed completely in the port and are often easier, but a couple of them are downright cheap in how they attack, killing you in a snap if you don't pay attention. Dying, by the way, happens with absolutely no fanfare and makes you feel like a toasted mosquito. Well, at least it recharges your special weapon at once... Slowdown is rare and more akin to brief frame drops when the screen is cluttered. And I might be wrong here, but I had the feeling that special weapons with lingering contact, such as the laser cannon, add more points to the score.

Moving the HUD to the sides of the screen seems to make a little sense for the 2-player mode, but otherwise it just feels awkward and useless. You can't even see your score while you're playing, and the only glimpses you'll have of it appear in-between levels (at least you're also allowed to check your high score in those same screens). Score-based extends start with 50.000 points and continue progressively on double values (100K, 200K, 400K, 800K, etc.). Sometimes you hear a characteristic sound when the extend registers, sometimes you don't. Speaking of sound, the music is probably the only aspect of the game that escapes being subpar, even though a few themes appear in more than one level.

The special weapons of choice in my 1CC run were laser cannon (1 - forest), autoaim vulcan (2 - forest/desert), homing missile (3 - desert), sonic wave (4 - beach/sea), plasma shield (5 - sky/stratosphere), heat arrow (6 - outer space), atomic missile (7 - Moon) and comrade fighter (8 - base). I played on difficulty 2/Normal. After the game ends you need to reset and replay the first level to see your high score.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Gradius III (Playstation 2)

Horizontal
Checkpoints ON
6 Difficulty levels
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by KCET in 2000


Lovers of the Gradius series owe themselves a great deal of thanks to the Konami of old. As we entered the new millennium they were still capable of presenting shmup fans with stuff like Gradius III and IV for the Playstation 2. This fantastic bundle doesn’t need any explanation as to what is inside that shiny blue-tinted CD. As far as I know these are the only ports of the last real arcade Gradiuses, wrapped in a package that’s enriched by a few nice tweaks and two distinct animated intros that work as a sweet homage to the series. One of these intros is, in fact, very similar in style to the psychedelic intro to Mars Matrix on the Dreamcast. Were they made by the same team, perhaps? I wouldn’t doubt that.

The most well-known fact concerning the arcade version of Gradius III is the consensus among gamers about the extraordinary leap in difficulty from Gradius II, which isn’t actually that shabby in this regard. You’ll often see people cursing the checkpoints in the game and how it's impossible to recover when you die. Now I can say that’s partially true, and I take the opportunity to grant forgiveness to the SNES port for everything I might have declared in the past. Much accursed for its alleged slowdown problems, now I know that this slowdown was *already* heavily present in the arcade game (judging by what I could see from MAME). With four options/multiples the slowdown was so heavy in the last part of the volcano stage that very early on I decided I would play without the slowdown on the port for Playstation 2.

This slowdown tweak is one of the neatest things you get in the console version. Go to the options and set “wait level” to 2 in order to experience the original slowdown, but leave it at 0 to get rid of it and enjoy a seamless game with no loading times whatsoever (you can also change it on the fly by pausing the game). Gradius III has absolutely no continues, but each checkpoint reached is unlocked in the Stage Select option for your suffering delight. You even get to unlock a special practice area for the dreaded cube rush in the “Extra Mode” screen, which also includes Gradius / Salamander bonus stages (unlocked by getting hit by the energy balls from the final boss) and Extra Edit (allows selection of weapons from all ship configurations, including the exclusive ones from the SNES version / finish the game to unlock).

Pop the bubbles to go from legend to myth!

As the story goes, the Vic Viper spaceship returns to battle the evil Bacterion army in Gradius III. Not much has changed from the basic gameplay of earlier games, except for the weapons rearranged in four basic configurations (A, B, C, D), a limited weapon edit alternative and several shield options. Besides that, the player must choose between the technical course (regular game) and a beginner’s course (easier game with only the three initial stages). By default one button shoots, another drops missiles and a third one triggers upgrades. These upgrades correspond to the highlighted cells of the weapon array, which in turn is cycled by collecting orange power-up capsules. The order of the cells in the weapon array is as follows: speed-up, missile, double, laser, option/multiple, ? (shield) and ! (a screen-clearing smart bomb that replaces the effect of the gray capsule seen in previous chapters). Each configuration plays drastically different from the next, to the point where you need to practically devise completely different strategies to play the game with each one of them.

Sounds pretty simple, wouldn’t you say? Yes, there are no complications in the way controls work. Using them to overcome the odds is a whole different story though, for brutal is the most common word used to describe Gradius III and its checkpoints. One of the early examples in the game is in the bubble stage, which is merely the second one and also the reason why most casual players remember it as a painful experience. Dying there makes getting back on your knees simply impossible, and in my opinion the same can be said about a few parts in the volcano, moai and fortress levels. Whenever it happened I would give up the credit immediately. While these checkpoint drawbacks certainly pose extra pressure upon players, they also tell you up front to accept the challenge as it is: relentless, ruthless, vicious, merciless, you name it. Playing a full credit for over half an hour to die horribly in a place where you just can’t recover? Oh, I’ve been there countless times, as I’m sure those who’ve already been there also were...

Of course that doesn’t mean Gradius III isn’t fun. It’s just that the fun in this case is irrevocably related to the player’s dedication and the overall sensation of achieving a grand objective in a shooter of epic proportions. Each level won feels like a small victory, but coping with all variables and hazards still takes lots of practice because more often than not the game likes to throw something different to screw things up. The asymmetrical stage lengths help keep things in perspective – the volcano (3rd) and fortress (10th) levels are very, very long, in a strong contrast with the brief rail segment of stage 4. That one is an anomaly in the Gradius universe since it only appears here, acting as a bridge between levels that are common to both courses and levels that can only be played in the normal course. This section is devoid of enemies and you're not allowed to shoot, only weave through wall corridors and collect power-up capsules. The cool thing is that any shield you had prior to entering the level is fully recharged when you come out of it directly into the moai stage.

Allow me to break down the game in stages:
  1. Desert – easy first level; I guess those sand lions sort of represent the most iconic image people have from Gradius III.
  2. Bubble – knowing where the turrets are and being aggressive to destroy the larger bubbles is important, since a clean screen is needed when those minions start coming from behind.
  3. Volcano – a 3-part level where the first part throws lots of those hatches that unleash hordes of minions/bullets, the second part unfolds as a huge maze of walls and the third part is filled with destructible matter; it all ends in the staggering laser boss after a mini-volcano spree.
  4. High speed – the short rail segment.
  5. Moai – yet another one of these... urgh; aggressive behavior works well for the whole stage, but don’t hesitate to protect yourself from the ring showers if needed.
  6. Cell – looks like a leftover from Salamander, but it’s a lot trickier and more claustrophobic.
  7. Fire – this one is a nightmare because it's impossible to destroy the fireballs completely and even the shield can be deceiving with its bigger hitbox; at least there’s no randomness at all to the fireballs, so I memorized safe routes in order to get back up upon dying.
  8. Plant – a relatively easier level that ends in a considerably tougher boss; I never reached him with full power, so I had to learn how to survive his approaches and time him out.
  9. Crystal – cubes mount from the right to form the stage itself, and then try to crush you when the screen stops prior to the boss (I think this is the second most iconic image people have from Gradius III); my strategy on the cube rush concerns two elements – cube spawning position is random, while the point where they “rush” on you is fixed; knowing the second element is the key to build a wall and shelter yourself until the boss arrives.
  10. Fortress – first there’s the boss rush and then a long stretch inside the fortress itself with very tight passages, lots of difficult hatches to take care of and the dreaded combo of wall + mechanical spider prior to an organic wall + last boss + high speed escape.

Things got kinda nervous at the end of this 1CC...

The reason why I never got past the fire stage with a fullly powered ship without dying is rank, which is directly related to your firepower level and survival time. Enemies don’t get any more sympathetic either if you give away all your options to the capturing bug before entering the fireball area. The truth is that reducing rank is only really achieved by dying, but in a good run where I perish in the fire level I feel comfortable to bridge the game to the end if I can get “good” cubes in the cube rush. If I get a stream of “bad” cubes the earned extends are much welcome to provide extra attempts at surviving them (first one with 20K, then at every 70K).

Just like in the first games in the series, the scoring system of Gradius III is very basic and totally detached from any more noble objectives due to the checkpoint system. For instance, a no-death run would result in a measly score when compared to a credit where the player exploits the cube rush or the boss rush checkpoints. I have gotten several scores higher than the 1CC result shown below but refused to have them registered because, you know, for me it's 1CC or bust.

There isn’t anything special about the graphics of Gradius III especially when comparing this chapter to the second one, which came out just one year earlier. Everything is just cruelly exquisitely designed, that’s all. Musically the game is okay in the recycled levels (volcano, moai, fortress) and quite good in the ones that bring new themes (bubble, cell, plant, crystal). Digitized voices are everywhere, from activating upgrades to the creepy monologue of the final boss and the trademark bossy messages (destroy the mouth, destroy the eye, destroy the chest). In between each lesson learned when being killed the umpteenth time by one of the bosses or crashing onto a wall due to nervousness or greed, my final impression is that Gradius III excels at flooding the player with feelings of joy and anger in equal measure. At least it doesn’t tease you like Gradius II did (you need some practice!), otherwise the anger factor could be even higher.

I am proud to say I have succeeded in beating Gradius III for the Playstation 2 on Normal with slowdown disabled (wait level 0). It was a joyous ride full of failure, yet extremely rich in acquiring deep Gradius knowledge. I used the type B ship configuration and the original shield (force field), reaching the middle of stage 2-1. Note: besides being a lot harder, the second loop has completely rearranged enemy patterns.


Next in line is Gradius Gaiden on the Playstation!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Keio Flying Squadron 2 (Saturn)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints ON/OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Victor Entertainment
Published by JVC in 1996


A quick glance at Keio Flying Squadron 2 isn’t enough to tell you everything about the game, at least as far as quick glances go for regular games. Sequel to Keio Flying Squadron on the Sega CD, this second chapter appears as an amalgam of action genres where platforming represents the main gameplay style you’re bound to taste. It’s an eclectic adventure infused with all sorts of little deviations from the norm, including several autoscrolling levels from which two sections mirror the shmup ambience of the first game. For a while I wondered if that was too little to label it as a symmetrical hydrid shooter, but given the awesome nature of the game and the gorgeous sprite work involved I figured it was definitely worth a look.

The wackiness that was already present on the Sega CD is naturally heightened by the platforming element, an aspect that allows for a more diverse touch of humor and Japanese culture. Bunny-suited Rami is still hungry, but this time she’s after an ancient orb stolen by a mysterious princess. Her pet dragon Spot is back, as well as Dr. Pon’s raccoon army in their neverending mission to spoil Rami’s quest, which spans across five stages with three to five areas each. Several low-res animated sequences are shown throughout the game, and together with the spoken dialogue they provide some laughs and a good insight into the story and the characters. One note though: Keio Flying Squadron 2 was released in all main regions except the US, so the best version for Westerners to enjoy it is the European one (it’s got fine dubbing - same voices from the Sega CD). Besides, the Japanese disc is extremely heavy on the Japanese language, down to the menus and score display.

A colorful Edo river

Even though the flow of the game is a little clunky in the platforming sections, the general design is much in the vein of the classic Sonic the Hedgehog. Dispatching opponents is primarily achieved by jumping on them with button C, but you can also attack with button B by using one of the three weapons found with enemies or inside chests: a hammer, an umbrella or a bow. The umbrella makes Rami fall slowly and offers protection against falling objects, and the bow can be used to hit enemies at a distance by being charged. To pick up or get rid of a weapon you need to press A (only A throws it away, ↓ + A puts it down gently on the ground). Rami is also able to run, and by default you just need to keep the directionals pressed to do it (you can also double tap or use buttons L/R, these need to be set in the options screen). As usual, jumping and running go hand in hand with button holding and preserving momentum.

Death happens instantly when Rami gets hit unless you’re carrying an object or a weapon. In that circumstance, after you get hit you let go of whatever you're carrying while being invincible for a very short time. This means that carrying something at all times is the key to survival in the platform sections, just be quick to recover the weapon before it disappears after flashing for a few seconds. Don’t count on the invincibility window when hit to get through the danger though, the grace period is really very brief. Dying sends you back to the latest checkpoint, always memorized at the point where you meet and wakes up a sleeping Spot dragon. Notes about weapons/objects: Rami must be bare-handed to pick any weapon, but she will always be able to lift one object while carrying a weapon or not; when umbrellas are open you're not able to hold on to ladders.

Regarding items, golden rabbits are the main ones you’ll see everywhere in the game, either just waiting to be collected or hidden inside chests. For each hundred rabbits you win an extra life, and the good news is that the rabbit counter isn’t reset when you die. Other items placed at tricky locations or inside secret passages consist of 1UPs (Rami’s face), extra continues (Spot’s head) and entry tickets to a bonus level (a green creature waving his arms). Additionally, a plethora of objects is scattered around for the player to tinker with, each one supposedly having a specific use in the game. They can all be carried around and thrown, but aside from the most obvious ones (the spring pads, the big hand, the boxes, the clown sticks) I haven’t figured out the use of any of them. Many of these objects can’t be broken either, otherwise they’ll add negative points to the score. Wait, negative points you say? Yes, scoring in Keio 2 is displayed in positive and negative terms. Every hit suffered deducts 5 points from the score, so if you keep getting hit without dying the score display might eventually reach negative hundreds. On the other end of the spectrum, most enemies are worth 1 point only, with special foes or boss phases giving out 2 or 3 points each.

The only shooting segments in the game are stages 1-3 and 5-1. The first takes place over a river in Edo/Tokyo and the second unfolds in outer space. Gameplay is almost the same from the original chapter on the Sega CD, with shot set to B and speed selection to X/Y/Z. Incoming items consist of P (power-up) and auxiliary shots that cycle between homing baby dragons and directional mines (each of these attacks can be powered up three times). Both shmup stages are rather easygoing and do not pose much of a threat. Just beware of huge cannonballs shot from the background in the river stage, as well as sharks coming out of the water and leaving almost no room to dodge. Don’t be afraid to fly behind boats and within the water because you’ll find a few hidden items there. Last but not least, whenever you die in a shooting section you’re instantly respawned.

Intro to Keio Flying Squadron 2
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

There’s no denying that Keio Flying Squadron 2 boasts outstanding graphics with vivid colors, lots of details and sheer creativity in every single corner of the screen. For a gamer that doesn’t fancy platforming games that much anymore, the two shmup parts are totally worth the extra effort to get there. Granted, the music in both of them is lifted directly from the first game, in what seems to be the only glaring slip (or sign of laziness) from the developer. The rest of the soundtrack ranges from mellow to upbeat, but always with a nice Japanese flavor to them. Other autoscrolling stages include a train ride (2-1) and a trippy rollercoaster (3-1). Rami also goes underwater in section 3-2, “takes part” in a martial arts tournament in 5-2 and faces a handful of weird looking bosses, from which my favorite is the haunted mansion floating head. The final boss is disappointing though, instead of fighting that huge green beast you’re just supposed to escape from his throat in a sort of dynamic ladder generator. In stage 5-4 you don't even get to play as you just watch Rami getting sucked into the creature's mouth. Speaking of character interactions, these can't be skipped during the actual gameplay. Cut scenes can be properly skipped though.

As far as scoring goes, the biggest source of points is by far the bonus level, followed closely by the two shooting stages. A bonus level offers several point tokens (negative or positive) accessible by jumping over spring mats in an endless vertical pit. Since the big points are at the very top, not falling is essential to come out of the level with a nice score boost. On the other hand, if you keep falling chances are you might come out with a lesser score than the one you had prior to entering the level. When you start the game it takes just one special item (the green creature waving his arms) to have access to this bonus area, but later on you definitely need more of them because bonus levels get scarcer. Bad performances in platforming stages can be disastrous to the score, and I can surely say I had my quote of ruined runs because I panicked and kept dying inside the caverns, the flying boat stage or the ninja castle. By the way, the ninja castle is probably the hardest level in the game, full of traps, revolving floors and deadly iron pendulums.

Every progress is properly saved in the console’s internal memory. Besides the regular settings of the options menu there’s also an “Extra” area that shows maximum and minimum scores achieved, several helpful tips for progressively negative results (down to -125 points) and lots of rewards in the form of artwork and background information on all characters and enemies (up to +500 points). It’s all very neat and definitely worth a read/sight, just like the game itself: a moderately challenging and fun action romp. Too bad the next (and last) installment in the series, released for the Playstation, is a party game that's pretty much unplayable for us Westerners.

My 1CC score in Keio Flying Squadron 2 on Normal is below. The picture was taken at the last platform of the final level, before the screen fades into the ending credits.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Curse (Mega Drive)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Micronet
Published by Micronet in 1989


For most people Micronet is just a footnote in gaming history, and publishing Raiden Trad is probably their most recognizable contribution to the Mega Drive shmup library. Despite being both developed and released by Micronet, Curse never received the same attention for obvious reasons. The first one of them is that the game never left Japan, while other reasons can easily relate to the frame rate, the short duration or the fact that the game has a broken scoring system. This wasn't the first time I played Curse, but only now I noticed you can milk the last boss infinitely for a theoretical counterstop.

By taking a look at the cover art it's not possible to know what's inside as a game. Suffice it to say that the stylish cybernetic head is the last boss, and between the start and the end of the journey you get through a mix of organic, outer space and high-tech environments. Reasoning for the name Curse probably exists somehow in the instruction manual since there's no indication whatsoever in the game itself, a feeble shooting romp marked by a strangely odd frame rate. As low as it seems, this frame rate is no impediment for the gameplay to throw a series of high speed sections that demand some level of anticipation from the player. Multiple parallax layers abound in most stages, and the aggressive choice of colors just lends a peculiar feel to the experience, one that resembles Bio-Ship Paladin at times.

Anyway, if you're able to accept the frame rate as it is then there's some sort of enjoyment to be had here. The level of cheapness doesn't veer into the realm of "blazing fast bullets you can't dodge", which is one of the flaws of games designed with bad frame rates. You'll still die a few times from things popping out of nowhere, mind you.

Deadly spores of the first level

A basic pea shot is all you have on your ship as the credit starts. Shooting is accomplished with button B, whereas button A deploys a bomb and button C is used to set the position of the orb (see below). Despite the lack of side reach the pea shot is actually pretty decent in its effectiveness, but you can also activate three other weapons by taking their respective icons: V (vulcan), W (wave) and C (cluster bombs). Once active, each weapon can be upgraded twice by successively taking the same item, and to switch them just take a different one. Vulcan is excellent for its spread capabilities, wave is the only one that can pierce though walls and cluster bombs provide a little destructive spectacle as debris and shards fly everywhere when the projectiles hit something. A better set of sound effects would've done wonders to the way weapons work, but unfortunately that's not the case. They just sound too soft.

Each life has a shield that can withstand a few hits and is fully recovered when you take the E icon. Other items to be collected are S (speed-up), M (homing missiles) and an orb that surrounds the ship and rests in a fixed position defined with button C. Once you get two orbs they're positioned against each other and can only be placed in two different ways, either horizontally or vertically. Orbs provide protection against regular bullets and extra firepower, which can be upgraded by acquiring further orbs (fully powered orbs will fire three-way shots in both directions). The same upgrade scheme applies to the homing missiles, and at the maximum level the ship fires three of them at once. They might be slow but they're still useful since most enemies are 1-hit kills.

In the forest of the first stage the wave weapon is good to deal with all those drones sitting behind roots and trees. I prefer to use vulcan in the second stage in order to have enough coverage to blast all the destructible rocks, and anything is fine inside the fiery cave of the third level. The open space of the fourth stage is deceiving because if you die there it might get tough to get things back together. Everything considered, Curse isn't really a hard game up to that point, so maybe that's why Micronet decided to add a single checkpoint to the last stage (die anywhere and restart the level). This adds a bit of difficulty and gives some use to the benevolent extend scheme that grants an extra life for every million points scored.

Second level in Curse's attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user Gunstar red)

Most of the time I completely forgot I could use button A to trigger screen-clearing bombs, when in fact they're very handy to handle cluttered situations. You won't see any item to be collected for extra bombs though. Bomb stock is increased by taking successive weapon power-ups after you've maxed out firepower. Example: with a maxed out wave gun, each successive W icon will give you an extra bomb. By pressing either A, B or C + START at the title screen you can have access to very basic configuration options. Unfortunately there are no additional difficulty settings and no way to remap buttons, but it's possible to select any of the first four stages as the starting one.

In between the frame rate, the unremarkable challenge (bosses are all wimps) and the botched scoring system, the best quality of Curse is definitely the excellent soundtrack. I'm very fond of the themes for the first and the last stages, and they pretty much make the game worthwhile for me. Once I got the final stage down I started experimenting with different weapons and places to find how to exploit the last boss's projectiles for points. Then I left the controller shooting by itself for a while until I noticed a graphical glitch as the boss stopped throwing rocks at me. Finally I died and proceeded to beat the game with the score below, never mind which 1CC score I had previously.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Thunder Force AC (Saturn)

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


Normally the life cycle of any video game with an arcade origin starts in the arcade itself, which then pours down across different platforms as ports with varying degrees of success. Thunder Force AC, however, is one of the very few examples of an arcade title that originated from a console game. Given the massive success of Thunder Force III, it didn’t take long for Technosoft to turn the Mega Drive hit into a full-blown arcade board running on Sega’s System C2 hardware. The good news for us who don’t own an arcade set-up is that five years later the game would receive a perfect port in the Thunder Force Gold Pack 2 compilation for the Sega Saturn, which also includes the console follow-up Thunder Force IV.

I reckon many people must wonder about the benefits of having a console game running in arcade hardware. In which ways has the game been improved over the original supposedly limited mold? Is it the same experience? Is it worth it even if I own and have played the Mega Drive cartridge to death already? Technosoft’s portfolio in the arcade scene isn’t large by any means (the only other arcade game they developed is Hyper Duel), so at least we can assume this wasn’t just another instance of a developer cheaply milking its golden baby for a little more profit. Plus we all know the Thunder Force brand carried on with several other chapters in what eventually became one of the greatest shmup franchises ever.

Gameplay rules are exactly the same from Thunder Force III. Shoot with button B, switch speeds with button A and switch weapons with button C. Weapons are acquired or upgraded by taking alphabet-coded items. Upon death you lose the weapon you were currently using with the exception of the default ones, upgraded by taking a red S (sever, gives laser capabilities to the forward gun) and L (lancer, increases power of the back-fire). New weapons appear as F (fire, drops crawling bullets above and below the ship), W (wave gun) and H (hunter, weakier homing energy balls). A blue S activates a shield that can withstand 3 hits, the “claw” item adds two rotating options that enhance firepower + also serve to absorb bullets and a small ship (1UP) adds one extra life to the stock.

Sever!

The primordial question, at least for me, is this: what’s best, Thunder Force III or Thunder Force AC?

Both games are graphically equivalent and excel at providing great horizontal shooting rush with high flexibility on weapons and maneuvering (a gameplay staple of the series), but even if I had been exposed to Thunder Force AC first I believe I would still prefer Thunder Force III. The differences are in the details and in the fact that the changes Technosoft applied on AC weren’t in any way better than what already existed in the Mega Drive original. Assuming the reader is somehow familiar with Thunder Force III, allow me to bullet-list the main changes in Thunder Force AC:

  • the status bar showing score, weapons, lives, etc. was moved from the top to the bottom of the screen;
  • no more choosing the order of the five initial stages; in AC you always play in the following planet order: Hydra → Gorgon → Seiren → Ellis → Haides;
  • planet Ellis is replaced by a brand-new stage where you fly amidst asteroids in outer space and infiltrate a base to fight a walker robot;
  • planet Haides is replaced by a rearranged version of the 8th stage from Thunder Force II, with the boss lifted from planet Ellis in Thunder Force III;
  • default difficulty in AC is often close to or on par with difficulty Mania from Thunder Force III.

I can also point minor changes that make Thunder Force AC a little less dynamic than its Mega Drive counterpart. Those intro screens in each stage were one of the coolest aspects of Thunder Force III, since they blended with the music as the levels started against the awesome background music. The slower tempo of the soundtrack in AC is also another lessening factor, especially if you’ve already been previously exposed to Thunder Force III. It’s still very good though, the only letdown being the comparatively weak theme for the new outer space level.

When the first five planets/levels have been cleared the player proceeds to challenge the Orn empire by fighting a huge battleship, scrambling inside their motherbase and finally destroying Orn’s core. Besides a few tweaks here and there, these final stages haven’t changed much and are still what keeps the game from reaching a higher accomplishment grade. As for the gameplay tweaks in general, they’re actually the main reason why fans of the series should try Thunder Force AC. Different enemy placement and formations, stronger enemies/bosses and new environmental hazards should guarantee the fun for both newcomers and seasoned Thunder Force III players alike.

From Ellis to Orn's base
(courtesy of YouTube user Ace9921)

With a good number of extra lives to be collected throughout the game and three score-based extends (at 30.000, 100.000 and 200.000 points), Thunder Force AC is still an easy clear, especially for arcade difficulty standards. That said, the main challenge shifts to beating the game with the maximum possible amount of lives left in order to get that bulky completion bonus of 100.000 points for each spare ship (totalling 1,1 million for 11 lives if you don't die). That certainly requires hefty memorization, smart management of shields and proper usage of the speed switch (I use every speed at least once per credit).

As an advantage over the raw arcade experience, the port included in the Thunder Force Gold Pack 2 comes with four difficulty levels (Mania too, access options by pressing A + START) and an extensive arcade-like bookkeeping info (press Z and navigate with Y/Z). There’s even a so-called “kids mode” that preserves all your weapons and power-ups upon death and resumes the next life with a 1-hit (red) shield. Overall, a nice animated intro sets the mood perfectly for some of the finest 16-bit shooting action you can get with no slowdown or technical hindrances of any kind.

Besides Thunder Force AC, the legacy of Thunder Force III also spans the SNES, which received a proper port based on AC titled Thunder Spirits shortly after the arcade release. My best high score for Thunder Force AC is below, having beaten the game without losing any lives (Normal difficulty).

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Sylphia (PC Engine CD)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tonkinhouse / Compile

Published by Tonkinhouse in 1993


A mythology-based shooter? Sure, why not? Gun down multi-headed creatures, flaming dragons, evil statues and whatnot! Though not explicitly related to the Greek mythology, as a game Sylphia has many aspects in common with Greek figures, starting with the idea of the sylph – a mythical creature of the air intimately related to fairies and angels. The main character is a girl who’s been mutilated by demons and gets endowed with magical powers by a fairy goddess, thus engaging in a revenge quest against those who slew the people in her village (this is all shown in the game’s intro through images with no dialogue).

While the concept does sound interesting, especially for fans of shooters with fantasy themes, Sylphia doesn’t achieve the same status of similarly minded titles such as Dragon Spirit or Phelios. Absence of difficulty is to blame for most of this because we’re talking about an extremely easy clear here. Other than that the game is fine, with many sources pointing that Compile is actually the developer working behind the Tonkinhouse brand. There are hints in Sylphia that back this up quite well, and those who have played their share of Aleste titles will certainly spot them. I won’t delve into the details, suffice it to say they’re all related to the weapons system.

Stage 1 of Sylphia
(courtesy of YouTube user malducci)

The heroine in Sylphia is able to fly in three speeds switched at the press of the SELECT button. I use mostly speed 2, you’re either too slow or too fast in the other settings. Button II fires her weapon and button I deploys a bomb that detonates a thick vertical laser beam while making the character invulnerable. Bombs are limited and weapons are selected/upgraded by colored power-ups that come in groups of four rotating icons or by themselves in small carriers that descend from the top of the screen at regular intervals. Just stick to the same color to increase part of the weapon’s power in three steps. You can take two hits in each life, and if you don’t take the heart icon that refills health you’ll die on the third hit. Then you’ll be respawned with the current weapon at its basic power level.

In line with the Greek knowledge of old, weapon types are related to the four classical elements: fire (red), air (green), water (blue) and earth (yellow). When you take successive items of the same kind you upgrade the particular aspect of each one of the weapons: fire will start shooting diagonal homing flame shots, air generates slow whirlwinds that develop forwards diagonally, water creates an extra fire stream opposed to the direction you’re moving and earth forms a protection barrier that rotates around the character. In order to power up the basic weapon attack you must take the orbs that appear in groups of three when the item carrier gets hit.

As usual in shooters of this kind, some weapons are more suited to specific situations. For example, a fully powered air weapon is excellent for the second boss, even though water is obviously the best choice for the game as a whole. Finally, the diamond-shaped items that tend to float towards your direction fill that little meter below the life/bomb count, and every time the meter gets full you gain an extra bomb. Score hounds might want to know that all items are worth a few points, so get them all to incrementally beef up your final score.

Yuck! Is that tutti-frutti puke?

In direct contrast with is challenge level, Sylphia boasts excellent graphical design across all of its eight stages. It's technically very competent, only with scarce moments of slowdown appearing when bosses are about to irrupt into the screen. The soundtrack is also very good, even though the balance between music and sound effects suffers from the most recurring problem in the PC Engine platform (SFX too loud) and the overall mood is too upbeat for the dark - yet colorful - environments you'll be facing (the only parts where the music presents itself in a gloomy fashion are in the intro and ending sequences). Regardless of any gripes involving the sound design, if you fancy otherworldly settings and strange-looking creatures you'll be right at home here because Sylphia is simply a 16-bit feast for the eyes. Besides all sorts of walking and flying enemies, keep an eye out for particularly creepy fiendish bosses (exposed boobs!). There are two bosses per level, and since they're very creative in regards to design and attack patterns it's just a shame that they also don't offer much of a challenge. And when you figure out that it's possible to destroy a great deal of enemy bullets the whole game becomes even easier.

Want more easy? Here are some other refreshments in the gameplay: hold tight to the current life during a boss fight because you regain all your health (two hearts) when a new stage begins; except for diamonds, upon taking any other item you're given a very brief stint of invincibility, which is quite useful to evade hairy situations; an extra life is awarded for every 70.000 points scored. Conversely, finding a genuine copy of Sylphia isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination. Given the game is one of the rarest entries in the CD shmup library for the PC Engine, you won't find it for less than a few hundred dollars.

Following a few exploration minutes to figure out the weapons system I beat the game on my first credit, then proceeded to do it again on Special/Very Hard. The increase in difficulty is minimal and appears mostly on bosses. I played another credit on Normal and the 1CC result is below. This screen is displayed for half a minute once the final credits are over, and as much as I tried I couldn't understand the math behind the massive final bonus other than it being related to remaining life stock, bombs, etc.