Sunday, March 29, 2020

Captain Tomaday (Neo Geo)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Visco
Published by Visco in 1999


Though not really prolific or widely remembered by shooter fans, Visco Corporation did manage to release a few interesting shmups throughout its lifetime. Some of them were almost rip-offs of more famous titles (as is the case of Storm Blade and its resemblance to Sonic Wings, for instance), while others fared better in originality terms (Vasara and Vasara 2, games that even garnered a minor but devoted fanbase). Amongst their many outings for the Neo Geo arcade platform there were two shmups that stand in the middle spectrum of the abovementined scale: Andro Dunos and Captain Tomaday.

Unlike the standard horizontal approach seen in Andro Dunos, Captain Tomaday offers a distinct and eccentric take on the vertical shooter formula. Aesthetically it feels derivative of the cute'em up style pioneered by Konami in series like Twin Bee and Parodius, but it certainly bears a charm of its own thanks to the offbeat gameplay. After all, it's got one of the most bizarre power-up mechanics I've ever seen, which is in line with the premise of the game and its unsung hero, a tomato that gains life after falling into a vault of unknown chemicals – to the surprise of the scientist who witnesses the phenomenon. This is all shown in the colorful intro, for great cinematic effect.

Plane Tomaday versus 3rd boss

Endowed with full-grown limbs, Tomaday uses his fists to punch enemies into oblivion. Button A tosses his left hand, button B tosses his right hand and button C switches/rotates battle formation between horizontal and vertical once you've acquired a companion/clone. Punching comes with autofire, and if you use only one fist the other one will start glowing until it charges into a powerful glowing anvil as Tomaday counts one - two - three. Pressing the button then unleashes this power punch. Since his fists need to travel a certain distance to return to him, the action of punching is more efficient the closer you are to the enemy.

Upgrade and bonus items are released by hitting harmless tomato cans. If you hit the items they will bounce, so it might be necessary to completely refrain from shooting in order to collect them (if they bounce for too long they'll eventually disappear). Most items are diamonds, Ts or random stuff (popsicles, french fries, pies) that give you a few extra points. The really important ones are the multiplying tomato, which adds a clone who flies in formation with the original Tomaday, the mutating pill that serves as the power-up that turns him into a new form and the single 1UP that appears halfway into stage 4.

This is where Captain Tomaday starts to confuse the player. The first mutating pill makes you shrink, the second one makes you large and the third one turns the character into a green lizard that uses his tongue to attack. The lizard form already breaks up the basic gameplay based on punching and charging, but that's only the beginning. What happens is that for each mutating pill taken you actually assume a different form, in a total of more than 15 incarnations besides the default tomato one. Some of them are downright bizarre, such as a monkey that throws bananas, a plant vase, a carrot and a rabbit. There are also intermediary forms that appear if you get hit in special incarnations, such as the baby that returns to winged Tomaday form upon collection of the next pill. The very final upgrade turns you into a spear-shooting devil (or angel, if you're player 2). Another pill taken when in this final form rolls the upgrade sequence over and sends you back to default Tomaday.

The catch in the gameplay is that later forms don't actually translate into best firepower. Figuring out the most efficient ones is somewhat essential for survival, especially when the most aggressive enemy waves start appearing. Captain Tomaday is a challenging shooter that unfolds in waves, and no wave will ever appear until you have cleared the prior one. While that certainly helps in memorizing the game, dying can pretty much kill the credit if you're not able to power back up quickly. Speaking of which, whenever you're controlling two Tomadays each character must be upgraded separately. Beware once they've reached their desired forms, because if you accidentally take another pill the upgrading process inevitably continues. There's no way to power down unless you take 17 mutating pills or kill the character and get a new clone to power him back up, which are obviously no feasible choices. Note that lives are only lost if both characters/clones in a formation are killed.

Someone's forgetting to press the other button...
(courtesy of YouTube user Gamers Universe)

Advancing through the colorful backgrounds can be a delight if you fancy games with cartoony and goofy designs. The music is equally as cartoony, sometimes even childish. Each level has a specific theme, starting with a gothic forest and continuing with a pit full of trash, a river/pond, a special bonus area with no stage boss and a last section in outer space. Whenever the scrolling stops during the level you must prepare to face a special enemy sequence or a mid-boss, in a wide array of organic and mechanical foes alike. Collision detection is fine, but the act of hitting targets can lead to a weird stutteting frame-based slowdown that definitely needs some getting used to. The slingshot effect is present, so take special attention on enemies (mainly mid-bosses) that have the nasty habit of ramming into you faster than what you'd expect.

An aspect that might detract from the fun factor is the juggling mechanic, which doesn't add anything useful to the gameplay. It often screws up the upgrading process and can cause all sorts of problems for greedy players such as myself. Restartitis is right around the corner, after all the bulk of the scoring system comes from destroying complete enemy waves and collecting the bonus tokens. Each level completed also gives you a confusing bonus for destruction ratio, but as much as I tried I could never get a 100% bonus in any stage whatsoever. My favorite form combination for firepower is the plant vase (great power and very nice spread) plus the kendama toy that shoots a single red ball that's devastating at point blank distance. Both don't have charged punches, but to be honest the charged punch is a pretty useless resource.

Captain Tomaday was only officially available for the MVS format, but I played it with an AES conversion. It recently got a budget re-release for the Sega Dreamcast, but as of now I don't know how both versions compare. In my solo time with the Neo Geo game I lost no lives when achieving the high score below, playing in the MVS difficulty. For those who're into it, I assume co-op play must be quite an interesting experience.


Saturday, March 21, 2020

Space Megaforce (SNES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF/ON
5 Difficulty levels
12 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Published by Toho in 1992


In the US the subject of this blog post was released as Space Megaforce, an incredibly generic name that says absolutely nothing about the game's origins. The Japanese market got it right because the Japanese title is none other than Super Aleste, a name that rings a lot of bells for fans of the most famous shooter series made by developer Compile. It's the final entry in the sci-ci branch of the franchise, as is Robo Aleste for the mecha series on Sega platforms, and combines many of the elements presented in classic Compile games such as Zanac, Power Strike and GunHed.

With the processing power of the SNES it's no wonder that Super Aleste / Space Megaforce shines with vibrant colors and flashy weapons galore. It is by all accounts a natural evolution to the abovementioned titles, complete with the trademark long levels so typical of Compile. It had been a while since I last touched one of these games, so I was kinda caught by surprise with a seemingly endless first level. And then, once the initial reconnaissance minutes were done, I had another go and was struck by the fact that I had just cleared the game in my very first try on a single credit.

I guess when people say Compile games are easy chances are they're probably referring to their experience with Space Megaforce. There are a few special considerations to be made about this assumption, but let's analyze the core game first. It feels very familiar to those who already played any of the abovementioned influences: there's a button to shoot, another button to bomb and a button for speed selection between four fixed settings. The new addition in this chapter is a fourth button that's used to alter the attack patterns of your current weapon. All these inputs can be configured in the options according to four control types (if speed selection isn't there it's because it's supposed to be carried out with the SELECT button). Weapons are defined by numbers that go from 1 (default vulcan) to 8 (scatter shot), switchable by taking the proper red capsule released by carriers that constantly zap through the screen at predetermined intervals.

The start of a whopping journey to victory
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

Powering up is achieved by collecting orange/green orbs. There are 6 power levels in total, shown in the upper left corner beside the current weapon number/name. The quantity of orange orbs needed to achieve an upgrade is the same as the next upgrade level (one orb for level 1 or five orbs for level 5, for example), whereas a green orb provides a full upgrade level no matter where you stand in the power scale. Life count and bomb stock are shown in the lower right corner of the screen: extra bombs are obtained by taking the respective B items, extra lives are given based on score (50, 200, 500 and then successive ones for every 500 thousand points scored).

A very special type of item is the green version of a weapon capsule. It cycles through all weapon numbers but is frozen in place if you hit it. Hit it long enough and it will turn into a pulsating energy mass known as "enemy eraser", which works as a smart bomb that clears all enemies at once. This isn't however its only function, since for each enemy eraser taken you'll gain an instant respawn after dying (instead of being sent back to a checkpoint). The availability/number of instant respawns is indicated by a golden hue in the number/icons of the life meter. If this feature sounds familiar the reason is that it's exactly the same one firstly introduced in GunHed / Blazing Lazers.

As if the enemy eraser mechanic wasn't such an awesome tool in surviving against the odds of twelve stages, there are also many other ways in which Space Megaforce allows players to hold on to their lives. Dying only happens if you get scroll-crushed by a wall or if you get hit at power levels 0 or 1 (anything above that will just degrade your current upgrade status by 4 levels). Other factors that help you survive and contribute to make the game easier: almost all enemy bullets can be destroyed by your firepower, there's no harm at all in touching walls or floating tiles and the series trademark split-second invincibility is there for every single item you collect. Speaking of items, watch out for some hidden ones amidst unsuspected blocks and tiles.

Bypassing checkpoints is of course great for survival, but certainly plays against scoring. Since you can amass so many extra lives, it's only natural that scoring benefits by dying and exploiting checkpoints, of which the most lucrative is the penultimate one in the final stage.

Laser capsule ahoy!

When compared with previous chapters of the Aleste franchise, the biggest draw of Space Megaforce is in the graphics, which make excellent use of mode 7 effects to present unique visuals such as the huge space station that zooms in and out in stage 2 or the revolving river down below in stage 5. Audiowise the game is also well served, with digitized voices for weapons and a varied soundtrack that at times sounds very similar to in-house contemporary Robo Aleste. Everything in the game moves and explodes with no slowdown at all, and huge bosses make you scramble all around the screen in order to advance. Sometimes the scenery makes it confusing to discern where you're supposed to go around walls, especially during the parts that take place in space stations. Walls can't kill you but can restrain your movement, so the idea is that if your shot hits something then it's certainly an obstacle.

Despite all the goodness to be seen and experienced in this game, by the time you reach stage 10 Space Megaforce starts recycling the environments of the first level, a clear sign that it went too far with its length even when you consider that every 3rd level is relatively short and plays like a bonus area of sorts, full of those destructible tiles reminiscent of the Star Soldier games (this isn't the only throwback/homage you'll see, stage 4 has a wave-like moving background that's clearly inspired by Recca). Since it feels so much like the older games in the series, it's rather understandable why Space Megaforce is overshadowed by MUSHA on the Mega Drive when we talk about which 16-bit cartridge-based Aleste title was better.

Perhaps feeling that the game they created was indeed too long, Compile added a short game mode for immediate selection at the start screen. It takes just ten minutes to be completed, as opposed to the hour-long standard campaign. That's not the only alternate mode included in the package though. If you go to the options and select Tricky mode, suicide bullets will be added everywhere in both game variations. Wild represents a harder Tricky, thus being the hardest mode of all. It's really nice to have extra settings that are not just different difficulties, which is welcome for those who think the default challenge is too easygoing. The game does name them "mode" instead of "difficulty" after all.

My best 1CC result on Normal mode with no milking whatsoever (no checkpoint deaths) is below. This second time was certainly more entertaining than the first since I had a better understanding of the weapon system and the game as a whole. I tinkered a little with Tricky mode but didn't attempt anything more serious on it. Maybe next time I'll try to do it.


Monday, February 24, 2020

TRL - The Rail Loaders (Playstation)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Victory / Soft Action

Published by Victory in 1999

Even though video games tend to be easily categorized in genres, some titles clearly defy the norm with offbeat gameplay. SDI, Tekkaman Blade, Rez and Gadget Twins are notable examples I have tackled in the past and somehow made me question if they should actually be considered shmups. And now TRL - The Rail Loaders makes it into this special list with its unique approach to the vertical shooting subgenre.

First and foremost, this game is disappointing no matter the genre it belongs to. You play as a train that moves on rails, so you don't have freedom to move around as you wish. You shoot and exert some minimum degree of dodging as you glide through predetermined tracks, only gaining full control of your movement during boss fights, the only parts where you play in a regular shmup-like environment. The Rail Loaders is also unremarkable in every design aspect, no matter how weird it decides to get throughout its five stages.

The oddball nature of this game probably comes from its Korean roots (see this page for reference). Yes, the whole package is in Japanese, but there's practically nothing of the Japanese school of thought in the game as far as shmups go.

Rail brothers

Moving your train forwards and backwards is possible at all times, so there's no need to worry about coming to dead ends (unlike a hauntingly similar gimmick in Xenon 2 Megablast). Just watch out for the timer because once it reaches zero the game ends abruptly. Button × is used to shoot, button □ makes you jump and button ○ punches levers to switch track directions. The shot sprite is a slow-moving bubble that's perfectly tuned to the overall pace of the game, and since it lacks autofire you'll either need to mash that button hard or arrange some sort of turbo function. In single player mode your train shares the screen with a second train whose control is taken over by the computer AI. This companion starts the level on the other side of the rail tracks, moving and shooting on its own while following you up and down. He's invincible but not very smart, so don't count on him to do anything for you.

The purpose of the bubble shot is to actually engulf enemies and make them float away, one of the most obvious indications that the developer took on a childish tone to the overall appearance of the game. Powering up is achieved by collecting P items, while powering down happens whenever you pick up the mushroom or when you get hit. Every life has two health cells, and new lives are granted for every 10.000 points you're able to score. The gallery of regular items also includes speed-up, speed-down, hourglass (to increase the timer), medical kit (+1 HP) and lots of things that give you a few points (candy, gold coins, gift boxes, popcorn). Tickets collected are accounted for so that they are traded for time in secret bonus areas located at specific dead ends. Note that the AI-controlled train is also able to help you out in picking up these tickets.

The dark medical kit (that looks like a coffin) must be avoided at all times because it takes away your health, but you also need to watch out for a brown invincible fluffy thing that moves down along the rails. Any unwanted contact is avoided either by jumping or by moving backwards. Finally, hitting specific enemy trains grants you with special weapons such as a straight or a 3-way pattern shot made of musical notes. Both are very efficient but are lost immediately if you get hit. If you manage to reach bosses with them they'll be gone very quickly. Weak points on bosses are either the star(s) on their foreheads or the eyes, never mind the triangle laser formations that pulsate and make the fights confusing at first.


Opening movie and first stage of TRL - The Rail Loaders
(courtesy of YouTube user adatiikaru)

Amidst its sleep-inducing gameplay and some unexplained weird details (such as your shot randomly sending items to the other side of the screen), TRL - The Rail Loaders occasionally comes up with something that tries to infuse some variety into the short yet repetitive design. Once you get into the cemetery area, for instance, it starts raining while harmless ghosts emerge from the ground and try to slow you down (bats do the same thing in the tunnel area). The rain effect is actually kinda cool, the only problem is that it's as slow as the rest of the game. The final theme park stage is split in two halves by an inexplicable "roller coaster" section where players control a bulky vehicle in a straight line while avoiding blocks that move left and right. This is the only checkpoint-based section in the whole game, but the good news is that just like in the rest of the credit this part is extremely easy once you get used to how fast you're supposed to move.

As if the mediocre gameplay wasn't enough an indication of the substandard ilk of The Rail Loaders, the disc is also completely devoid of any noteworthy functional resources. The only thing you'll find in the options screen is the possibility to reduce the volume of the music, and that's it. I believe one could try to maximize scoring by pursuing optimal routes, assuming boredom isn't a problem for those brave enough.

The game doesn't even have any sort of high score table, so the picture below was taken by pausing right after the final boss went down (60.9000 points).


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō (Playstation)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selected at start of level
- - - - - - -
Developed by Banpresto
Published by Banpresto in 1996


The Time Bokan Japanese anime series received many chapters since its debut on Fuji TV in 1975, courtesy of Tatsunoko Productions. Since then many video games appeared based on the franchise and its characters, of which some of the most awkward are Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō and its direct sequel Bokan Desu Yo, both released for the Playstation only in Japan. Translating to something like Time Travelers (or Time Fighters, as it became known in English), Time Bokan is a wacky cartoon with well defined characters for heroes and villains.

An interesting detail about the abovementioned games is that players take on the role of the Doronbō Gang, the official villains of the second Time Bokan series (Yatterman). Although odd at first sight, this choice actually comes from the fact that these clumsy villains were by far the most popular characters in the history of the anime. In Time Bokan Series: Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō (the game's full name) the gang goes against several main heroes of the franchise, so at least in a video game they finally get a chance to succeed in their comically villainous endeavors. Besides, that bossy female leader called Doronjo is certainly sexy, I'll tell you that.

Judging from a few descriptions I read, the game is aesthetically very faithful to its source material. It also includes lots of low-res cut scenes depicting the three members of the Doronbō gang plotting their evil deeds. The game itself is quite a colorful cute'em up and visually reminds me of stuff like Detana!! TwinBee. I have no idea how successful the Time Bokan series was back in the 90s, but since fan service is so strong in this one I assume the game must have been at least a minor hit with Japanese audiences back then. For me and practically for everyone else, these days it just comes off as an obscure oddity whose gameplay intricacies still remain rather misunderstood.

One of the mid-bosses in stage 6

For each stage the player must select one vehicle from an initial assortment of six (after the third level another three become available). Each vehicle has its own firing pattern and different stats for power, movement and shield/health, with basic commands in the form of shot (×), bomb (□) and a "fast dodge" (L or R). They're all standard shmup fare, except for the bomb. In this game bombs must first be armed: a first press of the button brings it out from the vehicle, which then carries it around until you press the bomb button again to actually use it. In flying and swimming areas bombs go out as straight missiles, whereas over regular terrain they're thrown in front of you with some minor aiming capacity.

Another uncommon trait for bombs in Bokan To Ippatsu! is that they are unlimited. Bombs are great to eliminate minor and medium-sized enemies, but be warned that they don't come with any invincibility. Shot and bomb can be used at the same time, but if a bomb is armed you won't be able to use the fast dodge command. Even though it's seemingly pointless, the fast dodge actually makes the player invincible at the cost of a brief period of recovery. It's a very important resource against some of the trickiest bosses.

Most of the items you come across in the game are the skulls left behind by defeated enemies. Silver skulls add +1 to the skull counter, golden ones add +5. Once the counter reaches 100 the vehicle transforms into a huge invincible mecha that's able to wreak havoc anywhere in the screen as the counter decreases. When it reaches zero the mecha then reverts back to vehicle form and the shield bar is fully recovered. Other items are either released by special skull carriers or by selected enemies: power-up (D), health refill (green/blue birds), temporary turbo speed (pink cat), power down (a dark helmet), point bonus (diamonds), extra credit (potion) and vehicle reassemble (a shining helmet). This last one only appears after you've lost the vehicle and the Doronbō gang is forced to ride a bike with very limited firepower.

Complete intro and first three levels of Time Bokan Series: Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō
(courtesy of YouTube user あかねちゃん)

Being forced to ride the weak bike is the worst thing that can happen in the game because in this condition the next hit means GAME OVER. Such dreadful downgrade only happens under one circumstance: getting hit while carrying a bomb. No matter how much health you have, even with a full shield bar you will be forced to go into bike form if you get hit with an untriggered bomb armed over the vehicle's hull. And now we come to the fine line between survival and scoring in Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō: the more enemies you're able to kill with a single bomb blast the more points you get from multiple score tags generated. By bombing you also get a lot more skulls to fill up the skull counter, even though skulls aren't worth any points whatsoever.

Once you realize that killing enemy flocks in a single blow is the secret to more points, timing bombs well becomes your main objective if you're a high score chaser. However, the punishment for getting hit with a bomb on your hands will certainly make you think twice in crowded areas. The only way to avoid the bike downgrade completely is to never use bombs, an approach that suits some of the hardest parts of the game such as the high speed chase full of mines in stage 5. Using bombs on bosses is only relatively safe when you do it in between those types of attacks where they leave the screen for a few seconds.

With a learning curve that provides a good incentive to get to know the game well, Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō offers quick fun and is rather competent as far as variety goes. Those huge bosses and mid-bosses are the natural highlights and main sources of difficulty, at least until you figure out how to deal with their attack patterns. Bullet count is never overwhelming but bullets might get clouded by your own firing and bombing sprites, so that must be taken into consideration. If you're down on health the best way to recover is going into mecha mode, that's why sometimes it's good to keep the skull meter close to 100 if you want to get back on your feet at specific points in the game. Just bear in mind that constantly turning into huge robots is detrimental to scoring since you can't use bombs when in mecha form.

Click for the option menus translation for Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō

My favorite vehicle is the last one to the right from the group of extra three. It's kinda slow but also extremely efficient once you reach maximum power (it takes three Ds to max out firepower in every level). Too bad you can't pick the same vehicle twice in a row, because once it's used it must "rest" / go for repairs for the duration of one stage. Co-op play is possibly quite amusing if both players know what they're doing since they're able to cover a wider area of the screen together. The horizontal span of the game is wider than a single screen, so when playing solo you'll often have to choose from deviating or splitting pathways.

Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō comes with basic features such as a manual save/load function and the ability to remap buttons (only shot and bomb). The game received an enhanced port for the Sega Saturn two years after its release under the name Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō Kanpekiban, which I should be checking out in the near future. For now, my best 1CC result on the Playstation version is below (Normal difficulty). Bear in mind that the act of continuing does not reset the score in this game.


Coming up next: Bokan Desu Yo.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Adventurous Boy (Mega Drive)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Gamtec
Published by Gamtec in 1998


Famous games and franchises often have their strengths copied or imitated in further titles, in a natural evolution that's perfectly expected in the world of video games. However, a minor part of this evolution is comprised of blatant ripoffs that often pop up as bootlegs or unlicensed products. One of these is Adventurous Boy, a rare cartridge to find in original form for Mega Drive aficionados. There's no in-game information about its release year, but online sources indicate that it came out in 1998.

Developed by Taiwanese company Gamtec, the same one that delivered Magic Girl, the game is best defined as a shameless clone of Fantasy Zone, so no special presentation is needed if you happen to know how Sega's classic plays. What's needed in the case of Adventurous Boy is the will to try a game that looks nice on the outside but ends up being a mediocre experience in almost all fronts. The saving grace is the nice use of colors for backgrounds and some decent designs with several layers of parallax (the frame rate is also better than what we get in Magic Girl). Unfortunately this good impression fades as you start to play and spot the underlying differences from the finely tuned gameplay of the Fantasy Zone titles.

It all begins with an intro sequence that sets the story of the game in the future and makes absolutely no sense.


Opean ocean, night time and jungle levels
(courtesy of YouTube user taizou / 12bit club)

Button B fires the main shot (weapon 1), button C drops bomb-like auxiliary shots (sp weapon) and button A shoots out single rounds of special weapons (weapon 2). The designations inside parentheses are the ones that segregate the items you're able to buy and select inside the parts shop that appears at the start of all levels except the 8th. The currency used there is the one provided by the stars left behind by destroyed enemies. Most of the time prices vary according to the item's efficiency, but for a better start it's essencial to get one of the speed-up options and one of the bomb alternatives, then keep buttons B and C pressed at all times. Autofire is active by default.

Gameplay follows the tried-and-true formula developed by Sega in Fantasy Zone. As you fly left and right on a cylinder, your mission is to destroy generators that spill out the enemies that populate the levels. The distance to the generators is indicated in a map located at the bottom of the screen. Once all ten generators are destroyed the boss appears, granting you with a lot of stars when defeated. Stage themes vary a lot throughout, as well as the sprites for generators (honeycombs, candy blobs, seahorses, robots, wood logs, etc.). The last stage is a boss rush with all previous bosses and a stupidly easy final boss in the end. In that level you automatically enter the shop once each boss is once again destroyed.

When you try out different weapons one thing becomes clear: all purchases for weapon 1 or weapon 2 types are not permanent. Weapon 1 items have limited duration, whereas weapon 2 items are for single use only (you can buy more if you want, of course). Before leaving the shop you're required to choose which items you'll activate for each category (speed-up and all three weapons). Only speed-ups and bombs (sp weapon) are permanent, at least until you die and lose all your inventory. Track missiles are the way to go for bombs because they follow enemies around and are very useful despite their slow speed and reload cycle. Other upgrades available at the shop include "live" (for health refills, up to seven but not always worth three at once), shield (disappears after a while) and 1UP.

Pink seahorses ahoy!

Though not apparent upon a first contact, there are many flaws in Adventurous Boy. The most aggravating one is that upon dying you become a sitting duck due to the lack of checkpoints, the extremely low default speed of our hero and the fact that no shop appears at all to help you out. If that happens on a boss fight chances are your life stock will be quickly depleted. The good news is that when you figure out how the game works it becomes a walk in the park, mainly because bosses are actually ridiculously easy. Besides, there is no inflation at all for upgrade prices in the shop.

And then there are a few retarded programming bugs, such as the game randomly denying you the choice of a wing type before leaving the shop, thus forcing you to play with no speed-up at all. Or the baffling reset of your score as soon as you fire your first shot in any stage. This means that the number of points you'll have when the game is beaten is the exact score you achieve in the final level. Oh boy...

Don't be fooled by how Adventurous Boy looks. Graphics are okay and you can even say some music tracks stand out (the sound effects, however, are rather miserable). Being unlicensed is no excuse for such lame programming, but unfortunately the game is bottom-of-the-barrel material in that regard. Below is a peek of my final result with the game in the Normal difficulty. You need to pause as soon as the last boss dies or you won't be able to get any record of your "high score".


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída (Master System)

Vertical
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tectoy / Sega
Published by Tectoy in 1995


Created by a talented cartoonist during the 80s and based on a famous Brazilian children's song, Sapo Xulé (which translates to something like "Stinky Feet Frog") was adopted by Tectoy and promoted to a local mascot a few years later. Starting with a plastic frog toy that exuded a bad odor when stripped off of his sneakers, the company soon followed with three video games released exclusively for the Master System.

The stinky detail about these games is that they are all official hacks, meaning they were all hacks officially endorsed by Sega at the time. Sapo Xulé Vs. Os Invasores do Brejo is a hack of Psycho Fox, whereas Sapo Xulé - O Mestre do Kung Fu uses Kung Fu Kid as a basic mold. In the case of Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída the game in question is Astro Warrior. The latter is also the only one that got an European release in Portugal.

All Sapo Xulé titles are nicely packaged in late Master System boxes, with sympathetic art, specific instruction manuals and rather detailed backstories. They are nice collector's items in their own right, but all they offer in terms of gameplay is an experience that's identical to the original template. In SOS Lagoa Poluída (or SOS Polluted Pond), Sapo Xulé must battle three underground areas in order to free his environment from evil greedy scientists. Astro Warrior's star-dotted backgrounds are recolored in green to resemble a swamp, and all sprites of the enemy gallery get replaced by cartoony renditions of garbage and a few random objects.

Meet Blublu

There's a single noticeable functional difference from this game and Astro Warrior: it's the number of starting spare lives, which in Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída is five, as opposed to the original two. Other than that the gameplay is exactly the same, down to enemy and boss behavior. Stage and boss names were altered to something more swampy though: Blurp Lake is protected by boss Plurb, Gulpb Lake is protected by boss Blublu, Sgurpb Lake is protected by boss Sblug. They all SURELY SURVIVE after defeat, meaning the game loops these three stages endlessly.

As you fly over terrain that resembles Star Soldier you can shoot around at will and collect the items that arrive floating in the middle of the screen. Even though these items seem to come at random spots as you play, they are actually spawned by destroying successive ground tiles. A red pepper serves as speed-up, a funny face is the power-up and a tiny thingie grants you a trailing option to increase firepower. It takes two power-ups and two options to achieve max power, with plenty of speed-ups to send you rocketing around the screen if you so wish. Beware not to let the option item pass by, if that happens you won't have the chance to collect another one for the duration of the current life. At one moment speed-ups stop appearing, but power-ups keep coming no matter how long it takes for you to pick them up.

By trying to make a sci-fi shooter look like a wacky cute'em up, Tectoy was only able to go halfway and doesn't really succeed. Sure, you will be shooting at rotten apples, dirty boots, banana peels, watermelon slices, amoeba flocks, matchsticks and other unidentified flying objects. Boss sprites are retouched in order to look like vehicles piloted by creatures from the pond (the detail of final boss Sblug's ugly face inside the cockpit is nice, for example). But that's it, essentially. Bullet patterns are unaltered and the music is unchanged. It's just like having a regionally different Astro Warrior. We couldn't ask much from a hack anyway, I guess.

Sapo Xulé to the rescue!
(courtesy of YouTube user Anarki)

With just three stages, Sapo Xulé - SOS Lagoa Poluída is a rather short game that loops forever, as I mentioned above. Difficulty is already maxed out on the second loop, however playing marathon runs isn't a trivial endeavor simply because recovering from deaths can be quite tricky. Blame it on the extremely slow default speed of our poor little stinky feet frog. And once all four extra lives are gained you won't get any more extends (the extend interval is 50.000 points, but note that the current score is only shown in between levels).

In my pursuit of a better performance in the game I had a few surprises. The first one was that upon beating Plurb again in stage 6.1 I noticed my score had rolled over on the mark of one million points. Suffice it to say my will to continue playing faded right there and then. However, upon reverting back to the start screen I found out the game actually has a counterstop on 999.900 points, as we can see in the picture below. Upon a quick research I discovered that this is also the case with Astro Warrior. Well, better late than never, I guess. Nonetheless I did have fun with SOS Lagoa Poluída, and I believe achieving the counterstop in either version still stands as a fun little challenge for all Master System owners.


Thursday, December 26, 2019

Thunder Force V (Saturn)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1997


When I think about the fact that Thunder Force V came out more than 20 years ago I can't help but feel a sting of nostalgia. Back then I had completely left video games in favor of college, and would only get to experience the game some ten years down the road. It was also the very first shmup I purchased for the Sega Saturn once I started collecting, so I guess that says a lot about my appreciation for the franchise. Why Sega and Technosoft didn't release the game out of Japan is beyond me. I absolutely don't buy the idea that a game like Thunder Force V wouldn't sell well in the West, or that shmups were already a dead genre by then.

The leap of Technosoft's most famous series into the 32-bit video game generation is everything fans could hope for. Granted, Thunder Force IV / Lightening Force set the Mega Drive on fire, something that can't be said about Thunder Force V and the Sega Saturn. Nonetheless the sequel successfully expanded on the ideas of previous chapters, taking the gameplay to new heights while remaining faithful to the atmosphere and the general feel of the series. It's still frantic, clearly methodical and heavily bent on memorization. Graphics are a mixture of regular sprites and 3D models based on polygons with varying textures. Even if they might seem dated to some people by today's standards, they've still got a lot of charm and a healthy dose of sleek cinematic transitions. Let's also not forget about the excellent soundtrack.

No blue? Really?

Following the trend of previous games in the series, the order of the three initial stages can be established as soon as you start the credit. Commands are fully configurable in the options and work with shot, two directions for weapon select (right/left), speed selection and overweapon. This overweapon input is the most important gameplay addition in Thunder Force V. Whenever you press this button the power of your current weapon is augmented at the cost of the energy of your options/claws/craws. Craws are single energy spheres that rotate around the ship, increase its firepower and protect it from regular bullets. You can have a maximum of three craws at any given time, but if they're hit while their energy is fully exhausted (by using an overweapon) they will disappear. Exhausted craws recover energy with time, but can be replenished faster by collecting new craws.

Craws are one of the items you get from harmless carriers or special enemies. Other items include the non-default weapons (wave, free range and hunter), shields and extra lives (1UP). The only weapons you don't lose when you die are the default ones (twin shot and back shot), all others are lost and need to be reactivated with another weapon item. Shields give you protection against three hits: a blue shield means you have 3 hits left, a green shield means you have 2 hits left and a brown shield means you can take only one shot before becoming vulnerable again. Once you die your craws will scatter around the screen and bounce for a while so that you can pick them up again. As for score-based extends, they are granted with 10, 50, 100 and 500 million points.

In line with the evolution of the genre by the late 90s, which demanded more than just mindless shooting and flashy explosions, Thunder Force V includes a scoring system of its own. It's essentially very simple: the faster you dispatch mid-sized and large enemies (including bosses) the more points you get based on a multiplier that goes from ×2 to ×16. There's also a completion bonus based on the chosen difficulty, the number of lives left and the final equipped weapons, which is once again a noble incentive for players to polish their performances as hard as they can. There's a catch related to this completion bonus though (keep reading).

As far as speed-killing goes, it doesn't take long for you to realize the extreme importance of the aiming and overweapon capabilities of the free range shot. When properly used, it's able to easily dispatch most enemies and several boss phases with ×16 multipliers (note that it does even more damage when enemies are hit within range 1). The other weapons are useful in their own right, but there's no doubt that dying and losing free range severely limits scoring and survival possibilities. Free range is, in fact, the reason of many complaints regarding gameplay balance in Thunder Force V. While that's a valid point, personally the only fault I could attribute to free range is making the game an easier ride. Once you learn how to lay waste to everything with it, of course.

Stage 2: Wood
(courtesy of YouTube user assomo5)

Each stage in Thunder Force V is quite unique in its environment. Sea, jungle and city precede a space station guarded by a transforming mecha boss. Then comes stage 5, which brings a treat for fans of the series, especially those who played the previous chapter. First you're propelled to outer space by docking to a sword-shaped shuttle with a shield bar and its own firepower capabilitites (two special weapons only used in that level), then you have to face none other than the Fire Leo-04 Rynex, the original ship from Thunder Force IV, as you listen to the epic opening theme of that game in one of the most iconic moments in the whole franchise. Defeat it and play the rest of the game with improved versions of the default weapons, the same ones seen in part VI (twin shot turns into blade and back shot becomes rail gun).

Thunder Force V also boasts a rather complicated storyline depicted in the animated opening, in the details shown prior to each boss fight and in the ending. There's a catch though: in order to see the good ending and understand how the story arc closes you need to beat the creepy insect-like last boss within a time limit. If he escapes you get a bad ending and you're denied the completion bonus. High score tables are segregated by difficulty and show a few stats for each logged run. Some extra tweaks can be applied to the game, such as setting the weapon HUD in different arrangements. Bonus note: beating the game on Hard unlocks a special Master difficulty.

Besides the regular retail release the Sega Saturn also received a special edition of the game called Thunder Force V Special Pack, which adds a bonus CD with rearranged tracks of previous games entitled The Best of Thunder Force. A port was released a year later for the Sony Playstation with the title Thunder Force V - Perfect System, and while it does look like the Saturn original there are still noticeable differences I intend to point out in the near future. As for the series progression, it would take more than ten years for the sequel Thunder Force VI to appear on the Playstation 2.

In revisiting the Saturn version, my best 1CC result in the Normal difficulty is the one shown below. It represents an improvement of 42% over my previous highest score, achieved when I didn't have much of a grasp of scoring systems at all.