Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Astro Tripper (Playstation Network)

Horizontal, confined
Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
14 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by PomPom Games
Published by PomPom Games in 2009


It is true that the top-down view in the shooter genre is pretty much restricted to vertically oriented games. In horizontals you normally see the spaceship/avatar from the sides. Astro Tripper, however, goes against the norm and presents itself as a top down horizontal shmup. You see the spaceship from above, kinda like an elevated guardian angel controlling its actions. I tried to list similar pure top-down horizontal shooters and couldn’t find many, surprised by how unusual the concept actually is. The only ones I could think of are Uridium, The Last Starfighter (none other than Uridium in disguise) and a few levels of the relatively recent Sturmwind.

In the case of Astro Tripper (and Uridium to a certain extent), the fore inspiration is none other than Defender. Both games ditch the automatic scrolling staple of the genre, but whereas Defender allowed unlimited displacement around a cylinder, the stages in Astro Tripper unfold in an enclosed area where enemies materialize in time-based routines, sometimes associated with generators that must be wiped out for the player to proceed – which is in fact a direct influence from Fantasy Zone, by no coincidence another famous cylinder-based horizontal shooter.

Influences aside, Astro Tripper has a style of its own. The spaceship comes endowed with slight inertia, sliding nervously across different alien surfaces as if carried by wind puffs or interstellar vacuum voids. For inertia haters, it’s actually not as bad as it sounds.

Wreaking havoc over a flying ship

“Adventure game” is where the proper fun is, with 14 stages spread in four distinct worlds marked by trippy platforms, organic environments and deadly corridors. “Challenge game” offers four options for you to play endlessly with random enemy generation in each world of the main game. Gameplay rules are the same for both of them: fire with ×, flip shooting direction with ○ and switch weapons with □. Weapons come in two types/colors: blue is the straight gun and red provides a spread pattern with limited reach. Keeping the fire button pressed will eventually “overheat” the cannons and reduce the firing rate, so the best way to deal with it is by tapping regularly (also note that point-blanking is excellent to take down enemies faster). Leveling up is done by taking the colored power-up dropped by enemies every once in a while. Instead of being forced a particular upgrade, here you can choose the weapon to be powered up just by using it – the power-up item changes its color accordingly.

Silver items are released in between power-ups, and each of these items corresponds to a score multiplier of ×2. However, the maximum multiplier you can reach is ×8 (further silver items are worth 40.000 points each). The secret to get them is to kill enemies in quick succession, as indicated by the kill gauge located underneath the score display (when the gauge is filled the multiplier item appears). Unless it’s a very crowded level, the only way to get to the ×8 multiplier is by letting enemies mount to a good number before going on a killing spree. On the other hand, extra care is needed due to the sheer amount of hazards and the fact that some enemies morph into more unpredictable creatures if you let them linger long enough on screen. Also note how some of them fill the multiplier gauge faster than others.

Waiting to cash in on more enemies is good for scoring, but the player must also take into consideration the time limit in every level. Some of these limits are very strict, particularly on boss fights where you need to clear the screen of all nearby enemies to have access to their weak spots. If the stage times out you die. By the way, whenever you die you need to restart the level from scratch.

So the primordial question is this: how much risk are you willing to take? Initially there are only two difficulty levels available. The only significant difference between them is that on Hard you die by falling off the boundary of the level, which doesn’t happen on Easy. That’s why it’s important to check and trust in the overhead map showing the location of existent and spawning enemies. A credit can be started at any previously reached world, and while that’s good to practice later levels I just wish you could also choose the stage directly (for example, in order to face the boss of the second world you need to play the three previous levels).

Official trailer for Astro Tripper
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer PomPomTV)

I enjoyed Astro Tripper exclusively on Hard, a mode that seems to be balanced around survival, crowd control and power-up strategy, in that order. Bullets are slow and clearly visible, and there’s always room to move around if you approach enemy formations correctly. It’s impossible to power up both weapons to their maximum, so do it wisely if you want to survive the cube onslaught of the Temple of the Gods, the last world in the game. My strategy was to favor blue in the first world, red in the second and blue during the rest of the game, with only one red upgrade somewhere around the third/fourth world. Extends exist and are awarded for every million points scored.

Despite some relatively empty spells in the first levels, Astro Tripper manages to provide decent shooting rush with good production values. The frame rate isn’t really on par with the finest material from PSN, but the graphics are clean and create a sleek sense of moving across a 3D environment. Tilted platforms are an example of how smart the graphic design is, as well as the fitting music and the excellent array of sound effects. The otherworldly sci-fi atmosphere is duly enriched by lots of diverse explosions and noises. Particularly amusing is the whole third world, aptly titled “Insect Infestation” and filled with deadly spores, flying bugs and serpent-like menaces.

What struck me as extremely odd is that there’s no offline high score table of any kind, but if you’re logged into PSN the highest score for all modes is always added to the worldwide leaderboards. At least the highest score is always shown locally as you play, regardless of Internet availability. As of now, the game is also available on Steam for those interested.

Astro Tripper loops on a higher difficulty level once beaten. Below in yellow is my best result on Hard after reaching stage 2-2 – meaning second level of the first world in the second loop (completing the game on Hard unlocks Hardest). Look how my two friends above me performed!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Last Resort (Neo Geo)

Horizontal
Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by SNK
Published by SNK in 1992


In the history of the greatest horizontal shooting games of all time, both R-Type and Gradius are always somehow present in any relevant discussion. However, many of those who also consider them to be difficult games have a hard time dealing with the checkpoints and the painfully slow default speed of their respective ships. Assuming that these people would still be game for this particular shooting style, I can now attest that Last Resort is the compensation they certainly need - especially for R-Type fans because, to put it simply, Last Resort is by all means an easier take on R-Type. It's just as fantastic in graphics and sound, but the decent starting speed of the ship and the absence of excessively hard checkpoint recoveries are very attractive if you want something more bearable challenge-wise.

As is the case with the later Pulstar, some people believe that part of Irem's staff also worked on Last Resort. The graphic design is definitely to blame for this assumption, even though there's a uniqueness to the overall style of the game. Particularly amusing are the tiny men/pilots ejected from pretty much every destroyed enemy, which lends it a singular feel and further deepens its shadowy relation to Irem. The inspiration drawn from the anime film Akira is also evident as you start the game amidst a busy rendition of its Neo Tokyo setting. As the stages unfold, scary bosses try to stop you while you pilot that pointy ship through rain over the ocean, face an emerging submarine, weave across laser-infested corridors and battle a huge spaceship before entering the final enemy's lair.

Where have I seen this snake creature before?

With only two buttons to be used, the gameplay is pretty straightforward and requires very little to be learned, basically expanding on the classic scheme of R-Type. Kill specific enemies in a wave or a particular carrier to release speed-ups (S), speed-downs (mirrored S) or colored power-ups. These power-ups are defined by their inner characters (G, H or L) and their cycling colors (red or blue). Take any of them to activate an invincible satellite that remains permanently attached to the ship and can be used both for offense and defense, since it blocks all regular enemy bullets.

Moving the ship causes the satellite to rotate around it, and at the press of the B button you can lock it in place or release it to continue rotating. As soon as the sattelite is activated the player is also entitled to use the charge shot by holding the fire button (A). Once charged and released, the satellite will dart forward from its initial direction with great destructive power, and the longer you hold the button the more powerful the attack is. The color of the last power-up collected is also important for the charge attack because it defines how the satellite behaves upon hitting a wall. Red will make it trail along the surface, blue will make it bounce around. In both cases the satellite will automatically return to the ship once the attack is done.

Upon collection of the second power-up the letter inside it activates its corresponding weapon: G is a set of two napalm bombs with trailing capabilities dropped above and below the ship, H is a set of straight missiles with very slight homing ability and L is the classic straight laser. It then takes just two successive power-ups (regardless of letter type) to max out the ship's attack power. You can cruise through the game with any of these weapons, but at certain spots the ground bombs (G) are certainly more helpful. Some examples are the turret corridor in stage 2, the initial laser cannon area of stage 4 and the whole scramble around the large battleship of the last level + last boss. I use missiles mainly against the 2th boss, and laser on the 4th boss due to its piercing ability making it possible to hit the little turrets on the other side of the boss's body.


More gauge, more strong!
(courtesy of YouTube user superdeadite)

No matter how you look at it, you can't really say there's something technically special about Last Resort. Not only is the gameplay derivative from R-Type, but it even copies some of that game's traits - like the way your ship gets drawn to the center of the screen as the bonus of 10.000 points gets computed. Slowdown can be heavy during boss confrontations, as well as flicker. What Last Resort does, and does really well, is keep a steady flow of action from beginning to end while allowing the player to get back on his knees upon death with no heavy work/practice required. I daresay you can beat the game without taking any speed-ups, such is the ease provided by the default speed of the ship. Furthermore, the game is finely suited both for a stock joystick with no autofire (abuse charge shots to win) or an autofire-enabled controller where you pretty much don't need to charge. It's a fun ride in whatever form you take it.

Another aspect where Last Resort shines is in its amazing soundtrack. Diverse and pumping with lots of cool bass, it matches the graphics with outstanding results. I can imagine people complaining that the game is too short, but it must be known that SNK designed it as a shooter with two loops. Of course the second time you play enemies and bosses become more aggressive. There is no intricacy in the scoring system whatsoever, and the only extends are achieved with 60.000 and 130.000 points. Last Resort is also another example of a game with a considerably steep default highest score.

Other than on the Neo Geo AES and its CD version, players are also able to enjoy Last Resort on the PSP, PS2 and Nintendo Wii by means of a compilation titled SNK Arcade Classics Vol. 1. It includes 16 Neo Geo games, of which only Last Resort appears as a representative of the shmup genre. Prior to playing it on the AES I practiced and credit-fed the game on the PSP. In the high score below I reached stage 2-3 playing on MVS difficulty with a turbo controller for proper autofire (I didn't use charge shots at all).

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Thunder Blade (PC Engine)

Rail shooter / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega

Reprogrammed and published by Nec Avenue in 1990


With the exception of the recent Choplifter HD, helicopters have been totally absent from the shmup scene for a long time. But alas! There was a time when it wasn’t so. Sega’s helicopter game inspired by Blue Thunder and Airwolf might have been totally forgotten by the company during the 90’s, but at least Thunder Blade made many people happy during its heyday, be it at arcades or home systems. Well, maybe not so much in the latter category, given how much downgrading had to be done on the ports... However, considering that Super Thunder Blade is a pseudo-sequel instead of a port, the PC engine version could then be classified as the most faithful rendition of the arcade game.

Of course being faithful is a completely relative statement in this case, for the PC Engine could never equal or even come close to the superscaling capabilities of the Sega board. It does resemble the arcade look more than other ports for mainstream video game consoles, most notably the Master System’s (just for reference, the port for the Sharp X68000 computer is considered to be the best conversion). In Thunder Blade for the PC Engine the score displays and the stage progress meter were properly reproduced, but the same can’t be said about graphics and music. At least NEC tried and delivered a rail shooter with reasonable punch, one that’s far from perfect but still fulfills the mission of providing cheap helicopter fun.

The adventure starts in the city
(courtesy of YouTube user Encyclopegames)

With no story whatsoever, Thunder Blade puts the player in control of an attack helicopter armed with a machinegun (button II) and missiles (button I). The machinegun targets whatever appears in front of the chopper, whereas missiles will explode and destroy whatever’s down below (they don’t trail the surface as in other home ports). Each stage starts with a vertical section where the top down view forces the helicopter to fire forward in a slanted direction, causing the regular gun to hit the ground at a fixed distance (movement and overall reach is also limited). The second half of the stage unfolds in a rail shooting environment, and once it’s over you return to the vertical orientation in order to face the boss, which is either a large plane or tank with multiple turret configurations. Only the last boss differs from this pattern, since it consists of a static fortress in the rail shooting section.

There are four stages in Thunder Blade. They’re pretty short, and this somehow mirrors the short duration of the arcade original. Graphical themes are city, caves, river and oil refinery. Each main BGM is used twice: the most iconic one is used for levels 1 and 3 and the other for levels 2 and 4. The scaling effect won't set anyone's world on fire, but it's decent for the hardware. While the first rail shooting level is rather tame and lacks obstacles other than buildings, later on you need to exercise your dodging abilities around spikes, pillars and pipes. With an initial life stock of 5 and no extra lives in sight, the couple of available continues are very welcome for practicing later stages. No power-ups or upgrades exist, but at least the machinegun comes implemented with autofire. I just don’t understand why the developer didn’t do that with missiles as well, so don't forget to turn on that turbo switch for button I. For great justice. :)

Surviving the odds in this game takes some practice. Although the inputs are simple and straightforward, with normal/reverse controls selectable at the start screen, this is another case where the player needs to work around a few quirks in the gameplay. One of them is the slow firing rate of the main gun in the rail shooting sections, which turns the act of hitting airborne enemies a chore. You can’t just react to what’s coming, instead you need to fire in advance while anticipating the approach of the enemy. If you don’t do this chances are you’ll collide against them and die. In that regard fast jets are worse than helicopters because they can easily pass through your firepower. The good news is that they always appear in the same places and formations, allowing for some minor advantage through memorization.

Thunderous blades in action

Another point of concern is bullet visibility during the first top-down boss confrontation. Dancing around bullets is a skill that develops naturally the more you play, but doing it against the spinning fire blasts of the first boss’s middle section is always a nightmare. Strangely so, bosses get increasingly easier level after level. Your hitbox is deceiving in the initial vertical parts, so don't get too close to enemy helicopters that are taking flight and reaching your altitude. Performing constant round movements is still one the best ways to survive a particular tricky part of a rail shooter segment, just be careful not to collide against anything. And if things start getting too cluttered just “land” and wait for the flying hazards to flee the screen as the TAKE OFF message urges you to return to battle.

Killing as many enemies as you can is the key to scoring higher in Thunder Blade. At the end of the level you are awarded with a special bonus that's directly proportional to the kill count. Less than 80 hits yields 100.000 points, 200.000 points are given for a kill count below 100 and above that you get 400.000 points. I wasn't able to hit more than 120 targets in a level, so I couldn't check if it's possible to get an even higher bonus. Unfortunately the only stage where you can safely try to maximize this bonus is the first one, since the others are either low on enemy count or just to difficult to hoard.

The picture below shows my 1CC high score on Normal for this port of Thunder Blade. It plays considerably different from its counterpart on the Master System, but it's equally fun for fans of old rail shooters. For those interested, ports of other Sega rail shooters also exist for the PC Engine, such as After Burner II and Space Harrier.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Thunderbirds (NES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Pack-in Video
Published by Activision in 1989


Marketing can be everything sometimes. I can almost feel the excitement a kid would experience by getting a hold of Thunderbirds on the NES. The box art and the text on the back of the box are pretty much a work of genius, regardless of how much a fan of the TV series anyone was (I wasn’t). I never got to play the game back then, but a few days ago a bad feeling was already in the air as soon as I turned on the console and saw the name of Pack-in Video in the copyright screen. That definitely wasn’t a good sign given some of my past experiences with the company, such as Deep Blue for the PC Engine.

Thunderbirds, the TV show, is a futuristic science-fiction series made with puppets that firstly aired during the 60s. Called supermarionation by its creators, the technique used by the show must have been quite charming for those who lived through that era, but the same can’t be said for younger kids back in the 90s – or for any average adult these days. As a video game adaptation, this particular Thunderbirds game is just as unapealling, although for different reasons. Graphics are fine for NES standards, and even though the music could be better it’s not really a disaster. The main problem is that there’s too much fan service and too little excitement in the gameplay, which then results in a drab, trivial, soulless shooter.

Deadly waters of the Indian Ocean

There’s a strong emphasis in story and characters in Thunderbirds. Jeff Tracy is the mentor of the team that protects the Earth, formed by his five sons Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John. Each one of them is assigned a particular vessel/ship with distinct powers. They’re aided by the scientific genius of dr. Brain, and together they fight against the villainous threats of a bald evildoer named Hood. Interactions between these characters are shown all the time as you transition from one stage to the next while an increasingly irritating song plays along (there came a point where I just didn’t want to read the dialogue anymore, so I pushed START to finish them faster). Plotwise the Thunderbirds have 60 days to foil Hood's plan to build a power source that's capable to wipe out the planet.

Each life has three health cells, and once you die the team needs 3 days to fix the ship for a new attempt at the failed mission. A succesful attempt is the equivalent to 1 day. The game is over only if you fail to fulfill your main objective within the period of 60 days. Missions are chosen by the player in three main sites around the world (North America, Indian Ocean and Asia), and in all of them you unlock secondary missions than can also be chosen at will. In total you need to play 8 missions before going into outer space to stop Hood's final attack, in areas that include ocean, city, caves with volcanoes and high-tech installations. There isn't really a consistent theme distribution throughout the levels, but in general the hardest missions as those set in Asia, whereas North America poses the easiest challenge of them all. You can't choose the pilot/ship because boss Jeff is bossy and assigns specific ships to specific missions.

Each craft you pilot has three power levels upgraded by taking the E items. This item is released only destroying red enemies, as well as L (recovery for one health cell) and O (orbital device, also widely known as option). The player can carry up to two options whose formation is cycled by pressing button B in the controller. Button A is used to shoot, and while it does not have any autofire function the strangest thing is that options are always firing regardless of you pressing A or not. Initially only forward and backward formations are allowed, but as you make progress other formations are acquired with special items once you get through selected areas. Further formations include sideways, circle and forward-diagonal (spread). Unfortunately most of the time the firepower provided by the options is too weak to do any damage, but in certain places they might help clearing turrets fixed on walls.

Thunderbirds introduction on the NES
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Taking a hit not only takes one health cell away, but it also downgrades the main weapon by one level. Upon death you lose all upgrades including options, but if you manage to make it out of a stage alive you get a full health bar in the next mission. Besides the outrageous amount of lives you receive by default with the 60 days scheme, that's mainly what makes Thunderbirds an easy clear. The only parts that might offer some resistance are the occasional tank that fires very fast vertical shots, the area that requires shooting through a marsh and the closing gates of the last level. Other than that, what we get is just insipid gameplay and the sorry lack of real bosses. A particularly annoying detail is that power-up items tend to drift upwards and disappear on the top of the screen, often making you go after them only to get hit by an obstacle (any contact to walls is deadly).

It's interesting to note that amidst the lameness of Thunderbirds lies a very clear inspiration from Namco's Dragon Spirit, most notable in the volcano areas and in the flower turret boss throwing petals at the player. Fans of the show might find some enjoyment in the animated intro that mimics the famous countdown from the TV series, as well as the brief cut scenes where the futuristic vehicles depart for battle in each level. However, that doesn't deny the fact that this is an extremely bland and short game. And it's just baffling that the developer chose to implement a password feature while completely ignoring the scoring system.

So there we have it in the picture below. No numbers, just the ending credits.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Thundercade (NES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Micronics / American Sammy
Published by American Sammy in 1989


A vertical shooter where you pilot a motorcycle equipped with side cannons? This is Thundercade, originally released for the arcades by SETA and later ported to the NES. The idea is terrific and in my mind brings back fond memories of movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Overall Thundercade shares a lot of the same gameplay of Gun.Smoke, even though it lacks the execution standards of the NES port. Unfortunately the first impression you get from this 8-bit adaptation is the complete opposite of exciting. The extremely downgraded visuals, the slow pace and the seemingly high difficulty are bound to repel even the most enthusiastic Nintendo or shmup fan from giving the game a chance.

But alas! Persistence and patience were highly regarded gamer traits back in the 80s, so why should it be any different today? It took me a little while to see beyond the stinky outer layer of Thundercade and once again adapt to the act of mashing buttons on the NES controller (because the game lacks autofire and somehow manages to screw with the turbo functions I had at hand). Eventually I figured it out... The thing is that this game is more deceiving than your average NES shooter, and unless you go out in a rampage of destruction you won’t get very far in it. So kill. Destroy. Shatter. Bring down the house!

Well, bringing down the house is quite hard to pull off at first, unless you make use of the bombs deployed with button A. Regular shots fired with button B are weak and disappear once you acquire any of the sidecars that shoot upwards. Sidecars can also shoot left or right and are found lying around or by destroying parts of the scenery. They comprise single and dual cannons in three power levels: green ones have shorter reach, red ones can reach farther and white ones provide a lot more offensive power. The side in which the sidecar will be attached depends on how you approach it: if you want it to be on the left touch it from the right, and vice-versa. The problem with the sidecars is that they’re gone once they get hit, so the player needs to keep the complete set of motorcycle + sidecars away from harm in order to preserve weapons.

Leading to the base

Besides constantly trying to preserve a huge hitbox, sometimes you also need to deal with jumps that happen when you transition from one kind of surface to another. This is mostly present in stage 2, where touching any border of a different “height” sends the motorcycle into the air with a characteristic sound. While airborne you’re invincible, but the aimed enemy shots + terribly slow motorcycle often lead to a horrible death when you land. And after landing you might also find yourself confined to a smaller area whose boundaries are often uncertain, which then leads to more confusion and more deaths. Beware of cliffs and thresholds!

Throughout all four stages of Thundercade there’s actually a little variety on enemies and none on music (the same tune plays over and over). Graphical themes are city, base, woodlands and fortress, all of them with decent length which avoids people saying the game is too short. At the end of the second and third levels you face a large gunship that fires lots of 3-way shots: kill it fast enough so that you get the B item and enter a brief bonus stage. The objective there is to catch the falling parachutes by moving left or right. A parachute adds 4 missiles to your regular firepower, but sometimes they change into other more useful items such as V (vulcan cannon), 1UP (extra life) or an extra bomb. These last items can also be found in the stages themselves just like sidecars, but with the exception of bombs they’re always hidden inside static obstacles.

Turning the odds on your favor in this game requires a few attitudes most people take for granted. Sticking to what you normally get and being savvy on bombs will most likely make Thundercade a very difficult game. Soldiers and tanks are no big deal, but you should also be able to crush buildings, gas drums, trucks, trees, cactuses, helicopters, gates, dirt hills, etc. The first tip I can give is to shoot every single static obstacle, even the largest ones. Some of them will not fall, but inside those that crumble chances are you’ll find useful items such as the vulcan cannon (V). This is the most powerful weapon in the game but also the easiest one to lose, since it adds two sidecars at once and disappears if any of them takes a hit. It fires a two-way shot whose only weakness is the absence of any attack option at the front of the motorcycle, however this becomes irrelevant when you notice that the vulcan cannon can tear everything apart with ease. Just don't get close to any sidecar item or you'll end up replacing it. By the end of the game the vulcan cannon isn’t nowhere to be found, but the white sidecars are powerful enough to keep you going.


A quick credit of Thundercade on the NES
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

The second hint that helps to succeed in Thundercade is to not hold from bombing whenever you feel threatened. This may sound like dumb advice, but some enemies tend to be unpredictably erratic - those helicopters are particularly annoying, and if you can’t find a position to quickly kill them it’s often safer to bomb. Each life comes with three bombs, so it’s always better to lose a bomb than a life (or your precious weapons) on the face of an impending death. By holding the bomb button for a little while after deploying it you can also make the two forward blasts develop a staggering pattern, thus covering a wider area on the screen. Very useful on both gunship bosses. Speaking of which, no boss is to be found on the third level, while the last boss is just a handful of snipers trying to shoot you down from the manholes of a nuclear power plant.

Once you complete a level you get a glimpse of your progress, along with performance stats on shots fired, number of hits and hit-miss ratio. Since the best way to not die is to be proactive and keep firing all the time, those performance indicators are there just for show. The few continues available at least allow for some practice, even if they throw you back to the start of the level. There is no randomness at all to the game itself, so memorizing the location of hidden items is half the battle for the 1CC. Besides, it’s actually the only way to squeeze a little fun out of the game other than playing it with a friend in co-op.

Upon completion Thundercade halts at the ending screen and you need to reset in order to check the high score. Here’s mine, playing without autofire:

Friday, May 30, 2014

Thunderbolt II (NES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Gamtec
Published by Gamtec in 1993


The wonders of unlicensed games are for the brave only. Brave players, brave collectors! Whatever the case, playing with an actual retail copy of a game like this almost feels like pure waste for a variety of reasons. Firstly, why spend effort and lots of money trying to track down an unlicensed shooter that’s almost impossible to find? And then, why spend time with such low-level gaming when I could be getting raped again and again by stuff like Gradius III? I don’t need to answer either question. The answers are obvious, and those who value both collecting and gaming in equal measure will know what I mean.

Gamtec was historically more active in the 16-bit scene, but the company at least managed to deliver this single shmup for the Famicom. I have already come across lots of confusion regarding its actual name, with many sources pointing that it was somehow related to Raiden. Of course Thunderbolt II – or Thunderbolt Fighting Plane, as shown in the game’s start screen – has nothing to do with Seibu Kaihatsu’s classic. It doesn’t even bear any resemblance with Thunderbolt II for the Mega Drive, which supposedly came out a couple of years later and uses the same artwork for box and cartridge. I say “supposedly” because the back of the Famicom box shows screenshots from the Mega Drive version.

Don't try to find where bullets are coming from

Shady connections with the Mega Drive counterpart aside, the gameplay in the 8-bit version is actually very similar to another Gamtec shooter: pacing and frame rate, particularly, seem to have been based on the same mold that gave birth to Magic Girl. Poor frame rate combined with poor hit detection is the biggest culprit of Thunderbolt II’s lackluster nature, and pretty much crushes any good impression that might come from the game's few but cool graphical effects, namely the smart bomb explosions and the wavy graphics preceding some boss fights. Well, in an extremely far-fetched comparison you could also say that the first boss might be mistaken as something straight out of Recca.

Anyway, the game comes with a quick intro showing an alien attack on Earth. The cannon-looking spaceship darts into outer space armed with a single weapon fired by button A (autofire enabled by default). By shooting a characteristic carrier colored power-up items are released and descend slowly across the screen. Take them in order to switch/upgrade your weapon: blue (default shot that evolves into a 5-way Star Soldier style pattern), brown (cross-shaped 4-way shot when maxed out), green (3-way forward laser at max power) and yellow (6-way shot at max power). Take the same color in order to power up the weapon, and once it's maxed out watch as all same-colored items create a big explosion that works as a screen-clearing bomb. Finally, a flashing power-up works as a smart bomb regardless of the weapon used or its current level.

Getting hit powers down the weapon in one level, and if the ship is hit in its lowest condition the player dies. Since it takes three items to max out firepower and start taking advantage of the smart bombs, three hits is also the amount of damage you can withstand from a maxed out condition before dying. This leads to an interesting survival mechanic, where taking two equal items of a different color guarantees a little extra health if you feel threatened at the lowest power level. Auxiliary weapons appear in the form of homing shots (M) or rotating options (R), both with two levels of power. Homing is good to destroy stray enemies but lacks the protection provided by options against regular bullets, and both are also downgraded when you get hit.

A full-blown bolt of thunder
(courtesy of YouTube user MrTrizeal)

In total, Thunderbolt II boasts an overwhelmingly disappointing amount of three stages. The themes are outer space, forest/city/ocean and desert, with enemies spawning from all sides in formations ranging from naive to schizophrenic. Of all the wrongs in the game, some of the most annoying are bullets coming out of nowhere (!) and bosses spitting nearly unavoidable attacks aggravated by the awful frame rate. Sometimes power-ups get stuck on the top of the screen or change colors without notice. Even the abysmal music slows down when things get too hectic or too heavy for the Famicom to handle, as in the fight against the first boss.

Don’t try to look for any score display during the game itself, it only shows up for a few seconds after you beat the boss. I can’t even tell how the extend routine works! Suffice it to say you earn lots of lives, which is good for when you need to face the cheap attacks of the third and last boss. Fortunately you’re allowed to pause and take note of your final score once he dies and the three-panel ending starts cycling forever (see below).


Note for collectors: I doubt the original box was supposed to house anything more than the cartridge, so I assume the game never had any manual. Despite its Taiwanese origin, the text on back of the box is all written in Japanese.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Thunder Force III (Mega Drive)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1990


Even though the Mega Drive was already out since at least 1988 in Japan, it would still take the right games to finally cement its aura as one of the definitive video game machines in the console market. As a launch title Thunder Force II was decent enough to hold the attention of shooter fans, but it didn't quite represent the leap forward most people expected. On the grand scheme of things for Sega Thunder Force III might not be in the same league of a title like Sonic the Hedgehog, but I am pretty sure those who appreciated shmups back then were nothing less than blown away when they laid eyes on the game for the first time. To keep it simple, it was the first shooter to really showcase the true potential of the 16-bit generation.

Part of this success is certainly related to the changes made by Technosoft for the continuation of the series. Gone are the forced multidirectional stages of Thunder Force II, for example. Now it’s all about horizontal shooting, with a complete weapons overhaul and a very welcome speed selection feature. Crowned by polished presentation, sleek visuals and an outstanding soundtrack, the experience comes out as nearly flawless (voices are still scratchy but that's obviously irrelevant). Most impressive is the absolute lack of slowdown, no matter how busy the screen gets with multiple parallax and background layers. If you think that’s an overstatement, perhaps you might want to consider the fact that Thunder Force III is also one of the very rare instances of a console shooter giving birth to an arcade title.

A credit starts by choosing one of five planets to tackle first: Hydra, Gorgon, Seiren, Haides and Ellis. Once all of them are pacified you move onto Cerberus, the evil spaceship that guards the heart of the Orn empire. Every planet has its own particular setting and is preceded by a panel showing basic information on the boss to be defeated, such as its name and weak point. The way the music overflows from the panels into the levels themselves is a stroke of genius in establishing atmosphere, and I’m pretty sure many people regard levels Hydra and Gorgon as iconic staples of the series (not to mention the genre). I know there might be some inherent nostalgia when I say this, but in my eyes Hydra is synonym with the Thunder Force brand. Also note how the music volume is pumped up a notch whenever Gorgon starts against those awesome flaming backgrounds. It’s just so simple and yet so fulfilling.


The caves of Haides
(courtesy of YouTube user kamaji75)

Hydra and Gorgon being the highlights doesn’t mean the rest of the game is devoid of great moments. After all, variety is to be seen everywhere. The scrolling speed picks up every now and then, walls move up and down trying to crush the player in the Haides stage, water currents throw the ship upwards in planet Seiren and there’s a constant need to shoot ice blocks in order to clear the way in the diagonal scrolling parts of Ellis. I still remember the first time I saw the jaw-droppingly bright, beautiful waterfalls appearing in the final sections of Haides. The only negative thing I can say about the stage design in Thunder Force III is this: everything is so exquisitely put together in these five initial stages that the rest of the game fails to keep the same level of awesomeness. There’s nothing basically wrong with the final stages, but they somehow lack the punch of the planet levels. The huge spaceship approach looks too clean and is too easy, whereas the whole enemy base sounds a little repetitive. At least the bosses are sort of redeeming, which kinda compensates some of the pushovers from the starting levels.

Button A switches flying speed between four predefined settings, while button C switches the weapon type that’s fired by button B. In line with what makes shmups such a delight to play, these three simple inputs are more than enough to provide the gameplay with a high degree of flexibility and strategy. The bare ship is endowed with two basic weapons, the twin shot (forward vulcan) and the back fire (shoots backwards). All other weapons, including enhancements to the basic two, are acquired by hitting a small carrier and taking the released icons. The first and most important icon to get is the claw, which creates two permanent rotating options around the ship and strongly amplifies its firepower. Weapon items include sever (red S: upgrades twin shot with lasers), lancer (L: upgrades back fire), wave (W), fire (F: drops surface-crawling missiles above and below the ship) and hunter (H, weaker bubbles that target everything anywhere on the screen). This is also the order in which weapons are cycled by pressing C (twin shot → back fire → wave → fire → hunter).

Just as precious as the claw is the shield (blue S), an item that grants protection against three hits – when the protection level is down to the last hit the color of the shield shifts from blue to red. Sometimes you don’t need to count with shields to protect the ship because claws are also capable of absorbing regular enemy bullets. Lastly, icons for extra lives can be found in specific places, most of them requiring a swift or careful maneuver to be taken.

Dying causes the player to lose the weapon he/she is currently using (the only ones that will remain, although in their default conditions, is twin shot and back fire). However, when the game is played in higher difficulties all weapons are lost and you’re back to the default firepower. Choosing difficulties, remapping buttons and tweaking other aspects of the game is accomplished by pressing A, B or C + START during the start screen. Speaking of which, it feels natural for everybody to move to higher difficulties because Thunder Force III is a very easy game on the default setting (Normal). The reason for this is that besides the occasional 1UP items the game distributes score-based extends like lollipops on children's day, making it easy to amass over 20 lives by the end of it on a well-played credit. I didn’t even bother to check the exact extend rate to write this text.

After failing to qualify for Darius, King Fish decided to overtake Seiren

A lower challenge level at least makes this game a perfect fit for people who are new to the genre, but there are other factors that also make Thunder Force III a very good introductory shmup. Although seemingly straightforward, the scoring system comes with a shiny carrot at the end of the stick in the form of multiple bonuses when you beat the game. Each remaining life is rewarded with 10.000 points, each remaining credit is worth 50.000 points (so in a 1CC run you get an extra 350K) and each difficulty setting applies a different multiplier to the overall score. On Normal the multiplier is ×1, while on Mania (Very Hard) it’s ×5. And there you have it: if you want to score higher you need to face more hazards, more enemies, more (and faster) bullets and more aggressive bosses. Milking in Thunder Force III is possible, but only in certain areas and for a very short period. You’ll get nowhere by trying to milk minions thrown by bosses (they’re not worth anything), so the bulk of higher scores really comes from final bonuses + choice of difficulty.

Good games age like good wine and this one is no exception. I know of many people who consider it even superior to Thunder Force IV, which is often listed as the best Mega Drive shooter, and I can’t really argue with that because this game is really that impressive. In a sense it was decidedly more influential than the direct sequel, as seen by the release of Thunder Force AC in the arcades and the secondary port for the SNES called Thunder Spirits. How do they compare to the original? I hope to check them out soon for the first time, as I never touched either one before. :)

My efforts were successful and resulted in the following final score. I played on Mania and 1-lifed the game starting on Hydra, achieving an improvement of 26% over my previous best mark.