Thursday, October 20, 2016

Robo Aleste (Sega CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
11 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Published by Tengen in 1993

Going through the cronology of the Aleste series can be very confusing. Born on the MSX and the Master System, it never really followed a naming standard in the sequels. However, it's possible to recognize a legitimate entry in the series by checking out the core gameplay, which stays the same despite the change in identity and theme across some of its chapters. Both games released for the Mega Drive, for example, represent a remarkable departure from the original spaceship motif since they adopt a strong steampunk mechanized influence. The first one, MUSHA (or MUSHA Aleste), is still regarded as one of the best shmups on the system, but what of its sequel Robo Aleste, also named Dennin Aleste in Japan?

Storywise Robo Aleste has little in common with MUSHA. The long intro shows how a feudal rivalry in ancient Japan gets altered when a giant mecha called Aleste falls in the hands of a particular clan. The game mixes that with a dispute involving brothers on opposite sides of the fight, fleshing it out with further cut scenes and providing some depth for those who enjoy this particular aspect of the game design. Of course all the intermissions with full English narration (most of it quite wooden) and the excellent CD soundtrack are there to showcase the capabilities of the Sega CD add-on. Fortunately for us shmup fans, the game itself is in every way a step-up above MUSHA since it's equally intense yet more dynamic, visually more polished and a good notch harder.

As a whole Robo Aleste is excellent, and just like MUSHA it never slows down or breaks up graphically. The visual bit I like the most is the new look of the flying robot. It's sleek and elegant, and doesn't remind me of a beetle this time around.

Robo Aleste's ambitious intro
(courtesy of YouTube user SegaCDUniverse)

At its default power level, Aleste fires only two streams of the straight kunai shot with button B. In order to increase its power and reach you need to collect "power" chips brought by waves of harmless carriers that enter the screen in Galaga-like fashion. Another type of friendly carrier brings a colored power-up that activates Aleste's shoulder attachments and provide the bulk of the firepower you'll need to get through the game. These weapons are coded in green (spread of shuriken-shaped shots), yellow (attachments rotate and home on nearby enemies/bullets), blue (pulsating lasers) and orange (exploding cluster bombs). To increase their firepower it's necessary to keep collecting the same item without switching to a different one.

Whenever a weapon icon is released it floats slowly towards the bottom of the screen, bounces and disappears on the top. Note that all of their carriers are preceded by a bird-like scout that zaps across the screen and indicates the side they're coming from, which is important for when you need to avoid an unwanted power-up. Button C allows you to toggle between eight settings of flying speed, while button A is used to quickly charge and send forward the shoulder attachments of the robot, a move that has no connection to any weapon and can be done at any time but rarely finds any practical purpose.

By sticking to a tight gameplay style and a cohesive enemy gallery, Robo Aleste delivers a great mix of challenge and fun. The most important departure from MUSHA is the 1-hit death, which sets you back a little on the straight shot but completely resets the firepower of the main weapon. At least the enemy aggression cuts off a little since rank is reduced upon death. Oh yes, this is a Compile shooter with rank!

Granted, Robo Aleste is never utterly hard, but it won't for any second allow players to rest their senses. Some levels seem easier than others, only to take you by surprise and eat away a few lives because you blinked. Blame it on the lightly colored bullet sprite, the inefficiency of some weapons (green and yellow aren't to be trusted, the first one because it's weak and the second because it refuses to work at times) and the unpredictable recharging routine of some bosses (there are several of them that shoot treacherous lonely bullets that often catch you off guard). Bosses can also be very deceiving since some of them will give in really fast, only to put up a longer fight on the next credit. Now for a deceiving trait: at first it took me a while to notice that normal bullets can be wiped out by Aleste's firepower, but that's not really something you can count on. When things heat up and enemy bullets get faster it's not uncommon to be shot in the face and die horribly. For what it's worth the two shoulder attachments can also block bullets, but it's very risky to rely on that when moving around and dodging stuff.

"In the name of Lord Nobunaga!"

Even with the quirks I pointed out in the previous paragraph this game is still in my opinion one of the highlights of the 16-bit shmup era. It's longer than the usual console shooter, has good pacing, shows lovely variety from start to finish and is really fun once you get the hang of it. Speaking about pace, the third stage does get criticized often for being a long stretch where you slowly dismantle a gigantic train over a snowy terrain. Indeed it's a long and easy section that's typical of Compile, but it's also full of waves of power chips that try to divert the player's attention (try dying there to see what happens). As for power-ups, I love when the weapon that spits little bombs all over the screen gets maxed out, it's really cool and can even surpass the laser in brute force if you manage to corner an enemy with it.

The only thing players need to know about the scoring system in Robo Aleste is that everything you can destroy or collect is worth something. As for survival, attention as you go around obstacles is important because lives can be lost if you get crushed by the scrolling effect. There are four score-based extends in total, gained at 100 thousand, 500 thousand, 1 million and 10 million points. After the credit is over continues can be activated from the start screen. Unfortunately the Omake options that appear when the game is beaten do not work on the US disc, and just freeze the game if you try to see what they do.

Robo Aleste is officially the last game in the Aleste series (Super Aleste / Space Megaforce came a year before on the SNES), and as such is one of the best signature mecha shmups from Compile. It's a bit unfortunate the company didn't continue investing in this particular branch, as it would've been really interesting to see new iterations of mecha Aleste games for 32-bit video game systems. Maybe there was a plan that got scraped later, considering how unfulfilling the ending to Robo Aleste feels, but alas... We do get to see an unexpected influence from R-Type in the final moments of the game though, which is very cool (the baby aliens creeping in from all sides in the alternate dimension).

While revisiting the game I was able to boost my previous 1CC score just a little bit on Normal difficulty. I had a great time doing it and here's the final result:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rayxanber III (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Data West
Published by Data West
in 1992

The Rayxanber series was never popular back in the 90s. I guess it was never supposed to be since the first game came out on an obscure system and the second one scared the shit out of people who had trouble coping with its high difficulty. Both games essentially followed the same rulebook, down to the last detail of the gameplay, but for the third chapter developer Data West decided to implement something different. The result is that while still remaining faithful to the style originated on the FM Towns, Rayxanber III changes the formula a little bit and by doing so delivers an experience that's much more approachable challengewise. The R-Type school of horizontal shooting still remains as the main source of inspiration though.

War rages on against the organic armada of the Zoul empire. The player must board the cockpit of one of the resistance's spaceships, in a final and desperate attempt to save the universe. Your weapons arsenal is fired with button II, whereas button I triggers the series' trademark dash move. Watch as the upper bar in the HUD indicates the energy used while dashing, if it enters the red area it means the engine has overheated and you must wait a little to use the dash again. Not that it matters much anyway, but dashing is the only unaltered aspect of the classic Rayxanber gameplay and just like before successive dashing is rarely needed.

The adventure starts with the departure from the mothership, and as you fly around to defend it you have a nice opportunity to get to know the new weapons.

Hard caves

When the carrier ship is destroyed it releases a weapon item that has a moving dial inside. This dial affects the way the weapon behaves, so according to its orientation the ship will fire in a particular direction/way. Green activates a bubble shot that's very powerful despite its slow speed, yellow corresponds to a continuous series of laser shots and red generates a couple of thick flame bursts above and below the ship. A little experimentation is certainly needed to get a grasp of which weapon works best in every situation, especially on boss fights, but the important thing to have in mind is that there isn't really any useless choice. Of course the reach of the red flame is the only glaring limitation when compared to the other weapons.

The greatest departure from the gameplay in the previous chapters is in the charge shot. Instead of being associated with the current weapon, in Rayxanber III it's automatically charged as you keep the firing button pressed even if you're only equipped with the default pea shot. When the lower charge bar gets yellow you're ready to unleash it, so just let go of the firing button and watch as a pair of missiles gets shot forward. Press the button again and these missiles will explode in a batch of homing missiles that will fetch everything that takes damage anywhere on the screen, even behind most walls. Granted, in the heat of the battle 99% of the time I was just tapping the shot button to release the homing missiles and recharge them.

When you take out the need to stop shooting to charge a stronger attack, the gameplay certainly becomes more dynamic. I consider this to be a clear evolution from the previous games in the series. On the other hand, this improvement is not followed by a proportional adjustment in difficulty. If it weren't for the overall theme and gameplay, you couldn't really tell Rayxanber III is part of the same series that has such demading horis as Rayxanber and Rayxanber II. It is a lot easier than the others and in that regard it's an inevitable disappointment (or not). You come to it expecting some sort of memorizing hurdle and it has none, which of course is excellent news for those who crave lighter challenges.

The Zoul empire must fall
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

On graphical and musical merits, I also think Rayxanber III isn't on par with the rest of the series. There are no voices for weapons anymore, and in my opinion the music isn't bad but it doesn't engage the same way it did before. Backgrounds are lacking from beginning to end, with black voids everywhere and no additional parallax layers whatsoever. There's a lot of detail in the way caves and walls are conveyed but that's about it, and the abundance of caverns/rocks + too little environment or outer space gives the game a cramped feeling. I might be wrong here, but I wouldn't be surprised to know there was some rush in the publishing process. The absolute lack of polish on the fight against the last boss is an example, something that a close friend compared to the boss fights from Atomic Robo-Kid (no grudge against Robo-Kid, but the boss fights there are an overall design choice instead of a weird, unexpected final showdown).

The worst thing about the last boss is that it allows infinite milking. Destroying all of its turrets and innards nets you more than 50.000 points, which is the amount you need to get an extra life. Talk about a broken scoring system! Milking in other areas of the game is also possible but more time consuming, such as when fighting the gigantic crawling monster at the beginning of stage 3. Speaking of monsters, the second boss is an obvious reference to the big marine creatures from Darius. And following with the trend in the series, there's also a cryptic boss here that won't give in just by hopelessly shooting at its core.

Rayxanber III is quick and easy, but I won't deny it's got decent fun factor. If you think the standard difficulty is already too tame, you can always try the maniac option. The main differences are in enemies being more resilient, coming in slightly higher numbers and behaving just a little more aggressively. All other gameplay aspects stay the same. Regardless of how you play the game, the ending gives a very nice closure to the series by showing stills of backgrounds from all stages in Rayxanber and Rayxanber II as you listen to the awesome theme for the very first level of the original chapter.

I just wanted to score more than half a million points, so here's my final 1CC result on Standard/Normal difficulty:

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Excellent 10 [Brenner] (FM Towns)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Team Fiat
Published by Amorphous in 1990

Before shoving the FM Towns Marty back into the box I figured it was a good time to resume exploring the contents of Excellent 10, the compilation released by Amorphous with games exclusively developed with their shmup-making tool Shooting Towns. And true to my initial resolution when I played Beams, the chosen title had to be the next one in alphabetical order.

Even though it shares a lot of aspects with Beams – mainly the poor graphics, the absence of autofire and most of the music – Brenner is of a different breed. With only four levels it barely justifies being called a complete game, yet it doesn't come off as a complete pushover. Difficulty in this case is directly related to the fact that you need to mash button A to survive, and also because Brenner does not hold your hand by granting excessive extends. All you get is an extra life for each defeated boss.

Surrounded by evil fluffy slimy green tennis balls

First of all, we need to make it clear that this is an 8-bit standard game. There's nothing here that could not be done with the same or even better results in an NES, for example, and that seriously hurts the reputation of a 32-bit video game/computer system. Back then it must have been thrilling to finally be able to design your own shmup, but I have already learned that you shouldn't get your hopes up on this system's technical prowess when it comes down to the games developed with the Shooting Towns tool.

That said, Brenner at least delivers something more palatable than Beams. As a simple game that follows a classic mold, players just need to adopt a methodical approach in order to deal with the obstacles and the lack of autofire. Most of the time that weird spaceship that looks like a racing car feels underpowered, especially after dying. The good news is that everything has a fixed behavior and there are no aimed shots at the player, so regardless of how many enemy bullets or fireballs cruise the screen they will always follow the same routine, as will the power-ups released by them. That's the saving grace in a game where button mashing is such a necessity.

The default pea shot can be changed into other weapons according to their respective icons: 2-way (forward + rear shot), 3-way spread, 4-way cross shot, a combination of 3-way and 4-way (best weapon in the game) and the laser (as I mentioned above, the only one with autofire). I don't know what those guys in Team Fiat (the only "developer" in the compilation with a non-Japanese name) were thinking, but the single weapon with native autofire only appears in the second stage. There are no upgrades at all and no advantage is seen by taking successive items of the same type, be it for survival or scoring. Speaking of which, I believe the most difficult part of the plain scoring system is actually reading your score. All fonts in the game are so small they might strain some people's eyes.

From the beginning to the end of Brenner

Although simple, Brenner tries to show a little variety throughout. It starts very outer-spacey, making you fly through a meteor shower and fireballs before facing a series of turrets prior to the boss, then it slowly shifts to a biological theme. In the third stage you'll be surrounded by spores, amoebas and breakable caterpillars. If only the bosses had some minimally interesting design... But no, they're all huge wrecks that bounce around the screen in repetitive patterns. Don't try to move too far up when going around them, the game cuts you off a good stretch before you're able to reach the top of the play area. The final level has no enemies, only a brief escape sequence inspired by the Salamander games.

Note: do not press START once you lose all lives or you'll come back to the start screen. Continues are unlimited but you should always press buttons A or B to restart the level. In order to get back to the OS screen to select a different game you need to reset the console. Whenever you boot one of the games in Excellent 10 on the FM Towns Marty you're given the chance to select between under scan (31,47 kHz) or over scan (15,73 kHz) displays.

My final score for Brenner is below. I managed to beat it on a single life.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Ku2++ (FM Towns)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 / 10 Stages (Comical / Scerious mode)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Panther Software
Published by Panther Software in 1993

The FM Towns was never a mainstream computer, nor was the FM Towns Marty, its equally obscure consolized version. Owning one of them is already proof of how much people are capable of cherishing video game collecting, but going after the games can be an even more challenging quest. With a few exceptions they tend to be rare, expensive and above all not language-friendly (unless we’re talking about shmups, of course). On the far end of the rarity spectrum are games like Ku2++, which are so scarce and collector-protected that only surface on the market when Earth aligns with Saturn and Pluto. I happened to be there when one of these events took place, luck and everything else included since I was even able to bypass the ridiculous price these games command these days.

Released for the Sharp X68000 computer as Ku2, the title was soon ported to the FM Towns as Ku2++, down to the way both games on the disc behave. Wait, two games? Yes, Ku2++ actually comes with two completely different games that besides being verticals have only one aspect in common: the presence of a leeching parasite that flies alongside the player and is able to swallow enemy ships to unleash a devastating attack. Having two games on one disc is probably where the double plus in the title comes from, whereas “KU” is supposed to be the name of the alien leech.

As soon as the disc is booted you must select between Scerious [sic] and Comical mode, a choice that can only be reverted by resetting the console. Scerious mode is your classic sci-fi shooter, complete with an extremely convoluted story fully narrated in English/Engrish. Comical mode, on the other hand, is a cute’em up narrated in Japanese with a foolish, exaggerated kusoge style.

Comical mode: the American dream ends in hamburguer rage over the clouds

The long intro for Scerious mode introduces a character named Wayne Shadowick, the heroic pilot of the XF-33V/U001, an advanced spaceship equipped with two of those leeching maggots that fly beside it all the time. The XF-33V/U001 is the last hope of mankind against an evil alien threat called Soridum, and must travel across eight areas plagued by all sorts of enemies, both mechanical and biological. Button B shoots and button A fires the energy accumulated inside the KUs, which change color when absorbing enemies. A pulsating green tint means they’ve soaked the maximum amount of energy, whose blast upon hitting a target results in a big explosion with a skull figure inside – an obvious nod to Truxton. As expected, triggering the bomb with half-full KUs will result in less powerful blasts.

Prior to starting the credit it’s important to go to the options screen first. Besides turning on autofire, you can also choose from three weapon “packs” to be used in the game, each one allowing the ship to use three different weapons according to the letter-coded power up item that cycles as it leaves the screen. Pack 1 is the default and comes with M (homing missiles), L (laser) and V (spread vulcan). Pack 2 comes with M (multidirectional shot), R (ring shot) and H (straight + homing). Pack 3 consists of R (straight), W (winding spread) and P (bending spread). All weapons can be upgraded twice by collecting the same item successively, with speed-ups providing three additional levels of maneuverability (as seen in the overhead display). There are no shields of any kind, but the good news is that your maggot friends are able to absorb all bullets.

Although relatively quirky and strangely cool on the outside, Scerious mode (by all means the main game in Ku2++) is rather bland when it comes to graphics, and doesn’t flow at the frame rate you’d expect from a 32-bit console. Some weapons send the gameplay into a numb/dazed condition where you can’t fire without being affected by very mild slowdown, in a smaller scale than what can be seen in Thunder Spirits for the SNES (in a weird inversion of the norm when it comes down to shmups, homing weapons induce no such slowdown here). Flicker isn’t a problem, but bullet visibility does become an issue in certain areas. The scoring system is as basic as it gets, and sadly totally wastes the potential provided by the KU gimmick.

Since there are no continues or additional difficulty settings in place, the developer tried to address the challenge spikes by handing out extra lives like candy (one at every 80.000 points). The build-up in challenge is okay until you reach stage 6 (Ancient Temple), the hardest and most dangerous area, where all weapons seem to lack the firepower to deal with both ground and aerial enemies. The game gets more manageable afterwards, but remains quite intense and a lot more demanding in regards to the usage of KUs both for defense and offense. Also beware of walls with blurry borders and turrets that spit bullets right in your face. Throughout the journey dedicated shmup fans will certainly spot influences from other games in the genre: Salamander and Dragon Spirit seem to be the strongest sources of inspiration, but there are also echoes of Raiden and Star Soldier here and there. It’s just a bit disappointing that the result isn’t remarkable in any way whatsoever, except for a few pieces in the synth-based soundtrack. The theme that plays on the Alien Ferociousness level is great, for instance.

A full run of the "Scerious mode" on Ku2++ for the FM Towns

And what about Comical mode? I doubt any serious shmupper will be able to play more than two full credits of this travesty. Blame it on the annoying Japanese narrator and the complete lack of challenge. Comical mode draws a lot from Twin Bee in graphics and overall tone, but the gameplay is just marginally better than Magic Girl on the Mega Drive, frame rate included. Instead of two KUs now there’s only one, following the ship around and swallowing whatever comes across its path. Weapons are restricted to three, a forward shot, spread bombs and a flamethrower, all of them activated and upgraded by collecting the appropriate icon that cycles with speed-ups and bounces around before disappearing.

What makes this mode so easy is the same extend routine of one extra life with every 80.000 points and the additional assortment of 1UPs you’re able to pick up. On top of that, an icon that appears every 30 seconds and looks like a fireball endows the ship with a shield barrier that can withstand a good number of hits. Frankly, if you don’t die by boredom after a while you’ll only know your first death when a few enemies start coming from below at the end of the third stage. Bosses are a joke and might surrender instantly when hit by the KU bomb, which at medium or full power materializes as a giant fly swatter. It’s quite fun to do it, too bad it becomes almost impossible to feed the KU parasite once you get all possible speed-ups. Not that it really matters, but you can adjust the speed of the KU in the options between low/middle/high.

With just five stages, Comical mode offers a bit more in the way of scoring, given the fact that every surplus power-up gives you some extra points. The poor gameplay and the astounding lack of challenge hurt it bad though, and the inability to skip that retarded ending to finally see your score forced me to endure one of the most annoying things ever in a video game. Twice.

Pausing in both games lets you turn autofire OFF/ON (button B) and alter other options that don't work at all (palet STOP/FLASH with button A and wait NORMAL/ZERO with ↑). I don't know what this “palet” thing is, but the ZERO wait function would been nice if it even worked. I suppose these extra switches might have a purpose on a FM Towns computer. The pictures below show my best results on both game modes of Ku2++, with Scerious mode beaten using weapon pack 1.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Star Fox (SNES)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
6/7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nintendo
Published by Nintendo in 1993

At the height of the 16-bit video game wars, both Sega and Nintendo were at full throttle trying to cater to each company’s avid fanbase. With an enhancer chip that allowed the processing of incredible polygonal graphics, Star Fox certainly left its mark in video game history as one of the most impressive punches thrown by Nintendo against the competition. And as a Segaphile myself I was forced to temporarily throw in the towel in order to (happily) enjoy this amazing rail shooter. Later on Sega would bounce back with their own enhancer chip, which produced an equally impressive experience albeit in a different genre with Virtua Racing.

That said, to this day I believe Star Fox (released in Europe as Star Wing) is one of the most immersive video games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. All rail shooters share immersion as a functional trait, but here it reaches a point where graphics, gameplay and music unite in order to create something unique. The only aspect that might look dated today is also what gives the game its undeniable charm: the blocky geometry of obstacles and the aspect of folded paper with which ships and enemies are rendered. The action is intense and supported by a gallery of anthropomorphic characters that interact a lot throughout the journey, in another story of good against evil that can be played across three different paths.

Players take the role of Fox McCloud, the captain of the Star Fox team. Aided by Falco, Peppy and Slippy (an avian creature, a rabbit and a toad, respectively), Fox departs from planet Corneria with the mission to stop an evil villain called Andross in the distant planet Venom. Brief cinematics precede, take over at specific points and give closure to their quest, with lots of style and an awesome sense of scope.

Level 1, the adventure starts in planet Corneria
(courtesy of YouTube user Espaciodejuegos)

When you press start you need to select your control scheme out of 4 options, as well as decide if you want to go straight to the game itself or if you want to play a training course that teaches you how to control the ship (it's always good to practice a little in order to get the hang of how things work when starting out). I've always felt more comfortable with the type A configuration, which works with reverse verticals and has the following inputs: Y = shot, A = bomb, X = brief boost, B = brief brake/deceleration (check the lower right gauge for boost/brake intensity), L/R = tilt left/right (tap quickly to perform barrel rolls). I think this setup is very intuitive and makes great use of the SNES controller.

In Star Fox there are no extra difficulty settings, instead we must decide on which route to play the game. All three start and end on the same planets, occasionally sharing enemies and environments while providing distinct challenges. Level 1 is the easiest and Level 3 is the hardest and longest course with one more stage than the others. All stages share the same structure, with a boss waiting at the end and the possibility to shift between three viewpoints with the SELECT button: standard, approach and cockpit. When in approach the ship is viewed at a closer rear view, whereas cockpit puts you inside it but is only available during outer space levels. Frankly I never use the cockpit view because I like to see my vessel from afar in true rail shooter fashion.

Each life gives the player a shield bar that allows the ship to withstand damage from collisions and enemy bullets, with death only happening when this bar is depleted. The most common pick-up in the item gallery is a revolving ring that refills part of your energy and is often released by killing specific foes. A stationary blue ring not only refills more energy, but also serves as a checkpoint. Then there are the blaster upgrades (first one gives you double shot, second one turns it into a plasma double shot), a shield (three basic hits or less, depending on the density of the obstacle you crush into), extra bombs and extra ship (to get it you need to shoot all three corners of the triangle, which starts to spin once the first one is hit). Bomb usage requires aiming, that's why a bomb that's dropped while the ship is pointing up will be practically wasted. The maximum amount of bombs you can carry at any time is five. If one of the ship's wings gets damaged you'll lose it, and the only way to repair it without losing a life is by collecting a blaster upgrade.

As one of the most impressive rail shooters of its generation, Star Fox flows at an almost perfect pace, scrolling by gracefully while throwing all sorts of obstacles and enemies towards the player. The game conveys depth successfully, and even though textures lack finesse and detail they certainly excel at the use of color and shading. Ship control feels natural and fluid, never mind the few bouts of slowdown here and there. I do love the several rules you need to adhere to in certain stages in order to be successful, such as flying through all the arches to collect an item or going pacifist against the space stingrays of Sector Y (stage 4 in Level 2). There will be times, however, where it’s virtually impossible not to get hit, and while trying to find the best path to dodge things you’ll often rely on pure luck to get through. The worst passage is the storm of stray bars prior to the 4th boss in Level/course 3.

You'll depart from Corneria late in the day if you choose to play course 3

Star Fox has a lot going on with regards to gameplay, but the interactions between protagonist Fox and his wingmen surely add a special flavor to the action. Each pilot has his own life bar, and once this bar is depleted the character is also gone for good. They tend to cruise the screen while chasing or being chased by an enemy, some will ask for assistance and others will rant against it if you decide to help them. Apparently you can’t damage their ships when you hit them by accident, so fire away even if they decide to obnoxiously stand in the way (this happens often). Not that the scoring system here is deep and gets hurt by it, but having a wingman die is detrimental to the stage completion percentage because the few enemies they chase will be missing from the tallying.

There's no actual score display for Star Fox in the common sense. Score is based on destruction ratio and maxes out at 10.000 points per level, which corresponds to 100% completion. So theoretically the highest achievable score is 70.000 points in Level 3. Extra credits are gained with 10K, 30K and 50K, and definitely help a lot when you're learning how to approach the later stages. Speaking of which, the briefing message from the captain prior to each mission might give important clues about what to do to succeed, so don't be hasty and read them at least once. Boss battles are often intense, diverse and fun, with a few exceptions where hit detection becomes an issue (stage 3-6). Beyond the basics there are still two hidden areas accessed at stages 1-2 (Black Hole) or 3-2 (Out of This Dimension), but they work more as easter egg novelties than anything.

Of all aspects of this incredibly fun game, my favorite one is probably the music. It's a magnificent work of art, full of pumping, atmospheric and eerie compositions that put to shame most sci-fi film soundtracks. There are those who seem to dislike Star Fox for its supposedly slow frame rate, but they forget to analyze that everything about the game works incredibly well thanks to the way the control scheme works. In my humble opinion it took the foundations of this subgenre and infused it with pure awesomeness, to the point where many people still consider it the best game in a series that also saw entries for the Nintendo 64, the GameCube and the Nintendo DS. Others insist on comparing Star Fox to Silpheed, ignoring the fact that the gameplay of both titles is vastly different from each other (the only thing they have in common is the use of polygons).

I don't remember if I actually did it back in the day, but this time I 1CCed all three courses in Star Fox. Level 1 is indeed an easy ride, I don't think I ever boosted or braked the ship there, but boosting and braking are of utmost importance in Levels 2 and 3. Below is my final result for Level 3 (the game halts at this screen indefinitely until you reset the console).

Note: a special competition cartridge for Star Fox with a heavily tweaked game was released and contains a full fledged scoring system, but that's a whole different story. A direct sequel for the SNES was planned and partially developed, but eventually got canned.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Gokujyou Parodius (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (+1)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1994

The STG division at Konami surely loved the SNES back in the 90s. The company graced Nintendo’s 16-bit platform with solid titles, be it ports or exclusive games, and helped put the competition against Sega’s mighty Mega Drive on fair grounds. A long running Gradius spin-off series, the Parodius games were well-represented in that regard, with three excellent cartridges that shouldn’t be absent in the shelf of any serious aficionado. Coming right after Parodius Da!, Gokujyou Parodius again brings home the workings of those evil wacky penguins while – expectedly so – toning down the difficulty of the arcade original. Which was a good move, I should say.

Awesomeness, in this case, relates to many things, including a welcome approachability towards the structure devised by Konami for Gokujyou Parodius, released only in Japan and in Europe as Fantastic Journey. Not only do we have a spaceship level that appears randomly throughout the game (and isn’t completely seen unless you don’t die in it), but players who beat the final boss are also faced with a Special Stage right after the credits, an ingenious carrot placed by the developer in order to lure those who’re brave enough into pursuing an extra achievement. This Special Stage serves its purpose as a worthy substitute for the loop in a game that doesn’t loop by default, while at the same time presenting reasonable challenge on the SNES port (for mortal gamers like me, in the arcade original it just feels impossible).

Modern Times for Takosuke and his companions

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Unless you’re a total beginner in this genre or you’ve been living in an alternate dimension where Konami doesn’t exist, you certainly know what Parodius games are about. At their core they’re mocking everything about the Gradius franchise, from ships to iconic characters and stages. It borrows the main gameplay rules for power-ups, meaning you have the same weapon array and the same capsule collecting scheme where players activate the desired upgrade by pressing a button whenever the upgrade is lit in the weapon array. A third button (after shot/missile and power-up) is responsible for triggering the stored effect of a blue or brown/red colored bell, a trait inherited from the Twin Bee franchise.

What started out as a franchise mockery, however, begins to evolve into something unique in Gokujyou Parodius when you pay close attention to the game. The character roster, for instance, expands far beyond the idea of an avatar with trailing options, while elements from other games/developers also show up in the design, with rather obvious nods to classics like Xevious, Galaga, R-Type and Darius. It’s the epitome of a warped homage, blended in a surreal adventure that becomes even more diverse depending on the selected character, in a sequel that’s shorter but slightly wackier than predecessor Parodius Da!.

Regular upgrades such as missiles, double, laser and options will be very familiar if you know Gradius well and choose Vic Viper/Lord British, Pentaro/Hanako or Takosuke/Belial (P1/P2), but might display completely different behavior with characters like Koitsu/Aitsu, Mambo/Samba and Michael/Gabriel. Unlike the arcade version, which pretty much requires players to go with Koitsu in order to beat it, the same does not apply in the port so it’s a lot more fun to test out different characters here. And as usual for console ports developed and released by Konami, the company gave the game a special touch by adding three new characters to the roster: Goemon/Ebisumaru, Upa/Rupa and Dracula-kun/Kid Dracula. All these characters have new powers that are loosely based on other Konami games.

Besides some cosmetic tinkerings, this port of Gokujyou Parodius differs functionally from the original by having mandatory checkpoints regardless of the selected power-up scheme: in MANUAL all upgrades are up to the player, in AUTO the game automatically applies the upgrades except for roulette items, those "contaminated" capsules that make the weapon array go crazy and require the player to choose one upgrade to cut out of the quick cycling. One of the reasons why AUTO doesn't eliminate checkpoints as in the arcade game is that the port only allows alternated multiplayer, ditching the ability to play simultaneously with a friend.

Intro of Gokujyou Parodius on the SNES
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Players earn extra lives starting at 20.000 points and at every 100.000 points afterwards, in an extremely generous extend scheme. Since checkpoints aren’t that taxing, these extra lives are great for those who like to exploit them for scoring, in particular the very last checkpoint of the Special Stage (score extends are absent after the end credits). There are lots of bells to be collected there more than in any other part of the game, and here’s a brief recap of how they work: yellow bells are the norm and evolve in value from 500 to 10.000 points if you don't let any fall to the left of the screen. By shooting them a certain number of times they cycle colors that provide special abilities: blue (powerful single bomb), green (instantaneous inflation + invincibility), white (instantaneous activation of a powerful shot with random messages in kanji), brown/red (three vertical energy bars) and purple (turn all popcorn enemies into power-ups/bells at once).

Compared to the arcade original, Gokujyou Parodius is a lot lighter in difficulty and doesn’t bear the same rage-inducing factor that comes with an evil rank system. Rank is still there but is much less aggressive, and only really hits if you max out power and decide to activate the shield (having many lives in stock will also increase enemy bullet count/speed). This port relates to the arcade version kinda like Gradius III does to its source, even though Goku Paro is more faithful overall and merely reduces the scope of everything for the SNES processor to cope with the mayhem. Nevertheless slowdown kicks in heavily in certain parts, such as the candy stage and the octopus flocks of the Special Stage. Flicker can be a minor problem in a few areas, all of them happening when those ring-shaped shots overlap with regular bullets and enemies.

When a game is this fun and so exquisitely crafted, it's always great to try it with as many characters as possible. Maybe in the future I'll venture into that, but for now I'm satisfied with clearing it completely, Special Stage included, with Dracula-kun at full default settings (difficulty 4, autoshot ON, roulette ON, revival OFF, 1 loop end) on AUTO power-up mode. The final score is shown below.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Daisenpu (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nec Avenue / Toaplan
Published by Nec Avenue
in 1990

Daisenpu, also spelled as Daisenpuu or DaisenpÅ« and known in the West as Twin Hawk, received its second home port in the end of 1990 for the PC Engine, just a little after the Mega Drive version came out in Japan. For what it's worth, I could say Nec Avenue did a good job at bringing one of the most run-of-the-mill Toaplan arcade shooters to the console format. Despite the shortcomings, the essence of the game - which wasn't that exciting to begin with - was kept intact. I guess that's ok for a title that shouldn’t get anyone’s shmup heart pumping with anticipation.

Compared to the Mega Drive port, Daisenpu for the PC Engine packs a lighter punch and loses on all technical fronts except maybe for color. Graphics aren't as sharp and, strangely enough, the sound job ranges from atrocious to decent: the theme of the first stage feels so scratchy amidst the sound effects that it seems to be coming from rotten speakers, yet the music in the second half of the game certainly lends the expected ambience for some methodical shooting action.

Wait, methodical in a vertical shmup? Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but the game is slow and adopts very strict design choices.

Good luck!

The most interesting thing about Daisenpu is the complete absence of aerial enemy warfare, which is even weirder when you consider the pseudo World War theme of the game. The whole enemy gallery consists of tanks of all sizes and firepower, and when tanks are not there they're replaced by boats/ships. Button II shoots and button I provides the gimmick: when pressed once, it brings up a squadron of six helper planes that hover in place and shoot alongside you. Each auxiliary plane goes down when shot, automatically plummeting against the closest enemy. There are also further actions you can take: a second press of the button sends all surviving planes forward in a kamikaze attack, and upon calling the squadron if you quickly tap the button twice the result will be a bomb blast that does lots of damage and blocks enemy bullets.

In order to enjoy the game players absolutely need to accept two things. The first one the absence of autofire, a hindrance that can fortunately be bypassed with a simple turbo controller. The second one is the sluggish speed of the airplane, which definitely demands some getting used to. Combine that with an elusive hitbox and soon you’ll notice why most deaths seem to be unfair. Daisenpu on the PC Engine, however, doesn’t really get taxing enough to grate players, especially when you figure out all enemy shots are aimed and enemy reloading routines are somewhat gentle. In the end it might even be possible to travel a good portion of the game with some support planes doing your job for you merely by herding bullets in smart angles in order to keep them alive. Of course this is also possible in the other versions of the game, but here the resistance is a tad tamer.

Even though there is no explicit separation between levels, every time the music changes we’re supposed to consider a new stage is beginning. There are four in total, marked by a negligible progressive difficulty and little in the way of information to the player. You can only see the current stock for lives and support squadrons, and unless you die there’s no way to check your score. A distinctive sound indicates you have just earned an extend, a reward that’s supposed to come with 70.000 points and at every 200.000 points afterwards.

Title screen and attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Power-ups and items are randomly released by colored trucks and boats. This randomness is kinda puzzling since these trucks/boats will sometimes appear in green and give you no items at all, disappearing with a high-pitched whiff-like sound. There are times when you get straight P icons (orange) and quickly reach the maxed out 8-shot stream, other times you’ll reach the big tanks with only one upgrade. When you don’t get the green trucks Ps are naturally the most common pick-ups you’ll come across, but there are also 1UPs (blue) and extra support squadrons (white).

Most of the time I played Daisenpu I was on booze, so at least I can blame something for the feeling of numbness that the game certainly carries. Unfortunately chances are it wouldn’t be any different had I been sober all the time, that’s why I won’t urge anyone to go and play it with great expectations. For those who’re in the mood for slow-paced action, have a serious gripe against tanks, boats and turrets or don’t mind a humble shooter with limited offerings then Daisenpu might just cut it. Note: a hidden screen resolution that mimics the arcade experience can be activated by holding button I while turning on the console.

My final attempt ended in the score below, 4th stage of the second loop on Normal. I had to be quick to get the picture because you’ll never see that score display again once the continue countdown is over. As for differences in the loop, the only thing I could notice is a slight increase in bullet speed. An extra iteration of the game, called Daisenpu Custom, was released for the PC Engine CD in 1991. I expect to try it in the near future.