Friday, April 18, 2014

Galaxy Force II Neo Classic (Playstation 2)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed variable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega / M2
Published by Sega in 2007

Rail shooters are intriguing. They seem to be impossible, but at their core they're probably some of the most pure practice-based shooters. Take Galaxy Force II, for example. I have always heard about the game but never really had any contact with it (apart from very sparse shots at the Mega Drive version) until a few weeks ago. My first impression as I tried it was “how the heck is anyone able to sustain the necessary fuel levels to succeed in this?”. As intimidating as it was in the beginning, practice and careful observation eventually allowed me to conquer the 1CC, and I finally understood what Sega tried to accomplish with this game. As far as the philosophy behind arcade machines go, Galaxy Force II is probably the king of all rail shooters.

I don’t mean to say it’s the best of its kind, even though it came out as the definitive improvement of the sprite scaling technology pioneered by Sega itself in Space Harrier, but as a quarter muncher Galaxy Force II must have been unbeatable. The reason for this is that the game forces the player to abide by completely different rules than those we’re used to, such as: forget the concept of “lives”; don’t even think about laying low so enemies won’t notice you; be aggressive; there isn’t a single second to spare here. From the moment that ship is propelled into space you’re already condemned to a horrible death if you don’t man up and destroy as many enemies as you can, so get ready to race for your life as you struggle to preserve fuel in order to stand a chance at survival.

Built upon the ideas that gave birth to After Burner a few years earlier, Galaxy Force II even mirrored the confusion about differences from the first Galaxy Force game, which existed for just a couple of months and was quickly replaced by its successor, along with two extra levels and general adjustments to the gameplay. On the other hand, both titles lifted many of the restrictions that made After Burner such an excruciatingly difficult challenge by endowing the player with a more generous aiming cursor, unlimited missile ammo and overall better maneuvering capabilities.

Feel the heat of the sun

In its 30th issue, the Japanese Sega Ages 2500 series for the Playstation 2 honored the company’s legacy with Galaxy Force II - Special Extended Edition. This exquisite disc comes with four titles: an arcade-perfect emulation of the original game, the Mega Drive and Master System versions and the all-new Galaxy Force II Neo Classic, which revamps the arcade incarnation with smooth graphics, several visual effects and a higher native resolution that removes the original pixellation. This overhaul is subtle and exclusively aesthetic though, altering nothing at all from the original gameplay (unlike the stand-alone reworkings of After Burner II and Space Harrier, both released as part of the same series). More than any previous semi-competent ports (Saturn, FM Towns), this Special Extended Edition provides a great opportunity to experience Galaxy Force in its most important variations, with fully customizable features and proper save functionality.

An evil menace called The Fourth Empire has been seizing planets for evil deeds. You are a member of the combat force designated to bring peace back to the galaxy, and your mission is to destroy the energy cores in five of these planets before striking the final blow in the heart of the enemy itself. Each planet campaign is comprised of one or two open space sections followed by an infiltration inside a tunnel and ending in the planet’s evil defenseless core. The player is given the option to select the initial planet to be pacified, but in order to gain access to the last stage you’ll need to go through all five planets first. The graphic design varies nicely throughout them and includes a space station, a fiery planet dominated by flaming snakes, a green planet full of organic life, sandstorms amidst rocky formations, a scramble across the clouds and a trippy wormhole leading to the final fortress. The sci-fi atmosphere is remarkable and enriched by an excellent blend of sound effects and music - it's as if you're invading and annihilating a series of death stars all by yourself. Besides, the second stage makes me feel like I’m in one of those suns from the first stage of Gradius II or patrolling parallel sectors of the third level from Salamander.

Controls are simple and responsive: one button is used to shoot, another to fire missiles on locked targets and a third one works as throttling for thrust/speed. Fuel reserve goes down pretty fast after the first take-off, so all pilots are advised to fly as fast as possible in order to preserve it. Replenishing the initial stock of 1.200 fuel points is accomplished by destroying enemies and accumulating an energy bonus that gets cashed in either when you come out of a tunnel inside the level or after you beat the boss. This energy bonus also plays a big part in scoring because it's also cashed in as points when the stage ends.

Controlling speed isn’t something that comes naturally though. The default throttling button in the controller is the right analog stick, and it’s simply awful. You can choose from five predefined control settings (standard, easy, arcade, sega saturn pad, flight stick 2), but none of them worked right for me so I just set R2 as brake. This means the ship flies at full speed all the time, decelerating only when I tap or hold the brake. Lastly, mapping shot and missile to the same button allowed me to fire away and just tap whenever I wanted to shoot my missiles. The only item/upgrade you'll see in the entire game is the hovering attachment that docks over the ship automatically in every level, falling off a while later. Its function is to increase the number of enemies you're allowed to kill with a single lock-on. Getting hit and crashing into enemies and walls not only takes away energy/fuel, but can also slow down the ship considerably. Energy loss gets even more critical as soon as you take enough hits and lose the starting shield ("shield broken" is the message you hear, as pronounced by the same voice that warns you about the turns inside the tunnels).

Attract mode and on-disc full demonstration of Galaxy Force II Neo Classic with FM Towns music
(courtesy of YouTube user Salvatore Forenza)

Of course the game doesn’t come without faults. These are mostly related to the confusing sense of depth inside caves and tunnels, and how you’re easily bumping into them until you manage to memorize the correct position to make the approach. That wormhole part of the last stage is particularly infuriating at first, both in the arcade original or the Neo Classic revision. Adding to this, here are some of the tips I learned in the process of 1CCing the game, also valid for both modes:
  • Even though their placement can vary a little on screen, enemies always spawn in the same order, so memorize optimal routes and best positions for lock-ons;
  • Trust in the locking capacity of your spaceship; sometimes it’s best to just stand still and wait for the enemies to move in;
  • If you’re using brakes for throttle control, one or two taps are enough to reduce speed and make the turns inside the tunnels;
  • Most turns and splitting pathways are of the sharp type, but every once in a while you come across a curve with a wider angle;
  • Just like in a racing game, always try to approach the turn from the outside at mid-level, this way it will also be easier to lock on to any emerging turrets;
  • Always try to move a little when under fire inside the tunnels, so that you don't get hit by the green shots and avoid losing precious time and fuel;
  • Larger enemies are always worth more extra energy;
  • In a few areas reducing speed allows you to lock on to and destroy more enemies;
  • It’s better to avoid spiralling creatures (3rd level) and proximity-activated nets (4th level) completely, so be on the lookout for them and move out of their way;
  • Fly fast, brake only when strictly necessary.

A full credit of Galaxy Force II takes less than 15 minutes, as seen in a replay of a complete run that’s included in the disc. There’s also a really cool feature that allows the player to record his/her own game. Extra display options exist for the Neo Classic variation, which appears in letterboxed widescreen on a CRT but can also be played in real 16:9 or stretched 3:4. Different versions of the soundtrack can be selected, including the eccentric rearranged FT Towns rendition.

My first objective with the Special Extended Edition on the PS2 was to beat the original arcade game. Once I succeeded I went for Neo Classic and got a slightly better 1CC score. As I mentioned above, both “modes” are very much the same, down to the complete absence of continues or any alternatives to practice isolated stages. Don’t be frightened by this if you’re wondering about trying out Galaxy Force II though. The fuel life system is intimidating only in the beginning, and the scrolling speed is considerably more reasonable than in After Burner or Space Harrier. In essence, it’s a quick game that rewards repeated plays with well-earned experience and pure awesomeness.

My best results in each title are in the high score tables below (Galaxy Force II arcade first, Galaxy Force II Neo Classic next). I played on Normal with everything else on defaults (options such as energy timer and shield strength can be tweaked for an easier experience). For more information on the game, I urge everybody to refer to this interview for an excellent insight into M2 and the process of porting the game to newer systems, including the Nintendo 3DS.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Divine Sealing (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Studio Fazzy
Published by Studio Fazzy in 1991

One of the most common things when it comes down to obscure Mega Drive titles, especially shooters, is the widespread pummelling most people like to give to Divine Sealing. Notorious for the inclusion of some really aggressive in-game color choices and a handful of softcore sexual imagery, this unlicensed vertical shmup does have its share of flaws but in the end it's not nearly as bad as most Internet opinions/articles make it out to be. To keep it 16-bit Sega only, look out for Earth Defense or Xenon 2 Megablast for a couple of really bad shmups. Divine Sealing tops both with ease.

If you turn on the console and let it be, the game will remain forever on the screen that displays the title. Once you press start a wall of Japanese text appears, followed by a blue-haired maiden who's about to burst in tears in what seems to be a cry for help. I always wanted to find a proper translation to English, but alas! Since it doesn't seem to exist I have come up with the idea that the player is some sort of Don Juan, to whom all women from the intergalactic federation cling to. He goes from one planet to the next exerting justice on behalf of the ladies, which in turn must grant him a private show whether they like it or not. You see, going by their faces they don't always seem to be willingly doing it.

This is the 3rd boss

What’s left of Diving Sealing when you disregard the hentai stuff? The answer couldn’t be more simple: it’s a very basic shooting game with five stages and a single difficulty level. Only one button (B) is used to fire the ship’s weapon, which gets upgraded whenever you score 10.000 points within the stage itself – points acquired in-between levels for boss kills don’t count. Max power is achieved after four upgrades and resembles the famous 5-way spread of the Star Soldier games, while some enemy patterns definitely indicate that Star Force must have been one of the main sources of inspiration. After all, what we get as gameplay is a very similar scheme of wave after wave of abstract and insect-like creatures entering the screen in predefined formations.

Divine Sealing surely presents some of the worst traits common to unlicensed games, such as bland graphics and bad sound. The people behind it probably wanted to do something different with the aggressive parallax layers you see here and there. However, the problem with it is that some of the graphics underneath the ground layer are so bright and fuzzy that you can’t help but feel overwhelmed in a bad way. The worst moment is when a screen-covering white net overlaps with the parallax laden ravine-like section in stage 3, making it almost impossible to see enemies and bullets. Most of the sound design is equally awkward, with a characteristic high pitched noise you hear when your shot hits an enemy. There's also this horrible stirring sound that's used to convey the invincibility period you get when you die and the ship is respawned. Be careful with those enemies that cross the screen at blazing fast speeds, since you can die by moving into their explosion sprite right after destroying them (rare and weird, but true).

Excluding the slightly excessive speed of the ship, everything else in the gameplay doesn't do anything blatantly wrong. Levels get increasingly cluttered and busy, and when those creatures start coming from the bottom you'll certainly be thankful to the generous amount of extends. They come with the upgrades, meaning you gain an extra life for every 10.000 points. Dying sends the ship back to its default power but you might get lucky and preserve the max power short-range round pattern with the pea shot for a brief while. With the exception of that ugly 4th boss, all bosses follow almost the same naive pattern, moving or teleporting around the screen while spewing aimed bullets from wherever they are. As a result, they're very predictable and easy if the player is constantly on the move.

Hey, I want to see the lady undress!
(courtesy of YouTube user Patrick So)

It’s possible to see a few good aspects in Divine Sealing, but to do it you need to play the game to the end. The initial tone of the music is a strange mixture of cheesy and gloomy, but throughout the stages it changes for the better and ends with a remarkably decent theme in the last level. I’m sure people's overall impressions would be a whole lot better if that BGM had been used in the first stage instead (but then again, it wouldn’t fit the action’s initially lethargic pace). And behold, those crazy bright parallax layers that don't work at the beginning magically "click" prior to the last boss, creating an awesome effect that's borderline 3D without glasses. Too bad it lasts too little and appears too late.

Each side of the cardboard box for Divine Sealing presents a different cover art, and unlike most unlicensed releases it even comes with a proper instruction manual. Its rarity far exceeds its qualities as a shmup though, but from a broader point of view it definitely holds a special place in the history of obscure video games developed for mainstream consoles. Its value or impact might be trivial today, however we need to consider that today's teenagers have absolutely no idea how hard it was back in the 90s to have access to such forbidden material. Can you imagine the excitement of getting your hands on a Mega Drive game with naked chicks back in the day? I bet all kids on the block would’ve felt the same way!

Such was the need for nudity here that the developer completely forgot to also give some love to the scoring system... The last glimpse you’ll ever have of your score appears as you fight the last boss. Once the final strip-tease takes place the screen halts at the ending message and you’re forced to reset to get out there, that’s why the picture below was taken as I was about to dispatch that last monstrosity. I have managed to improve my old high score in 7%.

Note: if it somehow matters for anime and hentai fans out there, the short-haired lady that strips in the final "reward" is the one that seems to be the most pleased to be doing it. Oops!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Caladrius (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
6 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by MOSS
Published by MOSS in 2013

From the remains of what once was Seibu Kaihatsu and following the trail paved by Raiden IV comes Caladrius, MOSS’s first original and bold attempt at a shooting game. The bold part comes from it being a vertical shmup on a standard 4:3 screen ratio (a “vertizontal”), but judging from the game’s further release on arcades and the imminent revision set to grace the PS3 library my guess is that the game must have been a success for MOSS. By default, the extra space in widescreen TVs is used to emphasize the characters, thus giving a push to the game’s story initially presented in a reasonably pleasant animated intro. After a while I almost wished I could understand Japanese, if only to know the exact role of the character I chose to play with.

Gothic and horror elements unite as backdrop to a game where spaceships and bosses are controlled by people with magic powers. The overall tone is medieval, built upon dark shades and inhabited by a mix of fast-moving drones and behemoths with a nasty tendency to fill the screen with bullets. Yet the game isn’t really of the bullet hell type, most probably due to the Raiden heritage. Of course all sorts of bullet patterns are still in order, in this case matched by a finely balanced gameplay based on resource management. Survival and scoring approaches converge around mechanics inspired by old school classics, with a wee bit of fresh tinkering on weapon upgrades and bullet-cancelling. It’s a formula that demands some dedication to be appreciated, but the rewards are surely worth the investment. So don’t get fooled by the brief transition with poorly rendered mountains as the ship darts forward once the first few enemies appear. Caladrius offers no graphical fireworks for its generation, but it gets much better than that.

The more you grow familiar with the characters the more intricate the game becomes for each one of them. Default gameplay inputs consist of normal shot (A), bomb (RT), a "burst" attack (LT) and three "elemental" shots I hereby dub as E1 (X), E2 (Y) and E3 (B). E1 is the most character-specific type of attack, whereas E2 deploys a sort of static energy barrage that stays in place as you move around and E3 provides defense by nullifying most enemy bullets. All of these inputs can be used at any time, but the first catch is that the elemental shots have limited ammo. Check how firing one of them depletes its energy, and how it gets slowly refilled once you stop using it. If an elemental shot is depleted, using it will result in the normal shot while blocking its recovery. If they're all at above a 50% level hit LT to trigger the burst attack, a powerful bullet spray that consumes all their energy and lasts until one of the elemental gauges is depleted. Pressing two elemental shot buttons at once produces the same effect, and frankly this is the only real flaw of the gameplay because it's easy to accidentally do it and ruin a perfectly planned run.

Squeezing the best that Caladrius has to offer is directly related to how elemental shots are used. They’re responsible both for (1) increasing the score multiplier and (2) adding upgrade points – a.k.a. ether chips – to be distributed in between stages. Every enemy or boss part destroyed with an elemental shot adds 0,02 to the multiplier, no matter how large or small, while dying resets the multiplier to 1,00. Elemental shots are also responsible for filling the skill point meter faster (to the left of the HUD): whenever the meter is filled you receive an ether chip to level up any of the three elemental shots after you beat the boss.

I love the taste of ether chips in the morning

In a nutshell, the basic rule for scoring higher is simple: the more you kill using elemental shots the higher you score. Acquiring more upgrade points comes as a natural bonus, but the act of inflicting damage to more powerful enemies (e.g. bosses) with elemental attacks is also a very important factor for faster upgrades. Besides, the gold released by all destroyed enemies also comes in higher numbers when using elemental attacks. Speaking of which, there’s no need to get out of your way to collect gold since it’s always automatically vacuumed into the ship.

Using up elemental shots happens frequently, that’s a fact. Fortunately every stage (except the 4th) has strategically positioned hidden ground crystals that refill all elemental gauges. Hit their secret area to uncover a crystal and collect it before its color starts to fade (the longer you take to collect the crystal the less elemental energy you’ll recover). The location of the crystals is something the player needs to memorize, just like the selected enemies that release purple fragments. Whenever 9 of them are collected the fragment gauge resets and a 1UP descends slowly from the top of the screen. With 36 hidden fragments spread throughout the game, taking them all should add four extra lives to the starting three. On the other hand, extra bombs are obtained simply by scoring or by dying (every death gives you one). Bombs provide instant escape from danger and contribute little to the end-of-stage bonus, so use them whenever needed.

The last basic component of the scoring system of Caladrius is the dormant sol tower. Each stage (except the 4th) has one of these. Hover over the tower for two seconds and watch it rise. The amount of points you acquire by destroying them is random, ranging from 50.000 to 200.000 points. These towers are the first hint of MOSS paying a sweet homage to Namco’s classic Xevious, the other one can be seen in the indestructible spinning walls of the 4th stage.

Since their strengths and weaknesses balance out each other well it might be a little hard to have a character of choice in Caladrius. Each one is related a specific element - Alex Martin (a tomboyish girl) controls fire, Kei Percival controls the wind and Maria-Therese Bloomfeld (a nun) is the master of the earth element. Maria's normal shot has a lot of spread, Kei fires a narrow straight shot and Alex stands in the middle of the spread range. Defensive elemental shots vary greatly in effectiveness: Alex’s spreads like wings at short-range only, while Kei’s projects forward as if it were an energy tongue. There are cases where the normal shot is fired alongside some elemental shots, making it naturally harder to get the desired kills to increase the multiplier (Alex’s and Maria's E2 and E3, Kei’s E2). Remember that the kill shot must be of the elemental kind, or else it won’t count as an addition to the multiplier.

Regardless of the chosen character, if you’re playing for score you’ll be constantly refining strategies, routes and elemental usage. Speed-killing bosses is another element of higher scoring because every time one of their forms is destroyed within a specific time frame (around 30 seconds) you get more gold and more points. It doesn’t matter how you do it (with normal shot, elemental shot, bombs, etc.), what matters is making a fast kill. When pulled off successfully you get a “cut-in” or “shame” break and a quick glance of the boss’s clothes being ripped off. Plus if you manage to no-miss the stage a sexually-charged still of the boss with torn clothes is shown at the bonus tally screen. It isn’t porn, so you don’t need to worry (much) about any stand-by audience.

Maria uses her elemental attack (E3) against the 4th boss

As with all good score-based shooters, risk and reward dictate the feeling you get while learning the intricacies of Caladrius. The game does give you plenty of resources to deal with every enemy, but knowing when it's best to use or to refrain from using an elemental attack only comes with due practice. Bosses are a highlight in the graphical design, tossing all kinds of patterns while moving seamlessly in swift animations from one form to the next. Thank you, MOSS, that's the exact amount of cut scenes and animation I need to have in my shmup.

Game modes include Story (the proper game), Boss Rush and Score Attack (stage-based). For all of them you’re allowed to select the difficulty and to enable/disable dialogue intermissions and damage (bullets won’t harm you) prior to starting the credit. Boss Rush is extremely important for practicing but it’s locked by default, and the only way to unlock it by 1CCing the game with any character (the tip is to play at any difficulty with NO DAMAGE set to ON). Once you've done it, clear the game again with the other characters (continues allowed) by starting the credit in the last stage to unlock hidden character Caladrius, a Phoenix-like entity (let it be known that in a regular game credit feeding won't allow players to see the 6th level). Unlocking Caladrius also allows you to tinker with the characters' powers by choosing whatever elemental shot you want for any of them, thus eliminating much of their inherent weaknesses.

Region-locked to Japanese Xbox 360 consoles, Caladrius was also released in a limited edition containing a soundtrack CD and an art booklet. An art gallery is included in the game as well. Unfortunately there's no functionality for replay saving, just offline and online leaderboards. Two extra characters can be downloaded through the Xbox Marketplace, as well as a rearranged soundtrack. I didn’t bother with neither (hopefully the extra characters will appear in the PS3 version). And the default soundtrack is great, perfectly matched to the graphics. I love the theme and the guitar riffs on the 3rd stage, and how the music often seems to be in synch with the action. By the way, the BGM for the last level reminded me of Giga Wing 2.

Kei Percival with default elemental powers was my chosen character (both Kei and Caladrius move slightly faster than the others). The table below shows my best result with him, 1CCing the game on Normal.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Hana Tahka Daka!? (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1991

What a lovely game this is! Colorful, cheerful and deliciously nonsensical! Sure, I guessed part of this when I tested it a few years ago and came out thinking of Hana Tahka Daka!? as a cute’em up starring a giant flying chicken. In fact, the avatar in the game is a “tengu”: a large creature from the Japanese folklore depicted with human or avian characteristics, often represented in monstrous fashion and above all endowed with a long red nose. So there you have it, I wasn’t completely wrong in my association, but if “flying chicken” sounds too mundane we can always stick to “long-nosed goblin”, which is actually how this relatively unknown game released only in Japan got to be known amongst those who’ve been exposed to it in Western circles.

Even though the tengu of the myth weren’t really benevolent entities, in Hana Tahka Daka!? a fox in distress calls for a tengu’s help in order to get his girlfriend and a stolen sacred scroll back from an evil raccoon. Looking at it this way it’s impossible not to see similarities between this game and Keio Flying Squadron on the Sega CD, which also has an evil raccoon as main villain and even shares much of the same gameplay vibe. Hana, however, has more Japanese culture packed in its design and comes with a softer challenge level. Add the excellent soundtrack to the mix and the result is a sweet shooter that delivers on almost all aspects that matter for a console like the PC Engine.

And that’s not all. More experienced players will recognize lots of things in the influence stew cooked by a very inspired Taito. Konami is the obvious first one (Parodius), but you can also see clear echoes of Irem (R-Type), Namco (Ordyne), Sega (Sonic the Hedgehog) and even pop material from Hollywood. Ever heard of Freddy or Jason?

"Urgh! That's one ugly swollen bellybutton, fella!"

Controlling the long nosed goblin is simple and requires two buttons only. Main shot is fired with button II, special bomb weapon with button I. Hold down main shot and release it after a brief while for a powerful charge blast (check the charge gauge on top). There’s an impressive array of items to be taken from little gift boxes, starting with the meat-on-a-bone that increases the size of the goblin and works as an upgrade for power and health. This means that each of the three goblin sizes has a specific effect on how you’re able to play the game. A large goblin is the most powerful one. Getting hit sends it down to its medium size and removes the ability to use charge enhancers (see below). Another hit shrinks the goblin to its smallest form, downgrading its power to the lowest level and stripping it from all active items or special weapons. Any further hit means death and return to a previous checkpoint where you’ll be respawned with a medium-sized goblin.

Three main kinds of items can be acquired. First there are the special weapons that work as bombs, all of them with limited ammo and fired with button I: lasso bombs (delayed explosion), ball bombs, huge hank balls and anchors. Charge enhancers replace the fully-powered charge shot with more effective functions: three giant spinning tops (top), five-way spread (golden miner), homing birds (bird), sideways crawling streams (dragon). And last but not least we have the functional items: speed-up (green wing), trailing option (little goblins, you can have up to three), rotating orbs (grapes), smart bomb (3-leaf clover), temporary invincibility (golden badge) and score bonus (gold).

Don’t even bother activating turbo fire on Hana Tahka Daka!?, even when you have three options and tapping the button seems to provide better firepower. The game never incurs in wrist pain anyway, and fortunately the charge-based mechanics around which it’s built work quite well, especially when you have one of the charge shot enhancers. Not only does the goblin possess greater destructive charging power, but whenever in this condition a half-full charge blast results in the unenhanced full charge blast. Confusing? I hope not! The result is that it’s always better to use the charge shot with a large goblin. Note: watch how a just-uncovered charge enhancer turns into gold if you get hit before taking it (actually any incoming item that’s somehow useless is turned into gold).

Besides six stages of rather decent length there are also six side quests to be completed. In each level there’s a hidden raccoon that gives access to a parallel room that scrolls in a closed loop, and once inside the objective is to find a special piece of the stolen scroll. That’s no bonus stage at all, since you can still die there and lose all your lives without ever coming out to the regular stage. Secret pieces of the scroll add 10.000 points as a bonus once you beat each boss, but failing to find them doesn’t really affect the rest of the game apart from the ending: there will be no clear view of the stills shown in the final sequence and you'll be denied the end credits (missing pieces appear with a darker color as the goblin puts them in place after beating a boss).

A goblin and his long red nose
(courtesy of YouTube user Jesper Engelbrektsson)

Easygoing is pretty much the definition of how Hana Tahka Dahka!? plays. After all, you’re allowed to touch walls and destroy nearly all enemy bullets. The large hitbox of the big-sized goblin doesn't incur in more difficult maneuvering at all, just beware of getting crushed by the scenery and watch out for cheap hazards in the form of traps, vacuum cleaning witches and hungry whales (getting the goodies inside the traps is possible if you do it very quickly, but overall it’s just not worth the risk). Levels range from mountain landscapes to castles with splitting caverns, skies, railroads, ocean and ice in-between. Secret areas offer other themes such as an upside-down section, a trippy clock-laden cylinder, an ant-infested candy land, a cemetery and an outer space scramble with whacked controls/inertia. Everything oozes with graphical detail, color and sheer creativity. And even though it’s really subtle there’s also some parallax going on almost all of the time.

Normally extra lives are gained with scoring (at 50K, 100K, 200K, 400K points, etc.), but look out for a special item shaped as a pink dinosaur in stage 4. That thing granted me the ludicrous amount of 30 extra lives! How’s that for some extra chances to beat the game? Just remember to suicide right afterwards and take the upper path in order to get the hidden scroll piece. Unfortunately playing the game for score is useless because you can amass any score you want in any secret area if you just refrain from finding the scroll piece. The continue screen is confusing (the active option is the yellow one) and since the game isn’t too long I think the password feature wasn’t really necessary. This password appears on the GAME OVER message and can be entered in the left option at the start screen (middle one starts the game; to the right is difficulty selection and sound test).

Since Hana Tahka Daka!? has no high score buffering of any kind, once again I had to come up with something really clumsy to get the picture below. I beat the game on Normal and collected all six hidden pieces of the scroll, with no milking whatsoever.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Hunt for Red October (NES)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Beam Software
Published by Hi Tech Expressions in 1990

Right before the Cold War ended, a Russian typhoon class nuclear submarine entitled Red October deviated from its exercise course. It headed towards the USA shore, much to the concern of both North American and Russian authorities. What's the real intention of Red October's captain Marko Ramius? The NES game adaptation for The Hunt for Red October uses this same premise, and luckily for us shmuppers it puts the player in Ramius's shoes. Had Jack Ryan (the supposed hero of the movie) been cast as hero in the game I certainly wouldn't be writing about it here. Besides, out of games based off the James Bond franchise, where else would you be able to play as Sir Sean Connery himself, not only imagining him inside the submarine but also controlling an avatar drawn from his likeness?

Okay, the above statement may not be that exciting for some people, given the fact that The Hunt for Red October on the NES is quite a demanding, sometimes punishing experience. It's a shooter very much based on environmental hazards instead of dodging, and on top of that you have limited ammo, as well as many random factors working against you. The pace is predominantly slow and the atmosphere is often claustrophobic, with only a single haunting theme repeated over six levels and replaced by another tense BGM as you control captain Ramius himself in the final platforming stage.

There's a lot of story to this game, starting from the brief intro sequence that describes the same preamble shown in the movie. In between stages the likenesses of Richard Jordan and Joss Ackland interact as the US premier and the Russian embassador, respectively. Does snubbing Alec Baldwin seem weird now, considering he was a hotshot back then? Wait, he wasn't? Anyway, of course the storyline of the game doesn't match the movie, but who cares? We shmuppers prefer to blow up stuff, don't we?

I'm Sean Connery and I command the Red October

Getting comfortable with the large HUD is extremely important in Red October. To the left you have the radar, which shows both the enemies in the vicinity and the nearby items. Next to it is a display for life stock and time left (there's no time limit to complete the level, but any time remaining after beating the boss is converted in bonus points). Next is the score counter and the gauges for armor and power. Armor = health, while power decreases slowly as the sub navigates underwater. Power is needed to fuel the sub's special abilities, and to recover it you need to go to the surface or to take the icon with the radioactive sign (P). To the far right is the ammo display for weapons and special abilitites. First is the stock for torpedoes (horizontal, fired with button A), below it is the stock for missiles (vertical, fired with button B), then the stock for ECM (electronic counter-measure, nulifies enemy fire, activated with A+B) and finally the display of spare time for the caterpillar drive, which allows the submarine to evade enemy sonar systems (activated and deactivated with SELECT).

Ammo for torpedoes and missiles is increased and upgraded by taking the appropriate icons. There are three firepower levels for both: A is the default normal range capability, B improves the weapon range and C adds homing ability. If the stock in a certain upgrade level is depleted you're automatically downgraded to the lower level. The only weapon you can still use if you run out of ammo is the torpedo, although at a reduced firing rate. Using up all others will leave the player without them, that's why you always need to have a sharp eye on the radar. All icons are shown as letters there: torpedo (T), missile (M), power recovery (P, radioactive sign), armor recovery (R, green wrench), 10 extra EMCs (E) and 10 more seconds for the caterpillar drive (C). There are also extra lives to be taken, in the form of parachuting men delivered at surface level. They show up as hearts on the radar and must be taken quickly, before they reach the water.

While there's nothing outstanding about the graphics they at least get the job done, and the dark tones help set the mood for a game marked by constant pressure. Getting used to the controls isn't enough though, you need to be prepared for several random attacks from enemy subs and bombs being dropped by overhead jets. Dealing with falling rocks/shards, moving barriers, intelligent turrets, sniping subs and quick-moving ships is possible with practice, but bosses are particularly tricky. The best advice to beat them is to take advantage of the bult-in autofire and to get aggressive on their weak spots. Sneak into the gap of the 2nd boss and pound away with torpedoes, destroy the ships of the 3rd and 6th stages from right to left at close range with missiles. My nemesis was the 5th boss: defeating him requires you to get inside his dome, find a spot where the approaching subs won't hit you much and pray. Yes, pray that the enemies won't hit you to death.

Of course the "praying" kind of challenge is prone to driving people away from the game. However, it's not that bad once you get better and learn exactly where to get all the extra lives. Besides, on every boss checkpoint you're always given the necessary firepower to try again. And here's a little note on difficulty: when I practiced the game on Nestopia I noticed there are two versions of it. The hardest ROM is the European one, with more obstacles and more random enemies during boss fights. What's weird is that it plays just like my US/NTSC cartridge! It's clear that boss fights are less troublesome in the easy version, so I was thrilled to be playing the harder variation of the game.

Speeding through the first level
(courtesy of YouTube user BoredGamer)

Once you beat six submarine stages it's time to help Ramius in a last mission inside the Red October. It's a rather simple platforming task, with five consecutive rooms where you need to defuse a series of bombs planted by dirty insurgents. Jump with A, shoot in eight directions with B and go from a blinking bomb to the next before the clock on the left of the HUD completes a full round (for each bomb). To defuse a blinking bomb just stand in front of it (funny note: it looks like Mr. Connery is peeing!). If you take too long and one of the bombs explodes you die and get respawned at the entrance of the current room. Dying can also happen if you take too much damage, so watch the health meter on the right side of the HUD. Falling from more than two stories knocks Ramius down briefly and sucks away more health, so don’t count on it to take corners. Above all, be careful not to run out of ammo: once the sixth shot is fired it takes a few seconds for the gun to reload, and if you’re surrounded by enemies it’s most certain they will shoot you to death. That’s why it’s always good thinking to (1) clear all baddies on-screen before moving to the next bomb if you have some spare time and (2) empty the gun every time you’re disabling a bomb. Remember that the clock freezes when you’re peeing on them. :)

Regardless of how you stand before entering the sabotage area in the final level, you’ll always be given 5 lives/attempts to get through all rooms. Jumping on the right platforms and taking some damage is necessary to reach some of the bombs, but in general this final action phase is easier than navigating the waters inside the submarine. The game is still slow and the graphics don’t get any shinier though.

The NES version of The Hunt for Red October is tough, yet manageable with a little patience. There are no continues whatsoever, but a series of in-game codes can be used to alter many gameplay aspects if you so wish (a quick online search will bring them up). If you still feel the game is too hard, well... Submarine Attack on the Master System can certainly provide a much lighter underwater shooting romp.

And below is my 1CC high score for this one. Final note: besides the NES, the Super Nintendo and the Game Boy also received their own games based on the same movie.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Pester (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
20 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Flump Studios
Published by Flump Studios in 2013

One evening prior to another well-deserved vacation the Ms. and I were both trying to recover ourselves from a long, strenuous day. We openened a bottle of fine wine, she went to the kitchen and I thought it was time to try out another XBLIG shooter as we sipped our glasses back and forth. The chosen one was Pester, a name that's also an inside joke that's constantly being made between us. The joke kinda resembles its original meaning in English, but not quite. As for the game, let's say I couldn't beat it on that evening. And it wasn't the wine's fault.

Pester is visually marked by a retro design that comes out as just another cheap attempt at providing a little shooting fun on a platform flooded with similar titles. Graphically following on the footsteps of Flump Studios' previous Super Killer Hornet but leaving the weird math element aside, Pester is instead a straightforward wave-based game with a single combo of background + music, even though you can tweak them at will before the credit starts. That's a nice way to present some variation in a shooter whose core isn't diverse by any means. The inclusion of extra game modes isn't as effective as the ability to choose other music tracks, since most of them aren't as much fun as the main game.

From the starting screen, the Arcade branch leads you to the regular game modes. Classic is where you're supposed to go for a normal credit that starts with 3 lives, but all game modes can be tweaked with the available extra options (more on that later). The gameplay on Classic is relatively simple: shoot with A or RT, bomb with B, activate hyper mode with X once you've collected enough coins to fill up the hyper bar and reduce the ship's speed with LT. This last input aimed at speed control feels really awkward, but unfortunately it's not possible to remap the buttons. Items might appear randomly every time you complete a wave: P increases firepower, S is the speed-up, B is the extra bomb and 1.000 is just a small score bonus. It takes only two Ps to max out your weapon, three Ss to max out speed and it's possible to carry a maximum of three bombs at any given time. Whenever you die firepower is downgraded by one level, but there's no loss on speed or bomb stock.

First boss, wave 5

Bosses will materialize every five waves or so, and after each boss the enemy and bullet count increases considerably. Soon you realize several things. The first one is that Pester is a bullet hell shmup. There's also the weird way hit detection is implemented: your bullets will pierce through everything even though enemies take their own time to die. The feeling of bullet "contact" onto the enemy is non-existent, and damage is only denoted on more powerful foes by quick flashes. This slippery aspect of the gameplay reeks of laziness and definitely takes some getting used to. The absence of a proper art design doesn't bother me as much, but I got awful reactions from a bunch of friends who saw me playing the game. You can't argue with that when all you see are ugly little drones, planes, saucers, meteors and a ridiculous tomato-like boss. Enemy bullets have a lot more flair, seeing that they come in lots of flashy, pulsating flavors.

Speaking of ugly, don't try to look at your ship when it's moving. I don't know what the developer tried to do there, but the fuzzy sprites can induce headaches.

Despite the game's graphic's bare bones nature, I still found myself glued to Pester after a couple of hours - and I say this as a compliment. I wanted to see what was next in the mayhem of bullets, no matter how random the game could get. It can be unnerving to go on and on without a single power-up, and the lack of extends leads to restartitis if you die in early waves. I'm not so fond of speed-ups because later on they screw the necessary micro-dodging, so I avoided them completely. Visibility might be impaired by explosions or even the "wave completed" message, and the screen-clearing explosion upon death is deceiving. There's no breathing window of any kind for the ship itself, and in later stages many credits can be lost in a snap if you don't focus hard enough.

If you're still able to accept the game as it is, Pester offers a pseudo-competent rush in its hyper mechanics and in the intense dodging required after the 10th wave. One would assume that using hypers should boost scoring somehow, but that's not what happens. In the end it becomes an aid for survival more than anything. Crowd control is very important because it's easy to die by colliding against an enemy that quickly drifts towards your hitbox, or from a bullet fired almost off-screen by one of those bigger ships that cross the screen vertically. Speaking of which, the hitbox is shown in the center of any of the three available ships, which behave the same way regardless of their sprites.

Pester's first trailer
(courtesy of developer and YouTube user FlumpStudiosUK)

Other modes in the Arcade branch include Survival (1 life, starts with max power), Asteroid Belt (1 life, dodge-only, unlocked by getting 60K on Survival), Boss Mode (3 lives, power-ups after each boss, no hyper, unlocked by getting 20K on Asteroid Belt) and Boss Survival (1 life, max power, no hyper). Once you've chosen a game mode it's possible to apply three types of modifiers: Expert Mode (×1,5 bullets/enemies),  Duo (×1,5 + right analog stick active for dual-ship play) and Reverse (×1,5 + reversed controls!). And then you must choose background graphics, music tune, a variation on graphics (including an overlay that slightly mimics the arcade screen) and ship type (Classic, Grace or Hornet). Of all eight tracks my favorites are Hard Noise and Breaking Thru, they're awesome. Some tracks and background options are initially unavailable, and to unlock them you need to win the achievements set by the game (see the Awards section at the start screen).

The other gameplay alternative that can be chosen from the starting screen is Tempus. On the surface it's just like Arcade, but coins get replaced by clocks. Lives are then replaced by a timer, and in order to survive you need to collect clocks (1 clock = 1 more second). Even though the idea seems interesting, Tempus isn't well balanced at all. Boss Survival mode, for instance, is unplayable because you start with 20 seconds and the first boss takes forever to materialize (14s). Both Arcade and Tempus have their own high score tables, but unfortunately they don't keep track of games played with modifiers turned on. That's a pity, I'd love to have a separate table for the Duo modifier, it's a really fun mode. Controller vibration can be turned off in the main options, and switching Particle Physics on and off toggles the in-game explosion sprites.

Pester gets considerably taxing by the time you reach its last levels. I'd say it's almost unfair in the way it overlaps popcorn and bosses. Ever heard of "being in the zone"? Well, you probably need it here if you want to loop Pester's 20 waves. Those who think XBLIG shmups are easy should definitely check it out, never mind the poor production values and the silly oversights of the extra game modes.

Below is my highest score in Arcade Classic mode, playing with the Classic ship with no modifiers. I won all the awards and unlocked all extra modes/backgrounds/songs.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

5th Blog Anniversary!

Welcome, dear readers!

Even though the day I started this feels like yesterday, I can't help but sense the weight of time on my shoulders. I've seen very good blogs die in less than five years, maybe even months, but I'm still here. Why is that, I wonder?

Back in 2007 I started buying video games in order to put them on a shelf and play them sparsely, so I was primarily a collector. After a few months doing that, reason began replacing the enthusiasm and something that always lurked in the back of my head started taking shape. This collecting hobby demanded something more of it, it couldn't be just about piling up game after game and eating away the available space in my room.

I needed to come out of the closet.

My Xbox 360 collection, exactly 5 years ago

Figuring out the concept of the 1CC changed the way I saw video games. In fact, it changed my approach towards them forever, eliminating whatever I had left of appreciation for casual or mainstream gaming - that part of the industry that involves video games with excessively long campaigns, unlimited save points and time-based completions. Titles that lacked scoring systems or offered almost no real challenge suddenly sounded bland, lifeless to me. Factor in aspects of real life, less available time to play, personal aesthetical taste and you get the picture.

I began getting rid of almost all games I owned that weren't shoot'em ups, and the collection started anew. With it came the notion of keeping track of my performance in each one of these games, and a few months later this blog was born. I was a noob then, and even though I still feel like a noob now I believe I have learned how to play these games a little better over the years.

Looking back in retrospect, I like to think of it this way: what started as a collection of a particular genre of video games kinda shifted into a collection of trophies in that particular genre of video games. A hobby with no boundaries except for the ones I set myself, no grinding away in achievements poorly established by developers from the latest video game generation. It feels good, it feels clean, it's in line with the existing standards of an awesome niche community. Above all, it keeps the love for my hobby and my collection alive. However, I'm 37 and some people would probably tell  me I'm too old to dedicate myself to such a childish hobby.

With that said, I must say I will not be doing this anymore, or at least for a long time.

Years go by really fast, and even though five years seem like a very long time I think it's a reasonable interval for you to rejoice and celebrate a particular accomplishment with friends and readers.

As a response for suggestions made over the last months, I have enabled a menu on the top of the blog containing links for a few dedicated pages with rearranged information on cool shmup readings and all the stuff I wrote so far.

I'm really thankful for all the feedback, encouragement, challenges and ideas received during these wonderful five years.