Tuesday, February 2, 2016

X-Multiply (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem in 1989
Published by Irem / Xing in 1998

I have mixed feelings towards X-Multiply. I do enjoy the organic setting that supposedly puts you inside the organs a living being. It's as if Irem had deviated from the path established by R-Type and somehow entered the world of Konami's Life Force. The issue here is that the game falls a little short in its graphic design, which at times lacks background detail and doesn't quite feel like an evolution from the company’s previous titles. The music, however, is absolutely superb in its otherworldly, deliciously eerie nature. All of this makes me think of X-Multiply as a lost link between the first wave of big horizontals and their sequels/progressions, seeing that it doesn’t really belong to either category.

As explicitly stated in the title, X-Multiply comes bundled with Image Fight in the Image Fight & X-Multiply compilation, released for the Sega Saturn and the Playstation only in Japan around ten years after both games were out in the arcade scene. Even though Image Fight is the superior one here, X-Multiply at least doesn't fail to provide decent atmosphere, fair challenge and reasonable recovery possibilities upon death. This last aspect of the game is what makes it relatively approachable especially when compared with Irem's own classic R-Type, where dying in certain parts of the credit pretty much meant a sorry GAME OVER.

X-Multiply on the Sega Saturn - Intro, attract mode and 1st stage
(courtesy of YouTube user Kylemeister13)

Throughout all seven stages of X-Multiply the player will be subject to a wide array of organic enemies, from a legion of spores glued on walls to deadly amoebas, pustulent orifices, tissue rashes releasing violent antibodies, moving bowels, acid droplets, invincible worms and alien parasites a.k.a. bosses. Gameplay couldn’t be more simple because only one button is used to shoot, with rapid fire naturally assigned to button B. Above all, the feature that defines this game is the moving pair of tentacles acquired by the spaceship as soon as the first power-up is collected. These tentacles bounce about gracefully as the player moves, resting in an elegant vertical alignment if you stop moving. And what a treat, the mechanical transmission of the tentacles is so advanced that not a single ounce of inertia exists! Thanks, Irem.

Not only do the tentacles increase your firepower and range, but they also provide protection against most enemy projectiles. Nonetheless special attention should be taken when moving them, since there’s always the risk of a stray bullet getting through. The first power-up collected will only activate the tentacles, but after the second one you’ll start to take advantage of their abilities according to a simple color code: red (lasers), blue (homing missiles) and yellow (directional shots – shoot backwards if you move forward and vice-versa). Since there’s no need to stick to the same item to upgrade your firepower just take whatever comes your way and be happy.

Other items available consist of speed-up (S), speed-down (Ƨ), ground bomb/missile (B) and extra life (1UP). Those Darius-like ground missiles can be fairly destructive when used at point blank distance (precious advice here), particularly after you take the second B, and while I do appreciate the ability to reduce speed if you happen to take successive speed-ups, in my opinion just one speed-up is enough to play through the whole game. No matter how many you decide to use, even the most simple memorization effort eventually leads to victory since this is a classic methodical shooter.

And even though it's definitely there, rank in X-Multiply seems to be simply related to the number of lives you have in stock (that's easily noticed when you die against one of the later bosses). Note that the only extra lives appear halfway into stages 3 and 6.

Come into my swift, swift arms

X-Multiply’s highlights are the bosses, a gallery of huge parasites that live up to the legacy started by Dobkeratops. Without a doubt they’re the best visual assets of the game, which might go unnoticed due to the amount of dodging you might need to execute at times. The fourth boss, for example, is nicely animated in its horrific representation, detaching the chest so that it chases you around amidst spreads of huge pink bullets, only then exposing the pulsating heart that needs to be destroyed for the battle to end.

Unfortunately, when talking about the porting job of this particular release I can’t help but show disappointment because X-Multiply suffers from the same resolution issue of Image Fight. Simply put, the game is just “too big” to fit a regular TV screen, to the point where the lower HUD won’t even show your score properly! To get around that the publisher added extra functions to the shoulder buttons: L moves the HUD into the visible area, R moves it back to its starting position. Don't get your hopes up though, seeing the HUD is totally detrimental to survival because it blocks a large chunk of the screen... And sadly there’s nothing to be done about the upper border, so I needed to educate myself on how far I could go in certain levels to not die by touching it. At the expense of sharpness, the Playstation port deals with that more gently.

Maybe retributing the move made by Irem, later on Konami took the concept of this game and further developed it into Xexex, a game that kinda turns X-Multiply into R-Type by having the tentacles detach from the ship just like the original force pod from the latter.

My best effort with the Saturn version of X-Multiply is below. I reached stage 2-6 playing on Normal difficulty.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Tasac (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
14 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Thin Chen Enterprises (Sachen)
Published by Sachen in 1992

If you want to know which were the worst shmups ever released for the NES, leave it to developer Thin Chen Enterprise, also known as Sachen, to educate you on the mediocre side of the shooting force. Some might argue that this not-so-honorable distinction should actually be attributed to Mega Soft, but in my opinion Sachen wins. We can’t even say it’s a matter of quantity over quality because quality is a characteristic that’s sorely lacking in any of these companies’ outputs.

That said, let it be known that this extremely rare game called Tasac represents Sachen’s magnum opus of ineptitude. With the exception of Huge Insect (which manages to be even rarer), it was the last shmup produced and released by Sachen. Looking from the outside I had hopes it would somehow improve a little over their previous stuff, but oh boy I was wrong… The box art is interesting, as well as the deceivingly decent opening screen, but everything falls apart after you press start. Monotonous action, dull enemies, stupid power-ups, botched interface, drab colors, empty backgrounds, atrocious music, screwed-up resolution, it’s all there in pathetically executed 8-bit programming.

In outer space no one can hear you yawn

In the world of Tasac the player is fighting against alien bionic mutants. The problem is that the spaceship you pilot is a generic piece of junk capable of firing three types of shot with button A, according to items released at random by destroyed enemies. You have L (straight shot), F (five-way shot spread) and T (three-way laser spread), the latter being the default weapon. All of them are upgraded slowly by taking the same successive item or faster by collecting the P (power-up). And that’s it, there’s nothing else to say about the gameplay other than getting familiar with the eight variations for enemies and their recurring naive patterns.

In every single stage the shadow of the boss appears on screen and stays there for a little while before solidifying into the boss itself – an irregular arrangement of turrets that try to protect the core. These increase in size with every successive level, to the point where you’ll have more than 15 turrets to destroy in the final stages. Luckily you don’t need to eliminate them all, so if the core becomes visible a quicker kill can be achieved.

Although the basics of the gameplay aren’t broken, Tasac suffers from many problems that lead to quick boredom. For example, there is only one regular enemy that shoots bullets, and even those might not be considered proper bullets (the enemy ship halts at mid-level and explodes in seven big pieces of junk). All others arrive and move around in a never-changing fixed pattern for you to gallery-shoot them. There is no wave overlapping at all, so as long as there’s at least one enemy on screen or an item released by the current wave the next one won’t come into play. On top of that, all bullets fired by the boss’s turrets are destructible, and later on sprite manipulation becomes so heavy that both bullets and enemies start disappearing without being hit by anything.

In a nutshell, it gets boring fast.

Will I make it to the boss?
(courtesy of YouTube user NesShortGameplays)

Another reason why Tasac is even more tedious than your usual Sachen shooting game is the lethargic nature of your weapons. They’re slow. Very slow. The three-way lasers aren’t that bad once you upgrade them a little (lasers get thicker), but the severely capped firing rate of the 5-way gun makes it pretty much useless, especially against later bosses. The straight shot fares better, but eventually you’ll miss some piercing/side coverage. Just to have an idea of the mediocrity that’s present here all you have to do is check Papillon Gals/Galactic Crusader, which was also delivered by Sachen. It’s kinda close in spirits to Tasac, but seems like a masterpiece in comparison.

Don’t bother checking your score during gameplay. You’ll only ever see it in-between stages and when the credit is over. The same happens with the number of lives and the extend routine that’s hidden by the inability to see the score. Speaking of hidden, watch out for the extended area at the bottom of the screen, which can safely hide your whole ship! And this is yet another case where your shot reappears from the bottom if you hug the upper border of the playing field.

Isn’t there anything good about Tasac then? Well, for all it’s worth it allows co-operative simultaneous play. And the ending shows a neat still of the spaceships flying into glory before, well... As if all of the above wasn’t enough to make you sleep in front of the TV, this travesty loops with practically no difficulty change whatsoever (I tried moving the switch in the cartridge case from Old to New and noticed no alterations at all in the gameplay). In the final score shown below I succumbed out of sheer apathy in stage 2-10.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Star Prince (Nintendo DS)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by indies 0

Published by Namco Bandai in 2007

I feel a little sad when certain video game releases are "too" Japanese, since this often tends to detract from their appeal in other markets. Game Center CX - Arino no Chōsenjō (Arino no Chōsenjō means Arino's Challenge) is a prime example of this: a compilation title originated from a TV show where a comediant would talk about old video games and try to beat them. Luckily for a few Westerners, the cultural barrier imposed by the language was gone when a translated port appeared in the US as Retro Game Challenge. Unfortunately it failed to garner attention and was eventually considered a failure by its publisher, botching any plans the company might have had of also porting the sequels.

Game Center CX has lots of options and menus, many of them leading to libraries, galleries and boring dialogue (for me at least). Of course one can go directly to Retro Game Challenge for an easier interface since the Nintendo DS has no region lock, however I made the choice to get the Japanese package so I had to deal with all that foreign text… which is a challenge in itself, but fortunately finding what really matters – the games – isn’t hard at all. These span several genres and come presented as Famicom/NES titles, complete with fake developers and release dates. The shmup highlight is Star Prince, “released” by Tomato on 6-JUN-1986.

Star Prince owes a lot to the likes of Star Force, Star Soldier and early outings of developer Compile. Much of its design was, in fact, influenced by Shinya Arino’s Star Force challenge in one of the first episodes of the show. The result is a fun and fairly charming homage to these old classics, one that fits the DS format well and doesn’t make you struggle with the secondary screen, unless you decide to have fun inside the virtual game room and you’re bothered by the two boys who’re supposedly watching you play.

Princes, princes who adore you...

In all stages players must fly over terrains full of turrets and destructible blocks, dealing with the mandatory stops against bosses and mid-bosses and all sorts of incoming aerial waves that approach from everywhere. Button Y provides autofire while buttons A or B fire a single shot and activate a shield when held, a protection device that initially covers the front of the ship but is automatically upgraded to a full circling barrier once you take the first power-up. Power-ups are always released by a particular ground enemy and consist of P (power/straight shot), S (spread shot), B (back shot) and M (missile shot). There are no upgrades beyond acquiring the characteristics of each weapon, but the lack of further levels of firepower couldn’t be more deceiving. After all, Star Prince’s gameplay is much richer than what the basic inputs make it out to be.

Everything you shoot and destroy is worth some points. There are certain targets, however, that can lead to a lot more points when you manage to destroy them in a certain way. Every weapon item released, for example, can be destroyed with a few shots. When it blows up, all enemies and bullets on screen are also destroyed and over their amount a multiplier of ×1.000 or more is applied (huge points can be scored from that!). You can also choose to collect the same weapon you're already carrying, which is then worth 8.000 points. Every once in a while enemies will stop coming and a ship will materialize at the center of the screen before an attachment comes from below: destroy it before the attachment latches and win a big bonus. This might seem familiar to some, since it pretty much copies a similar enemy from Star Force.

Another easy source of points, provided you know their locations, is uncovering the six tiles in every level for the characters that form the word PRINCE. By uncovering them all you win 40.000 points, and for each one you miss this amount is divided by two. An extra life is also hidden in a specific place in every stage, and to get it all you have to do is hit its hidden spot. Finally, since I'm talking about the scoring system, at the end of the game each life in reserve is worth 50.000 points. By end I mean the second loop because the game is bold enough to go DDP on you after you beat its four levels, saying that all enemies were not real and you must play the game again to face the real ones. And with all the extra score-based extends (50K, 100K, 200K, 500K, 1M, …), not dying ends up being the biggest addition to a credit aimed at high scoring.

Cruising the stars for a crown!
(courtesy of YouTube user IGN)

The second half/loop of Star Prince is obviously harder than the first, with the added quirk of changing around all locations for hidden items (characters and 1UPs). Since the bullet count is increased, this is when you'll be using the shield input the most. A neat feature of the shield is that after absorbing three bullets the ship will expell an outward blast that's able to hit everything around it. While definitely a life saver in tight situations, the shield doesn't protect against enemy collision, and these may happen a lot due to waves coming from behind and closing in from the sides.

Putting everything together, it's feasible to say this little game is a blast to play. It uses the same wave scheme of Star Force, meaning the fastest you dispatch a wave the more enemies you'll kill before the stage is over. Sometimes the checkpoints will mess with enemy/wave order, making them less or more difficult up front. Several turret arrangements in the mid-boss sections and the brief invincibility upon item collection will immediately remind people of Zanac, which is just a hint at how much Compile is infused in the gameplay, morphing with Tecmo and Hudson into a nice piece of handheld shmup rush. The music and the sound effects are equally competent, and the occasional voice samples just serve to add that odd flavor you'd expect from a Japanese title.

Click for the (lousy) option menus translation for Star Prince on Game Center CX
Any help would be greatly appreciated :)

During gameplay R+X works as a reset button and L+X calls up the main menu, from where you can select other options such as switch to another game, check the instruction manual, etc. Since I’m not versed at all in Japanese, I can’t comment on anything else about Game Center CX.

My humble final 1CC score for Star Prince is below. The game halts at this final panel before you're sent back to the start screen. And just like in good old 8-bit fashion, there are no continues!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Super Fantasy Zone (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega / Sunsoft
Published by Sega in 1992

With the exception of the makeover made on Fantasy Zone II, which was released in one of those Sega Ages discs on the Playstation 2, Super Fantasy Zone was the last real entry in one of the most original and endearing series created by Sega. However, probably due to its waning popularity in the West and the involvement of Sunsoft as a developer, the cartridge saw the light of day only in Japan and Europe. That’s a real shame considering the game brings more of that frantic action to the Mega Drive in a new adventure that feels quite fresh yet plays very much in the same way of the first chapter rather than the second (never mind those boring maze/medal variants).

In order to keep the same colorful nature of its arcade counterparts, Super Fantasy Zone extracts the most from the alleged limited color palette of the Mega Drive. As a result that familiar fluffy atmosphere remains intact, as well as the deceiving idea that this fluffiness naturally relates to a child’s game. Of course Super Fantasy Zone isn’t as hard as, let’s say, the original Fantasy Zone, but the difficulty slope implemented in subsequent loops brings the original challenge back and turns stages into dangerous mine fields that require very careful navigation. So sit back, relax and prepare to listen to that awesome boss theme once again while enjoying a new set of exclusive upgrades to Opa-Opa’s arsenal.

There is a story going on here, complete with an animated intro and an equally crafted ending. Of it I know nothing, nor do I care. But it's nice to see another huge variation of Opa-Opa as the final boss, even if it's soon replaced by a cranky little bouncing ball that's rather disappointing.

Dangers of the Le-Picker level

All three basic buttons of the Mega Drive controller are used in Super Fantasy Zone. By default you have A for special weapon, B for shot and C for bombs. Completely new to the classic gameplay here is this "special weapon", which corresponds to items bought in the shop for single use and are lost upon death. By the way, what's classic about the gameplay? Opa-Opa, that rounded ship with tiny wings, must destroy 10 evil enemy generators in each stage so that he can fight the boss (check their locations on the radar). There's freedom of movement both to the left and to the right, and it's also possible to speed up scrolling (by moving closer to the sides) or halting it completely (by "landing", to which Opa-Opa creates legs and walks on the ground). The 8th and last stage is a boss rush comprised of all previous bosses prior to the very final boss.

Enemies release gold coins for immediate collection so you can purchase items in the SHOP balloon that approaches from the top of the screen every time a stage starts or after you die (except on bosses). Some of the items are effective permanently provided you don't die, such as the speed-ups and the regular bomb enhancements. Others will only last the amount of time defined by the gauge that appears beside the item icon. Mandatory purchases are at least one choice of speed-up and the quartet missiles, which definitely surpass the old twin bombs because they home on enemies (not generators). If you buy more than one item with the same function you can choose which one you'll be using before leaving the shop, and if the multiple items purchased are special weapons or of the temporary kind an extra balloon labeled SEL will then appear and allow you to choose a different type after the current one has been depleted.

In the world of Super Fantasy Zone there's always the danger of running into a spawning enemy if you get too hasteful. On the other hand, the faster you destroy generators and the quicker you collect the gold released by bosses the more money you'll eventually have. The risk-reward ratio tends to reach a critical point because of inflation: every time an item is purchased its price increases. Therefore, that precious temporary laser beam upgrade and those useful lightning and smart bomb special weapons will eventually become too expensive. Extra lives start with a $ 5.000 price tag and max out at $ 100.000. Nabbing all the extra lives you can and not dying is the secret to higher scores, simply because each life in stock is worth one million points when beating the game. Remaining gold is then converted into points, but not to the same extent.

Intro and attract mode of Super Fantasy Zone
(courtesy of YouTube user Gee Tee)

Toying with all the items available in the shop is half the fun when you're learning how to properly approach all levels and bosses in Super Fantasy Zone. My advice is that players should try them all. Don't let any item pass by or you might be missing very helpful aids for the most difficult levels. Some of them, like the shield, are downright too expensive and of course should be avoided in a credit aimed at high scoring. Note that two special items must be purchased in order to make navigation easier: the first one is the "super lights" that increase your viewing abilities inside the dark caves of stage 4, the second is the "rubber boots" so you can land safely on the electrified floor of stage 6. These are permanent, so as long as you don't die you don't need to buy them again upon reaching the same levels in further loops.

Throwbacks to the first game appear in several places, from the way certain enemies attack to the original bosses frozen in the background of the last stage. A connection between this franchise and Space Harrier can also be seen in the checkerboard borders of the last level. Starting a loop with no lives in stock is definitely a cruel mechanic, but if you want to play the loop you gotta live with that. At least the rise in difficulty is steady, marked by increasingly more enemies and faster bullets – which have their sprites continuously changed the further you advance. Strangely enough, bosses don’t follow this pattern and remain pretty much the same except for the 4th boss and his faster bullets.

Either cartridge, European or Japanese, will play in Western consoles normally, and the Japanese text will even be automatically translated into English. Even though the music in Super Fantasy Zone is quite catchy, it’s possible to switch the entire soundtrack to that of the original arcade game by pressing A+B+C and START at the start screen. My overall strategy relied on playing the whole game with the first speed-up (big wings), quartet missiles and the occasional laser upgrade in stages with lots of gold (5th) or annoying enemies/design (6th). Thunder volts were the only special weapons I used, as well as an additional speed-up for the whole last level in order to better deal with the second form of the final boss. In the high score below I reached stage 3-6 on Normal.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Sonic Wings 3 (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Video System
Published by Video System in 1994

There’s one single truth about many long-running shmup franchises: despite all the efforts and sacrifices of brave pilots from all around the world (or galaxy), evil will never really subside. At least this was the rule back when shooters were real and profitable for developers. No matter how successful we were at defeating those hideous monsters there was always an ominous villain lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike again in the inevitable next chapter. Sonic Wings 3 is no exception to the rule, since it follows its predecessor Sonic Wings 2 with that same vibe and a backstory that, well… doesn’t really matter in the end.

Who cares about story anyway? Let them alien baddies come!

What matters is that, for those who thought the second game was too hard for its own good, Sonic Wings 3 – or Aero Fighters 3 in its Western incarnation – is far less punishing and a tad more approachable than Sonic Wings 2. I say that based on how much I had to suffer to loop part 2, whereas part 3 caved in after only two sessions of relatively relaxed play. Blame it on the more easygoing pace, the reduced aggressiveness, the slower bullets and the new assortment of planes and pilots. If you’re a fan of Spanky don’t worry, he’s back with all his lovely dolphiness to cheer you along the way. Unfortunately Baby Bobby must’ve had to go to school or something, since he’s not to be seen anywhere in Sonic Wings 3.

Dat dolphin!

There are ten pilots distributed across five countries (USA, Japan, Russia, Germany and UK), with some new faces joining well-known characters like the stern ninja Hien, everybody's favorite viking Kohful and Rafael's darling dolphin pilot Spanky. They all use two buttons only (fire and bomb), but this time the differences between them are even more pronounced and polarizing, to the point where it practically breaks the game depending on your adopted approach.

The greatest departure from the old formula is a branching feature that allows players to choose the next stage (or stages) in certain levels. Once some bosses are defeated a harmless helicopter-like enemy will materialize: the choice of level depends on which wing of this helicopter you destroy first. Different paths lead to distinct bosses and might result in easier or harder campaigns of eight stages in each loop. By the way, don't expect levels to be exactly the same in the second loop. Not only enemies become more aggressive and start shooting different bullet patterns, but bosses can be completely replaced and bonus levels totally disfigured when compared with what you see in the first loop.

For each choice of pilot the player receives a very particular type of shot as well as bomb. Pick up P items to power up shot, and B items to increase bomb stock. Three Ps will max out firepower, but after a while the plane will revert back to the power it had with only two Ps; then you need to take another P to max out power again. Ps taken before this power-down time window expires (which actually depends on how much you shoot) are converted into 2.000 points each. The only pilots/planes that differ from the norm are Spanky (Russia) and Malcolm (Germany), which have special charge shots activated just by holding and releasing the fire button. Regardless of the ship you choose, chances are you'll need to rethink most of your strategies once you change characters because they all behave differently in firepower, bomb effectivess and power-down times.

I'm playing a credit of Sonic Wings 3 (recorded form a cell phone, hence the hiccups)
Turn English subtitles ON for great justice

For a game that's so old-school in nature, Sonic Wings 3 does incur in serious faults with regards to scoring. The medal/money collecting scheme is back and preserves the idea that the closest to the top of the screen you collect a money icon the highest value it will have. Anything below that will decrease the value down from the maximum of 10.000 points to only 200 points if the medal is taken in the lower half of the screen. However, unbalance raises its ugly head as soon as you reach the first boss, since the money fountains on both bunkers besides the capitol can deliver varying amounts of medals. It's unnerving to get less than 200.000 points prior to the boss fight, when you know sometimes it should give you more than 300.000 points. 300.000 points, by the way, is where you earn your only extra life in the whole game.

Scoring quirks however run deeper than that. With the branching system it's natural to expect some levels to give you more points than others, even though they're not as fun to play depending on the selected character. On top of that, with regular final bosses being replaced for stupid variations all of a sudden your score might be severely compromised (note the homage to Darius if you get to fight the mahjong doll). The greater variety of bonus levels can also lead to areas with a relatively low amount of medals or power-ups. This opens up another can of worms for scoring, especially if you consider Mao Mao and her time-freezing bomb in the bonus level of the two large planes (3rd stage if you take the right route after first boss). Considering that her ship is a weak piece of junk, this scoring advantage does require players to have a lot more skill if they decide to use her and exploit that particular milking technique. And no matter how much I don't like to admit, indeed she is the best choice for score-chasers.

When I started playing the game I was appalled by the music, which I found to be completely atrocious except for the song in the first level. After a while it started sinking in, and now I believe it fits the action quite well. Character interactions remain very humorous throughout the game, and different endings await players who are brave enough to face the game in co-op mode.

My best high score on Sonic Wings 3 is below, playing with the Blazers plane on the MVS difficulty and using a turbo controller for proper autofire (tapping is okay though since firing is achieved in very short bursts). In this run I reached stage 2-4.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Strikers 1945 (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Atlus in 1996

The Messerschmitt Bf-109 is a German World War II fighter aircraft designed by Willy Messerschmitt and Robert Lusser during the early to mid-1930s. “Bf” stands for Bayerische Flugzeugwerke, a code issued by the German ministry of aviation to represent the company that originally gave birth to it. Powered by a liquid-cooled inverted-V12 aero engine, it was one of the first truly modern fighters of the era since it included such features as all-metal monocoque construction, a closed canopy and retractable landing gear (source: wikipedia).

Despite its extensive use by the German Luftwaffe prior to and during the Second World War, a more obscure part of the Bf-109 history lies in its participation as one of the six allied planes that took over the mission to fight an alien menace that threatened to destroy the Earth, soon after the war ended. However, you won’t find anything about this hidden piece of military history in libraries or encyclopedias. In order to know about it and actually experience the excitement of shooting down evil alien scum you need to play Strikers 1945.

As all shmup fans know (or should know), this sprite-based war document was unveiled by Japanese company Psikyo across several different gaming platforms in 1995/96. The reason why I’m focusing on the Bf-109, which is actually the only German plane in the game, is that I decided to pilot it while savoring the Playstation version (I had previously used the British Supermarine Spitfire when I tried the Saturn port).

Clearing the first loop with the Shinden
(courtesy of YouTube user あかねちゃん)

A drastic change in artillery is of course expected when a sci-fi theme is added to a military-based shooter. Therefore, all six planes in Strikers 1945 received an upgrade in their firepower that allows them to shoot unlimited ammo (rapid shot), execute unlimited charge shots (shot) and drop limited powerful bombs over the enemy. Their speed, charging time and weapons effectiveness vary, so choosing the plane that best fits your shmup sensitivities is quite important. Differently colored (often in red) and other specific enemies release power-up items and extra bombs. Bombs are self-explanatory, whereas each power-up adds an option whose behavior depends on the plane selected. A maximum of six bombs can be carried at any time, and by collecting four power-ups you achieve a maxed-out aircraft. Surplus items are then converted into extra points.

It’s important to note that options behave differently when you’re just shooting, but at least for me what also determines the choice of plane is the charge shot. In the case of the Bf-109, for example, the available options are grouped together and dropped in place, slowly advancing forwards while shooting a powerful bullet stream. This behavior leads to several possible approaches if you want to deal with stronger enemies while focusing in other areas of the screen or if you just want to quickly dispatch an incoming threat – just remember that you’ll be without options alongside the plane for as long as the charge attack lasts. The Spitfire charge shot, on the other hand, works as a net of extra firepower that forms in front of the plane and moves around with it, an aspect that requires totally different strategies than those of the Bf-109.

Weaker aspects of the Bf-109’s arsenal are its slightly longer charging time and the efficiency of its bomb, which almost exclusively serves as a panic function since it inflicts no real damage on enemies unless you’re pretty close to them.

Regardless of plane choice, players must learn how to deal with rank in Strikers 1945. Basically, the more powered-up you are and the longer you survive the faster enemy bullets will be. To make matters worse, all stages in the first half of the game are randomized, which means you might have to deal with the same stage in its easiest state (1st level) or at its toughest (4th level). One way to deal with rank is to let yourself collide against an enemy, which makes you lose an option and immediately slows down enemy bullets. Given the way bullet spreads are implemented in this game – often in concentrated quick bursts that demand some prior positioning and tap-dodges to be evaded – lowering rank in key areas can definitely be considered a valid gameplay resource.

One of the three random mid-bosses in stage 7

The last main aspect of the gameplay is related to the gold bars released by ground enemies. Their glow varies at a predetermined rate, and to get the best bonus out of them they need to be collected at their maximum glow. Each gold bar is then worth 2.000 points, which is connected to a sound effect that differentiates it from when you take them at lower glowing points (200, 500 and 1.000 points). Naturally the further you advance into the game the harder it becomes to time gold bar collecting for best results, but overall it’s a fun gimmick that works and kinda offsets a bad order for the first four stages. Never mind the slaughter that takes over the whole second loop, where difficulty is amplified to crazy heights and makes survival absolutely more important than gold bar collecting. The only extend comes with 600.000 points.

If visual and audio merits aren’t that great in Strikers 1945, at least the particular style that Psikyo worked to maintain after branching off from Video System tends to grow on you with repeated plays. The Playstation port suffers from very rare faint stutters of slowdown but this isn’t nearly as bad as some online sources point out, and is virtually identical to the disc released for the Sega Saturn at around the same time. The Japanese Playstation game comes with three resolution modes: Original 1 (YOKO), Original 2 (wobbling YOKO) and Arcade (TATE). Plane profiles, configurable controls and a manual save/load function complete the package. Beware of the release for the PS1 in North America, even though it's named Strikers 1945 it's actually the sequel Strikers 1945 II with no TATE mode included.

Since I benefited from a short burst of MAME practice during week 3 of the shmups forum STGT 2015, it can be said that I started playing this version with a good amount of previous Bf-109 knowledge. In my second sitting I got the high score below on Normal (difficulty 5), reaching stage 2-2 for the first time ever.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Supercharged Robot VULKAISER (PC)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Astro Port
Published by NYU Media in 2015 (Steam)

Rarely do I watch cartoons these days. Or animes. However, as I mentioned before some of the TV time in my childhood was spent on Japanese cartoon serials like Groizer X, which was notably the most famous one around here. And even though these kinds of cartoons are no more, we can still quench our nostalgia on video games with a real retro feel such as Supercharged Robot VULKAISER, a cheap and quick outing from Astro Port that embodies a lot of what made these shows so entertaining. Therefore nostalgic buffs take note if you're game for an undemanding passtime.

Supercharged Robot VULKAISER is as bare-bones as it gets, but it comes with a few stills where that fine Japanese anime art of the 1970s jumps off the screen thanks to characters standing in bold positions, their mouths opened as if they're about to shout a war cry. Of course their mission is to protect the Earth from the evil alien scum of the week, but who actually cares about that these days besides kids? The Steam version is so simple that it lacks any options for button mapping or even a pause function (ah, the desire to function as an arcade title!). Just launch the game and watch as it automatically recognizes your current control scheme - my Xbox controller worked perfectly with it, even allowing me to use the D-pad instead of that shitty analog stick.

Promo trailer for VULKAISER
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher NyuMedia)

Players pilot the Vulkaiser, a giant robot that's supposed to restore peace to the Earth and "combines" with four different types of VulFighter enhancing crafts, each one controlled by a different character. Practically you just use one button through the entire game, since any other button in the controller activates the Ω weapon, a bomb that's specific to each VulFighter, is capable of melting enemy bullets and can only be triggered once for every new craft you combine with. An assortment of VulFighters appears twice in every level so that you can switch your current one for another if desired. These can be:
  • Rocket Kaiser - fires straight missiles; charge shot is an exploding bomb; Ω weapon is a short stream of more powerful missiles.
  • Thunder Kaiser - fires an open arch of electricity rays; charge shot is a thick laser beam; Ω weapon is a thunder shower that covers the whole screen.
  • Needle Kaiser - fires a needle-shaped spread pattern; charge shot is a more powerful needle spread; Ω weapon is an outward burst of energy.
  • Drill Kaiser - adds a close-range drill to the default shot; charge shot is a powerful drill that's dropped in front of the ship and slowly drifts forward; Ω weapon is a very large and deadly drill.

The act of firing your weapon automatically fills up a charge gauge, and to release the charge shot all you need to do is refrain from shooting from a second. It's a mechanic that works really well, and essentially all you need to do is wait for the graphical/sound cue to release successive charge shots. Charge times and overall weapon effectiveness varies between characters, but the most difficult one to use is definitely the Drill Kaiser, mainly due to the way its charge shot works. It's important to notice that there are different health bars for the Vulkaiser and the selected VulFighter, and that depleting any of them is a definitive loss (in the case of Vulkaiser it's GAME OVER, and for VulFighters you just can't use the lost one anymore). Losing a VulFighter sends the Vulkaiser back to its default condition, including the charge shot that results in the robot's fists being detached in a frontal attack. Pay attention to the hit spot in the character's chest, as pointed out as soon as you start a credit.

When I played this game I remembered a lot of Kiaidan 00. Both titles share the same cool avatar orientation, but Supercharged Robot VULKAISER boasts a less cheap and more straightforward scoring system. There's a simple multiplier scheme that's directly related to how fast you kill successive enemies, which makes Needle Kaiser my favorite VulFighter. At the end of every level all health gauges are converted into bonus points, while speed-killing bosses also grants a chunky amount of extra score. Every time a boss fight starts a counter starts coming down from 99, with the kill tag being multiplied by ×10.000.

Yukimasa-sama does not like the heat

Lighthearted and approachable, VULKAISER does not veer away from the staples of a quickly developed game. Earth stages have backgrounds with cities, forest landscapes and clouds. No obstacles or walls are to be expected. There are lots of enemies and battleships riddled with turrets and little mechas flying around, with the design highlights reserved for bosses. They usually morph into giant robots after being defeated in their rocket or spacecraft forms. Brief comedic dialogue snippets develop the story in the levels themselves, whereas the current VulFighter pilot gives a longer speech at the end of the stage. Using the same VulFighter in multiple levels actually makes the bond between characters stronger, with only one drawback in the gameplay: the more you stick to the same VulFighter the harder the game becomes. Pick a different one to lower the rank.

A last note about rank is that ramming attacks and enemy missiles drain more health from Vulkaiser. Then the most damage comes from red, purple and blue bullets, that's why sometimes the energy you lose when you get hit seems to vary. A fully customizable training option exists, and checking how you're performing is easy because the game saves replays for your best scores automatically across the four difficulty levels. On a last note, Supercharged Robot VULKAISER adopts a 4×3 aspect ratio, so it doesn't fill the whole space in a widescreen setup.

My best 1CC result on Normal is below, mainly having as co-pilot the lovely Kimiko, master of the Needle Kaiser. Click here if you want to know a bit more about the characters.