Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sol Divide (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Atlus in 1998

If widespread reputation is any sign of how a video game should be perceived without even being played, then Sol Divide is the epitome of failure, of dread, of sheer shmupping horror. It’s a particularly elusive subject for trash talk and it’s got the potential to bring out the worst from even the most sensible player out there. I myself remember distilling my hatred against it everywhere when I first started digging into the fascinating universe of shooting games, and it wasn’t until I was practically forced to play the Playstation port that I actually saw something beyond the almost insurmountable layer of presumed mediocrity.

Similarly to Toaplan, Psikyo was a company more akin to vertical shooters, so it’s no wonder it only made two horizontal shmups during its entire lifetime. However, bearing a horizontal orientation is pretty much the only common ground Sol Divide shares with Sengoku Blade. Sol Divide’s borderline experimental gameplay mixes shooting and melee slashing and is unmatched in its pace, clunky mechanics and overall uniqueness – or weirdness, some might say. It’s extremely short and intense while absurdly overwhelming at times, thanks to a series of random elements that are capable of draining that precious health bar in a snap.

The story of Sol Divide involves an elderly evil man named Efter and three brave heroes who stand up against him to end his reign of terror in a medieval world where knights, undead creatures, wizards, sylphs and winged beasts dominate the skies of several villages. Graphics and music reflect this ambience quite decently, I must say. Each level is preceded by a brief dialogue showing a little of the interaction between these characters, too bad the Saturn port came out only in Japan and all in-game texts are in Japanese. The disc comes with a straight rendition of the arcade game in its Arcade mode. Original is a special version designed exclusively for consoles, infused with RPG elements and with rearranged stages/enemies. Once again I haven’t even dared to dip my toes in Original, focusing on a new challenge for Arcade mode: loop the game with Tyora.

Kashon faces an escapee from the Prehistoric Isle

Tyora is the only woman in the group of playable characters, a wizard with decent shot and magic power but terribly short melee reach. Vorg is the dark knight specialized in sword fight and with stronger melee abilities. Kashon the hawkman stands as the most balanced of the three, with the clear advantage of having the best melee reach thanks to his long spear. Each character is able to fire, to slash and to cast magic spells (all inputs configurable) chosen from a wide assortment of magical powers shown below the health meter. Magic efficiency varies according to the enemies you’re facing, consisting in the most important aspect of the gameplay besides the slash attack.

“So are magic and slashing more important than shooting?” As weird as it might seem, YES is the answer to this question. While you can shoot enemies from afar, they will eventually get close and unless you react they’ll end up taking up huge chunks of your life bar. That’s when performing slash combos are useful, since they inflict good damage and stun enemies while pushing them back. Each character has a specific set of commands to do the combo though: the sequence for Kashon is slash, slash, slash, →, slash, changing the directional to ↓ for Tyora and ↑ for Vorg. Naturally Kashon comes off as the easiest character to play with because of his combo and the better reach of his melee weapon.

Most enemies when defeated release items that bounce around for you to pick up. These can be power-ups, health potions, magic potions and herbs (increase max health), some of them with different sizes. A few magic spells are only obtained through items for a single use only, and the more powerful the spells are the bigger the amount of magic energy they consume. There’s also an exclusive powerful spell that’s specific to each character: “Phoenix” for Kashon, “Summons” for Tyora and “Nightmare” for Vorg. While the main purpose of magic is to facilitate survival, melee slashing is the key to higher scoring. All enemies that are killed with the final blow of the slash combo have their base value multiplied by 4, a factor that’s reduced to 2 if you happen to register the kill in the second-to-last slash. Aside from the enemies in the level, in order to achieve higher scores it’s imperative that players dispatch all bosses with a ×4 multiplier. Hint: go to the options and switch Score Display to ON to see your score and the multiplier tags.

Intro and attract mode of Sol Divide on the Sega Saturn
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

As a last note on gameplay, I’d say familiarity with enemy behavior is the defining condition to succeed in Sol Divide. Those brief flocks of enemies and each of the massive bosses are there to suck you dry so that you reach Efter with low health. The first of his four phases is the nastiest enemy in the whole game, so my advice is to try and get there with lots of energy to spare (the winged creature, the dinosaur and Efter himself in the end are pushovers when compared to the first form).

Adapting to Tyora’s awful melee reach wasn’t easy, but I needed to devise a basic plan to help me get the loop. In this plan the first magic I use is Fire against the four sylphs at the start of stage 4 (their straight shots are a pain to dodge). Then as the stone god boss is about to die I cast Freeze in order to get a ×4 kill. When the spikes from the worm boss start moving (level 5) I cast Meteor, which leaves him ready for me to get another ×4 final blow. The minotaur in stage 6 is tricky, and again if I have Freeze I use it to finish him off with ×4. Summons is reserved for the stone griffon boss of stage 7 while I attempt to time the damage with another ×4 multiplier. For Efter’s 1st form I cast Fire once or twice (if I still have it) to deal with the knight duo, but a ×4 is a very tricky matter of opportunity. Wind works well on neutralizing a few of the dinosaur’s attacks, but I prefer to Freeze him for the ×4 kill, casting away Fire against Efter’s final form.

Defeating Efter’s 1st form with Tyora is a daunting task. I lost count of how many times I got to him with a full health bar, only to be slaughtered like a filthy pig in an altar of sacrifice. Nevertheless I managed to fulfill my mission with her and reached stage 2-2, albeit with a lesser score than the one I achieved with Kashon on the Playstation. The second loop of Sol Divide has a different color palette, a lot more enemies with even greater resilience and is only accessible if you beat the game with a single credit. I’m sure I’ll have another load of fun when I revisit the game on the Playstation 2 to play with Vorg.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Gradius Gaiden (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
7 Difficulty levels
9 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami / KCET
Published by Konami in 1997

When looking at the main timeline of the Gradius series it’s a bit shocking to notice that there’s a 10 year gap between Gradius III and Gradius IV. Before the latter came out one would imagine the series to be dead after such a long time with only a few console adaptations released for the Gameboy and the Super Nintendo, as well as the nostalgic Gradius Deluxe Pack collections for both the Playstation and the Sega Saturn. However, in an interesting and unexpected twist, by the time the 32-bit video game era reached its peak Konami designed and unleashed Gradius Gaiden exclusively for the Playstation. Building upon the foundation of the series and its spin-offs, the game injected new ideas into the Gradius canon and renewed its epic strength, while definitely paving the way to the series rebirth in the arcades with Gradius IV.

The fact that Gradius Gaiden is considered by many people as the best shmup developed for a video game console is no coincidence at all. The improved visuals are a no-brainer, and old staples like the moai and volcano stages have been elevated to a level that makes them feel truly unique this time around instead of just rehashes of the same old mold. Cheering and provocative voice samples abound from start to finish, helping to create a sense of adventure that greatly enhances the grand scheme of things (voices and speeches also change depending on the difficulty setting). Being console-oriented, the game automatically boasts a much more tame difficulty than its infamous arcade ancestor Gradius III. Add to that the ability to play in co-op and you get the picture for how much fun it might be if you enjoy the idea of experiencing Gradius with a friend.

Another point of attraction in this particular chapter is the choice of four different ships. It’s not possible to select their abilities as in the Weapon Edit mode of Gradius III though, but on the other hand you’re allowed to completely reorder the famous weapon array – that familiar gauge that tracks power-up capsule collecting and controls how you want to upgrade your vessel. Do you want option/multiple to come as your very first upgrade, even before the classic speed-up? Gradius Gaiden has got you covered, my friend!

Lord British takes on two planets
(courtesy of YouTube user Akihabara. ch)

The behavior of each ship follows the classic tradition of the series. Natural upgrade order is speed-up, missile, double, laser, option/multiple and shield. To activate the desired upgrade you need to collect the necessary amount of power-up capsules. Weapon variations appear in the missile, double and laser upgrades, so choosing between the Vic Viper (blue), the Lord British (red), the Jade Knight (green) and the Falchion β (purple) requires playing at least a good couple of levels with each ship. A feature inherited from Parodius and MSX console Gradius iterations is the ability to power up missile, double and laser one second time each. I quite like the beefed up double and its extra rear shot stream of the Vic Viper, for instance.

Upon accepting to wage another war against the Bacterion empire, brave Gradius Gaiden pilots must battle nine levels of increasingly tougher hazards. Starting out in an ice planet, players proceed to a space junkyard full of carcasses of previous Gradius bosses such as several variations of the ever present Big Core and even Salamander’s Tetran. The crystals in the next stage are capable of refracting your lasers, while Moai heads fire laser beams from their eyes and fall to the ground when destroyed in the fourth level. Then you enter a pulsating organic stage before being attacked by all sorts of plants and reaching what’s probably my favorite part of the game: a volcano stretch that completely falls apart as it’s being sucked by a black hole. After that you face a boss rush comprised by completely new captains (not reappearances from previous games). Finally, the emblematic fortress stage wraps the game with a mix of classic Gradius staples such as the high speed scramble, the gun wall, the indestructible mechanical beast and the ridiculously easy final boss.

A lengthy animation with a Star Wars styled introduction panel alternates with some nice demonstrations of the old and new weaponry developed by the scientists from the Gradius planet. That’s just one hint of the amount of cool effects used throughout the game, which range from simple warping to all sorts of zooming with often outstanding use of color. Don't expect to run into those bouts of slowdown so typical of the arcade chapters, in this one it rarely happens if you're playing solo. The enemy arsenal has been overhauled for more diversity and goes way beyond the previous assortments of bullets and blue lasers, which leads to a handful of boss fights that emphasize twitchy dodging over positioning and safespot strategies. Bosses are, in fact, remarkably cool, varied and in my opinion the strongest design asset of Gradius Gaiden.

Contrary to all Gradius games released before, this chapter has a lot more power-up capsules than usual. Even without tinkering with the flexibility of rearranging the weapon array to your liking, which obviously allows for quicker recoveries upon death (a default set-up can be made in the options menu), it’s still possible to have a fully powered ship by the time you reach the first boss. Speaking of which, Konami apparently listened to widespread complaints and gave each boss in the boss rush only one chance to stop the player’s advance. This means that you don’t need to fight the defeated bosses again if you happen to die against any of the later bosses in the queue.

The first FORMIDABLE boss

Just like the grey smart-bomb capsule that appears at every 12th capsule released and the insect-like thief creature that comes to try to steal your options every now and then, progressive rank also returns to spice things up a little in Gradius Gaiden, although with a toned down intensity that never hints at the need to, let’s say, avoid activating all four options or the secondary double/laser upgrades. After spending some time playing with the new ships and using the extra shield types, I still think the best gameplay choices lie with the old resources. The Jade Knight and the Falchion β are fun to play with, but they both have a few characteristics that make using them tricky under certain circumstances (shorter weapon reach, annoying overlapping blockage of the ship’s own firepower).

Amidst all that's new in the game design of this much lauded entry in the series, the final stage is actually the least innovative of them all since it's essentially a collage of very similar bits and pieces of previous chapters. However, it does redeem itself for having (during the section after the high speed boss) the most energetic BGM of the entire soundtrack, a fair collection of tunes that definitely gets better towards the end.

Beating the game unlocks a stage select feature at the start screen, which then tracks all stages you reach while playing the second loop. As expected, the loop is harder but still manageable, and not just a mere act of increasing bullet speed and density. Players have to face new enemies and hazards, meaning that what was once harmless will suddenly become a threat (examples are the snowfalls pushing the ship towards the ground in the first stage and the new deadly nature of the high speed mid-boss thrusters). The first score extend comes with 20.000 points, with further ones granted at every 150.000 points afterwards. And how interesting, if you reach the loop you also get an extra last attempt when you die your last life.

For a long time Gradius Gaiden remained exclusive to the Japanese Playstation, until it got included in the Gradius Collection compilation released worldwide for the PSP in 2006. Functionally the Playstation disc offers everything you expect from a shooter: full button mapping, automatic saving, nine credits that evolve to free play once you've invested a predetermined number of hours in the game and the aforementioned level select feature, among other minor options. I spent much of my time playing with the default upgrade gauge (SMDLO?), but in the end I switched to SOMD?L. Vic Viper was still my ship of choice, with force field as the "?" shield upgrade. My best result is below, reaching stage 2-5.

Next: Gradius IV.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hellfire S (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan / NEC Avenue
Published by NEC Avenue in 1991

As a kid growing in South America, I was naturally exposed to just a fraction of the video game industry during the 16-bit era. The Mega Drive and the Super Nintendo were all that mattered back then, the PC Engine being a totally unknown system up until my adulthood. So I grew up with a very specific idea about a titled called Hellfire, which I had obviously played (probably on a pirate cartridge) on my good old Japanese Mega Drive. No matter how you approached that game, Hellfire lived up to its name. The crushing difficulty demanded us little kids to get better or just give up, after all the game had checkpoints and checkpoints were one of the most evil things created by video game developers.

Enter Hellfire S, a colorful and cut scene ridden alternate version of Toaplan’s arcade shooter, reworked by NEC Avenue and released exclusively for the PC Engine CD. Subtitled in its opening screen as The Another Story [sic], Hellfire S can be a lot of things, especially when compared to the Mega Drive version, but the aspect that will matter most for a lot of people is that it’s a lot easier than Sega’s counterpart released in cartridge format. The port for the PC Engine CD is also more faithful to its arcade origins in gameplay, except for the toned down difficulty and the fact that it doesn’t loop. Since this is yet another title that halts at a dead end after the closing credits are shown, pause the game as soon as the final boss goes down or else you won’t be able to see your score.

Is that someone playing Tetris in the background?

The anime paint applied over the game seems to tell the story of two female pilots dragged to another one of those missions where the fate of the galaxy rests on the multidirectional guns of their spaceships. Unfortunately everything is in Japanese, so proper understanding of the story is severely compromised for Japanese illiterates like myself. The gameplay is simple enough to allow immediate acquaintance for everyone, with button II used to shoot and button I used to cycle through the four available types of directional weapons: forward (red), rear (yellow), 2-way vertical (green) and 4-way diagonals (blue). Collectible items brought by special carriers include speed-ups (S), power-ups (P), two-hit shields (G), 2.000 point bonuses (B) and extra lives (1UP).

Each stage in Hellfire S is a colony that needs to be freed from evil. Overall the tone of the graphics is a bit of a mess, with the opening level happening inside a space station, the second one on an Egyptian-theme planet and the third and the fourth mixing organic and cave-like walls. Moving beacons and large ships appear in stage 5, while huge monsters with turret-ridden hulls try to stop you in the last level. Naturally, freeing all of these colonies requires the player to make good use of the available arsenal. Weapons cycle in a predetermined order (red → yellow → green → blue → red), and that leads to the instinctive development of switching strategies in some of the most intricate parts of the game.

Under pretty much all circumstances, the gameplay in Hellfire S doesn’t live up to the game’s name. Bullet count and speed is easily manageable from start to finish (it can be quite a shock if you try this version right after playing the Mega Drive port), most bosses are pushovers and the only level that demands a more dedicated approach is the last one. The absence of checkpoints is another factor that corroborates the conclusion that this version boasts an easier challenge, regardless of the default slow speed of the ship. Be careful though, collecting more than one speed-up can be risky during sections with many narrow corridors, such as the final stretch of the fifth stage.

The lengthy intro animations before and after the start screen of Hellfire S
(courtesy of YouTube user Succulla Channel)

Other details that might be brought to the table in a comparison between ports are the ship’s color not changing according to the current weapon and the overall lack of parallax layers on the PC Engine CD. The first of these characteristics is actually in line with the nature of the original arcade game, which only serves to cement the notion that Hellfire on the Mega Drive is one of the most interesting cases of a console adaptation being actually richer than its source. Of course it’s still a very punishing shooter and for that reason Hellfire S is a more sensible option for many people, never mind the apparent lack of depth in the scoring system of the latter. EDIT MAY-2015: In a very obscure and unexpected twist, if you manage to destroy a weapon carrier with the rear shot (yellow), it will release three pick-up items instead of just one (kudos to my fellow shmupper Perikles for contributing with this precious info). Also play risky for more points: all items turn into Bs once power and speed are maxed out.

For those who care about such an option, Hellfire S allows co-op play, a mode that’s absent on Sega’s console. Just remember to carry a pair of turbo controllers because there is no autofire in this port. As with many other PC Engine CD adaptations of arcade titles, the game comes with a rearranged soundtrack that’s especially cool if you happen to like the original tunes. I was never overly crazy about them, but the synth-infused CD tracks definitely sound better and less grating than the primary compositions. It's more of an improvement that what was accomplished with Zero Wing, another Toaplan horizontal shooter that also got a port for the PC Engine CD but on musical terms doesn't fare better than its couterpart on the Mega Drive.

By going into the Mode Select option at the start screen you can select difficulty (default is Easy) and player speed (slow/fast, slow as default). There’s also an option called “vector reset” but I couldn’t figure out what it does – I played the game and continued a few times with different settings for it, but I didn’t notice anything. The 1CC high score below was achieved on Normal with everything else at defaults (player speed = slow).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Image Fight (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem in 1988
Published by Irem / Xing in 1998

Everybody knows that Irem’s image in the golden era of arcade shooters will always be associated with R-Type. The company was never able to come up with a title or a franchise that could match R-Type’s incredible success, but at one point in time Image Fight was certainly one of its more prominent efforts, as indicated by the plethora of ports the game received across many different platforms. The 32-bit bundle releases of Image Fight & X-Multiply is one of them, and the Saturn disc is sure bound to please those who want an arcade-like experience at home, TATE mode included.

Image Fight is also famous for packing a remarkable challenge, another trait that somehow became synonym with Irem games as time went by and arcade shooters evolved through the 90s. As demanding as it is, the game just uses and abuses the same mold of its more famous horizontal sibling. Memorization and proper piloting of the OF-1 Daedalus ship can certainly help dedicated players in their mission to save humanity from another unspeakable evil. I just couldn’t find any reasoning for the game’s name besides the obvious fact that the first five stages take place in a simulation environment, working as training for the real deal that unfolds in the last three levels. You also need to achieve a minimum destruction ratio of 90% in the drill levels, otherwise you’ll have to get through a penalty area before proceeding to stage 6. And if that happens be ready to face twice the opposition you had until then because this penalty area is nearly impossible to conquer. It’s so obnoxiously hard I never even dared to try to learn it.

Stage 3 corridor drill

Up front I can tell why Image Fight failed to reach the level of stardom achieved almost instantly by R-Type: meager flocks of erratic cannon fodder flying around against a forest background and the sorry lack of a good opening tune. Yes, the first level is boring and uninspired as hell. Moreover, the spaceship stage comes too soon and doesn’t impress either. At least you’re given the chance to get used to the controls, which on the Saturn work with shot on button A, speed switch on button B, pod attack on button C and autofire on button R. An excellent set-up that’s a bit marred by the awkward fact that you can’t reliably switch speeds while shooting... If you want to safely do that stop firing for a bit, or else you’ll risk your precious strategy by moving at an unwanted speed or performing the pod attack when you least expect it (though some people might think so, that's not the port's fault; in the original controls the pod attack is accomplished by pressing shot + speed at the same time).

By destroying specific carriers the player releases upgrade items. The main one is a pod that provides additional firepower and comes in two colors: blue (straight shot) and red (opposite-movement free aim). Up to three pods can be attached to the ship: the first one will hover on its left, the second one to the right and the third one on the ship’s rear. By pressing button C you make the frontal pods dash forward in a quick boomerang attack, a move that can also be used to have the pods crawl the other sides of walls while you remain unharmed (don’t worry, the pods will always come back to the ship). All other upgrade items consist of a series of frontal attachments that equip the ship with special abilities. These can be v-shaped, ring or wave spreads, bending lasers, side shot, homing missiles and a straight drilling shot, among others such as a charge-based shield that works against autofire.

Frontal attachments represent the backbone of sucessful gameplay in Image Fight, and without them it’s really hard to get anywhere in the game. They’re a bit tricky to use because in order to get a different attachment you need to get rid of the current one, and the only way to do that is by destroying it. Allow it to scrape a wall or get hit by a bullet (all of them work as a 1-hit shield, which is cool). Fortunately every single upgrade item throughout the game appears at the exact same place, which allows for all kinds of strategic planning. As tough as some sections and checkpoints are (two per level), there’s always a way to get back up upon dying. One neat addition to the gameplay is the fact that the thrust animation whenever you switch speeds is also capable of inflicting damage. Remember that if you need to start from a checkpoint in the last stage.

Getting the game down to a science is often the feeling you get when you are dedicating yourself to a shooter like Image Fight. Ironing out the details and devising optimal ship placement, constantly trying to reduce risks while greed hovers like a ghost at the back of our minds (simple scoring system, kill everything, milk checkpoints if you want). To make matters just a bit more complicated Irem decided to throw in a rank system that makes the game harder the longer you go without dying. That’s easily noticeable on the varying intensity of enemy aggression and the appearance of extra enemies that vanish after you die once or twice, especially in stage 7. Extends are score-based and come with 100, 300 and 500 thousand points.

Intro to Image Fight & X-Multiply on the Sega Saturn
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

I’d say seeing past the first couple of levels is often what it takes for most people to start developing some love for Image Fight, for that’s when the game finally starts to get interesting and fun. Narrow corridors full of turrets, walkers descending over you as need to tear down energy nets, organic beasts protected by impenetrable hulls and outer space mazes guarantee the kind of rush that’s expected from the makers of R-Type, with lots of the same sound effects. Most bosses can be dealt with as if you were in a Wild West duel, where you can gun them down in seconds if you manage to position yourself close to their weak spots. The gameplay is tight, so learn how to take good advantage of the four different speed settings at your disposal.

Initially I had a major gripe with the Saturn port, related to the way TATE mode is implemented. The resolution is wider than the regular TV screen, to the point where the developers added an “adjust” option accessible whenever you pause the game. I had to make a decision on what I was able to see, and I tweaked the screen so that I could at least glance the speed settings while losing sight of a thin strip at the top. I couldn’t see side borders at all in stages that have them (3, 4, 8), so I had to memorize how far I could go at any given point. Just an unnecessary annoyance that I was fortunately able to overcome... I guess YOKO mode is okay if you can't TATE, but the resolution makeover seemed odd for me. A final complaint I have is that in a few runs I achieved exactly 72% in stage 5 despite destroying every single creature in it. I wasn't able to figure out the catch, but I was very distressed when I couldn't get the 90% average to go directly into stage 6.

All other aspects of the port are quite decent. Loading times are negligible, continues are unlimited and every time you make into the high score table the game asks if you want to save it, which is very cool (loading is manual but no hassle at all). Most online sources state that the Saturn version of Image Fight & X-Multiply is superior to the Playstation one. Hopefully I'll be able to check the latter in the future and see if that's true, as well as try all other ports made for less powerful systems. Finally, a few other sources point to the fact that Image Fight was the main aesthetic inspiration for Treasure's masterpiece Radiant Silvergun, which is a huge compliment in my opinion.

In the number 1 spot of the high score table below I reached stage 2-3 (11) on Normal, dying just before reaching the boss to those unexpected floating turrets coming from below. Note: the sequel Image Fight II was released only for the PC Engine CD in 1992.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Violent Soldier (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by IGS (Information Global Service)
Published by IGS in 1991

Games and their titles can be deceiving sometimes. For a long time I thought that Violent Soldier was part of the Star Soldier series of shooters. It was then brought to my attention by some fellow shmuppers that not only did it have nothing to do with Hudson Soft’s popular franchise, but it also boasted one of the most intricate difficulty levels within the PC Engine shooter library. I was naturally curious, especially when reading a few comparisons between this game and Rayxanber II regarding their supposedly extreme difficulties.

Come the day and there I was on a Sunday morning, cruising through the first levels of Violent Soldier. Indeed there’s a steep increase in difficulty as the game enters its second half, a very clear point of inflexion that in this case segregates casuals from persistent players quite abruptly. Perhaps a way to warrant the game’s name, I wonder? On an even further assumption, would Violent Soldier be instinctively aiming at teaching players the importance of being proactive? Is it all about fighting violence with more violence then? Jokes aside, this is actually a very straightforward horizontal shooter that drinks from the R-Type fountain but has enough personality to stand on its own. Note that I’m talking about the Japanese HuCard here – the game was also released for the Turbografx-16 as Sinistron.

Undescribable creatures in the biological stage

There are six stages in Violent Soldier. Just like many other PC Engine shmups, shot works on button II. The ship you control is seemingly too long, but only until you acquire the first colored power-up, which by pressing button I allows you to open its frontal hull in order to stretch the side reach of your new gun. There’s a noble reason for the mobility of that golden hull: it protects the ship from incoming bullets. A second power-up allows an even wider opening angle for this “beak”, thus exposing the ship’s hitbox even more at the expense of a wider shielding offset area. Perhaps more important than the beak is the shard-looking item that acts as a shield once you take it, the first one hovering above and the second one below the ship. These glowing shards block enemy bullets and can deflect some of the asteroids in stage 4 (important: both the beak and the shards cause damage by contact).

Your arsenal consists of both the regular shot and a charge shot. By charging button II the player can unleash a circular blast that damages everything within a close radius. This blast is the same for all three types of weapons, which are switchable with the corresponding power-up colors collected from destroyed carriers: red (vulcan), blue (wave laser) and green (homing missiles). My first realization when playing this game is that the charge shot is slow, cumbersome and ultimately useless. On the other hand, if you want to go the whole way you’d better get yourself a turbo controller because the game has no autofire whatsoever. With the beak in the closed position you get a faster firing rate, whereas a full open beak reduces the rate of fire in proportion to how wide the shot becomes. It’s all a matter of how defensive or aggressive you want to get, but you also have to consider that point blanking plays an important role depending on the weapon you’re using.

The last aspect of the basic gameplay is speed. With such an awful default speed the ship can’t do much, but fortunately Violent Soldier always throws a good assortment of speed-up items at every checkpoint. Each level is broken in half by an intermediate checkpoint, and the ease of recovery is one of the aspects that help destroy the myth of this being an impossible game (classics like R-Type and Gradius have tougher recoveries). That absolutely doesn’t mean Violent Soldier goes easy on you, because it doesn’t, and we can all be very grateful for the unlimited continues and the ability to continue from the start of a level instead of the intermediate checkpoint, a very nice feature that should be mandatory in all checkpoint-based shooters.

On graphical and musical terms it’s fair to say that there’s nothing special in Violent Soldier. It is competently put together though, with great use of color and very little, quite negligible slowdown. Starting in outer space and entering a base, the first level deceives you into thinking the game will be a walk in the park. Lightning strikes in the backgrounds of the caves during the second level, while an organic setting dictates the atmosphere in stage 3. The 4th stage is populated with lots of asteroids. Most of them break out in smaller pieces, but the ones with a metallic color will be drawn towards the ship when hit.

My 1CC run of Violent Soldier

Stage 5 seems to be directly inspired by R-Type’s stage 6, with lots of narrow passages and all those block-shaped ships moving about. Even though it feels less claustrophobic here, those tiny green walkers can do lots of damage with those fast bullets they fire. The best way to succeed is by devising a predetermined route and sticking to it. Also abuse point-blanking whenever possible and use walls to protect yourself when needed. A small note on point-blanking: doing it with the red weapon is okay anywhere around the screen, but due to its piercing nature the blue laser can only inflict good damage when you’re very close to the right side; the homing shot is practically useless from stage 4 onwards.

Finally, the last level ramps up bullet count and enemy hazards quite a bit, throwing wave after wave of overlapping enemies and patterns. Good crowd control is the way to go, always aiming for the most powerful enemies first and paying attention to the green globs that follow you around. It's as unforgiving as the last stage of Cyber Core, the other shmup developed by IGS for the PC Engine. At first I thought there would be a boss rush, seeing that you have to fight two very angry forms of the bosses from stages 1 and 2. But no, after that there’s just the final boss. I wonder if the developers went out of time or money to add the remaining bosses or if they thought two hard rematches were enough of a preamble to the final showdown. Unfortunately we’ll never know.

I haven’t tried it yet, but according to the Brothers Duomazov the Western version Sinistron has quite a few differences from the Japanese Violent Soldier. If you fancy something with heavy emphasis on memorization and aggressive gameplay (a.k.a. violence), the game is perfect for you. It’s definitely hard but it’s fun nonetheless and never unfair, with a level of randomness that can be properly controlled without incurring in nearly unbearable frustration, as in (just to close the comparison loop) Rayxanber II. Score extends set at 20.000, 50.000 and at every 70.000 points give you several attempts to overcome the harder checkpoints, also allowing checkpoint exploitation for higher scores.

My 1CC result on Normal difficulty is the one shown at the end of the video linked above (difficulty is chosen with the SELECT button at the start screen). The game halts at the following panel after showing the end credits in a very unusual fashion, and only resumes back to the start screen when you press SELECT + START.

Monday, March 30, 2015

DoDonPachi (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable, criteria-based)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by SPS in 1998

Warning: this post will sound an awful lot like a rant. I know this impression might come as unexpected, given the fact that the port for DoDonPachi on the Playstation is considered by many people as the superior one when compared with the Saturn's. And it is indeed, at least on visual merits (slightly). But for those with the willpower to scratch beyond the surface and dig deeper into the intricacies this pivotal shooter has to offer, PS1 DoDonPachi disappoints. You don't even need to be a high tier player to be sorely let down by this particular version.

But first let's recap how the classic DDP gameplay works. Expanding from the initial ideas presented in DonPachi, DoDonPachi preserves the three original ships, endows them with new abilities and greatly refines the scoring system while boosting the action levels considerably. For each ship you now need to select shot or laser power (S or L), a choice that emphasizes the efficiency of the chosen ability, whereas bombs behave differently if you're using laser and shot (or not shooting). That's all most people need or care to know if they're merely looking for some intense shooting fun, to which this version of DoDonPachi caters to wonderfully.

On the other hand, dedicated shmuppers know that the key to scoring in this game is its famous (or infamous) chaining system. The basic idea is to hit enemies in succession in order to keep the chaining bar alive and see the chain meter rise for higher and higher scores. To keep the chain alive on stronger enemies you need to make contact with them by using laser. Perfecting routes to achieve longer chains is the main objective of anyone aiming at scoring higher, but that also works to grant access to the second loop, an extra reward/challenge that requires a few hard-to-achieve feats during the first loop. Get to the end of the second loop and face Hibachi, DoDonPachi's true last boss.

"Shit! Where do I go now?"

There’s no denying that DoDonPachi feels like a fireworks display during most of its six stages, after all the game is packed with an extremely powerful vibe and loaded with all sorts of bullet curtains. DoDonPachi is a thing of beauty, and my primary impression when I played the PS1 version in TATE was excellent. But then I noticed something was off on my TV. I could not see the leftmost border of the screen, which includes part of the life stock and the area that shows the chain gauge. What does that mean, exactly? It means that without being able to see the chain gauge it’s impossible to properly sustain a chain; after all, you need to know when the gauge is about to deplete in order to time your next kill. I tried running the game on a different TV, but I still couldn’t see that essential part of the screen.

A few days passed and I decided to revert back to YOKO on my bigger TV so that I could see what I was doing. The cramped resolution was a bit shocking (it’s hard not to get spoiled by TATE), but I was willing to take the hit in exchange for the ability to properly chain. By that time I was trying to come up with a good route for stage 2 with ship C-S (blue one, wide shot), but I was having many problems to keep the chain. I thought it shouldn’t be harder than with A-S, which I had done before on the Sega Saturn, so I decided to do some research. Then I read that this particular version of DoDonPachi screws up chaining by blocking bee uncoveries from filling up the chain gauge. I didn’t figure that out for myself, but I did confirm what the best Western DDP player stated in this clarifying text.

And down the drain went my strategy to access the loop, specifically the requirement of a 330-hit chain with the C type ship. So what to do next, play in YOKO and chain as best as I could or stick to TATE for the sheer “fun” of it, screw chaining and all? I chose TATE. Even though my intention was to absolutely detach from chaining, I must confess that it wasn’t easy at all. So I would often try to chain blindly, only to risk dying or angering myself for letting those huge combo numbers change colors in the midst of a particularly easy bridge. I switched to the B ship (the helicopter), first with Shot and then with Laser. There’s no point in using Shot unless you’re playing with type C or if you’re pursuing an even harder achievement.

Tinkering with options and having non-chaining fun with ship C-S
(courtesy of YouTube user LigoFr)

Minor differences from an arcade source, such as the ones pointed by Prometheus in his aggressive rant linked above (game speed, enemy placement, enemy resilience), have no bearing at all in my appreciation for any given console port. I’m no arcade purist, and I believe we as players must adapt to the challenge imposed by the game in front of us regardless of its origins. However, given all the issues I was facing with DoDonPachi on the Playstation, there came a point where I was on the verge of hating the game. That’s why I finally decided to play it leisurely, as if it was a total stranger instead of a close friend/enemy – a status that most shmups achieve when I’m about to beat them and reserve a good amount of time to do so. I had even given up on the bee requirement for the loop (all bees in at least 4 levels), so I’d spend weeks without playing the game on the faint hope of getting the 1-ALL at some point on a relaxed, maybe alcohol-splashed credit.

Knowing that such a good-looking port is that much of a wreck is one of the saddest realizations I had since I started dedicating myself to the genre. Never mind the little annoyances of this version, such as the inability to choose different ship types when in TATE (you need to select the ship in the Options, limited RAM is to blame) or the addition of a special button to induce heavy artificial slowdown (really?). You can also toggle a Wait function whenever you pause the game to mimic the arcade slowdown, but that’s not really meaningful unless you’re facing the most dense patterns from bosses.

The controller layout I adopted was shot on ×, bomber on ○ and full auto on R1. Credits are coined with the SELECT button, all inputs are configurable and auto save can be properly turned on. And below is my shameful 1-loop clear of DoDonPachi on the Playstation with B-L, Normal difficulty. Which brings me to an awkward challenge that just crossed my mind: how low can you get when going for a DDP clear? And I don’t need to state my final verdict on which 32-bit port is better, do I?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

TransBot (Master System)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
2 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1986

In an attempt to jump in the bandwagon success of Hasbro’s Transformers, one of the first games Sega published on card media for the Sega Mark-III in Japan was Astro Flash, later released in cartridge format with different titles all around the world. In North America and Europe it soon appeared as TransBot, but Tectoy would change its name again to Nuclear Creature a few years later for another release in Brazil. Answer quickly, which of these titles is the best for a Transformers-inspired game? Which one would lure you more vividly into playing a lackluster shooter that has an annoying power-up system and wears off faster than a seasonal McDonald’s snack?

Of special note is the ridiculous robot in the covers of all versions, which seems to be Optimus Prime’s poor cousin from outer space. The story to the game says that’s the robot form of starfighter CA-214, a powerful ship that has the ability to transform between spacecraft and robot with the aid of power-up icons. He’s forever doomed to patrol the surface and the undergrounds of a destroyed planet Earth in the far future, in an endless war against an artificial intelligence named Daluas. I don’t think Cybertron has anything to do with Daluas, and I advise shmuppers and Master System fans alike to give up on any positive expectations when putting their hands on Transbot.

A credit of Nuclear Creature
(courtesy of YouTube user J.C.)

Transbot’s gameplay revolves around killing endless waves of diverse ships and creatures as the screen scrolls and the background initially varies between three different landscapes, as well as destroying a particular enemy that serves as entry ticket to an underground base with a single boss awaiting at its end. Considering that these are actually two separate stages and that particular enemy requires very specific conditions to be killed, one can play the first level forever without ever knowing there’s a secondary area. And once this second level is done the game loops. Depending on how long you take to complete both stages you might need to see a few other loops to glance the whole of the enemy gallery. In a nutshell, if you finally come across an underground vertical laser barrier then you can consider you’ve seen all of TransBot.

An overhead display is reserved to show a series of alphabet letters, from A to G. A is the default condition of the CA-214 starfighter: ship form, default V shaped shot and unlimited ammo (button 2 shoots). By hitting a truck that comes from the left you release an orb that starts ascending, and by hitting it again the orb shifts to the left. When you take it the letter display starts cycling very fast from A to G, to which the player must press button 1 in order to choose the desired letter. Do it fast though, after four cycles the display settles at letter A and you lose the chance to select another one. Each letter has a defined function: B switches the weapon to a ring shot, C is a large vertical bar that disintegrates everything in its path, D is a single piercing shot, E is a short range 3-way gun, F is a two-directional weak shot and G refills both energy bars that control health (power) and weapon ammo (arm).

The limited nature of the ammo for all weapons except for the default is almost as annoying as the stupid roulette scheme, let alone the sluggish speed of the starfighter itself. Well, this speed is at least enough to weave around enemies and bullets without incurring in extra anger, even in the bulky robot form (C, E and F weapons). It doesn’t take long to get into the rhythm of the game though, and once this happens you realize that it takes a certain amount of destroyed enemies for the power-up truck to appear. By using ammo parsimoniously and successively activating the G upgrade it’s possible to keep the same weapon for a long while, but this takes a good timing skill.

In order to enter the underground area the player has to kill a single drone that crosses the screen after you’ve spent some time patrolling the planet. The only weapon that does this is the piercing shot (D), all others will make bullets ricochet from the enemy.

Flashing asteroids with a transforming robot

There are several other issues in TransBot besides the power-up system. One of the problems is that the game gets boring fast, no matter how much it mixes different waves or how many loops you complete. Since it’s not that hard of a challenge, concentration lapses are pretty much the only ways for a credit to end. For such a short game you can’t really expect much variation in the music, and the little there is isn’t anything to write home about. Scorewise there are no special considerations, with the exception that ramming into the power-up truck instead of destroying it results in 1.000 points. The first extend comes with 40.000 points, with further ones given with each 80.000 points afterwards. Since the game has no built-in autofire, I advise getting a rapid fire unit.

One last note: the more I learn about arcades and video games in general, the more I’m convinced that some of the most obscure arcade games in the 80s were produced by the once powerful Sega. TransBot is a rare case of a home video game that received a makeover for an arcade release (another one is Thunder Force III). The arcade revision of TransBot received four complete stages (surface + underground) and came with considerable changes in the gameplay. It was named Astro Flash in Japan and Transformer in the West.

I had as main objective in TransBot for the Master System to score at least one million points. In the picture below I’m fighting the underground boss in loop 7, just before giving up the credit.