Thursday, July 30, 2015

Elemental Master (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft in 1990
Published by Renovation in 1993 (US)

Jets, spaceships, nuclear-propelled saucer-shaped rockets? These are all too much of a cliché in those tiring, intergalactic adventures you play in your everyday shmup routine. Their missions would be nothing without the efforts of the brave people who strive to maintain justice at ground level, battling all sorts of fiends and beasts that emerge from desolate castles and polluted soils.

Jokes aside, no matter how predominant the archetypical shmup avatar/vessel is, there will always be room and faithful devotees for the pedestrian type of shooter. Like Elemental Master, for instance, a vertical take on the formula presented by Technosoft's own Thunder Force III.

Elemental Master is a fantasy shooter with outstanding atmosphere, one that aesthetically rivals titles with similar themes such as Jewel Master, Castlevania, Dragon Spirit and Undeadline. Being a pedestrian shooter, with the latter it shares many gameplay traits except for challenge, an aspect that instead mirrors the characteristics of Thunder Force III. So provided you don’t expect an enduring time with it, chances are you’ll have good fun with the adventure of a wizard warrior who must fight his own wicked brother to free a magical world from the clutches of evil. Graphics are top notch and the soundtrack is as great as in any other 16-bit Technosoft product.

Wind power against evil centaurs

As seen in the dramatic intro to the game, our hero is at the core of a family tragedy, but in his quest for justice he’ll acquire additional elemental powers as each of the initial four stages is completed. It’s possible to select their order: there’s a fiery stage where lava flows through cracks on the ground, a ravine level with monsters throwing rocks at you, a windy forest and a desolate swamp filled with treacherous lagoons. Once all of them are beaten you’ll have completed your arsenal, which besides the basic straight gun will also consist of a three-way shot (fire), a wave pattern (wind), a powerful fire blast (earth) and an ice weapon that fires crawling projectiles on the sides (water). Weapons gained are only lost when the game is over, and once at least two are available button C is used to cycle through them.

In a bi-directional mechanic that adds a welcome diversity to the game, button A shoots down and button B shoots up. Plain shooting won’t be your only resource though, since with each press of either A or B you only get a short stream of fire. By holding down the button firing stops soon and you start charging the selected weapon for a more powerful blast upon release. Even though the scheme for regular/charged shot might be a bit weird, it actually works quite well considering that all forms of the charge shot are useful. And you don’t need to mash the buttons to achieve a continuous firing rate, all you need to do is tap them at short regular intervals.

When you start the game the default weapon is the only one that has no charging capability, but thanks to the sacrifice of the curvy fairy that aids you in the first half of the journey you’ll be able to use its charge blast as soon as you beat stage 5. This new charge shot is actually the only weapon that can damage the female spider-boss in stage 6, as hinted by the fairy herself before she disappears. All bosses return for revenge in the last level, a long stride inside a castle full of huge flails and moving spikes, as well as several lines of unspeakable creatures such as mummies, golems and gargoyles.

Expanding the initial health meter is accomplished by finding and taking a trophy item (each one creates an extra slot in the health bar). Other items to be uncovered from inside golden chests consist of health refill for 2 slots, a shield that absorbs three hits of damage and a magic mirror that creates three trailing shadows and provide additional firepower – this last one will be lost as soon as you get hit and lose health. There's no harm in touching walls, but you do lose health when you get crushed by the scrolling effect.

A taste of Technosoft's elemental magic adventure
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

Although it’s hard not to get sucked into the awesome art design of Elemental Master, it’s also hard not to be disappointed by the game’s low challenge level. Enemy bullets are few and far between, with enemies themselves and environmental hazards being the main source of danger. Even when you press A + START to access the options and bump the difficulty up Expert (Very Hard), the stakes aren't that high for a 16-bit shooter. Aiming for higher scores is very simple: just kill everything you see, milk the few possible projectiles available (such as the fire snakes conjured by the floating wizards) and collect all icons since they’re all worth something (plus none of them affects gameplay in a negative way).

When you see what other developers were able to do with the Mega Drive later on, as in Twinkle Tale (especially the boss fights, which are very reminiscent of the boss fights from Elemental Master), I wonder what we’d receive as a sequel had Technosoft decided to revisit the world of this shooter. Would they be able to up their game just like Thunder Force IV did over Thunder Force III? We’ll never know.

As I tried to squeeze the maximum points I could from the game, I started all my credits in the forest stage in order to get the fire weapon and abuse its charge shot and piercing ability. My best result is the one below, playing on Normal. Note: in my opinion this is one of those rare cases where the US box artwork is superior to its Japanese counterpart.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Kiaidan 00 (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Alfa System
Published by Telenet Japan / Riot in 1992

What can you say about video games where you control a giant robot fighting huge mechanical bosses? I’m not crazy about them but I certainly dig this particular departure from the norm every now and then. I do know people who absolutely love everything involving robots, especially those of Japanese origin such as the ones that appear in Gundam and Macross. It’s true that both series are also represented by a plethora of video games within the most diverse genres ever since video games were born, but what of other robot-based efforts that somehow have the same style?

Enter Kiaidan 00 for the PC Engine CD, a behemoth of 16-bit robot shooting with fancy, loud storytelling from start to finish. Foreigners could easily mistake it as a bastard entry in any Gundam series, given the amount of cut scenes, dialogue and character interactions that the brave hero must go through in order to defeat an army led by 14 evil beasts. The cheesy aspect of it all reminds me of stuff like Groizer X, and even if I understand nothing of Japanese I can still relate to the protagonist’s enthusiastic speeches as he enters the robot suit and navigates skies and outer space environments shooting down insect-like creatures, helicopters, jets, dragons, elephants, flying battleships, robots, dwarves, ninjas, warriors in chariots, etc.

If you’re one of those people who enjoy seeing everything the game can give you on story, take a seat and relax as the animated intro of Kiaidan 00 unfolds. And don’t bother prepping to sweat you fingers at that controller so soon after you hit START. You’ll still be seeing a lot before the actual shooting begins.

1st stage
(courtesy of YouTube user mogeta211)

In the lower HUD everything you need at any moment is displayed, such as health bar, stage progression, weapon selection and boss energy. Button II shoots and button I cycles weapons between five types: forward gun, wave spread, rotating energy ball, fixed energy field and three-way lightning bolts. There are no power-ups or upgrades, therefore the sooner you get used to how each weapon works the better. However, this lack of upgrades is compensated by a powerful charge attack accessible by just refraining from shooting. When the charge bar is full press the fire button to unleash the attack, which takes the form of ~ in the same order of the weapon layout ~ a detachable punch, a rotating thin laser, an extended reach for the energy ball (the robot is locked in place though), a wider reach for the energy field and a thick vertical lightning discharge.

Establishing the atmosphere of old TV serials is something that Kiaidan 00 does with undeniable efficiency. From the colorful graphics to the pumping, sometimes eerie music of a few levels, everything in between evokes the feeling you’re immersed in one of those old cartoons. The scrolling takes the player flying over cities from afar and up close, between the clouds, across cold forests, inside cramped corridors where lava streams flow underneath, playing catch-up with a train protected by a ninja army and rocketing into outer space for the final showdown against the pair of final bosses. By the way, every stage comes with a mid-boss and a proper boss, varying from tiny people in cyborg suits to large mechanized aliens. They all have an assortment of predictable patterns for the most part, but the fights get more challenging as the game nears the end.

There are initially only three energy/health cells, meaning you can take three hits before the robot goes down in a burst of smoke and twisted metal (only to rise up again with a powerful shout when you say YES to the continue option). If you lose all health cells the character’s face starts glowing red, with the next blow causing a GAME OVER. Small green spheres scattered throughout the game replenish one cell, but I suggest not counting on them during later stages. The good news is that the health bar is fully restored at the start of the level. Activating the other bits of the energy bar is possible and directly related to scoring: for every million points achieved you activate an extra cell.

I'm on the ninja train!

At times Kiaidan 00 feels unnecessarily stretched out, not because the game is actually long but probably because some of the levels incur in repetitive cannon fodder. At least each stage has its own set of enemies, which don’t appear again in any other area of the game. Overwhelming flocks are the most dangerous hazard you might face, that’s why getting used to all weapons and trusting the power of the charge attacks makes a whole lot of difference for survival. I mainly used the forward gun, the 3-way lightning and the energy field, with a little help from the rotating orb in selected spots.

Although very simple, the scoring system is heavily unbalanced towards the energy field weapon. Getting higher numbers depends exclusively on how often you use it during boss fights. Just touch them for a moment and watch as the score counter increases at a much faster rate than if you were using any other weapon. This can be exploited during the whole fight, including the period after you have depleted the boss’s energy – when the game is merely waiting for you to throw the final blow with any charge attack (to which you’re treated with a corresponding animation during the level transition in the case of a stage boss). The wait time after the boss runs out of health isn’t too long and the boss will go down even if you don’t do anything. A midboss is worth 50.000 points when killed whereas bosses yield 100.000 points, but the amount of points you can get from exploiting them with the energy field weapon far outnumbers those figures.

Of course the above scoring technique comes with a risk-reward ratio that must be carefully dealt with, otherwise you might lose the credit for sheer greed. Some bosses are easier to milk, others not so much, such as those who tend to move erratically around the screen. I had more fun with the game once I started to squeeze more points from them.

Among the robot-themed horizontal shooters, Kiaidan 00 is unique because you don’t see the robot’s avatar in the usual profile we’re used to (standing, side view). Bullet count is considerably low, to which there’s a workaround if the player thinks there should be more of them: just go to the options and move the difficulty selector up. With each step the game will throw an increasing number of suicide bullets! The options screen is also supposed to show the highest score in each difficulty, but this function is bugged and doesn’t work well all the time. To get a record of a 1CC result it’s best to pause the game as soon as you defeat the final boss, as in the picture below (I played on Normal / 0).

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Paranoia (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Naxat Soft
Published by Naxat Soft in 1990

Paranoia is a very strange little game, starting with the name, and if it wasn’t for its release in the West as Psychosis it would be even weirder due to obscurity. While not exactly engaging by standard definitions, this little shooter tries to offer a dose of surreal action partially inspired by the primordial mechanics pioneered by R-Type, with graphics that tend to use saturated colors and in my opinion visually evoke stuff as diverse as Deep Blue and Thunder Force II. The sluggish default speed of the ship and the adoption of checkpoints don’t allow it be a totally friendly shooter though, requiring an approach that might be just a little more methodical than your average PC Engine horizontal blaster.

Button II shoots and button I cycles the position of both satellite orbs created whenever you pick up one of the power-up items. Items are always released by the fifth enemy within a recurring wave and have a particularly interesting entry animation – as if the game’s fabric was torn and the item was thrown into its reality, slightly floating up and down for you to take it. Besides speed-ups (S) and generous shields (glowing items), three types of power-ups can be collected in order to enhance the firepower provided by the default straight shot: close-range electricity bars (T), wave shot (W) and rear laser beams (B). Firepower is transferrable across all weapons with four upgrade levels until you reach maximum power, whereas weapon firing direction follows the current position of the orbs.

Zip through a Japanese plant nightmare

All five levels (or "causes") have very specific environments, and all of them demand proper use of the satellite orbs as a defense mechanism (these things inflict serious damage and can even absorb lasers!). By moving the ship towards the direction the orbs are facing they spread out to the sides, closing in again when you move in the other direction. This means that if you want to keep them together in place you can only move away from the orbs’ direction or along the corresponding perpendicular line. It sounds a bit complicated on paper, but after a while controlling them becomes second nature. Other than that, realizing their importance for defense is half the battle of looping Paranoia. The other half, of course, is memorizing the stage layouts and how to get back up upon death.

From the first stage, a short stride into and out of a wide cave with backgrounds of sandy beaches and clouds (!), to the last stage inside a much darker cave, Paranoia also takes the player through landscapes of trippy blocks, gloomy Japanese gardens and the insides of an Indian fortress. While it doesn't seem that obvious, the close-range electricity field (T) can actually be one of the most useful weapons. It’s possible to easily get rid of the zipping fast creatures of the 4th stage merely by carrying it and staying low. The advantage of the wave cannon and the laser are their ability to pierce through everything, which is great against bosses that have tiny or shielding weak points. The metallic fox of the third level, for example, can only be hit when it lifts the head at regular intervals, and if you don't have wave or laser 95% of the attacks will be deflected by the armored bodyguards, forcing you to make the fight more personal. The problem with the laser is that you have to keep the satellites on the back of the ship and deal with the awkward firing angle.

I died cheaply a few times in the second level because of the color choices of the blocky walls, which don't make a good job of conveying borders at the absence of parallax layers. Flying behind the foreground vegetation of the third stage can be tricky, so watch out for the little devil that controls an arrow that hints at which corridor the flying faces will come from. By the way, this little creature seems to be the same alien goblin that gives you the finger in between levels while a very muffled sound seems to say "fuck you". How's that for another crazy bit of surrealism in a game that's supposed to take place inside the mind of a psychotic person? Video games were cool back then, I'll tell you that.

Welcome to paranoia world
(courtesy of YouTube user headbangersworld)

Of special note here is the atmospheric music, that manages to be fitting, eerie and strangely appealing at the same time. Speaking of surreal, even though it's not clearly defined anywhere the enemy design is mostly built around an insect theme. It's as if the crazy worlds imagined by the game were infested by little bugs, and the ship is some sort of spray can with its spinning arrow appearance. Watch out for the small caterpillar that appears at the very beginning of the game. If you manage to protect it from being raped by the giant ants without killing it, a flock of butterflies will appear to help you on the fight against the first boss. There's also a turtle that comes to protect you from the falling bricks if you manage to reach the 4th level without dying.

Dealing with checkpoint recovery is fun, in that they're never too hard to handle. In order to recover faster it's better to let some enemies live longer until they spit out one of those power-up little bugs. Examples are the big orange egg in the first stage, the thorn-laden nests that come from behind and the huge spikes hanging from the ceiling, both in the second stage. Avoid destroying waves close to the borders or walls, since power-ups can drift off the screen or inside unreachable areas. For every 50.000 points the player is awarded with an extend, and considering that the second loop increases the challenge considerably an inflated life stock is very welcome once the extra round starts. The main difference in the second loop is the blazing fast speed of enemy bullets and the increased health of bosses.

There is no way to preserve scores at all in Paranoia, so unless you pause before you die your last life you won't be able to register your results. In the picture below I was about to start my final attempt at the second boss on the second loop.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Down Load 2 (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by NEC Avenue
Published by NEC Avenue in 1991

Down Load 2 is the sequel to the HuCard shooter Down Load, both exclusively released for the Japanese PC Engine by its in-house company NEC Avenue. This second game seems to be even more obscure than its predecessor, in part probably because it lacks the awkward cursing messages the first one came to be known for. However, Down Load 2 kinda makes up for that by concocting an out-of-bounds story that has Adolf Hitler’s brain being implanted in a doomsday organic creature that’s threatening to take over the world, complete with cut scenes that leave nothing to the player’s imagination.

Syd, the pilot of the cool hoverbike of the first chapter, returns to action when he’s woken up in the middle of the night by his friend Deva. This time he’s in control of a regular spaceship, projecting himself into a few cyber space environments throughout nine short stages set in extremely varied landscapes. The characters are the same, but the gameplay between both games couldn’t be more different. With the exception of the flying speed, everything else about Down Load 2 is more straightforward and results in an easier challenge that’s at least entertaining for its diversity and for the attempt at telling a story with extra dialogue and imagery. Of course for the dialogue you’re supposed to understand Japanese (to skip those long intermissions just press SELECT).

It is cold in the mountains

Worrying about weapon availability isn't needed in Down Load 2 since all four weapons are at your disposal at the press of button I, with which you're able to select between a vulcan pattern, a straight laser, a homing shot and a powerful close-range electrical field (firing is accomplished by pressing button II). It takes only two power-ups (P) to max out any weapon type, and the good news is that they're all useful in equal measure. Unlike in most shmups that have it, the homing shot in particular is extremely effective when maxed out throughout most of the game. I can use it exclusively in several stages without switching to any other weapon type, boss fights included.

A few other items are also very important in order to play the game more comfortably. Besides the obligatory speed-up (S) you can also take a red square-shaped icon that provides up to two side options that hover above and below the ship, block bullets and fire additional homing shots. The blue square-shaped icon grants a shield that can withstand a good number of hits, going from green (full shield) to orange (weak shield). Note: taking an extra red icon when you already have two options works as a smart bomb. Other items that might show up include extra lives (1UP) and two single icons that appear only once and are pretty much useless. The G in stage 7 should be avoided because it sends the ship flying at a ridiculous speed, whereas the E in stage 8 seems to have just a screen clearing effect. Unless I missed something, my opinion is that both G and E reek of leftovers from a rushed design process.

On visual merits, Down Load 2 is very keen on impressing the player with nice effects. No matter how obscure it is, this one is still capable of surprising even the most seasoned PC Engine gamer. Not only are the cut scenes considerably detailed and story-driven, but you also get an aggressive use of colors and some gorgeous parallax every now and then. Besides a few aspects inherited from the first chapter, it's possible to recognize influences from Forgotten Worlds (paintings on the walls coming to life, large bosses chasing you around the screen) and Rabio Lepus (the whole blueish cold design of the sixth stage). Influences aside, the game succesfully shows proper personality, if only for the bizarre use of Hitler's image. The music is rock-oriented and just correct, with no stand-out tracks in my opinion.

The lengthy intro of Down Load 2
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

There's not much to say about the scoring system here. It's just too simple and rather messy, since some enemies and bosses do not result in any score at all. I couldn't identify any point of unlimited milking, and the little projectiles that can be exploited come from enemies that don't take long to go down or disappear too soon. By far the biggest addition to scoring comes from the extra P items you collect once the firepower is maxed out, since each one is worth 500 points. The higher you score the more chances you have at beating the game as well because for every 10.000 points achieved you win an extra life.

Unlimited continues and the possibility to stock lots of extra lives is what ultimately makes Down Load 2 an easy game. The default speed shouldn't be a problem as far as gameplay goes, and the art design surely makes for a fun little ride. With the exception of the lesser difficulty, arguing if the sequel is better or worse than the first Down Load is down to a matter of taste. They're just too different from each other after all.

If you want to have a record of your score after you beat the final boss remember to pause at once as soon as the boss goes down. There's almost no time to see the final score before the game enters the animation for the ending. I have successfully melted Hitler's brain and saved mankind, and my 1CC result is below.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

GunHed (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON/OFF
4 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile / Hudson Soft
Published by Hudson Soft / Toho Sunrise in 1989

Those who’ve been around this genre long enough know that recognizing a Compile shooter doesn’t take much effort. Long stages, a multitude of weapons and frantic action: across the couple of famous series it gave birth to, that’s been the norm ever since Zanac saw the light of day. Expanding on the aforementioned aspects, the effectiveness of further Compile games – especially during the 16-bit era – varied quite a bit even though the challenge level often leaned towards the easy side. GunHed (or Blazing Lazers in the West, as released for the Turbografx-16) is frequently ranked as one of the company’s highlights, and if I may say for reasons that today seem more related to nostalgia than actual gameplay merits.

Of course GunHed does have some cool moments of shmup rush. The involvement of Hudson Soft in the development process is probably to blame for the unusual difficulty spike of the last third of the game, as well as the blended scheme of checkpoints and no-checkpoints that plays a pivotal role for those who’re serious about beating it. Hudson Soft is also the intersection that connects the game to the likes of Super Star Soldier, Final Soldier and Soldier Blade, which makes some people consider it an integral part of the Soldier series. As of today I haven’t ventured into those titles yet, but for now I can say that even though GunHed is unnecessarily stretched out, in its best moments the general atmosphere is of a well-crafted 16-bit shooting romp. And slowdown-free to boot.

Fire with button II, deploy bombs with button I and select between four flying speeds with the SELECT button. At first the amount of items and weapons at the player’s disposal is overwhelming, so it takes a little while to get used to all of them. Roman numerals correspond to the main weapons: I (photon blasters, Star Soldier 5-way gun), II (disrupt wave, good spread capability when maxed out), III (field thunder, electric laser beams with amusing visual flair) and IV (ring blaster, regular gun with rotating orbs). Collect the same type to power it up, or do it slowly by collecting the purple orbs. Alphabet letters create and upgrade auxiliary weapons: F (full fire, increases the power of the active weapon), M (multi-bodies, creates up to two trailing options), H (homing missiles) and S (shield). Furthermore, taking any icon for an auxiliary weapon is the way to acquire extra bombs, up a maximum of 16.

Stage 2 onwards
(courtesy of YouTube user Mushaaleste)

Regular carriers are responsible for bringing weapon items and purple orbs, even though you can get these from almost all enemy waves that are completely wiped out or from certain ground spots throughout the levels. However, players are allowed to carry only one type of main weapon and only one type of auxiliary weapon. It’s not possible, for example, to have the F enhancer and the S shield (not the natural single shield mentioned below) at the same time.

The simplicity of this weapon system is deceiving. After all, GunHed is filled with little mysteries that will only unfold for those who spend some serious time with the game. In the process of powering up your main weapon, for instance, a faint shield will naturally form around your ship, providing side protection against one hit at the cost of a power downgrade (the front and the back of the ship are still vulnerable though). For a certain amount of enemies killed special carriers appear bringing cycling power-ups that stand still when hit. Hit them enough or let them reach the bottom of the screen to see them turn into a blinking orb. Now for the catch: there’s more to their screen-clearing effect, since each blinking orb taken also gives you an instant respawn after you die. And that’s how you bypass checkpoints! Stockpiling these blinkers is the safest way to guarantee a chance at beating the tough final level of GunHed.

Another minor detail of the gameplay appears in the way auxiliary weapons work when maxed out. They acquire a temporary final upgrade that enhance their efficiency. A special case I’d like to point is the nature of the homing missiles, which are slow at lower levels but get very fast when maxed out. And they also fire more simultaneous rounds when used with main weapon I, which is an unexpected winning combination. One condition that tops this one in effectiveness is having the special 8-way shot, a secret weapon that’s only obtained by sticking to the following rule: empty the bomb stock and collect 30 purple orbs without dying or collecting any other item (only blinking orbs are allowed). A special power-up that looks like your ship will appear and grant you the 8-way shot.

Managing all these resources is the best aspect of GunHed’s gameplay. It’s harder to notice the gaps and the repetitive bits while you’re focused on finding the best weapon combinations. However, once a plan has been devised you start noticing how unnecessarily stretched some stages are. Some of them have mid-bosses and a few are certainly a joy to cruise through, such as the block-ridden treacherous level 3, the fast scrolling of the brain stage and the bubble area. The bad news is that by the time you get to the bubble level GunHed is already dragging, and the final level is pretty much a rehash of the 7th stage only with trickier enemies and a boss rush. Ultimately, the game just lacks substance to justify its long duration.

Destroy this boss arm by arm

The scoring system couldn’t be more simple. Kill everything you can and beat the game for a final bonus of 10 million points. You get no extra points for surplus power-ups, so use what you have for the sake of your destruction rampage. Going after the 8-way shot shouldn’t help in that regard, and on top of that it’s really easy to lose it – either by getting hit or by taking more than 10 power-ups once you have the weapon. The truth is that it’s much more enjoyable to tinker with the other weapons, especially the field thunder and all the auxiliary kinds. Unfortunately the scoring scheme in GunHed is broken since it allows infinite milking in certain parts of the game (such as during the quick confrontation against the 4th midboss).

If scoring is bust, at least the player’s left with the fun of playing a very long Compile-meets-Hudson shooter. A plethora of extra lives can be amassed by scoring (20K, 50K, 100K, 200K and for every 200K afterwards), and if you can take enough blinking orbs clearing the game on one credit becomes a lot less frustrating (I remember the first time I played it, hopelessly hammering the final stage on checkpoints until I ran out of continues). While the sound design tries to impress by providing voice samples for the weapons you collect, some of the music is at least reasonably catchy. Extra difficulty levels are available by performing a trick during the start screen: hold SELECT and press buttons I and II together at the same time; do it again to see further difficulties (a turbo controller helps); get out of there by soft-resetting with SELECT + START.

I got the best result below after experimenting for a little while and beating the game a few times (Normal difficulty). No milking was done. In between credits I tried to get my nephews to also play the game when they got fed up with the PS3 one evening. :)

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.