Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Gunbird (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, start selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Atlus in 2005

For me, as a collector, one of the good reasons of owning several versions of the same game across multiple platforms is that replaying them can always be done as if you were trying a new title, only with a head start thanks to all the experience you had in previous contacts with it. In the case of Gunbird, I had already tried the Saturn and the Playstation versions, looping each one with a different character (Yuan-Nang and Marion, respectively). So for the port that's present in the Gunbird 1 & 2 compilation for the Playstation 2 my choice was again for another pilot: slow-ass Tetsu and his pedalcopter.

Gunbird 1 & 2 was only released in Japan and Europe and stands as a nice package for this sympathetic little franchise. Granted, it's basically a bare bones collage of both arcade games, but the addition of a TATE mode is more than enough to warrant the purchase in my opinion. I reckon by now I should be aiming for Gunbird 2, but since I have always been a little terrified by the idea (the same goes for Dragon Blaze), being drafted back into the first game kinda makes me happy for enjoying some more lighthearted Psikyo fun and keeping the prospect alive of someday venturing into the colorful raping fest of Gunbird 2.

But I digress. Back to Tetsu.

Tetsu faces one of the multiple forms of the Trump pirates

Tetsu is, along with Ash, the most controversial character of Gunbird. He is openly homossexual, Ash is a pedophile. While Ash carries this adventurous, seemingly overconfident persona, little is to be seen of Tetsu's countenance due to his thick white beard. As the story about finding the missing pieces of a magic mirror goes on, character interactions are played out with light humor in brief dialogue panels that appear prior to and after boss confrontations. Of course none of this really matters in the Japanese version of the game (unless you're able to understand the language), and even so the character's traits are only important for those who care more about storylines than the actual gameplay.

The action in Gunbird is based in three inputs: shot, rapid shot and bomb. Rapid shot and bomb are self-explanatory, while shot can be charged for a more powerful attack by holding the button and releasing it once you hear a specific sound cue (while charging the character isn't allowed to shoot). Charging times and bomb/shot effectiveness varies a little for all five characters, so it's advisable to try all of them and see which one fits your play style. I used to think very lowly of Tetsu, but now I believe he's actually got the most powerful bomb of the ensemble. Its slow-moving fiery trail inflicts tons of damage and is devastating on bosses, but you need to cope with the triggering delay and eventual failure in blocking enemy bullets.

Special enemies release power-ups and extra bombs. It takes three Ps to max out the shot pattern, and each next power-up will be worth 2.000 points as long as you get it before the power down cycle expires and you lose one power level. That's why sometimes it's better to let the items float around before picking them up, though not too long to the point that they will leave the screen. The maximum number of bombs you can carry is six, with further ones resulting in extra points as well. Gold ground coins also contribute a little to the score, as well as the multiple boss parts you're able to destroy. There's only a single extend that comes with 400.000 points.

Going the distance without dying is nice but has a direct effect in the gameplay, which becomes progressively harder. This rank system is pure Psikyo, and if you played any of their games you'll know what to expect here. It's possible to use a trick to reduce rank without dying if desired: just touch an enemy and watch as one of your power-ups drifts away (the payoff might not be worth it because of the firepower loss though). The game also has a random factor in the stage order: one of the four starting levels (castle, factory, woods, village) is always randomly left out of the loop, and the order of the active three is also randomized. Then four increasingly weird stages unfold until you face a Gremlin-like final boss. An interesting feature of this PS2 port is that you can do away with the stage shuffling in the options menu. There's also a comprehensive practice mode where you can choose stage, character, power level and bomb stock. Very helpful indeed. No loading times and a proper save function complete the package.

Stage 6 in full, including a stray bullet through a bomb blast against the boss

As short as it might seem to many players, Gunbird definitely has that one-more-go factor and is a good representative of the fantasy branch in the shmup genre during the 90s (as is Strikers 1945 for military and Sengoku Ace for flying samurai, in the case of Psikyo). While not a stellar entry, its inherent charm becomes more and more clear as you learn how to use the different characters to overcome the quick, occasionally dense enemy bullet clouds. In essence, it's a short, fun little shooter. And if you're skilled and patient enough you can always face the even crazier challenge of the second loop and its suicide bullets in order to see the definitive endings.

I was able to loop the game a few times with Tetsu in the default difficulty level (5), but didn't get any further than stage 2-1. Playing exclusively with Tetsu for a while and then switching to any other character can be shocking due to how slow he is. Below is the final score table after this quick comeback round (remember that continuing doesn't reset the score but adds +1 for proper differentiation).

Now the next challenge definitely has to be Gunbird 2.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Space Harrier (PC Engine)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
18 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nec Avenue / Sega
Published by Nec Avenue in 1988

The shooting genre had come a long way since the striking success of Space Invaders in the late 70s. However, by taking its two-dimensional aspect and adding another action plane Sega was able to create a new subgenre with games like After Burner, Galaxy Force and Space Harrier. Though not perfect, this new subgenre mimicked the feeling of immersion in a 3D environment by providing a zooming effect cleverly conveyed by sprite scaling.

What results from this approach is pure gameplay from start to finish. In the case of Space Harrier, it's as simple as it gets: shoot, dodge, kill enemies. No power-ups, no speed-ups, no special alteration of any kind except for a single extra life registered once a certain score is achieved. Much like its original arcade mold, Space Harrier on the PC Engine belongs to this unique category and makes no concessions with its absolute lack of continues. Just a single option exists, one that’s used to reverse vertical controls, but since our avatar is a man who flies around carrying a plasma cannon, reversing verticals doesn’t feel natural for me.

Natural is more an adequate word for the way the PC Engine is able to handle this great little port. It's a solid demonstration that this system is far beyond 8-bit specs even though many people put it in the same category of the NES and the Master System (as if it didn't go head-to-head against the Mega Drive and the Super Nintendo back in the day). Of course there were some concessions in the porting process, such as the absence of the checkerboard floors, the scratchy voices and the reduced (albeit solid) amount of frames per second, but otherwise this version of the game is a very faithful representation of the arcade original with overall great colors, a decent soundtrack and spot-on sound effects.

Welcome to Dragon Land
(courtesy of YouTube user Sepia MtAnoia)

In the no-frills universe of Space Harrier, the lone hero must fly through 18 levels while dodging all sorts of terrain obstacles, avoiding enemy fire and taking down hordes of drones, orbs, robots and strange creatures. I like to think of it as a game that demands players to dodge two kinds of bullets: the first one is the single aimed enemy projectile that's best evaded by always being on the move; the second one is the stationary obstacle that approaches at varying speeds (and sometimes varying heights), to which careful positioning works best. The mix and overlapping of both, as well as their increase in speed and density, is what defines the challenge bestowed upon all brave players who want to see the game to the end.

And it's a tough one, yes, but in a way that rewards memorization. All flying enemies, for instance, arrive in the very same manner. And while many stationary obstacles can be properly destroyed, they are all randomly generated. Going around them to get fast, clean kills of incoming waves is key to survival, but sometimes that's just not possible. Pushing the odds might lead you to a painful death with the characteristic agonising Harrier scream. And I might be wrong here, but I had the feeling that those dreadful marble pillars are a little bigger and more numerous in the third half of the game. Or maybe it's just the reduced frame rate that makes things a bit harder, I wonder?

Five million is the score you need to achieve to get a life extend, which generally comes before the first bonus stage. There are officially two of those, but we can also consider the last stage another bonus of sorts since it's just a repetition of a few selected bosses. Stages 16/17 are the hardest ones to survive, so once you come out of them into the final level the clear is pretty much guaranteed unless you mess up badly. After all, bosses are definitely the easiest parts of Space Harrier. And in the grand scheme of things the absence of a proper end boss is kinda disappointing.

Mushroom reality, mushroom-infused dreams

While not mandatory, a turbo controller definitely helps here. The absence of autofire becomes less stressful as you learn the game and come to terms with the enemy routine (note how the fired shots bend a little in order to hit nearby targets, an aspect that's duly preserved from the arcade version). Strangely enough, I couldn't find a way to consistently get good results while riding the giant creature in the bonus areas, something seems off with the directionals there.

As a final token of care from the team who handled the port, once the game is beaten a brief epilogue /epirogue/ text gives some closure to the adventure and sets it apart from the original story that happened in the famous Fantasy Zone. Dragon Land is where the action takes place on the PC Engine, in a battle to free the planet from death and devastation brought about by a mad ruler called Wi Wi Jumbo, the stage 17 boss. Yep, no kidding. Wi Wi Jumbo is his name.

My 1CC high score for Space Harrier on the PC Engine is below. Next in line in the port gallery is probably one of the Master System games or the exclusive special version on the Playstation 2.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Gaia Seed (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Techno Soleil
Published by Techno Soleil in 1996

Of all aspects related to Gaia Seed, which used to be quite inaccessible due to its rarity until it was released for the Playstation Network in 2009, the most interesting one is the way it deals with lives. It's got the usual three per credit, but each life comes with an energy bar that can withstand a determined number of hits and gets regenerated automatically as long as you're able to go on unscathed. Yes, a regenerating lifebar. Though not quite the equivalent to the dominant regenerating gimmick of today's gaming reality, that's a pretty close system that says a lot about how approachable this game is, especially for newcomers to the genre.

The above is also the reason why Gaia Seed - Project Seed Trap (full title) is an extremely easy game. To put it into perspective, I 1CCed it on my first try while extremely tired and somewhat sleepy very late at night. It's straightforward enough and should present no demanding challenge for those schooled in the traditional horizontal shooter formula, kinda like a typical 16-bit title with average 32-bit aesthetics and a certain penchant for resembling none other than Darius Gaiden. If that's up your alley then this game might cut it as a feeble curiosity, in my opinion it's no hidden gem as a few people might put it.

Wait, I have seen these enemies somewhere...

After an intro that shows what seems to be the downfall of our world through pollution and war, the player is dropped in outer space and initiates a mission to reignite the planet. A muffled English narration spoken by a Japanese fellow lends a little more flair to the strange vibe of this intro, whose spooky nature immediately reminded me of Gun Frontier. It kinda sets the tone for what's to come since the game is certainly offbeat in its dark settings and weird-looking bosses.

Controls in Gaia Seed work with □/× for shot and Δ/○ for the so-called "intense fire" attack, a weapon-dependent outburst of energy that, contrary to the expected common effect, doesn't render the ship invincible – that's why I don't really consider it to be a bomb. Main weapons consist of vulcan (red) and laser (blue), switchable by taking the respective color-coded cycling icon. There are also two auxiliary weapons: green shoots out four slow-moving outward projectiles and yellow sends out two similar alternating projectiles that cause minor explosions upon contact. Both are also switched by taking the respective cycling item.

When using the vulcan weapon, the intense fire attack sends out a series of homing shots that will target anything on screen, which is good to inflict damage regardless of your current position (it also melts regular bullets in its initial seconds of activation). In the case of the laser weapon what you get is a powerful laser beam that hits whatever stands in front of the ship. Once deployed, the intense fire energy bar starts recharging automatically for another use. What I did not like at all is that both gauges (ship's shield power and intense fire) occupy a large chunk of the screen and impair visibility if you need to fly low.

Main weapons can be upgraded three times by sticking to the same color, auxiliary weapons have no upgrades at all. Dying strips the ship off the auxiliary shot and reduces the main weapon power by one level. While the lifebar mechanic gives players lots of room to recover from eventual hits, I'm not really fond of all those sudden laser beams fired by bosses. It's as if the game was desperately trying to account for the lack of challenge, thus requiring players to exert at least a little memorization if they want to improve their performance. Since boss fights are all timed, it would be much better if we had some sort of related bonus for remaining health and fast kills. But no, the only extra opportunities for scoring are in avoiding weapon changes (1.000 points per extra power-up) and killing all enemies in selected formations (1.000 to 5.000 points).

Gaia Seed's gloomy intro
(courtesy of YouTube user ghegs)

A staple of the Darius series, enemy wave destruction bonus is just one of the many aspects that Gaia Seed borrows from Taito's fish-blasting franchise. Backgrounds, boss behavior and even the soundtrack, for example, are all very reminiscent of Darius Gaiden. Of course Gaia Seed does not compare in terms of difficulty, but some boss attacks and even the way multiple forms are dealt with are hauntingly similar. Also watch out for a few enemies that seem to have been lifted directly out of the first Darius.

In an interesting twist in its storyline, this game has three different endings. By beating the final boss the mission is deemed incomplete and you get a bad ending. By timing it out and then killing the secondary angel-looking boss you still get a bad ending. In order to see the good ending and a message of mission complete it's necessary to let them both live. Unfortunately there isn't any sort of scoring reward for the best ending.

No matter how you see it, Gaia Seed will never be more than a quick diversion that wears off pretty fast. Most people tend to praise its music, but in my opinion it's just a serviceable one that suits the atmosphere of the game and also comes out as Zuntata-inspired at times. I attempted to get as many wave bonuses as I could in three consecutive credits, with the final results shown below (Normal difficulty). My preferred choice for weapons was vulcan + yellow side shots. Manual load/save and a music gallery are the most useful functions in the options menu.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Ghost Blade (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hucast
Published by Hucast / Play-Asia in 2015

My friends, I wish I was starting the log in the new year with a better game. However, one of my nephews saw the TV turned on its side and wanted to see how a video game looked in it, so on a whim I decided to take Ghost Blade off the shelf for a quick demonstration of its TATE mode. Then I thought it would be nice to tackle the game properly before putting it back, so here we are.

What a sad disappointment!

Aside from the usual letdown provided by pretty much all products made by Hucast (excessive development delays, promised game modes that never came to be, beta visual assets that never made it to the final product), Ghost Blade is a derivative mess that's completely devoid of any character. It lacks proper challenge and stutters a lot when the screen gets cluttered, in a frameskipping fest that strains the eye after only a few minutes. TATE mode is even worse because the frame rate is degraded all the time and practically makes you want to turn off the Dreamcast to go play something like Galaga instead. Don't be fooled by what you see from official trailers for this version of the game, that's not how it actually looks and plays.

One of the bosses

It's baffling how mediocre Ghost Blade is considering it was designed as a soft homage to developer Cave. The control scheme, for example, follows the classic Cave mold of shot, laser (focus) and bomb, which may be freely assigned in the Dreamcast controller so that you can play it as if you were playing Dodonpachi. Ghost Blade even comes with the choice of three ships: Milan (straight shot, no spread), Ghost (spread pattern) and Rekka (wider shot stream, no spread). Milan is the strongest and fastest of them all, Ghost is the weakest and Rekka stands between them as far as firepower goes. Upon selecting one of them the player is prompted to choose between Normal and Novice difficulties.

As you advance through the levels, little excitement is to be expected due to the generic sci-fi motif, the lethargic way the game is laid out and the naïve boss patterns. Destroyed enemies leave stars behind, and if you kill them with the focus shot they'll also release "tech orbs" that fill up a special gauge for extra bombs. All airborne items are automatically sucked into the ship, ground ones need to be flown over. There's no need to worry about powering up at all since you come out of the first level already fully powered and the Ps and Vs you pick up are never lost when you die. I also didn't care to check the extend routine because I got lost in numbers due to the massive bonus granted at the end of the level (a lone 1UP can also be picked during the 2nd stage).

The above is probably the most critical failure of this game and of any similarly designed shooter: if you don't even care about such precious things like powering up and extra lives, why bother at all? When you analyze the design closely, the background graphics in Ghost Blade are at least decent (faint nods to Ketsui and Pink Sweets included), and so is the soundtrack. But these aspects aren't enough to make a game, they just come off as a waste of resources. There's no kinetic balance when the game is in motion, and playing it often feels like crawling through quicksand, hiccups and bad visibility causing unexpected deaths when you least expect it. Nevertheless Ghost Blade is still remarkably easy, with lots of leeway provided by a bomb stock that's not reset upon death and bullet cancelling in place for most medium-sized enemies.

Intro for Ghost Blade on the Sega Dreamcast
(courtesy of YouTube user Team Shmup'Em-All)

Another similarity with Dodonpachi is in the chaining system, which tracks the number of enemies destroyed for an increasing score multiplier. However, combos in Ghost Blade don't give outrageous score boosts and are a lot less strict since the chain counter isn't lost if you take too long to kill the next enemy. It merely decreases, very slowly. Chains are only completely lost when you die. The end-of-level bonus mentioned above is based on the max combo and the amount of stars and tech orbs collected, as well as lives remaining. Now for something extremely odd: the max combo bonus is always the highest combo you can achieve, so if you manage to get a good one in the first stage you'll always get the very same bonus for all subsequent levels regardless of how badly you play them. This max combo bonus is even repeated in the next credits, so talk about an amateurish oversight! Lastly, I could swear I got an instant GAME OVER once or twice in the final level even though I still had lives in stock.

Besides the base game, Ghost Blade has a training mode and tweaks for the HUD and the audio balance. The collector's edition comes in two DVD cases with the game, the soundtrack and a "superplay" disc with special demonstrations for Ghost Blade, DUX 1.5 and REDUX - Dark Matters. As you can see, it's a royal feast for Hucast fans...

My best result for Ghost Blade in the Normal mode/difficulty is below, playing with the Ghost ship. Just note how even this high score table is messed up, some of the credits display zero as "max" combo. After this original Dreamcast release the game was also made available for more recent platforms such as the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 under the title Ghost Blade HD. It's supposedly a much improved final product, but I'll refrain from trying it for the time being.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

SD Gundam 2 (SNES)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Bandai / Angel
Published by Bandai in 1993

Second and final entry in a limited series of shmup/platforming hybrids on the Super Famicom, SD Gundam 2 graced Nintendo's 16-bit platform almost at the same time as the first installment SD Gundam - V Sakusen Shidou, which was released in the previous year without much of an impact in the gaming scene. As a consequence, both games still remain obscure oddities mostly known by Gundam fans and stubborn people such as myself. So here I am doing my part in spreading the word out there for those who want to know a little bit more about them.

The story of SD Gundam 2 picks up exactly where the first one ended, but now the player can choose three different paths represented by the choice of three big-headed chubby robots. The paths are different because each one of them has a specific set of stages, so we kinda have three different games in a single package even though some levels or bosses appear in more than one storyline. These courses also differ a little in length since a few stages are split in two halves, but their overall duration isn't too long. Cooperative play is also available, but I didn't check how the stages unfold when two players join forces in the battle against an army of cute evil robots.

Bringing justice to cities in flames

Button Y shoots and button B is used to jump (platform areas, double jump is possible) or turn the character left/right (shmup areas). Besides the general gameplay style, the one thing that's preserved from the original game is the basic upgrading scheme. The power-up bar fills up automatically and lights up the upgrade slots, which must then be selected with buttons R/L and activated with button X. The first one is the rifle laser, the second is the power bazooka and the third one differs according to the chosen character. A fourth selectable slot actually corresponds to the special attack made available by collecting the blue item that appears every now and then and is also character-specific; white items refill a portion of the health bar and golden items fill up the upgrade bar instantly with a few bonus points on the side.

The best news about SD Gundam 2 is that there's no ammo constraints for weapons and autofire is implemented by default. On the other hand, getting hit sends you instantly back to the default pea shot (with only one exception, keep reading). If you played the first SD Gundam then you know how much of an improvement this is: on top of relieving you from dealing with speed-ups, the new upgrade method also allows an almost immediate return to the lost weapon if you manage to avoid getting hit for at least the time it takes to fill up the upgrade bar again. The close-range automatic melee attack is still there lest you happen to be surprised by an enemy at point-blank distance.

Here's a brief description on the behavior of the three available Gundams regarding the third upgrade and the special attack (blue item):

  • RX-178 "Gundam Mk-II" (left at the selection screen) - a direct evolution of the mecha from the first game, this one comes with the same shield with three levels, the last one being a brief invincibility period and then back to no shield status; the special attack is a powerful bomb blast.

  • RGM-179 "GM II" (middle one at the selection screen) - the third upgrade is a unique spaceship form equipped with the laser rifle; each extra upgrade level adds one spare hit that the ship can withstand; when the ship form is lost the character reverts back to whatever weapon was active prior to the ship's activation; when in ship form it's not possible to turn left; the special attack slows down all enemies for a specific amount of time.

  • RMS-106 "Hizack" (right at the selection screen) - the third upgrade is a useless mystery that looks like a large electrifying bazooka that does nothing at all; the special attack adds two rotating options to the character for a remarkable increase in firepower.

More Super Deformed fun on the Super Famicom
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)

SD Gundam 2 will not set anyone's world on fire, but it's surely an improvement over the first game. Despite the short gap between both titles, it's clear that Bandai seems to have tweaked the gameplay into something less contrived than what we got the first time around. Not only are the inputs more sensibly executed, but the game moves faster, the enemy gallery is a bit more varied and the AI is much less annoying, which makes the whole experience easier and more fun regardless of the chosen character. Speaking of which, my favorite of the bunch is the middle one due to the ability to turn him into a spaceship even during the platforming parts (if you play well enough you don't even need to use the robot form at all). That's quite nice since SD Gundam 2 feels a little more biased towards shmupping, as opposed to what happened in SD Gundam - V Sakusen Shidou.

The Versus mode now has 10 selectable characters for head-to-head combat either in a space colony setting (platforming) or in outer space (shmup style). Once again this fighting alternative offers nothing more than mindless button mashing chaos.

I beat the game with all three robots, and soon realized that the course for the RGM-179 robot has the best scoring potential. That's the robot I used in the 1CC high score shown below (Normal difficulty). For every 40.000 points you earn an extend, but this time there's no end bonus based on life stock after the game is completed.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Battle Crust (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Picorinne Soft
Published by JoshProd
 in 2018

As a few friends say around here, the Dreamcast is a platform that just refuses to die. A clear example of that is this new shmup called Battle Crust. Originally released for the Steam digital service in 2016, it found its way to Sega's console two years later. Giving the game a proper retail release on a dead niche platform is nothing short of commendable, even though its 16-bit sensibilities do not match the power of the Dreamcast at all. Sure it takes a lot less independent effort to offer a CD-based media instead of a cartridge, and the choice for Sega's much loved home machine was only natural given the expressive amount of independent releases it's been getting ever since its untimely demise.

Battle Crust speaks to those fans of the genre who enjoy the most pure methodical old school shooting action. By adhering to a simple set of rules and sticking to the tried-and-true formula of Irem classics such as Image Fight and R-Type, the game offers a decent space adventure with a challenge level that's much more akin to console than arcade standards. The disc is region-free and comes with TATE mode available at the press of a button (Y), but aside from that it's a bare bones release with no save functionality at all.

The story goes that Earth is at war against the rest of the universe. The invaders have dropped on our planet's surface deadly bombs made of a new metal (the "metal crust"), forcing the planet's defense forces to rise up and confront the menace. In order to level the odds against the universe, prior to departing for battle the ship must be equipped with one of three types of charge mechanisms: normal charge, mega charge and blast charge. Their power can only be unleashed once you acquire side pods by collecting at least one power-up. Charging is accomplished with button B (or L) and overrides the regular autoshot (button A or R), shooting out either a single beam if the button is released while the gauge is filling up or a fully-powered blast whose behavior depends on the chosen charge type.

Select charge system

Charge types differ enough to warrant slightly distinct strategies: the normal one is much like R-Type's classic beam, piercing through cannon fodder until reaching a tougher obstacle; the mega charge is the most powerful of them and even adds a short-range energy discharge to both sides of the ship, but freezes it in place for a split-second after being fired; finally, the blast charge comes out with a certain power, and once this power dissipates against the targets the energy radius stands there for a few seconds while damaging enerything that touches it. An extra benefit of the act of charging is creating a ball of energy that serves as shield against regular bullets and damages anything that touches it. All charge shots also possess a certain degree of bullet-cancelling capability.

After the first power-up is taken and the pods are generated, any further one will be fully active according to its color:
  • blue - straight lasers with rear shot capability;
  • brown - powerful soft forward shot;
  • red - wave shot with two spreading side shots;
  • yellow - a spread of impact shots;
  • green - needle-shaped gun with two homing side shots.

Choosing a favorite weapon is mostly a matter of aesthetical preference since all of them are pretty much equal in power. The green shot however does seem to oust the others when used at point-blank distance. In any case, the balance between charging and regular shooting is quite even, which means that most of the time the charge shot isn't needed at all. It only brings real advantage if you want to add a little extra damage as the bulkier enemies enter the screen.

In the world of Battle Crust players are constantly under a state of pressure due to the increasingly tight surroundings. While the first half of the credit unfolds in open areas, by stage 4 you'll find yourself navigating in cramped spaces and darting through closing gates. Stage 5 is the game's highlight in two parts: a meteor-filled entrance over alien terrain (mild Raiden vibe detected) and a fast-scrolling scramble with tight corridors and enemies arriving from all sides. And while bosses tend to die fast if pummeled hard, they often require lots of movement and bold positioning from the player who aims to properly beat the game.

Special trailer for the Dreamcast version of Battle Crust
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher JoshProd Video Game Producer)

Slow-pacing aside, Battle Crust is fun and rewards good performances accordingly. Having weapons that are equivalent in power might be a missed opportunity gameplaywise, but at least you can take all of them for a score bonus of 1.000 points each. Another scoring opportunity comes from dispatching midbosses quickly to get a golden bug that's worth 3.000 points. The first score-based extend is achieved with 30.000 points, all others arrive at every 100.000 points afterwards; once beaten, the game rewards each spare life with 5.000 points and then adds a huge completion bonus. Finally, any attempt at milking those small projectiles flying everywhere is useless because they're aren't worth anything.

A few brief bouts of stuttering slowdown are to be expected in the final levels. Other than that, some functional details weren't properly ironed out in the process of porting the game from its original PC incarnation to the Dreamcast. The spaceship rushing to the next stage is missing in those black screens between levels, for example. The audio presents some issues, such as this weird low-frequency humming that's more audible during silent moments or the music being randomly absent during the opening animation (the soundtrack is nice by the way, 4th stage BGM is my favorite). When playing in YOKO (standard orientation) the game doesn't fill up the entire screen and it's hard to read the opening texts due to the cramped resolution, that's why TATE or a bigger TV is a must in this case. Granted, my copy of Battle Crust is the European one and I was running it on a NTSC console, so that might be the reason for some of these minor setbacks.

The 1CC result below was achieved in Arcade/Normal difficulty with the blast charge type. The high score tallying is quite interesting in that it differentiates the difficulty by adding a determined number of points to the starting score (none on Easy, 10 on Normal/Arcade and 20 on Hard). Continues do not reset the score but add one single point to it.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Galaxy Force II (Mega Drive)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega / CRI
Published by Sega in 1991

Many people asked themselves if the rail shooting genre was a solid possibility during the 16-bit video game era. By solid I mean something fluid and dynamic, an experience that should get close to the likes of what people were seeing in the arcades at the time. Unfortunately the high expectations brought by the release of the Mega Drive weren't met by launch titles such as Super Thunder Blade and Space Harrier II, so the task of putting away that lukewarm impression was left for later releases.

Enter Galaxy Force II.

Originally released in 1988 and known in the arcades as the ultimate space adventure, the game represented the apex of the super scaling technology pioneered by Sega, with heavy sprite manipulation conveying the sensation of flying through outer space in all sorts of alien landscapes. Unlike the abovementioned titles, which were in fact pseudo-sequels with new gameplay elements, on the Mega Drive Galaxy Force II was supposed to be a straight port of the arcade. However, even when you consider the explicit differences in hardware, what Sega fans got at home with the 16-bit cartridge was a veritable disappointment, and for many people nothing more than a nearly unplayable disaster.

Defending the "jewel of the galaxy"
(courtesy of YouTube user Japanspel)

There is a very clear reason for the widespread backlash this game gets. It's a simple matter of realizing that the programmers could've done a much better porting job instead of delivering a watered down conversion renowned by its blocky graphics and sluggish controls. And yet, against all odds, here I am writing about it because I have plodded my way through all of that to beat the game. Mind you, since there are no continues of any kind it's impossible to beat Galaxy Force II on the Mega Drive without clearing it on one credit.

As an integral part of the Galaxy Force, the player pilots an elite starfighter with the mission to stop the evil Fourth Empire from overtaking the federation star systems. The journey can start in any of the five planets that have already been conquered by the bad guys, ending in a sixth area where you propel through hyperspace directly into the enemy's core. Either flying in open outer space or over the surface of the planet, in each one you'll be entering one or more tunnels filled with enemies, obstacles and trajectory turns. By default, controls work with B for missiles, A for speed down and C for speed up, with automatic single-shot firing. Button B is supposed to be used mostly when you have locked onto one or more enemies, and while the in-stage power-up remains active (it connects to the ship automatically) the number of simultaneous lock-ons is increased.

Lives are replaced by a fuel counter that starts with 1200 points and goes down pretty fast. Getting hit by bullets or flying into walls and obstacles makes it deplete even faster. Recovering fuel happens in only two occasions: when you come out of a tunnel or when you reach the end of the level. In both instances you'll cash in the energy bonus points from all the enemies you were able to destroy. However, that isn't enough for players to reach the end of the mission... Just like in the arcade game it's necessary to fly fast or eventually you'll run out of fuel, no matter how perfectly you play and how many targets you kill.

The dangers of the desert world

Even though the game doesn't do anything blatantly wrong (lousy hit detection, some flicker and a finnicky lock-on scheme notwithstanding), going straight from the arcade game to the Mega Drive port can be a shock due to the frame rate differences. Simplifying graphics and doing away with textures should've left some room for the so-called blast processing to do its magic, but in Galaxy Force II it just didn't happen. On my part I always wondered how awesome it would've been had it been given the same dynamic treatment of the After Burner II port, for example.

At least Galaxy Force II isn't an impossible task in its default settings. It's only a matter of abiding by the game's rules and eventually learning how to get around the trickiest areas. Tips: identify the enemies that don't shoot and kill them all; in several areas it's better to fly low and destroy as many ground enemies as possible (a few tunnel sections and much of the missile lines in the starting stretch of level 3); more fuel can be recovered by killing bigger enemies (flame snakes in stage 2, the mechanized serpents in stage 5); when inside the tunnels full of rocks of level 5 tap up a little and move left or right only when needed. Lastly, don't be frightened by the "shield broken" message you get as soon as the ship takes a predetermined number of hits. The manual says that from then on each hit should eat a bigger chunk of fuel but in my opinion that's pretty negligible.

When you get that weird feeling that you're still having fun with a game like this it's necessary to pinpoint where it's coming from. In this case the answer is easy: the soundtrack. The foundation was already there in the arcade original, but there's no denying that the Mega Drive music does wonders for the game's general appreciation. My high score on full defaults is below (Normal difficulty, Normal energy timer, Strong shield strength). Besides these available tweaks to the main game, vertical controls can also be inverted if you so wish.