Thursday, April 9, 2015

Violent Soldier (PC Engine)

Horizontal
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)

Vertical
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)

Horizontal
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.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

JoyJoy (Xbox Live)

Arena
Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
24 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by radiangames
Published by radiangames in 2010


For a long while after I established contact with the high def generation of video games with the PS3 and the Xbox 360, multidirectional twin stick shooters were sort of an enigma to me. As with most gamers getting a taste of that generation, one of the first examples of this particular style I was exposed to was Geometry Wars - Retro Evolved. Flashing particles and bright fuss aside, it wasn’t really that engaging to me, unlike some very good examples such as Super Stardust HD and Score Rush, which I came to know and play much later. That’s when I also came in contact with JoyJoy, the first little gem produced by radiangames, honestly one of the best independent developers to have ever graced the XBLIG platform.

Since then I only had sparse play sessions of JoyJoy, generally in between the heaviest practice spells of other 360 shooters. I loved the aesthetics and the way particles explode and blend into each other in a soft, almost gentle kind of way. However, at the same time I was amazed at how terrible I performed in it, or in any confined arena shooter for that matter. Beating JoyJoy’s Campaign mode is, in fact, a very important milestone for me because it’s also the first confined multidirectional shooter I beat in my entire life. What triggered my desire to finally go for the clear was an interview by developer Luke Schneider where he suggests using two particular weapons as a hint to perform better in his game.

And you know what? It worked! I’m here writing about the game after all, am I not? The main game mode in JoyJoy is called Campaign and comprises 24 waves of increasingly harder swarms of surreal ships and saucers. Twin stick controls use only the analog pads, but the player also needs to hone the ability to employ the shoulder buttons (LB, RB) to select the desired weapon, as well as any of the trigger buttons (LT, RT) to charge this weapon for greater destructive blasts. It’s all very intuitive and dynamic, with non-stop action amidst a spectacle of soft particles flying everywhere. Weapon types are displayed below the ship only when you are cycling through them with the shoulder buttons, which helps keep the screen cleaner, reduces the need for a big HUD and allows for more room to focus on the relentless action.

All power of the hunter weapon against the first boss

All items are released by a larger round enemy and float in place until you take them, one or two per wave. Vulcan is the default weapon as the game starts, but soon you’ll also be equipped with hunter, lancer, spread, impulse and reflex. Weapon efficiency varies according to their function, their icons appear twice more for the “pro” and “ultimate” upgrades and they’re all capable of blocking enemy firepower to some extent. Bearing in mind that charging is of essential importance to survival and crowd control, some weapons are definitely better suited to specific enemies. Hunter and reflex can be highly amusing when you need to take care of flocks of weaker foes, but for sheer brute force it’s always best to go with lancer and impulse. I rarely used vulcan, but it’s certainly the best weapon to deal with the boss in the 16th wave.

Each stage begins with a preset number of lives, shown all the time on the left side of the ship and starting from three in the very first wave. Later on two items for armor upgrade add two extra lives to the starting three, a very welcome aid for the harder levels. Now for the reason why JoyJoy is a very friendly game for beginners in the confined twin stick style of shooting: no matter how many lives you have left when a stage is completed, you’ll always start the next one with a full life stock. Of course preserving lives is better for the player in the long run, since the less lives you lose the higher is the bonus you get: a no-miss equals 10.000 points, one life lost means 5.000 points, two lives lost gives 2.500 points and for more misses you get nothing. Other than that, both speedy completion and difficulty play healthy parts in the bonus as well. Regarding the latter, each wave won on Normal corresponds to 2.500 points, whereas on Hard/Expert players collect 10.000/20.000 points respectively. There are also two extra hard difficulties named Lightning (weaker + more numerous enemies) and Armored (stronger + less numerous enemies).

Other types of items that will appear in any run are two speed-ups (quicker movement), two charge enhancers (faster charging) and, if you’re lucky, armor repairs (completely refills the life count). Lastly, by killing successive enemies the “star meter” will expand to both sides from the lower center of the screen. When this gauge gets full it’s replaced by a STAR POWER message and two types of special items are created alternately at a random position in the playing field: “burst” works as a fountain of extra firepower, whereas “vortex” acts as a drain that attracts all enemies in its vicinity. The stars in the background are just for show, merely adding a nice visual flare to the game.

If you’re not in the mood for the 20 minutes of a full credit in Campaign mode you can always go for one of the quick romps of Challenge mode. There are six challenges, each lasting 4 minutes only and emphasizing different aspects of the basic gameplay. You can choose to face weaker or tougher swarmer/shooter enemies or a mix of both, as well as a boss rush, most of them with limitations on weaponry. Each of these game modes has a specific high score table, but unfortunately there are no distinction between multiple difficulties in Campaign mode – which is, in fact, one of the only real criticisms I can make on this otherwise lovely shooter. The other one is related to the soundtrack. It’s fine and fits the game perfectly, but I’m one of those people who’ll always prefer more energetic music in a title like this.

Having multi-colored twin stick fun
(courtesy of YouTube user Splazer Productions)

All game modes can be affected by the so-called “modifiers”, a fancy new name for highly empowering dip-switches. By switching these on you can get quick charge, rapid fire, hyper speed, awesome damage, super star power (get bursts and vortexes faster) and invulnerability. Again, high score tracking makes no distinction of when you have or haven’t activated modifiers in you runs, so keep an eye out for those if you want to have clean high score tables. Naturally the game can be played in co-op, and whenever you're playing in the profile under which it was downloaded vibration is turned on by default (choose a different profile to get rid of it).

JoyJoy’s Campaign mode is of the self-learning kind. Hints are dropped on screen as you reach certain key points in the game, but it takes only something like five waves to get totally used to the gameplay. In a shooter like this more important than dodging bullets or enemies is the idea of avoiding them, and soon I devised an approach that consisted in circling movements coupled with what I like to call “straight tunneling” against the most powerful enemies, mainly the ones that shoot. And the safest way to accomplish that is by using the lancer weapon (hint!). Bosses await at every eighth level, and every now and then you'll face a swarming wave where a huge amount of saucers is generated. Practicing later waves is made possible by choosing key stages directly at the start screen if you manage to reach them in a normal run.

JoyJoy is incredibly fun and highly addictive just like Crossfire, the next title in the XBLIG development timeline from radiangames. Since its original release JoyJoy has been ported to other platforms I don’t really care about, such as iPhone/iPad, Google Play, Amazon and Windows Phone 8. If you’re into any of those give the game a look, it’s totally worth it.

Here are my highest 1CC scores in Campaign mode, Normal difficulty (no modifiers, of course):

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Salamander (PC Engine)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1991


As innovative and fresh as Gradius was, and this will sound weird, I have always wondered if people would somehow think its power-up system was a bit too convoluted for a shooter’s sake. There’s no denying that the weapon array came as a huge leap from the simple shoot/bomb formula of all shmups released prior to 1985, but what if someone found it too complicated? I myself have seen a few bouts of complaints about this, even if the persons involved later refused to admit their reluctance to fully embrace the Gradius way of shmupping.

Enter Salamander, the first spin-off to Gradius. It played just like the groundbreaking Konami classic, but allowed players to power up their ships instantly instead of waiting to get a determined number of capsules. The simpler mechanics relieved much of the focus demanded by the regular Gradius canon, which sounds just perfect for those people I mentioned in the above paragraph. Furthermore, it adds vertical stages while giving away the impression that you’re playing an easier game – which is actually true if you exclude the fight against the 4th boss in the arcade. As a whole, the PC Engine port fits that notion with the finesse expected from Konami, with the advantage of warranting its place in the gallery of conversions that provide an experience that’s very distinct from the arcade original. For instance, while PC Engine Gradius tries to mirror the arcade down to the details (bar the extra level), Salamander certainly doesn’t.


Bionic Germ and Meteorite Space on beginner difficulty
(courtesy of YouTube user 10min Gameplay)

I was a bit disappointed with the fact that all voices are gone from this version, so you need to memorize what each icon does when you take it after you have killed a wave of orange drones (or a single one in special cases). Similar to what exists in the arcade version, there’s a neat tutorial included in the attract mode, so be patient and wait a little before diving straight away into the game. Items to be picked consist of speed-up, missile, option, laser, ripple laser and shield. These upgrades work just like in Gradius, the only obvious difference is the instantaneous effect they provide. And as a means of compensating for the disappointing lack of voices, each stage now has an emblematic name that ties in with a general sci-fi motif instead of the whole organic backdrop seen in the Life Force iteration (which was never released for the PC Engine).

Playing Salamander is a little odd and different from playing Gradius, in that players need to incur in more memorization in order to survive simple sections in the game. The organic walls of the first stage are the prime example of this, but you can also add to that the flaming arches of the third stage and the fast drones of the fifth stage, coincidently all of them in horizontal levels. However, the PC Engine port has a particularly aggravating fourth stage thanks to the iffy hit detection zone close to walls, the more unpredictable nature of the volcano spits and the slightly downgraded efficiency of your missiles. These, by the way, have lost their ability to hit the ground in vertical levels, being restricted to crawling vertical walls only. There are still drones coming out of ground hatches, but these are few and far between.

All other differences in the port when compared to the arcade original are minor and most of them come off as improvements. The most welcome are the correction of how the shield works (here it won't deplete just by touching other power-ups) and the toning down of the 4th boss's ridiculous difficulty. Some areas were fleshed out with a little more action, most notably the 3rd and the 5th levels (fire and outer space). They received more variety in enemies and hazards, keeping the player more on his/her toes instead of turning into a snoozefest once you memorize everything. I have seen claims that the music has been improved on the PC Engine, but that's debatable. I was rather impressed with the sound effects though, one example being the neat cave echoing effect you hear when you kill some of the fire birds in stage 3.

Volcanos! Or is it Volcanoes?

As for gameplay departures, the only one that's worth mentioning is the adoption of checkpoints. But don't fret, ye who hate checkpoints! Checkpoint recovery in the PC Engine version of Salamander is easier and far from the traditional Gradius way of implementing checkpoints (where it's way too hard to recover in some of them). Moreover, there are far more checkpoints in a level then you'd normally expect. There's also a generous extend scheme in place that gives you an extend every time the score cycles through the 50 thousand mark (50K, 150K, 250K, etc.), which leads to cumulating lots of extra lives if you manage to play well enough. Some checkpoints give away so many points that for every two lives played in them you can get an extra life! Scorewise it's important to collect every possible item since each one is worth 2.000 points. I didn't bother taking more than two speed-ups though.

The port preserves co-op play, and a particularly interesting thing I noticed is that with just one joystick you can control both ships if you wish (dual-play lovers take note!). Players can select between Beginner and Expert difficulties at the start screen, and the main difference between both is in bullet count and speed. Regardless of which one you choose, Salamander loops and increases the challenge a good deal in its second round. That's when checkpoints start becoming really demanding. Having a turbo controller around for a faster rate of fire is nice because the default autofire isn't actually ideal.

As expected from other Konami 16-bit shooter ports I tried, I had lots of fun with this version. I played on Expert difficulty and reached stage 2-6, with the best result shown below.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Space Harrier (Saturn)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
18 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1996


Hmm… So once again, Space Harrier. I had already beaten the arcade version available for the Playstation 2 and the port for the ill-fated 32X add-on, and here I am writing about another excellent (and of arcade-quality) adaptation for Sega’s emblematic rail shooter. Space Harrier is one of those absolute classics that appeared in every single home console because it was just too powerful a game to not be included in their libraries, I guess. I love my Sega Saturn, so beating it again feels like coming back home. Many thanks to the fellows from the RGF shmup league for choosing it as the most recent game in season 5. :)

Back in 1996, in Japan, Sega started re-releasing some of its classic arcade titles for the Saturn under the new label Sega Ages, and Space Harrier was the game chosen for volume 2. It’s a perfect and very straightforward port with no special contents whatsoever, not even the ability to activate autofire. As of today I think it’s one of the three retail console options to go if you’re looking for a definitive arcade conversion, the others being the Playstation 2 Sega Ages disc and a few obscure instances in the Dreamcast library. Space Harrier was also released in other regions for the Sega Saturn, albeit bundled with After Burner II and Out Run in a compilation titled simply Sega Ages Vol. 1 in Europe or just Sega Ages in North America. There was never a Vol. 2 in any of these regions.

Colored mushrooms... Yummy!

Okay, once I took my Japanese copy out of the shelf it was just a matter of re-familiarizing myself with the stages, the patterns and the swearing that always comes with each stupid screaming death against a bullet, a pillar, a cloud, a giant robot or a colored mushroom. I was welcomed back to the Fantasy Zone and systematically beaten down by the difficulty I already knew until emerging victorious after a few days. One of the advantages of returning to a familiar game is that all those tricky parts get a little easier, memory helping devise improved strategies for old challenges. There isn’t a single functional difference from the versions I played already, so if you want to know more about the gameplay please refer to what I wrote on the Playstation 2 or the 32X versions.

For now let’s babble about something different altogether: button mashing.

I’ll never favor button mashing over the comfort of an autofire device. I’m 38 years old and I can’t help the fact that my wrist joints love autofire. I don’t own any turbo controller for the Sega Saturn though, so I had to (once again) mash buttons with this particular version of Space Harrier. Despite the inherent mindless nature of button mashing, I must confess that this game isn’t that tough on button mashing unless you want to go on a killing rampage to score higher. Oh yes, arcade Space Harrier can be played leisurely, and is a nice fit for lowest-scoring challenges if you fancy something out of the ordinary. Just dodge and appreciate the trippy colored checkerboards, shoot and kill only when needed. Bam!


An honest credit that ends in stage 6
(courtesy of YouTube user Kenbotan さんのチャンネル)

But I digress, so back to button mashing. Since I wanted to obliterate every single bush and cloud, I had to develop a little technique in order to achieve better results. Initially I’d use only my thumb on button C (all lower buttons in the controller are used to fire), but then I started switching to the index finger on bosses to rest my thumb. When I began reaching later levels I got to the point where I could dissociate d-pad control from the act of mashing buttons, so I rested the controller on my thigh while mashing the index and middle fingers alternately for levels and one-shot bosses (those that time out quickly). My poor thumb was used solely to give me a break on bosses that move back and forth indefinitely (the dragons, the skeletons, the orbiting satellites). And always with button C.

The Sega Saturn port doesn't offer any regular continues, so once you get a GAME OVER it's back to the start. However, if you manage to get through the bonus stages you can continue from there, and that's a welcome means of practicing the hardest levels later in the game. There's a "time trial" thing to be activated in the options, but I have absolutely no idea of what it does besides adding a useless 60s timer on the first stage. One cool aspect of Space Harrier on the Saturn is that everything that's present in the Japanese disc is also included in the Sega Ages bundle released in the US, down to the automatically saved high scores and options. This package does seem to be like three discs in one, which is neat.

My 1CC result below was a pretty dramatic one. In the end I had only one life to get through stage Nark (17), a very nasty place to wander around if you decide to venture into the Fantasy Zone. I wished Opa-Opa had been there to give me a hand, but alas! I played with no turbofire on Normal difficulty.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Cloud Master (PC Engine)

Horizontal
Checkpoints ON/OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1992


How could anyone not love Taito during the golden era of video gaming? Taito was king, and everyone who says otherwise surely needs to play a lot more games before saying goodbye to this world. Example given: in the process of porting Cloud Master to the PC Engine, the company went beyond the simple task of downgrading the arcade original to the constraints of NEC’s platform and delivered a completely new game that’s more of a sequel than a proper port. Or a re-imagination if you will, since it alters the core gameplay drastically and packs up a tougher challenge by consequence.

The Japanese name of this version is actually Gokuraku Chuka Taisen. Gokuraku translates to something close to Paradise or Heaven, and that goes hand in hand with some of the game’s aspects and the reworked shade of a story. This time around the little boy that flies on a cloud is out to rescue a princess kidnapped by an evil entity at the start of the adventure. Furthermore, all boss fights take place above the skies and amidst a background of parallax-ridden clouds. The port isn’t as colorful as the arcade game, but sprites are all reworked and the animation job is great. If all you care about in a console shooter is visuals, this little game offers great material for the eyes. It reminds me of a mix between what a flying game with Alex Kidd would be like and Namco’s Ordyne.

The mid-boss foxy lady in stage 2

If we look at the bare-bones structure of the arcade game, it’s natural to conclude that the gameplay departure shown in this version is a very welcome improvement in every possible way. Cloud Master on the PC Engine is full of non-linear stretches with different scrolling directions and exclusive bosses that throw lots of unique attacks and patterns. At the player’s disposal is a single firing input with autofire (button II) and a direction switch (button I). Much of the stage design and the boss fights is built around this bi-directional mechanic, so the more comfortable you are with it the higher will be your chance of success. Don’t underestimate the game because it’s cute, chances are you’ll need lots of practice to overcome your foes from stage 3 onwards.

The world of Cloud Master is a surreal one. Waves of animal heads come towards you in between noodle bowls, while winged creatures with human heads alternate attacks with jumping fish and ultra-fast missiles. Archers, rockets, deformed faces, swords, knights, turtles, dragons, onion fans and mid-bosses. Mid-bosses are, in fact, the source of very precious secondary weapons: defeat them, enter the door and select one of the four types available. A characteristic wave of five vertically aligned enemies is responsible for bringing upgrade items if you manage to kill them all. There’s speed-up, power-up, invincibility and sometimes special power-ups that further enhance the boy’s firepower (only available under certain circumstances). The problem is that all these items are represented by kanji, but at least they’re large and fairly recognizable with just a few credits in.

It’s true that the more power you have the easier it is to get through the game. However, this port is keen on setting blind traps that take the player by surprise and require thorough memorization to be properly managed. Hit detection is implemented with very little mercy, so prepare to die a lot until you realize that you’d better have the cloud closer to bullets instead of the kid’s head. The wide spread of the main weapon from the arcade original is replaced by a single straight shot, which puts a lot more importance on the secondary weapons you choose to go along with it. There are no checkpoints during boss fights, but since deaths incur in a severe power downgrade and bosses can take a lot of beating before giving in, well... I’d rather have the checkpoints. Some people might think well of the lack of checkpoints on bosses, but I really didn’t like the idea of continuing to fight with the default combo of pea shot + slow speed after I die.

The music is catchy, isn't it?
(courtesy of YouTube user Encyclopegames)

Other changes in the port appear in the form of an extra stage, a series of underground areas with lots of narrow passages and a few exclusive enemies. Some of the secondary weapons present a slightly different behavior when compared with the arcade version, and if I’m not mistaken they all have more upgrade levels (every time you enter a mid-boss door on a single life these weapons are upgraded). Ground bombs are great in the arcade, but suck on the PC Engine. For brute force it’s always best to go with the dragon, except when it’s fully powered during the air levels (that stupid dragon falls instead of flying forward). I ended up using most of them because I had to devise alternate strategies for the occasions of death, but my favorites were the dragon and the rotating flames that evolve to a nice set of wave blades.

In my opinion the highlights of Cloud Master on the PC Engine are the bosses. They're not repetitive and they're totally different from their arcade counterparts. Dragons are the evil creature of the week and appear three times here, the last boss being particularly nerve-defying. There's even an unorthodox Buddha statue that throws puffs from the cigar he's smoking! As mentioned above, don't forget you don't get back to a checkpoint upon dying on a boss, so beware if you intend to exploit checkpoints. An extra life is granted at every 50.000 points and scoring is as simple as it gets, but note that shooting at seemingly invincible enemies also gives you more points (pause to test and check where this happens).

When you take away all the time you need to invest in learning Gokuraku Chuka Taisen you realize how short it actually is. That's one of the wonders of a challenging game (which often gets more fun the more you learn it) but also one of the reasons most people do not value shmups as they're supposed to (too hard, too short). I'd say try it if you fancy a colorful little romp with a little potential rage factor included. The last screen after the credits halts to show your final score, and my 1CC result is below.