Thursday, January 22, 2015

G Vector (Saturn)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by SoftOffice
Published by SoftOffice in 1997

When thinking about rail shooters most of our memories tend to cling to the titles that somehow defined this particular style of the shooting genre. Maybe more so than in any of its subgenre variations, stellar games like After Burner or Space Harrier tend to completely overshadow the efforts of lesser known companies, be it in the arcade or in the console scene. My perception of G Vector is that of an obscure oddity that very few people know of, partially thanks to the above and also because it appeared exclusively on the Sega Saturn and only in Japan. Nevertheless I bet many shmuppers will immediately recognize something very familiar about it.

This familiarity comes up as soon as you start the game. For all visual purposes, G Vector is like an alternate version of Raystorm. Even the spaceship and everything about it seems to have been modeled after the R-Gray units designed by Taito, down to the complete absence of extends. I never heard of developer SoftOffice before and don’t know of any other game they might have made, so it’s no surprise that G Vector isn’t technically on par with its source of inspiration. It obviously lacks Raystorm’s graphical finesse and brutal difficulty, but it’s a reasonably fun rail shooter if you’re able to cope with a few awkward aspects of the gameplay. Sound effects and soundtrack do their job at a basic level, with the BGMs in stages 4 and 5 clearly stand out from the rest.

Anyway, what you see is what you get in this game. There is only one difficulty setting and no special modes besides Score Attack, where each stage reached is unlocked for individual play/practice with infinite lives. Other than that, in the options screen you’re allowed to choose between regular and reverse controls, listen to a sound test and visualize the enemy gallery.

I tried to read what's below VECTOR but the characters are too small...

I’m completely clueless about the story in G Vector, so let’s stick with the good old alien threat that needs to be purged from the galaxy. The journey to salvation is fully rendered with the aid of polygons for enemies, explosions and landscapes, with sprites reserved exclusively for bullets. Some effects that resemble mode-7 are also in place, but none of these graphic devices offer anything out of the ordinary for a polygon-based game. There's a decent color work but textures aren't very detailed overall. Some of the screen action is very intense though, which helps to fuel the adrenaline across six short levels at the expense of a little slowdown. Loading times in between stages are fair, but they could’ve been shorter.

The control scheme is uncomplicated: A shoots, B fires lasers and C shoots with autofire. Lasers will hit anything targeted by the ship’s reticle, to a maximum of eight targets at once. Exactly like in Raystorm, the more targets you have locked on when you fire the laser the higher the rewards in points are: a destroyed first enemy is worth a bonus of 200 points only, but each successive target that’s killed multiplies this value by 2. The geometrical progression leads to a total 51.000 points if you’re able to vaporize a lock-on of 8 simultaneous enemies. Note that the targets must be destroyed for the points to register, that’s why it’s sometimes advantageous to build up the initial lock-ons on a stronger target and only then locking on to cannon fodder.

Since the lock-on window lasts 5 seconds and you’re only able to destroy what’s actually on screen, getting those bulky bonuses for 8 targets at once isn’t such an easy task. Enemies arrive and disappear relatively fast in the most varied formations, and the bullets fired add another barrier to the act of locking on to multiple targets. Enemy bullets in G Vector come in several shapes and colors, but those of the pink type are always fired in bursts that leave a long trail behind them. At first they're kinda weird to dodge, but once you get the hang of it you notice they’re actually the easiest attack type to be avoided. Much trickier are the firing spams inside the cavern of stage 4, the spinning bullet sprays of the large ships in stage 5 and the multiple trailing streams of the last boss.

My 1CC run of G Vector

Everybody will probably agree with me when I say that taking only two hits before biting the dust is really cruel. There’s a little compensation for the lack of extends though, since physical obstacles also do not exist at all in G Vector. From start to finish there are absolutely no walls of any kind and you can’t get hit by any enemy, not even bosses or those fat butted bugs of the last level. That’s the best aspect about the gameplay because with obstacles of the way the player is free to focus strictly on strategies to overcome each approaching wave. On the other hand, it’s also very important to adapt to the way aiming is implemented (you’re always aiming upwards) and to be careful with borders and corners because of a mysterious freezing bug that happens when the screen is cluttered with bullets: there were times where I would get stuck/paralyzed like a sitting duck for no reason at all. A few animation sequences take place with enemies shooting at you at the same time, so keep moving and shooting to get through safely.

All staples of the subgenre make an appearance in G Vector, such as city, desert, ocean, caves, tunnels and outer space environments. Bosses play a big part all the way to the end, moving a lot into and out of the screen while dropping a variety of aimed and non-aimed bullet patterns at the player. Every boss – here called guardian – has multiple destructible parts that can also be laser-chained, thus adding more points to the score. Pay attention to the timer though, because if you fail to kill the boss within the allotted time he flees and you get no rewards at all (the only exception to this is the last boss). Destroying boss parts can also lead to an easier fight (by blocking the associated strikes from happening) or trigger different attack patterns (on the 4th boss, by destroying his gun prematurely). Don’t forget to keep shooting the boss if he’s in sight while the victory animation takes place, it’s still possible to get a few more points from the segments that weren’t dismantled.

The most important survival strategy is being aggressive and eliminating the most dangerous threats as fast as you can. Stage 5 in particular is a real offender in that regard, with a bunch of strong enemies overlapping their attacks in almost unavoidable ways. Fortunately we’re allowed to properly practice in Score Attack mode, which also offers resources to improve scoring and completely destroy bosses. G Vector saves high scores automatically, both for the main game and the individual stages in Score Attack mode. The default number of continues can be increased to 9 with a secret button sequence at the start screen, but you’ll only see the ending sequence if the game is beaten in a single credit.

Accomplishing the 1CC mission was fun, and my best results are below (look how interesting, 1CCing adds a single digit 1 to the score).

Friday, January 16, 2015

Cardinal Sins (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by M-Kai in 2004
Published by Qute in 2011

Playing a game for a limited amount of time in order to squeeze the maximum amount of points from it seems to be a nice concept for many people. Commonly referred to as “caravan” modes in the shmup world, these quick timed romps surely have their fans. I’m not one of them in the slightest, since I almost never touch any of the extra caravan content that comes with a few games and when I do I get bored really soon. However, to my surprise I have recently found out that Cardinal Sins might probably be the closest you can get to a hybrid between a full-fledged shooter and a caravan game. And it works like a charm, I’ll tell you that.

Originally a homebrew title released for the Wonderswan handheld console but only playable with a special development software, Cardinal Sins became more available to everybody around the world when Eschatos came out for the Xbox 360. Eschatos has it as a bonus game, as well as the title that represents the birth point of everything about this particular retail release: Judgement Silversword. Silversword is, in fact, the direct basis for Cardinal Sins, which builds upon its assets and gameplay while implementing new ideas based on the concept of the caravan. It’s essentially a shorter and much more focused experience that’s easier on survival merits but still very challenging for those who like to chase high scores.

As its name implies, each of the seven cardinal or deadly sins receives a depiction in the game as a single stage. Each stage lasts one minute and grants the player a ranking based on his/her performance against the particular rules of the level. This ranking ranges from S (100% completion) to F (failure signaled by the loss of all available lives) and is directly related to the bonuses you get at the end of the level (an S is worth 10 million points). In the end of the seven levels you are “judged” and an average grade is given based on all results, and if you achieve a certain minimum grade you’re entitled to fight the final boss. Failing to do so ends the credit prematurely while the game politely thanks you for playing.

That's an envious sun

If you’ve played Judgement Silversword before Cardinal Sins you’ll feel right at home with the controls because they’re exactly the same. One button is used to fire a spread shot, another button fires a concentrated straight shot and a third button activates the shield. This shield is capable of slowing down and even blocking/clearing some of the bullets (not lasers), and its usage is key to increasing the multiplier applied to the base value of every destroyed enemy. By default the multiplier can be (1) temporarily raised by using the shield on enemies and bullets in succession or (2) permanently raised by not dying and not using the shield at all on bullets. However, since Cardinal Sins is so short and has a very specific stage-based scoring system, method #2 just isn’t feasible and won’t take you anywhere. Furthermore, the multiplier itself is never more important than fulfilling the requirements to achieve the much desired S rankings.

So how does it work then, this objective-based 1-minute stage thing? Let’s see…
  1. Envy – this one is very simple: just kill everything, don’t let a single enemy go away; 100% destruction ratio equals an S raking.
  2. Sloth – for each particular amount of enemies killed an extra life is generated; it will quickly fall down the screen and can be destroyed by your firepower when falling; the objective is to “save” these ships, and to achieve an S ranking you need to save at least 15.
  3. Greed – the non-intuitive objective here is to “scan” everything that happens in the level; this means blocking every possible bullet with the shield, seeing all patterns fired by an enemy before killing it and a few more weird things; in my opinion this is the toughest level to get an S ranking on.
  4. Pride – register as many 100% multiplier tags as you can by speed-killing the approaching drones; abuse the shield whenever possible; at least 200 are needed for the S ranking.
  5. Lust – speed-kill all waves; at least 11 waves are needed to achieve the S ranking.
  6. Gluttony – collect as many golden items as possible; allow the screen to get full of bullets before destroying the orb that appears with each enemy wave; when the orb explodes all bullets are turned into items that are sucked into the ship; collect 350 or more to get an S.
  7. Wrath – don’t die, each death deducts one grade of the S ranking (no deaths = S); keep destroying the mirror shield on the top of the screen to cancel the ship’s attacks and reduce its aggressiveness.
In each of the above levels the player receives a new set of lives to complete the mission. This means that even if you’re on your last life when a stage is over you’ll start the next one with 4 ships in reserve. The only exceptions to this are the second and the final levels, which always start with 2 ships in reserve.

Expert performance on "Greed", with notes (TRIAL mode)
(courtesy of YouTube user SFKhoa)

Despite some beefed up background graphics, a few new songs and the new elements in selected stages, all you see in Cardinal Sins is lifted directly and can be understandably mistaken for Judgement Silversword. Naturally all of the general gameplay strategies that work on Silversword also apply here, despite the little tweaks here and there. The spread shot, for instance, has a reduced reach, so take that in consideration when using the “trick” to increase damage by holding straight shot and tapping spread shot. Performing well in each of the seven stages is rewarded with bonuses when the last stage starts because each mirror shield that appears might deliver a special item upon death based on the rankings obtained: S is worth 5 million points, A is worth 1 million, B is rewarded with an extra life and the rest don't give out anything. This means that playing with ranking A or higher makes the final mirror shield boss harder because then you'll have only three lives to kill him.

Cardinal Sins is great for a concentrated burst of fun, besides obviously presenting excellent replay value because there is always room for improvement. It's got local and online leaderboards, tracking for several game stats and fully configurable controls. I couldn't decide on a favorite sin/stage since they're all so diverse and short, but there's an extra game mode called MARATHON where you choose one of the seven levels to play neverending stages based on its corresponding sin, complete with continuously increasing difficulty and suicide bullets. As for the main game modes, the basic differences between them are the random nature of the enemy waves and the absence of the on-screen timer on NORMAL, as opposed to TRIAL (you hear a sound cue when the stage is about to end on NORMAL mode).

Most of my time was dedicated to NORMAL mode, with the final result shown below. The only stage in which I never achieved an S ranking was Greed, but nevertheless I was able to make into the top 10 of the online leaderboards. I feel it's time to move on, so Eschatos here I go!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Gokujyou Parodius (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON or OFF
8 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (+1)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1995

We love shooting games, so here we go again! Coming after Parodius Da! and before Jykkiou Oshaberi Parodius, Gokujyou Parodius is the third official entry in what’s probably the most messed up Konami shmup series ever, as far as console ports go. Those who are familiar with the concept behind the series need no introduction, whereas everything newbies should know is that all you see is somehow referencing a few other Konami franchises, of which Gradius is the obvious main inspiration. Stages, themes, weapons, details. In Gokujyou, however, you can easily notice that the gameplay starts to deviate from the core Gradius style into something more particular and unique. Besides, it expands on the previous chapter in all fronts except the number of stages.

The Japanese Sega Saturn disc titled Parodius Deluxe Pack is a must-have item if you’re into the series because it bundles Gokujyou Parodius with Parodius Da! in a single package. This compilation was also released in Europe, though with slightly different names for each game (Gokujyou is renamed as Fantastic Journey). Judging by the Japanese version, the good news in the case of Goku Paro is that the porting job is as faithful to the arcade original as possible and does not incur in the same issues that make Parodius Da! elusively different from its source material (toned down difficulty, botched scoring system and the inclusion of a hidden stage). Going from one game to the next in this compilation can be a shock due to the higher challenge level of Gokujyou, a game whose appreciation depends a lot on the character you choose and on a very important choice you need to make at the start of the credit.

Remember the Gradius power-up system? Collect orange capsules to light up the cells in the weapon array and activate the desired power-up to upgrade the ship/character (for every few capsules you also get a gray one that works as a smart bomb, as well as a yellow bell). All characters share the same pattern for the weapon array: speed-up, missile, upgrade 1 (originally known as double), upgrade 2 (originally known as laser), option, OH! (clears all upgrades) and shield. I made a distinction between “upgrades” and “originally known as” because all new characters come with weapons that are completely different from the mold long established by Gradius and used until Parodius Da!. In some cases even those good old options can behave in an awkward manner.

Dancing pandas and wrecked mermaids
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

Four characters join the regular roster of previous chapters: Hikaru (a bunny girl riding a rocket), Mambo (a flying fish), Michael (a flying pig) and Koitsu (a stick figure on a paper plane). All new characters carry a wildly different assortment of weapons not typical to Gradius, some of them inspired by other Konami games or even series from other companies. Michael, for instance, has a wave shot and a shield reminiscent of Darius, while Mambo fires a cool set of bending and homing lasers. Vic Viper, Pentaro, TwinBee and Takosuke haven’t changed much and sort of preserve their arsenal. When chosen as player 2 all characters have different names, related to their origin or not. For example, Lord British is to Vic Viper what Gabriel is to Michael.

With the exception of the options/start screen, everything else in the game is in Japanese. That’s really unfortunate for unaware players who don’t understand the language because once the character is selected and you need to choose the power-up mode you won’t be able to correctly interpret what’s on screen: in “Auto” players use only one button to shoot while the game is in full control of the power-up process; in “Semi auto” the player can also trigger upgrades with a second button, sharing control with the computer; “Manual” is the classic scheme with three buttons, one to shoot, one to upgrade and another to trigger bell powers. Controls work with A for power-up, B for shot (autofire on Y/Z) and C for bell power. Note: on “Auto” and “Semi Auto” bell powers are activated with the shot button.

The biggest catch about Gokujyou Parodius is that the “Auto” power-up mode gets rid of checkpoints. Yes, die and you’re respawned in the same place instead of returning to a previous checkpoint. On top of that a death on “Auto” generates four extra bells as a welcome breathing room against whatever bad situation you’re currently facing. Oh, bells… Not those of the jingle kind, but actually the ones originated in TwinBee and promoted to the scoring backbone of any Parodius game… I confess that for a while I hated them with a passion in Goku Paro. Their native color is yellow, but with every four shots they acquire a different color. Collecting successive yellow bells without losing any grants bonuses that start at 500 and max out at 10.000 points, whereas other colors provide special abilities: blue (powerful single bomb), green (inflate + invincibility), white (activates a concentrated shot of random messages in kanji), brown (three vertical energy bars) and purple (turn all popcorn enemies into power-ups/bells). This is also the order in which the colors cycle for single-released bells - the ones that come in batches by killing those birds often cycle randomly. Important: taking any colored bell will remove the shield instantly since you can’t have both active at the same time.

Realizing the importance of the purple bell as a powerful resource for scoring is easy. The best example is on the fight against the first boss: prepare to take a purple bell when the dancing panda starts to toss debris all around and reap lots of power-ups (100 points each) and several more bells, keep seeding purple bells and repeat for a while before the timeout. Of course that’s easier said than done, since pulling off such a stunt requires lots of practice. I tried to do it for a while but soon I gave up to focus strictly on keeping the 10.000 yellow bell chain going. That’s already a challenge in its own because Gokujyou adopts a very steep and tricky rank system that demands exquisite knowledge of levels and resources if you want to survive longer.

Michael and his Darius-inspired shield

One of the ways to control rank is to refrain from powering up. However, it doesn't take long to see that you need firepower to score/survive. A mid-term between controlling rank and scoring optimally is very hard to find because things get more intricate quickly, and depending on where you die it’s really tough to get back up, especially when playing with checkpoints. I played on Manual for a long while and almost burned out on the game because I was often raped in the outer space level. At first I played with Michael, but by the time I switched to Auto power-up mode I also had a change of heart to Koitsu, undoubtedly the best character in the game. Gokujyou still remains very challenging though, but recovery from deaths are considerably more manageable without the checkpoints. There are only two score extends, and making the best out of them is essential to complete the game.

Overall, choosing Auto and ditching checkpoints comes with way more advantages than disadvantages. One of the greatest pros is the automatic control of all power-ups and roulette items, so you don’t need to worry at all about activating the OH! downgrade. The computer will apply speed-ups when clearly needed (in the high speed and moai battleship levels) and adhere to a single weapon when powering-up, but the shield will only be triggered after you have exhausted all possible upgrades. Another example of the benefits of automatic power-up control is having another shield ready for when the current one expires. I classify as disadvantages the inability to stock bell powers and the fact that you can’t trigger more speed-ups at certain parts of the game, such as when you die before the boss that fires ghost bunnies. Some final notes about bell powers: the green bell is excellent to get through troublesome sections but you lose much of the control over other bells; the white bell is the worst one because you can’t hit any other bell when it’s active.

Somehow I feel that the best of Gokujyou Parodius is in its second half. The nicest graphical/musical themes and left for the end, and from the high speed stage on the game clearly picks up in pace and challenge. It opens with a Carnival-themed level and proceeds with a tropical/underwater stage, another candy-filled level, a high speed chase, an outer space area, a Japanese bunnyland and the final fortress. There’s also a randomly placed level with a moai battleship and a special bonus stage that takes place after the credits, has rearranged music from TwinBee and sends the difficulty through the roof (the game does not loop, but loops can be actived in the options if desired). Of course the absurd representations of Gradius staples abound from start to finish, the most hated in my opinion being Decoration Core, the boss of the candy stage. That’s where I often die, but dying there once or twice isn't so bad in the long run because it makes the following level easier. My favorite boss is the outer space inflated power-up, that thing is cool. And benevolent. And cool. :)

Let it be known that I started playing the game on the Playstation, but then moved to the Saturn for a very particular reason: it's got random extends - sometimes you get them at different points and sometimes they don’t come at all! There are other reasons why the Playstation port is a clear loser in this case, such as abusive slowdown (almost unbearable in the candy level), longer loading times, manual save function (automatic on the Saturn) and weaker sound effects, among other minor things. The Saturn port put a smile back in my face and gave me a great time until the 1CC and the unlocking of the special stage at the start screen. In the end I played with Koitsu on Auto power-up mode at full defaults (difficulty 4, arcade aspect ratio).

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair (Mega Drive)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega/Westone
Published by Sega in 1990

An apology to longtime Wonder Boy fans: don't expect me to know anything about the series, I have no understanding at all of its broader platforming or RPG elements. As a shooter appreciator, however, it wasn't long ago that I was drawn to Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair by the advice of a shmupper friend. And having recently beaten the arcade original on the PS2, I can safely say that at least this chapter is well-known to me. Under all circumstances I think the game's concept fits home consoles better than it does the arcade format, even though the Mega Drive conversion incurs in several cuts from the original. While the port for the PC Engine CD appeared both in Japan and the US, this particular version came out only in Japanese and European territories.

Monster Lair is a mix of platforming and shooting, both implemented with autoscrolling and providing a simple, dynamic gameplay mainly based around on-the-fly resource management. Co-op play is available, with player 1 controlling a boy and player 2 controlling a girl princess against hordes of cute monsters that have taken over a colorful fairy tale land. The Mega Drive port does a good job in preserving the original atmosphere despite the slightly rearranged designs for characters, background and enemies. Everything is slightly darker or comes with more dark shades, probably to disguise the less powerful color palette of the platform. It keeps the charm and lends it the expected consolized flavor, something the soundtrack is also perfectly capable of delivering.

Pursued by an angry queen bee

Each stage in this game is divided in two parts. The first part is a regular platforming section where button B shoots and buttons A and C are used to jump. Every platforming area ends with the character(s) entering a dungeon in order to play the second part of the stage, a shmup section where you ride a pink little dragon and face a series of stage-related enemies and the big boss at the end (only button B is used in the shooting areas). Throughout the game you'll come across different weapons released by killing specific enemies (platforming parts) or destroying complete enemy waves (shooting parts). Weapon items disappear fast after a little blinking, each weapon lasts for 10 seconds only when active and if you don't take another one before that you'll be back to the default pea shot.

Initially it might take some time to actually notice that the character’s health is being constantly drained as you advance through the platforming parts of the game. Refilling health is performed by taking new weapons or by collecting the fruits that appear out of nowhere. Running out of health causes the character to die, as well as getting in direct contact with any enemy. Health depletes faster whenever you get hit by one of those balls or trip on a pile of mud on the ground, which makes you dart forward dangerously. Thankfully there is no health draining in the flying areas.

Weapon behavior does not change at all from one section to the next. There's a ring spread, a thin drill shot, two-way fireballs, a spiralling ring of fire, rotating shurikens and exploding missiles. Getting comfortable with how each weapon works is essential to succeed in Monster Lair, especially when you consider that there is no autofire at all. A turbo controller isn't really necessary because in this version weapons seem to have been better balanced overall. The default shot, for instance, is a lot more efficient than in the arcade original, whereas missiles have lost most of their brute power. Their effect is still bound to how long you press the fire button though (tap to make them explode closer to you, hold to allow them to travel farther). Finally, the drill shot is still the only weapon with built-in autofire.

In adapting the game to the Mega Drive, Sega removed five stages and toyed a little with the assets that remained. The difficulty was toned down as a whole, but while bosses are considerably easier the flying enemies became a little more aggressive (in a few levels it’s rather hard to kill all waves). Item randomness was reduced and magical fairies are less troublesome (hit and take them to collect the reward). The pink fairy transforms all fruits in cakes that are worth more points and refill more health, the green fairy gives you temporary invincibility and the black fairy removes your current weapon. By the way, it seems that black fairies were overlooked during the porting process because they appear in only one stage and are rather hard to reach. They’re useless, just like the animation bug where the boy hangs to the tip of a platform (needed in the original game, useless here). I died several times on a moving platform in the fourth stage because the game got me stuck in that stupid position.

The first tropical island of Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair
(courtesy of YouTube user Gambatteikou)

I haven’t tried to play Wonder Boy III in co-op, but I don’t think it would be as good as playing solo. I ran across heavy instances of slowdown in a few places, all of them in platforming areas and mostly when the screen scrolls diagonally with parallax layers in the background. Even though removing five stages might seem an indication of this being a mutilated port, it actually makes the game feel less repetitive. Only one ice level and less castles allow the other levels to stand out more, including that infuriating desert stage and the village with mushrooms that pop out those balls upon getting hit. Several parts of the game are still very tricky to get through, but fortunately you get three score-based extends with 50, 100 and 180 thousand points.

It’s true that this game isn’t as cute as other platformers on the Mega Drive, nor are its shooting segments as engaging as most shmups on the system. It’s okay and reasonably fun if you’re in the right mood though, just don’t expect anything bombastic. Here’s the final score in my 1CC run on Normal/Average difficulty.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Satazius (PC)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Astro Port
Published by Capcom / NYU Media in 2011 (Steam)

One of the most vocal complaints I’ve been hearing for quite a while regarding shmups is that people don’t really dig the bullet hell style that seems to have taken over the spotlight in the genre for more than a decade. These people often state that they miss the shooter of old, where the emphasis on adventure still had priority over bullet count. Well, in seriously venturing for the first time into the world of PC gaming I have just found a shmup that’s capable of quenching their needs: Satazius. Released as a stand-alone disc in 2011 and soon made available through a few digital distribution systems, this game is a strong homage to the glory days of Gradius, and to a lesser extent Darius and R-Type.

“Strong homage” can be relative, for many might deem it a sheer rip-off when it comes to the amount of aesthetical inspiration this game draws from the Gradius universe. I won’t delve into the details, but suffice it to say that the more familiar you are with Gradius the more you’ll enjoy the references, subtle or not. The most important thing, however, is that Satazius takes this great influence and delivers a cohesive experience that sounds fresh and genuinely fun, on top of being a trip down memory lane and a swift slap on Konami’s face. Plus it’s got lots of green. Not so many shooters have green in them, and I love green.

Satazius puts the player in control of a spaceship in the year 2051 as it flees in the last minute while its cruiser mothership gets blown to pieces. Space pirate scum misbehaved badly, so it’s your duty to teach them good manners. Outer space, cylinder mazes, turret formations, giant snakes, cramped corridors, volcano debris, thick laser beams, teleport gates, exploding fireballs, high speed scrambles, closing gates, boss pursuits. Satazius offers a lot to behold if you’re a fan of horizontal shooters. The only staple that wasn’t covered is the huge battleship level, but with so much to tackle this absence isn’t really critical. The soundtrack is a mixed bag of nice tunes, some of them with wonderful bass, and a few grinding compositions that hurt the game’s appreciation a little, such as the theme for the 2nd stage.

Pink bullets? Hmpf... Pink lasers is where it's at!

Allowing the player to choose how he/she wants to attack the enemy is one of the aspects that stand out in Satazius. Prior to each stage you must choose one main weapon, two secondary weapons and a charge attack (both secondary weapons chosen are switchable at the press of a button during gameplay). Initially the only types of main weapon available are the mandatory straight and spread vulcan patterns, whereas the gallery for secondary weapons includes surface-crawling missiles, forward shots, horizontally-seeking lasers and homing shot. A powerful homing burst and a single two-way wave discharge appear as initial choices for the charge attack. For defeated each boss you unlock a new type of weapon or a new charge blast, which can then be selected as the next stage starts.

Weapon efficiency varies greatly depending on your choices, therefore it’s natural to define different strategies as you advance in the game. Equally important is the process of powering up these weapons, which is accomplished by taking the correct items from destroyed little containers: red P (main weapon), green P (secondary weapon) and yellow P (charge attack). Other items consist of speed-ups, speed-downs, 1-hit shields and stars for bonus points. As indicated by the HUD, each weapon can receive eight upgrades, but the last one is always temporary. It boosts weapon efficiency to its maximum power while active, leaving it at the upgrade level 7 once the MAX effect has passed. Now players who dread losing firepower upon death rejoice: dying takes away only two upgrade levels of each weapon, so no more starting from scratch like in old Gradius games. And if you die on a boss rush you don’t need to face previously killed bosses all over again. Yay!

Once you nail down how to manage your weapons Satazius gets relatively uncomplicated. I like the fact that the ship is decently maneuverable even at maximum speed, and how the game never leaves you without options to take the much needed speed items (as in the shaft descent inside the fiery caves of the third level, where you’re allowed to take two consecutive speed-down items in order to weave better in between the pillars of lava plus two speed-ups as soon as you come out of it). The charge attack can only be used when the charge gauge is full, but the charge rate is often fast enough so that you always have it ready for that tricky passage that needs some extra firepower. Nevertheless if you still want the charge bar to fill up faster all you need to do is refrain from shooting.

First stage of Satazius
(courtesy of YouTube user Metodologic)

Going beyond the basic gameplay into the realm of high scoring is directly related to how well you play and how many stars you’re able to collect. Each stage has 10 stars, and by taking them all the player receives a perfect bonus of 200.000 points per level (if one of them is missing each star is worth 10.000 points only). Every surplus speed-up or shield item also adds more to the score (5.000 and 20.000 points, respectively). Finally, upon completing the game the player is awarded with 100.000 points for each life in reserve (the extend rate is one extra life for every 300.000 points). This extend rate and all of these bonuses apply to the Normal difficulty and have increased figures whenever you play on higher difficulties – which must first be unlocked by clearing the game on the previous difficulty setting, continues allowed.

There’s a rudimentary rank system in effect that seems to be based on survival time and gets totally reset upon death. Stage 4 in particular is where enemy aggressiveness becomes more noticeable if you get there without dying. Playing on harder difficulty settings comes with a few twists here and there, such as different terrain, rearranged enemy formations or new boss attacks, so it’s not just a matter of increased bullet density or speed. And the coolest thing for score chasers is that each difficulty has its own high score display and every run can be saved as a replay file. There's also a very handy and fully customizable Practice mode.

Even though I managed to unlock the extra difficulties, my goal in the game was to finish it on Normal with one life while collecting all bonus stars (result below). As polished as it is, my only gripe with Satazius is that it didn’t allow me to use the d-pad on my 360 controller, forcing me to play with the analog stick. The game was savored by means of the Steam digital distribution platform on an HD TV with the following PC configuration: Windows 8.1, Intel Core i5-4210U @ 1.7/2.4 GHz and 4 GB RAM.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Excellent 10 [Beams] (FM Towns)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by ????
Published by Amorphous in 1990

One of the selling phrases of Shooting Towns, a development package released for the FM Towns product line in 1990, is "games people are playing in the 90's are games they are making". As cool as it might have been back then, Shooting Towns unfortunately lacked any sample game so people could know what to expect from the available design tools (an absence that was corrected in the revised release Super Shooting Towns). In order to broaden the appeal of Shooting Towns, soon after it hit the market developer Amorphous compiled ten games developed by common users in a CD titled Excellent 10.

While an extremely rare item these days, going by the quality of the shooters it contains Excellent 10 is more of a collector's prize than anything you'd actually want to play. In all honesty, all shooters in this compilation aren't even close to the standards of a 32-bit gaming machine. It's downright embarassing, especially when you compare this material to what Dezaemon on the SNES is able to offer even though it came out four years later. Most of the games in Excellent 10 present poor frame rate, uninspired graphics, lousy sound effects and an annoying lack of autofire. It's no Action 52, but saying they look like 8-bit games is no exaggeration. In general they've also got subpar challenge levels, even the ones that carry a bizarre nature that's often good for laughs or geek talk. At least each game has and ending, if that counts for something.


Let's now take a closer look at Beams. First of all, there's nothing in the game that reflects the title. There's no beam anywhere, neither laser, plasma, fire, smoke, dirt, whatever. Beams is actually insect-themed, but across its six stages the player will not find any noteworthy variation in the enemy gallery composed of small bugs or bug bosses that wander around the screen in banal and repetitive movement patterns. Environments consist of forests, corridors/ravines, skies, outer space, industrial landscapes and something that's supposed to be the bug lair in the final level. Button A is used to shoot, button B has no function at all and it doesn't get more complicated or simple than that.

Weapon selection is performed by taking the icons left behind by destroyed enemies. These icons carry a letter inside, but the game's resolution is so bad that recognizing the letter in those circles is harder than memorizing their color schemes. Here's what you have at your disposal:

  • white with purple border (B): forward/backward shot;
  • white with blue border (S): 6-way spread, three forward, two lateral, one backwards;
  • golden (4): 4-way shot;
  • orange (F): 3-way forward spread;
  • blue (L): laser;
  • full golden icon: temporary invincibility (your insect vessel is painted with gold for a while).

Laser is the only weapon that comes with natural autofire, but most of the time it's just better to go with S and mash the button to cover a larger area of the screen. Each weapon is already in its final form, with no upgrades or any additional bonus gained by collecting the same item multiple times. Speaking of bonus and scoring, this part of the game was seriously overlooked in Beams. Some of the enemies you kill aren't worth anything, and as much as I tried to understand the logic behind this I just couldn't. It seems our developer friend simply forgot to add point values to them. Another hint at this oversight is that no matter how well or bad you play the initial level you'll always reach the first boss with 6.600 points.

"Are you by any chance my big daddy?"

If it weren't for the benevolent distribution of 1UPs (the small purple insect items), Beams wouldn't be such an easy game. I won't say cheap deaths abound, but at times it's hard to see enemies or bullets due to the bad choice of colors. As if the abundance of extra lives wasn't enough, there's also an extend routine in place which I didn't really care about. The maximum amount of lives you can have in stock at any given time is 8, so in the heat of the battle you don't need to get out of your way to collect more 1UPs if you're full of them. For what it's worth, upon dying you can continue at the start of the current stage by pressing SELECT. START will send you back to the start screen.

The catchy nature of a few musical themes and the contrast between music styles and atmosphere has a reason: judging by the re-use of the same tracks in multiple games, apparently most of the music in Excellent 10 was slapped onto the user-developed games by Amorphous themselves.

As you can see, there's really nothing special about Beams. Once beaten, the game stops at a single ending screen and you won't be able to see the extra 20.000 points you got for defeating the last boss. Here's my best result, taken before that ugly head bit the dust.

Notes: whenever you boot one of the games in Excellent 10 on the FM Towns Marty you're given the chance to select between under scan (31,47 kHz) or over scan (15,73 kHz) displays; in order to get back to the OS screen you need to reset the console. Those who're wondering if they should expect at least a little variety in the other titles from this compilation, well... Don't get your hopes up, unless you care about bizarre shooter/racing hydrids and anime pedestrian shooters. But that's another post for another day.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Flying Shark (FM Towns)

Checkpoints ON
6 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Ving in 1993

Experienced arcade shooter fans know that Toaplan has an enthralling history. From the early days of Tiger-Heli to the swan song delivered in Batsugun, the company was always present in the arcade scene with trend-defining games, of which Flying Shark is certainly one of them. Known in Japan as Hishouzame and released in some areas around the world as Sky Shark, the game explicitly borrowed ideas from Capcom's 1942 while kickstarting a streak of in-house shmups that's recognized today as one of the most charming old school branches in the genre. It's also the first chapter of an unofficial series which also contains Fire Shark, released in the arcades roughly two years later.

Few systems received ports of Flying Shark soon after it came out. The only mainstream console adaptation is the NES version titled Sky Shark, while all other ports appeared in obscure home computers only. This FM Towns version is one of them, a very close take on the arcade game in both graphical and gameplay merits except for the characteristic screen ratio that turns the playing area slightly into a square. Since the porting job wasn't really optimized for this, the upper part of the screen is partially cropped and the player loses sight of what's going on up there. It's as if we could only view 85% of the original screen even though it seems to have been ported faithfully from the original game. As a result, there are several instances where enemy shots seem to be coming out of nowhere. It's a little disappointing, but at least it doesn't break the gameplay.

Take off every shark!

No frills and straightforward plane shooting action is what defines Flying Shark. Press B to fire your weapon and press A to bomb. If you see a wave of six red enemy planes kill them all to release a power-up labeled as S, take it to add an extra firing stream to your gun and see if you can survive to max it out at five powerful streams (meaning you max out with 4 power-ups). Most of the other characteristic six-plane waves are beige, and by destroying them you get an extra 1.000 points. And if you're lucky you might also come across the light blue wave, which will then release an extra life (1UP). Extra lives are also score-based and granted with 50.000 points and for every 150.000 points afterwards. Lastly, watch out for a red symbol that appears from a few ground enemies, each one of them adds an extra bomb to your stock. 

The overall setting of Flying Shark goes by the book and doesn't veer into anything extraordinary. Jungle, oceans, desert, variations of each, repeat. Small planes of all colors approach in the most different patterns (each color presents a particular behavior), larger planes cruise the screen from time to time and a few huge bombers appear here and there. Tanks, boats, turret-ridden ships and big mean railroad panzers compose the terrestrial resistance, which gets more and more aggressive the closer you get to the end of a level. Despite this humble collection of assets and the absence of regular bosses, the game succeeds at combining them to deliver a fun and challenging experience where natural progression mostly comes from memorization and clever crowd control. And let's not forget about the great music, which in this port received an awesome remix.

Part of the difficulty is directly related to the plane's firepower, since the more powered-up you are the faster enemy bullets will get. It's a rather simple rank system that benefits players by allowing them to predict how aggressive the game is about to become at any time during play. You just need to be careful not to let the power-up go away once it's released because as the icon comes down bouncing it won't return at all if you let it disappear at the bottom of the screen. Note that bombs can't be used as panic relief because they explode in a spiral pattern, blocking only the bullets that are close to the blast radius. Bombs are also a precious source of points because each bomb in stock is worth 3.000 points at the end of the level. No matter how you stand as you collect this bonus, the game will always reset your bomb stock to three before you take flight again.

A credit of Flying Shark on the FM Towns
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

Some details in the gameplay can certainly help the player survive longer. For example, each flying enemy that enters the screen will fire a single bullet only and follow its predefined path. There's a safety point blank distance in place for ground enemies (namely small tanks and turrets) where they won't be allowed to fire at you at all, so exploit that whenever possible. The six-plane waves will always appear on the same position and will never shoot any bullet, and if you lose a power-up or die they might switch colors in order to allow faster powering-up. Beware of slow planes coming up from the bottom of the screen and point blank whenever possible to kill them faster. And as a general rule, keep moving while avoiding to stay too close to corners.

Flying Shark adopts the same looping scheme previously used in Tiger-Heli: it disregards the first stage completely and also measures player performance by "areas" reached. As usual, each further loop increases enemy bullet speed considerably. Despite the image cropping issue, Flying Shark on the FM Towns is excellent for a home conversion. Mild quirks consist of brief loading times and an annoying continue countdown screen, where any button on the controller will trigger it. The only in-game limitation is related to a few severe bouts of slowdown, seeing that the game stutters heavily when you bomb at crowded spots (such as the huge plane bomber in stage 2 or the battleship that goes upwards at the end of stage 3). In the options screen you can select between four autofire settings, as well as choose between four display resolutions.

I had a blast playing this, with the results of a lazy relaxing afternoon shown below. I played on Normal with auto shot set to 4 and reached the third stage on the 2nd loop.