Thursday, September 17, 2020

Blast Wind (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1997

Something weird must have happened inside Technosoft's headquartes as the 90s came to an end and the 32-bit generation was beginning to fade. By 1997 the company had somehow failed to keep the momentum since the arcade and home releases of Hyper Duel, and Thunder Force V would still take another year to hit Japanese shelves. Blast Wind came out with little fanfare in a very low print run, surrounded by rumors that it was actually supposed to be released in the arcades before the Sega Saturn. The game made little impact and its rarity soared, soon becoming a cherished prize for players and collectors alike. 

The reason why Blast Wind doesn't share the same appreciation as, say, Hyper Duel, which is equally sought after as a collectible, can certainly be attributed to a few aspects that aren't usual for a game developed by Technosoft. Being short and easy, for example, isn't a nice combination for a full-blown 32-bit title. The game also lacks the graphical edge you'd expect from such a powerful platform. It kinda feels like a 16-bit game at its essence, only polished by the power of superior processing. Many of its graphical assets and sound effects, for instance, are a throwback to Thunder Force IV. And while typical Technosoft and decent in its own right, the soundtrack doesn't make the lasting impression you'd normally expect from such a beloved developer. Besides, the sound balance is off and the music is almost totally engulfed by the sound effects.

On the other hand, Blast Wind does offer more than the basic shooting thrills of old, expanding a little upon the regular Technosoft completion bonuses well known by fans since Thunder Force II put the company's name on the map.

First stage of Blast Wind with the blue ship on an easier setting
(courtesy of YouTube user MAX 300)
A nifty intro shows a little bit of the story about two pilots being sent to battle an alien threat known as Gorn. Two ship variants can be used by choosing pilot/player 1 (Kyo, blue ship) or pilot/player 2 (Forn, orange ship). They both use two types of weapons, the "switch" shot and the homing shot, which by default work with buttons A and B respectively, with button C reserved for bombs (all inputs are fully configurable in the options). Shot types, however, behave differently for each ship/pilot: Kyo fires a wave shot that can crawl over surfaces and an X-shaped homing pattern, whereas Forn fires a laser and an aiming spread vulcan. Playing with Kyo is definitely easier than doing it with Forn, whose weapons feel all around weaker.

Regular upgrade items materialize as power-ups (P), extra bombs (B) and trailing shields (S). Picking up a power-up not only increases your firepower, but also creates a horizontal barrage of energy that gives you momentary invincibility (the accompanying visual effect is quite cool but odd at first sight). Some enemies will also release coins worth 100 points each. These coins – which look very much like the power chips you see in Compile games of the Aleste series – are very important in the long run because for each 50 you collect the next one will fall as a 1UP (be quick to grab it or you'll see it fall away like an ordinary coin). You can also achieve two score-based extends at 400.000 and 2 million points.

Blast Wind's claim to fame appears in the splitting path mechanic implemented by switches that lead to alternate paths containing different enemies and boss forms. All you have to do is touch the switch with the ship to activate it. Some switches release random items instead, but these are clearly identified so that you know which switches to actually trigger.

Path splitting does provide some degree of replay value, but when you start to play for score you'll often be restricted to specific paths in order to get more points and coins. After all, coins are the means to extra lives and each life remaining gives you 100.000 points when the game is beaten. Other than that, everything else about the scoring system is related to preserving resources. End of stage bonuses are given for the amount of bombs you have, while items in excess grant either 3.000 or 5.000 points each. Certain spots can also be shot at to uncover varying rewards of 1.000 or 5.000 points (signalled by $ and stars). Lastly, some bosses can be exploited by targeting destructible parts before going for the main kill.

Push to bypass
If there's any rank in Blast Wind, that might only be noticeable during boss fights and even so it isn't quite clear how it works. Sometimes one of the side turrets of the first boss just takes a lot longer to be destroyed for no apparent reason, but I also saw some odd unexpected behavior on the third boss. Deaths take away one level of firepower, but fortunately the supply of power-ups is so rich that soon you're back to max power again. Shields are great to block some boss attacks, as long as you remember that after taking too much damage they deplete and turn into a regular power-up.

Another feature that adds to the ease of completion here is the absence of harm when touching walls and scenery. That doesn't mean you'll feel no pressure when navigating those quick levels though. I had many annoying and unexpected deaths because I got stuck in a tip of the scenery, for example. Even though the vertizontal orientation feels a little offset by the side HUDs, some bullet patterns still feel cramped and are better off completely avoided instead of dodged with twitch movements, at least when playing with the blue ship. It just feels a little too fast for my liking. This impression changes when playing with the slower orange ship, which is also the better choice for collecting coins because it lacks those small homing missiles that come with the blue ship weapons.

So which ship to choose then? What is more important, more power or better mobility? The funny thing about this is that unless they're told or they pay attention to the attract mode, many players aren't even aware that you get a ship with completely different weapons on the player 2 side.

The Saturn disc includes automatic save and optional tweaks, also allowing all sorts of button customization. My best final result playing on Normal difficulty with pilot Kyo is below (blue ship, player 1). Yes, Blast Wind is relatively easy fun but you'll feel a lot more pressure when trying to no-miss to maximize your high score. I always ended up screwing somewhere and couldn't get it. Maybe next time!

Friday, September 4, 2020

Tatsujin (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Taito in 1992

Once again, the time has come for more fun with Toaplan's classic Tatsujin. My overall impression lately is that it has become more appreciated over the years, either within the works of Toaplan or in the STG community in general. A long time ago the approach I had towards the game changed somewhat, especially after playing the Mega Drive Western Truxton incarnation. The PC Engine version would take a couple of years to come out after the Mega Drive port, equally standing as a valuable conversion that pretty much paralleled all the original features from the arcade, of which difficulty is definitely the most widely talked about by shooting game fans.

Since it came out only in Japan, this version is only referred to as Tatsujin. A quintessential sci-fi shooting adventure that follows in the design footsteps of Kyuukyoku Tiger, the game consists of five long levels where you must battle enemies coming from all sides, flying over asteroid terrains and wide open sections and fighting huge bosses as the end of each area. Your only inputs are shot (button II) and bomb (button I), with all other resources obtained by collecting capsules along the way. It's a perfect embodiment of the shooters of old, in which surviving tough checkpoints is totally dependent on how you're able to power up your ship and use your stock of bombs.

The start of the journey in Tatsujin
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Old Games Database)

Even though Tatsujin isn't endowed with fancy visual assets (such as parallax), the graphics are still colorful, detailed and do a great job in keeping with the tone of the arcade original. Outer space sections are as drab as it gets but the visuals get better when you're flying over terrain. Granted, they sort of lack the grittier edge of the arcade, which is to be expected with the new resolution in the transition to the console format. You can however achieve a pseudo arcadey look by going into the secret options at the start screen: score exactly 7.100 points and soft-reset with SELECT + RUN, then press SELECT + RUN again and set screen to "slim".

In the vastness of outer space you'll come across small carriers that drop items when destroyed. The basic one is the power-up (P), for which you'll need five in order to get an increase in firepower. This means that it takes ten Ps to achieve max power. Choosing the weapon type is done by collecting a color-based capsule: red is the default vulcan, green is a soft straight shot and blue is a visually impressive laser that expands outwards in five deadly streams when maxed out. The item gallery also includes speed-ups (S) and extra bombs (B). The bomb, a well-known trademark of the game, is a skull-shaped round explosion that inflicts massive local damage while melting all on-screen bullets. 

After reaching max power you can stock 4 power-ups before P items stop coming. There's no unlimited stockpiling of power-ups like in the Mega Drive port, but you can still amass as many bombs as possible even though you only see 9 in the bomb counter. Every surplus P, S or weapon item you take is worth an extra 5.000 points, and that's the main scoring device in Tatsujin. Some people are able to max out speed and surf the rest of the game collecting all incoming capsules, but I suck at that and restrict myself to taking only two speed-ups for the sake of safer maneuverability. Recovering from death can be intimidating in certain checkpoints but it's always possible (note that dying too quickly will send you even further back in the level).

Despite the in-your-face bullets and the unfavorable odds of the gameplay, such as enemies coming with absolutely no warning from below, Tatsujin manages to lure players for more credit after credit. This is usually the case with good strict memorizers, and the game is no exception to this rule. Aimed shots are the norm, but every now and then flocks of more powerful enemies that behave like mini-bosses start firing combinations of fixed and aimed patterns. The good news is that no matter how fast and cruel they are, there's often a nice way to deal with them if you know what's coming. Some just won't fire when close to the bottom line, and methods like point blanking and just staying put work wonders.
The power of laser in outer space
Tatsujin is notorious for not having any actual separation between stages except for the change in the music, with no extra bonus whatsoever for a good performance. Since no extra score is given anywhere besides collecting extra capsules, there's obviously no need to refrain from bombing if necessary. A long section with moving turrets in stage 3 can send your bomb stock through the roof, thus providing the necessary inventory you might need to cheap out on the more intricate sections later on. Wach out for beacons that can be destroyed if you're using the appropriate weapon as soon as you reach the ground prior to bosses, which can give you up to two extra lives. Score based extends are awarded at 70.000 points and for every 200.000 points afterwards.

One special observation about the PC Engine version concerns the difficulty curve. For some strange reason it starts out a tad harder than both the arcade and the Mega Drive version. Bullets are slightly faster and lasers are fired at breakneck speeds, requiring stern memorization from the get go if you don't want to use bombs so early in the credit. Bosses are also interesting in that they don't necessarily get harder as the game progresses. That sort of goes in line with the realization that provided you know what's coming and select weapons wisely this port isn't as hard as its widespread fame indicates.

When put side by side with the Mega Drive port, my perception of this version is that it presents a more even difficulty curve despite the initially high aggression levels of the larger foes in the first stages. It doesn't incur in bullet visibility problems as Sega's version does in the final stage.

The high score below was achieved on Normal difficulty (check the trick mentioned above to see/change the difficulty level). I reached the 4th stage in the second loop. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

W Ring - The Double Rings (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Naxat Soft
Published by Naxat Soft in 1990

The gimmick is already in the title. And even though it doesn't quite work the game is decently paced for 16-bit standards, which is nothing less than one would expect from a shooter by prolific Naxat Soft. Is it fun, however? W Ring - The Double Rings draws many ideas from the classic formula of Gradius in order to deliver a reasonably varied space adventure, even though it tends to fly low in the radar of shmup fans due to a combo of design + gameplay that on the surface doesn't do much to go beyond what most people would call average.

Fairly simple controls are used here. Just shoot with button II and choose from three speed settings with button I. There's no backstory and no preamble anywhere, so go ahead and blast enemies across six levels (or seven, depending on how you interpret the way the final boss section is laid out), collecting upgrade items along the way to save your universe from annihilation. The rings mentioned in the game's title circle the ship and hover around it as you move, theoretically powering your weapons while also serving as a deflector shield for incoming bullets.

Bouncing bullets with the rings comes with a nice metallic sound effect, but I couldn't grasp how to properly do that and not get hit. After a while I just gave up and considered this mechanic as a good luck charm during the most claustrophobic parts of the game.

The welcoming arms of the 3rd boss

As I mentioned above, several environments in W Ring are modeled after Gradius games. The first level in a cavern setting is filled with cannon fodder and disintegrating rocks, while alien insects and destructible nets populate the second level and mirror the second stage of Gradius II. There's also a high speed section in stage 5 that serves as main gate to the death hole of the final stage. The most visually attractive level, however, is the third one and its waterfalls above and below amidst constant rain. An interesting detail is how the splitting orbs in stage 4 predate a concept that would become one of the visual highlights of Konami's Xexex. Most stages also span a wider vertical area than the screen space, a rather unusual trait for console shooters at the time of the game's release. 

A bare ship is capable of firing a single straight shot and air-to-ground missiles. When the power-up carrier is destroyed a floating orb appears, switching colors starting from purple. Once the third orb is collected you reach maximum power and that happens regardless of color, so there's no need to stick to the same color to power up the ship. Whenever you've gotten at least one power-up you don't die when hit, with the ship reverting back to its default firepower instead. That's the condition that results in death if a bullet hits you or you crash into an obstacle.

Choosing from the weapon types available requires some timing skills because the power-up cycles colors relatively fast. In their maxed out forms you get an 8-way shot (purple), a set of straight lasers (blue), the default shot with two streams of missiles with mild homing ability (yellow), a straight ring-shaped shot (green) and the default shot complemented by four invincible trailing orbs that block bullets (red). Finding a favorite weapon in W Ring doesn't take long, and my two choices were always the yellow shot for its devastating effect when point blanking and blue because those lasers will pierce through anything, including walls.

Caverns of Saturn in the first level
(courtesy of YouTube user Jesper Engelbrektsson)

Besides the regular upgrades the game also has three types of hidden items, which are uncovered by shooting at corners and tips of the scenery. B is a score bonus token that's normally worth 15.000 points, the interrogation mark (?) makes the missiles fly forward instead of downwards/upwards and EX sends the ship into an alternate version of the level. Alternate stage versions come with different color palettes and can be hit-and-miss regarding difficulty and scoring opportunities. The only ones I'll take are in the first and fifth stages (the latter comes with lots of uncovered B items that are worth less than normal but still give you a lot more points than the regular course). The first score extend comes with 200.000 points, the second with 500.000 points and all further ones at each 500.000 mark. 

W Ring - The Double Rings sort of rises above the failed attempt at providing a different gimmick due to the reasonably balanced intensity of the gameplay, except for some bosses that go down in mere seconds if you're using certain weapons. One thing that sort of bothers me is the fact that you're always respawned in the lowest speed setting, which can lead to confusion when you most need speed to go on. Bullet visibility also tends to become an issue during loops or when playing at a higher difficulty. Scoring is pretty straightforward and mostly boosted by collecting B items and excess items of the same color, as well as taking the EX routes. As for the music, I found it rather ordinary with no standout tracks whatsoever.

When the game is beaten we're made aware that the mission actually started in Saturn and proceeded towards the outer boundaries of the Solar System, just before a new threat appears and you're drafted into battle again for the second loop. There you need to cope with a lot more bullets, including those of the suicide kind when medium and large-sized enemies are destroyed. Here's my final score on Normal difficulty, reaching stage 2-6.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Gryphon Knight Epic (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cyber Rhino Studios
Published by Strictly Limited Games in 2018

Funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign and aimed at an initial release for Windows/Mac PCs in 2015, Gryphon Knight Epic soon made its way to several other platforms including the Playstation 4. Eventually it got picked as the second retail title by Strictly Limited Games, and ever since my copy arrived I wanted to see how well the sprite-based fantasy aesthetics applied to the shmup style of play. After being foiled by a few horrid impressions from brief contacts I finally had the chance to invest some time into it last week, learning what was necessary to go from beginning to end in a single sitting.

Very inspired by swashbuckling stories and movies, the story in Gryphon Knight Epic plays a large part in the overall experience. Fortunately you can skip all cut scenes and dialogue snippets by pressing ○ (being able to disable the dialogue in the options would've been much better, but that's not the case and you can't remap buttons either). The cartoony visuals are an obvious throwback to the 16-bit era, the charming old school graphics are a great asset for nostalgia's sake and the innocent humor that comes along with it is certainly welcome if you don't mind scrolling though endless pieces of text.

Infusing the gameplay with RPG-like mechanics is a much more debatable design decision though, one that doesn't quite gel with the expectations of diehard shmup fans. My initial fear was that it would actually lead to some sort of mandatory grinding, but fortunately that's not the case. You can still grind your heart out to Gryphon Knight Epic if you want to, of course, if only for the chance of controlling sir Oliver, the titular hero of the game, with half-decent speed and maxed out weapons from beginning to end. Everything is so painfully slow and clunky when you begin that you'll need to adapt your sensibilities to the game's rhythm if want to have any fun with it.

Passageways to rematches against bosses

Starting the game will send you directly to a tutorial section that serves the purpose of explaining the basic inputs and showing the beginning of sir Oliver's quest for justice in a medieval land dominated by evil creatures. Button □ shoots, button ○ switches shooting direction, button × fires the special weapon and with button ∆ Oliver drinks whatever potion you've decided to use. Once you have acquired more than one special weapon, L1 and R1 cycle through the available ones. Lastly, either by holding Δ or pressing the touchpad you have access to your whole inventory for potions, weapons and squires.

Once the tutorial is over, head to the market in the map to purchase the dragon squire and fly away to one of the next available levels. With the first upgrade of the default crossbuster weapon you can shoot a charged shot that doesn't consume weapon energy (it's the only weapon that behaves like this). Weapon energy recovers automatically when used, whereas in order to recover health you either need to use a green potion or collect green gems. Other gem colors with special benign functions exist but are quite rare to come about, and most of them will actually be yellow gems that serve to increase the level of your squire (the dragon squire shoots 3 very helpful fireballs when maxed out). If you get hit you lose one level of the squire's power, on top of losing some health of course. 

In every stage sir Oliver must defeat two bosses. The second one will always give him a new weapon upon defeat, which Oliver is able to use at will in the following stages. Comparisons to Mega Man are justified here, even though you'll need to choose between two levels only as you start, advancing to four choices after you complete the second level. Besides the default crossbuster you'll also acquire a sword, a bow, a staff, a sling, a lance and a fireworks cannon. Some of them aren't really of much use though. My favorite was definitely the sword for its ability to fire large arching shots that block bullets, even with its egregiously slow firing rate and speed.

Every single enemy that's killed gives the player a certain amount of money. You don't need to pick up coins or anything similar since money registers automatically in the appropriate counter. Killing enemies within a certain interval between each other without taking damage increases money value up to a ×3 multiplier (note that money gain varies depending on the difficulty you choose for each stage). Money is used to purchase items and weapon upgrades at the market and the wizard's shop. Every time you die you lose 5% of all your money, and that's pretty much the only real punishment you get from performing poorly. Lives are implemented awkwardly: in the normal difficulty you get a constant supply of six lives to play any game section, so no matter how many you've lost before advancing you'll get another six after you beat any boss. Game overing is pointless because you preserve all your gold and play any stage again as if nothing had happened. Besides, you can leave any stage at any moment and go back to the map to choose another stage or start again.

Console launch trailer
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Cyber Rhino Studios)

The disregard for the mechanic of lives is understandable, after all Gryphon Knight Epic was not designed with an arcade mindset. Each play session has its own save slot, to which you can come back at your own time in order to get more money. The idea here is to obtain every single item and weapon in the game, completing all levels in the hardest difficulty in order to unlock the ultimate weapon and the most satisfying ending. The game doesn't have any scoring whatsoever, but even if we were to consider money as score we'd still have a broken scoring system (you can exploit enemy projectiles in certain areas ad infinitum).

There are some other gameplay aspects that rub me the wrong way. Switching shooting direction with button ○ feels awkward because it also shifts the scrolling direction if you're flying left or right (not up or down, for that you must hold the desired direction for a few seconds). Every once in a while the screen halts so that you can choose a scrolling direction. Normal progression is always indicated by the pointing finger, but watch out for secret passages hiding magic runes that grant Oliver special enhancements such as the ability to fly underwater, unlock larger meters for health and weapon power, fly faster or get reduced prices at the shops. The bad news is that the most helpful ones can only be found in the hardest stages, so you're stuck with that sluggish gryphon and the sensation that you're plowing through mud throughout the whole game, taking inevitable damage all the time for being sorely underpowered.

My self-imposed challenge in Gryphon Knight Epic was to beat it on Normal (Knight) difficulty without replaying any level. The only weapons I upgraded were the crossbuster (max), the Qamar sword (level 2) and the Eben sling (level 2), refilling my stock of green potions in between levels. All secret runes were collected except for the one that gives you a dash move, which is more annoying than actually useful. I considered my "score" to be the money cumulated after beating the final boss, shown in the picture below. According to my save stats at the end of the credit the run lasted 2 hours and 2 minutes.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Atomic Robo-Kid Special (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
25 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by UPL
Published by UPL in 1989

Very few arcade games can actually live up to the being called unique, and Atomic Robo-Kid is undoubtedly one of them. While the game didn't fare well critically or comercially, it did make a few appearances as ports in the console market. The PC Engine Japanese version, called Atomic Robo-Kid Special, is more of a rearranged game than a proper conversion since it changes many of the original gameplay elements. Even though they're not substantial, some of these changes actually make the game more friendly and less dire, on top of providing a slightly different experience from the arcade or the Mega Drive port released at around the same time.

The central character in Atomic Robo-Kid Special is this chubby little robot that looks like a trash can with piercing red eyes and a big nose. He's able to walk and fly wherever he pleases, battling all sorts of weird creatures across 25 stages, or "acts" as the game puts it. No story is given this time around, so all you have to do is dive directly into the action, pushing your way through straight corridors and maze-like environments with perils at every corner. In every 5th level you must defeat a large boss inside a closed chamber, and prior to that also face a similar enemy robot in face-to-face combat.

While the graphics have faithful textures when compared with the arcade version and come off as extremely colorful, parallax is minimal and barely visible. A few new enemies and new behaviors for existing enemies were added to the gameplay. Apparently there are no splitting paths anymore, and in certain levels you're bound to find secret passages through walls. In some cases it's mandatory to go through these passages in order to advance. 

Act 1
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade Forever)

Shooting is done with button II, while button I is used to switch weapon types. In order to extend and upgrade your weapon arsenal you must collect the appropriate capsules, which appear either floating at specific places or by destroying insect-like carriers. Hit the capsules to change their type/color before picking them up. Power-ups come as F (fission gun), 3 (3-way shot), M (directional exploding missile) and 5 (5-way straight shot with short reach). A golden capsule gives you a speed-up and successive blue capsules eventually add a 1-hit shield to the robot (take four of them to acquire one shield). Extra lives are hidden in the scenery and need to be shot at to appear in the form of a little white robot that flies to the right. White flocs that look like it add just a few more points to the score.

Note that trying to switch weapons when you're on ground level will make Robo-Kid jump instead, which means it can only be done when you're airborne. Moving about changes his firing orientation, but it's possible to lock and make him shoot in a single direction for the fission gun, the 3-way and the 5-way: all you have to do is hold the weapon switch button. Even though this sounds inconvenient since you need to plan your weapon switching in advance, in time it becomes more manageable.

So far the description of the gameplay is roughly the same as the arcade game or the Mega Drive port. The main difference in Atomic Robo-Kid Special is the life bar that allows you to take multiple hits before dying. Refilling this life bar is accomplished by taking the "life up" orbs that appear whenever you destroy mid-sized enemies and also during/after the duels against the small robots. Moreover, for each main boss you defeat a "life up / level up" orb also serves to expand the life bar. Just remember to get it before the screen fades to black.

Another aspect that's exclusive to this port is the fact that you can power up your weapons five times by taking successive capsules. The AP number indicates the level for the weapon that's currently selected (AP6 equals max power). However, cycling capsules more than five times will destroy them so take that into consideration when trying to upgrade. The most important weapons are definitely the 5-way and the missile, the first one for crowd control and the second one because it blocks bullets when exploding. The missile is, in fact, devastating against some enemies (try it on the third boss and see what happens). Unfortunately in this version the fission gun lost its ability to pierce through bosses, which makes it practically useless.

The super elephant!

If you see the merchant robot you can go to him and exchange one of your extra lives for whatever upgrades he's got in his stash. Deaths can be extremely punishing later on due to the excruciatingly slow default speed of Robo-Kid (which can make some boss fights nigh impossible), that's why it might be advantageous to use the merchant. Deaths also strip you off the weapon you're currenty carrying, so try not to die when using the missile or the 5-way. Lastly, touching bosses is lethal and can pretty much drain your life bar to a near-death condition.

Since Atomic Robo-Kid Special ditches the timer that required players to not procrastinate, there's absolutely no point in trying to score higher in this version. After all, you can go back and forth killing everything forever if you wish. In certain areas that's a litle bit risky though because you can be dangerously engulfed by many enemy clusters that might quickly drain your health.

If I had to choose one 16-bit port as the best option, I'd pick Atomic Robo-Kid Special. Autofire is implemented from the get go and the lenient life mechanic suits the game better as a whole, even though it packs a slightly tougher challenge on bosses and robot duels than what's seen in the Mega drive version, which on the other hand is certainly harder throughout the game itself. In any case I guess both ports are worth trying if for whatever reason you're into any of them.

There's no high score buffer or table anywhere, so you need to pause right after the last boss goes down if you want to take note of your finishing score. And here's the 1CC result I got, with no milking whatsoever.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Image Fight (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Irem in 1990

One of the many ports from the arcade game, Image Fight reached the PC Engine just a couple of years after the original came out. Just like most good ports of that era, it managed the tone down the raw difficulty of the arcade while keeping everything intact as far as gameplay goes. Often regarded as a vertical sibling to Irem's own horizontal classic R-TypeImage Fight shares much of its ambience, sound effects and graphical style, as well as the addictive old school lure that keeps you coming back for more no matter how difficult the game gets.

The story behind Image Fight is that you're supposed to prepare your combat skills across five stages inside a holographic simulator, only then proceeding to depart for the "real fight" against the alien menace in the game's three final levels. Graphics are crisp and colorful, the music suits the alien environments well and the sound effects indeed make you feel as if you're playing a vertically oriented R-Type. The player's performance is evaluated during the combat simulations, and in order to proceed to the actual mission you need to get at least a 90% average kill ratio at the end of stage 5. Failing to do so will make you play a penalty area before advancing, thus adding an extra stage to the journey.

The problem with the penalty area is that it's excruciatingly harder than anything else in the game, to the point it's practically not worth to play unless you're fierce on proving something or shooting for the highest score possible. Exploiting checkpoints is the normal device for scoring in Image Fight, which in this version is acceptable since you don't get more than two score-based extends throughout the credit. The good news in that on the PC Engine you have to perform really badly to not get the 90% destruction rate, so you definitely need to strive to access the penalty area.

Simulated combat at its finest

In order to make the most out of the two basic inputs (button II shoots and button I switches back and forth across four speed settings), the player needs to destroy item carriers and collect two types of power-ups. The first one is a colored orb that cycles between blue and red and generates a pod that floats around the ship. The blue pod fires straight ahead, whereas the red pod fires in the opposite direction of your movement. It's possible to acquire three pods: the first one appears on the left, the second one on the right and the third one on the ship's rear. Once you get three pods the next one will determine the orientation of all pods, so they will either all be blue or red.

The second type of power-up is a frontal attachment that gives you several different options for extra firepower such as spread patterns, lasers, side shots, missiles, etc. These attachments have a particular behavior though, in that they are destroyed when hit and can only be replaced for a new one if you get rid of the attachment you're carrying.

Cruising through the open areas or the cramped corridors of Image Fight requires solid memorization and at least a little strategy when it comes down to power-up management. There are two checkpoints per level, and it's perfectly possible to recover in all of them no matter how hard they are. Wide open spaces get considerably claustrophobic later on, and since the sprites are slightly zoomed in and bigger in this port there's a constant feeling that you're piloting a ship with massive hitbox. I never felt that the game is unfair with hit detection though, and just like in the original arcade game you can take advantage of very strict positioning strategies to dispatch certain enemies. Just don't rely on the same approaches you might have used in the arcade version, they won't always work here.

Image projector OK!
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryuGL)

The importance of details in the gameplay can even be measured by how useful a few other resources are. The act of switching speeds, for instance, creates a blue flare of energy behind the ship that can be used to damage enemies. There's at least one moment in the game where I switch speeds as an offense strategy. Aggressive point blanking is also very useful if you're familiar with the gaps in the firing pattern of your enemies, especially during the last couple of stages.

Unlike most shooters developed by Irem, Image Fight on the PC Engine does not loop. It also doesn't show your life stock while you play, only when you die. Going by a characteristic sound cue, my guess is that the score-based extra lives are granted with 50.000 and 250.000 points. Besides playing with the OF-1 Daedalus default ship, it's also possible to pilot Mr. Heli (from the game Mr. Heli) with the following simple procedure: press SELECT on the title screen to enter the sound test, highlight "song C" and press down, select and buttons I and II together, then put the cursor over "Mr. Heli" and press button I and RUN. In order to enjoy the game in a faux arcade mode (cramped vertical resolution with borders on the sides), you need to perform a soft reset (START + SELECT) and then immediately hold button I.

The choice of difficulty (or "class" as the game calls it) is made when you start the credit, with Leader class being considered as the Normal difficulty. Then you can choose to activate auto shot / autofire if you wish. That's how I played this version of Image Fight (Leader class + autofire). It was quite a solid, entertaining ride, and the best news as far as the PC Engine goes is that it was also home for the CD sequel Image Fight II.

Note: remember to pause as soon as the final boss goes down, or else you won't be able to take a record of your 1CC score.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Microcosm (Sega CD)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF / ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psygnosis
Published by Psygnosis in 1993

Ever since I watched Innerspace and Fantastic Voyage I had wondered about a video game based on the idea presented in these films. We always see vehicles and spacecrafts flying above ground or sent to outer space, but what if they would instead travel into the inside of living creatures? Granted, games like Abadox, X-Multiply and Wings of Wor were partially or fully designed around this premise, but weren't exactly what I had in mind. Microcosm, on the other hand, owes a lot to the abovementioned films, and could actually pass as a video game adaptation had the story been given a distinct treatment.

Originally created for the FM Towns computer system and later ported to other platforms, Microcosm is a very early take on full motion video used as backgrounds for a shooting game. As one of the most important pioneers of this style, Psygnosis did quite a bit of experimentation when developing it. One of the results is that Microcosm plays with a different point of view across the systems it came out for. The Sega CD version, for instance, is a pure third-person rail shooter, whereas the FM Towns original adopts a first-person cockpit perspective.

Meet first boss Torus

Since FMV was all the rage back then a fully animated introduction was almost an obligation for lots of CD-based video games, and Microcosm is no exception. Of special note is the fact that the developer purposedly kept the color palette at an even lower limit than the Sega CD is capable to deliver, which lends a grainier and slightly surreal aspect to the animation. Sending a miniaturized vessel into the body of a living person is of course the main part of the story, which begins at the cephalic vein and ends at the brain. Even though there seems to be no stage separation in the game, there are actually five areas to play through.

The entry into different areas is signalled by a change in the vessel you're piloting. All of them use the same inputs though, with A for shot, B for weapon switch and C for special attack, which can be either a smart bomb (stages 1, 3 and 5) or a brief invincibility period, here named as "sonic shield" (stages 2 and 4). Odd levels unfold as exploration missions with a boss waiting at the end of the organ, followed by a brief portal section that leads you into the next areas (except for level 5, which has two tunnel stretches with two bosses). Even levels, on the other hand, consist of high speed pursuits after escaping enemy capsules. The bad news is that if you fail to destroy them in time the credit is immediately lost, no matter how many lives you have left. In this particular case it's best to take damage, die and play it again from the start than to see the game end all of a sudden.

Microcosm has no continues, so getting a game over like that says a lot about how weirdly the game behaves when it comes down to lives and such. Another strange feature is that you're not able to pause at all during the gameplay itself. You can only pause when some of the intermediary screens between levels are being displayed. A cryptic password made of moving symbols is shown when you lose all your lives so that you can access later levels directly from the start screen. 

I believe the lack of a pause function and the sudden loss of all lives aren't much of a hassle, what's more aggravating is the flimsy hit detection and how it slowly undermines the experience proposed by the game. Sometimes it just takes more than the usual share of shots for enemies to die, as opposed to how easy it is to see your energy depleted by confusing incoming bullets. A full energy recovery is possible by taking the ship-like item, but just like all other pick-ups you need to destroy the enemy that's carrying it first. The item gallery also includes double shot (2), triple shot (3), laser (L), missile (M), orbiter (O) and smart bomb / invincibility (SB). They are all limited, the only unlimited weapon in the arsenal is the default single shot. Well, for all it's worth it's actually the most efficient weapon in the game.

Complete intro for Microcosm on the Sega CD
(courtesy of YouTube user SegaCDUniverse)

Another way to fully recover your energy gauge is by advancing to the next stage. There are no extends of any kind, no matter what the instruction manual of the Sega CD says (by the way, much of the information in there cannot be trusted at all). Note that despite the cheap hits everywhere, in Microcosm you receive absolutely no damage when touching walls. This of course can be exploited whenever you're low on energy and need to play safe. There's a vertical health meter for all bosses and the capsules during the pursuit stages on the left side of the screen. Hint: try to get to the bosses with smart bombs in stock, then trigger them to take away large chunks of their health.

Padding Microcosm with lots of cut scenes makes it seem longer than it actually is, but most unplayable parts can be duly skipped if you want to. The few ones that can't are quite short, and just like the nice atmospheric soundtrack they contribute positively to the cinematic feel of the game. Unfortunately the lousy gameplay does take its toll in the overall appreciation, yet Microcosm on the Sega CD is still more engaging than the versions that use a cockpit perspective such as those released for the PC and the FM Towns (in technical terms it's of course not on par with the 3DO port, which is also a true rail shooter where you see the craft from the outside and actually get to dodge stuff). Psygnosis improved their approach on the spiritual sequel Novastorm / Scavenger 4, a game that shows refinement in pretty much all aspects that matter.

In order to get the picture below I had to film the end of my credit. Once the last boss goes down the final score appears for less than a second only! Then you're treated with the ending animation and sent back to the start screen.