Monday, November 24, 2014

Pop'n TwinBee (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1993

Every once in a while it’s good to be reminded of how great some companies were before entering a period of constant failure – with critics and gamers alike. Case in question: Konami, specifically the division that takes care of shoot’em ups. I’m not even fond of the gameplay concept behind the Twin Bee series (or maybe I’m negatively biased by the excruciatingly raw difficulty of the first arcade game), and yet I consider Pop’n TwinBee a near masterpiece of the cute’em subgenre. I revisited the game a few days ago after a long strenuous day, which probably left me in a predisposed condition to enjoy it in a single victorious credit. I played only once and looped it to top my previous best in more than a million points. The next day I came back to check if my understanding of bells was actually correct so that I could write about it.

Developed from the ground up for the Super Nintendo and released only in Japan and Europe, Pop’n TwinBee came after Detana!! TwinBee and TwinBee Yahho!, the only real arcade sequels to the original TwinBee. Counting all chapters released until 1993 it’s the sixth entry in the series, and I guess Konami's cumulated experience is one of the reasons for the level of polish applied to every aspect of the game. Graphics, colors and music unite to provide one of the best examples of a great cute shooter, one that’s capable of truly wowing the player while leaving out undesirable characteristics such as drabness, stiffness, unfair or non-existent challenge and excessively quirky or sexualized character designs (okay, to be honest I don’t mind this last one).

There is a story going on involving two main characters (player 1 in blue as TwinBee, player 2 in pink as WinBee), a damsel in distress (rescued at the end of the first stage) and a mad scientist/villain that must be defeated in the final level. The beginning of this story is unveiled in the images shown during the game's attract mode.

First level of Pop'n TwinBee
(courtesy of YouTube user RudyC3)

After pressing start you'll be asked to enter your name and select one of three option configurations: trailing, rotating or forming a lateral moving barrier. Basic attacks remain the same as in previous games, which in the default configuration correspond to shot (B) and ground bombs (Y). Pop'n TwinBee expands on the basics by adding a stock-based smart bomb called chibi (A) and a powerful short-reach punch triggered by holding and releasing button Y (the chibi bomb makes you invincible while the ship expels lots of lethal bouncing miniatures of itself). Each cloud that appears in the horizon hides a bell, the secret to both powering up and scoring. Bells change colors as you hit them, and depending on their color when collected you'll receive a different upgrade or bonus. As they get hit bells switch back and forth between orange and other colors, as described below:
  • orange: gives a score bonus that starts at 500 and maxes out at 10.000 points if you don't let any bell fall down the screen;
  • gray: soft straight shot;
  • purple: 3-way shot that works somewhat in a scattered pattern;
  • green: option that provides additional firepower, up to 4 can be activated;
  • pink: shield, protects against 4 hits;
  • blue: speed-up (every 4th works as a speed-down, reverting the ship back to its default starting speed);
  • blinking gray: extra bomb.

Unlike in previous chapters, in this game lives are replaced by a single health bar that gets refilled at the start of every level. Each hit takes away a portion of the health bar and one of the options you have activated, while pink hearts uncovered by specific ground enemies serve to refill the health bar. Once the health bar is depleted it's game over, and that makes the shield the single most important item of the game: every time it was about to disappear (when it's pink) I would start cooking another pink bell to get it back to blue. My favorite weapon is the 3-way shot since it's more powerful and has side coverage, much useful to hit a few enemies and bosses without getting in front of their vertically aimed bullets.

At first I thought the punch move was useless, but then I changed my mind when I found out it's able to destroy some of the more resilient enemies in a single blow. Those seemingly invincible watermelons of the first stage, for instance, will be instantly sliced to pieces when you punch them. Granted, in later levels things get so hectic that using punches becomes naturally riskier, but whenever there's a breathing window it's always good to have a punch prepared to hit something. After all, it can even deflect bullets!

Flying grapes and rowing minions!

Pop'n TwinBee is artistically one of the most pleasing games in the SNES library. Lots of personality, varied design, catchy music and top notch animation on bosses are the obvious highlights, but the game also excels technically. I haven't tried playing in co-op, but on solo play there is no slowdown whatsoever. The graphic trip allows you to soar above castles and fortresses guarded by all sorts of cute creatures from vegetables to mechanical machines, as well as navigate deep oceans and take down a huge flying battleship. Most bosses are multi-jointed and rendered with cool effects, moving a lot around the screen as they try to crush the player. When they're defeated you're greeted with a shower of bells that can result in a huge amount of points if you're able to collect them all. I think at least two speed-ups are needed to succed at that.

Konami also infused the 2-player mode with extra bits of gameplay. From what I could check, if you're able to play with a friend you'll both be allowed to throw each other against enemies by using button R. And if your ally is low in health it's possible to transfer part of your own energy by pressing X. By switching GAME MODE from "normal" to "couple" in the options the computer will aim most attacks on player 1 instead of player 2, in a particularly clever way to allow less experienced players to tag along. Got kids or nephews? This seems perfect for you then!

I replayed the game on Normal (difficulty 4) with TwinBee (player 1) and selected the trailing options. I scored 52% more than my previous best and died in stage 2-3. It wasn't that hard, but I definitely had a blast doing it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair (Playstation 2)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
14 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega/Westone in 1988
Published by Sega in 2007

Even with so many games released for it I could never fathom the appeal of the Wonder Boy series. My only previous contact with it was on the Master System as I was very little, and I don’t even remember which game it was. Initially presented in the arcades as a pure platformer, the series soon incorporated other styles of gameplay, and as the shmup representative in this hybrid history Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair mixes platform sections with standard horizontal shooting. This game also bears the distinction of being the last arcade entry in the Wonder Boy series and the only chapter to allow 2-player simultaneous play. Player one controls a boy named Leo and player two controls a princess named Papillo.

The best option for those who want to know this universe better is volume 29 of the Sega Ages 2500 series for the Playstation 2, titled Monster World Complete Collection. It contains every single chapter and all their official variations, with the exception of the PC Engine port for Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair (which is understandable because it wasn’t handled by Sega).

Getting in the mood to play the arcade version of Wonder Boy III doesn’t require much if you’re fond of lighthearted 16-bit graphics. Everything is very bright and colorful, with a fluffy atmosphere that immediately evokes feelings of easygoing and joyous fun. But wait... Why then did I spend so much time with the game, and a good portion of it swearing at the TV screen as I got shafted over and over by cute representations of vultures and snowmen? Laugh at the cheesy graphics and mock me as you will, but to me Wonder Boy III is absolutely no piece of cake. It offers one of the most evil kinds of challenge you can have in a game, where failure is served on a plate with a happy face staring back at you (Twinkle Star Sprites, I haven’t forgotten thee).

Beach balls in the village!

Each one of the 14 stages/rounds in Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair has two parts. The first one is a platforming area with automatic scrolling (it scrolls even faster if you advance to the right side of the screen), and the second one has the character flying a pet dragon in order to face the stage boss in his “lair”. Themes vary throughout and include the typical tropical settings of previous Wonder Boy games as well as jungle, castle, villages, ice, desert and spaceship (last level only). There are no graphic frills whatsoever, it’s just the foreground and a layer of parallax in the background. Because the game is so long some of them get repeated after a while, and the same happens to the music. The enemy gallery consists of several sorts of animals, plants and weird creatures, all rendered with cute or goofy sprites. Bosses are quite amusing and remind me of Fantasy Zone, seeing that they’re generally large and shift from their natural colors to red as you hit them.

For the platform areas controls consist of jumping and shooting (configurable as you wish), with shot types switched by collecting weapon icons left by enemies. All six weapons are active for 10 seconds only and revert back to the default pea shot after a while: spread rings, two-way rocks, drill shot, exploding missiles, rotating shurikens and expanding fire circle. Weapon behavior is the same during the shmup section, but there are a few rules that should be noted if you want to stay alive in both parts of a level. For instance, it’s very important to collect the fruits/vegetables that appear hanging in the air during the platform areas, since they serve as fuel for the vitality gauge that determines your current life. This gauge is constantly drained while platforming and can only de replenished by taking fruits or weapon items. A life is lost either when it gets depleted or when you get touched by an enemy. With very few exceptions, all enemies in Wonder Boy III fire this single colored beach ball that takes away a small amount of health instead of killing you instantly. Even though avoiding/dodging beach balls is hardly needed when platforming, balls cause the character to trip uncontrollably into whatever lies ahead. That’s probably the main cause of death in this game, besides getting rammed by one of those cute creatures and falling into abysses due to poorly timed jumps.

Extracting more energy and more points from fruits is possible by hitting the ones that recognize hits and grow to explode into four fruits of the same kind (apples, lemons and pears). Another way to increase their energy and point value is by freeing and collecting the pink fairy. She shows up floating inside a bubble, moving three times in a wide open arch before fleeing. Once touched she will cast a spell on the character and turn all subsequent fruits into cakes for a brief while. Not only do cakes fill up the energy gauge faster, but they also give you more points than normal. Watch out for the blue fairy as well because she grants a very welcome invincibility window that can be used to get through lots of delicate parts without getting hit. Lastly, the black fairy is evil and should be avoided. Don’t fret if you get touched by it though, all it does is void whatever weapon you’re carrying at the moment.

What makes Wonder Boy III a tough challenge despite the childish looks is the autoscrolling nature of the platforming parts. It adds an extra layer of pressure that requires instant adaptation to enemies and weapons. Even when you have the stage fully figured out you can still die because of an inappropriate weapon or because a juicy fruit lured you into falling onto the enemy’s lap. Patience is key, but the more you know how to deal with weapons the more prepared you are to evade the traps set by the game. It’s possible, for instance, to enable a different shot button with autofire. The trick (or hindrance, depends on your point of view) is that some of the weapons behave differently with autofire. The default pea shot and the rotating shurikens will have very short reach due to their increased rate of fire, but the good news is that they are devastating at close range. Exploding rockets have a very specific behavior because they normally blow up at close range if you use either the regular or autofire buttons. However, if you just hold the regular shot they will travel the whole length of the screen.

Co-op credit feeding in the first two stages
(courtesy of YouTube user Randomized Gaming)

The shooting sections of the game are as straightforward as they get. You have to kill waves of a particular enemy before fighting the boss, both thematically related to the stage itself. These are the bosses, in stage order: a fish, a snake, a bat, a queen bee, a skull, a dodgeball match against a puppet, an ice gorilla, a cactus, a vampire, a mushroom mutated into a slot machine, a crab, an ogre, a knight with detachable hand and a space dragon. They’re mostly very large, and in my opinion the hardest ones are that awful cactus and the knight of stage 13. As for regular enemies, the most aggressive are the waves of mushrooms and snowmen. By far the best weapon against bosses is the exploding rocket, which can take some of them out in seconds. Just avoid taking the rotating shurikens unless you’re about to fight a boss where it’s undoubtedly useful, which in my case are the snake from stage 2 and the bat from stage 3. Hint: stay low and do not shoot while approaching the skull in stage 5 or you’ll die instantly (I actually don’t know if this is a bug or not).

Part of what makes up the scoring system of Wonder Boy III was already mentioned above (expanding fruits and cakes from the pink fairy). The other main source of points is in boss fights: a no-hit kill with a full vitality meter results in a full bonus of 5.600 points. That’s also good for survival because the remaining energy at the end of the level is always transported to the next stage (remember that when you die you’re respawned with only half the meter full). Finally, every single item is also worth some points, so the more you collect them the more you score. Speaking of which, collecting successive weapons of the same type extends its duration for a good amount of time. That’s very useful if you happen to come across multiple exploding rockets before the boss, for example.

If by any chance you decide to play this game be prepared for the huge difficulty leap that comes in stage 8. Everything in that level was designed to eat away our lives in a snap: cactuses explode into one or three beach balls, waves of vultures ram into your position at random, scorpions take lots of hits to die and snakes can only be killed if you carry certain weapons. On top of that, that cactus boss is totally unpredictable. In my worst credits I lost all my hard earned lives there, including the four extends gained with 50, 100, 180 and 300 thousand points. The rest of the later half of the game comes with trickier platforming hazards, such as exploding mushrooms and higher cliffs that must be “climbed” by hanging on to their tips (hold and release the jump button for better results).

At the time of its release the game was soon ported to the Mega Drive (in Japan only) and the PC Engine (Japan and US). Available options for the arcade version of Wonder Boy III - Monster Lair on the Playstation 2 include total customization of inputs and settings, gallery/library modes with lots of original material on the game, options to record/view replays and a handful of display settings. There's also a save function that must be done manually, with automatic loading while booting the disc. The arcade original is fun as a whole but also extremely punishing, and that’s why I feel I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had expected. Plus the weapon system randomly screwing the player doesn’t help at all in its appreciation. In my 1CC run on Normal I started the 13th level already on my last life, so I’m very proud of having played the rest of the game without dying... Those last levels are full of traps and that knight boss hates me!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Thunder Spirits (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft / Toshiba EMI
Published by Seika in 1991

If I was an SNES fan back in 1991 I would’ve wet my pants if I knew Thunder Force III was going to be released for the console. Fanboyism aside, I’d probably be aware of how awesome a shooter it was. A copyright issue concerning Sega and Technosoft led to the change in the game’s name, but this could also be related to the fact that Thunder Spirits is more an adaptation of the arcade port Thunder Force AC than Thunder Force III. I use to joke about this making it a second generation port, however there is absolutely no excuse as to why it resulted in such a disappointment, especially for those who had already been exposed to the wonders of Thunder Force III.

There’s no other way to put it, Thunder Spirits is the poor cousin and the black sheep in the mainstream Thunder Force family (meaning the part that doesn’t include the obscure first chapter). Thunder Spirits is also largely used by Sega fanboys who love to jest at the lower speed of the SNES processor. Looking at it bluntly one can’t help but agree with the derogatory statements, since the game seems to run in permanent slowdown whenever you’re shooting. I for one would blame Seika and Toshiba because there’s absolutely no explicit reason to have such a degraded adaptation on a 16-bit console that has grade-A stuff like Axelay, Macross and R-Type III. The SNES was perfectly capable to handle the port better.

That said, this game isn’t a total waste. It’s kinda like Raiden Trad, but a little better. You can’t really trash the influence of an excellent source, can you?

A little taste of Hydra on the SNES
(courtesy of YouTube user djgyixx)

The first thing you need to do in Thunder Spirits is to press SELECT + START at the start screen in order to toggle autofire on. Then you’re all set to enjoy eight stages of horizontal shooting fun modeled after Thunder Force AC, as initially indicated by the status bar positioned in the lower portion of the image. By default the controls work with A (fire), L (change speed) and R (select weapon), but you’re allowed to remap buttons at will at the options screen mentioned above. Everything about the gameplay remains the same: starting with two default weapons (twin shot and back-fire), win enhancements or other weapons by collecting their icons (red S, B, F, W and H); get the claw item to gain two rotating options that amplify firepower and provide protection against normal bullets; find the blue S item and get a 3-hit shield; find and grab 1UPs to increase both the life stock and the final bonus upon completing the game. Die and lose the weapon you're currently carrying, except for the default ones.

While there’s nothing blatantly wrong with how it plays, Thunder Spirits lacks the flair that made Thunder Force III a great experience. Graphics are fine throughout but voices now look like something out of a Parodius game. After you get the claw item slowdown kicks in because the game simply cannot handle the amount of on-screen action. The overall consequence is that at default conditions Thunder Spirits in even easier than Thunder Force III. Never mind bumping the difficulty to mania (very hard) because the challenge increase is pretty minimal and the rewards are the same in the end (there is no additional score bonus for playing in a higher difficulty setting). Extends are aplenty and come with 100.000 points and then for every 200.000 points afterwards.

Another aspect that brings Thunder Spirits down a bit is the lower tempo and the general subdued nature of the soundtrack – as opposed to the stronger emphasis easily noticed on sound effects, especially for the ship’s weapons. By the way, these have gone through minor changes in order to make them more powerful than before. For example, either enemies have gotten weaker or the efficiency of the fire and hunter weapons has been enhanced a good deal (besides them being slightly beefed up graphically). And note how most bosses won’t put up any decent fight. Poor Gargoyle doesn’t even have a chance to shoot his fireballs if you hit his weak spot with the lasers as he enters the screen. King Fish, one of the most feared opponents in previous incarnations, is left in severe disadvantage due to the massive slowdown.

The new battleship level in Thunder Spirits

If we plot a straight line starting in Thunder Force III and ending in Thunder Spirits to compare both titles, practically half the game is somewhat altered. Again, most changes derive directly from the treatment applied in Thunder Force AC, such as the player not being able to select the starting stages anymore, the new outer space level that replaces ice planet Ellis and the new level inspired by one of the stages from Thunder Force II, which replaces the caves from Haides. Exclusive to the SNES iteration are the reworked spaceship stage (plus a brand-new boss) and the additional stretch before the fight against a dumbed-down final boss. Having now played all of these versions, I honestly think that the original Ellis and Haides planets from Thunder Force III are the best-looking of them all and shouldn’t have been excluded.

In short, if you fancy an easygoing shooter on your Super Nintendo and you haven’t been exposed to Thunder Force III on the Mega Drive yet, Thunder Spirits will fit the bill. It’s not atrocious and it’s fun while it lasts. I just recommend trying the original game next so you’ll have an idea of how much cooler it is in comparison.

By beating Thunder Spirits you unlock special lines in the options screen, which allow you to listen to the game's soundtrack and tinker with the starting number of lives and the extend routine. I played at full defaults on Normal with autofire and cleared the game on one life. Each life left in the end is worth 1 million points regardless of the chosen difficulty.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Action Fighter (Master System)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed controllable / by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1986

Action Fighter didn’t really belong to the lower and more unknown rank of Sega arcade games, but it does seem to be the case considering how obscure it is. Coming out in between the most successful titles developed by the company, the arcade game got easily eclipsed by the likes of Out Run and Thunder Blade. Of all ports released for it, the most famous is probably the one made for the Master System soon after the arcade board hit the market. By all means it’s a very primitive-looking shooter, but given how early an entry it was in the console library I believe this 8-bit version of Action Fighter pulls quite a stunt with its meager 1 Mega power tag.

Taking direct inspiration from (not to say shamelessly cloning) Midway’s racing shooter Spy Hunter, Action Fighter blends the style of the competition with more traditional vertical shooting sections. Lots of compromises were made while adapting the arcade material, but at least the Master System game is able to retain the original frantic atmosphere that keeps you on your toes all the time. Make no mistake, the high degree of randomness in the gameplay makes Action Fighter one of the hardest shmups on the Master System. Nothing is etched in stone and lots of practice is needed to overcome the challenge of completing five missions commissioned by the president himself.

Some information sources point to the fact that the motorcycle you start the game with is the same one from Sega’s own classic Hang On. The initial objective of the player is to destroy enough enemies in order to collect the necessary alphabet letters to make this motorcycle turn into a car, these letters being A, B, C and D. Button 2 is used to shoot in both forms, while the combination of buttons 1 and 2 switches between motorcyle and car forms. By collecting further letters E and F you enable the car to automatically turn into a flying vehicle at a certain point in the stage’s course (prior to a bridge), and then this jet-car takes into the skies in standard shooting fashion. The action continues like that until the flying car lands by itself back into another driving area.

I want to fly!
(courtesy of YouTube user Enrique Garcia)

During the driving parts you’re allowed to go faster or slower depending on how high you are on the screen (press ↑ and ↓). While you need to pay attention to the road signs that warn you about turns and splits, it’s often safer to drive faster in order to avoid getting touched by vehicles coming from below, but not so fast as to overtake the incoming cars and trucks. Getting rammed by an enemy and sent against the sides is deadly. Powering up the vehicle is done by getting inside the SEGA truck that appears from time to time: just align the motorcycle/car with the truck and see it get in and out, first with a double missile upgrade, then with a homing missile to be fired against helicopters (only in motorcycle form) and finally with 15 seconds of invincibility. Dying rips you off everything, except for the alphabet letters already collected.

During the flying parts it’s obviously not possible to revert back to motorcycle or car forms. Button 1 is then used to drop ground bombs in the famous Xevious style. In these sections upgrading the jet car’s firepower is done by means of small colored Ps that appear randomly. A yellow P serves as a single weapon power-up (get missiles), a white P works as speed-up, the green P is a screen-clearing bomb, the brown P corresponds to an extra life and the blue P gives you the temporary invincibility. From my experience, the great majority of the items consist of yellow and white Ps (power-ups and speed-ups). The others are very rare and I never got more than one of each in any of my runs. Just to have an idea, I came across the invincibility item only once.

One might think that going from motorcycle to car and then a flying machine is the strangest aspect in Action Fighter, but that’s actually not true. Just like in its mold Spy Hunter, lives are treated in a very weird way. At the start of the level they’re padded by a timer that starts at 999, and as long as this timer doesn’t reach zero you’re allowed to die without any consequence on your actual life stock (at this point dying only slows you down). Once the timer expires you’ll finally be playing with the regular life stock, where dying takes away a life and brings you closer to the GAME OVER screen. The real purpose of the timer is to cut you some slack towards surviving, since the better you play at the start of the level the less you’ll need to rely on your life stock before reaching the boss. However, while this may be true in the first two stages, the later flying sections are so long that regardless of performance you’ll be pretty much at the end of the timer when starting the intermediate driving section.

There are almost no bullets to be dodged in the driving parts of Action Fighter. Danger comes almost exclusively from other vehicles trying to ram into you. By the way, don’t feel bad by taking down those ambulances, they won’t think twice before doing the same to you. The only driving enemies capable of shooting at you are the 3-wheel motorcycles that appear from stage 3 onwards and the helicopters that drop bombs when reaching the top of the screen. To get rid of them you need to revert back to the motorcycle form and fire guided missiles with button 1, provided you’re upgraded to level 2 at least. If not don’t worry: just revert back and forth from car → motorcycle → car. Most of the time the helicopter gets scared and runs away when you do this. Remember that the car form is a lot more stable than the motorcycle, which is weak and prone to being run off the road by any other type of vehicle.

Three tanks = first part of the third boss

Gameplay rules change dramatically as you enter the flying area. Helicopters, drones, rockets, dirigibles and heat-seeking missiles all appear in different formations, and each one of these enemies must be dealt with specific approaches. Tanks, boats and harmless buoys, hatches and cars comprise the terrestrial opposition, often overlapping their presence with some sort of aerial attack. This wave-based action resembles Star Force, but there are a few aggravating aspects to it such as bullets and enemies being camouflaged by clouds or the awkward hit detection that makes it hard to collect the tiny red flags. I’m not sure, but I suppose these red flags interfere with the item generation routine while adding something to the score (Action Fighter is one of those games that don’t show your score unless you die or pause). Watch out for the cat’s face appearing at random once you collect enough flags... I have no idea what it actually does!

Driving and flying don’t always come in the same order throughout the game. With the exception of the second boss, all other bosses must be defeated while flying. When that happens you’ll continue flying as the next stage starts, with a mandatory landing and another flying section before facing the next boss. The overall enemy firing rate increases level after level, whereas later bosses toughen up quite a bit. They shoot lots of bullets and require lots of dodging. Bosses were the reason why I gave up on the game years ago when playing it with one of those awful stock Master System controllers (everybody knows they suck for precise 8-way movement). This time I went into battle armed with a Mega Drive controller and a Rapid Fire unit. Action Fighter has no autofire, so unless you can mash that button 2 hard you’d better get yourself some means of turbo firing.

Final verdict on Action Fighter? I could say it’s fun, but I’d be partially lying. It's an intense challenge, but it's also repetitive in every aspect you can think of. The soundtrack lacks variety and comes with one recurring theme for each part of the game (driving, flying, boss), but at least the sound effects were handled rather nicely. The main issue, however, is that the game demands too much to start getting fun. Dodging feels a little clunky at first and there are no continues whatsoever. Bullets are always aimed but tend to vary in speed, often cornering you when you least expect it. Most scoring opportunities are left for the end of the game because the final boss is worth a lot more points than all previous bosses. There’s an extend routine that grants roughly one extra life per level, but you’ll only see changes in the life stock when the timer phase ends or when you pick up the brown P.

My 1CC high score is shown below. You need to enter your initials/name before starting the credit, just like in the arcade version of Side Arms.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Sky Ninja War (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Winglay
Published by Winglay in 2011

Cartoonish design, primary color shades, thick lines, good music and elementary gameplay can all be used to describe Sky Ninja War on XBLIG. On the other hand, slow and consequently boring action is also in order. At least that’s what probably comes out as a first impression of this little shooter, which like many others allows its good ideas to be engulfed by an overall lack of discernment that holds the game from fulfilling a higher sense of achievement. Was it that complicated to make things a little faster? Was it that complicated to infuse the scoring system with a little more substance? Was it that hard to put such nice art design to better use?

I could go a bit further with my egotistic complaints, such as why developers simply refuse to pay attention to genre conventions. But I know I’d be sounding as an elitist prick because, you know, who the heck cares if the game’s score keeps adding up when you continue or the whole set of in-game achievements pushes players to amass more points by doing that? I’m not a developer myself, I’m just a player. Not a casual one, which seems to be the public at which Sky Ninja War is aimed at. But I like the style, I like the simplicity and I don’t want to be left out of this quirky colored party. So here I am.

Alas, I digress!

Ninjas in the sky with shurikens

The premise of Sky Ninja War is that you’re a ninja who’s capable of flying, while most other ninjas must somehow use artificial measures to take it to the skies. Kite-flying ninjas are the bulk of them, but they’re also very fond of backpack engines and propellers. Since this is a war disguised as a shooter, our cute little big-headed ninja fights alone against his enemies in five stages of progressively increasing difficulty. That first level in the forest is sleep-inducing, but by the time you reach the last stage you’ll certainly struggle to keep that health bar in safe levels until you reach the final boss. After all, you can only count with that single amount of health to complete each stage. There are no refills, and once that bar is depleted it’s game over and then continue or back to the start.

Unfortunately you can’t remap the controls, which work with × for shot, A for slash, B for change in shooting direction and LB/RB for weapon switch. The slash attack has a very short reach and besides inflicting damage it’s also capable of blocking most enemy projectiles. By defeating a boss you’re awarded with a new weapon, and that’s where the weapon switching buttons become active. The initial weapon is the ever-present-in-the-ninja-world shuriken, which acts as the most basic shot type. In the second stage you acquire the ability to pierce through everything with kunai knives. However, the kunai is weaker than the shuriken and has a lower firing rate. Then you get bombs, fire and thunder during the rest of the game. Bombs are the only type of weapon that can nullify enemy bullets, whereas fire is weaker but can home on enemies. Thunder is the most powerful of them all, but the severely capped firing rate demands very good timing in its use.

The forest theme is followed by desert, skies, marsh and the insides of a ninja castle, with each stage divided into three sections plus a boss fight. Everything is very bright, with very basic cute animation and a constant slow pace throughout. Moving around and dodging is made easier by the small hitbox provided by the spinning shuriken in the character’s chest. Just beware of broader attacks and be savvy when slashing. It’s pretty common to get hit while doing this, especially when trying to take down an incoming enemy. Once you get to the third level you won’t be using shurikens or kunais anymore, such is the underpowered nature of these initial weapons. That’s also when the game starts mixing more enemy types and progressively filling the screen as the action unfolds. It’s just a little disappointing that Sky Ninja War takes so long to actually show some claws and start wiping the initial impression of being a snooze fest. Most people won’t have the patience to wait that long or even abide by the rules imposed by the capped firing rate, since the whole challenge is clearly built around that.

So the built-in edit function of the Avermedia Game Capture HD II works!
(removed a chunk of footage of when I needed to pause in stage 2)

The scoring system is as simple as it gets: one point for each killed enemy ninja, and that’s it. Stationary hazards, such as the cactuses in the second stage, aren’t worth anything, as well as bosses (you can, however, milk the cannonball ninjas during the fight against the first boss for a few more points). Unfortunately score tracking in Sky Ninja War requires special consideration: continuing sends you back to start of the section but doesn’t reset the score, which in turn is added to all previous scores in the “results” table. This means that you need to erase the save file every time you want to play a clean credit and somehow preserve your performance once this credit is over. The built-in achievement system titled “ninja training”, of course, is totally worthless in this case.

Excluding the slight delay when switching weapons and the awkward button lay-out that might be the cause of my thinking some of the inputs were unresponsive, Sky Ninja War is simple and charming enough to cater to all types of gamers. It might not be as frantic as the majority of shooters out there, even by XBLIG’s standards, but it does offer a peculiar kind of rush. At first I thought it would be a nice introductory title for children as well, but that’s not quite true even when you set the game to Easy – a mode that allows the player to start a credit will all weapons already available. On the other side of the spectrum, Hard plays like Normal but implements the cruel scheme of a 1-hit death with no lives whatsoever.

Here’s my final 1CC result for Sky Ninja War on Normal:

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Judgement Silversword (Xbox 360)

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

My knowledge of the Bandai Wonderswan haldheld game console is virtually none. I know only that it’s somehow close to the Atari Lynx as far as technical specs go. Since I’m not coming close to a Wonderswan anytime soon, it seems reasonable to accept that Judgement Silversword represents the shmup apex of this relatively unknown gaming platform. And the most interesting fact about it is that Judgement Silversword started as an entry in a game development competition held by Qute in 2001. After winning the contest it still received a few tweaks before a definitive physical release in 2004 with the subtitle Rebirth Edition.

There was nothing but praise for this game among those who had experienced it in its original platform, so it’s no wonder many people were excited to know it would be included as a bonus title in the 2011 release of Eschatos for the Xbox 360. The disc also includes Silversword’s spiritual sequel Cardinal Sins, and for that reason Eschatos is considered to be a perfect package to get to know the works of developer M-Kai. All three games share similar characteristics, that’s why playing one of them automatically makes the others somehow familiar. And going by the time I spent with Judgement Silversword – because it's the first one I actually decided to play – what lies ahead of me is nothing short of outstanding. I heard somewhere that the epicness of Radiant Silvergun was one of the main inspirations for the overall feel of this game and I agree. Obvious differences aside, it makes perfect sense.

Stages in Judgement Silversword are very short in the beginning, increasing in length and difficulty as the game progresses. They connect to each other seamlessly as you clear successive waves of enemies and fight the “judges”, bosses that are always preceded by the ominous message HERE COMES THE JUDGE. Graphics and music are wisely minimalistic and bear a delightful 8-bit flavor, creating a unique atmosphere and effectively adorning the game’s rhythm. All things considered though, it doesn’t take long to realize that the strongest asset here is gameplay. Intense, twitchy, demanding gameplay where urgency plays a big part and drives most of the player’s actions. Basically, kill a wave faster to trigger the next one and reap better time bonuses. And if you really care about scoring, in between speed-killing all efforts should be aimed at increasing the multiplier.

Original aspect ratio in all its old school glory

Your ship’s hitbox is that small square in the very center of its sprite, and its arsenal consists of three simple inputs: a straight shot, a wide shot and a shield. These are fully configurable, and my adopted setting was X for straight shot, RB for wide shot and RT for shield. Wide shot overrides straight shot, and shield has precedence over both of them. With the exception of lasers and a few evil projectiles fired by the true last boss, the shield is capable of wiping out or at least slowing down incoming bullets depending on their momentum: bigger bullets can’t be nullified, and the ship will be pushed back as a direct result from the mass/speed condition of the enemy or bullet. Shield usage is limited and indicated by the percentage shown at the lower left corner. It shrinks as the percentage lowers, being automatically recharged if you stop using it (it recharges a little faster if you also refrain from shooting).

By using the shield and connecting shots on enemies you can raise the multiplier to be applied over everything that takes damage. Note how you momentarily boost the multiplier by grazing bigger bullets or damaging large enemies with the shield. Whenever a multiplier is in place you see it appear beside the destroyed enemy, and the risk/reward relation that arises from this mechanic is what often causes the player to unconsciously improve his strategies towards the successively tougher enemy formations and bullet spreads. Of course that only applies for those who want to delve deeper into the scoring side of the game, otherwise the shield is pretty much just a resource for safety against the most intricate bullet showers.

Surely Judgement Silversword has a light start, but the ambience inspired by titles like Star Force and Zanac eventually evolves to something very close to bullet hell in the second half of the game. Surviving the harder waves and bosses of later stages is only possible with due practice, but those frequent extra lives granted by the game definitely help, if only at a psychological level (and in pure Compile fashion every time you take a 1UP there's a brief invincibility period that can be useful to evade hairy situations). The 1UP routine seems to be directly related to survival time and the number of enemies you’re able to kill (kill more enemies and die more often to get 1UPs sooner). You might even get a 1UP after you die your last life! In a well played credit it’s possible to reach Divine Flow, the evil judge of stage 30, with more than 10 spare lives. That’s a good entry point for the fight against the true last boss in stage 31, which can only be seen by getting there on a single credit. Continuing makes the game end after stage 30, but since the continue sends you back to the start of the level I doubt anyone will consider beating Divine Flow with only three lives an easy task.

My 1CC + only two deaths against Divine Flow!

Regardless of how you approach it, Judgement Silversword is an incredibly fun and addictive shooter. There are, however, two non-intuitive aspects in the gameplay that are extremely important if you're committed to the task of achieving a 1CC or chasing a higher score. The first one is the firepower boost you get by holding straight shot and tapping wide shot at the same time, which produces the effect of having both shot types active simultaneously. Not only this leads to faster enemy kills, but it also induces slowdown in key areas and helps to raise the multiplier faster (by doing it you’re landing more shots on nearby enemies). The second non-intuitive aspect of the game is the fact that the base multiplier increases automatically if you keep the shield at 100% at all times, meaning you can’t use it on bullets at all, only on enemies (by doing this the multiplier won’t go down to ×1 whenever you stop shooting). Blocking a bullet with the shield or dying will reset the base multiplier, therefore the general plan is simple: don’t die and don’t use the shield unless you know there are no bullets around. The benefits to scoring in the long run outweigh anything you can do by normally manipulating your resources to increase the multiplier.

Of all great features built into this wonderful shmup, the one that strikes me the most is how varied it is in regards to the amount of techniques you need to bring into play in order to survive the challenge set by the game. Macro and micro-dodging play huge roles in equal measure, as well as point-blanking, herding, grazing and a good deal of crowd controlling. The hardest parts often derive from pattern overlapping, so knowing enemy behavior and proactively reading their random formations is imperative to survive. I only wish the judges had a health bar so that I could know when they're about to die.

Upon beating the main game on Normal you unlock a Special mode made of only bosses. Some of them are lifted from the regular game, some of them shoot harder patterns and some are completely new. It’s a much harder game to beat, but if you succeed you’ll then unlock a secret ship to be used across all game modes. The interface provided by Qute for Judgement Silversword is excellent and includes stats for everything you do, from play time to number of coined credits. Play time is also what seems to determine the increase of available credits until you get to free play status (there’s a stage select option that doesn’t quite cut it for practice because the latest stage it will let you start on is the 27th).

If the Xbox 360 is connected to the Internet high scores can be uploaded to the online leaderboards. Unfortunately I wasn't online when I got the 1CC high score below. Coming up next is Cardinal Sins. :)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Forgotten Worlds (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Reprogrammed and published by Sega in 1991

The apocalyptic setting of Forgotten Worlds, as devised in the arcade game, was certainly too much for the Master System to handle. As Sega took it and reworked graphics and music to fit its 8-bit platform, concessions were made and the original nine stages were condensed in five. It wasn’t just a matter of downscaling the material though, since one of these five stages is a brand-new underwater-themed area, complete with a new crab boss. Nothing extraordinarily fancy, but if you’re the kind of player who likes to compare versions and try them all because they have exclusive material, feel free to put this one in your checklist of ports to be experienced.

As expected, this adaptation got away with the ability to play in co-op. Now it’s just one lone nameless flying warrior fighting against the threat of emperor Bios, a winged man who slaves a world that time forgot. In your quest to rid the planet from evil you’ll be travelling through a junkyard, a barren wasteland, an Egyptian temple, an underwater passage and the ultimate tower of doom from where Bios exerts his dirty deeds. It’s a short game, but it’s got no continues and it still demands a bit of strategy to be properly learned and played. Downgrades notwithstanding, Forgotten Worlds for the Master System can actually be considered a relatively faithful port.

First stage of Forgotten Worlds on Easy
(courtesy of YouTube user sylesis)

Since the Master System controller has only two buttons, both of them are used to rotate the character (each one in a different direction). In an awkward little twist for a shooting game, the very act of shooting occurs automatically so you don’t need to worry about it at all. The constant firing doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay, with the exception of the gas pipe area at the end of the 1st stage and the splitting pathways of the 3rd stage, where it would certainly be good to refrain from shooting. You can either get a gas blow in your face by hitting the pipes or choose the wrong path inside the pyramid. The satellite - that thing that surrounds the character as you rotate the aim - provides protection against incoming bullets and also fires a powerful special weapon. Last but not least, a “mega crush” can be triggered by pressing both buttons at once, quickly oblitering all enemies and bullets on screen at the cost of a little health.

In Forgotten Worlds there’s only a single power bar as life meter, therefore preserving power/health is extremely important to not bite the dust and have to start all over again. By entering the shop in every level you are allowed to purchase several types of upgrades, depending on how much money you have collected up to that point. “Zenny” is the official currency and consists of those blue spheres left behind by some types of enemies, and the good news is that this port is rather generous in money: you never feel that you need to be stingy when going into the shop, unlike in the arcade original where Zenny was as precious as fuel for Max Rockatansky. Besides, there's no time limit for when you're shopping. Note that the last stage has two shops, one in the ground and another in the vertically scrolling section of the tower.

Of all items available inside the shop, the most important ones are the flying stone (to change the sluggish starting speed of the character / buy only once), the power packs (increase the power gauge), the two types of boosters (they upgrade firing strength), the life potion (resurrects the player upon death) and the aqua stone (available only in the underwater level / improves your maneuverability and makes it actually possible to do something). Only one type of satellite is allowed at any time, so you need to choose carefully when trading your current sattellite in for another from the shop. The satellite gallery isn't as rich as in the arcade version, but there are a few exclusive satellites to try here. One of my favorites in this version is the 4-way laser, which is great to deal with the turrets from the last stage.

Purchasing items like the protector armor becomes unnecessary when you get more comfortable with the game. By shooting at certain locations you uncover hidden items for immediate taking, such as these armors and others like a star (extra points), a yasichi (full health) and a Pow sign that refills most of the power gauge. Because the armor item is so small and may go unnoticed, you need to pay attention or you'll miss it.


My choices of satellite purchases in the shop were guided missiles in the first level, fire bomb (a.k.a. napalm) in the second level, burner (flamethrower) for the third and fourth levels and 4-way laser in the final stage. The enemy gallery preserves the most iconic creatures like the lizardmen, the snakes, the turrets, the Egyptians, the flying heads, etc. Some of the larger foes, such as the ice boss, were downranked to just a few ice minions that precede the entry to the tower leading to the final boss. The action is relatively slow, but if you choose to play with the super high speed flying stone the flow of the game gets a lot better. I did get stuck in parts of the scenery and lost health unfairly a couple of times, so it's good practice to avoid going into the gaps in walls an such. Normally you don't lose any energy by leaning against the scenery.

Forgotten Worlds for the Master System was only released is Europe and Brazil. Knowing its arcade origins is probably what attracts most people to the game, but it's not a bad title at all by Master System standards. Flicker is minimal, as well as slowdown. It's reasonably fun but a little on the easy side once you get used to the controls. It even includes the famous cut scenes showing the nameless warrior before each stage starts. Would the game be better if these were left out in favor of more actual gameplay, I wonder? We'll never know!

Below is my final 1CC score on Normal. Tip: save a little money for the last stage and buy the item named “dress” if you want to get an even higher score upon completing the game.