Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Rym 9000 (Playstation 4)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sonoshee / Rainbite
Published by eastasiasoft in 2019


For some time now video games have always exhibited messages aimed at photosensitive people, warning about the need to beware of visual stress or even risks concerning epilepsy seizures. However, how many times have we actually paid any attention to them? Fortunately I'm not affected by that at all, but if you are I strongly advise you to take these messages seriously if you intend to play Rym 9000.

Rarely has a shooter taken aesthetics to such limits with regards to visual stimulation factors such as flashing, shaking and color manipulation. Besides, the whole art design is also very dark and mysterious, as are the interfaces within the game itself. Just to have an idea, the borderline abstract visual elements and the whole feel of the game remind me of things like Polybius or the most experimental works by artists like Bill Sienkiewicz or David Lynch.

In simple words, Rym 9000 is a bloody weird shooter. The weird aspect goes beyond the visuals since the game also subverts a few features commonly associated with the genre while demanding players to figure out many things on their own. Even the instruction manual of the retail release doesn't tell you much, instead focusing on detailing the crazy story about a treasure hidden on Earth's moon and strange aliens watching over our planet as you fight your way through the game. My first advice is to press → at the start screen to go to the Options and set Effects to "reduced" so that the game becomes less of a deranged mess (this also turns off the vibration function). While we're at it, from the start screen ↓ selects the initial level from the ones you have already reached, ← takes you to the leaderboard/achievement lists and ↑ starts the actual game. Minor note: as much as I tried I couldn't figure out what Focus mode does in the Options screen.


Japanese trailer for Rym 9000 on the Playstation 4
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTrailers)

Quickly moving, visually dirty backgrounds scroll by as you dart into the clouds and then to outer space. Only a single input is used in the whole game so fire away with any button that does that in the controller, just note that whenever you're shooting the speed of the ship is reduced. Except for the final level all others share the same basic structure, including the parts halfway into the stage where you have the chance to pick one out of two new weapons. Lives work like this: if you get hit, the shot pattern will revert to a single double stream; after a short while a + item will appear, and as soon as you grab it you'll recover your current weapon; if you get hit before grabbing the + item you'll die. Deaths will take you back to the beginning of the level, with the same score and weapon you had when you first started it.

Rym 9000 is unique in many ways, but the way it treats deaths, as described above, is particularly elusive. From a credit perspective it means a GAME OVER / CONTINUE combo because it forces you to restart the level while preserving your previous score. This also means this isn't a shmup with infinite lives, where you could whore out the system for scoring advantages. The only way to see an actual GAME OVER screen is by quitting the game or finishing it. If you get confused when you get to that point (as I did), be aware that quitting is accomplished by pausing and holding ↓ for a few seconds until the down arrow at the bottom fills up.

In a rough comparison, Rym 9000 could be described as an assortment of caravan levels joined in a single game where you have only one/two lives per level. Gameplay is based on successive waves of different enemies coming up from all sides. They all arrive surrounded by a white aura that quickly turns to yellow and then to red. Destroying them when they're white returns more points than when they're red, so there you have the basis of the scoring system. The aura thing does not apply to bosses, but speed-killing them also gives you more points. What's particularly interesting in this case is that speed-killing is made easier by using the shot pattern that's active after you get hit since it's much more powerful than all other shot types, except for the Arrows weapon you acquire in stage 4. The risk/reward relation is clear: for better scoring possibilities you need to be at the brink of defeat, kinda like an alternate take on the same gimmick of Gunnail.

Unless you've memorized waves and attack patterns, being close to death isn't a good idea at all. Enemies are keen on displaying erratic movement, with all sorts of distinct behavior such as bouncing, homing, splitting and rotating/exploding, as well as being downright harmful when destroyed (some of them can't be killed or you'll be automatically hit). With very few exceptions, bullets and lasers come with huge sprites as an obvious compensation for the visibility mayhem. At the end of the day it works, provided you can cope with the aggressive visuals. One minor glitch I noticed in the scoring system is that the points you get for defeating the first boss aren't correctly applied so you end up scoring a little less than you should there. Fortunately that doesn't seem to be the case for rest of the game.

A moment of relative quiet amidst chaos

With such an otherworldly art design and all these quirks in the gameplay, Rym 9000 surely justifies being called unique. On the other hand, even though the game's identity is very clear it's hard not to think of it as yet another ambitious indie effort whose claim to fame is trying to make our eyes bleed. There's so much visual noise that snapshots can't do it justice, you need to try out and experience its particular kind of rush yourself. And unless there's more to it reserved for the future, the addition of a complex backstory is all but a misguided way to add content to the game, especially when you notice that the core experience is such a short one.

The disc release includes a TATE mode and several wallpapers if you decide to play it on a regularly oriented monitor. Even though the electronic music doesn't push the limits of the format in the same measure as the other features in Rym 9000 do, it still fits the tone nicely and represents the main extra of the retail Limited Edition in the form of a soundtrack CD. If you don't want to go for the retail release, the game is also available digitally for the PS4 and for PC fans/users by means of the Steam digital platform.

The online leaderboard available on the PS4 is very strict and allows only ten places, as seen in the picture below. My pure 1CC run (no deaths and stage restarts) was achieved by taking the following weapons: V in stage 1, Tricky in stage 2, Y in stage 3 and Arrows in stage 4. I think they're the best choices all around for screen coverage and power (note that some enemies are more vulnerable to certain weapons). As expected, playing this game felt different from the norm but it was equally fun.


Sunday, September 29, 2019

Nanostray 2 (Nintendo DS)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable (per level)
- - - - - - -
Developed by Shin'en Multimedia

Published by Majesco Entertainment in 2008

The best thing that can happen to a video game sequel is the feeling that things have really evolved and you're not just playing more of the same. I'm happy to state that Nanostray 2 is a prime example of that: a good, well designed sequel that takes the best out of the first game while moving things around a little in order to deliver a fresh, different and worthwhile shooting experience. Nanostray had flair, explosions and a nice challenge backed up by a neat sci-fi environment. The overall style and interface remains the same for Nanostray 2, but graphics are enhanced even further and stages now alternate between horizontal and vertical (which now unfold in a standard plane instead of the tilted perspective seen in the first game). Throw in a few gameplay changes and the improvement package is complete.

Another striking difference in Nanostray 2, at least for the more experienced shmuppers, is the amount of diverse influences developer Shin'en was able to incorporate into the gameplay. Think Gradius/Salamander meets Trizeal, with extra nods to games by Taito and even Cave. Of course everything is tailored to the handheld format with nice results, from the density in bullet patterns to the varying scrolling speeds you face across eight stages/planets with relatively long and varied campaigns. On top of that you're bound to listen to one of the best sci-fi soundtracks ever composed for a video game, an aspect that definitely plays a major part in understanding why Nanostray 2 is so engaging from the get go. And if you care about the story there are fully voiced intermissions between levels that flesh out the narrative quite nicely.

In every selected world you need to equip the ship before diving into the action. There are three preset speeds to choose from, as well as the choice of a special weapon and the preferred shot direction of your pods. Button A shoots, button B deploys a special attack and buttons L/R switch the position of the pods (no need to use the touchscreen at all, yay!). These pods/satellites are always absent when you start a level, but are also the first two items you get when destroying full enemy waves. That's an odd take on the weapon system, but it only causes real pressure in the Naizoh Habitat level (the 3rd one in the default order) since you must navigate a shower of organic flocks for quite a while with your pea shot until the first enemy wave appears.

Against the bullet sprays from boss Tessemi

Once the pods are acquired every single enemy wave that's obliterated will release a blue coin that refills a slice of the special attack gauge. Larger enemies and mid-bosses release yellow coins that give you some points. Coins always drift towards your current position as soon as they appear but never change course, so take that into consideration if you want to plan on getting them before they disappear (there's no attract effect as in the first Nanostray, unfortunately). The other item you might come across is the 1UP, which will only appear once per level if you happen to be on your last life. Pods aren't lost upon death if you have already got them within the stage.

Speaking of which, stage structure is always the same regardless of the scrolling orientation. Halfway into the level you must defeat a mid-boss, with a stage boss waiting at the end. An energy gauge tells you how much damage you must inflict before they fall, and in the case of some bosses the confrontation does seem a little longer than usual. These are the only moments where the game drags, but fortunately most boss fights are quite fun, requiring unique strategies from the player. The battle against second boss Tessemi, for instance, is one of my favorites because it's very claustrophobic. The overlapping pattern of fourth boss Ishigani om the other hand demands quite a few twitchy dodges, which is always a fun thing to have in a vertical shooter.

Completely up to the player's approach is the choice of special weapon. Their energy drainage of the special attack gauge varies, but since you're always refilling it with blue coins that doesn't pose any serious restraint in the long run. Each of the first three levels unlocks a new special weapon, so by the end of the third stage you'll have all six types available for selection. More important than the choice of special weapon, however, is your strategy for satellite usage. Knowing where the enemy is coming from is of course imperative, but beware of a minor dead zone up close to the pods where your firing stream does not do any damage. Enemies might get through it and inevitably kill you.

Nanostray 2 is a game that excels in diversity from beginning to end, especially with regards to the enemy gallery. Every level is unique, and some of them are just plain beautiful to look at. The sewer level, called Kohai City, is a prime example of amazing graphics, exquisite stage design, intelligent 3D modelling and outstanding music. Himuro Base, the final level, feels like a natural extension to the initial moments of Gradius Gaiden mixed with several other elements of Konami's most famous shmup frachise. With these observations I have come to the conclusion that in the case of Nanostray 2 stage highlights are in the horizontal sections, whereas vertical levels shine a little more during boss fights.


Official trailer for Nanostray 2
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTimeline)

The main mode in Nanostray 2 is Adventure, where you select stages and play them all until the end. Each level won is then unlocked for individual play in Arcade mode. Strangely enough, high scores are not tracked/memorized for Adventure mode, only for Arcade mode. The scoring system doesn't seem to change between them, and is primarily based on chaining enemy kills according to the time limit of the "nano gauge" (imagine a less strict Dodonpachi-like system and you get the picture). Unfortunately only Arcade mode includes some sort of visual aid for players to track their chaining progress, in the form of tiny multiplier tags that appear when enemies die. Adventure mode has no indication whatsoever, so I just tried to come up with a general sense of timing and worried only about destroying full waves to get their rewards (blue coins are also worth a few points). No end-of-stage bonuses exist this time around, unlike what we got in the first Nanostray.

Other variations available besides Adventure and Arcade (which also serves the noble purpose of single stage practice) include Challenge mode (where you must fulfill several short missions in order to unlock four simulators), Simulators (which consist of the mini-games unlocked by completing Challenge mode) and a couple of two-player distinct modes to try out with a friend. Given the fact that all simulators were available when I checked them out and I hadn't completed any challenge, I suspect that once you beat the game on a single credit they're all unlocked at the same time.

Except for the missed opportunities related to the scoring system, Nanostray 2 is by all means a truly awesome game. I beat Adventure mode on Normal difficulty with the final score shown below (pause as soon as the last boss dies or you won't be able to get a picture of your score). I followed the default stage order and used special weapons seeker in stages 1 and 2, pulse in stage 3 and spin for the rest of the game, with speed set to 1 and no alteration of pod positions from beginning to end.


Next in the Nano series of shooters is Nano Assault on the Nintendo 3DS.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Silver Surfer (NES)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Software Creations
Published by Arcadia Systems in 1990


When it comes down to the cosmic roster of Marvel Comics characters, Silver Surfer is probably the coolest one of them. Initially appearing as a supporting character in the adventures of the Fantastic Four, he was the first and most famous herald of the all powerful Galactus, devourer of planets. Rising up from a tragic past and a slew of ominous duties, the Surfer soon gained his own series and more notoriety, to the point of starring in his own video game. I can only imagine how awesome it might have been for a fan back in the 90s to control such an iconic comic book character in a shmup. Silver Surfer's reputation, however, soon delved into the ranks of oblivion thanks to successive reports of extreme difficulty, which for many people was reason enough to shun the game and make it infamous for all eternity.

The question that lingered since then, at least for me, is whether Silver Surfer is indeed the beast everybody says it is. I'm a sucker for comic book based media so I was already kinda engaged before even trying the game. As soon as I put my hands on it the reason for the hate became quite clear to me: kids at the time probably weren't akin to using turbo controllers, and since Silver Surfer is a shmup that demands a steady, intense firing rate, playing it without any means of autofire would be the equivalent to video game torture. On the other hand, if you have autofire from the get go there's no reason to fret as you accept yet another heroic mission imposed by none other than the almighty Galactus.


Mephisto and Reptyl unite against Norrin Radd
(courtesy of YouTube user KyperTrast)

Following the game's introduction the player must choose one of the five worlds that hide a piece of a powerful cosmic gadget. My suggestion is tackling the default order, which sees you battle through the domains of Reptyl, Firelord, Possessor, (Skrull) Emperor and Mephisto. Only when these five worlds have been conquered will you have a shot at the realm of Magik, apparently run by none other than X-Men's notorious villain Mr. Sinister – this is technically a spoiler, but one that doesn't make any sense storywise as you'll see from the visual appearance of the final boss. Each stage has three segments, with at least one of them being a vertical section where you see the character from above.

Shooting a single bullet is what button A does. SELECT triggers a screen-clearing bomb, provided you have one in stock. Button B is only functional once you get a silver orb that serves as an option and increments your firepower. It moves the orb's position around Silver Surfer: in horizontal parts the orb is switched between front, below and behind, whereas in vertical parts it's positioned at the front, sideways and behind. Additionally, with two orbs you're able to fire two additional bullet streams in vertical sections, as opposed to just one in horizontal ones. Besides the orb, which might appear from destroyed enemies or floating in fixed places, you'll also come across other very important items: F increases your firing rate and power, B gives you an extra bomb, an orange S acts as a speed-up and a silver S gives you an extra life (extends are also granted for every hundred thousand points scored).

Silver Surfer shows very nice production values. Graphics are creative and reflect the environments of the boss characters with a decent amount of detail (lame boss fights notwithstanding). The soundtrack composed by the revered Tim Follin is energetic enough to make you forgive the fact that there are only two very similar themes that repeat from beginning to end in all levels. As for the gameplay, all I can say is that Silver Surfer is a very demanding game that's best approached with an open mind. The rule is simple but allows little room for error: get shot or touch anything and you're dead meat. Die and restart at a previous checkpoint stripped of all powers you had already acquired. That said, it's important to mention that the extreme difficulty of the game is a myth.

Possessor shall fall

I'm well aware there are those who will fiercely contest my assessment of the game's difficulty. Many times I hear people stating it is "unfair", when in fact it's just "very strict". Yes, touching walls is deadly, often times you ram into something that kills you, the hitbox of that surfboard in vertical stages is huge and later levels tend to add enemies with erratic behavior on top of the character being clearly underpowered upon death. However, even though our hero comes out as a wimpy wreck instead of a badass cosmic entity, there are a few breathers we can rely on. The Surfer is able, for instance, to destroy some of the enemy bullets, and he can also wipe all enemies at once with a single bomb, a very useful resource that many people take for granted since it's activated by the SELECT button. After some practice the player can also hoard lots of extra lives, which is in line with the benefits brought about by successive credits. After all, just like in every classic shmup memorization is of utmost importance, especially when you realize all items are spawned in the very same place in every run.

My feeling is that Silver Surfer is a very special game in the NES library due to its particular setting. It's quite unique, even though Irem and Konami can be seen as the main sources of inspiration for gameplay and aesthetics. The game is definitely challenging and fun, frustating at times but never unfair. And the story bits shown in the introduction and in the intermission prior to the final stage are a treat for Marvel fans. Unfortunately Silver Surfer can't be played for score since it's easily exploitable by infinite milking on bosses. Those 4.000 points you get for each item picked up in excess will merely serve the purpose of gaining extends faster.

The picture below was taken as soon as the last boss was defeated. 1CC mission accomplished, now let's move on to the next challenge.


Thursday, August 29, 2019

Go! Benny! (NES)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by NTDEC / Mega Soft
Published by Gluk in 1992


Even without actually playing the game, it's a given for everyone that Go! Benny! (or Corre Benny, the clumsy title in Spanish) was never supposed to be anything more than just another piss-poor, derivative scrolling shooter with little in the way of excitement. Or fun. As an obscure and pale shadow of other bug-themed shmups such as Taito's Insector X, Go! Benny! puts the player in the shoes of a bee that must battle insects and other wildlife animals in a game that goes from point A to point B in an absolutely stale rhythm. What else could one expect from another unlicensed game by Mega Soft / NTDEC anyway?

Only button B is used in Go! Benny!, but try to get a turbo controller if you're not a fan of button mashing. As the box art indicates Benny the bee goes about with a bow and arrow, that's why his shots resemble darts. From the single dart of his default condition Benny evolves to a four-dart spreading pattern once he takes two power-ups. Items are concealed inside beehive nests that float on screen and must be dismantled with your firepower. Besides P for power-ups you'll also come across S for speed-ups and 1UP for extra lives. It doesn't get more complicated than that. There's at least one extra life per level, and even though the counter shows only four lives it still keeps track of the extra ones you pick along the way.

Happy bees and caterpillars after the rain

To be honest, the first impression I had of this game was not bad. Not much animation anywhere, but taking down butterflies and other bugs with fast-moving darts fits the bill nicely for a cheap NES shooter. Two or three speed-ups bring you up to a decent moving capability, dodging isn't too demanding and graphical themes follow some sort of natural logic with primitive parallax (garden, sunny rainbow day, mountain countryside, sunset, night time). The enemy gallery is marginally increased with each level won, with bosses consisting of larger creatures: a spider, a caterpillar, a deadly snail, a bat and a huge Parodius-inspired bird in the last stage.

Keeping it simple isn't a fault per se in any game. Simplicity can be blamed for an easy challenge / lack thereof or for low aesthetic standards, but never for bringing a game down on technical merits. Go! Benny! had all the ingredients to be a straightforward shooter of regular simplicity, but even this wasn't able for NTDEC to accomplish. As you fly up and down in your killing spree you'll inevitably come across instances where you'll die with no reason at all. You're just happily flying and then BAM! you're dead. It's as if the game wanted you to die no matter what. And depending where you stand you'll be too slow to overcome the next swarm of enemies, losing more lives right afterwards.

Speaking of dying, don't rush to get the items you want unless every cell in the honeycomb has been taken apart. If a single one is left and you touch it you'll die. Care must be taken with a specific enemy that might also come from behind, an ant that fires a single projectile that follows you around for some time before leaving the screen. Other than that, it's good practice to fly low and only go up when necessary, paying careful attention not to crash into slow-moving or spore-like bullets that often blend with the backgrounds.


Benny running on the first level of his game
(courtesy of YouTube user FamicomGuide)

Second to the crazy sudden deaths, another botched aspect of Go! Benny! is the scoring system. It's as straightforward as it gets, but that's not the problem. I can live with the fact that you don't see the score unless you advance from one level to the next or when the credit is over. However, high score buffering isn't well implemented since it seems that completion/1CC scores aren't computed correctly. During the couple of failed and full runs I did I noticed that one of my 1CC scores was much lower than the score I achieved right afterwards even though I bit the dust halfway into the final stage. Apparently all the points you get in the final level aren't added to the result of the clear.

Once the final boss is beaten players won't be treated to a proper ending. The victory song snippet plays and BAM! the game reverts back to the title screen. Benny does go (Benny corre) wherever he's supposed to go to destroy bouncing ants, snails, fireflies and flowers, but there is no special reward for him in the end. Nor for those brave or masochistic enough to get into his shoes.

Here's the high score I got after my final moments with the game:

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Seicross (NES)

Horizontal
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nichibutsu
Published by FCI in 1988


Have you ever wondered about how obscurity can hide cool games in plain sight? We can always blame it on their sources, as is the case with Seicross and developer Nichibutsu, which is mostly known by drab titles such as Moon Cresta and Terra Cresta. As a result, many shooter fans might have missed out on the tight arcade action of Sector Zone, which when ported to the NES had its name changed to Seicross.

I admit, on the outside Seicross isn't that much of a charmer. Blame it on the first impression of graphics (mostly dark scenery), music (not engaging at all) and controls (which feel kinda clunky on an initial contact, a sensation that's quickly forgotten once you get used to them). What Seicross does right, and that's often the reason why I appreciate any video game at its heart, is the nice challenge provided by decent gameplay rules and the continuous progression into more intricate levels and obstacles. That's why it ends up being an above average title no matter how you look at it.

Gliding to glory, here I go

The mission of the player is to glide through the grid surface of Seicross avoiding obstacles and dueling against the incoming hoverbikers arriving from all sides. According to the manual, you're piloting a powered mini-bike in order to rescue your fellows who escaped the wrath of an enemy race in planet Colura. Never mind the fact that you look like a postman while your opponents all wear cool helmets. Postman duties were never easy anywhere I guess, especially when you're dropped from a top hatch into such a dangerous field as in Seicross.

You can fire with any button in the controller, preferably with some sort of turbofire function because the game does not have it by default. Special attention must be taken to how long you hold the fire button though, since the more you shoot the faster your energy fuel runs out – in fact, if you don't let go of the button chances are you'll die horribly before you get to the first batch of radioactive fuel canisters. That doesn't mean however that Seicross is any close to fuel-critical games like Scramble. Just keep your cool and shoot as necessary and you'll be fine, the firing rhythm of the game isn't that taxing anyway.

Enemy bikers will always try to ram into you, but they never shoot anything. The good news is that you can ram into them as well, sending them to their deaths against walls/obstacles and still winning points for it. Bullets will always come from stationary turrets and enemies coming from the front. Dodging them isn't that complicated, but it's very common to get cornered by a bullet spread. I remember most of my deaths being due to crashing against something as I tried to grab one of the items the game threw at me. Besides the fuel canisters and the stray blue hostages found in the wild, one of the most common ones is the star uncovered by destroying green trees, which are worth 1.000 points. Dinosaur fossils hide a "Pilpul" alien that's worth 5.000 points, so don't ever stop shooting if you come across one of these skeletons.

Dinosaurs actually seem to be one of the defining elements in the enemy gallery. Seicross doesn't have any bosses per se, but all even levels end with at least two large dinosaurs that uncover weird heads also worth 5.000 points. Interesting details: while odd-numbered levels scroll at a fast speed, even-numbered levels scroll at a slower speed and are often crowded with more obstacles with no enemy bikers at all. Some special items such as swords, clocks, a pair of boots and 1UPs appear when you hit stone-like shells that get pushed forwards (with the exception of the 1UP none of them does anything noteworthy). That said, the most important item you can get is the special "power" star that's released by destroying a radar buoy that looks like a clown's head. It triples your firing stream and allows it to get through obstacles. According to the instruction manual, if you fail to destroy the radar buoy the enemy's attack gets stronger.

A quick credit of Seicross on the NES
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryuGL)

When going for higher scores the most precious items are the hidden brain tokens worth 10.000 points each, which appear and quickly drift towards the right side of the screen when hitting a few determined enemies. Scoring is also important because it's the main source of extra lives, first at 30.000 points and then for every 50.000 points afterwards. Finally, each saved blue man since the last time you died is worth 1.000 points at the end of the level. As you can see, playing for score involves many variables, and even though marathon runs are possible due to the game's difficulty plateauing once it loops Seicross is far from being a piece of cake. After the 6th stage the game displays the message GET TO PET and starts over with no fanfarre or proper ending screen, but the loops are restricted to the neverending repetition of only stages 5 and 6. The sixth level is especially claustrophobic, with lots of traps and tight spaces to move through. Keep in mind that it's safe to hug the upper/lower borders of the screen.

If you're able to accept the terribly monotonous soundtrack, Seicross is certainly bound to provide some fun thanks to the sci-fi Tron-like ambience and the emphasis on dealing with obstacles, bullets and random bikers trying to push you against walls in fast scrolling stages. I must confess that my general expectations for this game were pleasantly exceeded. If you happen to like it perhaps you should also try its spiritual sequel Magmax. I haven't done it myself, so that's probably one of the next NES titles I'll be playing.

If I remember correctly, the run for the high score shown below ended in stage 7-2.


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Stinger (NES)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1987


Going by the name a lot of people might believe Stinger is a regular NES game, just like many others. At least that's what I thought for a while some time ago. Look closely though. It's actually a TwinBee title in disguise, in fact the second in the series after the arcade original and its NES port. Originally born on the Famicom Disk System and later converted to the cartridge format, it received a name change in the West that's quite puzzling and certainly makes it prone to bad jokes. Chances are you already heard people referring to it as "Stinker". I did so myself, after all I was never really into the gameplay of the TwinBee series to begin with.

The most noticeable alteration made on the cartridge release is the absence of the third simultaneous player (!) from the Japanese disk version. The three characters in the box cover are reminiscent of the original artwork but can't share the same screen anymore. Another major change is in the story, which sees you fighting evil aliens who kidnapped a genius professor in order to steal a sweetener formula from his brain (the start of the game shows a brief animation for the professor's abduction). The fate of the world rests in your ability to pilot a Stinger ship in order to rescue him. Even though it's not that much more accomplished – or challenging – than the original Famicom game, Stinger definitely packs more variety in colors and environments, as well as a whole different approach to bosses. Poor stage guardians, they've been reduced to wimpy wrecks that look like leftovers from Parodius or Fantasy Zone.

Besides the regular gameplay introduced in TwinBee, Stinger also incorporates a departure from the original formula that, to this day, is unique in the series. It sort of alternates the well-known vertical scrolling stages with horizontal ones. The relation isn't exactly symmetrical since only stages 1, 3 and 7 are horizontals. Strangely enough, gameplay behavior isn't the same across both types of levels.


Stinger to the rescue of professor Cinnamon
(courtesy of YouTube user GAMEINFO)

Starting from stage 2 the characters behave according to the classic gameplay of the franchise: shots are fired with button B and ground bombs are fired with button A. Many special items and upgrades can be collected at ground level, whereas hitting most incoming clouds releases yellow bells that can be juggled by successive shots. Once hit by a determined number of shots a bell switches to a different color before reverting back to yellow, then the shot cycle for a different color begins anew. The new colors provide the following upgrades: blue (speed up), red (laser), white (double shot), blinking blue (shield), blinking red (options). When collected successively, yellow bells increase in value from 500 to 1.000, 5.000 and 10.000 points, a number that's only reset to 500 if you lose a yellow bell or if you take a different bell color.

In horizontal levels both the aerial shots and ground bombs are fired with button B. Button A fires hearts upwards, but these can only be used to juggle bells (they don't hurt enemies). Ground enemies almost don't shoot in these levels so they aren't that much of a threat, which makes horizontal sections more manageable than the overhead ones. Even though the rules for bells remain the same in both types of levels, there's a pivotal difference between them when you get hit. If your arms are damaged in vertical areas an ambulance will cross the screen for you to heal them; if your main body gets shot you die and your ghost flies away to the top, but if you manage to get it back you recover not only your life but also the powers you had when you "died" (both the ambulance and the ghost happen only once per life). In horizontal sections you can recover only the ghost, with no ambulance in sight, which makes sense since the horizontal Stinger looks more like a regular ship and lacks the arms of the original TwinBee design.

There's no doubt the thrill of the game is in juggling yellow bells to maximize the score. However, in order to do that properly you need to acquire a minimum amount of upgrades. Besides a few mandatory speed-ups (blue bells), a good shot enhancer is very welcome. The best ones are obtained at ground level: a half moon gives you a 3-way shot and the star is supposed to give you a 5-way shot. In all my runs I never came across the star, but I found the half moon to be an all-around excellent weapon. In any case, there are so many other ground items to pick that learning what each one does might take a while. Most of them are converted into points (money bags and all sorts of strange symbols such as an ostrich head), some provide weapon enhancers (such as L and R, which give you single side shots) and a few others deserve more special attention. The cross, for example, grants you an extra life, while the professor's head serves as access to a bonus area after you beat the boss. There you'll only come across clouds with yellow bells in order to get as many points as you can before the time expires. No fruit is to be seen anywhere, as was the case with TwinBee. Besides the 1UP cross item, the game also grants score-based extends at 100K, 200K and then for every 200K until 1 million points.

Life is vertical too, you know

Powering up the ship also influences the music, which changes to a more upbeat higher tempo tune until you die or lose your weapon. This lack of variety in the soundtrack is only left aside during the final stage in outer space, which is actually the easiest one if you can get there with a decent speed + shot combo. As I mentioned above, the bosses are a joke and should pose no treat to anyone, that is as long as you're able to use a turbo controller for proper autofire (Stinger has no built-in autofire). Speaking of difficulty, the second loop adds very little in terms of challenge: just one type of enemy for each scrolling direction, and apparently a lower shot count for bell color cycling.

Due to the nature of the power-up system and the way enemy flocks behave, often ramming into you in erratic or unpredictable patterns, trying to power back up after dying can make you lose multiple lives very quickly. Vertical stages are especially aggravating on that matter. On the other hand, if you're able to cling to a powered-up ship with a shield chances are you'll cruise through the game very easily. As for co-op play, I never play my shmups with a friend but it's important to note that, just like in all other games in the series, Stinger allows you to join forces with your buddy to fire a more powerful shot pattern.

My longest credit ended in stage 3-4 (18) with the score below. The run was somewhat abbreviated by graphical glitches that appeared when I resumed playing after having to pause the game for a few hours. Coming up next in the series for me is TwinBee 3, still on the NES/Famicom.


Saturday, July 13, 2019

Sky Force Anniversary (Playstation 4)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Infinite Dreams
Published by Limited Run Games in 2018


It was a long and perhaps not so bumpy road but Sky Force, originally born and released in 2004 for mobile phones, finally hit a proper console with Sky Force Anniversary. Bridged by a couple of intermediary iterations that improved on the original concept (Reloaded and 2014), Anniversary was supposed to be either the definitive version of the game or the definitive chapter of the "franchise". Not only on gameplay terms, actually. By definitive I also mean the fact that Sky Force Anniversary relinquished the microtransaction scheme of previous versions and also received a proper disc version a couple of years after the digital release.

Flashy without being overwhelming and designed with quite a bit of care around a limited set of graphical assets, the game preserves the legacy of the mobile format while going full widescreen. Even though it looks - and to a certain extent plays - like an arcade shmup, Sky Force Anniversary offers an experience that's quite different from your regular shmup lore. The game implements an unlocking system for stages/weapons that forces players to replay levels in order to advance, building upon the concept of incremental challenge with very strict resource management and stage-based performance meters. In short, it's a grindfest. That doesn't bode well at all for shmup addicts, but I'm sure casual players won't see anything wrong with that.

I have to be honest here and say I always abhorred any sort of grinding in a video game. Nevertheless I decided to give Sky Force Anniversary a chance. Firstly because I had some free time in a foreign environment, and secondly because, well, I was kinda in the mood for a different sort of challenge.


Official trailer for Sky Force Anniversary
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer idreamsgames)

When the disc is booted for the first time you're thrown directly into a short preamble where you'll inevitably die facing the big bad villain of the game. Then you'll start the adventure for real with a measly pea shooter. In order to at least match that initial taste of what your powered-up ship looks like you'll need a humongous amount of golden stars collected during the levels. They're the currency used to acquire upgrades in the "hangar". The basic ones consist of health, main cannon, wing cannons, missiles and magnet (the ability to automatically attract items). All primary weapons therein are fired by pressing ×. The other face buttons in the controller are reserved for extra upgrades that work with limited stock: □ turns on the energy shield, △ fires the laser and ○ triggers a mega bomb. Non-default items are activated by a first purchase and are marginally improved by further upgrades that get more and more expensive.

In every level the player is entitled to win four medals according to the following performance indicators: 70% enemies destroyed, 100% enemies destroyed, 100% people rescued and no damage taken. Rescuing people at ground level is just a matter of hovering above them for a few seconds until the pick-up cycle is complete. Grinding begins when you notice it's impossible to unlock the following levels unless you replay old ones in order to obtain missing medals and to collect more stars to equip the ship. If you succeed in collecting all four medals for a particular stage you'll also unlock a higher difficulty for that same stage with a new set of four medals to conquer. At first that happens twice, so from Normal you go to Hard and then Insane. I say "at first" because as soon as you beat stage 8 you also unlock a fourth stage difficulty called Nightmare. In each additional difficulty you get higher multipliers for points and stars (on Insane and Nightmare, for example, all collected stars get multiplied by 3).

Harder stage difficulties come with more bullets and more resilient enemies, with no change whatsoever in enemy formations, attack patterns or bullet speed. Scrolling speed is always kept at the same pace from start to finish, it never picks up. In the world of Sky Force Anniversary, whose main influence is the 19XX series from Capcom, pressure is solely conveyed by the increase in the amount of bullets and the natural step-up from one stage to the next. The final levels are much more dangerous due to a couple of different turrets that fire fast cannons, as well as shield generators that must be destroyed before anything else they protect. A glaring exception from the norm is stage 5, where an EMP flare follows you around and disables your weapons for the rest of the stage upon hitting you. You either rescue all humans or decide to take down all turrets for the 100% destruction ratio, you can't do both at the same time.

Welcome to the Hangar!

A few notes on items: the purpose of the "weapon upgrade" icon that appears within the level is just to increase the firing rate; the red heart refills lost health; big stars are worth 5 regular stars; with the exception of stage 5, once you choose a stage to play move right if you want to purchase shields, lasers or mega bombs before the action starts (tip: lasers are devastating against bosses). And then there's that tiny silver card that starts appearing at random after a while. These are special items that grant you permanent little improvements such as disposable side drones, extra free special attacks, extra star value multipliers, better missile reloading times and a marginal increase in speed, firing rate and range of the rope for human rescues, among others. What that means is that even when the game is beaten you might be attached to it like a little bunny to the carrot on a stick.

On all accounts, the progressive difficulty and no-penalty structure of Sky Force Anniversary are tailored for casual play. Lost your life? No problem, start again as many times as you like with no loss in score or star count. Feel like chickening out because you're about to bite the dust? Just pause and choose "retire", it won't even count as a life lost! Sure you can decide to apply your own rules like I did: no deaths and no retiring at all until beating the game, which of course meant lots of replaying to unlock medals and upgrade the ship. Afterwards I kinda felt like an idiot for not accepting the game's rules as they are, so once I reached the ending I whored out lives, stages and stars as far as I could before getting tired of the whole thing. The end comes after stage 8, with stage 9 serving as a glorified bonus of sorts.

Aside from the 19XX influence mentioned above, graphically the game owes a lot to other titles like Flying Shark and Under Defeat. Lots of clouds, smoke, rain and water effects are used to add a little more flair to the pretty (but repetitive) scenery. The same can be said of the music, which is decent but never takes that further step you'd expect from important confrontations with bosses or final levels. Artistically it's a nicely crafted game that also screams average all over. As for the grinding mechanics, they're still not my cup of tea. It was a mild diversion, at least. The medal system is a natural beacon for the scoring system since scores are maximized as long as you're able to get all of them in a single level (destroy everything, rescue all people, don't get hit) while collecting all items that come your way.

Below is the final result I got after a few days of grinding in Sky Force Anniversary. Only the highest score in each level is accounted for this final result, which means you can always go back to the game and see if you can improve on those stages that still have medals left to conquer. The game keeps track of all the stats from your save slot, from special cards to how many humans you rescued or failed to rescue, among others. Local co-op and online leaderboards are available, as well as the option to play global/local seasonal tournaments. Note: the game was followed by a sequel called Sky Force Reloaded, which is confusing because it bears the same title used more than 10 years ago.