Thursday, July 2, 2020

Microcosm (Sega CD)

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

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

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

Meet first boss Torus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō Kanpebikan (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selected at start of level
- - - - - - -
Developed by Banpresto
Published by Banpresto in 1997

Even though on the outside both versions of this game are the same, there are actually a few differences between them. The Playstation title was the first one to be released as Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō, whereas the Saturn one came out the next year with Kanpekiban added to the title. For all purposes the latter is a slightly enhanced port of the former.

If you're a fan of the 70s anime Yatterman, which was a part of the long-running Time Bokan series, you'll feel quite astonished by this awkward little game especially when you realize that you take on the role of the villains instead of the heroes. Two buffoons and their sexy blonde leader pilot strange-looking vehicles and face off against mecha bosses controlled by several protagonists from the Time Bokan franchise such as Yatterman, Zenderman, Rescueman, Firebird (from Yattodetaman), Gyakuten Ippatsuman and Itadakiman. Of course that bears no weight at all on the actual gameplay, I just wanted to stress how much fan service Time Bokan / Time Fighters aficionados will find here.

The good news is that the gameplay, albeit offbeat and weird, offers enough substance for fans of the shooting genre to have some fun. While it doesn't push the envelope on any aspect whatsoever, it does strike a peculiar balance between risk and reward. In short, play safe and enjoy a laid back ride, or get cocky and risk losing the credit in a flash.  

Intro and first stage half of Time Bokan Series: Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō Kanpekiban
(courtesy of YouTube user Japanspel)

Three inputs need to be used in order to play Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō Kanpebikan: shot, bomb and dash. By default these work respectively with buttons A/C, B and L/R, but you can switch to a couple of other fixed configurations if you go to the Options from the start screen. In each level you must chose one vehicle from an initial assortment of six (after the third level another three become available), but you can't select the same vehicle twice in a row. All vehicles have specific abilities for movement, shield and firepower, with their own unique shot patterns. Bombs, on the other hand, have only two variations for all of them and behave in a very special way: a press of the button arms the bomb, and once it's ready another press releases it. Whenever you're on ground level they come out as arching exploding blasts, but if you're underwater or you're flying they come out as straight missiles. Bombs are also unlimited, and are the most important feature for scoring.

Using bombs for scoring is quite simple actually. The more enemies you destroy in a single blast the more you score. In a nutshell, it all comes down to identifying the best moments for bombing. Now for the catch: besides not granting any invincibility to the player, whenever you have a bomb armed and you get hit all your energy is lost, the vehicle is destroyed and the Doronbō gang is forced to ride a weak bike armed with only a pea shot, one hit away from GAME OVER. All is not lost though, since you can recover the vehicle form if you can survive long enough either to enter the next stage (the health bar is replenished at the start of every level) or to get to the next skull item carrier (it will release a shiny helmet icon that brings back the vehicle with the energy level you had prior to losing it).

Other items you might get from these carriers or by destroying random enemies consist of power-up (D), health refill (birds), temporary turbo speed (pink cat), power down (a dark helmet), point bonus (diamonds) and extra credit (potion). Most of the items you'll come across, however, will be golden and silver skulls that fill up a meter on the top of the screen. If the meter reaches 100 the vehicle will turn into a huge invincible mecha as the meter decreases towards zero. Besides becoming invincible, you will also recover all your energy level when this happens. The only downside is that you'll be unable to use bombs, which makes collecting skulls only really useful for survival (strategic or not). Skulls aren't worth any points whatsoever.

A rematch against boss Gyakuten Ippat(s)uman in stage 7

Most of the time the game is rather easygoing. Reaching max power makes the ride even easier, but you need to collect all three Ds to achieve it in every level. There are a few parts that do incur in inevitable perils though, and stage 5 is notorious for having almost all of them: the screen scrolling sideways faster than you're able to move, exploding mines, beams that fall over your head if you destroy them at the wrong moment and also one of the trickiest bosses in the whole game. However, when the going gets rough don't forget that you can always use the dash input in order to literally get through any hazard. This short lateral move makes you invincible at the cost of some recovery time, but it does wonders against some of the most threatening attacks from bosses. Unfortunately, if you've been knocked down to bike form you can't use neither the dash nor any bombs.

A few details are bound to bother some people such as the consufing firing patterns of a few vehicles, bullets being dangerously engulfed by explosions or the intrusive animations that pop up all the time in the lower display (left for player 1, right for player 2), which impair visibility when you least expect it. Other than that it's just a matter of adapting to the strange rules of the gameplay, coping with the abundance of silly dialogue/voices and enjoying the goofy art design, which ranges from clunky to deliciously creative.

Click for the option menus translation for Bokan To Ippatsu! Doronbō Kanpekiban

The biggest difference from this game and its Playstation counterpart is that Kanpekiban comes with one more stage prior to the final level, an urban area at nighttime with suspended bridges and parks full of trees. A few extra animated sections and minor tweaks applied to the presentation and the sound during boss introductions complete the package. Nothing changed in the actual gameplay, which still does not reset your score if you decide to continue (automatic save is implemented by default though).

My 1CC score shown below was achieved on Normal difficulty. The sequel Bokan Desu Yo is only available on the Playstation, so that's where I'll head next in order to see beautiful bad lady Doronjo in action again. After her win against the good guys in Bokan To Ippatsu! the poor thing still doesn't get to celebrate victory. On the contrary, you almost feel sorry for what happens to the trio once the final boss goes down.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Fantasy Zone (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
12 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega / 3D Ages in 2003

When Sega decided to bring its most famous games back to the spotlight with the Sega Ages 2500 discs for the Playstation 2 in Japan, fans were not exactly sure what to expect. The 3D remakes proposed by the series were promising on paper, yet didn't always reach the standards everybody was hoping for. I still can't vouch for the quality of the rest of the games in this collection, but what I've seen so far is enough to agree with the opinion that Vol. 3 is probably one of its best regarded outings. It presents a nice makeover of Fantasy Zone, the classic torus cute'em up we've all come to know and love.

For those who might be a little confused, there's also a Fantasy Zone Complete Collection, which was the last Sega Ages 2500 release as Vol. 33 and consists of a compilation of all major games and ports in the series plus a few arrange modes that are quite interesting on their own. However, Fantasy Zone as presented in Vol. 3 is a standalone game that's not included in Vol. 33, and a mandatory one for lovers of the franchise because it comes with four brand-new exclusive levels and bosses. Another highlight of this particular title is the cell-shaded redesign applied to all graphics and the nice 3D sections and transitions it allows during the game itself.

Note: this edition of Fantasy Zone also saw release as part of the Sega Classics Collection compilation, which came out in different regions other than Japan.

Meet new boss Skarotten of the Dawndusk stage

In the start menu you can select from three different modes. Normal is the main game and includes all new material exclusive to this port. Arcade is a faithful rendition of the original arcade game, only retouched by the cell-shaded graphic overhaul. Challenge mode is a special section where you're allowed to play individual stages in order to collect gold coins and use them to purchase new options, weapons and stages (this is how you unlock the extra levels for Normal mode only).

Controls are the same for every variation of the game. One button shoots and another drops bombs. Each stage consists of a closed area where ten evil generators spawn most of the enemies and hazards. The player's mission is to destroy all generators by flying left or right and then kill the stage boss. Scrolling speed can be affected by how close you are to the sides, but you can also land Opa-Opa on the ground and completely halt scrolling. Enemies will, however, approach from all sides and in the most diverse formations, so there's no fixed behavior for anything you see except for the fact that most enemies will leave behind gold coins when destroyed.

Gold coins collected are to be used in the shop accessed by touching a floating balloon that approches from the top of the screen. Some items are essential, such as twin missiles a choice for speed-up. Others might have timed ammo (20s) or are limited to single use only (you can buy more of the same though). Before leaving the shop you can still choose which item within a category (speed, shot, bomb) you'll be using. Dying strips you off of everything you might have purchased, so you need to buy them again – just note that except for speed-ups all items suffer inflation and increase in price for each consecutive purchase. Gold coins and extra lives are converted into a huge bonus upon completing the game, so the main objective when playing for score is to get to the end by no-missing with lots of gold collected. This bonus totally outweighs any milking you might be inclined to make during the levels, unless your idea of scoring higher is to spend countless hours shooting and dodging stuff for peanuts.

The main differences of Normal mode, which is the main game mode of this Fantasy Zone iteration, consist of a brief special entry for Opa Opa in every level and the game switching to a rail shooting point of view when bosses are defeated. They will then spit out gold coins for 20 seconds before exploding into coins as they would in the original game. Every extra weapon and resource unlocked in Challenge mode will also be available here. However, if you haven't still unlocked all extra stages you'll get a bad ending when beating the game. Another important feature of Normal mode is that it doesn't loop.

Plaleaf redesigned
(courtesy of YouTube user MorayAbiss)

Extra stages in Normal mode match the tone of the original game perfectly. Graphics, music and bosses are colorful, catchy and original. It doesn't take long to unlock them in Challenge mode, and that's equally the case with other very precious unlocks such as "auto rapid" and "barrier". Auto rapid gives you a fixed autofire rate that lets you breeze through the game if you're familiar with it. That's great to amass the highest amount of gold possible because the longer you take to destroy your enemies the lesser value you'll get from them gold coins (I almost felt guilty for wielding such a copius firepower level though). Barrier appears as an extra item in the shop and is self-explanatory: it gives you a shield that can withstand 3 hits from regular bullets. It doesn't protect you from collisions though, so watch out for touching what you absolutely shouldn't.

As a glorified arrange mode of Fantasy Zone, I can definitely say I had great fun with this port. I particularly liked the fact that Normal mode ends after you beat the final boss. Once I unlocked the extra levels and got barrier and auto rapid I didn't bother with Challenge mode anymore. You can still get other stuff like "continue" and "infla", which does away with all the inflation when purchasing items the shop (!). However, if you fancy extras such as design and character models, watch out for red coins when playing Challenge mode. Each red coin unlocks one game character in the Gallery mode. Everything is automatically saved to the memory card, with high scores duly registered in separate tables for both main game modes.

My general strategy for Normal mode was to get the jet engine and twin bombs in the first stage, 7-way shot in the Pocarius level and 3 heavy bombs in the boss rush of the final level (one for boss KobaBeach, another for boss Pickon and a final one for last boss Opapa's final minion). The best results I got on Normal mode are below, playing in the normal difficulty with game region set to Japan, auto rapid activated and barrier unlocked:

And now for my final results on Arcade mode, Japan setting, normal difficulty. I reached stage 3-4 (round 21) and adopted pretty much the same strategy described above, except for boss Pickon.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Fullblast (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
12 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by UFO Crash Games
Published by Ratalaika Games / Red Art Games in 2019

Another low-budget title released digitally for multiple platforms, Fullblast also landed on the Playstation 4 in retail form to deliver twelve stages of shooting action. While flashy enough to provide fun for children and newcomers to the genre, it will probably make everyone else snooze when playing, as it honestly did to me a couple of times. In short, don't expect any sort of real excitement if your idea of shmupping is being challenged with exhilarating dodging as you fly through lots of varied environments.

In the world of Fullblast the player is sent to battle in order to fight alien invaders that have infested planet Earth. Each one of the three environments (city, forest, ocean) gets increasingly more wrecked by the creatures across four levels: in the first three regular bosses appear to stop you, whereas a giant alien creature awaits at the end of every fourth area. It's a very straightforward structure whose best feature is certainly the basis for the enemy gallery. Pretty much all enemies are insects, with a few marine creatures thrown in amidst the expected assortment of mandatory turrets. Other than that, every once in a while the scrolling halts so that you can face a turret mid-boss surrounded by regular minion waves.

A river raid over the jungle

Before delving into the actual gameplay, it's interesting to note that the game visuals are somewhat decent. Graphics are clean and quite detailed in the way they try to convey terrain raided by alien creatures. You see cars going back and forth, boats and ships adrift at the mercy of the wind, bridges and facilities destroyed by derelict motherships. The only problem is that the game is very repetitive and never picks up the pace, so no matter how cool the graphics look soon you'll get tired of them. Repetition is also the main issue with the soundtrack and its generic hard rock themes that make no lasting impression on anyone.

Shot and bomb are the only commands you'll ever use in Fullblast. Once the ship (or ships in co-op play) takes flight and enters the first area, items will start appearing at random as you destroy your enemies. The pea shot can be upgraded by taking the appropriate icons for straight shot and spread shot. Pick up three items of the same type to max it out, and watch as a slow automatically firing heat-seeking missile appears in the last upgrade. Other items include extra bombs, extra lives, energy refills (heart), temporary score multiplier (2×), temporary rapid fire (arrow), temporary shield (S) and a bogus pick-up that lowers your firing rate for a brief while (a spiky red ball). Some of these items tend to get mixed with the colorful backgrounds, so keep an eye out for them.

The energy refill mentioned above recovers part of the health bar that comes with each life, which takes a lot of beating to get depleted. The levels themselves aren't much of a threat, but the ramming and spraying attacks of some bosses can take you by surprise the first time you get to them. It takes only one encounter to memorize patterns though, so the little pressure there is soon disappears and gives way to more boredom. Speaking of which, stretching out levels in order to obtain a longer game is what Fullblast unfortunately does best. The game allows you to select a starting stage from those you've already reached, but what's the point if two thirds of them are essentially the same?

Multiplatform trailer for Fullblast
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher Ratalaika Games)

A valid way to describe Fullblast is that it's a slightly improved take on the style pioneered by developer/publisher Phoenix Games, who were the European kings of crappy releases during the PS2 era. Those who know what I'm talking about will immediately recognize the similarities. The game's got many long levels with little to no variation in the enemy gallery, as well as repetitive design and completely forgettable music.

I was expecting the creature from the box art to be one of the bosses, but he's just a spore-spitting worm that appears halfway into the jungle area. It's the same attack from the carnivorous plants, in what's commonplace behavior for many other enemies. At least the scoring system isn't stupidly broken, and exploiting the time given by the 2× score multiplier is the only way to actually try to score higher.

The picture below shows my best completion results when playing on Normal difficulty. Beware of pausing: I had the game freeze on me once when I paused almost at the same moment the pre-boss message appeared. It was impossible to unpause or even to close the game through the PS4 interface!

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Raiden Fighters (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Seibu Kaihatsu / Gulti
Published by Success in 2008

No matter how famous and admired the games from the classic Raiden franchise were in the world of arcade shmupping, many people were also critical about the slow speed of their ships and the way it affected their whole perception of challenge. Perhaps in order to address this, a couple of years after Raiden DX came out developer Seibu Kaihatsu decided to shake things up by releasing a spin-off title that boosted the action considerably while retaining the general feel of their quintessencial formula. And so a new series was born with Raiden Fighters, a shooter that for all purposes is like a regular Raiden game, only on steroids.

Raiden Fighters appears on the Xbox 360 library alongside its sequels in the Raiden Fighters Aces compilation, which saw release both in Japan and the US. It's a mandatory item on its own, but the Japanese disc is the best option if you need to choose one simply because it also comes with a special DVD that contains superplays for all three games. The interface is all in English, which is great, and includes a plethora of visual tweaks (TATE obviously included), local/online leaderboards and the ability to record your own runs. Speaking of the first Raiden Fighters, you can even change its name to Gun Dogs, which was actually the game's working title before the developer decided for a change prior to the arcade release.

That said, I must confess my history with Raiden Fighters isn't beautiful at all. Upon first contact I hated the game with a passion, a reaction that's quite common once you realize how unfriendly it is to unaware players who enjoy the scoring aspect of a shoot'em up. The entry ticket to the scoring techniques in this game is just too high, hence the reason for my giving up on it several times. Long story short, it took me a great deal of resolve to finally get serious about clearing it.

On the surface Raiden Fighters isn't any different from its classic roots. Choose one of the available fighter crafts and face seven stages of pure, relentless shooting action. Each fighter has defined characteristics for attack, defense and speed, as well as specific firepower variations according to the L or M icons you'll be picking up along the way. Controls consist of shot, bomb and rapid shot, fully configurable as you see fit in your joystick, as well as other more uncommon inputs such as rapid bomb (why?) and quick restart (very useful). Quick, in fact, is the middle name of the game here, since loading times are pretty much non-existent and you'll certainly be restarting a lot when trying to score.

Chaser's missile curtain against the forest boss

Keeping with the tradition set forth by Raiden DX, this game is full of unintuitive secrets that range from trivial to extremely tricky to pull off. Some of the trivial ones relate to the selection of special ships and stage order, but fortunately the Xbox 360 port makes things easier by having (almost) all ships at the start screen and allowing you to choose a stage order before the credit is even started. This way you can define the order for stages 1 (forest) and 2 (airfield), as well as 4 (arctic zone) and 5 (railyard). Stages 3 (ocean), 6 (thunderstorm) and 7 (fortress) will always be fixed since they are actually the main goal of each one of the three missions you must complete in order to defeat the military forces of an evil dictator. This military motif, by the way, is the main design change from classic Raiden titles, which used to propel you to outer space in the second half of the game.

Graphics are crisp and extremely colorful, with an enemy gallery that encompasses all sorts of terrestrial and aerial opposition. Tanks and ships of all shapes and sizes, sniping turrets in every possible configuration, slow moving bombers, kamikaze plane formations and furious bosses with multiple forms/patterns. The music, on the other hand, is a collection of accelerated techno tracks that in my opinion severely undermines the game's appreciation. One might argue the soundtrack matches the pace of the action, but most of the time it just comes off as grating noise that evokes continuous desperation. The song in the railyard level is kinda nice towards the end, but that's it.

Playing Raiden Fighters as you would any other shmup is fun, but quite challenging. Shoot, dodge, bomb, pick up items along the way, fire charged attacks by holding and releasing shot when the ship glows. Survival play is as simple as that, but once you dig a little deeper into how to score better the game becomes a completely different kind of beast, and that's where secrets start to become important. In a nutshell, you won't get anywhere unless you learn how to boost the value of those tiny little medals. In order to do that players must follow very strict rules and routes. It's totally useless to try to figure out these rules on your own, even if you have a lifetime to spend. The best advice I can give is sit back, relax, choose a proper superplay to watch and read this awesome webpage with great attention.

The first rule to increase medal point value is that each medal must be collected before the next one appears. If you don't do that all subsequent medals on screen will have the same value as the first one. That said, a short recipe to proceed is this: increase medal value from 10 to at least 80, then grab the S icon to summon a slave (an option craft that flies beside the main fighter); increase medal value from 100 to 900, then grab a second S so that you have two slaves; without letting any slave die (they die from taking too much damage), increase medal value from 1.000 to 10.000; at this point all medals will be large and of a golden color; in order to break the 10.000 barrier you must have 10 medals on screen at the same time, which will then cause a big explosion and activate the final medal scale, which goes from 10.000 to 100.000; afterwards all medals will be worth 100.000 points provided you don't lose any of them with no other medal on screen, a situation that resets their value to 10.000 points and requires you to increase them back up again to 100.000 (with each medal reset at least 450.000 points are lost).

Aside from keeping both slaves alive halfway the process above, the trickiest part is to get ten 10K medals at once for the break explosion. The easiest way to do that is by uncovering a miclus. Some micluses will only appear if you fulfill certain actions, but luckily most of them will come out just by hovering at specific spots. With a miclus uncovered, shoot it and watch as the required shower of medals fills up the screen (micluses are also worth 100.000 points). The side effect of unlocking high medal values is that once you do that the game's difficulty skyrockets, with bullets coming twice as faster at you. The good news is that deaths don't affect medal values and considerably decrease the ongoing rank. The bad news is that Raiden Fighters has no extends at all.

Continuing through the first mission of Raiden Fighters
(courtesy of YouTube user Joseph SMASH!)

Even though medal chaining is the most important aspect of scoring, there are lots of other ways to score higher. One of them is uncovering fairies. Besides being worth 100.000 points each (if you don't kill them), almost all of them will hand out an extra bomb. Other bonuses can be gained by bullet grazing/scratching, speed killing medium-sized enemies, destroying two parts of them within one second from each other and even "defending" certain parts of the scenario (the houses close to the boss in the forest stage). No matter how well you have planned your routes – and you definitely need to plan ahead – there's always room to uncover a new secret or to squeeze a few more points from the game.

As if all those secrets weren't enough of a hassle to learn, different ships will certainly require distinct approaches to uncovering them. All original default fighters have specific attacks for Missile and Laser, but the ones originated in previous games behave differently. The Raiden mk-II (from Raiden II) and the Judge Spear (from Viper Phase 1) have only one firing pattern, no charge shots and drop their original bombs instead of the new firestar shrapnel bomb. They also start with three bombs in stock instead of two. There's also the extra Slave ship that can be selected by pressing shot + bomb over the fighter craft whose speed and color you want to inherit. Slaves are great because of their reduced hitbox, but they have only one firing pattern and no charge shot whatsoever.

The main game mode in Raiden Fighters is Arcade, which also comes with a Boss Rush variation for those interested. In Score Attack mode you have 100 seconds to achieve the highest score possible with no medals and different places for secrets. Finally, in Training mode players can adjust every aspect of a run in order to practice individual stages. It's a very helpful and flexible tool if you can't resource to emulation for training. I used it extensively to get better at the final levels.

I chose to beat Arcade mode with the Aegis fighter, and accomplished my mission in Arcade difficulty with the final result shown below (note that Normal doesn't match the original arcade difficulty). It was a tough but very fulfilling ride, one that helped me lift my grudge against the game. Now let's see how long it will take me to man up towards the sequel!

Friday, May 15, 2020

500 1CCed shmups!


Allow me to interrupt the normal blog schedule to quickly celebrate a long awaited milestone.

It's been a little more than 11 years since the blog started, but I have just completed 500 entries for console shoot'em ups beaten on a single credit.

Entry #500 couldn't be more fitting, for Gradius V is one of the games that opened my eyes to the genre a long time ago.

I'm proud to say that shmupping has played a huge part in my hobbies (and life) ever since. Even though I don't have any plans to slow down any time soon, a new challenge is coming up soon for me. A few months ago I knew baby number two was on its way to the family, and just today we knew it's going to be a boy.

So yeah, baby boy, daddy and little sister are eagerly waiting to play Gradius with you already!

For now let's check the number of console shmups beaten by system:

And by genre:

Top 5 hardest 1CCs in the last hundred, in no particular order:

Top 5 easiest 1CCs in the last hundred, in no particular order:

Now let's get back to the regular blog schedule.
Raiden Fighters just went down, so I'd better get writing a little about it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Gradius V (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami / Treasure
Published by KCET in 2004

Dear readers, I have come full circle. Back in 2005, during a trip to Los Angeles, I decided to bring back home a few second-hand PS2 games, among which was Gradius V. It didn't take long for me to realize there was something special about it. Forget fighting games, racers, whatever was mainstream at the time. For a long while Gradius V was the only game I played, years before I would turn into a shmup case. It blew my mind like few other games did. And you know what's most interesting about this? Believe it or not, I had never played any Gradius game in my life.

So here we are, my finally emerging victorious after having previously gone through the whole series and its main ports. And the feeling of wonderment when reaching each new stage in Gradius V still felt like those good old days. It's been a long time and a long ride since the very first experience I had with Gradius on the NES more than ten years ago, which makes me somewhat proud for this journey and willfully waiting for the day Konami decides to finally bring a sixth chapter to fruition. No, I'm (still) not too old for this shit, as our dear Roger Murtaugh would put it.

After the cruel yet awesome arcade-based Gradius IV, Konami decided to partner with Treasure and bring the franchise to the home market, more specifically the Playstation 2. Taking advantage of the console's capabilities, both companies delivered a truly epic shooter that encompasses everything that made the series such an iconic name within the genre. Gradius V not only expands on the ideas of old, but it's also beautiful to look at and a delight to play, with a marvelous soundtrack that puts to shame most sci-fi movies out there. It's a mandatory experience for all shmup fans and probably the most accomplished of all horizontal shooters I've ever played.

The first and most important gameplay aspect that differentiates this chapter from the previous games is the absence of checkpoints. FINALLY, many people would say. On top of that, there's no moai stage to be found here. That speaks to my senses a great deal, since I was never a fan of moai. Good moai is dead moai!

This is Vic Viper T-301... commencing attack on the enemy
(courtesy of YouTube user kirgeez)

Once you've chosen the desired type of weapon array, Gradius V begins with the speedy departure from a space station as an original Big Core tries to stop you. Powering up follows the tried and true standard of the series, with upgrade capsules appearing from destroying either full enemy waves or orange-colored enemies. Press the dedicated button to activate the highlighted upgrade, it's as simple as that: speed-up, missiles, double/tailgun, laser, option/multiple and shield/force field (there are variations, but these are the most common ones). Shot and missile can be either mapped to the same or to different buttons, with rapid fire functions as well. The occasional gray capsule works as a smart bomb that clears the screen from minor regular foes, but they don't give you any points when dying this way. Speaking of which, the first extend is granted with 300.000 points and further ones at every 500.000 points afterwards.

New to Gradius V is a fourth input that affects the behavior of your options. Type 1 freezes them in place as you move, type 2 allows you to aim your shot direction but doesn't allow you to move, type 3 expands/contracts your option arrangement vertically (as in Thunder Cross) and type 4 makes all options rotate around the ship. Each type of multiple control comes with strengths and weaknesses, but very soon I decided on type 2 since it allows all sorts of stunts when using the laser. Many people refer to it as a "whipping" laser, which makes perfect sense as an alias to the visual spectacle provided by a fully powered ship wreaking havoc everywhere. Weapon edit is unlocked when you complete the game, allowing players to choose from a wide selection of staple and brand-new attacks when composing the weapon array.

Moving forward with the series while being faithful to its original style is something that this chapter excels at. Graphics are beautifully textured with awesome 3D depth, oozing with colors and dynamic transitions. Explosions abound, and well placed voiceover messages enhance the experience of piloting the Vic Viper T-301 spaceship across each one of the eight stages. The number of levels sounds odd considering that Gradius V is a massive undertaking where a full credit often clocks at more than one hour. All stages are of decent length, but the 7th level inside the enemy fortress takes the cake as the longest final level in the series, and also the most nail-biting alongside the final fortress of Gradius III. The reason for the 7th level being the longest and Gradius V still having 8 stages is a neat story twist that leads to a more suitable epilogue than some escape sequences seen in a few previous chapters and spinoffs.

Raising the bar graphically wouldn't be that much of an accomplishment had the game not increased the difficulty in the same measure. The result is a highly addictive, larger-than-life adventure that does away with the punishing nature of Gradius III and Gradius IV but still packs quite a punch in terms of challenge. Gradius titles were never known for their mercy, but they were also very methodical in how players should approach each and every checkpoint. However, with checkpoints out of the way the developers were then free to heighten bullet density to a point where it became feasible to decrease the hitbox of the ship. That brings about several moments where you need to fit into very tight passages and sections that definitely feel bullet hellish in nature. One of the highlights in that regard is the whole meteor level (5th), which requires strong crowd control and lots of nerves during an overwhelming boss confrontation. This particular stage, by the way, serves as a mixture of all moai/crystal motifs seen in previous chapters. Its pure, raw, unmitigated intensity is one of the reasons that made me fall in love with this genre a long time ago.

On the lookout for Blaster Cannon Core

If you miss moai at least you'll be at home with a few other franchise acquaintances that return in great form. As expected, the organic level (cell) screams Salamander all over the place. The enemy base in the following stage is filled with a deadly green mist while the base itself tilts left and right and even scrolls backwards. It's like a bubble stage meets the magma level from Gradius IV, even though no volcano preamble is to be found here as well. What you will encounter are lots of bosses, old and new, either waiting at the end of the levels or lining up in several boss rush formations (stages 2, 6 and 7 have multiple bosses). Boss fights get increasingly tougher, a sign of the finely tuned difficulty slope that makes each new level feels like a clear challenge leap. And let's not forget about rank and the random appearances of the option thief when rank is maxed out. Dying does reset (or reduces considerably) the ongoing rank though.

The only aspect that wasn't fleshed out properly in this game is the scoring system. Once more it's just the straightforward "kill everything" rule, with no variation whatsoever. Each power-up capsule is worth 800 points and hatches can be left in one piece for a while to release more drones, but that's it as far as extra scoring opportunities go. Some people complain about the unskippable cut scene at the start of the second level, but in my opinion it's a harmless short delay when you think about the grand scheme of a full credit.

Besides being an outstanding game in all technical fronts with absolutely no slowdown at all (except for cosmetic explosions on bosses), Gradius V also boasts flawless presentation, with an awesome animated intro and a slew of training options that are unlocked the further you dig into the game. Stage select/practice can be broken down in virtual checkpoints that help deal with huge levels such as the final fortress. When returning to the game after all these years it didn't take long for me to get past my previous nemesis Covered Core MK II, the main boss of stage 6. How foolish of me to think I was close to success though. What comes afterwards soon brought me back to my humble self, making me practice even harder than before to achieve victory.

To wrap things up, all I can say is that I absolutely love Gradius V and recommend it to anyone looking for an amazing shmup experience (co-op play is a blast too, I can certainly vouch for it). In choosing type 2, my basic strategy when playing solo was to upgrade as fast as I could to achieve max power by the time I reached the first boss. I used two speed-ups for the whole game, activating a new one only during the high speed part. I played on Normal difficulty and reached stage 2-1. Further loops add suicide bullets and new attack patterns to key enemies.