Wednesday, January 10, 2018

TwinBee (PSP)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 2007

The birth of one of Konami's most famous franchises is finally here. While I can certainly understand the reasons why it made such success in Japan (not so much in the rest of the world though), coming to grips with its gameplay is always a process that tends to take a long time for me. Born in the arcades in 1985, not only did TwinBee prove to be the most accomplished evolution to Namco's Xevious, but it also spawned a series of arcade and console sequels that fleshed out the original idea in several different ways. Besides that, lots of additional non-gaming material would be created around its characters, which is something that to me sounds as interesting as watching paint dry.

With the exception of a few downgraded ports such as the one released for the Famicom, the first arcade TwinBee remained untouched in the console realm for years until it got included in the TwinBee Portable compilation for the PSP in 2007. The UMD also has all other main arcade entries in the series plus Pop'n TwinBee (SNES) and a rearranged TwinBee Da! (Game Boy), so it's only natural that the first chapter comes out as the least interesting game of the bunch. This happens because despite the depth in its gameplay, which is rather impressive for 1985, it's visually a quite drab vertical shooter that can't really be called a cute'em up in my opinion.

Regardless of how cute you think TwinBee is, playing it often causes a completely different reaction. I didn't get along with it at first, but thanks to the wise advice of a fellow shmupper I was finally able to deal with the aggressive rank progression in the game, an aspect that can pretty much kill the fun factor if taken for granted.

Juggle bells, juggle bells!
(courtesy of YouTube user Lyra's Gaming Channel)

Just like in Xevious, TwinBee allows players to fire a main gun and drop bomb shots to destroy ground targets. These ground bombs come from the character's arms, which can be both lost if they get hit but soon recovered with a special ambulance item that cruises the screen only once (miss it and you'll be blind for ground enemies for the rest of the current life). These basic inputs aren't any indication of how hectic the gameplay can get, regardless of the player's inclination be it for survival or for scoring. In essence, they serve as basis for a primitive yet quite solid risk/reward mechanic that strongly left its mark within Konami shooting games.

Truth: everything in TwinBee revolves around bells. Or better yet, bell juggling. These are released by shooting clouds, and even though their color is primarily yellow shooting them again will eventually change that color to a different one: blue (speed-up), gray (double shot), green (shadow options) and red (shield). Getting these special items isn't necessarily easy, since the very next shot the bell receives will already change its color back to yellow and you'll need to bombard it again to get a different color. Considering that there's some randomness in the bell spawning routine, it definitely takes practice and patience to hone the ability to get the item you want. However, the game really shines when you're succesfully collecting maxed out yellow bells for 10.000 points each. It's a great rush indeed.

Enemy bullets in TwinBee aren't too fast, as they tend to overwhelm players by quantity while the enemy themselves try to ram you all the time. Therefore, in order to move around and dodge stuff decently at least two speed-ups are needed. Ground enemies comprise all sorts of turrets and moles, sometimes alone or in flock configurations that should be taken care of as quick as possible. When destroyed they are turned into fruit (oranges, strawberries, onions) or special items such as a star (screen-clearing bomb) or a static yellow bell (3-way shot, then a bouncing baseball if you still have the 3-way shot activated). These special items are extremely important because they're all benign and go a long way in helping you survive.


Frequently a combination of ocean, green/desertic hills and an occasional airplane landing field, TwinBee's landscapes are simple and not so colorful. Aerial foes will always arrive in waves whose behavior depends on the player's position and movement. While the game's natural difficulty slope naturally makes things harder, a single pick-up in the item roster can make it skyrocket: the green bell for options. Yes, it's seemingly a nice upgrade, but it should be avoided like the plague if you intend to at least loop the game. Strangely so, the way it's implemented always bugged me because in order to distribute the firepower you need to be on the move all the time (the options sink into the character when you're not moving). This means that besides making the game a brick wall the green bell also makes it harder to consistently juggle bell colors.

Even though this doesn't turn TwinBee into a cakewalk, sticking to the double shot, the 3-way shot and the shield is the way to go, with as many speed-ups as you see fit. Though gigantic, the shield can take lots of hits before shrinking and finally depleting. Once you're conveniently powered up it's the single most important item you can get, so don't hesitate to juggle them bells for a new one if necessary. The loss of an arm cuts your bombing capability in half, however it's not that much of a hindrance if you position yourself nicely before dropping bombs, after all they have a minor aiming ability and will always try to hit targets within a certain radius.

There are only two extends gained very soon in the game, but watch out. As obvious as it might seem, the worst thing that can happen besides picking up the green bell is dying, just because you become a sitting duck at the default speed and need to count on sheer luck to get back on your knees. Perhaps that changes when playing in co-op, which brings us to the main reason why TwinBee was originally so successful. In co-op play partners can push each other in order to create a spread shot, as well as hold hands to shoot a powerful fireball. To my knowledge this was a first for arcade shooters.

Besides being arcade-perfect, the port in this compilation has all the basic options you'd expect from a good console release: autosave, autofire, configurable inputs and game/screen resolution tweaks, as well as a music gallery. SELECT adds a credit, and during the game START is used to call the options menu. Just note that the default/starting difficulty is Easy. In the picture below I managed to loop the game and reach stage 16 (4-1) on Medium/Normal. There are no credits whatsoever when the game loops, in a neverending sequence of asymmetrical levels and enemy formations.

The next chapter in the arcade series is Detana!! TwinBee, which came out six years after this first installment.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Terraforming (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Right Stuff
Published by Right Stuff 
in 1991

Considering that terraforming is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying the atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology of a planet/moon so that it becomes similar to the environment of Earth, it doesn't take long to see that Terraforming never really embraces this idea to make it an integral part of the game. It's quite the contrary actually, since it only borrows the word for its latent punch... Everything you do throughout eight linear stages is kill all sorts of strange earth-like creatures, thus crushing an environment that's already been sort of terraformed.

Thankfully shmups were never really known for their stories or faithfulness to story concepts. What does matter in the end is the amount of action and the thrill of blowing up stuff in all sorts of environments possible. Give us that in spades and you can call your game whatever you want. In the case of Terraforming, the action is fast most of the time, with players being thrown wave after wave of enemies with little obstacle interaction. Visually and aurally close to CD titles like Rayxanber II and Metamor Jupiter, the game is famous within certains circles for having enemies and backgrounds designed by Syd Mead, a well known visionaire responsible for the visual concepts of sci-fi movie classics such as Star Trek, Blade Runner, Tron and Aliens. Such was Mead's fame at the time that his name is in the title of the Western release for the Turbografx CD. His contributions can be considered an odd mix of Darius and Bio-Hazard Battle at times, which is interesting but can't really compensate for the fact that the game fails to live up to the solid standards of these particular mentions.

The asteroid shower of stage 7

A short animated intro shows the spaceship departing for battle, and what initially struck me most was that it looks like a pointy jet coming out of Captain America's shield. Yeah, I know, I can certainly be weird in my visual associations. Anyway, there are two types of power-up icons in Terraforming. The main one is a little green box with a thin line inside it, which is responsible for upgrading the primary gun. Items for auxiliary weapons are color-coded and must be released from the carriers as soon as they reach the right border after darting from the left (you die if you collide against a carrier that's travelling to the left, so watch out). This auxiliary firepower can be a double straight laser (orange), a bidirectional spread pattern (yellow) or a constant stream of homing shards (blue). The main gun takes three power-ups to max out, and auxiliary weapons also take three items to max out once activated. Note that the pair of options generated when you have an active ancillary weapon can block bullets (in a flimsy way, so don't count too much on that).

Each press of button I switches the flying speed up and down between three settings, while button II is used to shoot. Refraining from shooting, however, can be extremely helpful due to the charging abilitites of the ship when firepower is not in use. The charge gauge fills up rather quickly, and once it's full a press of the shot button delivers a powerful, concentrated blast whose effectiveness does not depend on the power level of your weapons. Due to the amount of enemies the charge shot is rarely an option during the stages themselves, but the situation completely changes when you're dealing with bosses. Some of them will go down in the blink of an eye if you release some well-timed charge blasts.

One of the aspects that undermines the fun factor of Terraforming is the uneven duration of levels and the repetitive nature of the enemy waves during the initial stages. Later on there are some overlappings that require a little more caution from the player so that you don't get hit and lose power. Each hit degrades the ship's arsenal to its previous power level, and you only die by getting shot at the default condition. This lifebar system in disguise offers a lot of room for error, but depending on where you die it becomes quite hard to get back up. Some bosses can be a bitch if you haven't got the proper weapon to deal with them, such as the debris mower of stage 3 or the medusa creature of stage 5.

A short demonstration of the 1st stage
(courtesy of YouTube user FunCade 64)

For a game that implements some heavy parallax scrolling I just wish Terraforming offered more terrain in its straightforward design. The stages where you're flying in open space are the majority, with real obstacles only appearing in the 4th and the 8th areas. The dark caves in the 4th level are complemented by one of the most eerie BGMs in the soundtrack, which otherwise is dominated by synth- or guitar-driven themes that work better with the fast-paced action pieces (note: the orange weapon is the only one that can pass through walls). As for the last stage, it's a perfect example of how to impose extra difficulty with cheap lasers and tricky turret openings. Since you need to go around a large battleship, no weapon is actually perfect for that area. In all honesty, it's one of the most annoying final levels I've seen in a while.

Extra lives are score-based and come at the following point marks: 50K, 100K, 300K, 500K, 1000K, 2000K. The scoring system is very simple, with no extra points gained by taking items, and also very unbalanced towards the last couple of levels. It's also theoretically broken, since you can forever destroy the debris during the 3rd boss fight if you so wish. Playing the game for fun is possible though, even if it's an uneven ride and a tad weird for the regular standards of the 16-bit sci-fi shmup. There's very little slowdown when the screen is too cluttered, but that's it.

My final 1CC result for the Normal difficulty of Terraforming is below. Remember to pause the game as soon as the last boss dies or you won't be able to take note of your score. I didn't bother checking the three higher difficulty settings available.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Star Parodier (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON/OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Inter State / Kaneko 
in 1992

When Konami decided to launch a parody game about one of its flagship franchises I bet very few people thought the idea would catch on, let alone have any real influence in the shmup scene in the years to come. In time Parodius proved to be a hit both in the arcade and the home console formats, and most nonsensical shooters released afterwards only came to be because of the success the series eventually achieved. Star Parodier is one of the earlier examples if this, serving as a wacky take on everything about the Star Soldier series and its native platform the PC Engine.

There's a lot to like about Star Parodier, especially if you're into fan favorite Super Star Soldier, which is by far the most referenced game of the series. Next and unexpectedly for a self-referencing title, it goes a little overboard in its inspirational source and incorporates a lot of Konami traits in the gameplay. The first three levels, for instance, seem to have been lifted directly from Twin Bee, down to the characteristic floating domes and islands as well as some of the bosses, whereas echoes of Gradius III appear in the bubble-heavy 7th level. There are also a few rather explicit nods to Namco's Dragon Spirit in the underwater passage of stage 3, the icy landscapes of stage 4 and the corridors full of arrows in stage 5.

Paro-ceaser goes all CASTLE OF ILLUSION in stage 2

All three available characters are so distinct from each other that a lot of Star Parodier feels different depending on which one you choose. They're all capable of shooting (button II) and bombing (button I), as well as selecting three speed settings at the press of the SELECT button. Character-specific aspects of the gameplay include three different weapon types and one particular auxiliary attack, as briefly listed below:

  • PC Engine (power-up item is a hucard) — weapons: red (inverted T pattern), blue (forward/backward CD spread), yellow (basic shot + side/rear homing missiles); auxiliary weapon P for rotating options (up to 4);

  • Bomberman (power-up item is a cute bomb face) — weapons: red (inverted Y pattern), blue (black bomb spread), yellow (basic shot + red staggering balloons); auxiliary weapon O for trailing options (up to 3);

  • Paro-ceaser (power-up item is a regular capsule) — weapons: red (classic 5-way star soldier pattern), blue (straight laser with bidirectional wave shots), yellow (exploding soft clouds); auxiliary weapon H for homing missiles.

The following items are the same for all characters: S (shield), B (extra bomb), 1UP (extra life), golden orb (1.000 points), ? (random power-up), kanji sign (avoid, this sends you back to the basic pea shooter default power) and heart (one respawn). Getting as many hearts as you can is essential for survival in the long run since each one grants an instant respawn upon death – a situation that only happens if you're down to the default power level (getting hit successively degrades your firepower until you're in such a condition). Exactly like in Super Star Soldier, whenever you have respawns in reserve the symbol for the number of lives changes its color. Finally, beware of the white hand that appears randomly and steal items before you can take them.

Even though this game might sound excessively derivative at times, there's no denying it's got lots of charm and provides great fun while it lasts. Some bosses might offer a few thrills, but nothing really out of the ordinary for a 16-bit cute'em up. There is a scoring system in place which grants 2.000 points for every surplus item you're able to collect, but unfortunately the gameplay can be exploited for score if you avoid hearts and abuse checkpoints. After all, extra lives can also be obtained by scoring and some levels offer lots of points, the main one being the bubble area in the 7th stage.

Tids and bits of Star Parodier
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

My favorite character in the game is Bomberman, just because it's so much fun to play with him and find the best way to use his blue and yellow weapons. With the expection of Paro-ceaser and its 5-way Star Soldier patten, the red shot for the other guys sucks. Blue, on the other hand, pretty much decides your character choice due to the way it behaves: for the PC Engine a power level of 2 is often better than max power due to its great forward spread, while the giant wave shots are just too confusing when using Paro-ceaser. Bomberman has the best blue weapon due to the shockwaves that go far beyond the impact spots of those black bombs. It's a murderer when paired with 3 trailing options.

No complaints should be made about the duration of Star Parodier, its lengthy animated intro, the abundance of digitized voices, the nice zooming effects, the absolute lack of slowdown or that marvelous soundtrack, but one thing I missed from the game is a dedicated level/area with a motif specifically designed for the PC Engine character. Lots of places and bosses mimic things from Star Soldier, with stage 6 serving as a very nice homage to the Bomberman series, but the PC Engine emphasis seems to be solely in the cool pixel art that's shown in between stages.

Following the trend established in the Star Soldier games, besides the normal campaign the CD also offers a separate "battle stage" with 2 and 5-minute game modes for caravan fans, complete with two different soundtrack variations. General options allow players to choose from a normal or a vertical/cramped screen ratio, soft rapid ON or OFF (for an even faster firing rate that the default autofire) and the starting stage for the main course (1 to 4).

I have beaten the game with all characters, but decided to show the first 1CC high score I achieved playing with Paro-ceaser on my first credit, Normal difficulty (the default kanji in the options screen). In this run I almost bit the dust halfway into the game and also during all those phases of the last boss.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Salamander 2 (PSP)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 2007

I'm not the one to seriously tackle a twitchy game on any handheld console for a very simple reason: the screen is too small and I often drift my fingers on the d-pad or analog stick after a while, which in the case of shmups can make controlling the ship a real chore. So whenever I take out the PSP for serious play, for instance, I always send its signal to a TV so that the PSP itself functions as a different kind of controller.

On the case of Salamander 2 I did not do the above. I played exclusively on the tiny console for some hours late at night for three days, in order to participate in a friendly competition from a Whatsapp group. I had the earphones on, and by my side my daughter was sound asleep (yes, I'm her guardian knight).

The game is one of the titles included in the Salamander Portable compilation, an absolutely mandatory item in everyone's PSP collection whether you're a shmup fan or not. I never really thought I'd be able to loop it while lying down (sometimes uncomfortably) or sitting on a sofa in the quiet night, but I managed to pull it off so here I am, writing about it for the third time. You can click here for the first instance and here for the second one. They have descriptions of the gameplay, so I'll skip this part in this quick essay. As for the quality of the PSP port, everyone can rest assured it's arcade perfect.

Introduction of Salamander 2 on the PSP, horizontally stretched
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Besides saying that Salamander 2 is awesome, I could also add something in the lines of "Salamander 2 is Gradius for the lazy". As much as I'd be upsetting a few die-hard Gradius fans we all know this statement isn't that far from the truth (at least those who played this great game know that). You got speed-ups, missiles, lasers, options, shields and even half-options (option seeds) at the catch of a single item. Screw those endless capsules and the possibility of catching too many of them and missing the activation moment for that precious shield... If you've ever played a Gradius game and that doesn't ring any bells then Gradius certainly isn't for you.

On top of the unique pick-up items Salamander 2 also grants us with a neat homing attack that sacrifices half-options in exchange for an elegant way to deal with too many enemies or enemies behind walls. In many occasions, especially when I was learning how to play the game, I took this feature for granted or simply forgot about it, venturing into hairy situations that could've been solved more easily. Why perform stunts when such a great resource is at our disposal? Greedy players take note (myself included most of the time), all you lose for using this awesome attack is only half an option. Okay, you need to take the remaining option seed back , but you know what I mean.

Flames of death in stage 2

Was making the game harder when playing with Vic Viper (player 1) a nice touch by Konami? Well, it depends. It's tough to go with Vic Viper once you figure out the challenge gets a lot more manageable when choosing Super Cobra (player 2). Red over blue meaning extra items on bosses and less aggressive enemies sounds irresistible, right? I did try to play with Vic Viper for a little while, but with so much room for error due to my slips on the d-pad I soon returned to good old Super Cobra.

And that reminds I oughta finally tackle Super Cobra on the Playstation. I've been delaying that one for years, trying to make it get chosen in the selection windows of several friendly competitions. I should wait no more, I guess. Hopefully soon?

My score for the first loop of Salamander 2 on the PSP is below, playing at full defaults and dying on the first stage of the second loop. I had a few more runs after that but never came close to beating it again, and since my shmup mates moved on to another game I also decided to say goodbye. However, I do intend to come back to Salamander Portable for that lovely Gradius 2 release for the MSX, which had its choppy scrolling duly adjusted in this compilation.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Search & Destroy (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
15 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Phoenix Games
Published by Phoenix Games in 2006

The horrors of a gaming library are usually a chapter of their own for collectors. Case in question: Search & Destroy for the Playstation 2. Why in hell would anyone put money and effort in products like these, that seem to have been developed to mock both Sony and gamers alike?

If there's anything redeeming about dealing with such crap is that the history surrounding some of the most infamous publishing companies lives on through our channels, like purulent spores spiking out of sick tissue. Leave it to us, masochistic players, to show everyone the way of the crap and help you avoid it, lest one of the products by Phoenix Games ends up falling onto people's laps.

It was a hot afternoon and I was stuck to a bureaucratic task in my room. I needed to vent some air but was too tired to invest my focus on anything minimally demanding, and there were so many boxes piling up everywhere that the only part of my shelves that I could reach was the PS2 section. So Search & Destroy it was. More Phoenix Games. However, having gone through Guerrilla Strike before, this time around I was prepared for whatever hid within that blue European case, asinine gameplay and boredom included.

Co-op action in Search & Destroy
(courtesy of YouTube user RetroDetect)

The year is 2050 AD. Two groups are fighting for an artifact. Your group is teleported into the enemy camp to capture the artifact. The mission is completed, but you are the only survivor. Your goal is to get out of there alive. Soon after this briefing is shown your helicopter is dropped over cloudy green pastures and the ordeal begins. Players have only one input at their disposal, which is button ×. The first stage drags and seems to last forever while uninspired waves of aerial enemies cross your path, but every once in a while some of the destroyed enemies will randomly leave behind an item for immediate pick-up.

Items can be either a power-up, a shield, an energy refill or an extra life. Power-ups are responsible for upgrading your firepower until you acquire a neat mix of fixed + bending homing shots when maxed out. The shield adds a 6-hit additional protection even though it also increases the already enormous hitbox of the helicopter. Finally, energy refills recover 40% of the vertical lifebar while extra lives can be stocked up to a maximum of 5.

Saying that Search & Destroy is boring is an understatement. Prepare to face fifteen long levels flying over farms, deserts, mountains/ravines and industrial landscapes whose texture seems to have been borrowed from those Magic Eye books (the single exception to that is an ice stage that appears only once). As for the enemy gallery, it's a sorry joke simply rearranged stage after stage. For example, those lonely tanks you see on ground level every now and then are just for show. Since the programmer apparently forgot to activate them, only aerial enemies are to be seen throughout the whole game as you listen to unremarkable music and sound effects that are often way too loud.

Search & Destroy is also very easy when you're fully powered up, yet dying in later stages leaves you quite underpowered, terminating the credit fast if you're not familiar with the enemy spawning routine. And since collisions are the only thing that can kill you or deplete the shield instantly, there is always one type of enemy per level that likes to enter the screen at a higher speed, thus offering some sort of actual peril to the player.

Get out of there alive!

Amidst all the mediocrity of the package, if we look closely to isolated aspects of the game it's possible to notice a few decent touches that could result in something at least less inane, had the developer tried to go beyond the trivial. The fully powered shot, for instance, has a rather satisfying animation. The zoom-out effect that's generously applied in co-op play could also have been used all over the place in a solo credit, and not only prior to those bosses at the end of stages 5, 10 and 15. Having more ice stages would also help marginally, as well as having the basic staple of one boss per level.

But alas!

We don't even get a proper opening or title screen at the start of Search & Destroy, just an access for co-op play and the options, which allow you to adjust audio volume and activate autosave/vibration if desired. I searched and I destroyed in between lots of pauses to resume work and have some sips of soda. Here's my final 1CC result:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thunder Force IV (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
10 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1992

And here we have it. Thunder Force IV. One of the defining moments of the shmup genre during the 16-bit glory days.

I've been replaying the game on and off for a while now, savoring all those spiky corners of the wide open stages presented by Technosoft. Let's be honest, the company had a huge responsibility at hand back then, for surpassing the technical and critical success of Thunder Force III wasn't an easy task at all. And having lived my youth through those days, at the height of the 16-bit console wars, I can definitely vouch for the incredible anticipation created on its release. Nintendo lovers had Axelay, but Segaphiles had Thunder Force IV. As fans we did clash from time to time, but all in the name of healthy gaming. Oh how I miss those days!

In essence, Thunder Force IV amplifies everything about its predecessor. It's more ambitious in graphics, in music, in challenge, in scope, and by doing so it pushes the Mega Drive hardware to its limits. It's a beautiful game to look at either in motion or in screenshots, oozing with effects and diversity while offering an exhilarating, often over-the-top experience. Precisely because there's so much going on we get several moments of slowdown, the only real draw when comparing this entry to previous Mega Drive chapters. Fortunately it's the intelligent kind of slowdown, the one without any frame-skipping or jerkiness, which actually helps to tame the challenge during the busiest moments of the game. Nevertheless if you want to get rid of the slowdown without overclocking the console you can always go to the port released years later for the Sega Saturn in the Thunder Force Gold Pack 2 compilation.

One of the variations of the second mid-boss in the Bio-Base (8th) stage

Following one of the most amazing openings of all time, which sees the Rynex-R ship flying through the huge moving titles, Thunder Force IV kicks off by allowing players to choose the order of the first four levels (since it's so badass I always go for Strite first). The basic gameplay of Thunder Force III is preserved so you do everything with only three controller inputs: shot, speed selection and weapon selection (B, A and C in the default configuration). Just like before there are five weapons to choose from, but only the twin shot and the back shot are available at the start. They're also the only weapons you don't lose when you die using them. Weapon/power-ups available for pick-up consist of B (blade, upgrade for the twin shot), R (rail gun, upgrade for the back shot), S (snake), F (freeway) and H (hunter). Other obligatory items are the claw (adds two rotating satellites that enhance your firepower), the shield (can withstand three hits, turns red when all that remains is the last hit) and the extra life (a small ship that can also be hidden in tricky areas or must be shot at to appear).

All changes applied to the series beyond the weapon scheme add to the flexibility of the gameplay and the epicness of the story. Most stages now span more than a single screen, demanding multiple playthroughs so that you can explore everything. Each level is also a challenge in itself, with very strong motifs and great momentum build-up. Resource management is still the best way to conquer the game, with good balance between weapons and real need to tinker with the main speed settings especially when weaving through some of the maze-like corridors. Speed can even be adjusted in unit steps, just keep the speed selection button pressed and watch!

What I mentioned above could certainly be enough for people to name Thunder Force IV as the best shmup of the 16-bit generation, but another aspect that stands out is definitely presentation. The awesomeness of the opening titles are just the tip of the iceberg, which is then followed by several moments of cinematic grandeur. For example, a few massive enemies appear in key moments of the game, such as the alien battlecruiser that houses Strite's boss Gargoylediver and bridges the two halves of the journey in stage 5, as well as the invincible robot that takes on the role of harbinger of fate when that ship goes down in flames. Parallax galore, fluid transitions between levels, turrets firing into the screen in the Air Raid stage, high speed scrambles, they're all neat and cool but the wildest bit is reserved for the end of stage 5, when the ship receives a "mohawk" add-on that allows players to trigger the almighty thunder sword, the ultimate weapon in the game.

Using the thunder sword is pretty simple, but you need to have at least the rotating satellitles provided by the claw (which also receive a make-over at the end of stage 5). When you stop shooting the satellites will glow with energy, discharging a potent sword-shaped beam at the press of the fire button. In fact, the thunder sword is so powerful that it pushes the ship backwards a little bit, an aftereffect that can kill you if you're too close to a wall. Using the thunder sword wisely is key to dispatching enemies and bosses faster and more elegantly. Just note that there are two charge levels, with the quicker charge resulting in a shorter reach.

How to open a game with absolute awesomeness
(courtesy of YouTube user DethKikr)

Bosses in Thunder Force IV are able to put up a good fight, and even some mid-bosses have what it takes to keep you on your toes. Most of them are quite creative, menacing or just plain stubborn, frequently equipped with multi-jointed limbs. One of the highlights is the insect lair of the 8th stage, which is preceded by a rather tortuous path and a series of insidious mid-bosses. The whole soundtrack is remarkable, but the music in this particular level has got to be one of the most memorable of all times in the shmup genre. If I haven't done it yet I always crank up the volume when I get there.

The inherent awesomeness evoked at all corners of the game is obvious, but I admit the gameplay requires some getting used to at times due to issues often related to bullet visibility. Regular ones tend to be shiny and can get foreshadowed by explosions or be consufed with backgrounds, while stage 9 has these sonic-like projectiles fired by the mid-boss that are a bit tricky to spot due to some weird color choices. There's also the odd nature the blade weapon, whose sprites are very large and can't do much damage against restricted targets such as Gargoylediver's weak spot. If Strite is your first choice for level the remedy for that is either not upgrading twin shot to blade at all until you get there or taking the hidden freeway in that same level (fire at the bottom of the screen as the ship goes underwater, right before the extra life located at mid screen).

Continuing with the series tradition, great performances are rewarded with nice bonuses during the game and after the ending (one of the most emotional of that era in my opinion). Every surplus item is worth 10.000 points each, so getting out of your way to get all those power-ups is very important for score-chasers. At the end, every extra life and unused credit adds even more points, but the most important reward of all is the huge no-miss bonus of no less than 2 million points. Difficulty plays a part as well, with Maniac obviously granting a higher bonus in the end. Options can be seen by pressing A, B or C + START at the titles, allowing players to choose other difficulties, select distinct controller configurations and even set the default ship speed.

In one of those inexplicable marketing stunts, Sega of America decided to release the game in US as Lightening Force - Quest for the Dark Star, which obviously made me go after the original Japanese release (against my policy of always getting the Western version of a game whenever possible). I heard that besides granting a huge score addition in the end the US version also has a slightly lower difficulty. No matter which variation you decide to play, be warned that Thunder Force IV is one of the few Mega Drive cartridges programmed with region lock. The high score below was made during a no-miss run on a completely Japanese set (cart + console), Normal difficulty, and represents an improvement of 81% over my previous best. Note that beating the game unlocks several omake songs that can be heard in the options.

Next: Thunder Force V or Thunder Force V - Perfect System?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Mission Cobra (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sachen
Published by Bunch Games in 1990

All hail the mighty hands of Sachen, for yet another unlicensed shooter made by the company once again graces the records of this humble completionist blog! I still remember the day this game was brought to my attention by my fellow shmupper Ben, along with the ever-so-enticing British denominator that often tags along with titles of this caliber. By that time we used to hunt down all shooters that were still missing from our collections, and being the fanatic that I am I still felt the urge to go after Mission Cobra even after he told me the game was bloody awful.

Given the fact that the original Eastern name of the game is Sidewinder, it's perfectly understandable why Bunch Games changed it to Mission Cobra. If you're going to pilot a helicopter, why not have it be bastardly related to classic Konami and Toaplan for great injustice? If there once was Super Cobra and later on players had to face the evil clutches of Twin Cobra, why not finally endure the ultimate NES challenge imposed by Mission Cobra? You can do it solo or you can force a friend to do it with you. I tried to get a buddy but I failed.

Okay, I'm lying. I was all by myself.

First hideous boss

Although the enemy sprites change a bit from one level to the next, the structure of all stages in Mission Cobra is exactly the same: two initial enemy waves, a face-off with a pair of "black patrolling choppers", another enemy wave, a section with fast scrolling and then the boss. Enemy waves across stages behave the exactly same way, such as the first foes retreating before touching the bottom of the screen (stay there and you'll be safe), the second type bouncing back from the bottom and the final wave flying past you. It's kinda like having an upgraded Atari 2600 game on the NES, which is sort of charming for a couple of minutes. Unfortunately Mission Cobra becomes boring even faster that you'd normally expect, starting with the atrocious low-key humming that's supposed to serve as soundtrack.

The core of the gameplay starts with weapons fired by button A, each one activated by collecting the corresponding icon randomly left behind by destroyed enemies. There's the default single straight shot, a double shot, a triple shot, a 3-way spread shot and a cross-pattern 4-way shot. The more streams you have the lower the firing rate, with no autofire in sight (yes, you should have a turbo controller to play this one). There are no visual upgrades for sticking to the same item, but if you do it eventually you'll notice the ship moving faster and being able to fire more shots per screen. Since you're only powered down when you finally die and lose the credit, that's the main reason why Mission Cobra actually gets easier as the stages go by.

Regardless of how lame Mission Cobra is at least one aspect about it stands out, for which the game might be remembered by many: the fuel scheme that drains your energy as you play. Unless you collect energy refills you'll eventually deplete the fuel tank even if you don't get hit. An empty tank doesn't mean death, but the credit will be instantly over once you touch a bullet or an enemy in that condition. Fortunately there are many ways to preserve fuel, so many that the resulting item gallery for refills is a complete mess.

Wow, that's a really blue sea
(courtesy of YouTube user GAMEINFO)

Starting out with E66, your reserve either steadily goes down towards E00 (zero) or sinks fast as you get hit by bullets or rammed by enemies; a large red potion sends you back to E66 whereas a red droplet refills E10; each patrolling chopper at mid-stage gives you six energy pockets for an extra E30, any weapon item gives a plus of E05 and once the boss is beaten another E30 is added to the fuel gauge. Now for the catch: energy pockets from patrolling choppers allow you to reach a maximum of E99, but there's no limit to how high you can go on droplets, weapon items and boss refills (HEX codes appear above E99). On the other hand, no matter where your fuel reserve stands a single red potion will send you back to E66. This means that both the red potion and the energy pockets can be detrimental to the fuel reserve if you have more than E67 or EA0, respectively. Finally, there's also an invincibility item that freezes the fuel consumption while protecting the chopper from all harm.

The major issue in Mission Cobra is that it throws so many fuel refill items that the challenge never really picks up. If only fuel items got scarcer with each loop things wouldn't be that bad, but alas! It takes just a little practice to play the game forever, especially when you figure out how much more effective the 3-way shot is. With just three stages that loop indefinitely with piss-poor graphics for sea, sky and outer space, the game also counts with simplistic bosses that at least can't be milked for points because only regular enemies are worth something.

It's only possible to see your score or high score in the stat screen that appears in between levels. The screen below shows what I had after stage 10 (4-1) before giving up on the game. If I remember correctly at that point a had a fuel reserve above ED0 (E130).