Sunday, August 30, 2015

Twin Hawk (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Sega in 1990

I still remember when I first got my Japanese Mega Drive, and the few games that were available for me at the time. I spent my free time with all sorts of games, but the one I liked the least was a Japanese slow-paced shooter whose name I was never able to figure out. It so happens the game was Twin Hawk, which down here only appeared in bootleg copies of the Japanese release, known as Daisenpu. Originally an arcade game, this port was never released in the West in any form, therefore the only way to play it without emulating is by tracking down either the Japanese Daisenpu or the European cartridge released as Twin Hawk. Other than that, one can always go for the PC Engine HuCard or CD versions.

Ditching this game in favor of others is perfectly understandable, especially if you're a kid. Of all Toaplan arcade conversions available for the Mega Drive, it's the least flashy, attractive or even engaging. Coming out as a mash-up between the aesthetics of Flying Shark and early ideas initially presented in material such as Tiger-Heli, Twin Hawk does not offer the same rush of other Toaplan verticals. Honestly, it feels like a regression from the awesome action of Twin Cobra, which had been released in the arcades a couple of years before, and it was bound to be eclipsed by its contemporary sibling Fire Shark.

The good news is that since this a Toaplan shooter we can still find something redeeming about it. There is a gimmick, and a pretty nice one when you think about world war based shmups.

Flying over an easy jungle
(courtesy of YouTube user Encyclopegames)

Basic inputs consist of shot (A or C) and "support squadron" (B). For the mission of raiding dangerous terrain and fighting the bad guys, our little green aircraft must count with the aid of this so-called support squadron. For all purposes it corresponds to the quintessential bomb attack that's present in all old school shooters, but since you're in charge of the whole operation you can command the extra planes to behave in several different ways. By pressing B once they'll arrive from the bottom, stand in formation and add their firepower to yours, providing a curtain of bullets that's great to quickly wipe out the horizon. Each of the six planes has a 1-hit life, meaning that they will plummet to the ground as soon as they get hit, if possible onto an enemy for some extra damage. However, a kamikaze attack can be triggered at any time by pressing B whenever the planes are in formation. If you want to sacrifice a whole support squadron and turn it into a powerful bomb press B once to call it and B again before the formation is in place, provoking a huge explosion in front of the plane. The detonation inflicts lots of damage and blocks all enemy attacks in the hit area.

For each life you get two support squadrons to use. Deploying them is very important for survival, obviously, and the longer you have extra planes flying by your side the better. After all, they help kill baddies and take hits for you. Much of the fun of Twin Hawk is in trying to keep these planes alive by careful maneuvering because all single shots fired by enemies are aimed at the player's own craft. It all comes down to correctly dealing with the reload period of the enemy army, as well as finding the gaps where bullets will pass through and miss the remaining planes in the support squadron. Besides that, since this is Toaplan you'd better watch out for snipers and tanks coming from behind. A mild rank progression based on survival time and firepower level is to be expected as well.

Little trucks and boats need to be destroyed in order to release items that descend bouncing on the sides of the screen. Items disappear forever if you let them reach the bottom, so don't wait too much to take them. There are power-ups (P, yellow carrier), extra support squadrons (H, white carrier) and extra lives (a glowing little plane, blue carrier). It takes four power-ups to max out the plane's firepower to a thick stream of 8 parallel shots. If the carrier truck/boat appears in green you'll only get a few points, with no item to be collected. Carrier placement is always the same throughout the game, but colors/items are all randomized. Note that there are also score-based extends, granted at 70.000 points and at every 200.000 points afterwards.

A bridge over troubled water

What's suprisingly odd about Twin Hawk is that despite the poor resources and the slow speed of the combat plane the game still manages to have that "one more go" factor. All you see are three variations of tanks, boats, turrets and the occasional powerful fortress or ship that serves as boss, but the simple graphics are made better by decent use of color. There is no separation at all between stages, you just see the area indication change with the background music, which by the way is quite decent and grows on you after a while. The game is short enough and most checkpoints aren't too demanding, and with only four stages that loop indefinitely I guess that Twin Hawk fulfills its purpose as a lesser but still enjoyable shooter.

When the game is played on a Japanese console it defaults to Daisenpu, which is slightly harder than Twin Hawk, the version that appears when the cartridge is run on a Western console. In both you must go to the options screen to set rapid fire to ON if desired. Regarding rapid fire, one advice I can give is that it's possible to obtain a higher rate of fire by alternately tapping buttons A and C, a trick that works well while standing on top of any of those larger tanks when they're not shooting.

My best result playing on a Sega Genesis is below (Twin Hawk), on Hard difficulty. On the second loop area numbers keep advancing, so area 7 means stage 2-3.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Steel Empire (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hot-B
Published by Acclaim / Flying Edge in 1992

Whenever people hear about the term "steampunk", movies and literature is where they naturally go for references. Video games weren't really ready to solidly portray the fascinating style associated with this particular branch of science fiction until the 8-bit generation was born, but when it comes down to shooters it would still take one more generation for players to start seeing something. Even though a faint influence of steampunk can be noticed in series such as Twin Bee and Battlemania, the honor of being the first shooter to fully adopt this thematic design choice is Steel Empire for the Mega Drive, or Empire of Steel as it came to be known in Europe. You might also see mentions to The Steel Empire, as depicted in the start screen of the game itself.

As far as gameplay goes, there's no doubt that this one isn't an unanymous success among fans of the genre, since it suffers from heavy slowdown at times and falls below the average when you consider challenge. On the other hand, Steel Empire is nothing short of a great achievement in game design as a whole, from graphics to music, from the short cinemas to the way stages are laid out. For those with an adventurous heart the game radiates awesomeness, and the best way to measure its appreaciation over the years are the late releases of a couple of unexpected ports (Game Boy Advance in 2004 and Nintendo 3DS in 2014) and the clear influence it had in future shooters such as Progear and Sine Mora.

Steam-powered machines in outer space

In the war between the Silverhead and the Motorhead empires, in each stage the player is allowed to choose between two vessels to enter combat: a bulky dirigible with slow speed and strong armor or a smaller light plane with faster speed and weaker armor. This speed performance gap is shortened as you power up both ships, so the defining aspect of which one is better or more suitable to a specific level falls on the kind of bombs they drop. The little plane spreads ground bombs whereas the dirigible pops bomb rounds upwards, in attack patterns that evolve in quantity and power as you progress through the game. I ended up using the dirigible only in levels 3 and 5, which have a series of large battleships with weak points in their lower hulls.

Motorhead forces have been advancing over the land and it's up to you to take down their steam-powered machines from crimson-shaded skies. Button B shoots left, button C shoots right and button A deploys a powerful lightning bomb that causes major damage to enemies and makes the ship invincible for a little while. Every time you get hit or scratch an obstacle you lose a portion of the energy gauge, and a life is only lost if this gauge gets completely depleted. A warning message appears when you run out of energy, but it's possible to get it back by collecting the heart item from destroyed carriers and special enemies. Preserving energy/health can be tricky at times, so learn how to deal with enemy movement and all those patterns of star-shaped bullets and accelerating rockets.

Items float in a circular motion before drifting away to the left side of the screen. Besides the heart for energy refill purposes, players also encounter extra lightning bombs (B), score bonuses ($), speed-ups (S), options (O), extra lives (1UP) and upgrade points (Ex). For every 3 of these upgrade points the ship's firepower is increased by one level, in a maximum of 20 levels that can only be achieved somewhere in the second half of the game depending on your performance. If possible don't take too long to collect the items, otherwise you might lose them as they go away behind walls.

All levels in Steel Empire have a mid-boss and a main boss. Firepower and options make quite a difference especially if you're fighting them. The good news is that you just lose the options you're carrying upon death, with no power loss of any kind. When continuing, you will always resume the game either at the start of the level or after the mid-boss.

Silverheads against Motorheads
(courtesy of YouTube user AstuteClass)

If there's one thing that discredits the great level design of Steel Empire, it's the reappearance of the large battleships I mentioned above in more than a single stage. It's as if the developers wanted to give some function to the dirigible, whose otherwise only real advantage is the ability to fill up the whole energy gauge (you'll never have a full one with the little aircraft). Over the mine city and across the high speed tunnels of the caverns in the second stage, the small plane is obviously the best choice. Steel Empire then continues to show some awesome parallax graphics of clouds, beaches, cities and buried machinery in between encounters with all sorts of aircraft, ground turrets and huge bosses. The background station that bombards a foreground battleship might be just for show, but it lends awesomeness to the action and predates similar visual moments seen in later shooters like Eliminate Down, Border Down and Thunder Force VI. The last stretch over the surface of the moon is particularly amusing, final boss fight included.

For a game that comes out as a little longer than usual, the scoring system sure does a nice job of motivating replays because Steel Empire rewards good performances with higher scores. At the end of a level the player receives several fixed and variable bonuses based on stage clearing, energy left, no bomb usage and no miss. Besides, all items are worth a little something. The lesson is simple and very familiar to gamers who understand the relation between challenge and practice.

I played during the weekend to learn the game, then came back later to try and squeeze what I could from the scoring system. The result is below (Normal difficulty), and I just pity the fact that I died once in stage 6. I should've bombed... No-bombing isn't as big a bonus as no-missing. :)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Elemental Master (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft in 1990
Published by Renovation in 1993 (US)

Jets, spaceships, nuclear-propelled saucer-shaped rockets? These are all too much of a cliché in those tiring, intergalactic adventures you play in your everyday shmup routine. Their missions would be nothing without the efforts of the brave people who strive to maintain justice at ground level, battling all sorts of fiends and beasts that emerge from desolate castles and polluted soils.

Jokes aside, no matter how predominant the archetypical shmup avatar/vessel is, there will always be room and faithful devotees for the pedestrian type of shooter. Like Elemental Master, for instance, a vertical take on the formula presented by Technosoft's own Thunder Force III.

Elemental Master is a fantasy shooter with outstanding atmosphere, one that aesthetically rivals titles with similar themes such as Jewel Master, Castlevania, Dragon Spirit and Undeadline. Being a pedestrian shooter, with the latter it shares many gameplay traits except for challenge, an aspect that instead mirrors the characteristics of Thunder Force III. So provided you don’t expect an enduring time with it, chances are you’ll have good fun with the adventure of a wizard warrior who must fight his own wicked brother to free a magical world from the clutches of evil. Graphics are top notch and the soundtrack is as great as in any other 16-bit Technosoft product.

Wind power against evil centaurs

As seen in the dramatic intro to the game, our hero is at the core of a family tragedy, but in his quest for justice he’ll acquire additional elemental powers as each of the initial four stages is completed. It’s possible to select their order: there’s a fiery stage where lava flows through cracks on the ground, a ravine level with monsters throwing rocks at you, a windy forest and a desolate swamp filled with treacherous lagoons. Once all of them are beaten you’ll have completed your arsenal, which besides the basic straight gun will also consist of a three-way shot (fire), a wave pattern (wind), a powerful fire blast (earth) and an ice weapon that fires crawling projectiles on the sides (water). Weapons gained are only lost when the game is over, and once at least two are available button C is used to cycle through them.

In a bi-directional mechanic that adds a welcome diversity to the game, button A shoots down and button B shoots up. Plain shooting won’t be your only resource though, since with each press of either A or B you only get a short stream of fire. By holding down the button firing stops soon and you start charging the selected weapon for a more powerful blast upon release. Even though the scheme for regular/charged shot might be a bit weird, it actually works quite well considering that all forms of the charge shot are useful. And you don’t need to mash the buttons to achieve a continuous firing rate, all you need to do is tap them at short regular intervals.

When you start the game the default weapon is the only one that has no charging capability, but thanks to the sacrifice of the curvy fairy that aids you in the first half of the journey you’ll be able to use its charge blast as soon as you beat stage 5. This new charge shot is actually the only weapon that can damage the female spider-boss in stage 6, as hinted by the fairy herself before she disappears. All bosses return for revenge in the last level, a long stride inside a castle full of huge flails and moving spikes, as well as several lines of unspeakable creatures such as mummies, golems and gargoyles.

Expanding the initial health meter is accomplished by finding and taking a trophy item (each one creates an extra slot in the health bar). Other items to be uncovered from inside golden chests consist of health refill for 2 slots, a shield that absorbs three hits of damage and a magic mirror that creates three trailing shadows and provide additional firepower – this last one will be lost as soon as you get hit and lose health. There's no harm in touching walls, but you do lose health when you get crushed by the scrolling effect.

A taste of Technosoft's elemental magic adventure
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

Although it’s hard not to get sucked into the awesome art design of Elemental Master, it’s also hard not to be disappointed by the game’s low challenge level. Enemy bullets are few and far between, with enemies themselves and environmental hazards being the main source of danger. Even when you press A + START to access the options and bump the difficulty up Expert (Very Hard), the stakes aren't that high for a 16-bit shooter. Aiming for higher scores is very simple: just kill everything you see, milk the few possible projectiles available (such as the fire snakes conjured by the floating wizards) and collect all icons since they’re all worth something (plus none of them affects gameplay in a negative way).

When you see what other developers were able to do with the Mega Drive later on, as in Twinkle Tale (especially the boss fights, which are very reminiscent of the boss fights from Elemental Master), I wonder what we’d receive as a sequel had Technosoft decided to revisit the world of this shooter. Would they be able to up their game just like Thunder Force IV did over Thunder Force III? We’ll never know.

As I tried to squeeze the maximum points I could from the game, I started all my credits in the forest stage in order to get the fire weapon and abuse its charge shot and piercing ability. My best result is the one below, playing on Normal. Note: in my opinion this is one of those rare cases where the US box artwork is superior to its Japanese counterpart.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Kiaidan 00 (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Alfa System
Published by Telenet Japan / Riot in 1992

What can you say about video games where you control a giant robot fighting huge mechanical bosses? I’m not crazy about them but I certainly dig this particular departure from the norm every now and then. I do know people who absolutely love everything involving robots, especially those of Japanese origin such as the ones that appear in Gundam and Macross. It’s true that both series are also represented by a plethora of video games within the most diverse genres ever since video games were born, but what of other robot-based efforts that somehow have the same style?

Enter Kiaidan 00 for the PC Engine CD, a behemoth of 16-bit robot shooting with fancy, loud storytelling from start to finish. Foreigners could easily mistake it as a bastard entry in any Gundam series, given the amount of cut scenes, dialogue and character interactions that the brave hero must go through in order to defeat an army led by 14 evil beasts. The cheesy aspect of it all reminds me of stuff like Groizer X, and even if I understand nothing of Japanese I can still relate to the protagonist’s enthusiastic speeches as he enters the robot suit and navigates skies and outer space environments shooting down insect-like creatures, helicopters, jets, dragons, elephants, flying battleships, robots, dwarves, ninjas, warriors in chariots, etc.

If you’re one of those people who enjoy seeing everything the game can give you on story, take a seat and relax as the animated intro of Kiaidan 00 unfolds. And don’t bother prepping to sweat you fingers at that controller so soon after you hit START. You’ll still be seeing a lot before the actual shooting begins.

1st stage
(courtesy of YouTube user mogeta211)

In the lower HUD everything you need at any moment is displayed, such as health bar, stage progression, weapon selection and boss energy. Button II shoots and button I cycles weapons between five types: forward gun, wave spread, rotating energy ball, fixed energy field and three-way lightning bolts. There are no power-ups or upgrades, therefore the sooner you get used to how each weapon works the better. However, this lack of upgrades is compensated by a powerful charge attack accessible by just refraining from shooting. When the charge bar is full press the fire button to unleash the attack, which takes the form of ~ in the same order of the weapon layout ~ a detachable punch, a rotating thin laser, an extended reach for the energy ball (the robot is locked in place though), a wider reach for the energy field and a thick vertical lightning discharge.

Establishing the atmosphere of old TV serials is something that Kiaidan 00 does with undeniable efficiency. From the colorful graphics to the pumping, sometimes eerie music of a few levels, everything in between evokes the feeling you’re immersed in one of those old cartoons. The scrolling takes the player flying over cities from afar and up close, between the clouds, across cold forests, inside cramped corridors where lava streams flow underneath, playing catch-up with a train protected by a ninja army and rocketing into outer space for the final showdown against the pair of final bosses. By the way, every stage comes with a mid-boss and a proper boss, varying from tiny people in cyborg suits to large mechanized aliens. They all have an assortment of predictable patterns for the most part, but the fights get more challenging as the game nears the end.

There are initially only three energy/health cells, meaning you can take three hits before the robot goes down in a burst of smoke and twisted metal (only to rise up again with a powerful shout when you say YES to the continue option). If you lose all health cells the character’s face starts glowing red, with the next blow causing a GAME OVER. Small green spheres scattered throughout the game replenish one cell, but I suggest not counting on them during later stages. The good news is that the health bar is fully restored at the start of the level. Activating the other bits of the energy bar is possible and directly related to scoring: for every million points achieved you activate an extra cell.

I'm on the ninja train!

At times Kiaidan 00 feels unnecessarily stretched out, not because the game is actually long but probably because some of the levels incur in repetitive cannon fodder. At least each stage has its own set of enemies, which don’t appear again in any other area of the game. Overwhelming flocks are the most dangerous hazard you might face, that’s why getting used to all weapons and trusting the power of the charge attacks makes a whole lot of difference for survival. I mainly used the forward gun, the 3-way lightning and the energy field, with a little help from the rotating orb in selected spots.

Although very simple, the scoring system is heavily unbalanced towards the energy field weapon. Getting higher numbers depends exclusively on how often you use it during boss fights. Just touch them for a moment and watch as the score counter increases at a much faster rate than if you were using any other weapon. This can be exploited during the whole fight, including the period after you have depleted the boss’s energy – when the game is merely waiting for you to throw the final blow with any charge attack (to which you’re treated with a corresponding animation during the level transition in the case of a stage boss). The wait time after the boss runs out of health isn’t too long and the boss will go down even if you don’t do anything. A midboss is worth 50.000 points when killed whereas bosses yield 100.000 points, but the amount of points you can get from exploiting them with the energy field weapon far outnumbers those figures.

Of course the above scoring technique comes with a risk-reward ratio that must be carefully dealt with, otherwise you might lose the credit for sheer greed. Some bosses are easier to milk, others not so much, such as those who tend to move erratically around the screen. I had more fun with the game once I started to squeeze more points from them.

Among the robot-themed horizontal shooters, Kiaidan 00 is unique because you don’t see the robot’s avatar in the usual profile we’re used to (standing, side view). Bullet count is considerably low, to which there’s a workaround if the player thinks there should be more of them: just go to the options and move the difficulty selector up. With each step the game will throw an increasing number of suicide bullets! The options screen is also supposed to show the highest score in each difficulty, but this function is bugged and doesn’t work well all the time. To get a record of a 1CC result it’s best to pause the game as soon as you defeat the final boss, as in the picture below (I played on Normal / 0).

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Paranoia (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Naxat Soft
Published by Naxat Soft in 1990

Paranoia is a very strange little game, starting with the name, and if it wasn’t for its release in the West as Psychosis it would be even weirder due to obscurity. While not exactly engaging by standard definitions, this little shooter tries to offer a dose of surreal action partially inspired by the primordial mechanics pioneered by R-Type, with graphics that tend to use saturated colors and in my opinion visually evoke stuff as diverse as Deep Blue and Thunder Force II. The sluggish default speed of the ship and the adoption of checkpoints don’t allow it be a totally friendly shooter though, requiring an approach that might be just a little more methodical than your average PC Engine horizontal blaster.

Button II shoots and button I cycles the position of both satellite orbs created whenever you pick up one of the power-up items. Items are always released by the fifth enemy within a recurring wave and have a particularly interesting entry animation – as if the game’s fabric was torn and the item was thrown into its reality, slightly floating up and down for you to take it. Besides speed-ups (S) and generous shields (glowing items), three types of power-ups can be collected in order to enhance the firepower provided by the default straight shot: close-range electricity bars (T), wave shot (W) and rear laser beams (B). Firepower is transferrable across all weapons with four upgrade levels until you reach maximum power, whereas weapon firing direction follows the current position of the orbs.

Zip through a Japanese plant nightmare

All five levels (or "causes") have very specific environments, and all of them demand proper use of the satellite orbs as a defense mechanism (these things inflict serious damage and can even absorb lasers!). By moving the ship towards the direction the orbs are facing they spread out to the sides, closing in again when you move in the other direction. This means that if you want to keep them together in place you can only move away from the orbs’ direction or along the corresponding perpendicular line. It sounds a bit complicated on paper, but after a while controlling them becomes second nature. Other than that, realizing their importance for defense is half the battle of looping Paranoia. The other half, of course, is memorizing the stage layouts and how to get back up upon death.

From the first stage, a short stride into and out of a wide cave with backgrounds of sandy beaches and clouds (!), to the last stage inside a much darker cave, Paranoia also takes the player through landscapes of trippy blocks, gloomy Japanese gardens and the insides of an Indian fortress. While it doesn't seem that obvious, the close-range electricity field (T) can actually be one of the most useful weapons. It’s possible to easily get rid of the zipping fast creatures of the 4th stage merely by carrying it and staying low. The advantage of the wave cannon and the laser are their ability to pierce through everything, which is great against bosses that have tiny or shielding weak points. The metallic fox of the third level, for example, can only be hit when it lifts the head at regular intervals, and if you don't have wave or laser 95% of the attacks will be deflected by the armored bodyguards, forcing you to make the fight more personal. The problem with the laser is that you have to keep the satellites on the back of the ship and deal with the awkward firing angle.

I died cheaply a few times in the second level because of the color choices of the blocky walls, which don't make a good job of conveying borders at the absence of parallax layers. Flying behind the foreground vegetation of the third stage can be tricky, so watch out for the little devil that controls an arrow that hints at which corridor the flying faces will come from. By the way, this little creature seems to be the same alien goblin that gives you the finger in between levels while a very muffled sound seems to say "fuck you". How's that for another crazy bit of surrealism in a game that's supposed to take place inside the mind of a psychotic person? Video games were cool back then, I'll tell you that.

Welcome to paranoia world
(courtesy of YouTube user headbangersworld)

Of special note here is the atmospheric music, that manages to be fitting, eerie and strangely appealing at the same time. Speaking of surreal, even though it's not clearly defined anywhere the enemy design is mostly built around an insect theme. It's as if the crazy worlds imagined by the game were infested by little bugs, and the ship is some sort of spray can with its spinning arrow appearance. Watch out for the small caterpillar that appears at the very beginning of the game. If you manage to protect it from being raped by the giant ants without killing it, a flock of butterflies will appear to help you on the fight against the first boss. There's also a turtle that comes to protect you from the falling bricks if you manage to reach the 4th level without dying.

Dealing with checkpoint recovery is fun, in that they're never too hard to handle. In order to recover faster it's better to let some enemies live longer until they spit out one of those power-up little bugs. Examples are the big orange egg in the first stage, the thorn-laden nests that come from behind and the huge spikes hanging from the ceiling, both in the second stage. Avoid destroying waves close to the borders or walls, since power-ups can drift off the screen or inside unreachable areas. For every 50.000 points the player is awarded with an extend, and considering that the second loop increases the challenge considerably an inflated life stock is very welcome once the extra round starts. The main difference in the second loop is the blazing fast speed of enemy bullets and the increased health of bosses.

There is no way to preserve scores at all in Paranoia, so unless you pause before you die your last life you won't be able to register your results. In the picture below I was about to start my final attempt at the second boss on the second loop.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Down Load 2 (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by NEC Avenue
Published by NEC Avenue in 1991

Down Load 2 is the sequel to the HuCard shooter Down Load, both exclusively released for the Japanese PC Engine by its in-house company NEC Avenue. This second game seems to be even more obscure than its predecessor, in part probably because it lacks the awkward cursing messages the first one came to be known for. However, Down Load 2 kinda makes up for that by concocting an out-of-bounds story that has Adolf Hitler’s brain being implanted in a doomsday organic creature that’s threatening to take over the world, complete with cut scenes that leave nothing to the player’s imagination.

Syd, the pilot of the cool hoverbike of the first chapter, returns to action when he’s woken up in the middle of the night by his friend Deva. This time he’s in control of a regular spaceship, projecting himself into a few cyber space environments throughout nine short stages set in extremely varied landscapes. The characters are the same, but the gameplay between both games couldn’t be more different. With the exception of the flying speed, everything else about Down Load 2 is more straightforward and results in an easier challenge that’s at least entertaining for its diversity and for the attempt at telling a story with extra dialogue and imagery. Of course for the dialogue you’re supposed to understand Japanese (to skip those long intermissions just press SELECT).

It is cold in the mountains

Worrying about weapon availability isn't needed in Down Load 2 since all four weapons are at your disposal at the press of button I, with which you're able to select between a vulcan pattern, a straight laser, a homing shot and a powerful close-range electrical field (firing is accomplished by pressing button II). It takes only two power-ups (P) to max out any weapon type, and the good news is that they're all useful in equal measure. Unlike in most shmups that have it, the homing shot in particular is extremely effective when maxed out throughout most of the game. I can use it exclusively in several stages without switching to any other weapon type, boss fights included.

A few other items are also very important in order to play the game more comfortably. Besides the obligatory speed-up (S) you can also take a red square-shaped icon that provides up to two side options that hover above and below the ship, block bullets and fire additional homing shots. The blue square-shaped icon grants a shield that can withstand a good number of hits, going from green (full shield) to orange (weak shield). Note: taking an extra red icon when you already have two options works as a smart bomb. Other items that might show up include extra lives (1UP) and two single icons that appear only once and are pretty much useless. The G in stage 7 should be avoided because it sends the ship flying at a ridiculous speed, whereas the E in stage 8 seems to have just a screen clearing effect. Unless I missed something, my opinion is that both G and E reek of leftovers from a rushed design process.

On visual merits, Down Load 2 is very keen on impressing the player with nice effects. No matter how obscure it is, this one is still capable of surprising even the most seasoned PC Engine gamer. Not only are the cut scenes considerably detailed and story-driven, but you also get an aggressive use of colors and some gorgeous parallax every now and then. Besides a few aspects inherited from the first chapter, it's possible to recognize influences from Forgotten Worlds (paintings on the walls coming to life, large bosses chasing you around the screen) and Rabio Lepus (the whole blueish cold design of the sixth stage). Influences aside, the game succesfully shows proper personality, if only for the bizarre use of Hitler's image. The music is rock-oriented and just correct, with no stand-out tracks in my opinion.

The lengthy intro of Down Load 2
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

There's not much to say about the scoring system here. It's just too simple and rather messy, since some enemies and bosses do not result in any score at all. I couldn't identify any point of unlimited milking, and the little projectiles that can be exploited come from enemies that don't take long to go down or disappear too soon. By far the biggest addition to scoring comes from the extra P items you collect once the firepower is maxed out, since each one is worth 500 points. The higher you score the more chances you have at beating the game as well because for every 10.000 points achieved you win an extra life.

Unlimited continues and the possibility to stock lots of extra lives is what ultimately makes Down Load 2 an easy game. The default speed shouldn't be a problem as far as gameplay goes, and the art design surely makes for a fun little ride. With the exception of the lesser difficulty, arguing if the sequel is better or worse than the first Down Load is down to a matter of taste. They're just too different from each other after all.

If you want to have a record of your score after you beat the final boss remember to pause at once as soon as the boss goes down. There's almost no time to see the final score before the game enters the animation for the ending. I have successfully melted Hitler's brain and saved mankind, and my 1CC result is below.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

GunHed (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON/OFF
4 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile / Hudson Soft
Published by Hudson Soft / Toho Sunrise in 1989

Those who’ve been around this genre long enough know that recognizing a Compile shooter doesn’t take much effort. Long stages, a multitude of weapons and frantic action: across the couple of famous series it gave birth to, that’s been the norm ever since Zanac saw the light of day. Expanding on the aforementioned aspects, the effectiveness of further Compile games – especially during the 16-bit era – varied quite a bit even though the challenge level often leaned towards the easy side. GunHed (or Blazing Lazers in the West, as released for the Turbografx-16) is frequently ranked as one of the company’s highlights, and if I may say for reasons that today seem more related to nostalgia than actual gameplay merits.

Of course GunHed does have some cool moments of shmup rush. The involvement of Hudson Soft in the development process is probably to blame for the unusual difficulty spike of the last third of the game, as well as the blended scheme of checkpoints and no-checkpoints that plays a pivotal role for those who’re serious about beating it. Hudson Soft is also the intersection that connects the game to the likes of Super Star Soldier, Final Soldier and Soldier Blade, which makes some people consider it an integral part of the Soldier series. As of today I haven’t ventured into those titles yet, but for now I can say that even though GunHed is unnecessarily stretched out, in its best moments the general atmosphere is of a well-crafted 16-bit shooting romp. And slowdown-free to boot.

Fire with button II, deploy bombs with button I and select between four flying speeds with the SELECT button. At first the amount of items and weapons at the player’s disposal is overwhelming, so it takes a little while to get used to all of them. Roman numerals correspond to the main weapons: I (photon blasters, Star Soldier 5-way gun), II (disrupt wave, good spread capability when maxed out), III (field thunder, electric laser beams with amusing visual flair) and IV (ring blaster, regular gun with rotating orbs). Collect the same type to power it up, or do it slowly by collecting the purple orbs. Alphabet letters create and upgrade auxiliary weapons: F (full fire, increases the power of the active weapon), M (multi-bodies, creates up to two trailing options), H (homing missiles) and S (shield). Furthermore, taking any icon for an auxiliary weapon is the way to acquire extra bombs, up a maximum of 16.

Stage 2 onwards
(courtesy of YouTube user Mushaaleste)

Regular carriers are responsible for bringing weapon items and purple orbs, even though you can get these from almost all enemy waves that are completely wiped out or from certain ground spots throughout the levels. However, players are allowed to carry only one type of main weapon and only one type of auxiliary weapon. It’s not possible, for example, to have the F enhancer and the S shield (not the natural single shield mentioned below) at the same time.

The simplicity of this weapon system is deceiving. After all, GunHed is filled with little mysteries that will only unfold for those who spend some serious time with the game. In the process of powering up your main weapon, for instance, a faint shield will naturally form around your ship, providing side protection against one hit at the cost of a power downgrade (the front and the back of the ship are still vulnerable though). For a certain amount of enemies killed special carriers appear bringing cycling power-ups that stand still when hit. Hit them enough or let them reach the bottom of the screen to see them turn into a blinking orb. Now for the catch: there’s more to their screen-clearing effect, since each blinking orb taken also gives you an instant respawn after you die. And that’s how you bypass checkpoints! Stockpiling these blinkers is the safest way to guarantee a chance at beating the tough final level of GunHed.

Another minor detail of the gameplay appears in the way auxiliary weapons work when maxed out. They acquire a temporary final upgrade that enhance their efficiency. A special case I’d like to point is the nature of the homing missiles, which are slow at lower levels but get very fast when maxed out. And they also fire more simultaneous rounds when used with main weapon I, which is an unexpected winning combination. One condition that tops this one in effectiveness is having the special 8-way shot, a secret weapon that’s only obtained by sticking to the following rule: empty the bomb stock and collect 30 purple orbs without dying or collecting any other item (only blinking orbs are allowed). A special power-up that looks like your ship will appear and grant you the 8-way shot.

Managing all these resources is the best aspect of GunHed’s gameplay. It’s harder to notice the gaps and the repetitive bits while you’re focused on finding the best weapon combinations. However, once a plan has been devised you start noticing how unnecessarily stretched some stages are. Some of them have mid-bosses and a few are certainly a joy to cruise through, such as the block-ridden treacherous level 3, the fast scrolling of the brain stage and the bubble area. The bad news is that by the time you get to the bubble level GunHed is already dragging, and the final level is pretty much a rehash of the 7th stage only with trickier enemies and a boss rush. Ultimately, the game just lacks substance to justify its long duration.

Destroy this boss arm by arm

The scoring system couldn’t be more simple. Kill everything you can and beat the game for a final bonus of 10 million points. You get no extra points for surplus power-ups, so use what you have for the sake of your destruction rampage. Going after the 8-way shot shouldn’t help in that regard, and on top of that it’s really easy to lose it – either by getting hit or by taking more than 10 power-ups once you have the weapon. The truth is that it’s much more enjoyable to tinker with the other weapons, especially the field thunder and all the auxiliary kinds. Unfortunately the scoring scheme in GunHed is broken since it allows infinite milking in certain parts of the game (such as during the quick confrontation against the 4th midboss).

If scoring is bust, at least the player’s left with the fun of playing a very long Compile-meets-Hudson shooter. A plethora of extra lives can be amassed by scoring (20K, 50K, 100K, 200K and for every 200K afterwards), and if you can take enough blinking orbs clearing the game on one credit becomes a lot less frustrating (I remember the first time I played it, hopelessly hammering the final stage on checkpoints until I ran out of continues). While the sound design tries to impress by providing voice samples for the weapons you collect, some of the music is at least reasonably catchy. Extra difficulty levels are available by performing a trick during the start screen: hold SELECT and press buttons I and II together at the same time; do it again to see further difficulties (a turbo controller helps); get out of there by soft-resetting with SELECT + START.

I got the best result below after experimenting for a little while and beating the game a few times (Normal difficulty). No milking was done. In between credits I tried to get my nephews to also play the game when they got fed up with the PS3 one evening. :)