Monday, August 18, 2014

Thunder Force AC (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1996

Normally the life cycle of any video game with an arcade origin starts in the arcade itself, which then pours down across different platforms as ports with varying degrees of success. Thunder Force AC, however, is one of the very few examples of an arcade title that originated from a console game. Given the massive success of Thunder Force III, it didn’t take long for Technosoft to turn the Mega Drive hit into a full-blown arcade board running on Sega’s System C2 hardware. The good news for us who don’t own an arcade set-up is that five years later the game would receive a perfect port in the Thunder Force Gold Pack 2 compilation for the Sega Saturn, which also includes the console follow-up Thunder Force IV.

I reckon many people must wonder about the benefits of having a console game running in arcade hardware. In which ways has the game been improved over the original supposedly limited mold? Is it the same experience? Is it worth it even if I own and have played the Mega Drive cartridge to death already? Technosoft’s portfolio in the arcade scene isn’t large by any means (the only other arcade game they developed is Hyper Duel), so at least we can assume this wasn’t just another instance of a developer cheaply milking its golden baby for a little more profit. Plus we all know the Thunder Force brand carried on with several other chapters in what eventually became one of the greatest shmup franchises ever.

Gameplay rules are exactly the same from Thunder Force III. Shoot with button B, switch speeds with button A and switch weapons with button C. Weapons are acquired or upgraded by taking alphabet-coded items. Upon death you lose the weapon you were currently using with the exception of the default ones, upgraded by taking a red S (sever, gives laser capabilities to the forward gun) and L (lancer, increases power of the back-fire). New weapons appear as F (fire, drops crawling bullets above and below the ship), W (wave gun) and H (hunter, weakier homing energy balls). A blue S activates a shield that can withstand 3 hits, the “claw” item adds two rotating options that enhance firepower + also serve to absorb bullets and a small ship (1UP) adds one extra life to the stock.


The primordial question, at least for me, is this: what’s best, Thunder Force III or Thunder Force AC?

Both games are graphically equivalent and excel at providing great horizontal shooting rush with high flexibility on weapons and maneuvering (a gameplay staple of the series), but even if I had been exposed to Thunder Force AC first I believe I would still prefer Thunder Force III. The differences are in the details and in the fact that the changes Technosoft applied on AC weren’t in any way better than what already existed in the Mega Drive original. Assuming the reader is somehow familiar with Thunder Force III, allow me to bullet-list the main changes in Thunder Force AC:

  • the status bar showing score, weapons, lives, etc. was moved from the top to the bottom of the screen;
  • no more choosing the order of the five initial stages; in AC you always play in the following planet order: Hydra → Gorgon → Seiren → Ellis → Haides;
  • planet Ellis is replaced by a brand-new stage where you fly amidst asteroids in outer space and infiltrate a base to fight a walker robot;
  • planet Haides is replaced by a rearranged version of the 8th stage from Thunder Force II, with the boss lifted from planet Ellis in Thunder Force III;
  • default difficulty in AC is often close to or on par with difficulty Mania from Thunder Force III.

I can also point minor changes that make Thunder Force AC a little less dynamic than its Mega Drive counterpart. Those intro screens in each stage were one of the coolest aspects of Thunder Force III, since they blended with the music as the levels started against the awesome background music. The slower tempo of the soundtrack in AC is also another lessening factor, especially if you’ve already been previously exposed to Thunder Force III. It’s still very good though, the only letdown being the comparatively weak theme for the new outer space level.

When the first five planets/levels have been cleared the player proceeds to challenge the Orn empire by fighting a huge battleship, scrambling inside their motherbase and finally destroying Orn’s core. Besides a few tweaks here and there, these final stages haven’t changed much and are still what keeps the game from reaching a higher accomplishment grade. As for the gameplay tweaks in general, they’re actually the main reason why fans of the series should try Thunder Force AC. Different enemy placement and formations, stronger enemies/bosses and new environmental hazards should guarantee the fun for both newcomers and seasoned Thunder Force III players alike.

From Ellis to Orn's base
(courtesy of YouTube user Ace9921)

With a good number of extra lives to be collected throughout the game and three score-based extends (at 30.000, 100.000 and 200.000 points), Thunder Force AC is still an easy clear, especially for arcade difficulty standards. That said, the main challenge shifts to beating the game with the maximum possible amount of lives left in order to get that bulky completion bonus of 100.000 points for each spare ship (totalling 1,1 million for 11 lives if you don't die). That certainly requires hefty memorization, smart management of shields and proper usage of the speed switch (I use every speed at least once per credit).

As an advantage over the raw arcade experience, the port included in the Thunder Force Gold Pack 2 comes with four difficulty levels (Mania too, access options by pressing A + START) and an extensive arcade-like bookkeeping info (press Z and navigate with Y/Z). There’s even a so-called “kids mode” that preserves all your weapons and power-ups upon death and resumes the next life with a 1-hit (red) shield. Overall, a nice animated intro sets the mood perfectly for some of the finest 16-bit shooting action you can get with no slowdown or technical hindrances of any kind.

Besides Thunder Force AC, the legacy of Thunder Force III also spans the SNES, which received a proper port based on AC titled Thunder Spirits shortly after the arcade release. My best high score for Thunder Force AC is below, having beaten the game without losing any lives (Normal difficulty).

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Sylphia (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tonkinhouse / Compile

Published by Tonkinhouse in 1993

A mythology-based shooter? Sure, why not? Gun down multi-headed creatures, flaming dragons, evil statues and whatnot! Though not explicitly related to the Greek mythology, as a game Sylphia has many aspects in common with Greek figures, starting with the idea of the sylph – a mythical creature of the air intimately related to fairies and angels. The main character is a girl who’s been mutilated by demons and gets endowed with magical powers by a fairy goddess, thus engaging in a revenge quest against those who slew the people in her village (this is all shown in the game’s intro through images with no dialogue).

While the concept does sound interesting, especially for fans of shooters with fantasy themes, Sylphia doesn’t achieve the same status of similarly minded titles such as Dragon Spirit or Phelios. Absence of difficulty is to blame for most of this because we’re talking about an extremely easy clear here. Other than that the game is fine, with many sources pointing that Compile is actually the developer working behind the Tonkinhouse brand. There are hints in Sylphia that back this up quite well, and those who have played their share of Aleste titles will certainly spot them. I won’t delve into the details, suffice it to say they’re all related to the weapons system.

Stage 1 of Sylphia
(courtesy of YouTube user malducci)

The heroine in Sylphia is able to fly in three speeds switched at the press of the SELECT button. I use mostly speed 2, you’re either too slow or too fast in the other settings. Button II fires her weapon and button I deploys a bomb that detonates a thick vertical laser beam while making the character invulnerable. Bombs are limited and weapons are selected/upgraded by colored power-ups that come in groups of four rotating icons or by themselves in small carriers that descend from the top of the screen at regular intervals. Just stick to the same color to increase part of the weapon’s power in three steps. You can take two hits in each life, and if you don’t take the heart icon that refills health you’ll die on the third hit. Then you’ll be respawned with the current weapon at its basic power level.

In line with the Greek knowledge of old, weapon types are related to the four classical elements: fire (red), air (green), water (blue) and earth (yellow). When you takle successive items of the same kind you upgrade the particular aspect of each one of the weapons: fire will start shooting diagonal homing flame shots, air generates slow whirlwinds that develop forwards diagonally, water creates an extra fire stream opposed to the direction you’re moving and earth forms a protection barrier that rotates around the character. In order to power up the basic weapon attack you must take the orbs that appear in groups of three when the item carrier gets hit.

As usual in shooters of this kind, some weapons are more suited to specific situations. For example, a fully powered air weapon is excellent for the second boss, even though water is obviously the best choice for the game as a whole. Finally, the diamond-shaped items that tend to float towards your direction fill that little meter below the life/bomb count, and every time the meter gets full you gain an extra bomb. Score hounds might want to know that all items are worth a few points, so get them all to incrementally beef up your final score.

Yuck! Is that tutti-frutti puke?

In direct contrast with is challenge level, Sylphia boasts excellent graphical design across all of its eight stages. It's technically very competent, only with scarce moments of slowdown appearing when bosses are about to irrupt into the screen. The soundtrack is also very good, even though the balance between music and sound effects suffers from the most recurring problem in the PC Engine platform (SFX too loud) and the overall mood is too upbeat for the dark - yet colorful - environments you'll be facing (the only parts where the music presents itself in a gloomy fashion are in the intro and ending sequences). Regardless of any gripes involving the sound design, if you fancy otherworldly settings and strange-looking creatures you'll be right at home here because Sylphia is simply a 16-bit feast for the eyes. Besides all sorts of walking and flying enemies, keep an eye out for particularly creepy fiendish bosses (exposed boobs!). There are two bosses per level, and since they're very creative in regards to design and attack patterns it's just a shame that they also don't offer much of a challenge. And when you figure out that it's possible to destroy a great deal of enemy bullets the whole game becomes even easier.

Want more easy? Here are some other refreshments in the gameplay: hold tight to the current life during a boss fight because you regain all your health (two hearts) when a new stage begins; except for diamonds, upon taking any other item you're given a very brief stint of invincibility, which is quite useful to evade hairy situations; an extra life is awarded for every 70.000 points scored. Conversely, finding a genuine copy of Sylphia isn't easy by any stretch of the imagination. Given the game is one of the rarest entries in the CD shmup library for the PC Engine, you won't find it for less than a few hundred dollars.

Following a few exploration minutes to figure out the weapons system I beat the game on my first credit, then proceeded to do it again on Special/Very Hard. The increase in difficulty is minimal and appears mostly on bosses. I played another credit on Normal and the 1CC result is below. This screen is displayed for half a minute once the final credits are over, and as much as I tried I couldn't understand the math behind the massive final bonus other than it being related to remaining life stock, bombs, etc.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Galaga '88 (PC Engine)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
29 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco

Published by Namco in 1988

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away there was Galaxian. Alien insects twirled, piled and conquered in the vastness of the cosmos as lone spaceships piloted by human arcade gamers endlessly fought for justice. In Galaga, the second coming, alien armies evolved for great injustice. When Gaplus happened every pilot took off with upgraded combat ships, but it was only in Galaga ’88 that the power of travelling to other dimensions allowed humans to finally apply a final defeat on the evil insect army, even if a temporary one – for those evil Galagan bugs never retreat, never surrender. After all, with no chance to survive, they had to make their time.

Jokes aside, there are many sources that will name Galaga ’88 as one of the defining games in the history of the PC Engine. Also released with the title of Galaga ’90 for the Turbografx-16 in the US, the port is still heralded today as one of best home translations to an arcade game. It makes sense, given the way gameplay, colors, pacing and overall vibe were duly reproduced. Another reason for the success is the accessible challenge level, which properly adapts the high difficulty of the arcade original to the console format. Up to that point in time, in the scale of fun fixed vertical shooters Galaga ’88 was unbeatable. Gaplus had failed to get similar recognition, and all Space Invaders games were just slow and wooden in comparison.

Stage 15, 3rd dimension

Basic Galagan behavior hasn’t changed much. Those bugs still swoop into the screen in circular motions, sometimes shooting and darting towards your position while doing it. Once the surviving ones are in formation they proceed to their particular attacks, which consist of shooting, diving, splitting, shielding, expanding, morphing, etc. As usual, dealing with them requires anticipation, reflexes, dexterity and a little knowledge about your own ship’s capabilities, starting with the choice of single or dual ship as the credit begins. Dual ship is undoubtedly the way to go because every player should attempt to acquire the triple ship as soon as possible. Here’s the receipt: (1) allow Boss Galagans (the uppermost bigger enemies) to complete formation, (2) wait for one of them to approach and deploy a tractor beam, (3) allow yourself to get captured, (4) wait for the bug with the captured ships to leave his position and (5) hit only the bug to have them merged with your new ship to form a triple ship. Despite the larger hitbox, that’s more power to you and also more chances to go the distance. If you get hit you lose one ship (triple → double; double → single), but provided you still have ships in reserve it's possible to do the capture process all over again to regain the upgraded status.

Dimensional travel is the defining element to challenge and scoring. In each of the recurring challenging stages / galactic dancing bonus levels (3, 7, 14, 18, 22, 26) you’re given the chance to warp into a higher dimension. To achieve that all you have to do is previously collect two of those blue canisters left behind either by the first stationary obstacle destroyed in any unscrolling stage or by killing one of the bigger enemies formed by the merging of two smaller bugs. Since stationary obstacles only appear from stage 4 onwards, the only way to warp before that is by allowing the bugs to merge anywhere in the first two stages. Each dimension is harder than the previous one and comes with its own set of different bugs. The stakes are simple to understand: avoid warping to higher dimensions and play an easier game with less scoring opportunities.

Galaga ’88 feels fresh even for today’s standards, and for good reasons. As stated above, the stage structure and the approach to powering up are remarkably flexible. The game also manages to throw a few scrolling levels that lead to boss fights, and even these bosses are dictated by the current dimension the player is in. Unlike in the arcade original, here you can spend the whole game in the first dimension if you so wish (originally you were kicked into the 2nd dimension after stage 10 no matter what). By the time you reach the last stage (29) a specific final boss awaits depending on the current dimension you're playing.

Colored insects want to conquer the galaxy
(courtesy of YouTube user shaurz)

If you’re already at the final dimension (4th) the warp canisters will have no further effect when the challenging stage is over. Later on a special type of canister with a different color may be released by the last enemy in any formation, for which you get the triple ship instantly regardless of the actual ship status. That definitely helps since later levels are often too hectic to safely pursue the triple ship, and here’s where most of the difference from the original arcade game lies. No matter how far you are in your warping journey, on the PC Engine things never get too overwhelming if you’re beaten down to a single ship. Other significant differences are the reduced number of dimensions (4 here, 5 originally) and the fact that you get different bosses in stage 10 depending on which dimension you are. Note: score extends are achieved with 50, 140, 300 and 480 thousand points. Hint: whenever you take a warp canister you become invincible for one or two seconds.

Aiming for more points goes hand in hand with reaching higher dimensions, but you can also work on a few other details to improve your performance. Perfecting the galactic dancing bonus levels is important because if you manage to kill all 40 enemies you get increasingly higher rewards, starting from 10.000 points in the first bonus area. Other sources are those bigger escort/leader bugs, bugs that split into secondary bugs, lemon bugs (lemon-shaped ones that shower down in pieces once hit) and falling debris in scrolling areas. As a rule of thumb, the more bugs you allow to stand in formation the more scoring opportunities you have, and that’s where most of the risk/reward balance is the further you advance in the game. Finally, each life in reserve upon game completion is worth 10.000 points.

As I mentioned above, fixed vertical shooters are rarely as fun as Galaga ’88, especially the older ones. It's a great treat even if you don't like the style that much. Upon completing the credit (no continues allowed) you’re shown a map with your progression across dimensions throughout the game. I finished my best 1CC attempt in dimension 4 with the following completion score (using a turbo controller for proper autofire):

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Novastorm (Sega CD)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psygnosis
Published by Psygnosis in 1994

There are people who still remember the Sega CD as the failure with a library made of only FMV (full motion video) video games, and one of the sorriest flunks in Sega’s otherwise glorious history. However, if you think FMV was restricted to ugly simulators only, try taking a look at Novastorm, a rail shooter that comes out as a genuine Star Wars-like adventure in its heart. Originally developed and released for the FM Towns as Scavenger 4, Novastorm landed on the Sega CD without being given much of a chance from anyone, after all the unavoidable visual downgrade was apparently too much for people to bear. For that reason alone many gamers fling to the FM Towns original and the MS-DOS or Playstation versions as if the Sega CD entry didn’t even exist.

Well, all I can say is that if you dig rail shooters ignoring Novastorm on the Sega CD might be a mistake. Not only is the charm of Sega’s 16-bit add-on wrongly overlooked, but considering the fact that this is a game that plays vastly different from one version to the next chances are you might also be missing some precious rail shooting rush. So far I have only tried the FM Towns original, and my assessment is that the Sega CD port has richer gameplay despite the obvious limitations in graphics and color. Sure, you will crash against obstacles with confusing sense of depth or that suddenly shift direction. You will lose energy by scraping seemingly safe surfaces. You will get toasted by fierce boss attacks. On the other hand, cruising across alien landscapes, dodging futuristic architecture and weaving through giant spaceship thrusters is awesome. That’s why rising above the odds feels so great in the end.

It is the future. Once again a computer has gone berserk and is now uniting machines in a war against mankind. It’s up to you to board and pilot one of the Scavenger 4 spaceships on a mission to restore peace. There’s a whole lot of narrated story shown in good old grainy FMV during the intro and between levels. FMV animation is also present in each and every transition within levels, and also prior to bosses and during boss fights. Save for a few post-boss sequences all of them can be duly skipped, and thankfully loading times aren’t abusive. Most importantly, FMV is used to create all environments and obstacles in the gameplay itself while the spaceship, enemies, bullets and a few mid-bosses are purely sprite-based. It’s a combination that works and definitely fulfills the task of immersing the player in an outer space journey.

Callinhor, the lava planet
(courtesy of YouTube user ChaƮne de MegaCdChannel)

For each life in Novastorm you get an energy shield showing how much damage you’re allowed to take before biting the dust. The amount of energy you lose upon taking a hit depends on how severe the blow/crash is. Basic inputs consist of shot (button C), plasma cannon (button B) and bomb (button A). Shot works in bursts: hold the button for a quick stream of bullets, and when the ship stops shooting just hold it again (counter-tapping slowly is best). The plasma cannon can be charged for a more powerful blast, as seen by the overhead meter that appears when you hold down the button. As usual, bombs are initially limited to three per life. By shooting down specific enemies or a certain number of enemies in a wave you unlock a set of three items that hover on the top of the screen, of which you can pick only one. Items range from different types of shot to extra lives, however most of them aren’t exactly easy to identify. Shot types include single (default) shot, double shot, triple shot, explosion/split shot, spread shot and wave/cross shot. Other items consist of power upgrade, speed-up, partial/full health recovery (a sort of underlined triangle), temporary options (fixed, circling or trailing), temporary shield, extra bomb, extra life (looks like double/triple shot, only without the “shots”) and random effect (?).

Surviving the challenge of a rail shooter often takes successive sessions and much practice, and Novastorm is no different. Memorizing enemy routes and playing proactively is still the best strategy to win, but here the most important thing is to manage item pick-up as wisely as possible. You should power up the ship as fast as you can, since each one of those dark-blue circle items adds one slice in the upgrade meter (below the cannon charge meter). The benefits of doing that include easier clearing of enemy waves and much faster boss kills. Then there’s the shot type, of which my favorite is the triple shot. Be careful not to take the wrong item if you get your favorite weapon, the game has a knack for sending stupid items such as the default single shot. Temporary items aren't really useful because they last too little and revert your main weapon to the single shot, whereas speed-up isn’t important since the starting speed is fine (even though you cant set it in the OPTIONS). The random item is only a valid alternative in the very first area, where it might immediately give you a triple shot (I assume you must first get double shot and two power upgrades).

Provided they’re not temporary, all upgrades are preserved when you respawn after death. Note, however, that dying on bosses can also happen in a weird, different way: when a boss fight is about to time out an ALERT message flashes on screen, and unless you kill him in the next seconds you’ll die with a nice animation of the boss obliterating your ship as evil reward. Then you’ll be sent to the start of the section prior to the boss. In order to avoid that, pay close attention to the boss health gauge, a thin red line that appears below that useless radar on the top of the screen. Hit him hard on his weak spot and win the animation of victory. And if it's the stage main boss you can rejoice rejoice for having your shield fully replenished!

Behold the sleekness of Scavenger 4

Even though the game seems short with only four stages, each stage is divided into several sections with at least three midbosses before the stage boss. Boss designs range from insect-like creatures to high-tech constructions protected by turret arrangements, also including the mandatory robot variations. The first half of Novastorm takes place on a fiery planet and over a desert, with easy surface navigation and few obstacles to dodge. The second half sees you flying over an ice planet and the enemy base, speeding through progressively tighter trenches. Expect to face ice spikes, crystal shards, gigantic towers, wormholes, narrow tunnels, asteroid fields, heavily guarded cities and huge battleships. Just like in all other versions of the game, the visual scope is outstanding and is definitely a sight to behold, so don’t be discouraged by the absolute lack of continues. The effort to get there is totally worth it.

Getting into the third stage with more lives is always a good thing, so watch out for score extends achieved regularly (with 50K, 100K, 200K, 350K, 600K points etc., after that I stopped paying any attention because I was too busy trying to survive). In any case, Novastorm gets more fun the more you learn the importance of powering up and staying away from false safe zones – those areas where it seems safe to go but can actually cause you to lose shield energy. The music is good and the sound effects used throughout are distinct enough to always let you know items are about to pop up (love that sound) or when a boss is being correctly pummeled. On the bad side, the Sega CD struggles whenever the screen is cluttered with enemies, which leads to momentary slowdown. As for the FMV, it's true that the visuals of any Sega CD game that uses the technique will always be an acquired taste. In Novastorm some of them are uglier than usual (that brief scene showing the shaky pilot’s face looks like something straight out of Splatterhouse), but overall I think they’re used to very good effect.

I beat the game on default settings (ship speed 2, lives 3) and got the high score below. Note: Novastorm is the spiritual sequel to Microcosm, which on the Sega CD and the 3DO is also a rail shooter (not on the FM Towns or the 3DO).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Astro Tripper (Playstation Network)

Horizontal, confined
Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
14 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by PomPom Games
Published by PomPom Games in 2009

It is true that the top-down view in the shooter genre is pretty much restricted to vertically oriented games. In horizontals you normally see the spaceship/avatar from the sides. Astro Tripper, however, goes against the norm and presents itself as a top down horizontal shmup. You see the spaceship from above, kinda like an elevated guardian angel controlling its actions. I tried to list similar pure top-down horizontal shooters and couldn’t find many, surprised by how unusual the concept actually is. The only ones I could think of are Uridium, The Last Starfighter (none other than Uridium in disguise) and a few levels of the relatively recent Sturmwind.

In the case of Astro Tripper (and Uridium to a certain extent), the fore inspiration is none other than Defender. Both games ditch the automatic scrolling staple of the genre, but whereas Defender allowed unlimited displacement around a cylinder, the stages in Astro Tripper unfold in an enclosed area where enemies materialize in time-based routines, sometimes associated with generators that must be wiped out for the player to proceed – which is in fact a direct influence from Fantasy Zone, by no coincidence another famous cylinder-based horizontal shooter.

Influences aside, Astro Tripper has a style of its own. The spaceship comes endowed with slight inertia, sliding nervously across different alien surfaces as if carried by wind puffs or interstellar vacuum voids. For inertia haters, it’s actually not as bad as it sounds.

Wreaking havoc over a flying ship

“Adventure game” is where the proper fun is, with 14 stages spread in four distinct worlds marked by trippy platforms, organic environments and deadly corridors. “Challenge game” offers four options for you to play endlessly with random enemy generation in each world of the main game. Gameplay rules are the same for both of them: fire with ×, flip shooting direction with ○ and switch weapons with □. Weapons come in two types/colors: blue is the straight gun and red provides a spread pattern with limited reach. Keeping the fire button pressed will eventually “overheat” the cannons and reduce the firing rate, so the best way to deal with it is by tapping regularly (also note that point-blanking is excellent to take down enemies faster). Leveling up is done by taking the colored power-up dropped by enemies every once in a while. Instead of being forced a particular upgrade, here you can choose the weapon to be powered up just by using it – the power-up item changes its color accordingly.

Silver items are released in between power-ups, and each of these items corresponds to a score multiplier of ×2. However, the maximum multiplier you can reach is ×8 (further silver items are worth 40.000 points each). The secret to get them is to kill enemies in quick succession, as indicated by the kill gauge located underneath the score display (when the gauge is filled the multiplier item appears). Unless it’s a very crowded level, the only way to get to the ×8 multiplier is by letting enemies mount to a good number before going on a killing spree. On the other hand, extra care is needed due to the sheer amount of hazards and the fact that some enemies morph into more unpredictable creatures if you let them linger long enough on screen. Also note how some of them fill the multiplier gauge faster than others.

Waiting to cash in on more enemies is good for scoring, but the player must also take into consideration the time limit in every level. Some of these limits are very strict, particularly on boss fights where you need to clear the screen of all nearby enemies to have access to their weak spots. If the stage times out you die. By the way, whenever you die you need to restart the level from scratch.

So the primordial question is this: how much risk are you willing to take? Initially there are only two difficulty levels available. The only significant difference between them is that on Hard you die by falling off the boundary of the level, which doesn’t happen on Easy. That’s why it’s important to check and trust in the overhead map showing the location of existent and spawning enemies. A credit can be started at any previously reached world, and while that’s good to practice later levels I just wish you could also choose the stage directly (for example, in order to face the boss of the second world you need to play the three previous levels).

Official trailer for Astro Tripper
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer PomPomTV)

I enjoyed Astro Tripper exclusively on Hard, a mode that seems to be balanced around survival, crowd control and power-up strategy, in that order. Bullets are slow and clearly visible, and there’s always room to move around if you approach enemy formations correctly. It’s impossible to power up both weapons to their maximum, so do it wisely if you want to survive the cube onslaught of the Temple of the Gods, the last world in the game. My strategy was to favor blue in the first world, red in the second and blue during the rest of the game, with only one red upgrade somewhere around the third/fourth world. Extends exist and are awarded for every million points scored.

Despite some relatively empty spells in the first levels, Astro Tripper manages to provide decent shooting rush with good production values. The frame rate isn’t really on par with the finest material from PSN, but the graphics are clean and create a sleek sense of moving across a 3D environment. Tilted platforms are an example of how smart the graphic design is, as well as the fitting music and the excellent array of sound effects. The otherworldly sci-fi atmosphere is duly enriched by lots of diverse explosions and noises. Particularly amusing is the whole third world, aptly titled “Insect Infestation” and filled with deadly spores, flying bugs and serpent-like menaces.

What struck me as extremely odd is that there’s no offline high score table of any kind, but if you’re logged into PSN the highest score for all modes is always added to the worldwide leaderboards. At least the highest score is always shown locally as you play, regardless of Internet availability. As of now, the game is also available on Steam for those interested.

Astro Tripper loops on a higher difficulty level once beaten. Below in yellow is my best result on Hard after reaching stage 2-2 – meaning second level of the first world in the second loop (completing the game on Hard unlocks Hardest). Look how my two friends above me performed!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Last Resort (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by SNK
Published by SNK in 1992

In the history of the greatest horizontal shooting games of all time, both R-Type and Gradius are always somehow present in any relevant discussion. However, many of those who also consider them to be difficult games have a hard time dealing with the checkpoints and the painfully slow default speed of their respective ships. Assuming that these people would still be game for this particular shooting style, I can now attest that Last Resort is the compensation they certainly need - especially for R-Type fans because, to put it simply, Last Resort is by all means an easier take on R-Type. It's just as fantastic in graphics and sound, but the decent starting speed of the ship and the absence of excessively hard checkpoint recoveries are very attractive if you want something more bearable challenge-wise.

As is the case with the later Pulstar, some people believe that part of Irem's staff also worked on Last Resort. The graphic design is definitely to blame for this assumption, even though there's a uniqueness to the overall style of the game. Particularly amusing are the tiny men/pilots ejected from pretty much every destroyed enemy, which lends it a singular feel and further deepens its shadowy relation to Irem. The inspiration drawn from the anime film Akira is also evident as you start the game amidst a busy rendition of its Neo Tokyo setting. As the stages unfold, scary bosses try to stop you while you pilot that pointy ship through rain over the ocean, face an emerging submarine, weave across laser-infested corridors and battle a huge spaceship before entering the final enemy's lair.

Where have I seen this snake creature before?

With only two buttons to be used, the gameplay is pretty straightforward and requires very little to be learned, basically expanding on the classic scheme of R-Type. Kill specific enemies in a wave or a particular carrier to release speed-ups (S), speed-downs (mirrored S) or colored power-ups. These power-ups are defined by their inner characters (G, H or L) and their cycling colors (red or blue). Take any of them to activate an invincible satellite that remains permanently attached to the ship and can be used both for offense and defense, since it blocks all regular enemy bullets.

Moving the ship causes the satellite to rotate around it, and at the press of the B button you can lock it in place or release it to continue rotating. As soon as the sattelite is activated the player is also entitled to use the charge shot by holding the fire button (A). Once charged and released, the satellite will dart forward from its initial direction with great destructive power, and the longer you hold the button the more powerful the attack is. The color of the last power-up collected is also important for the charge attack because it defines how the satellite behaves upon hitting a wall. Red will make it trail along the surface, blue will make it bounce around. In both cases the satellite will automatically return to the ship once the attack is done.

Upon collection of the second power-up the letter inside it activates its corresponding weapon: G is a set of two napalm bombs with trailing capabilities dropped above and below the ship, H is a set of straight missiles with very slight homing ability and L is the classic straight laser. It then takes just two successive power-ups (regardless of letter type) to max out the ship's attack power. You can cruise through the game with any of these weapons, but at certain spots the ground bombs (G) are certainly more helpful. Some examples are the turret corridor in stage 2, the initial laser cannon area of stage 4 and the whole scramble around the large battleship of the last level + last boss. I use missiles mainly against the 2th boss, and laser on the 4th boss due to its piercing ability making it possible to hit the little turrets on the other side of the boss's body.

More gauge, more strong!
(courtesy of YouTube user superdeadite)

No matter how you look at it, you can't really say there's something technically special about Last Resort. Not only is the gameplay derivative from R-Type, but it even copies some of that game's traits - like the way your ship gets drawn to the center of the screen as the bonus of 10.000 points gets computed. Slowdown can be heavy during boss confrontations, as well as flicker. What Last Resort does, and does really well, is keep a steady flow of action from beginning to end while allowing the player to get back on his knees upon death with no heavy work/practice required. I daresay you can beat the game without taking any speed-ups, such is the ease provided by the default speed of the ship. Furthermore, the game is finely suited both for a stock joystick with no autofire (abuse charge shots to win) or an autofire-enabled controller where you pretty much don't need to charge. It's a fun ride in whatever form you take it.

Another aspect where Last Resort shines is in its amazing soundtrack. Diverse and pumping with lots of cool bass, it matches the graphics with outstanding results. I can imagine people complaining that the game is too short, but it must be known that SNK designed it as a shooter with two loops. Of course the second time you play enemies and bosses become more aggressive. There is no intricacy in the scoring system whatsoever, and the only extends are achieved with 60.000 and 130.000 points. Last Resort is also another example of a game with a considerably steep default highest score.

Other than on the Neo Geo AES and its CD version, players are also able to enjoy Last Resort on the PSP, PS2 and Nintendo Wii by means of a compilation titled SNK Arcade Classics Vol. 1. It includes 16 Neo Geo games, of which only Last Resort appears as a representative of the shmup genre. Prior to playing it on the AES I practiced and credit-fed the game on the PSP. In the high score below I reached stage 2-3 playing on MVS difficulty with a turbo controller for proper autofire (I didn't use charge shots at all).

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Thunder Blade (PC Engine)

Rail shooter / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega

Reprogrammed and published by Nec Avenue in 1990

With the exception of the recent Choplifter HD, helicopters have been totally absent from the shmup scene for a long time. But alas! There was a time when it wasn’t so. Sega’s helicopter game inspired by Blue Thunder and Airwolf might have been totally forgotten by the company during the 90’s, but at least Thunder Blade made many people happy during its heyday, be it at arcades or home systems. Well, maybe not so much in the latter category, given how much downgrading had to be done on the ports... However, considering that Super Thunder Blade is a pseudo-sequel instead of a port, the PC engine version could then be classified as the most faithful rendition of the arcade game.

Of course being faithful is a completely relative statement in this case, for the PC Engine could never equal or even come close to the superscaling capabilities of the Sega board. It does resemble the arcade look more than other ports for mainstream video game consoles, most notably the Master System’s (just for reference, the port for the Sharp X68000 computer is considered to be the best conversion). In Thunder Blade for the PC Engine the score displays and the stage progress meter were properly reproduced, but the same can’t be said about graphics and music. At least NEC tried and delivered a rail shooter with reasonable punch, one that’s far from perfect but still fulfills the mission of providing cheap helicopter fun.

The adventure starts in the city
(courtesy of YouTube user Encyclopegames)

With no story whatsoever, Thunder Blade puts the player in control of an attack helicopter armed with a machinegun (button II) and missiles (button I). The machinegun targets whatever appears in front of the chopper, whereas missiles will explode and destroy whatever’s down below (they don’t trail the surface as in other home ports). Each stage starts with a vertical section where the top down view forces the helicopter to fire forward in a slanted direction, causing the regular gun to hit the ground at a fixed distance (movement and overall reach is also limited). The second half of the stage unfolds in a rail shooting environment, and once it’s over you return to the vertical orientation in order to face the boss, which is either a large plane or tank with multiple turret configurations. Only the last boss differs from this pattern, since it consists of a static fortress in the rail shooting section.

There are four stages in Thunder Blade. They’re pretty short, and this somehow mirrors the short duration of the arcade original. Graphical themes are city, caves, river and oil refinery. Each main BGM is used twice: the most iconic one is used for levels 1 and 3 and the other for levels 2 and 4. The scaling effect won't set anyone's world on fire, but it's decent for the hardware. While the first rail shooting level is rather tame and lacks obstacles other than buildings, later on you need to exercise your dodging abilities around spikes, pillars and pipes. With an initial life stock of 5 and no extra lives in sight, the couple of available continues are very welcome for practicing later stages. No power-ups or upgrades exist, but at least the machinegun comes implemented with autofire. I just don’t understand why the developer didn’t do that with missiles as well, so don't forget to turn on that turbo switch for button I. For great justice. :)

Surviving the odds in this game takes some practice. Although the inputs are simple and straightforward, with normal/reverse controls selectable at the start screen, this is another case where the player needs to work around a few quirks in the gameplay. One of them is the slow firing rate of the main gun in the rail shooting sections, which turns the act of hitting airborne enemies a chore. You can’t just react to what’s coming, instead you need to fire in advance while anticipating the approach of the enemy. If you don’t do this chances are you’ll collide against them and die. In that regard fast jets are worse than helicopters because they can easily pass through your firepower. The good news is that they always appear in the same places and formations, allowing for some minor advantage through memorization.

Thunderous blades in action

Another point of concern is bullet visibility during the first top-down boss confrontation. Dancing around bullets is a skill that develops naturally the more you play, but doing it against the spinning fire blasts of the first boss’s middle section is always a nightmare. Strangely so, bosses get increasingly easier level after level. Your hitbox is deceiving in the initial vertical parts, so don't get too close to enemy helicopters that are taking flight and reaching your altitude. Performing constant round movements is still one the best ways to survive a particular tricky part of a rail shooter segment, just be careful not to collide against anything. And if things start getting too cluttered just “land” and wait for the flying hazards to flee the screen as the TAKE OFF message urges you to return to battle.

Killing as many enemies as you can is the key to scoring higher in Thunder Blade. At the end of the level you are awarded with a special bonus that's directly proportional to the kill count. Less than 80 hits yields 100.000 points, 200.000 points are given for a kill count below 100 and above that you get 400.000 points. I wasn't able to hit more than 120 targets in a level, so I couldn't check if it's possible to get an even higher bonus. Unfortunately the only stage where you can safely try to maximize this bonus is the first one, since the others are either low on enemy count or just to difficult to hoard.

The picture below shows my 1CC high score on Normal for this port of Thunder Blade. It plays considerably different from its counterpart on the Master System, but it's equally fun for fans of old rail shooters. For those interested, ports of other Sega rail shooters also exist for the PC Engine, such as After Burner II and Space Harrier.