Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Insector X (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1990

Following the first wave of arcade shooters with continuous, neverending play and just a little before enemy bullets started to overpower most gamers in titles that had an ending, Taito’s Insector X dared to offer a very odd and easygoing experience, a cute adventure of sorts that wowed arcadegoers at the time but unfortunately hasn’t aged well at all. However, if we go down a bit in the hardware scale we will find that the console ports fared a little better. Take the Famicom version, for example. Not only is it a reasonably faithful conversion, but in most terms it fits and uses the 8-bit format more  competently than the arcade original.

Like many other cases of games that never left Japan, the Famicom version of Insector X surely had the potential to be a hit. As far as arcade ports go it’s actually a more accurate rendition than the Mega Drive version, even though that doesn’t mean it’s the better game since the Mega Drive cartridge completely revamps the original design in a more serious approach. The only aspect that undoubtedly comes out as half assed in the Famicom/NES is the sound, which cannot uniformly handle music and effects. It seems all efforts went to graphics and character animation. Slowdown is completely absent but there's plenty of flicker, although of the non-intrusive type.

Insects taking over the world

This game has a remarkable childish feel for its seemingly fantastic theme. You fly as a boy (Anny) or a girl (Myu) across five levels battling all sorts of insects and jungle creatures. The larger ones, such as bosses, are designed with even goofier sprites. Most levels have more than one section prior to the boss, starting with an Egyptian landscape and progressing to a garden, a city, a forest and a bee hive, both in outside and inside environments. Obstacles and walls are harmless but can kill the player by crush-scrolling, sending you to a previous checkpoint at default conditions. Firepower is only preserved if you have been able to find and collect the large X item, which works as a weapon retainer upon death.

All items appear from medium-sized enemies you’re able to kill, and besides the abovementioned X they also consist of S (speed-up), P (power-up), PP (double power-up), A (autofire), honey drop (3.000 points), an energy sphere that cycles colors (secondary weapon power-up) and 1UP (extra life). Button B fires the main gun and button A fires the secondary weapon, provided you have taken at least one energy sphere to create a spraying can for the character to ride on. The color of the sphere defines the type of spray you’ll be using: blue grants the player with a ground bomb type, whereas orange adds a forward shot that expands in power and coverage as you take further spray cans. The second form of the orange spray is unique because it acts as an opposite-aiming three-way shot.

It takes six power-ups to max out the main gun and four energy spheres to max out the secondary weapon. A maxed out arsenal leaves the character considerably overpowered, which turns the game into a cakewalk and subjects the player to deaths due to silly oversights only, such as staying put as the insects in later stages approach (they will always fire at least one bullet upon death) or getting crushed by the scenery (mostly in the hive stage). Just like in the arcade original, the autofire item is a neat addition for those who don’t use a turbo controller, and luckily there’s at least one of them per stage to ease the useless stress of button mashing.

Stage 1
(courtesy of YouTube user BrYaN5555)

The way Taito animates both the boy and the girl characters in this version of Insector X is awesome, thanks in part to their big hitboxes. Whenever they stop shooting you can see them blinking, but once our heroes fire their main weapons you can easily notice from their faces how resolute they are in their mission to take down those nasty bugs. Exclusive to his version, all bosses are shown totally wrecked and in bandages after you defeat them, with the ending altered to show Anny and Myu escorting the last boss against a pale sunset of freedom. Never mind the fact that the final boss was completely changed to a mad scientist. Or that the boy was given a feminine name (at least around here Anny is used solely for girls).

Now for a little controversy: the gameplay described above applies 100% to Anny the boy, but not Myu the girl. By choosing to play with her you get a powered up weapon by default, plus autofire from the start. Would that be a way to say women are more fragile and less capable to succeed in a video game? What's really weird is that she can sacrifice one life to defeat a boss just by touching it (with the exception of the very last boss). I'd say Myu is targeted at children learning how to play a shmup, but choosing different characters does incur in serious unbalance when playing the alternating 2-player mode. It doesn't matter which one you choose in the end though, since with just a little practice anyone can beat this game.

In the array of difficulties available in the options of Insector X, "Special" refers to a mode with no power-ups or weapon upgrades at all. The only item you'll ever come across in this mode is the speed-up, and that definitely offsets the tame challenge of the Normal difficulty to something more substantial. The game loops after the final credits are shown, but unfortunately from my experience on Normal mode there is no increase in difficulty at all. Therefore the tendency is to pile up extra lives with 1UPs and the score-based extends (100K and at every 200K afterwards) as you continue playing forever. The picture below was taken as I gave up the credit at the start of loop 4 on Normal with Anny (in a weird twist, you are asked to input your initials every time you beat a loop).

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cloud Master (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito in 1988
Published by Taito in 2005

Ancient China can be a very strange place, at least according to the interpretration given to it by video games. Cloud Master, also known by its Japanese name Chuka Taisen, is one of the examples in the shooting genre. Developed by Taito's during its prolific output of the late 80s, this game comes off as a very straightforward shmup whose colorful charm seems to lie solely in its offbeat, almost cute character design. It's also a type of early crossing between Insector X and Darius, so if you ever played one of those you'll probably identify a few of their traits in the story of Michael Chen, the boy who floats on a cloud and is some kind of apprentice to a wise elderly entity that evaluates his performance at the end of each level.

Old shooters in the vein of Cloud Master are perfectly playable on the Playstation 2 if you've got one of those lovely Taito Memories compilations in your hands - and your console is able to play Japanese discs, of course. Taito Memories II Vol. 1 (Joukan) is the one that contains the original arcade iteration of Cloud Master in all its ancient glory. As we all know these discs have great presentation, and the games themselves come with fully configurable controls. Unfortunately the game is not included in any of the Western releases of Taito Legends.

Quick! More training!

All five levels of Cloud Master offer exactly the same structure of a handful of enemy waves plus two or more mid-bosses and a main boss. Gameplay variation is virtually none, down to the way bosses throw their patterns and approach a little in a mild attempt to put pressure on the player. Parallax is pretty much absent and there's nothing special about the music. Nevertheless colors are used so nicely in the simple yet amusing backgrounds that I couldn't help but enjoy the general vibe from start to finish. It also helps that the game isn't really taxing despite the checkpoints, which require the right amount of practice without incurring in too much hassle. Since bullet count is considerably tame, knowing enemy behaviour often equals victory.

Michael Chen initially fires yellow balls as ramen cups start coming in waves. Upgrade items are released by clearing all enemies within two characteristic waves and are denoted by kanji, but their unfriendly nature goes away once you learn how to recognize both of them: one is the power-up and the other is the speed-up (if you see a third type of kanji take it, that's a precious 1UP). Initially there is no autofire, but once you've taken two speed-ups you get autofire for all your weapons. Each speed-up taken changes the color of Michael's cloud, from yellow to orange, pink, etc. I never saw what lies beyond pink because once I learned what I was doing I restricted myself to two speed-ups only in order to get autofie and keep maneuverability at an optimal level. Power-ups increase the efficiency of the main weapon until you reach a powerful wave-like shot that pierces through everything when maxed out.

The gameplay in Cloud Master uses only two buttons (□ and × by default, credits are coined with R2). The first one is responsible for the main weapon desbribed above, and the second fires an auxiliary attack that’s only acquired after you beat a mid-boss and he leaves a door behind. After entering the door you’ll be able to choose one out of four types of auxiliary powers: protective fire ring, outward multidirectional shot, expanding fire ring and ground bombs. Provided you don’t die the next door will have these weapons in enhanced forms, and the good news is that you don’t need to stick to the same type in order to power it up. If you switch to a diferent one you’ll activate it in its corresponding higher level. While they can all be very effective, especially when powered up a few times, my favorite one is the ground bombs.

Cloud Master's attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user Replay Burners)

If you manage to keep Michael alive long enough the doors opened by defeated mid-bosses will stop coming. That’s when you know he has reached max power. Max power is good and bad at the same time, because even though getting through the levels becomes a breeze you’ll find yourself stuck with the last secondary attack chosen. There are no obstacles in the game besides a few mounts of dirt at ground level, which can make it hard to hit enemies behind them if you haven't got the proper weapons. In the only stance of a rudimentary rank system, bosses also become more resilient the more powerful you are, often taking two to three cycles to yield as opposed to surrendering faster if you die and replay the latest checkpoint. Speaking of which, checkpoint milking is the only real way to boost up the score. Besides 1UPs the game also grants score extends with 100, 300 and 660 thousand points - 660K being another very odd similarity with the later Insector X. Don’t expect the same walk in the park of Insector X though, my impression is that Cloud Master stings a little bit harder.

Though primitive and not an overly tough challenge by any stretch of the imagination, Cloud Master counts with an enemy gallery that’s surreal enough to pique one’s interest. Flying ramen bowls, cupcakes, pigs with guns, turtles, tigers, snakes, monkeys, dragons, chalks, ground/flying samurais and flying animal heads are some of the creatures players are bound to face. I was pleasantly surprised by how they're able to breath a little life into a seemingly drab game. It kinda heightened the fun factor for the little amount of time I spent with the game.

Click for the option menus translation for Cloud Master on Taito Memories II Vol. 1

A handful of consoles received ports of this game, including the Master System, the NES and the PC Engine. The obvious connection to the “monkey king” story is the reason why the recent The Monkey King - The Joruney Begins for the Nintendo Wii is considered to be a bastard sequel/remake to Cloud Master.

Below is my 1CC result on Normal. I got to the last boss on one life, but I slipped up in one of his advances and had to use a few of my remaining lives to kill him off and see the game’s goofy ending.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Astro Boy - The Video Game (Playstation 2)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by High Voltage Software
Published by D3 Publisher in 2009

Long before Astro Boy the movie came out the sympathetic character created by Ozamu Tezuka was already very famous in several media channels, from mangas to video games. However, it struck me as unexpected when I knew the video game based off the movie directed by David Bowers was actually a shmup hybrid that mixed horizontal shooting with platforming elements in a story closely based on the movie itself. The idea of having Astro Boy taking to the skies and dodging bullets is quite amusing, too bad the actual execution isn’t really that exciting in the end.

Details about the story can’t be disclosed without incurring in movie spoilers, but suffice it to say that a robot built after the image of a deceased kid discovers his role in the futuristic world of Metro City, which is populated by other robots controlled by evil human rulers. In the main game mode (Story) simple cut scenes with proper voice acting help flesh out the adventure while the player gets through several platform and shooter segments. Astro Boy’s life consists of a single energy bar, which when depleted sends him back to the last checkpoint reached. As with most action games released from the 32-bit era on, “lives” are unlimited and the player never sees any game over screen, so I took to myself the challenge of beating Astro Boy - The Video Game on Normal without ever emptying the energy bar or quitting the level to restart it.

I concede that the process of learning the game was fun as far as platforming goes: dealing with enemies and obstacles, managing special attacks and looking for the hidden power-ups. Shmup sections, however, are overly bland, boring and too easy when compared to the rest of the game.

4-1. Fight along the tracks
(courtesy of YouTube user Malcolm Anthony)

Remapping buttons is possible, but I found the default controller setting perfect. For platforming the commands are punch (□), jump (×) and all special moves in the shoulder buttons: butt-machine guns (L1), arm cannon (R1), drill attack (R2) and absorb (L2). During the flying sections punch = shot and jump = dash, with special moves unaltered. Many advanced staples of the platforming genre are in place, such as punch resulting in different moves depending on the used directional (↓+ punch = powerful kick; ↑ + punch = finger laser, also possible while jumping), grab/throw (use punch close to a stun/fallen enemy), air dash, wall-crawling by double-jumping, wall-sliding when falling (falling from too high will make Astro Boy take longer to get back on his knees) and crouch-sliding (↓ + jump). The wise combination of all these moves and powers, along with a few gameplay details, can make or break the player who decides to put him/herself in Astro Boy’s shoes.

As you get through the first levels the game will subtly help you with all basic moves. It does not take players by the hand though. Powering up is accomplished by finding hidden items which enhance the boy’s abilities separately in four categories: power, laser, health and jets. Power is self-explanatory, laser is the same but applied to all laser attacks, health improves his resistance and jets relates to the number of air dashes you’re allowed to perform (each upgrade increases the limit by one dash). Pause the game if you want to know how you stand in the upgrade process or if the level has any of these hidden items to be found. Just remember that the screen does not scroll back at all, which can lead to upgrades being unreachable if you get past them. Other types of hidden items, qualified as cheats and denoted by the interrogation symbol, can also be found, but these offer unnatural tweaks that must be toggled to become active. I never cared about them in a regular run.

Coming to grips with the basic moves is essential, but the correct use of the special attacks is even more important in certain cases. Their use is limited to the special attack meter, which starts every level with 10 attacks in reserve and gets constantly refilled by the energy bits retrieved from enemies getting damaged. The best special attack by far is the butt-machine gun because it nullifies all on-screen bullets and knocks down all enemies (it’s pretty much a panic device). The arm cannon is extremely powerful but interruptible if Astro gets hit, whereas he’s invincible when performing the drill attack. Absorb recovers a little of his lost energy, but try to do it when there are enemy projectiles on screen: they’re all converted into Astro’s blue energy and can completely refill an almost empty energy bar.

As I mentioned above, the flying parts of Astro Boy aren’t nearly as engaging as the action segments. He flies against scrolling backgrounds that offer no interaction at all while dodging invincible mines and facing the occasional powerful enemy in between lots of cannon fodder. On Normal difficulty all you need to do is spam special attacks since Astro can take lots of hits. To keep a constant regular laser stream all you need to do is slowly tap the fire button, after all each press activates the finger laser for approximately two seconds.

Astro takes to the sky

Although it’s fair to say that platforming and shmupping share the same amount of gameplay, platformer fans will be much better served in Astro Boy simply because there’s much more to explore when jumping and kicking robots asses. Each stage is divided in several sections and carries a distinct atmosphere that showcases the evolution of the character as he approaches the final battle against the “Peacekeeper”. Graphics and music get the job done nicely except for the cut scenes, with light humor, voices and good sound effects are all over the place. Bosses appear sporadically, so the bulk of the enemy gallery consists of robots of all sizes, drones, turrets, fat bots complaining about “too much gravity”, skeleton-like rejects, dancing pompadour-haired robots, mechanic beetles and even a little background interaction with bosses in a few areas.

Those who dread deadly pits like in Mega Man should not worry because if Astro Boy disappears in one of them he’ll just rocket back at the cost of a little health. That's one of the hints that show how easy the game gets after a few tries, the main one being the fact that energy and special attack stock are fully restored in every section you play. One-hit kills do exist though, caused by a few hydraulic presses that appear in later levels (use special powers in the air!). Upgrades are always located in the same kinds of places: vertical shafts, close to falling platforms or behind false walls. Strangely enough, the first power upgrade in the very first area does not appear unless you replay it. While attempting a 1CC run it's advisable to quit soon afterwards and restart the game so you won't miss out on a very important upgrade.

One of the problems of Astro boy is that, from an arcade design point of view, dealing with regular enemies gets tiresome after a while despite the attempts at infusing a little diversity in the gameplay (chase levels where you’re pursued by a giant drill or a large robot, wind resistance, quick riddles, among others). A complete run can take almost two straight hours, even when skipping all cut scenes from start to finish. Three save slots allow players to keep track of different play sessions. Unfortunately the main game mode (Story) has no scoring system. Scoring is only implemented for the "ground" and "sky" variations of Arena mode, a score attack option where you must defeat 20 consecutive enemy waves. By choosing higher difficulties the game gets considerably tougher, with deaths happening from only one or two enemy blows and special attacks limited to 3 on the Hero setting (Very Hard). Co-op play is available on all modes.

This same version of Astro Boy - The Video Game was also released for the PSP and the Nintendo Wii. The Nintendo DS game was handled by a different developer as is just a strict platformer.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Zombie Nation (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Meldac
Published by Meldac in 1990

I have always been a big fan of horror and science fiction in movies, especially some of those that bear the infamous “cult” status. After having played Zombie Nation I asked myself if there’s such a thing as cult video games as well, just like in the movie world. If that’s the case then this game surely deserves to be inducted in the hall of fame of cult shmups alongside oddballs like Toilet Kids, Ai Cho Aniki or Poopocalypse, all of them clear winners in the bizarre-o-meter scale. If you’re still curious about what Zombie Nation has to offer, imagine yourself playing as a floating samurai head tearing down a whole zombified country in order to rid it from the clutches of an alien invader. Bear in mind that this amazing story originally takes place in the future, most precisely 1999.

Regardless of this zombie head adventure in 8-bit gaming, North Americans can all rejoice since it’s way past 1999 and the living dead apocalypse prophecyzed by developer Meldac obviously never happened. However, an actual collector’s apocalypse is occurring right now in the market for old school video games, given the ridiculously inflated prices Zombie Nation commands these days. I understand the US box contains a unique piece of art with its clay rendition of cute zombies, but the way old games are being valued these days is just ridiculous. I’m glad I secured my copy years ago, but I can’t help but feel sorry for my fellow collectors in this day and age.

Weirdness isn’t reserved for the game concept alone, for the actual gameplay is also very strange for several reasons. Spit and vomit, for example. That’s what the floating head shoots, and apparently that’s what’s needed to cleanse the zombified USA. If you play on the Hard difficulty setting our elusive floating head also seems to be drunk, seeing that the player needs to cope with an annoying amount of inertia when moving him around. Inertia is also mildly present in the Easy setting, but it's practically insignificant.

Searching for Venusian snakes

There is only a single life bar gauged by eight heads that turn into skulls as you lose energy, and if this life bar is gone it’s GAME OVER. In its essence that’s not really a bad thing, but Zombie Nation is notorious for having enemies and hazards that impose 1-hit kills or knock your health down to a near-death condition. You're able to withstand a good deal of normal shots and collisions, but touching bosses or getting hit by their projectiles means instant death (even though you can still survive such contacts in rare occasions), as well as being crushed by an obstacle as the screen scrolls. Pulsing paths of electricity/lightning or puffs of toxic smoke are responsible for chipping health down the last head, changing the music to a dramatically sinister tone that plays until you start recovering.

The main objective of the game is to destroy whatever lies ahead, including buildings, mountains and the insides of dark caves. Resistance is tough since the alien invader has also taken control of airplanes, tanks, rockets and military bases. Living beings such as humans, snakes, birds and fish were all zombified for great injustice, so prepare to also deal with them throughout four stages, the first of which must be chosen along with the difficulty setting (toggled with SELECT) as you start the game. Subsequent levels will be played in order before you finally face the alien boss in the fifth and final stage. Levels 1 to 3 have two sections and a boss, whereas in level 4 you only play a single stretch prior to the boss fight.

Every once in a while a human will be expelled from the debris of the destroyed scenery. Take him as he screams to his death and watch as the running stick figure in the HUD shifts right. Once five falling zombie men have been collected the firepower is upgraded, which is indicated by the numbers 2, 3 and the star. 3 corresponds to max power (more spits and vomits), and the star is a single smart bomb that can be deployed with button A (button B is used to shoot, by the way). One should always aim at achieving full power as fast as possible, simply because the game gets a lot more manageable and no matter how beaten up you get there’s no downgrade at all. In order to recover the lost energy you need to score points: some of the dead heads will come back to life whenever your score passes by the ten thousands mark.

Intro and a little of the first stage of Zombie Nation
(courtesy of YouTube user Enrique Garcia)

Playing Zombie Nation is an interesting experience if you’re just poking around for fun. The animation for the flying head is neat (if you stop shooting it will lean on its side and blink), while the amount of on-screen destruction gives a singular sense of satisfaction that’s quite rare for an NES shooter - if only for a little while. Amidst the chaos you’ll definitely hear the screaming death of the character an awful lot, at least until you start playing the game seriously. The fact that the energy display disappears during boss fights bugged me a little, but since most of them are battles of 1-hit deaths soon I stopped caring. By the time the stupid 1-hit deaths start to scare most people away, serious players will need to rely on the limited continues to proceed and practice. Thankfully the game is on the short side and shouldn’t stress (much) anyone who’s going for a single credit clear. On the Easy difficulty players should face weaker enemies and slower bullets. On Hard the aforementioned inertia kicks in and the overall challenge gets bumped up a bit. There’s no health recovery in between levels regardless of the chosen difficulty.

By far the trickiest parts of Zombie Nation are the energized nets and the bosses. Timing is key to win against the Statue of Liberty, but you need to get aggressive on the zombified Paul Bunyan and his axes because if he gets too close you’re as good as dead meat (notice the slight scent of a pre-Cho Aniki design here). Later bosses aren’t nearly as interesting or even challenging, and the anticlimactic battle against the alien who caused all the zombie fuss is a tad disappointing. Apparently the developer thought it was better to invest in a beefed up ending showing the results of your heroic endeavor instead of infusing the game with more eccentricities.

I beat the game on Hard, starting on the first stage. There is an awkward high score table that’s shown after the attract mode, so wait once the credits are over to see your final score (see below). Note: the game’s opening screen puts the word Samurai above Zombie Nation, and in the Japanese version the character is a long-nosed tengu head instead of the head of a flying samurai. Some of the in-game sprites are also altered, but the gameplay seems to be the same.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

R-Type III - The Third Lightning (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Jaleco in 1994

Of all chapters of the neverending battle against the evil Bydo empire, R-Type III - The Third Lightning holds a special place in the hearts of many gamers, especially those who lived through the 16-bit era. A dedicated console entry that followed the arcade-exclusive R-Type Leo, it fully realized the potential of Nintendo’s home platform in a great outer space adventure that honed and further fleshed out the ideas of the previous chapters into an exciting brand-new experience. Difficulty is spot-on and a tiny bit above Super R-Type and its full stage checkpoints, since the game fares better at the claustrophobic, otherworldly stage design pioneered by the classic R-Type. Nonetheless it’s fairly manageable depending on how you're able to use the resources available to the R-90 spaceship.

Besides the flair inherited from its noble arcade origins, R-Type III also brings something new to the table by allowing the pilot to choose from three different force units/pods. If you still haven’t played an R-Type game yet, know that force units are those invincible droids that attach to the ship and give it the ability to employ its firepower in the benefit of mankind. They’re the heart and the soul of this particular series, so having three force units to choose from must have been the bee’s knees back in 1994. Add to that the more detailed and brighter graphics, the great music and an actually decent use of mode 7 effects and you’ll understand why this is one of the best regarded shmups in the SNES library.

Space junk adrift between planets in stage 1
(courtesy of YouTube user Battlespaz)

Getting comfortable with the SNES controller is very easy in this game, given that you can configure all inputs as you wish. My favorite layout is Y for auto shot, B for shot, X/A for force unit control and L/R for charge shot selection. On dealing with the bare ship’s capabilities, the shot command is mostly employed to activate the charge blast by being held and subsequently released according to the charge gauge status. The second charge level is obviously the most powerful one, but in R-Type III you’re also entitled to select between two charge attacks. Beam is the primordial firepower boost from the first game, here upgraded with a second level that makes the charge shot pierce through walls. Hyper is the new charge variation that, when used on max level, bursts into a close range spread and then fires a bulkier straight shot for a while before overheating. As a result the ship needs to cool down, during which time you’re not allowed to use any charge attack.

And then there are the force units, each with a specific behavior when detached or attached to the ship. Just approach it from whatever side you want it to dock, and use the correct button to detach or call it back. Force units first appearance and upgrades happen by collecting the colored items: the first one generates it, the second one gives it the color’s primary power, the third one maxes it out and further ones are merely shot type switches. Since each color endows the ship with different shot types according to the selected force unit, here’s a brief summary of their capabilities:
  1. Round force (type 1): classic pod and the one most people are used to. Weapons: chain/wave laser (red), mirror/bouncing laser (blue) and sweep/crawling laser (yellow); a detached unit fires in spread-out five directions.
  2. Shadow force (type 2): new addition that has the advantage of moving faster when called back to the ship and creating little "shadow" pods as part of its core capability. Weapons: reverse laser (red), shadow/straight laser (blue), strafe/wide laser (yellow); a detached unit fires three straight shot streams.
  3. Cyclone force (type 3): new addition that has a liquid look, as if a blue energy glob was trapped inside the pod's outer structure. Weapons: pierce laser (red), ring/spread laser (blue), capsule/seed laser (yellow); a detached unit acts as a shield with good vertical coverage.
The item gallery is completed by speed-ups, missiles (take two for max power) and bits. Missiles are of one type only and have a mild homing nature, whereas bits hover above and below the ship, acting as extensions of the force unit itself. One of the selling points for many people here is the default speed of the ship, which unlike previous chapters is actually quite decent. I daresay you don't even need to take a speed-up during most of the game.

A wall-crawling mechanical spider at the end of stage 3

It's hard not to enjoy the results when a shmup has a design that's built around the strengths and weaknesses of the ship's weapons so exquisitely as R-Type III does. All stages are somehow conceived according to the styles presented in previous games in the series, yet they're perfectly capable to stand on their own. There are outer space stations clashing against each other in the first level, an acid dripping organic environment in the second level and as you reach the third stage you must navigate vertical shafts inside what appears to be a large enemy base. Then you must weave through thick lava streams in a maze-like corridor and face a boss rush (probably inspired by Gradius) before entering the lair that takes you to the creepy final boss. Note how mode 7 is used to good effect throughout the game, as enemies and scenery rotate and zoom in and out of the screen with delightful elegance. A little slowdown should be expected, thankfully not to the same level seen in Super R-Type. Flicker is rare and often associated with explosion sprites over busy weapon animation.

Pacewise the first stage drags a little because there are many dead spaces, but the rest of the game easily compensates for that. Other highlights include the cool introduction of the ship as the first stage starts and the way the song for the first level in R-Type is remixed as the theme for the first level of R-Type III. It's pretty epic, especially if you're a fan of the series. However, I felt a little sorry for the game when I found out the scoring system is broken: you can milk enemies forever in the chamber prior to the last boss if you so wish... Of course that doesn't take away from the value of the journey, since survival play is still lots of fun for shmuppers of all backgrounds. The first score extend is granted with 20.000 points, the second with 70.000 points and further ones with each 70.000 points afterwards.

My favorite of the new force units is type 2, mainly because the shadow laser is incredibly strong and effective. What kills the cyclone force for me is the way the yellow weapon works. I chose type 2, looped the game and ended my credit on the 2nd encounter against the second boss. The second loop comes with faster, stronger and sometimes new enemies, all firing faster bullets at a higher rate. There are no extra difficulty settings in R-Type III, which is odd for a 16-bit console game that's part of such a famous franchise.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Söldner-X 2 - Final Prototype (Playstation Network)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels (3 unlockable)
10 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by SideQuest Studios
Published by Eastasiasoft in 2010

Evil never really dies, at least in the world of video games. Even though the virus menace had been defeated at the end of Söldner-X - Himmelsstürmer, it took only 20 years for a new alien race to once again threaten intergalactic peace. The new battle takes place in the sequel Söldner-X 2 - Final Prototype, which desperately tries to address some of the criticisms received by the first game in order to make it more forgiving and straightforward. Whether it succeeds or not depends on what type of player you are, and on my part I can say I was let down by most of the changes. Final Prototype isn’t a bad shooter in the regular sense, but having a handful of unnecessary dressings that get in the way of pure gameplay makes me rather uncomfortable.

At first eastasiasoft released the game with 7 stages only, but a few months later the company delivered an extra package called The Last Chapter that added three extra levels to the original seven. Therefore, the complete game spans 10 stages in a very long campaign that manages to top the previous game in length. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it weren’t for the fact that the extra stages come out as a mere afterthought, which only serve to increase the boredom potential of an already very long game. For what it’s worth Himmelsstürmer at least tries to evoke the structure of an arcade game, whereas Final Prototype chooses to break the mold in order to emphasize trophy hunting.

Just like in the original chapter, on the outside it’s hard not to get wowed by the sleek visuals, the flashy explosions and the decent soundtrack that adorns everything about Söldner-X 2. There's also constant radio chatter all over the place and a plethora of sound effects, which is nice. On the other hand, gameplay is easier and considerably different, with simplified weapons management and a simple rank/chaining system. Gone are the overheating mechanics and the harmful items, for example. Let’s start with the basic gameplay and then proceed to the awkward in-game requirements for a single credit run.

Initially there are two ships to choose from, the Thor and the Mexxus II. The third ship is the one from the first Söldner-X, unlocked by fulfilling a special mission out of the main game. All ships carry two permanent weapons and an extra slot for a third, by-item selectable weapon. Thor’s main attacks consist of a straight impact shot that scatters off when hitting something and a soft but powerful pulse shot. Mexxus II comes with a conical spread shot and a continuous magma stream. Item-based weapons that occupy the third slot initially consist of a green wave shot or a weak three-way homing spread laser, with further weapon types being unlocked for each ship as you continuously play the game.

Behold the power of the spread laser

For controller settings you need to have five inputs: shot, shock wave, limit, previous weapon and next weapon (my choices were □, ×, L2, L1 and R1). Unless you’re just starting and want to watch the in-game tutorials, I suggest turning them off because they can be annoying. Switching weapons is self-explanatory, and shock wave/limit are only to be used when you have them in stock. Only a single shock wave item is allowed at once, so whenever you see another coming you can dispatch the current one for extra destruction power if desired. Limit is a special attack that builds up automatically and detonates a screen-clearing attack that melts all bullets and weak enemies. Besides shock wave and the third weapon types, here’s a summary of the other possible items: P (power-up), large P (power-up), speed-up, 2222 and 9999 (bonus points), extra multiplier tokens (+1, +2, +4), chaser (temporary option, up to four at once), heart (health recovery), shield, chain points up, chain freeze, secret key and extra life.

Each life comes with a health bar that can withstand many hits. When this health bar gets down to 20% the music changes but there doesn't seem to be any increase in firepower levels like in Söldner-X. “Life regeneration” is activated after a while and slowly refills a little of the lost health in order to get you back in the safe zone. Of course there are rewards for not getting hit and performing well overall. The better you play the harder the game gets, as symbolized by the dynamic rank on the top right corner of the screen. It goes from G down to A and then S, which comes with the best scoring possibilities but also enemies that get increasingly more aggressive and cause more damage (in fact you can die instantly when hit by certain enemy shots). An S rank is the key to scoring higher since its base multiplier is ×24, excluding extra multiplier additions. Don’t mistake these rank levels with the rank tags you get upon defeating bosses, those are just a direct measure of your performance as a whole in the level (but especially how fast you’re able to defeat the boss).

The last component of the gameplay is ring chaining: by collecting rings released by enemies you fill up a bar gauge in the lower right corner of the screen, and when the gauge is full the item that’s trapped within the round meter will be released for pick-up. Note that this round meter controls the rate of ring collection: don’t let it get empty otherwise you’ll reset and lose the cumulated energy in the chain bar. The round meter only depletes when you use your weapons, so quit shooting when you hear the message for “chain meter low”. It will start to recover a little, but in the heat of the battle it’s often better to go after another ring at once in order to keep the chain alive (a single ring refills the round meter completely). Remember that rings remain stationary and disappear after a brief while, so don’t take too long to collect them.

I don’t think Söldner-X 2 is aesthetically superior to the first game for a single reason: the background scenery moves too fast. We’re never given the chance to properly appreciate the awesome details in the backgrounds, as if the game was in a desperate hurry to get somewhere. In a sense, it spoils most of the graphical excellence with an exaggerated scrolling speed. The only levels that seem to have real soul are the ones that contain obstacles and show some environment interaction, such as the ice caves or the factory in stage 7. However, the real problem of the game starts when you decide to play it with a 1CC in mind from the get go. Stages 5, 6 and 7 require a certain number of secret keys to be collected in previous levels in order to be unlocked (at least 4 out of 5 secret keys in one, three and six stages, respectively). That wouldn’t be a problem at all had the developer not included a few stupid criteria for these secret keys to show up, such as luck. Yes, luck.

Original trailer for Söldner-X 2 - Final Prototype
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTrailers)

Unlike in the first Söldner-X, which had secret keys in specific places and demanded you to find them in order to play the last level, here memorization alone doesn’t cut it. The only well-thought example of an extra requirement is the last secret key in stage 5, which will only show up when the 16th chain is completed. Since you need to get at least 4 keys in each level in order to see stage 7, you can’t just play for an S rank or survival in stage 5: you need to carefully chain the whole level and maybe still milk the small enemies that circle the boss at defined intervals (don’t take too long to kill any boss though, if time runs out you get an instant GAME OVER). But alas, here comes the real problem: all stages have at least one secret key that requires a rank level of B or higher to appear, and some of these have a 50% chance of not appearing at all. From my experience all levels are okay once you’ve practiced them, except for stage 3. As much as I tried to figure out the spawning criteria for keys #3 and #4 I just couldn’t: high rank levels, don’t miss any enemy, kill them in a certain order, kill them fast/slow, shockwave them... Sometimes those bloody secret keys just don’t come, as well as key #5, which is also prone to not coming due to probability!

Imagine having a very nice run up until stage 3, and then the game screws you by negating two keys, thus negating access to stage 7. That’s what I call serious bullshit.

Of course the above couple of paragraphs has no bearing at all if you don’t mind replaying the problematic levels over and over (stage select possible) in order to find the secret keys and unlock the stages. In this process you might even unlock extra weapons (bow laser, fog, rocket, mines, r-gun, etc.) that make the game considerably easier. Unlocking weapons or achieving special rewards basically happens when you come across a RARE item, a glowing orb that will only appear if you play well enough. Unfortunately you can’t use the unlocked resources right away, only in subsequent credits. I don’t mean to sound grumpy, but that’s just more bullshit piling up in the batch of “improvements” made to quench the casual slice of the game’s target audience. In my eyes a shooter commits suicide whenever it implements long term unlockables that forcefully impact gameplay. After all, there’s a huge difference between playing a blank installation of Final Prototype and one that has been played for months while being whored for gameplay extras and trophies. I can cope with the weapon unlocking thing, but the secret key scheme not allowing people to beat the game on a first run has left a sour taste in my mouth.

There are other minor issues in Söldner-X 2, such as the complete random nature of power-ups and default weapons not changing sprites as they get powered up (only differences are in strength and rate of fire in a few cases), but they're not nearly as unnerving as the secret key thing in my opinion. By finishing the game the player unlocks a harder difficulty level, in a total of three extra settings (Hard, Extra Hard and Massive Attack). Special missions can be completed in order to unlock new modes and functionalities, and while playing in co-op both players will always share the same life stock. There are offline and online leaderboards, with the latter allowing you to view replays.

My goal was to beat the game on a clean slate with nothing unlocked, and below is my best result playing on NORMAL with the Mexxus II ship. I managed to accomplish the 1CC a few times during the process of learning the game, but when I tried to improve my score it kept screwing me over in stage 3... In my very last attempt I didn't get the final key despite having an S rank! Patience had dried out by then, so I just quit.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

G Vector (Saturn)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by SoftOffice
Published by SoftOffice in 1997

When thinking about rail shooters most of our memories tend to cling to the titles that somehow defined this particular style of the shooting genre. Maybe more so than in any of its subgenre variations, stellar games like After Burner or Space Harrier tend to completely overshadow the efforts of lesser known companies, be it in the arcade or in the console scene. My perception of G Vector is that of an obscure oddity that very few people know of, partially thanks to the above and also because it appeared exclusively on the Sega Saturn and only in Japan. Nevertheless I bet many shmuppers will immediately recognize something very familiar about it.

This familiarity comes up as soon as you start the game. For all visual purposes, G Vector is like an alternate version of Raystorm. Even the spaceship and everything about it seems to have been modeled after the R-Gray units designed by Taito, down to the complete absence of extends. I never heard of developer SoftOffice before and don’t know of any other game they might have made, so it’s no surprise that G Vector isn’t technically on par with its source of inspiration. It obviously lacks Raystorm’s graphical finesse and brutal difficulty, but it’s a reasonably fun rail shooter if you’re able to cope with a few awkward aspects of the gameplay. Sound effects and soundtrack do their job at a basic level, with the BGMs in stages 4 and 5 clearly stand out from the rest.

Anyway, what you see is what you get in this game. There is only one difficulty setting and no special modes besides Score Attack, where each stage reached is unlocked for individual play/practice with infinite lives. Other than that, in the options screen you’re allowed to choose between regular and reverse controls, listen to a sound test and visualize the enemy gallery.

I tried to read what's below VECTOR but the characters are too small...

I’m completely clueless about the story in G Vector, so let’s stick with the good old alien threat that needs to be purged from the galaxy. The journey to salvation is fully rendered with the aid of polygons for enemies, explosions and landscapes, with sprites reserved exclusively for bullets. Some effects that resemble mode-7 are also in place, but none of these graphic devices offer anything out of the ordinary for a polygon-based game. There's a decent color work but textures aren't very detailed overall. Some of the screen action is very intense though, which helps to fuel the adrenaline across six short levels at the expense of a little slowdown. Loading times in between stages are fair, but they could’ve been shorter.

The control scheme is uncomplicated: A shoots, B fires lasers and C shoots with autofire. Lasers will hit anything targeted by the ship’s reticle, to a maximum of eight targets at once. Exactly like in Raystorm, the more targets you have locked on when you fire the laser the higher the rewards in points are: a destroyed first enemy is worth a bonus of 200 points only, but each successive target that’s killed multiplies this value by 2. The geometrical progression leads to a total 51.000 points if you’re able to vaporize a lock-on of 8 simultaneous enemies. Note that the targets must be destroyed for the points to register, that’s why it’s sometimes advantageous to build up the initial lock-ons on a stronger target and only then locking on to cannon fodder.

Since the lock-on window lasts 5 seconds and you’re only able to destroy what’s actually on screen, getting those bulky bonuses for 8 targets at once isn’t such an easy task. Enemies arrive and disappear relatively fast in the most varied formations, and the bullets fired add another barrier to the act of locking on to multiple targets. Enemy bullets in G Vector come in several shapes and colors, but those of the pink type are always fired in bursts that leave a long trail behind them. At first they're kinda weird to dodge, but once you get the hang of it you notice they’re actually the easiest attack type to be avoided. Much trickier are the firing spams inside the cavern of stage 4, the spinning bullet sprays of the large ships in stage 5 and the multiple trailing streams of the last boss.

My 1CC run of G Vector

Everybody will probably agree with me when I say that taking only two hits before biting the dust is really cruel. There’s a little compensation for the lack of extends though, since physical obstacles also do not exist at all in G Vector. From start to finish there are absolutely no walls of any kind and you can’t get hit by any enemy, not even bosses or those fat butted bugs of the last level. That’s the best aspect about the gameplay because with obstacles of the way the player is free to focus strictly on strategies to overcome each approaching wave. On the other hand, it’s also very important to adapt to the way aiming is implemented (you’re always aiming upwards) and to be careful with borders and corners because of a mysterious freezing bug that happens when the screen is cluttered with bullets: there were times where I would get stuck/paralyzed like a sitting duck for no reason at all. A few animation sequences take place with enemies shooting at you at the same time, so keep moving and shooting to get through safely.

All staples of the subgenre make an appearance in G Vector, such as city, desert, ocean, caves, tunnels and outer space environments. Bosses play a big part all the way to the end, moving a lot into and out of the screen while dropping a variety of aimed and non-aimed bullet patterns at the player. Every boss – here called guardian – has multiple destructible parts that can also be laser-chained, thus adding more points to the score. Pay attention to the timer though, because if you fail to kill the boss within the allotted time he flees and you get no rewards at all (the only exception to this is the last boss). Destroying boss parts can also lead to an easier fight (by blocking the associated strikes from happening) or trigger different attack patterns (on the 4th boss, by destroying his gun prematurely). Don’t forget to keep shooting the boss if he’s in sight while the victory animation takes place, it’s still possible to get a few more points from the segments that weren’t dismantled.

The most important survival strategy is being aggressive and eliminating the most dangerous threats as fast as you can. Stage 5 in particular is a real offender in that regard, with a bunch of strong enemies overlapping their attacks in almost unavoidable ways. Fortunately we’re allowed to properly practice in Score Attack mode, which also offers resources to improve scoring and completely destroy bosses. G Vector saves high scores automatically, both for the main game and the individual stages in Score Attack mode. The default number of continues can be increased to 9 with a secret button sequence at the start screen, but you’ll only see the ending sequence if the game is beaten in a single credit.

Accomplishing the 1CC mission was fun, and my best results are below (look how interesting, 1CCing adds a single digit 1 to the score).