Sunday, February 11, 2018

Battle Squadron (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
15 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Innerprise Software Inc.
Published by Electronic Arts in 1990

No matter how you see them or how people perceive them, some video games are just like bricks. They're "heavy", but not in any advantageous sense of the word, and playing them most often equals the idea of a painful hassle.

An insidious vertical shooter that originally came out for the Commodore Amiga, Battle Squadron is one of those games. It disguises its claws with the basic story of a rescue mission where you pilot a spacecraft sent to find two coleagues imprisoned in a hostile planet called Terrainia. Players must patrol the surface of the planet and enter/clear three subterranean areas before being allowed to face the final enemy – an unusual stage scheme that allows infinite play if you refuse to face the underground challenges. Surface opposition is mild and should offer no real threat, but once you decide to go into them holes the game throws everything but the kitchen sink at you.

This difficulty, unlike in other tough shmups of the 16-bit era, actually stems from a series of obnoxious design choices that can enrage even the most patient gamer, unless we consider playing in co-op. However, my instance is that no shmup should be designed around cooperative play unless there's some sort of dynamic balance in place. Unfortunately this isn't the case of Battle Squadron.

Introdution and initial action in Battle Squadron
(courtesy of YouTube user Insert Disk Game Play Channel)

In order to complete the mission the player is allowed to shoot (buttons A or C) and trigger "nova" bombs (button B). By destroying a specific carrier a power-up is released, cycling colors for immediate pick-up. The default type is yellow (orange magma wave, starts with a straight shot and acquires a side attack when maxed out), but there's also red (spread shot), green (laser, acquires a little spread when maxed out) and blue (two-way forwards/backwards shot). Five power-ups are needed to maximize firepower, and a little interesting deviation from the norm here is that you keep upgrading your shot even if you decide to pick a power-up of different color.

Since you must count with only three lives and no extends of any kind, remaining at full power and getting all the extra bombs you can is essential. Whenever you see a squadron of four ships arriving and retreating in line kill them fast to release the item for an extra bomb. Dying comes with the penalty of a downgrade of two power levels, and if this happens in the underground areas all I can say is good luck in getting two power-ups quickly to get back on your knees (after all you do feel underpowered even at max power). Battle Squadron can certainly seem tame upon a quick glance at the first minutes, but you can only know what's really at stake once you decide to venture into the underground by touching the ENTER HERE message in the middle of the black holes.

Considering that full power is so important to have a chance at the inside stages, shunning the first entrance gates in order to upgrade weapons at the surface level is a good idea. To that I also add the fact that the third underground stage is the hardest one, so facing it before the other two is always better than doing the opposite (if you survive the odds of that level you'll know the worst is already behind you). While flying on surface level, whenever you pass by the third underground entrance the terrain "loops"; once you clear any of the subterranean areas and fly past its entrance again the ENTER HERE message won't be there anymore; and as soon as all three underground lairs have been destroyed the game rewards the player with the fight against the final boss at the end of the surface stretch.

Though reminiscent of the euroshmup school of thought, Battle Squadron is more akin to a lighter Raiden than the horrors of Xenon 2 Megablast. All bullets are aimed, therefore sweeping and herding are essential techniques to be used here. Slowdown is totally absent and collision detection is decent for a game with such a large/slow ship, but as I mentioned above a few obnoxious aspects make the experience a lot harder than it should be. The worst of them are the chunks of foreground scenery that completely block the action, forcing you to always remain in the visibility zone and to anticipate enemy/bullet trajectory whenever you need to briefly fly below these layers. There are also cloaked ships that follow you around and often take you off guard because you just didn't see them coming. Lastly, enemies have the nasty habit of firing when they have already left the screen.

A representation of 80s European sci-fi in shmups

Taken as it is, with all its unnecessary contrivances, at least Battle Squadron remains faithful to the rules it creates. Since it lacks autofire, a decent turbo controller is absolutely needed to play the game (I'd love to know what no-autofire purists have to say about this one). Even though the enemy gallery isn't diverse, each stage has one or two stronger foes that represent the bulk of the challenge and require serious crowd control if you want to stand a chance at winning. Honestly, there are parts where the game displays a bullet-hellish atmosphere rarely seen in the 16-bit era, which kinda turns it into an embrionary version of Milestone's Chaos Field. The difference here is that avoiding chaos is not an option.

Seeing that the surface stretch is endless and you can be there forever, there's no point in talking about scoring in Battle Squadron. Never mind those little X items you collect from destroyed ground targets and are worth 1.000 points each whenever you transition from one section to the next. Also never mind the short-looped theme that plays from start to finish, nor the fact that the game denies you from seeing your score if you pause or as soon as you lose your last life. The difficulty setting here is quite special because it works according to two selectors: maximum number of on-screen bullets and bullet speed. In total there are 15 possible combinations. Particularly amusing is adjusting bullet speed to minimum and bullet number to maximum.

The default settings are max enemy bullets at 16 and bullet speed at 150, and that was how I beat the game. The credit ended at the first underground area of the second loop – the picture below was taken from a recording paused a few frames after my ship was destroyed. Battle Squadron loops with no apparent increase in difficulty, but given the amount of threats at every corner continued play eventually wears you down. My favorite weapon for the whole game was the red one, for its coverage and brute power at point-blank distance (green is even more powerful but lacks coverage in the busiest parts of the mayhem).

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Dezaemon 2 [Biometal Gust] (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Athena
Published by Athena in 1997

When the shmup-making game/package Dezaemon made its debut on the Famicom in 1991, things were too much in its infancy to warrant any real enthusiasm from fans of the genre. Then came the 16-bit Dezaemon for the SNES and a repetition of the same package (pretty much) in Dezaemon Plus for the Playstation. Dezaemon 2, on the other hand, graced the Sega Saturn with a slew of new features for home shmup "developers", such as the ability to finally design horizontal shooters. Probably in order to stress that, Athena included in the gallery of sample games a title called Biometal Gust, which should be seen as the one and only sequel to pseudo-classic Biometal for the SNES.

Biometal Gust is one of five full sample games you can play in Dezaemon 2 (two of them are somewhat hidden). It's supposed to showcase all the main features you can use to build your own shooter, including several levels of zooming, scaling and transparency, as well as the welcome possibility of co-op play. The skippable cinematic effect once you press START is a proof of that, along with the backgrounds in the first stage, which are reminiscent of the tunnel levels in Metal Black and Darius Gaiden.

I don't know how you would all feel about this, but as soon as I knew Biometal had a sequel I was very excited. Even though it did not set the SNES on fire, it was a well made shooter with a very original concept centered around the GAM shield. Unfortunately the dynamic use of the GAM (Gel Analog Mutant) is severely simplified in Biometal Gust, which makes it a rather ordinary sequel when compared with the original.

Warping into the unknown in Biometal Gust

Inputs are fixed and mapped with R (rapid shot), A (shot, hold to charge a special attack), B (expand the rotating orbs/GAM) and C (bomb). A specific medium-sized oblong enemy is responsible for dropping four items when destroyed, which can be either a selection of weapon types or an assortment of upgrades. Weapons are color-coded as red (vulcan), blue (thin green laser), yellow (ricocheting wave shot) and green (homing shot). They all have their specific bomb animations with varying degrees of efficiency: red/vulcan triggers a circular bomb blast, blue/laser fires a narrow tunnel-shaped powerful discharge, yellow/wave drops a curtain with cluster bombs and green/homing hits everything with homing lasers.The other kind of item drops all have one power-up (P), an extra bomb (B), a bonus token of 10.000 points ($) and a 1-shit shield. Specific enemies can also drop bonus points and shields separately.

For the most part Biometal Gust preserves the visual identity of the first chapter, throwing all sorts of biomechanical, sometimes Giger-esque creatures at the player. The fundamental difference, however, is that this sequel is a lot darker and rarely delves into cleaner palettes; in fact, the only instance of that is the second stage in the desert. Everything else takes place in gloomier passageways and backgrounds, in an environmetal shift that's surprisingly not as distressing as the way the new GAM shield works.

A ship in its default power will always be spawned with a single GAM orb in rotating motion, and for every power-up taken a new orb will be added, to a maximum of 4. They will always be actively spinning around the ship to provide protection against regular incoming bullets and inflict damage to anything that touches them. By pressing B the orbs will expand outward until they reach a certain radius, hitting enemies/bullets in medium distance at the cost of losing the up-close protection. And that's all there is to the GAM/orbs. In Biometal Gust you can't throw them away to target enemies from afar as in Biometal. On the other hand, they're always active and there's no limit to how long you can use the B button.

Final stage
(courtesy of YouTube user amagishien)

Perhaps in order to compensate for the loss of GAM functionality, the new charge shot comes into play as the new attack alternative. However, unlike the unique bombs attached to weapon types, there are only two variations for charge shots: laser and wave fire a powerful focused laser beam, while vulcan and homing fire a softer wave-like shot. Just beware of the recoil that sends the ship backwards, it's deadly when you're too close to walls. All the combinations for weapon/bomb/charge lead to the conclusion that the best weapons in the game are the vulcan (for coverage and point-blank capability) and the laser (for sheer power). The wave shot is only an option at max power, with homing falling short due to its weakness and inherent inability to travel around/through walls. By the way, walls are only to be seen from stage 3 onwards.

With only five levels, Biometal Gust also feels a little on the short side. It starts with the outer space staple, follows with the desert stage and throws a biological third level before venturing into the fortress motif, complete with laser turrets, energy barriers and moving blocks. Despite some narrow corridors it never feels claustrophobic, an aspect that says a lot about the overall difficulty. All bosses have at least two forms or attack routines and should be no problem after a few tries (remember that laser is always the best weapon against them). Speaking of which, you're respawned with the same weapon you were using when you died, so there's no default weapon in the game.

Extra lives are gained with 100.000, 300.000 and at every 300.000 points after that. The scoring system is simple, which means that killing everything is the only single rule players should know. No extra points are won for repeated items or for extra lives on game completion, which is a pity. This is one of the reasons why as a whole Biometal Gust is inferior to Biometal. It's got the graphics and it's got the music, but it never really engages and ultimately fails to deliver the same amount of rush of its predecessor.

The high score below was achieved in a no-miss run, Normal difficulty. As for the shmup-making tools of Dezaemon 2, be my guest if you can understand Japanese.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Gadget Twins (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Imagitec Design Inc.
Published by Gametek in 1992

Allow me to start this short essay by saying that I almost gave up on Gadget Twins. Not once, but twice. First when I suspected it was just an action game instead of a shoot'em up (only when I realized you could fire projectiles later in the game I moved on). The second time I was about to give up was when I thought it was too hard for all the wrong reasons, the most aggravating one being the stupidly short reach of your attack. But as soon as I said "this will be my last credit in the evening and ever" I unexpectedly cruised through the game and got the clear. Talk about first impressions and deceiving gameplay.

Released exclusively in the West (US), Gadget Twins belongs to the cute'em up subgenre and can be considered quite unique as a shmup. Shooting and dodging, for instance, is rarely to be seen unless you stick to bosses or persevere into at least the third level. Before that all you have at your disposal are short-range punches used to navigate colorful autoscrolling landscapes, in an up-close sort of action game that feels really uncomfortable due to the unintuitive gameplay that requires you to press button B to choose the direction you're going to shoot/punch by using button A. And in one of the many inspirational references to Sega's Fantasy Zone, there's also the shop where you're able to buy upgrades (press button C to enter whenever you see it).

The story goes that a special gem was stolen from the king's royal room in the magical gadget land. Bop and Bump (players 1 and 2) go out on a mission to get it back from villain Thump's evil hands. This is told in a cute opening, which is followed by an equally cute closure when you complete the quest. The fluffiness transfers into the game in the form of soft, cutely drawn creatures you must defeat, from cannon fodder to gigantic bosses, and while it remains faithful to this single motif throughout the overall result is relatively underwhelming, not to say boring. I don't mind childish designs as long as they're backed up by engaging gameplay, and unfortunately Gadget Twins completely fails in that regard.

Bop's underwater adventure

When the game starts you're equipped with weak spring gloves in all four directions, but soon a shop will appear for you to buy enhancements with the coins collected from defeated enemies (small coins = $5, large coins = $20). There's more than one shop per level, which allows you to experiment with all sorts of weapons/gadgets until you find the best ones. Up front I can say that most of them are just junk and you'd better stick with the big gloves until you find the vacuum suckers. The hammer and the yoyo are awful, with the other ones failing to surpass the big gloves or the suckers. Don't hesitate to purchase the weight for the downward attack, which gives you the ability to drop as many heavy blocks as you want and makes players feel like a super powerful version of Fantasy Zone's Opa Opa. The only other bullet-like attack, the hover mine, is so slow and useless that you need to pray for it to hit anything while you wait to fire another couple of them. Use it at your own risk.

Each stage in Gadget Twins has two bosses. They all attack with a selection of simple patterns, but some of them can surprise you with sudden ramming moves. Being patient and studying them as they appear on screen is a good strategy to prevent failure, after all they can take a long beating before the yellow stars for health fade and you put bastard Thump to run into the next huge machine. In between stages you'll enter a special bonus area if you were able to collect the BONUS item during the level. The purpose of these intermissions is to collect as much money as you can before finding the way out. However, if you fail to find the exit before time expires you'll lose all the money you gathered.

Items such as the BONUS token mentioned above are to be found by punching chests. There are also speed-ups and speed-downs, temporary shields, screen-clearing bombs, extra lives and energy refills. These refills are very important because they completely restore your health meter, which is displayed in the upper colored stars in the HUD; the white stars below the health meter indicate your current speed. Most of the time speed isn't a problem unless you accidentally collect too many speed-downs, a situation that can easily happen due to poor item visibility caused by the action and the constant scrolling. Speaking of which, if you get crushed by the scrolling effect you just get pushed forward at the cost of a little health instead of losing a life.

Intro to The Gadget Twins
(courtesy of YouTube user Stefan Faubel)

Coming to grips with the switch mechanic for punching direction can be a pain, one that might kill the fun factor of Gadget Twins even before it has the chance to show anything of value. Should you get through that, soon enough you realize this is yet another case where the game just gets easier as you progress. Sloppy programming is to blame: there's no correlation between new weapons and challenge increase, the game starts granting extra lives like candy and money collecting becomes completely redundant and useless. Once you get the weapons you want there's no need to buy anything anymore, and even if you have to (by failing to retake the lost weapon icon upon death) there's no inflation at all in gadget price. Since the extra money can't be used for anything else (such as turning into points upon game completion), all those bonus areas are just a complete waste of time – unless, of course, your idea of fun is to aimlessly collect coins for their inherent "cuteness".

Perhaps the only redeeming quality of this game besides the cute designs of some creatures is the soundtrack. On the other hand, sound effects are mostly mute and lack the punch to convey power to Bop and Bump's punches. Considering how clunky the gameplay is and how lame the weapons and the money scheme turn out to be, Gadget Twins can't be described as anything more than an utterly failed, almost disastrous attempt at recreating the magic behind games like Fantasy Zone. Some of the projectiles from bosses can be destroyed for points for as long as you can, which configures a broken score, but who would risk his/her sanity by incurring in such a boring ordeal?

My final 1CC score is shown below. Note that there are no options at all in the game, which tries to sell itself with the "simultaneous 2-player action" tag in the box cover. In all honesty, I seriously doubt it gets any better when playing with a friend.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

TwinBee (PSP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Terraforming (PC Engine CD)

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

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

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

The asteroid shower of stage 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Star Parodier (PC Engine CD)

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

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

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

Paro-ceaser goes all CASTLE OF ILLUSION in stage 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Salamander 2 (PSP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flames of death in stage 2

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

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

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