Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Gun Frontier (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON/OFF
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Xing in 1997

Home conversions of arcade games have been around since the dawn of the 8-bit generation. By then they could never dream of being equal to their sources, but that certainly wasn't the case when the 32-bit era came along. The ports had everything they needed to be a perfect mirror of the arcade experience, yet a few of them insisted in being "something else".

Case in question: Gun Frontier. Those who played the original arcade will definitely vouch for its savage, brutal, relentless difficulty. The game is well-known for vandalizing people's dignity with balls-to-the-wall ferocity, demanding fierce dedication from even the most accomplished gamer if he/she by any chance accepts the challenge of adhering to the simple genre convention of the 1CC. On the other hand, the Saturn version of Gun Frontier, which was part of Xing's Arcade Gears series of arcade ports, can certainly be qualified as one of the most easygoing and breezy vertical shooters in this console's library.

So we're left to wonder... what in the name of Taito happened to this particular port?

A manga series of the same name came out during the 70s, but manga and game are completely unrelated as far as I know of. In our case, the game takes place in a planet raided by pirates who're trying to scavenge its precious resources (gold!), wreaking havoc and spreading terror in the process. The player pilots a winged flying gun to stop the invaders and bring peace back to the population with the aid of a shot input (button A or button C for autofire) and bomb input (button B). The twist in this basic gameplay scheme is that you're able to affect the direction of the bomb as it leaves behind a fiery path of destruction.

Opening screen

A horizontal row of five enemies descends upon the player every now and then, and for each one you kill a medal is released. Players must collect five of these medals to gain an upgrade for the main gun, whereas picking up gold bars from defeated ground targets adds up to the bomb stock. Once you get twenty gold bars a full bomb is added to the ship's reserve, but it's also possible to deploy incomplete bombs with reduced range and power. A maximum of four full bombs can be stocked, and all power-up coins in excess are saved for an immediate upgrade once you respawn after dying. Speaking of which, checkpoints are active during the levels and inactive during boss fights.

Barren landscapes alternate with cloudy skies above waterfalls and ravines in a sci-fi wild west setting that feels completely different from anything else in the genre. While this might not impress anyone in today's world of HD graphics and exaggerated explosions, the influential nature of the game's design is one of the most talked about within the hardcore community. Gun Frontier is regarded by some as one of the cornerstones of the shooting genre, serving as inspirational source for more acclaimed shmups such as Battle Garegga and Taito's own Rayforce, which came out a few years down the road and also have (excellent) ports on the Sega Saturn.

On the matter of Gun Frontier's excellence on the Saturn, I have already pointed out one of the discrepancies between port and arcade a few paragraphs above. The difficulty is severely toned down and offers nothing but a pale shadow of the original challenge, a disparity that's supposedly related to the complete absence of rank. Don't expect any of the suffocating enemy flocks or the deadly swarms of thin bullets anywhere throughout the credit. Also absent are some of the known tricks of the arcade version, such as the points you get when bombing at specific spots in the game. At least the part where you bomb the large planes in stage 2 is preserved, even though the checkpoint in this specific section has also been made different. It's still possible to milk it for successive points and extra lives since an extend is registered at every 20.000 points, another huge change that makes the game even easier than it already is.

Extra lives are very important for scoring because each one is converted into 30.000 points at the end of stage 5. A maximum of four lives is allowed below the score display, but you can get as many extends as possible. For a moment I thought the score would be broken, but there comes a point when the extend routine stops. Therefore players should not expect to counterstop the game in stage 2.

Gun Frontier on the Sega Saturn
(courtesy of YouTube user Archive of Game Emulation)

With no graphical downgrades whatsoever, especially when the game is played in TATE mode (it looks great), it's just baffling that Taito and Xing decided to add so many changes to this port. Although most people might say it's a disfigured take on the original game, there's nothing basically wrong with it. In a nutshell, it's got all the looks but takes a completely different route regarding difficulty. Good and bad endings are properly preserved depending on how you handle the awkward duel above the skies against the last boss: fail to kill him with your six shots and the credit is over regardless of how many lives you have in reserve, plus you're denied the 1CC; shoot him when his shields are down and enjoy a happy ending.

Anyway, if you're looking to put another easy clear under your belt take note of this particular version of Gun Frontier (the alternative for a faithful home conversion is the port included in the Taito Memories Vol. 2 compilation for the PS2, even though that one lacks TATE). Released only in Japan in a double jewel case, the Saturn CD also comes with a special booklet dedicated to strategies and secrets on the game, I just don't know if these are applicable to the Saturn version.

My final 1CC score is below, playing on Normal difficulty. It's an improvement of 84% over my previous best achieved way back when I didn't even consider myself a true shmupper. Unfortunately the disc has no save functionality and no further difficulty setting beyond Normal.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Mushihimesama Futari (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Cave in 2009

In 2009 the Xbox 360 was already established as the console to go for shmups in its generation. Nevertheless the hype surrounding the announcement and release of Mushihimesama Futari for Microsoft's console was immense. Bullet hell fans were rejoicing everywhere, myself included since I had been a longtime fan of Mushihimesama. However, upon a brief contact with Futari I thought it kinda felt too much like the first game so I didn't invest much time in it. Unsurprisingly so, I was wrong: the true nature of the sequel only starts to be unveiled once you decide to dig deep into its gameplay. And having now beaten a few of the game's modes I realize that this first impression came up due to the similar early aesthetics more than anything else (especially the soundtrack).

Besides being a great addition to the Xbox 360 library, Futari is also remarkable for its extremely gamer-friendly porting job. It was, for instance, the first Japanese-exclusive 360 title released with no region lock. And in an attempt to cater to all skill levels, it initiated the trend in Cave ports to include a "Novice" mode aimed at beginners. Granted, the content on the disc and its DLC alternatives consist in a multitude of variations of the core experience, to the point of seriously overwhelming the player with so many game modes.

Here’s a list of all variations of Mushihimesama Futari that can be played by means of the Xbox 360 disc:
  • Ver 1.5 (Arcade for low-res graphics, Xbox 360 for HD graphics) – this is the official iteration for the game, after the modifications made by Cave over its first incarnation; as usual, it includes Original, Maniac and Ultra modes.
  • Arrange (Novice and Arrange, HD graphics only) - Novice is aimed at beginners and also includes the Original, Maniac and Ultra modes; Arrange is a single-player experience that comes with all game modes and sends the fireworks display through the roof with massive bullet-cancelling mechanics and the cool ability to change characters on the fly at the press of a button; both modes have forced autobomb.
  • Black Label (Arcade for low-res graphics, Xbox 360 for HD graphics) – a stand-alone DLC than can be purchased from the Xbox Live Marketplace, this is a special development over the base game with prettier graphics, a distinct color palette and even flashier gameplay; includes Original, Maniac and God modes (the latter replacing Ultra).
  • Ver 1.01 (Arcade for low-res graphics, Xbox 360 for HD graphics) – this mode came as a DLC code in all first-print editions of the game; it’s Futari as it originally appeared on the arcades, with all the unbalanced gameplay traits duly preserved; if you think any of the Ver 1.5 modes is too easy/difficult, then you oughta try this one to put things in perspective.

Opening screen

While Mushihimesama was no pushover in the realm of intensity and flashiness, Mushihimesama Futari Ver 1.5 (the full name on the game box) manages to be even flashier thanks to an amazing upgrade that results in even more vibrant colors as well as a larger spectrum of scoring possibilities. Princess Reco is now sided with a young boy named Palm, who according to the game’s story convinces her to follow him to his village. With a few exceptions depending on the game's variation, they can be chosen in solo or co-op play in both “Normal” and “Abnormal” playing styles, a choice that represents the main departure from the gameplay of the original chapter.

The three basic inputs at the player's disposal are deemed A (shot), B (bomb) and C (autofire). According to regular Cave standards, by holding A you get a focused shot that reduces the character's speed, but in Futari that isn't always true. With each choice of character you must also select the abovementioned Normal or Abnormal shot type: reducing speed by holding A applies to all character choices except for Abnormal Reco, which achieves the same effect with input C (autofire). While that is certainly cause for confusion up front, the differences in character power and shot patterns should compensate for that. And besides the several similarities with the M- and S- power variations from Mushihimesama, you can easily notice influences from other Cave titles such as Dodonpachi (Normal Palm A shot) and Ketsui (Abnormal Reco C shot).

Depending on which kind of gamer you are, diving into the world of Mushihimesama Futari can be a journey with no brief return. I say that because there's so much diversity in each of the game's modes that you might be entertained for years just trying to perfect your performance in a few of them. They're all quite addictive, and a testament to Cave's ability in producing engaging, mesmerizing shooting experiences. In order to keep things under normal conditions in my gaming routine, my mode of choice this time was Ver 1.5 Original, even though I fiddled around with all other variations and can certainly vouch for their inherent fun factor.

Palm takes on the 3rd boss

In Original mode bullets are faster but their patterns are less dense, as opposed to the slower but more numerous bullets of Maniac mode. Survivalwise Original is much like the same mode from the first chapter, but scoring rules are totally different. There are two counters that increase as you collect golden gems from defeated enemies, and the basic rule is that to get large gems you need to destroy your targets with the C shot whenever the hundreds digit is between 0 and 4 (green counter) or with the A shot when this digit is between 5 and 9 (light blue counter); in essence, at every 500 gem count you should switch your shot type. Enemies killed with the incorrect shot result in smaller and less gems. The large/overall counter increases throughout the whole game with no ceiling, the smaller/stage counter maxes out at 9.999 and is reset in every level. Both of them tie into multiplying the base values of your kills for higher scores, but let's not forget the end-of-stage bonuses that also contribute greatly to the scoring results.

Extensions to the basics above include the bullet cancelling nature of larger enemies (all their bullets are turned into gold), collecting gems very fast when they appear to take advantage of their green aura and higher value (either idle or C shot sucks airborne gems, A shot sucks ground gems), counters decreasing during boss confrontations, loss of gem count whenever you bomb or die and a few specifics that help enhance scoring/survival, such as maximizing icicle kills in stage 2, killing the 3rd boss and 4th midboss with the C shot regardless of counter status, destroying all ground lanterns in the final level for a massive score boost and uncovering a 1UP in that same stage (do not bomb!). Speaking of extra lives, in Original mode the extends come with 35 and 100 million points. Each life in reserve is worth 10 million points when you beat the game.

With all those bug nests, huge beetles and deadly eggs pouring over the player, stage 3 is the first big challenge in any serious credit. The slingshot effect from the slowdown moments can be a serious source of anger in that particular section, as it clearly splits the game into the easygoing preamble of the first couple of levels and the slaughterhouse that unfolds afterwards. That's pretty much when the final aspect that pushes players to their limits in Original mode rears its shiny head: rank. The higher the main counter gets the faster bullets become, with max rank achieved at the 70.000 figure. In any case, the dragon-infested village of the final stage will put all your abilities of micro- and macrododging to a serious test. Be prepared.

Release trailer for Mushihimesama Futari Ver 1.5 on the Xbox 360
(courtesy of YouTube user Elixir)

So much for Original, but what about the other modes? This supposedly short essay could be much, much longer, even if we stuck to Ver 1.5 only. To keep things short, Ver 1.5 Maniac mode uses a single multiplier counter and a chaining meter that work in conjunction with how you employ your shots: use C shot to start the meter and fill it until it turns red by shooting a large enemy; while red, all enemies killed with the A shot result in many more gems to be collected; these gems increase the counter to the maximum value of 9.999 (reset in every stage); to turn counter figures into points the player then has to kill enemies with the A shot when the chaining bar is empty, thus generating blue-aura gems whose base value is multiplied by the counter value; as these gems are sucked in the counter goes down, and there you go raising it up again. Yes, Maniac mode is a complicated one at first glance. However, once you get the hang of how to survive the bullet curtains and manipulate the chaining bar for best results everything starts to click.

Ver 1.5 Ultra mode is just stupidly hard, aimed at really gifted players or masochistic people. It's got the same rules of Original mode, but the overall multiplier changes status at every 2.000 count, stage multiplier doesn't max out at 9.999 and a True Last Boss appears at the end of the game (in Black Label God mode you need to destroy all lanterns in the last stage and get to the end without dying). Both Maniac and Ultra modes have no rank whatsoever, while extend intervals are of course different from Original mode. For now I'll refrain from commenting on the other variations of Futari, suffice it to say that with the obvious exception of Ver 1.01 they're all very likely to be as fun as Ver. 1.5.

The great porting job of Mushihimesama Futari on the Xbox 360 also allows all kinds of tweaks for visuals, training and special modes. Instant replay save is possible after you finish any credit, and if you play on Score Attack your performance is saved in the online leaderboards (you can also download and watch any online run). An interesting detail about this port is that it lacks conventional difficulty settings such as Easy/Normal/Hard, etc. My copy of the game is the Limited Edition, which came with an extra 2-disc arrange soundtrack for both Mushihimesama and Mushihimesama Futari.

Below is the best 1CC result I could get on Ver 1.5 Original mode, beating the game with Normal Reco and two lives in reserve in the end. Next time I'll come back for Maniac mode on Ver 1.5 or Black Label. :)

Thursday, June 21, 2018

R-Type Delta (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Agetec in 1999

Brave pilots would never run from their duties when it comes down to the neverending war against the evil Bydo empire, especially with the possibility of boarding the cockpit of four different spaceships in a brand-new adventure. This scenario became a reality by the end of the 90s when Irem surprised their fanbase with R-Type Delta, a new game built from scratch for the Playstation and an entry that soon proved to be the peak of this beloved series - a status that stands to this day since R-Type Final failed to amass the same kind of recognition years later.

To keep it simple, R-Type Delta is one of the definitive highlights of the 32-bit era and a mandatory item in any Playstation game collection. It's noteworthy for being fully rendered with polygons, in a programming job that puts Sony hardware to great use with exquisite textures, effects, layers and colors. It pushes the franchise further while paying an extraordinary homage to its origins, all of that to the sound of an amazing soundtrack that carries a great cinematic punch. Cinematic, by the way, is a good way to describe the game as a whole. That's easily noticed if you let the opening sequence of every credit follow its course as you see your chosen name in the stats for the first mission (there are three unique save slots for different pilots, so up to three people can enjoy the game with individual performance trackings).

Emerging gloriously from the ashes of the 3D trend that plagued that generation, R-Type Delta is not only beautiful to look at but also delightful to play. It brings the arcade experience to the console format while striking the perfect balance between tough and fun. Two very important changes are the flying speed selection, which is now done at the press of a button, and the fact that you cannot die by touching walls anymore. How's that for an improvement? If you played previous chapters you'll know how much pressure that takes away from our shoulders. R-Type Delta also doesn't loop and doesn't give you any extra lives, clocking at seven stages in a progressively darker, almost nightmarish setting.

Trying to come to grips with a gigantic attack

Following the trend initiated in R-Type III, in this installment players have a selection of different ships at their disposal. The choice of ship determines most of the strategies you need to overcome the odds, even though they all come across the same items throughout the journey and these are molded after the classic gameplay from the original R-Type. Shoot and destroy carriers to collect colored items and power up your ship: the first one creates a force pod that can be docked either on the front or the back of the ship, the second one activates the power of the chosen color and the third one maxes it out. Indestructible, this "force" can be used for defense and offence, as well as be detached/thrown away and summoned back afterwards. While detached, it acts as an extension to the ship's basic firepower. The only other items you come across are M for missiles (maxed out after two pick-ups) and bits that hover above and below the ship for additional firepower.

The shot button can be charged for a powerful blast, but if you charge it long enough so that the gauge fills up a second time an even more powerful attack will be triggered when you let go of the button. New to R-Type Delta is the Δ-weapon, which is indicated by the "dose" meter and fills up as you use the force to destroy enemies. Once it reaches 100% you can deploy it as the ultimate screen-covering blast against the Bydo. All ships have unique animations for all these attack alternatives, which is quite neat and makes playing with each one of them a very distinct experience. As for gameplay inputs, they can be fully mapped in the options menu (my setup was R1 for autofire, □ for shot, × for force manipulation, L1/L2 to adjust speed and Δ to unleash the Δ-weapon).

Here's a brief description of all ships from R-Type Delta:
  • R9 a II (force: standard type) - the classic R-Type canon with all classic weapons: wave cannon (red), 3-way bouncing lasers (blue) and crawling laser (yellow); standard guided missiles; regular beam for charge blast; Δ-weapon is an all-encompassing laser strike; a detached force shoots a 5-way spread pattern.
  • RX "Albatross" (force: tentacle type) - weapons consist of straight laser (red), latching lasers (blue) and energy whip (yellow); air-to-ground missiles; impact charge blasts;  Δ-weapon is a powerful strike that distorts reality; the force now has two filaments that affect the behavior of the main shot and act as an extension to its defensive capabilities, aiming and shooting automatically at the nearest enemy when detached.
  • R13 "Cerberus" (force: anchor type) - weapons consist of straight laser (red), bending lasers (blue) and sweeping laser (yellow); power missile with slight bending ability; lightning charge blast; Δ-weapon is a series of laser bar discharges that tears everything apart; the force now behaves like a claw, linked to the ship at all times by a chain that also damages everything in its path when detached (it can also latch onto more powerful enemies if you manage to launch it correctly).
  • Pow Armor (force: bydo type) - this is the power-up carrier, unlocked as soon as you clear the game in any difficulty, continues allowed; weapons consist of a heartbeat-shaped laser (red), 6-way bouncing lasers (blue) and bouncing crawling laser (yellow); soft missiles with homing ability when maxed out; charge blast is a spread of bydo ghosts; Δ-weapon is a full barrage of creepy bydo ghosts; the force full of spikes shoots in a fixed rotating pattern when detached.

First contact
(courtesy of YouTube user MatrixAndrAla)

When you think about the amount of attention to detail in R-Type Delta it's hard not to see why this shmup is praised by so many people. Everything about it evolves gracefully, with brief cinematic intermissions highlighting key points in the levels, providing animation sequences for large enemies or simply enhancing the sense of depth and non-stop shooting action. Debris fly everywhere, backgrounds show wrecked cities and revolving wombs while mechanic beasts disrupt the environment as they get torn to shreds by your deadly firepower, all ending in a final contact with the enemy on the other side of a dimensional rift. Of special note is the recycling of many set pieces from the original R-Type in the sinister ambience of stage 5. It's just one of the aspects that make this game so epic.

Another nice improvement devised by Irem in this chapter lies in the scoring system. Whenever the force is in contact with an enemy the score increases at a steady rate, whereas every single bullet shielded by the force also gives you a few more points. On top of that, a dose meter at 100% also serves to boost the points you get from every single kill. This is excellent because the player's performance with the force is finally rewarded in a risk/reward mechanic that's completely new to the series. In my opinion that certainly gives R-Type Delta the distinction of having the best scoring system in the whole Irem catalogue.

As a complement in the top notch work on the Playstation disc, the developer provided a lot of game options and a handful of extras for those who like to unlock stuff. A special section called War Record keeps track of the pilot's performance and the items he/she has unlocked, including the animated ending sequences, a gallery for different backgrounds and a comprehensive list of achievements. It's possible to turn autosave and vibration on and off, as well as tinker with the HUD display by changing the "cockpit" option in the pause menu.

My ship of choice for the high scoring 1CC was the R9. I beat the game in the Normal difficulty (Human in the Japanese disc) and got the stats shown below, which appear briefly after the credit ends. As for the other ships, I enjoyed playing with the Pow Armor the most, it's quite fun. The RX has an extremely powerful charge attack but its yellow weapon isn't good at all in certain situations (it reminds me of the ship from X-Multiply). And with the R13 it's important to learn how to deal with the clutch-like force in order to overcome the somewhat weaker weapon selection.

Next: R-Type Final.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Adventures of Dino Riki (NES)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Hudson Soft in 1989

Life isn't easy when you're a kid living among dinosaurs and other extinct prehistoric creatures. The environment is damp, treacherous, at times arid and dry, but mostly desolate and lacking in coconuts to quench one's thirst. And if we're speaking of an NES video game, leave it to Hudson Soft to present an adventure built around this premise, starring a boy in a neverending quest to keep his wastelands in peace. The style chosen is that of a pedestrian vertical shooter, and a particularly amusing one if you ask my opinion. Note: The Japanese version came out two years earlier under the name Shin Jinrui - The New Type.

By taking control of Dino Riki, the unsung child hero of the game, players must initially face three stages filled with tough perils across a swamp area, a ruined desertic level and a fossil-laden mountain. For the 4th stage these themes return in shorter but harder versions along with a boss rush, with the last section based off the desert theme and ending with a monster fly as the ultimate final boss. The challenge is designed to put not only our shmupping dexterity to the test, but also our platforming skills. After all, in Adventures of Dino Riki jumping is as close to flying as honey is close to the beehive, and dealing with it is essential to surf a smooth learning curve, only with a little twist that might easily be taken for granted if players don't pay attention (read on).

Dude, where's my pair of wings?
(courtesy of YouTube user EightBitHD)

Controls work with shot in button A and jump in button B. A very unusual input in a true scrolling shooter, the jump is there to allow Riki to reach platforms and get to the other side of lakes and ravines, as well as to avoid quicksand traps. Jumping other things such as bullets isn't encouraged at all, it will only register as a hit. Even though the game is checkpoint-based, Riki can take some damage before dying due to the health meter mechanic. The only way to bite the dust instantly is by falling into water, falling off a cliff, getting swallowed by quicksand, getting fried by giant flames or being rammed by skeleton lizards.

In each level a characteristic ground block holds the items Riki needs to increase his chances at succeeding in his mission. These include boots (speed-up), heart (adds one more point to the health meter), meat-on-a-bone (recovers health), fist (power-up), diamonds (extra points) and star (a smart bomb that clears the screen of enemies). There are also hidden items uncovered if you shoot at their specific spots, and these can be either the bird, which grows a pair of wings on Riki's back and allows him to fly, or "macho Riki", an item that turns the character into an angrier version of himself who throws his own image at the enemies.

9 out of 10 people are sure to curse Adventures of Dino Riki due to its jump mechanic, which can very early on ruin their perception of the game. Granted, it's not easy to quickly get the timing right to land on those platforms or water-lilies under the pressure of the scrolling effect or the fact that you must move with them or you'll fall and die. There is, however, a nice little way to circumvent that during 95% of the game: the bird item mentioned above. Every single section bar a few short areas in the final level has a hidden bird for you to find and use to fly, so just take it, press the jump button once and only let it go if you want to land. Of course getting hit will trump you down and outright kill you if you're flying over a ravine or a water pond, but that's just another aspect of what makes the gameplay in this charming little title so unique.

Boots and skulls

Since every hit degrades Riki's power and speed by one level, powering up to the fullest requires picking up three fists without getting hit. From those weak starting rocks our hero progresses to axes, boomerangs and torches. Even though the boomerangs aren't that bad, carrying the torch makes the game considerably easier so do your best to keep it at all times (one important thing to have in mind is that to better enjoy Adventures of Dino Riki you need a turbo controller – mashing buttons becomes extremely tiresome especially when you're not fully powered). Avoiding hits is also the secret to gain extra lives because all it takes is to continue collecting successive diamonds without receiving damage. According to the instruction manual you need six in a row, but most of the time it takes a little more than that.

A brief observation about the scoring system: if Riki is fully powered subsequent fist icons work like the star, wiping out all enemies on screen; however, in the same vein of the grey capsules in Gradius, all enemies killed in this manner won't give you any points.

I often don't dabble about endings in shmups, but the absolute lack of even a THE END panel in this game kinda hurts the lovely atmosphere of the package. Though humble in textures, the graphics and the enemy gallery are totally in tune with the prehistoric motif, along with nice music, fair hit detection (narrow platform thresholds notwithstanding) and great use of color (blue, yellow and green define the levels). The gameplay is based off characterisc enemy waves that succeed each other in a fixed order, as in a very relaxed variation of Star Force. In the long run that favors memorization, but regardless of your muscle memory capabilities the final stage of Dino Riki is no pushover, demanding quite a bit of effort to be conquered. And when the monster fly goes down the game just starts anew, with no reward whatsoever besides the realization Riki is doomed to forever patrol those barren landscapes.

When I beat the game years ago I did it with no autofire, but this time around I used a turbo controller and I shamelessly admit I had more fun now. My new high score got a boost of 70% as I died my last life in the 2nd section of stage 3-4. Further loops come with a slightly higher bullet count and more resilient enemies; this last incremental change is what makes getting back up increasingly more difficult when you die.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Baltron (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
1 Stage (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toei Animation
Published by Toei Animation in 1986

There are a few things that don’t quite work in Baltron, but you can’t say Toei Animation didn’t try to add value to this obscure, humble shooter which only saw release in Japan. There is a cinematic opening inspired by Star Wars, complete with a scrolling text explaining the motives behind a desperate attempt at stopping villain aliens from conquering a pacific planet. On the gameplay front there is a healthy batch of inspiration drawn from arcade classics such as Defender, Scramble and Asteroids, all of which supposedly serve to spice up the action in the single long stage that comprises the whole game.

Truth be told, if you count the exit of the cave as a stage delimiter then you have seven levels seamlessly connected by non-stop action. Since the scenery doesn’t change much during half the game and there's only one final boss at the end of the stretch many people consider Baltron to be made of a unique long, loopable stage. It's kinda like Scramble itself or Transbot on the Sega Master System, only without a stage map or any strong visual identity.

To warp or not to warp?

For a game that's so simple there's surely a lot of information on screen. Up in the middle is the Defender-like scope radar that shows the threats that sneak ahead of you, which of course doesn't do much to help unless you're flying slowly. The closest you are to the right the fastest the scrolling will be, so if you lean against the left border of the screen things will pass by very slowly. While that certainly helps you survive in the beginning, it soon becomes impractical due to two factors: fuel depletion and enemies dangerously coming from behind.

Button A is responsible for firing the single shot and the air-to-ground bombs, whereas button B must be used in conjunction with the directionals to have any effect on the gameplay. When pressed with ↑ you unleash a "flash" that clears the screen of enemies, when pressed with ↓ you activate an Asteroids-like warp to skip a small portion of the level, and if used with ← and → you change the flying direction. Switching flying direction can be done at will, but the flash and the warp consume some energy and can only be used if the fuel reserve is above some markers. The limit for flash is the red marker and for warp the white marker, but you can also watch for their specific indications in the opposite side of the score counter in the HUD.

While interesting on paper, the execution of the special moves/attacks with button B is as failed as the game's attempt at emulating the gameplay of Defender. Firstly, there's no reason at all to fly left in Baltron. Secondly, the warp command is two times annoying, first because at the beginning you're prone to doing it by accident, and second because after the warp you might return in solid matter and die instantly (never use it inside the caves!).

Getting through the stages in Baltron is strangely addictive despite the bare bones nature of the gameplay. Once you learn there's only one point where it's possible to completely reload the fuel reserve this detail becomes less worrysome. Each level consists of two halves: an open area where you'll allowed to fly everywhere and a cave with varying degrees of obstacles. With the exception of one stage (4th), right before the entrance of the cave there's a pipe coming out of the ground that spews a blue canister that completely refills the fuel reserve. If you don't destroy the pipe and wait a little it will also release a yellow canister that gives temporary invincibility. The problem with these items is that they can be destroyed by your own shots, so watch out for that whenever you are low on fuel. Also don't forget that the same happens with the fluffy panda that's worth an extra life.

Star Lenion × the Bismark Empire
(courtesy of YouTube user FamicomGuide)

The incremental addition of one or two new enemies in every level is what gives Baltron its rudimentary sense of variety. Besides the omnipresent minuscule tie-fighter lookalike (Star Wars!), the bad guys also send creatures that look like paper darts, medusas and lice amongst homing saucers and invincible Capcom yasichis that reflect all shots and mean instant death if you stand still in front of them. Energy barriers fade if you manage to destroy one of their tips, and some ground/ceiling turrets seem to jam when they start blinking, so take your shot at them if this happens. All flying enemies are able to go through walls, therefore don't expect to be safe at any moment inside the caves.

Since everything about your firepower is designed around the pea shooter, as long as the player has a turbo controller at hand the complete absence of power-ups doesn't bother at all. The music is as monotonous as it gets, but when engulfed by the bleeps of the sound effects it kinda fades into the background, as does the initial lethargy the more you play the game and avoid using the B button except for the flash attack – which is when Baltron starts showing a little bit of fun. During my time with it I tried to discover if there were secrets related to some weird appearances here and there, such as a dinosaur-like creature that pops up out of nowhere, the toad in a bubble that floats halfway in stage 4 and a funny face inside a spike in the later levels. I had no success whatsoever with these strange sightings, and urge the reader to leave a comment if there's anything to be added in this regard. :)

In my best run I was able to reach the beginning of the third loop with the high score shown below. Apparently each new loop comes with a color palette swap and more aggressive enemies.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Airgrave (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selected at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Santos
Published by Santos in 1996

One of the things people mostly remember about the Playstation is the large number of 3D polygon-based games delivered by the platform. Regardless of how well they aged it's hard to deny their importance in the history of our hobby, after all 3D opened up a whole new world embraced by many and shunned by just a few oldschoolers who remained faithful to 2D sprites. There were, however, titles that tried to mix 2D sprites with 3D polygons even though they still offered pure 2D gameplay. Airgrave belongs to the most basic batch of this short-lived wave, as does Stahlfeder, Santos's other entry in the Playstation shmup library.

Airgrave's core gameplay is reminiscent of Xevious, RayForce and Soukyugurentai, with a little Sonic Wings thrown in. Unfortunately the chances of a bad first impression of this game are still relatively high. Even with a selection of different playable ships it ends up lacking the necessary character to impress, which is only worsened by the confusing control scheme and the consequential learning gap about the scoring system. Trying to compensate for that with overlong, boring dialogue intermissions might work with some people but not with me, and spoken Japanese certainly isn't to blame for that. By the way, the game never saw any release outside of its native country Japan and that says a lot about its obscurity.

I'm not in the least bothered by the blending of 2D and 3D in my video games, as long as the result feels natural and does not interfere in the gameplay. Since Airgrave belongs to the Playstation golden era, when the hype was all about 3D objects and textures, these elements needed to stick out somehow. It's only natural that bosses were the chosen ones to carry this trendy flag, but having unskippable black screen entry animations for them wasn't a wise idea at all. 3D backgrounds, on the other hand, are more subtly used. If only the developer was a little bolder the game could've shown a little more flair, as in the end of stage 3... when the graphics are starting to get interesting with nicely rendered skyscrapers the level is abruptly cut off in favor of the unskippable boss introduction.

Pilot Aine takes on the Sea Side Base

By default, button × is mapped to shoot and button ○ to activate the "overdrive" attack. Besides firing the ship's main gun, the shot input also hits the ground at a pretermined distance just like in the classic gameplay from Xevious. Playing the game like this is possible, but for a complete Airgrave experience players must enter the Options screen and activate another input for "ground/aiming": when pressed and released, this button creates a lock-on net and hits multiple targets inside it. While fine on paper, the execution of the ground/aiming resource is rather finicky due to the delay for the crosshair to actually lock onto something (especially during fast scrolling sections). The good news is that there's a grace period after the last aimed enemy is destroyed, which allows you to move on to the next target in order to keep the lock-on chain going. Since scoring is directly affected by the number of enemies killed in a single net activation, getting used to this weird aiming mechanic is absolutely mandatory for score chasers.

Another peculiarity of the ground/aiming feature is that it diverts energy from the rest of the ship's arsenal, disabling the Xevious-like ground bombs and reducing the rate of fire of the main gun whenever it's activated. That kinda makes sense, unlike the ability to switch the default shot input to "to air" in the options menu. The purpose of this is to allow the use of the main shot only, doing away with the ground bombs. Since there are sections where this type of attack is still useful and it's impossible to have "to air" and "shot" mapped in the same controller configuration (it's one or the other), all I can say is that this reeks of a leftover mess by the programming staff.

Anyway, as for the rest of the basic gameplay, items released by destroying slow-moving shuttles include shot power-up (red), ground chain-up (yellow) and shield energy recovery (blue). Four red items maximize firepower, the amount of possible ground lock-ons is shown in the AF tag and the maximum amount of energy at any given moment is six. Shield depletion means GAME OVER, so don't miss blue items and do your best to keep that meter healthy (note that players recover one health point at the start of every level). These items can also be exploited for survival because there's a short moment of invincibility that comes with the moment they're picked up.

Shooting and targeting ground enemies is the backbone of Airgrave, but sometimes it's just not enough. That's when the overdrive attack becomes useful: it boosts the ship's arsenal to a great degree by endowing it with a more powerful shot pattern and by automatically seeking ground targets if you keep the aiming button pressed. Filling up the overdrive gauge on the top of the HUD is accomplished with ground kills, and a full gauge allows up to two consecutive overdrive blasts. An "overdrive ready" message warns the player whenever the attack becomes available for use.

This is the real thing!
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade Database)

There are four ships/pilots to choose from, all of them with very specific strengths and weaknesses. Aine carries the most average stats but his shot lacks coverage; Randy is the slowest one but has the best spread with a wide aiming area; Reny is the fastest, has the most powerful overdrive attack but is shafted with a tiny and useless aiming area; Vel has a poor reach on the main shot but a very powerful ground attack. In my opinion Randy is by and large the best character as long as you're able to cope with his slow speed. He's the one leading the gang in the game cover, but all characters have dedicated dialogue lines. Storywise it all starts at a forest base, with the final objective of invading a sky fortress to defeat an evil mecha after tackling several different landscapes in between. Bullet density isn't taxing, but a few sections might cause massive slowdown (5th boss).

All things considered, if you're able to see past the game's generic setting the best aspect about Airgrave is definitely its scoring system. End-of-stage bonuses are granted based on level completion, the number of kills for a specific ground enemy (a bonus that doubles if you manage to destroy them all for a PERFECT) and a negative deduction of -2.000 points for every hit you take. Long chains with the aiming feature are still the biggest addition to the score, but some items collected in excess are also worth something (1.000 points for power-ups, 2.000 points for health recover), with ground enemies releasing special bonus medals (bronze = 1.000 points, silver = 2.000 points, gold = 3.000 points).

If asked about which Santos shmup is the best – or least disappointing – I'd probably side with Airgrave on the merits of its scoring system and an actual ounce of challenge. The only edge I'll give Stahlfeder is the soundtrack, even though Airgrave's music isn't offending by any means.

An unusual resource in the options screen for Airgrave allows players to change the color of the enemy bullets if desired (I didn't have any visibility issues whatsoever). Much more useful is the ability to set mission demo to OFF in order to get rid of all those intermission panels/dialogues (unskippable parts still remain though). My best 1CC high score was achieved with pilot Randy on the default difficulty setting (3).

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Super Cobra (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
11 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1999

A long time ago in an arcade alley far, far away, there was a scrolling shooter called Scramble. Seeing that Scramble was good, creators Konami decided to release a sequel based on the same gameplay. It was July of 1981, and this much expected evolution of Scramble flooded the company upon release. Factories had no time to stop assembling boards, and all employees had to participate in the assembly process to meet demand. The new venture was named Super Cobra, and this blog essay is another tiny love letter to this short-lived yet highly addictive franchise.

The most portentous part in the above paragraph was taken directly from the History section of the Konami Arcade Classics disc released for the North American Playstation. In bringing together ten arcade titles – of which 5 are shmups – this compilation provides a nice little window to appreciate the kind of fun these primitive games were capable to deliver, and I daresay the highlights are definitely Super Cobra and its predecessor Scramble. In the case of the sequel, those who can't see past its humble lines, the flat changing colors and the seemingly unattractive aspect of a snapshot are missing a lot. Not only does it expand the original idea in length and difficulty, but it also makes you pilot a helicopter. And since helicopters are badass Super Cobra is also super cool by default.

Invade the base and carry away booty
(courtesy of YouTube user SalaGiochi1980)

I know some people might think I'm exaggerating, but despite the jokes I do believe Super Cobra is a fine game. It has aged much better than other titles of the same era, and even today it's capable of delivering the kind of rush that combines tight gameplay, random elements and sharp reflexes in a quick romp that favors score chasing. Granted, once again it's necessary to handle a fuel reserve, an aspect that slowly disappeared from the genre as the overall arcade scenario leaned towards more straightforward shooting experiences. However, dealing with fuel recovery was rarely as well implemented as in both these games.

Once Super Cobra is selected from the main menu a brief instruction panel is shown prior to starting the game. Controls aren't reconfigurable and work with ○ for shot and × for missiles. The screen scrolls at a steady pace, making you maneuver through hills, caves, valleys and above rooftops as you face all sorts of ground and aerial opposition. Freedom of movement exists in the left half of the screen only, so watch out for that when flying the helicopter to the far right against walls (it's very common to die because you crashed onto something that should've passed already).

Besides dealing with all sorts of hazards, players also have to cope with the abovementioned fuel mechanic. In essence it's pretty simple: just destroy the fuel tanks on the ground to keep refilling the fuel gauge. If fuel reserve gets low a typical alarm will sound, and if it depletes completely the helicopter will plummet to a horrible, fiery death. It's not uncommon to give in to despair when the fuel alarm goes off, especially when all fuel tanks are located in hilly areas and you're forced to fly high. Missiles have a very specific descending arch and their drop is affected by the chopper's movement, in a primitive yet very neat way of infusing motion physics in the gameplay. Just remember you can only have two of them at once on screen, which is in fact the reason why I did not activate turbo fire for button ×. Aiming is certainly more important than firing rate in this case.

Main screen for Konami Arcade Classics

With 10 stages and a final level where you need to collect the "booty" in order to loop the game while winning an extra life, Super Cobra is not only longer than Scramble but also a tad harder. Every level has a very specific theme or enemy, and all of them require different approaches for better survival chances. The more comfortable you get with the game the more you realize the importance of aiming in order to proactively destroy the turrets that fire those nasty 45º shots. With the exception of one area where they don't shoot, they're a very unpredictable foe just like the hovering mines in stages 3/4, the falling rocks/bats of stage 5 and those damn saucers in stage 8. Stage 9, on the other hand, doesn't add anything new to the game and is so short that feels like something thrown in to take maximum advantage of the allocated ROM memory.

Besides the life gained with the loop there is only one score-based extend registered at the 10.000 points mark. Unlike what happened with Scramble, whose version in this compilation is actually the tougher Stern variant, Super Cobra plays just like in the arcade ROMs floating around the internet. The Konami Arcade Classics disc itself is presented in a bare-bones fashion, with an animated intro and a simple interface. In the global options it's possible to save/load (manually) and switch off feedback a.k.a. controller vibration – a nice thing to do in Super Cobra unless you want to play with something that feels like a transforming Gremlin.

As expected, I had a great time with this charming little game. It can be infuriating at times and induce bouts of restartitis on the side, but it's also loads of fun. I love the sound effects to the point I don't even care about the absence of music. My best run ended in stage 2-5, as per the picture shown below.