Friday, September 8, 2017

S.C.A.T. (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Natsume
Published by Natsume in 1991

Have you ever wondered what would happen if Contra merged with Forgotten Worlds? Well... S.C.A.T. is one of the possible answers. In fact, it's as if the characters from Contra had suddenly acquired the ability to fly, and given the sci-fi backdrop we could even take this game as a spin-off evolution for Konami's platformer classic. Known as Final Mission in Japan and Action in New York in Europe and Australia, S.C.A.T. is a short for Special Cybernetic Attack Team, the last hope of mankind against the threat brought about by an alien invader called Vile Malmort.

Yes, the name also reminded me of that little literary phenomenon about a wizard kid.

Let it be known that I have played the North American released of S.C.A.T., whose differences to the other versions go a little beyond what could be called merely aesthetical. The most evident visual change from the original release titled Final Mission is that in S.C.A.T. you can assume the roles of either "Arnold"or "Sigourney" as you start the credit. The game rides high on the movie hype and even shows their likenesses in the character selection screen for a 1-player campaign (when in co-op player 1 will always be Arnold and player 2 will always be Sigourney). In game there's no difference at all between them except for sprite color (he is blue, she is orange/red). Still on the movie hype thing, note how Back to the Future is openly referenced at the title font.

The Earth is counting on you! Good luck!
(courtesy of YouTube user Video Game Previews)

Since you start playing on a devastated New York and proceed into outer space territory, the game certainly shows a neat environment progression that loosely matches the increase in difficulty. Button B is used to fire while button A locks and unlocks the firing position of the twin satellites that move above and below the character. It's not possible to lock the character firing direction as in other bidirectional shooters, so a little bit of caution must be used to take care of all incoming hazards. That's when the secondary shot provided by the twin satellites is useful, since they can hit enemies positioned in different angles.

By destroying a small gray crate an item is uncovered for immediate pick-up. Don't wait too long to collect the desired ones, for they will soon catch up with the scrolling speed and go away. Weapon types consist of L (laser), W (wide spread) and B (bomb). My favorite one is the wide shot because it combines the faster firing rate of the laser with the power of the bomb. The instruction manual says the laser can shoot through some walls but that poses no advantage when the weapon is simply so weak, whereas the concussive force provided by the explosive bombs suffer from a capped shooting rate of only one shell at a time. None of these weapons can be upgraded nor have any influence on the firepower of the satellites.

The remaining item types appear as S (speed-up) and R (health recovery). Speed-ups can be collected at will because the characters will never move too fast. Each R refills three slices of the health meter, which should never reach zero or else it's instant GAME OVER. At the start of the credit you get six health/life blocks, and besides collecting the recovery items you also get extra single refills at predefined scoring intervals, which I assume to be 10.000 points. The reason for the "assuming" part is that the score isn't shown anywhere while you're playing, only at the establishing panel prior to the start of the level.

Arnold Schwarzenegger takes on the orbiting platform

Stages in S.C.A.T. are of decent length for an 8-bit shmup, but the game feels very short nonetheless. Named the "Astrotube", stage 3 has a vertical part where you fly really fast inside an ascending shaft towards outer space; unfortunately visibility takes a little punch there because the color choices aren't the most reasonable. In stage 4 players fly around a huge battleship with lots of cheap lasers that enter the screen already shooting and give little to no response time for reaction; the tip is to remain as close to the battleship's hull as possible, after all there's no harm in touching surfaces. Beware of the scenery though, instant GAME OVER occurs if you get stuck and caught up by the scrolling effect.

In the final area the challenge picks up a notch, with blue lasers fired from invincible turrets bouncing around the screen and leaving little room for maneuvering. I had to continue a few times there to get comfortable with the level. As for bosses, they're all quite varied and at times creepy, but none of them offers any decent resistance whatsoever. Besides the fitting soundtrack, the boss gallery is the aspect that reminds me the most of Natsume's previous NES shooter Abadox. There are a few other traits that seem to bleed over between both titles, but in general S.C.A.T. comes off as more generic and doesn't feel as accomplished as Abadox. For its shallow nature at least it's reasonably fun, something that can't be said about Japanese Final Mission: that one has only three health cells, weaker weapons, severe power-down penalties and no recovery items at all. Ouch.

The opening moments of S.C.A.T. include a cool animated intro and a digitized voice message cheering players after the mission is started. That goes a long way in setting the mood for what's to come, but I wish the consumed resources had been used for more noble *shooting* purposes. My final 1CC score using Arnold is below (don't reset the console or that hi-score number will be reset as well).

Friday, September 1, 2017

Gradius IV (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
8 Difficulty levels
9 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by KCET in 2000

With the release of this compilation in 2000, Gradius fans were finally getting the cream of the crop in regards to the arcade chapters of the series. Most interesting is the fact that Gradius IV had been released just a year prior, exactly 10 years after Gradius III and a couple of years since Gradius Gaiden had hit the previous video game generation on the Playstation. I'd certainly be thrilled to play an arcade-perfect port so soon after launch, even though these days the general concensus is that the fourth arcade chapter falls a little flat in its attempt to continue the legacy held by Gradius Gaiden. This is certainly debatable, but regardless of any relative merits gamers ought to pay respect to Gradius IV, after all it still stands as the last Gradius game ever released for the arcades.

By choosing to play Gradius IV in this disc players are welcomed by a rather different experience to the one posed by the excruciating Gradius III. Up front there’s the higher resolution for graphics and a series of neat graphical effects. Coupled with a more straightforward set of gameplay options, these aesthetical refinements end up creating a very distinct visual identity, one that builds upon the colorful design of Gradius Gaiden while recycling a few key areas of previous chapters. Checkpoints are still to blame for the perceived excessive difficulty, but the good news is that no matter where you die in Gradius IV it will always be possible to get back up with some practice and patience. This alone corrects one of the issues that made arcade Gradius III such a legendary nightmare... Impossible checkpoints are a bitch and not so many people are willing to deal with them.

This time around Vic Viper returns to battle all alone with fixed weapon configurations, as opposed to the different ship types and weapon edit modes of Gradius III and Gradius Gaiden. There are six variations to choose from, plus the mandatory choice of shield or force field. Regardless of the chosen configuration, all upgrades are applied with collected power-up capsules and proper management of the weapon array, which evolves in the following order: speed-up, missiles, double/tailgun, laser, options, shield. Screen-clearing gray capsules appear from time to time, as well as the option thief bug if you manage to survive long enough while powered up to the max.

A postcard from battle

The first four configuration/ship types have already been seen in previous games and are very familiar, but the last two come with some new ideas. Type 5 introduces vertical mines as missiles, which take advantage of the ship's momentum so that players can perform crazy stunts with them. Type 6 has flying torpedoes that are naturally fired forward when using rapid missile, or travel vertically and dart forward by holding and releasing the missile button (not rapid); upon touching surfaces the flying torpedoes will then move forward. I dabbled a bit with them and then decided for type 6, but the determining factor was the laser: type 5 has a long pink laser that takes forever to recharge, whereas type 6 comes with the best laser in the game, plus the much useful tailgun instead of double. For button layout I had rapid shot/missile set to ×, missile set to □ and power-up set to R2.

By the way, there's a common idea about Gradius IV that all lasers suck when compared with the default shot, except for type 6's twin laser.

In keeping with the tradition of the arcade titles, double upgrades for missiles and laser as seen in Gradius Gaiden are gone. Rank is still in place and contributes a lot to the increase in difficulty the more powered up you are and the longer you survive. If you play the game long enough it's possible to know how hairy things are gonna get depending on your performance. Fortunately, as mentioned above, Gradius IV will never make you outright give up on certain checkpoints as Gradius III did, and that's a great plus in my opinion. Never mind how stage select mode is obtained here (by 1CCing the game, altered lives/difficulty allowable), after I got it unlocked I used it only for a short while on the moai level. Then I decided to hammer the game the old fashioned way, that is, by continuing multiple times and as long as I needed to get comfortable with every single stage.

Speaking of stages, allow me to break them down and add some insights for reference:
  1. Liquid metal – The opening stage screams of Gradius II all over, in fact it seems to be just a repaint of the first level from that game. The boss has three different second forms, all quite easy although one of them gives a few more points for some mild milking.
  2. Plant – The biological environment is quite distinct from the plant stages seen in previous chapters. There's this cool type of plant that shrinks when hit and bursts out with a slingshot effect unless you’re able to destroy its base roots first.
  3. Bubble – A beautiful level made very tricky by the mixing of bubbles from Gradius III and ice cubes from Gradius II. Dismantling large bubbles isn’t as simple as it was before, nor is it that easy to navigate around the indestructible ice cubes. The idea is to keep the left side of the screen free of bubbles so that the ice cubes will drift away to the left. For the boss the most important thing is to prioritize the bubbles and not the core, since the boss moves slowly and its lasers can be easily avoided.
  4. Magma – The second half of this stage is what attracted my attention and made me want to finally play Gradius IV. It’s kinda like flying into the innards of the sun, you can almost feel the heat when weaving through the volcanoes moving over the lava stream.
  5. Moai – If there’s a reason why I hate moai, this is it. They must also hate me back, for this time they’re even able to reform themselves upon death in the second part of the level. Jokes aside, this is the busiest and most intense stage in the game, borderline frightening for an outsider. My strategy was to use laser, devise a basic route for at least 70% of the level and never stay put unless there’s a wall protecting me. Laser is also great against the boss if you manage to clear the way to his mouths before they open.
  6. Cell – Another level where despair is a constant companion. The spores breaking out of destroyed pipes/arteries are almost as annoying as the moai statues, and the return of the tentacle creatures from Gradius in the second half is overwhelming at high rank. After a couple of deaths you’d better just avoid the things and let them move away. I quite like the fight against boss Berial because he makes you move around a lot, which reminds me of Crystal Core.
  7. High speed – It took me some time to finally come to grips with the moving parts of the level. The very last section also needed some careful maneuvers because I only used two speed-ups. As for the boss, it’s actually one of the easiest foes in the game if you get there with at least three options.
  8. Boss rush – Finally a boss rush that understands players, you don’t have to fight the defeated enemies anymore! The bad news is that the pre-stage with the capsule blocks that home into the ship is probably the hardest one in the whole series.
  9. Fortress – Even though it’s got its share of tight passages, hatches and cannons, the final stage in Gradius IV is a lot less stressing than, say, the final stage of Gradius III, not to mention shorter and totally approachable upon death. The final tricky part is a new section with spring-loaded cylinders, after that you proceed to an easy take on the mechanical beast prior to the grand finale.
To the fortress on one life, then panicking through the rest of the credit

Looking back in retrospect, Gradius IV had it all to be the best title in the series. There are however a few key aspects that undermine its appreciation, especially for seasoned fans. One of them is the evident unbalance in difficulty, made explicit by some petty boss encounters and a couple of challenge spikes that feel clearly displaced. Case in question: moai and cell. Given how oppressive these stages are, seeing them for the first time at full rank can be frightening. I was in awe of how much pressure one has to endure there! And then when you get past that you face a comparably easier stretch until reaching the final fortress. I certainly can't complain, but this definitely isn't good for the game's pace/flow. As for bosses, Rolling Core (high speed) and Planet Core (boss rush) are a disappointment. Fortunately all other bosses are relatively engaging, except for the first and the last ones of course. The other minor aspect that might cause some controversy is the soundtrack, which is nice but gets kinda sappy in the final stage.

When coming directly from Gradius III, as was my case, the fourth chapter certainly feels more relaxed and less hard even though it's not an easy game by any means. Like I mentioned above, it obviously wins lots of points for having no impossible checkpoints, but it still has them and getting comfortable with the most delicate ones can take quite some time. As usual, Gradius fans will feel at home while neophites will feel the pain and most probably yell in protest. The extend routine starts at 70.000 points, continues at 150.000 points and proceeds with extra lives awarded at every 150.000 points afterwards, so it's not that many extra chances in a first loop campaign. The second loop brings lots of changes in the scenery, to the point that it feels like a completely different game and a completely distinct challenge.

On the scoring side of things, the game is even more simple than its predecessors. Power-up capsules are worthless, and enemies killed with the gray capsule don't result in any points whatsoever. A little milking is possible in certain areas or bosses, but nothing major. What's most important, as it has always been with this series, is the sense of fun and the larger than life feeling of defeating a powerful enemy against all odds. It feels grand, it makes you feel powerful like few other old school shmups do.

The Gradius IV branch in the Gradius III and IV disc has the abovementioned stage select feature unlocked with a 1CC (which also unlocks a boss rush mode), auto save and the ability to choose full screen or the original arcade resolution (which produce minor horizontal bars on a regular TV). Since the game already runs at its native speed, a wait/slowdown option like the one seen in Gradius III does not apply here. My final high score was obtained in difficulty 4 (medium), type 6 configuration + force field, arcade resolution. I was able to reach stage 2-2.

Next: Gradius V.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Blue Wish Resurrection (PC)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by X.X Game Room
Published by X.X Game Room in 2006

Blue Wish Resurrection is the first PC freeware game I am covering in the blog, and for very good reasons. The main one is that it's loads of fun. And then there's the fact that you can run it on pretty much any computer, anywhere. Finally, in my opinion it represents a great starting point for people who want to get into the world of bullet hell shooters, and here's the direct download link if you want to check it before reading any further. Just unzip the file anywhere, find the executable and run it (for fullscreen change the first character of screen.txt from 0 to 1).

This game is an evolution to Blue Wish, which was released in 2005, and comes before a final iteration called Blue Wish Resurrection Plus, last updated in 2008. They were all created by the same one-man Japanese developer and owe a lot to the works by Cave, most notably Dodonpachi (treatment of weapons) and Ketsui (bullet patterns / scoring system), with lesser contributions by Mushihimesama (game modes), Espgaluda (Accel mode) and even Giga Wing (Blue Hope shot pattern similar to Sinnosuke's).

The inspiration sources mentioned above should be enough to warrant anyone's trust in the quality of this game, even though it doesn't shine in any particular way regarding the graphic design. As implied by its name, a blueish hue permeates the graphics in Blue Wish Resurrection, and while the humble art certainly gets the job done what really shines is the non-stop action dictated by an ever-growing amount of enemy bullets and a good deal of intensity, which of course represents one of the main reasons why Cave games are so rewarding gameplaywise.

Where do I go from here, boss?

First of all you need to configure three essential inputs: (focused) shot, bomb and full auto (autofire). By keeping shot pressed the speed of the ship will be reduced, whereas bombs behave differently depending on which type of shot you're using. If idle or using full auto a round bomb blast will be detonated right in front of the ship, while a bomb deployed when using shot will greatly enhance your firepower for a few seconds. Both bomb types make the ship immediately invincible during their respective animations. Cave fans will be right at home here, since this is the same scheme used in almost all vertical shooters made by the company.

Game modes consist of Heaven, Original, Hell and Accel. Heaven is aimed at beginners, Original is your regular bullet hell shooter and Hell is kinda like the Ultra mode from Cave games. Accel mirrors the effect of the kakusei overmode from Espgaluda, which makes bullets increase speed as they travel farther, and is chosen by pressing down when the cursor is over Hell. There are initially two ships to choose from, Blue Wish and Blue Hope, which differ mostly in the way the regular shot works. P items are responsible for upgrading firepower, B items grant you extra bombs and golden cubes add to the bonus counter at the top of the screen. Besides these basic gameplay rules a few common staples of the bullet hell shooter are also present in Blue Wish Resurrection, such as the ship's hitbox appearing as you play (focused shot keeps it on even when you're moving) and the presence of health bars for all large enemies so that you know how much damage you need to inflict in order to destroy them.

When talking about the amount of damage on large enemies we automatically go beyond mere survival and enter the domain of the scoring system, which is of course where all shmuppers are bound to arrive eventually. Anyway, the death of a large enemy cancels all nearby bullets (sometimes all on-screen bullets) and turns them into bonus golden cubes. Timing these events in order to convert the maximum amount of bullets must be one of the objectives for score-driven players. Also important and kinda related is point blanking, since the farther you are from the top of the screen the lower the value of the golden cubes will be. Finally, every level has several hidden ground fountains from which golden cubes emerge and are sucked into the ship as long as they're on screen. Just fly over the terrain and shoot these hidden spots to uncover them - obviously the sooner you uncover the chests the more cubes you'll collect in the end.

One of the features that makes Blue Wish Resurrection friendly to beginners is "auto guard". Activated by default, auto guard is a resource that prevents you from dying by sacrificing one of your bombs while wiping all enemy bullets. This means that if you have 5 bombs in stock you can get hit 5 times before biting the dust in the final blow. Even though using auto guard is perfectly okay and certainly helps players achieve the much desired 1-credit clear, it also brings a bit of laziness to the table because it inevitably reduces the importance of bombing. On the other hand, "guarding" is detrimental to scoring because each extra life upon game completion is worth 2 million points instead of the 2,5 million you get with auto guard set to OFF. Regardless of having it on or off there's a 1/3 penalty loss in cube count whenever you get hit, which of course leads us to the conclusion that bombing is always better than guarding when playing for score.

Blue Hope, Original mode, auto guard OFF
(courtesy of YouTube user Giest118)

As one can see, the risk/reward ratio is finely interwoven into the mechanics of the game. Speaking of Original, my chosen game mode, the jump in difficulty from one level to the next represents one of the most clear difficulty slopes I've ever seen in the genre, in that the leaps in bullet speed/density and enemy aggression require immediate stepping up from the player. There is no rank, no such thing as point blank safe zones exist and slowdown is nowhere to be seen (intentional or not, in Windows 10 at least). Halfway into the game you are already required to perform at least some minor crowd control in order to survive, let alone study realiable ways to come out alive from the most intricate boss/mid-boss patterns without bombing because, you know, at the end of the level you get several bonuses for number of lives, bombs and cube count, among others. Note: cube count starts decreasing during every boss battle, so a compromise must be made between speed-killing and timing the destruction of boss parts in order to finish the level with the maximum amount of cubes possible.

Besides the regular score-based extends granted with 4 and 10 million there's a hidden 1UP to be taken in stage 3, which is the only essential secret players need to know: uncover all 10 cube fountains within the level and fire in the middle of the screen right before the boss with regular shot. Other minor secrets consist of a different ship color (press bomb instead of shot at the selection screen), new ships unlocked by beating/1CCing the game in Heaven and Original modes and a true last boss only unlocked by 1CCing Hell mode starting at least in stage 5. For those who care, extra ships and the TLB can be accessed faster by means of a couple of cheat files provided by the developer (check them here). All other pertaining data regarding the game can be found here, whereas data on all games by X.X Game Room can be found here. It's all in Japanese, but Google Translate is our friend.

Make no mistake, this is the best free and fun bullet hell shooter you're bound to get. Even with the brutal action of its final stretch, Blue Wish Resurrection definitely has that one-more-go factor that comes with all great shooters, catered to all skill levels thanks to the different modes available. In the beginning I used to switch the songs in the game to my favorite rock tunes (just replace them in the correct folder), but ultimately decided to go with the original soundtrack, an energetic collection of tunes that perfectly fit the action. The ability to save/watch replays is very welcome (saving is disabled if you pause though), as well as a practice mode for all stages and bosses you're able to reach in a normal credit. Players can also change the color of enemy bullets and alter the volume of music and sound effects in the options.

My high scores for Original mode playing with Blue Wish are pictured below, with the best one achieved with auto guard ON. To my sadness only the analog pad of my Xbox 360 controller worked, but alas! At one point I had auto guard OFF for the sake of forcing myself to properly learn the game, then switched it back on so that I could have the leeway of not dying for common mistakes, a more advantageous condition for players of my skill level.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Whip Rush (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Vic Tokai
Published by Renovation in 1990

The year is 2222 AD. Earth is under attack by the Voltegians, another alien menace that's about to crush our little planet into oblivion. As the pilot of the small spaceship Whip Rush, you're Earth's only hope of escaping a dreadful fate. So gear up and prepare to dart into a series of treacherous environments in a mission that owes more than it seems to R-Type, while building upon the rudimentary mold seen in Arrow Flash.

Regarding the console part of the previous sentence, it's clear to me that Sega must have had a powerful say in Whip Rush despite most sources stating the game was solely developed by Vic Tokai. In any case, it's easy to dismiss Whip Rush as another run of the mill 16-bit shmup. Graphics (simple) and music (mostly grating and unremarkable) are to blame for that, but as it sometimes happens with such games this is one of those cases where the act of pursuing a high score definitely shines. Behind the humble aesthetics lies a scoring system that's cleverly designed to reward the player's performance, as well as a difficulty slope that's a lot more obtuse than in your average 16-bit blaster.

In short, clearing Whip Rush isn't supposed to be hard. Scoring well, on the other hand, is a completely different matter.

The asteroid field of stage 4

All three original buttons in the Mega Drive controller are used to handle the spaceship. Fire with B, set flying speed with A and control the options with C (this setup is customizable). Autofire is enabled by default, there are 8 speed settings and a small gallery of power-ups makes it simple to manage your arsenal. Upon releasing an item it always cycles in the following order: L (laser weapon) → M (missile weapon) → F (fireball weapon) → P (power claw / option) → L → etc. Upgrading any of the three weapons is achieved by picking up successive items of the same type, a process that's maxed out once the third power-up is collected. If you get hit when using one of these weapons you're sent back to the default shot, only dying when hit in that condition.

Up to two options can be activated by collecting the P item, and while they naturally add more firepower to the bare ship it's the use of the C button that really makes them an incredible attack resource. Note that they don't possess any defensive capabilities and also don't cause any damage on contact when resting in their native spots. That said, the effect of the C button depends on whether you're firing or not. Whenever you're firing, options will bounce outward and inward really fast in a "whipping" effect, spreading your firepower and finally causing damage to the targeted enemies. If the ship is not firing, each press of the C button alternates option alignment from vertical to horizontal and vice-versa, thus slightly changing the reach and the firing pattern of your current weapon.

Though not bombastic in any specific area or section, Whip Rush has it all in terms of variety in the stage design, which gets more and more claustrophobic as the game progresses. The wide open screens of the first stages are nowhere to be seen in the second half of the game, which is prone to changing environments and scrolling direction more than once in the same level. Expect caverns, water, fortresses and moving blocks galore, as well as bosses that grow in size and ability to cover their weak spots. Did I say Whip Rush owes a lot to R-Type? Well, it does. And it does it really well if we consider inspiration alone.

With extends given with 50.000, 100.000 points and at every interval of 100.000 points after that, it's easy to see that life counter inflating after a while. Even more important for the scoring side of things is the fact that each remaining life is converted into 100.000 points upon beating the game. And considering that every surplus power-up of the same weapon type is worth 5.000 points once you're maxed out, cruising through the game unscathed should be every score chaser's primary aim (every time you get hit you'll lose at least 15.000 points, for example).

Deliver mankind from doom!
(courtesy of YouTube user FunCade 64)

A few factors are responsible for taking Whip Rush off the batch of regular 16-bit shooters. One of them is the exquisite balance between weapons. They are all useful but none of them will make you feel completely comfortable. The laser is the strongest one, but lacks any sort of rear firepower. Missiles are somewhat weaker, but can fire backwards and possess a faint homing ability. Unfortunately both laser and missiles lack a vertical shot, such as the one that comes with an option-laden default gun. On the other hand, this is somewhat provided by the counter-directional nature of the fireball, an all-around weapon that requires a higher degree of control to be properly used.

Rank is the other fine aspect of Whip Rush. If you manage to go on without getting hit the game will become harder and enemies will shoot more and more frequently. The aggression increase is rather subtle though, and mostly unnoticeable if you're constantly getting shot and having to repower the ship. Speaking of power-ups, note how the ship glows briefly whenever you pick up an item: at that very moment you're invincible, which means you can get through bullets and walls unharmed. Taking advantage of this extremely cool feature is definitely possible in several points throughout the game.

I admit it took me a long time and a little push from a few shmupper friends to play Whip Rush again, but I'm glad I did it. It's more fun than I had initially thought, and it also has what it takes to offer a decent challenge for the more ambitious players. My best 1CC high score on Normal difficulty was improved by 109%.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Soldier Blade (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Hudson Soft
in 1992

Whenever a video game series reaches its fourth chapter it's only natural for fans to expect nothing but greatness, is it not? I can't be considered a fan, but to me this is especially true in regards to the Star Soldier franchise, after all I wasn't the least thrilled by Final Soldier, the third game. The formula of Super Star Soldier seemed to have been copypasted without much enthusiasm, to the point where this particular style of sterile, alien landscapes started to feel samey.

That said, I'm glad I decided to tackle the next chapter right away, for not only does Soldier Blade dismiss the "final" epitaph from its predecessor, but it also presents shooting action over terrains that feel more down to earth. Granted, the overall style hasn't changed much, but the game certainly goes beyond the emphasis on sci-fi by adding a few military-themed areas and some sections with nice parallax scrolling. In addition to that, as it's possible to assert from the amount of influences seen both in the graphics and the gameplay, it was very wise from Hudson Soft to take a look at what the other companies were doing at the time.

In keeping with the series tradition, besides the main game the HuCard also includes 2 and 5 minute caravan modes. Gameplay rules aren't the same for all of these modes though. When playing caravan you're stuck with the vulcan weapon and it's not possible to sacrifice power-ups for special attacks as you do in the main course.

Blades over stars

The neverending battle for peace against outer space alien enemies is resumed as if nothing had changed, except for the arsenal your spaceship carries in its heroic quest. Commands work with shot in button II, special attack in button I and speed selection with SELECT (out of just two settings: low or high). There are three weapon types that change according to the color of the currently active power-up: classic Star Soldier 5-way vulcan shot (red), spread laser (blue) and wave shot (green). It takes only two power-ups of equal color to achieve maximum power, with every subsequent item of the same color resulting in a smart bomb that clears the screen of bullets and small enemies. Once any power-up is collected a single auxiliary invincible shadow ship starts trailing you around, improving your firepower a bit and blocking regular bullets. Every hit taken degrades firepower by one level, while deaths only occur if the ship is at its weakest condition.

I especially mentioned "currently active" above because of the way special attacks work. In the lower right corner there's a display that shows the last three collected power-ups. By pressing button I the current weapon is sacrificed into a special attack: if you're using vulcan the option homes in on the closest enemy, if you've got wave the option turns into a green cloud that travels around the screen damaging whatever lies in its path, if you've got laser the result is a thick laser beam. The good news is that the ship remains invincible during the whole special attack animation, and you can track how long it lasts by means of a small gauge that appears in the upper left corner of the screen. When the special attack is over the next weapon/power-up type in line takes over.

At first this mechanic of sacrifing weapons for special attacks doesn't seem to be so important. But once you get used to the different weapon types and the way they work you start noticing how well designed it actually is. Successively triggering all kinds of special attacks whenever you see a power-up coming is lots of fun, with the added benefit of making survival a tad easier if you're wise on your weapon choices. Most players will propably stick with the coverage provided by the blue laser inspired by Truxton, even though the other ones aren't too shabby either (the wave shot is clearly inspired by Thunder Force III). However, the best special attack by far is the vulcan's, simply because you're still allowed to shoot during the attack unlike with laser or wave. A vulcan special attack + point-blanking can be devastating against bosses, that's why a power-up stock of laser at the bottom and 1 or 2 vulcans at the front sounded like the perfect choice for me. Wave shot gets totally shafted in the end because its special attack is too slow against foes that move around a lot.

Soldier Blade's opening intro
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Just like in other Hudson Soft / Compile shooters, Soldier Blade has that split-second invincibility whenever you take a power-up. It does preserve the style of previous chapters while incorporating new elements that hint at a few external influences. I mentioned some of them above, but there's also an underlying touch of Raiden everywhere (the bridges above the city in stage 3 are a prime example) and a strong nod to MUSHA in stage 4. Bosses are obvious lightlights, often presenting themselves as multi-jointed ships that must be dismantled limb by limb. The final boss pesters you throughout the whole game in between mid-boss encounters, and upon defeat says "I'll be back" in a glorious scratchy digitized voice. And I know this might sound like a stretch, but the opening of the game has the honor of predating the awesome cinematics of the iconic opening to Thunder Force IV.

Difficultywise Soldier Blade shows a steady challenge slope with a generous extend scheme. The first extend comes with 100.000 points, and further ones will register at every 200.000 points afterwards. Dying can be severely aggravating though, even with that lone power-up that's left behind as your ship explodes. Bosses that tend to fill the screen with all sorts of attacks are particularly threatening, but only until you figure out their patterns. In any case, using special attacks wisely and trusting the protection provided by the option are the best advices players are bound to get when trying to beat this game.

Basic scoring is very straightforward, but unfortunately this is yet another case where the overall scoring system is broken. There are several boss encounters where it's possible to milk projectiles ad eternum with the use of the blue weapon (an easy example is in one of the phases of the tank boss in the third stage). Even though this certainly chips away some of the goodness in it, there's no doubt that Soldier Blade still stands as the most fun chapter of the series in HuCard form. The next installment is on the Nintendo 64 in the form of Star Soldier - Vanishing Earth, but there's also the spin-off comical spoof Star Parodier, which was released soon after Soldier Blade for the PC Engine CD.

And below is my second 1CC score for this episode (Normal difficulty). When the game halts at the final message after the credits just press SELECT + START to go back to the start screen and check out your high score.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Final Soldier (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Hudson Soft
in 1991

Another chapter in the Soldier series of shooting games, Final Soldier follows Super Star Soldier and thus keeps the franchise in the realm of the PC Engine console. There is a story going on involving aliens coming from the future to conquer Earth during the 23rd century and bla-bla-bla... That's the reason why the first stage takes place in what's called "future zone", which is then followed by our regular landscapes on the desert, over the ocean, in an urban area and then back to outer space and weird environments for the rest of the ship's mission.

Gameplay inputs consist of shot (button II), option explode (button I) and speed switch (SELECT, three settings available). Shot type is determined by the items you pick up from destroyed carriers, which include V (vulcan), L (laser), E (e-beam) and F (flamethrower), as well as auxiliary missiles (M) and options that provide extra firepower (a canister-like icon). What's specific to this chapter within the series is the fact that you can assign different behaviors to the L, E, F and M weapons in the SET-UP options at the start screen, prior to beginning the credit. So with the exception of the classic 5-way vulcan shot, the trademark of the series, each weapon can have three variations that work very distinctly from each other.

The process of weapon upgrading is very simple: just stick to the same item and collect two of them to reach maximum power. Every time you get hit the ship gets downgraded by one level, which means you die when shot at a default condition. While this is a very lenient scheme for a disguised health bar, dying in the busiest levels can be extremely aggravating because you're always respawned with the weakest ship configuration. That often leads to multiple deaths if you're not familiar with the area, leaving you close to a GAME OVER because the extend routine will "only" grant four extra lives throughout the whole credit, all of them acquired by the time you reach 600.000 points. Yes, Final Soldier can be considered one of the easiest in the series, but not due to excessive extra lives.

Attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

By pressing button I the player is able to sacrifice one of the options into a spiralling bomb with great destructive effect. It's an excellent way to deal with lots of enemies at once as well as inflicting damage on bosses. Speaking of which, they're preceded by one of more mid-bosses and are often quite large, making players move a lot around the screen. Some of them even offer several phases of resistance, such as the very last boss. He pesters the player during the whole final level while a seizure-inducing background scrolls by really fast as he comes and goes surrounded by a series of cannon fodder. And even though all boss fights are preceded by an ominous Darius-esque warning of ENEMY APPROACHING, I swear the announcer actually says AVIAN APPROACHING. Indeed there are a few bosses that can be categorized as "avian", but the overall game design does not emphasize this aspect at all.

Going all the way with maxed out weapons without getting hit and without sacrificing options is the key to achieving high scores the regular way. Each extra option collected is worth 1.000 points, and 2.000 points is what you get for an extra weapon power-up. Unfortunately the scoring in Final Soldier is broken: very early on you can exploit the first boss for his destructible projectiles, just kill the first mecha and damage the second one to the point he starts spewing lots of bullets, then park your ship on either side with a weapon of narrow reach or short range capability.

Even though there's nothing funtamentally wrong with Final Soldier besides the broken scoring system, there's no doubt the game suffers a bit from lack of character. On the outside very little seems to have changed from Super Star Soldier, except for maybe a little more color. Of all weapons available my feeling was that the best one for pretty much all situations is still the good old 5-way shot; the laser is too narrow and all flame variations are just too slow, but at least the e-beam can still be of some use due to its bending nature. As positive points, stages are of considerable length and the soundtrack certainly shines in the second half of the game.

Wiper electrical rings, lettuce flavor

For those who care, the HuCard includes the famous 2-minute and 5-minute Caravan modes, complete with those endless stretches of colored tiles and lots of staggering orbs like the ones seen in GunHed and Super Star Soldier. These modes are actually so different and detached from the game itself that I can't help but wonder if Hudson Soft just wanted to throw out another yearly Soldier game in order to fuel their Caravan tournaments, instead of actually putting a little more effort into the main product.

Is that perhaps why I've always considered this series so mundane? I never tried to hide my indifference for caravan variations, and I still hope this franchise is able to deliver more than what I've seen so far (the next chapter is Soldier Blade). Damn, I hope Hudson Soft learned something from their brief collaboration with Compile, which was probably the company most akin to them at the time and was certainly able to sustain a steadier level of diversity in their Aleste games, for example.

My weapons of choice while playing on Normal difficulty were all the defaults: short (L), wiper (E), burner (F) and homing (M). And my best 1CC result with no milking at all is shown below. See you next in Soldier Blade!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Dangerous Seed (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
4 Difficulty levels
12 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco in 1990

No matter where you come from or the influence you might carry from early gaming memories, there's no denying that insects in space is quite a charming idea for a shooter. Dangerous Seed on the Mega Drive is yet another attempt at an insect-based shmup as seen from the game cover, which shows your mighty spaceship dodging the web clots of a hideous-looking spider. The results are of the mixed kind though: there are some cool bits here and there, but later on the game kinda deviates from its core and ends up lacking any wow factor, such as those seen in Insector X or Bio-Hazard Battle. Or perhaps horis are better suited than verts for that, I don't know. At least during the 16-bit era.

Port of an arcade title released a year before, unfortunately Dangerous Seed didn't make it out of Japan. It also doesn't quite push the Mega Drive hardware in any way, both in terms of graphic design or gameplay, taking more than a few liberties with the source material in order to make it more forgiving. It sort of follows the path Namco was taking with its shooting division after the release of Dragon Spirit, even though I heard or read somewhere that the game was at one point supposed to be a spin-off sequel to Galaga. How weird is that?

Preparing to take on a mission across the Solar System
(courtesy of YouTube user 10min Gameplay)

The upgrade system is rather unique in Dangerous Seed. In the first couple of levels you play with the alpha (α) ship, then it gets combined with the beta (β) ship during stages 3 and 4 and finally merged with the gamma (γ) ship prior to stage 5. Each ship has its own 3-cell life bar, if you lose a ship you'll lose its power while the other ones remain, and if the last one crashes before you reach the boss the game sends you back to the start of the level (bosses are their own checkpoints). Commands work with A for shot, B for bomb and C for ship combination, meaning you always need to choose a leading ship if you've got more than one, that is, from stage 3 onwards. Each ship arrangement, called Moon Diver, provides distinct bomb types and a different shot pattern based on the power-up you've chosen with your item pick-ups. Come to think of it, it's actually a rather complicated system, one that I only really grasped after I had beaten the game once or twice.

Picking up the items released by specific enemies is essential to keep a steady survival chance throughout the game. You need at least two speed-ups (S) to dodge decently, and then five of the same colored power-ups (P) to max out your firepower. The colors cycle between green (default/forward shot), blue (thin laser) and red (wave shot), and as I mentioned above the effectiveness of each one is directly related to which ship you select as the leader (α, β or γ). Early on I decided to just avoid the laser like the plague, since it absolutely sucks no matter how strong it might be against bulky enemies, namely bosses.

Other less frequent items are energy recharge (looks like a little tube, refills the energy of a battered ship), ship revive (looks like a big ship, comes up instead of the energy recharge if a ship is down), extra bomb and option (O). The O only starts appearing a few stages into the game, but it becomes a great aid if you can collect four options without getting hit. Getting hit, by the way, causes the firepower of the leading ship to downgrade, and getting hit successively can even put you in a very weak status. Even though the game seems to grant you nine hits before dying (3 per ship) there's absolutely no recovery window upon taking damage, so beware. A complete, healthy ship can be instantly lost if you happen to crash against a large enemy.

Despite the departures from the arcade gameplay, all of which serve to make the port a much tamer challenge, Dangerous Seed at least keeps the original atmosphere. Pacing is overall slow despite some brief sections where the scrolling accelerates, with ship mechanics that share close traits with Terra Cresta and Slap Fight. Adding four extra short stages with recycled enemies and bosses at the end was an unnecessary move by Namco – instead the company could've used those resources to give a little more polish to graphics and music. They're not bad but not remarkable either, whereas the gameplay suffers from slowdown whenever the screen gets too cluttered. Well, at least the slowdown is not of the stuttering type, nor is it accompanied by flicker.

Are ring bombs good enough for bugs?

Chasing higher scores in this game involves everything you might expect from a 16-bit shooter, starting with "don't get hit and kill everything in sight". Sticking to the same power-up color is also interesting since each extra P when maxed out is worth 1.000 points. Milking checkpoints and projectiles is another possibility, one that fortunately doesn't break the game in regard to bosses. They're often very large and require you to move around a lot, so no matter how careful you are with your milking they will eventually receive enough damage and die. Still when it comes down to bosses, a nice treat that was preserved from the arcade is the choosing of alternate paths in stages 5 and 6: all you need to do is time out the boss to play different subsequent levels. Most of the changes are in enemy sprites being overhauled, but I haven't tried to see if the alternate stages have more scoring opportunities.

Another strange thing about the port are the Easy and "Digest" difficulties, which only let you play a few selected stages (9 on Easy, just 4 on Digest). Beating the game on any difficulty triggers expert mode, which increases the size of the enemy bullets and provides a whole different kind of challenge (it's possible to enable it any time at the start screen by pressing ↑ ↓ ← ← → → ↑ ↓ as soon as the attract mode begins). Extends are given with 100.000, 500.000 and one million points across all available modes.

When you figure out the power of the bombs and notice the absurd amount of bombs the game gives out like candy, Dangerous Seed becomes an even easier challenge. This doesn't take the fun out of it, nor does it improve its primitive fun factor if that counts for something. During my time with the game my favorite weapon was the wave shot (red) with formation led by the α ship, and here's my best 1CC high score on Normal: