Friday, February 24, 2017

Oh Noes!! 2: Attack of the Space Burger! (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
13 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Executive Iguana Studios
Published by Executive Iguana Studios in 2012

For this game I had initially written an introductory paragraph that made absolutely no sense whatsoever, thinking it was a fitting way to start the post. However, upon proofreading the whole text I realized it would only scare away the couple of readers who're still with me, so I changed my mind. Well, I'm a shmup buff and I would have been scared away... The reason for the unreason came from the concept of Oh Noes!! 2 and its assumed foolishness, let alone its supposed lack of value starting with the title. But you know what? Attack of Space Burger! totally makes up for that, it's what sold me in the first place!

Jokes aside, I did of my own sane volition decide to play this game. While playing I showed stills and videos of it through Whatsapp to a few friends who indulge themselves exclusively in current-gen racing and fighting games. What the fuck is this shit?!, they'd say. I giggled a bit and kept firing up some more credits. Because you know… in my opinion we need to have a dose of wacky shit in our video games every now and then, if only to break the pace of real life stuff and more serious gaming from time to time.

In essence, what we have here is the journey of a cosmic burger entity who descends on our planet to exert revenge upon humans for centuries of abuse against the burger master race, horribly tainted by hundreds of despicable, evil fast food chains. It’s a tale of apocalyptic reckoning, and I must confess that being able to incarnate a flying burger invested in a human killing frenzy does come with a singular, warped sense of humor.

Humans will suffer

Our gigantic foolish-looking burger, who’s probably got the largest hitbox I’ve ever seen, floats and abducts humans with his tractor beam while shooting deadly laser bursts from his piercing eyes. The left analog stick controls the burger, the right analog stick shoots/dictates shot direction and the tractor beam is always active. One point is scored for every human killed/abducted and also for every enemy vessel destroyed (machineguns, cars, tanks, jets), but if you want a score-hungry type of burger you’d better focus on flesh rather than metal since it takes only one shot to kill a human but several to destroy anything else.

Disincarnated humans scream in agony as their blood splashes onto the screen. In contrast with the black and white scrolling backgrounds, which just like the main character is openly inspired by old Hollywood movies, the resulting effect is visually pleasing and fun at the same time. Abducting humans is often better than killing them if you're going the survival route, simply because that’s the shortest way to fill up the blood lust gauge, a resource that allows you to unleash a series of special attacks by pressing button B. The type of attack depends on how full the gauge is (must be at least 50%) and include the burger dropping beans and humans from its ass, as well as good old godlike invincibility.

A single lifebar on the top left represents your whole health, so do your best not to get hammered to the point of dying, otherwise humanity will have won the war. Burger justice does not wait and the game goes on and on with no pause between levels, as indicated by the timer that shows how long it will take for the next “stage” to start. The good news is that with every new level (except for a boss fight) a small portion of your lifebar is refilled, alongside a message that doesn’t mean absolutely nothing regarding a leveling up effect. You’ll never earn any real upgrade for your eyes of wrath and no item of any kind whatsoever is to be expected, after all you’re a celestial burger, an all-powerful harbinger of death that should be worshipped by those puny humans for your default might and beauty alone.

A genocidal burger lands on your XBLIG
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Lee Philips)

But alas! Cosmic purging does not come without pain. Remember that touching humans won't harm you, but getting shot at and touching machinery will. There will also be stronger foes in your way, for humans are a sneaky little bastard race who’ll do whatever it takes to defend their fast food chains, including the slaving of innocent animals with the purpose to wage war. So prepare to face a ferocious boss at every fourth stage, including Ecco the Dolphin, poor old Red Crab and also the fallen protagonist of the first Oh Noes!!, which just happens to be the mightiest human-slaying chicken you’ll ever lay your eyes on. Seeing is believing, so if you doubt my words why not be a man and step up to the challenge?

As the second chapter in a series that had absolutely nothing serious to offer and would never be seen by any regular gamer, Oh Noes!! 2 is just proud to be one of those titles that makes lots of success with drunk people. Color me guilty! Every time I played it I was sipping something on the side, laughing and swearing in equal measure. The swear part came from the thermonuclear pidgeon that puts an end to the game after the 13th wave. At first I was really angry, but after giving it some thought it all made sense… Just like the most puzzling horror flicks of the 30s, this abrupt closure is absolutely in line with the mood of the game and terminates the experience on a high wacky note.

Since this is a shoot'em up, overall it's definitely an improvement over the limited, botched gameplay of the first Oh Noes!!. And this is the best 1CC high score my killing burger was able to achieve:

Saturday, February 4, 2017

XII Zeal (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Triangle Service
Published by Triangle Service in 2013

With the exception of a few hardcore arcade connoisseurs and some other privileged fellows, very few people were aware of the fact that the Shooting Love 10th Anniversary Japanese compilation released for the Xbox 360 in 2013 is in fact a throwback to the shady origins of developer Triangle Service. Their first official game, XII Zeal, received here its second console port (after the PS2 disc from 2006, which came out under the name XII Stag). ΔZeal, the other half of the package, is actually a revised version of G-Stream G 2020, which was developed by the same frontman but saw a very limited and bugged release under a different publishing company prior to the birth of Triangle Service, who owns the copyright to the game ever since.

Anyway, I wasn’t aware that ΔZeal was the older game in the disc, otherwise I would’ve started playing it instead before revisiting XII Zeal. Such are the meanders of ignorance! Thankfully that’s not the same as skipping chapters in an ongoing series, after all these Zeal games are only “spiritually” related. And as far as XII Zeal goes it's still a worthy little ride despite the cheapness that permeates a few sections. In a nutshell, it's a short, resource-driven and occasionally intense burst of fun. The only minor functional gripe in this version is the stuttering slowdown that follows every boss explosion, but that's totally innocuous in my opinion.

Control inputs are always shown to the right of the game screen

On the outside XII Zeal is a very straightforward game, with the classic combination of shot + bomb for inputs and eight stages of unevenly progressing difficulty (some are cakewalks, others can be nightmares). Blue power-up orbs upgrade the main shot, extra bombs add to the stock up to the maximum of 5. Surplus power-ups are worth 1.000 points each, surplus bombs 10.000 points. The single detail that sets the game off the conventional STG track is also the one that eventually justifies its name: whenever you quickly move the joystick from side to side a flash of energy comes out from the ship, and if it destroys an enemy a multiplier is generated. Provided you continue to dispatch enemies with this side attack within a certain time between each kill you'll eventually reach the maximum multiplier of ×12, which of course represents the key to higher scores. Of course the risk/reward ratio increases proportionally.

Using the side attack by manually wiggling the joystick is perfectly possible, but requires more practice, more focus from the player and is prone to break controllers (I broke mine when playing XII Stag). To overcome this there's the possibility to activate a separate button for RSA (Rapid Side Attack), thus eliminating the need to incur in risky jugglery. With the RSA enabled you'll also get the stronger 2-dash side attacks (bigger energy shards!) that cause the screen to constantly shake when used. Fortunately the screen shaking doesn't disrupt the gameplay in any way, the only side effect of using it non-stop is that the ship moves more slowly.

One final note about getting the multiplier up is that the ship's thrusters also contribute to the process by killing enemies that come from behind IF the contact is made with moderate relative speed. The first stage is the perfect place to test this, just park the ship at the mid-screen point and watch as you fart enemies away until the boss arrives.

I'd say XII Zeal is polished graphically, with sharp and decently animated sprites, but sadly it doesn't harness this design aspect the way it should. Don't be put off by the first couple of levels just because they're the total opposite of engaging, for example. It gets better after that because the game decides to get more aggressive, granting lots of extra possibilities for scoring. Speaking of which, all bullets caught in the radius of the bomb blast are melted into 1.000 points each. That's why choosing the best moments to bomb goes way beyond the simple act of protecting the ship from harm (the amount of extra bombs the game gives away isn't a coincidence at all).

Trailer for Shooting Love 10th Anniversary on the Xbox 360
(courtesy of YouTube user MrYoshimitsuHD)

There are several little secrets in XII Zeal that make the game behave differently depending on how you destroy specific batches of enemies, including fast kills, complete kills or getting rid of things in a certain way, which results in sections with extra enemy waves and more opportunities for scoring. I was able to trigger many of them up to the 5th stage, in line with my overall strategy to be extremely aggressive during these levels and cautious for the rest of the game, after all we only have three lives with no extends of any kind. In between stages a graph meter shows your scoring performance against previous credits, which is a nice way to know how far you have just pushed your risk/reward thresholds.

Practice aids exist in the form of individual score attack options for each level, unlocked as you reach them in regular play. That's one of the features that make this version of XII Zeal is a very resourceful port, on top of the ability to save replays, online leaderboards and several kinds of filter/screen adjustments, TATE included. The Limited Edition release of Shooting Love 10th Anniversary includes an additional CD with the soundtracks to both games in the package, and since both disc variations are region-free they'll run nicely in any Xbox 360 around the world. Note: this disc was re-released some time later in a pack titled Shooting Love Collection, which also includes the previous region-locked Shooting Love 200X compilation.

The top spot of the high score table in the picture below shows my final 1CC result on Normal difficulty, RSA activated, player 1 side. Even though the game isn't bad per se, there's no denying that the final stretch is rather anticlimactic. The difficulty peaks in stage 6 so the remainder of the game is a total letdown in comparison, except perhaps for the 7th boss. Either the game had to be rushed out the door or the developer ran out of ideas, an issue that fortunately isn't present in Trizeal, the next title in this unofficial series.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Vampire Rage (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
3 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Tricktale
Published by Tricktale in 2010

With all due respect to a very famous Norwegian pop band, whenever we start to play a new video game hunting highs and lows is something that comes – or should come – naturally. Most good games feature some sort of aspect that eventually succeeds in selling the experience as a worthwhile pastime, be it an enemy, a stage, a song, a scoring system, smartly devised carrots that keep you going from one place to the next or just a good set of flashy doorknobs, among other not so evident goodies.

A few days ago I had a quick breach in my night schedule and chose to tackle another XBLIG title long downloaded but never really savored. Vampire Rage was the chosen one, and in its naïve simplicity it certainly embodies what I just wrote in the above paragraph. When playing in the Normal difficulty the game ends abruptly after the third stage, along with an ominous message that seemingly required me to go try the higher setting, aptly named Rage and aimed at experienced, hardcore players. At that point in time I wasn’t yet hooked, but the prospect of facing a tougher challenge certainly had some potential.

But alas!
I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Original trailer, with slowdown that's totally absent from the actual game
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Tricktale)

In Vampire Rage the player assumes the role of a vampire who goes out on a rampage to avenge the death of his beloved. This story is briefly conveyed by a few artsy slides before the credit starts, developing as you advance in your grim quest for revenge. The flying character is reminiscent of other flying character shmups such as Touhou or those from Cave, but the main source of visual inspiration for the whole game is definitely Mushihimesama Futari. Add some dark details of otherworldly nature, enemies exploding into bloody sprites, gothic fonts for stage names, a fitting soundtrack and you get the picture.

By tapping A or B a spread shot with good coverage is fired, but as you hold the button the firing pattern soon changes into a concentrated stream and the character’s speed is reduced. While this mechanic seems odd (why not have both shots mapped to different buttons?), desperate tapping isn’t needed. Relaxed taps will suffice, and if you feel the need to slow down the character when firing the spread shot you can always hold any of the shoulder/trigger buttons. The last input is button X or Y for the sword, which damages enemies and deflects all pink bullets on contact while spinning around the character for a couple of seconds. If you manage to deflect a good number of bullets a localized bomb is created, engulfing everything in a big blast and making you invincible during its animation.

Throwing in the sword mechanic does wonders to Vampire Rage. Not only is it pivotal for survival, but it also contributes to increase your final score. There is a delay that must be considered when using it though, so you can’t just spam the sword everywhere expecting to get through every tight situation. The bomb feature is very similar to the volcanon effect from Giga Wing 2, even if the bullet-eating sword is more akin to Radiant Silvergun. Vampire Rage also adds the “ability” to aim the bomb with the right analog stick, a botched input that’s fundamentally useless and only leads to unnecessary confusion.

Feel the stree... ops, the swords of rage

Anyway, back to the end of Normal mode. I wasn’t thrilled by the game and got really disappointed by being abruptly sent to the screen for the final score tallying after defeating the third boss. Then I started a credit on Rage mode and immediately noticed a few differences: enemies shoot faster bullets more frequently, enemies that didn’t shoot on Normal decided to get more active and there was even some sort of primitive rank, with those ground plants starting to fire annoying circular homing shots after a while. Suddenly the game got truly exciting and fun, with a lot more dodging to do and real opportunities to trigger bombs from deflected bullets. You can say I was finally into it, looking forward to see whatever lied beyond the basic challenge of the Normal difficulty.

Bullet visibility isn’t affected at all by the increased intensity of Rage mode, large point tags and blood clots from defeated enemies flying around everywhere as they get automatically sucked into the flying vampire. Soon you notice that you won’t get too far without proper crowd management, with clever sword/bomb usage helping to move forward in most tricky sections. Those blood gobs sucked in are just for show so scorewise the game is very straightforward, but a nice bonus awaits those who can preserve resources: you get 1.000 for each deflect kill, 5.000 for each bomb detonated and 25.000 points for each life remaining (extends come at every 150.000 points on Rage difficulty). With higher stakes comes greater rewards, right? This is also possible in co-op, how cool is that?

Unfortunately my parade was flooded by the same abrupt ending of Normal mode, since not a single word was different as it again came to an end with “TO BE CONTINUED...”. Of course there was no sequel whatsoever to the story because Tricktale vanished into oblivion soon after, just like many other contemporary indie developers. So what started as a low and went to a high sadly finished at a low, not because Vampire Rage disappoints (in essence it doesn’t) but actually because it deserved at least another level so as to avoid the fate of being so painfully short.

After a few more runs I got the high score below on Rage/Hard difficulty (note: on Normal you get more lives and the extend routine is more generous). Scores on both difficulties are shared in the local high score table, but only the highest one goes to the online leaderboard. I didn’t see any other online scores besides mine though. Only friends' scores should be there, I wonder? I couldn't care less anyway. The ability to remap controls or turn off vibration would've been more useful.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Vorpal (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Red Wolf
Published by Red Wolf in 2010

There are games, especially among the independent development scene, that often adopt a minimalistic approach towards a specific design aspect. Some people like to label such endeavors as artistic efforts, others simply discard them as boring crap. As one of these titles, Vorpal certainly has what it takes to fuel some quick discussion on a seminal question: what's important in the end, graphics or gameplay?

If you're one of those who'll right away dismiss games that do not present flashy explosions, cool effects and a plethora of colors, Vorpal will put you to sleep in less than a minute, so my recommendation is pass. If the thrill in your case resides in the act of dodging bullets and overcoming the odds while pursuing higher scores, then Vorpal might be a valid pick out of the gazillion games offered by the currently dwindling XBLIG platform.

In a nutshell, the main mode in this game (Story) is a boss rush where you select one out of six characters and battle the remaining five. As such, it's got echoes of Wartech and Chaos Field, whereas the bulk of the inspiration in the gameplay seems to come from the likes of the Touhou series. Unfortunately Versus mode isn't a 2-player option as its name implies, it's just a practice alternative where you can freely select an oponent for a single round.

Future or eternal void

The mechanics of Vorpal are simple enough to grasp, and certainly give you that quick one-more-go itch when the game is over. As the underdog fighter, the player counts with a single shield/health meter that can withstand a determined number of hits. The opponents, on the other hand, come with nothing less than eight health bars in reserve, which means you need to defeat nine different forms for each of them (by forms I mean attack patterns, they don't actually switch sprites or anything). Before each stage/encounter there's some boring dialogue between the characters, and then the action starts as if you're entering the arena of a fighting game, only with everything in only two color shades (black and red) and a white background devoid of any scrolling effect. All in the name of visibility, right?

Controls work with A for shot (slow movement with RB/RT) and B for the special/break attack, whose power is gauged by a so-called "stress" meter. This meter is filled slowly by hitting your enemy or getting hit, and faster by collecting S items. It's possible to unleash a break attack as soon as the stress meter reaches 25%, but the higher it is the longer the attack will last. Besides S, all other items are released whenever you destroy one of the small carriers that appear while the opponent is moving around. These also include + (health recovery), □ (score multiplier) and H (hell power-up).

H is the most important item to be collected once the round starts, simply because it's actually your regular and much needed firepower upgrade (you start every stage with the default pea shot). When level 4 is achieved the firing pattern receives an intermittent thin laser upgrade that considerably boosts its efficiency. If you receive damage to the point where the shield gets completely depleted you enter a danger state, which causes your firepower to degrade while the shield slowly regenerates. The credit is lost if you get hit before the last health cell is regenerated, of course.

Demo game with Abel Sigrid
(courtesy of YouTube user Splazer Productions)

Defeating boss phases with a high number of on-screen bullets is the main source of points within the level, simply because at that moment all bullets are converted into points that get automatically sucked into the player's craft. Since the game awards extra stage bonuses for remaining health, power-ups collected and shorter completion times, improving performance involves not getting hit, picking up everything and timing boss breaks accordingly. The only problem with this approach is that some characters are in clear advantage against others, be it for their strength ratings (regardless of shot style) or for the type of their native break attacks. The "barrage" break, for instance, is a total waste because it does nothing once the on-screen bullets are blocked. Note that boss phases time out, which is obviously bad for scoring.

One of the most interesting influences from Touhou is the enemy locator, a small bar at the bottom of the screen that follows the vertical movement of your opponent and helps you target your foe while focusing on dodging the bullet curtains. I can see why it's useful, even though I didn't feel the need to guide myself by it at all. Some boss patterns are tricky, in that lots of bullets get spammed in the same place and might eat away all your shields instantly (even with the screen-clearing effect that should follow). Other than that, a few sounds used in certain boss attacks are identical to the one that plays when you get hit, causing unnecessary confusion. Speaking of sound, there are lots of digitized robotic voices in Vorpal, but none of the dialogue interactions is voice-acted.

As much as I tried to get that PERFECT bonus at the end of the level by not getting hit during a round, the game never granted me such an honor. I wonder if you need to collect all power-ups in the stage in order to earn it, but I didn't bother to confirm that. Players that choose Hard difficulty start with only 3 shields instead of 6, coping with stronger bosses and the constant risk of timing out their phases. As a whole Vorpal isn't too demanding and can provide some relaxed dodging fun, but the enjoyment is bound to wear off fast due to the lack of visual flair. Additionally, the tribal art design isn't helped much by the techno-oriented soundtrack. Turning off vibration, sound effects and music is possible, which is a nice touch if you want to play listening to your own tunes so as to spice up the game a little bit.

Below is my best result playing on Normal with the character K' Gallant. There were talks of Vorpal 2 coming out for XBLIG soon after this game hit the platform, but apparently the sequel never saw the light of day in any form whatsoever.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Spriggan (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by naxat soft / Compile
Published by naxat soft
/ Compile (Nazac) in 1991

After MUSHA became a smash hit on the Mega Drive, the development team at Compile turned to the PC Engine CD and delivered Spriggan, a game that seems to have beeen conceived as an offshoot from the mecha Aleste series. Some people even consider them part of the same family of shooters, which is perfectly understandable even if Spriggan gave birth to a somewhat diverse trilogy that would see its end on the Super Nintendo. Similarities between this game and MUSHA are vivid but Spriggan also adds magical undertones to the mix of mechanical foes, offering a fun ride that undeniably bears its own sense of style.

A “spriggan” is by definition a mythological creature from the English folklore, a fairy bodyguard that’s visually related to hobgoblins and ogres and is able to grow in size and strength. Could that somehow relate to the giant robot that departs to save the world from evil in a fantasy setting where bosses are actually controlled by people who flock in panic into their hulls as they see you coming to exert justice? You’re supposed to be inside that shiny robot suit, bravely arguing with enemies before or after dispatching them into oblivion while in constant comms with a gorgeous lady. Sometimes a few companions will join you in battle, but their failing suits and speed won’t make them much of an aid. These are some of the tidbits of extra ambience in Seirei Senshi Spriggan, another name by which the game is often referred to.

Acts of magic

One of the coolest features of Spriggan is its unique power-up system, which is based on the combination of up to three colored orbs: red (fire), blue (water), green (air/wind) and yellow (earth). These orbs come from bug-like carriers arriving from the top of the screen at regular intervals and always head straight to the current position of the player, disappearing if uncollected. While you can always stick to the same color so that the defining aspect of the selected weapon is maximized, it’s the combination of two or three different colors that often provide some of the best choices in the game. Even more interesting is the fact that each and every weapon combination has a name, just wait and see the tutorial that alternates with the attract mode.

Shooting is accomplished with button II, while button I performs the very interesting act of sacrificing the leftmost/newest orb taken into a powerful bomb (orbs cycle in the weapon display from left to right). Although it’s possible to sacrifice all orbs in successive explosions, this ability is more useful when a new orb is coming and you glance the opportunity to inflict some extra damage on enemies by getting rid of just a single orb, especially once you’ve noticed that bomb blasts are also capable of nullifying bullets. As for the blinking orb, it has a double purpose: instantly exploding for great justice (smart bomb) + providing a 1-hit shield to the robot (indicated by the energy barrier appearing over its shoulders).

If you think you need more or less speed to deal with the hordes of magical creatures, all you need to do is press SELECT to find an ideal setting out of four available choices. During some boss fights I’ll decelerate down to the first setting so that I can safely weave between their attacks, but most of the time I’ll use speeds 2 or 3. Though not a very hard game in its default setting, Spriggan requires some careful playing from stage 5 onwards due to a few intricate bosses. However, no matter where you are in the game there’s always the danger of acquiring a bad choice for weapons, such as that weak homing puff of smoke. In that regard greedy players are prone to suffer more than survivalists, given that every orb is worth 1.000 precious points.

After playing some test runs for weapons I came to a personal strategy I decided to stick to at least halfway into the game: avoid three different colors and stick to at least one yellow orb and any other pair of the same colors. When combined with blue I’d get the “aqua crusher” (two forward thick watery streams), with red I’d have “firebolt” (5-way fireball spread) and with green I’d get the “wind destroyer” (forward shot with green side waves). In my opinion these were the most efficient combos, with a special note to the sheer power of the aqua crusher, definitely my favorite. Note: having 2 yellows and a second color is the same as having only 1 yellow and two other orbs of the same color, the result is the same.

Intro and first stage
(courtesy of YouTube user zwallop)

Stages (or acts) in Spriggan don’t always follow the same pattern and embrace a wider array of environments than your usual 16-bit shooter. The longest ones have midbosses that break the stage in halves that boast completely different settings. MUSHA of course plays a strong inspirational role, from some of the weapons to graphics that seem to have been lifted directly from it, such as the plates that fall into a ravine after you beat one of the midbosses. The game also draws clear influences from the Star Soldier series, from Dragon Spirit (the whole 2nd act) and of all unsuspected sources none other than Battletoads (the carnivorous plants straight out of that famous shaft descent, the giant snakes in the 3rd act).

Closing up on the gameplay aspects, extends are score-based and come at 20, 50, 100, 200, 400, 600 and 800 thousand points. Losing the shield brings another level of tension in the busiest areas of the game, with successive deaths leading to absolutely unexpected credit losses (it happened to me a couple of times). On a side note, Spriggan is the first game released in naxat soft’s Summer Carnival series, created to either compete against or capitalize on the success of Hudson Soft’s Caravan Tournament (which is based on the Star Soldier franchise). As such, the game includes a 2-minute Score Attack option and a Time Attack mode where the purpose is to reach 1 million points as fast as you can. The next titles in the Summer Carnival series are Alzadick, Recca and Nexzr.

Below is my final 1CC result for Spriggan on the default difficulty (Normal). I had to be quick to take a picture of the score after beating the last boss because the end credits halt at the final screen (I heard the pertaining section in the options does save your score though).

The next game in the series is Spriggan Mark 2 - Re-Terraform Project.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

REDUX - Dark Matters (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hucast / Kontechs
Published by Hucast in 2014

Once upon a time, in the realm of homebrew games released for the Dreamcast, there was DUX. Despite some weird flaws it was at least a playable and gorgeous game. Later on the developer felt the need to revise the game and cater to the complaints of the masses, and then there was DUX 1.5. It was a shameless disappointment and added nothing of real value to the original. Some time later, thanks yet again to sloppy programming, Hucast shoved DUX 1.1 onto customers, but I have no idea about what it does to the original game. And then, in 2012, a Kickstarter campaign was created and succesfully funded for REDUX - Dark Matters, a misleading title that made lots of people (myself included) believe we'd be getting a sequel to the game when, in fact, it was nothing more than a repaint of DUX with an extra stage and an extra ship.

One thing I learned from all this is to never get your hopes up when purchasing a product from German developer Hucast. Ever. REDUX was the last straw for me, especially when I received the Kickstarter-exclusive steelcase with a single sticker glued to the cover and two CDs that barely fit the lousy supports on the inside (the second CD is just a bonus disc that contains DUX 1.5). At that moment I envied those who had ordered the regular version and had at least received a normal box with proper art.

There is more to it though. A couple of months after the game finally saw the light of day a REDUX 1.1 revision disc was promised for all Kickstarter backers, addressing freezing issues on bosses and a scoring bug as well as the blurry image (only for S-video, VGA and RGB connections). At the time I was busy with real life and lost the window to request my disc, but since the reported issues are a lot like some of the ones identified in DUX (plaguing 50Hz/PAL users only), I certainly won't be losing my sleep over it.

Soaking bullets for measly justice

REDUX is indeed built upon the primordial mold that gave birth to DUX. However, due to all the details whose objective was to give a darker tone to the whole game, apparently there was this need to lower the original resolution, hence the awfully blurry graphics that put the almighty Dreamcast to shame. Of course the longer you play the more used you get to it, but the initial impact of the downgrade is astounding. However, apart from the graphics there are other more fundamental changes and additions to the formula, which make the game seemingly more dynamic than previous iterations and point to the fact that Dark Matters is the final product following all those beta versions disguised as proper releases.

For a starter, when thinking of R-Typean influences REDUX is more akin to Pulstar than R-Type itself. This means it doesn't allow players to detach and summon the pod anymore because the pod is permanently fixed in front of the ship once you get the first power-up. Pod manipulation was never needed anyway, so this takes a lot off the shoulders of players from the get go. In fact, REDUX is a game where it's okay to take everything that comes towards you since none of the icons/upgrades you come across interfere negatively in the gameplay. You have power-ups for main shot (the choice of more than one weapon is gone), missile upgrades (provides 2, 4 and 6 missiles with each icon collected), side shields, stars (bonus points), 1UPs and obvious energy (refill the bullet soaking bar faster). Golden flakes of varying sizes appear everywhere from destroyed enemies and are sucked into the ship if you get close enough to them, adding to the score in the process.

I guess I should now give a mention to the controls. They're all configurable, and my layout of choice is R for autofire, A for shot (charge for beam), X to switch missile direction (horizontal/vertical) and B for bullet soaking. The only input that needs some explanation is the last one: when B is pressed a circle is deployed around the ship and every bullet inside its radius gets sucked into it. This lasts until the bullet soaking bar is depleted (see below the charge gauge), during which the ship remains invincible to bullets (not enemies or lasers) and new taps at B fire homing lasers on all enemies caught inside the circle. In order to keep the bar filled you either need to soak more bullets or acquire more obvious energy, those pink bits released by square caskets that are automatically drawn into the ship no matter how far they are. Note: if a large enemy has been locked on and the bullet soaking bar depletes you're still able to fire homing shots at him.

Besides the invincibility factor and the fireworks display provided by the bullet soaking device, most golden flakes released by destroyed enemies turn blue and are also sucked into the ship automatically. “Nice!”, I thought at first sight, obviously expecting some sort of boost in score when doing it. Sadly everything about this bullet soaking scheme is there just for show. It doesn’t matter if you collect golden or blue flakes or if you absorb bullets while invincible or using the pod, the real practical purpose of bullet soaking is geared towards survival. It’s a wasted feature, and there’s absolutely no need to manage its usage for maximum performance as I tried to do for a while.

REDUX 1.1 - Entrance
(courtesy of YouTube user headbangersworld)

When starting a credit of REDUX - Dark Matters players are prompted to choose between a Normal (orange) and a Veteran (purple) ship. Note that all the above paragraphs refer to the Normal ship choice. When selecting Veteran, the charge beam and the missiles are the only aspects that remain the same: main shot is changed into a 3-way rapid fire spread, you can’t use the pod and bullet soaking is not possible. The game becomes a lot more challenging and claustrophobic when going the Veteran way, with stages 2 and 5 being really fun to navigate. Deadly flower blossoms and venomous spores were rarely so menacing.

Both ship types are downgraded a little every time you die. There are many 1UPs to collect throughout, but losing two or more lives in a row can put you in dire straits if you’re using the Veteran ship. Regardless of the chosen craft, the rule of thumb for scoring is to not die (life count seems to work as a multiplier for boss kills) and absorb as many flakes/bullets as you can. The bonus for each stage corresponds to its number × one million points (1st = one million, 2nd = 2 million, etc.). Scores are segregated by an N and a V in the only high score table available, which is really unfortunate.

When all is said and done about REDUX, the truth is that it does reach a better balance than its previous incarnations. I definitely can't complain about the stellar soundtrack! It manages to be even better than before by striking a finer balance between exciting and moody. That helps heaps in keeping the fun factor, despite the wasted opportunities regarding the bullet soaking feature. The muddy graphics become less of a strain on the eyes after a couple of hours, and while the extra 7th stage comes off as a bit lazy (same meteor-filled background of stages 1 and 4) it at least puts some pressure even when playing with the Normal ship. As I mentioned above the packaging for the steelcase edition is atrocious, just like the pamphlet that serves as a poor man’s instruction manual. Lastly, several times I ran into a bug where I'd get altered/exploded graphics and mute SFX whenever I rejected a continue on the GAME OVER screen.

My high scores are in the picture below. To the left is my 1CC result with the Normal ship. To the right is my 1CC result with the Veteran ship.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Fantasy Zone II (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1987

I have no idea of the actual extent of the success the first Fantasy Zone achieved on the Master System, but it must have been quite remarkable. Especially in Japan. After all, Fantasy Zone II came out first for the Master System before being given an arcade release and seeing ports for other platforms, and if anything that says a lot about how much Sega believed in the sequel. The good news is that part II isn't merely a repetition of the first chapter, and in my eyes is just as engaging and addictive. Besides, every port and further revision based on this cute little game corroborates this assessment.

As expected, the world of Fantasy Zone II is as colorful as before. The action never stops, perils await at every corner and giant bosses try to stop you at least twice during the course of a credit. The only feature that declined a little is the music, but that's debatable since it's still filled with good tunes, yet not so catchy anymore (that song from the shop stays in my head for hours every time I play though). Opa-Opa is back and must destroy another batch of evil generators that are plaguing the beautiful areas of the Fantasy Zone. While the basic mechanics stay the same (one button fires, the other drops bombs), stage lay-outs are non-linear and require players to travel through warp gates across 3 or 5 panels within the level. Only when all generators/bases are destroyed you're allowed to face the boss by entering the red warp gate.

I already mentioned somewhere that dismissing this series as fluffy and childlike is a mistake. With this chapter it isn't any different, since a mere couple of credits is all it takes to get sucked into the fun and keep coming back for more. However, when I found out there's an item that gives you autofire I was even more excited about it. I say this because there's a huge difference in playing the original Fantasy Zone with and without autofire, a distinction that almost loses the purpose here.

Stage 1 - Pastaria
(courtesy of YouTube user coenak)

Each stage of Fantasy Zone II must be cleansed of enemy bases that pollute the scenery with all sorts of crazy enemies. Movement is allowed in both directions, and the scrolling can either be sped up by moving closer to the sides or halted by touching the ground. Some of the destroyed generators will uncover the warp gates, but most of them will release money bills. Regular enemies release gold coins, which are worth less than money bills, all values varying from stage to stage. Cumulated money is unrelated to score and is used to buy items in the shops spread around the stage, which provide several levels of upgrades for speed and firepower (some of these are temporary and last only 20 seconds), as well as a few survival aids.

Contrary to what we had in the first game, here all shops are static and can be accessed at all times (with the exception of the 3-panel shop of the final level, so don't be trigger-happy there). The assortment of items in each one is always the same, but in order to get the best upgrades players must look out for the hidden shops in stages 3, 5 and 6. There it’s possible to purchase autofire (auto beam) and power enhancers. “Power” is actually another name for health, indicated by a red gauge that can be made larger by getting red bottles and completely refilled by getting blue bottles. If you manage to get all bottles you’ll end up with a very generous life bar by the end of the game, allowing you to withstand lots of hits every time you’re respawned after dying (the upgrade is permanent). The main catch of the game is that autofire appears only in two of the hidden shops and is forever lost when you die. Remember that every time you buy an item its price will increase in the next purchase, with the prices of some items inflating even if you don't buy them.

Uncovering hidden shops is done by targeting their spots (shots disappear and you hear the sound of something being hit). A few precious items are also hidden in the same fashion throughout the game and can help you go the distance, namely the red/blue bottles (the clock gives an extra 30 seconds to any temporary weapon that's currently active, other than that it's useless). The moment I figured out the preciousness of the hidden bottles I planned the whole game around them because they’re both life and money savers. Speaking of which, in this installment money does not decrease in value no matter how long you take to kill generators or enemies, which of course opens the door for milking. I haven't tried to test it to the point of noticing any real climb in enemy aggression, but in any case it's a very time consuming and risky way to try and get more points.

All the improvements made to the classic gameplay serve to balance out the slightly tougher challenge, and in that regard Fantasy Zone II is a successful sequel. Not only is the power/health meter a very welcome addition in the long run, but the way shops are handled cleverly compensate for Opa-Opa’s sluggish default speed. Dying in later levels can be aggravating, yet it’s always possible to fetch a nearby shop and start getting back on your knees. Slowdown will occur when the screen gets crowded, but it's never game breaking in any way (actually it might be one of the best examples of "correct" slowdown in an 8-bit shooter). Flicker is minimal, I've only seen it during the fight against the 4th boss.

Ahouys, rollerballs/magoburus and cacti in stage 7 (Sbardian)

Before playing the game I was a bit wary of the warp gate gimmick, but the truth is that it works. Navigation from one screen to the next is fluid, fast and elegant. It allows for more backgrounds within the level, thus lending an alleviated complexity to the game while beefing it up in terms of graphics and length. Expect a very linear difficulty progression and a horde of zapping creatures as you reach the second-to-last stage, prior to facing rematches against angrier bosses in the final level. The last boss reserves a surprise for Opa-Opa and justifies the game’s subtitle The Tears of Opa-Opa. He's a bit underwhelming, but at least some of the previous bosses are quite impressive creatures, such as Bombdran in stage 4 and Halorings in stage 7.

My strategic approach in Fantasy Zone II was very simple. Get the normal engine and twin bombs on the first shop. Get the hidden red bottle in the 2nd stage. In the hidden shop of the 3rd stage purchase auto beam, big shot and another red bottle. Fill the expanded power meter with a hidden blue bottle in the 4th stage. Get twin big bombs and the red bottle in the hidden shop of the 5th stage. Purchase another red bottle from the hidden shop in the 6th stage (plus a bargain extra life for $100) prior to filling up the power meter with the hidden blue bottle. Get the final hidden red bottle and preserve health in the onslaught of the 7th stage. And, finally, spend all the money I can on extra lives and do my best to survive against the boss rush of the final stage. Each extra life in reserve upon completing the game is worth one million points, whereas all the remaining money is multiplied by ×10 and added to the final score. The game does not loop.

Below is my final 1CC result, with no additional auto/turbo fire. Next in the series I'll tackle either the NES port or the arcade version.