Tuesday, August 14, 2018

ΔZeal (Xbox 360)

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

Once upon a time there was an obscure video game company named Oriental Soft. Many of its games were released in the arcades on poorly made boards that would soon break, as was the case with a 2002 vertical shooter called G-Stream G2020. Following the closure of Oriental Soft it was expected for the game to disappear from the face of the Earth, but thanks to the efforts of its main programmer and future founder of Triangle Service the source code for the game was safely preserved. With the publishing rights back in his hands, in 2013 the game was renamed as ΔZealDeltaZeal and re-released as one of the two titles in the Shooting Love 10th Anniversary compilation for the Xbox 360 (the other half of the package is XII Zeal).

By putting the Zeal suffix in the game's title, Triangle Service imposed a pseudo-retcon in its library and made ΔZeal the first in an unofficial series that continues with XII ZealTrizeal, Exzeal and the most recently released and extremely weird CombatZeal. Many aspects of ΔZeal's gameplay can be found in the sequels, so fortunately this is not just a matter of cheaply rearranging names for a little more profit. Even though the quality of their products is certainly debatable for fans of the genre, there's no denying that the much propagated Shooting Love is the heart and soul of Triangle Service, a company that has always been known as a one-man endeavor.

With seven stages, no extends of any kind and a strong mix of military and sci-fi themes, ΔZeal comes off as a seemingly straightforward shooter with some unique mechanics thrown in. The "seemingly" part is due to the dynamic branching that sends you off completely different paths in certain stages and require a good deal of knowledge to be properly treaded for survival or exploited for score.

Opening screen

Gameplay inputs consist of three buttons only: shot, rapid shot and bomb (which I have mapped as A, B, and RB in my Xbox controller). You can actually tap shot to obtain rapid shot, but the very nature of a specific attack pretty much requires having separate buttons for them (keep reading). Powering up the ship is achieved by collecting the colored icons released at a regular interval from defeated enemies, which then fill up a 10-slot power bar from the inside out; when the bar is full each new power-up pushes the oldest one out in the queue, with the current item combination determining firepower behavior. Red contributes with vulcan, blue with laser and green with homing missiles. Getting the desired firepower formation isn't as easy as it seems though because the power-up icon has a rather fast cycling routine and it often drifts off the screen or into bullet curtains.

The only other item related to firepower that you might come across is the extra bomb. Quick and powerful, the bomb animation is quite satisfying but it doesn't grant the player with invincibility outside of its hit zone. For total invincibility and other goodies the ship is equipped with a black hole device (sometimes called void-bomb or cancel-bomb) that creates an energy sphere that melts everything that's caught inside its radius except for your own ship. In order to be able to use it players need to collect the small green particles left behind by destroyed enemies (you need to pay close attention to see them, normally no one would even notice), stacking up the green little number that appears above the power-up bar. When an OK sign is shown close to it you're ready to use the black hole by holding and releasing shot. The higher the little green number when the black hole is deployed the longer it will last.

Going from survival to scoring in ΔZeal comes naturally the more you play it. The game is a slow burner for sure, with intrincacies that only become less confusing with repeated plays. Medal chaining is the biggest source of points, for instance. Every destroyed enemy or part of an enemy drops a medal that increases in value and size provided you don't let any of them fall off the screen; it starts with 10 then goes through 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 and 500, maximizing at 1.000 points. Medals generated at the same time have the same value but add to the progression regardless (e.g. four initial ones are worth 10, next one will be worth 50).

Losing just one medal sends their value back to 10, except for one particular situation: when a black hole is deployed medals are frozen at their current value, which opens up a huge opportunity for scoring if you can manage to use it when medals are maxed out because every single bullet that's caught within the black hole is turned into a medal (likewise, creating the black hole when you have a low medal value is an obvious waste). It's a great rush to get showers of maxed out medals from dense bullet streams fired by bosses, however it's imperative to adapt to the timing of the black hole deployment since it might appear at the top of the screen if you hold the shot button for too long. That's the worst that can happen because the black hole is then pretty much useless. There's also no way to cut it short for another use, it will simply consume all its energy. Then you have to restart filling it up from scratch.

Stage 1 score attack mode - Cloudy today!
(courtesy of YouTube user VixyNyan)

There are other scoring resources, such as collecting only one type of weapon so that once the power bar is full each successive item of the same color will give you 10.000 points. The problem is that the only worthy color to stick to is red. When maxed out it provides excellent spread and inflicts devastating damage at point-blank distance. Blue is good for medal collecting but awful for survival, whereas green hits all over the place with distributed power. This power-up scheme can be extremely annoying if you play for score because if you eventually take a different color you end up losing 100.000 points until you get rid of the unwanted item (or 90.000 points if you decide to completely change the power bar). That's why you can't be too close or over the enemy when killing it if you realize a power-up is about to be released.

The final touch in the scoring system is the quick killing of incoming enemies, which appears in small 5.000 point tags. I couldn't care less about this aspect though, sometimes I got them but most of the time I did the exactly same thing with no results whatsoever. Equally cryptic are some of the branching areas that bring up completely different sets of enemies in the initial stages of the game. I did assimilate how to get the railroad section in stage 2, but eventually learned to live with the randomness that's present in the first level. The alternate versions of stages 3 and 5 are chosen simply by sticking to the left and right halves of the screen once the previous bosses are destroyed (left for 3A/5A, right for 3B/5B).

Besides the obscure meanderings in its gameplay, ΔZeal incurs in some minor design choices that require a little patience from the player. There are many occasions where bullets are just plain white or gray, which makes visibility a chore when you're flying over similarly colored backgrounds and explosions. The safe distance from ground targets is also very limited, and it's rather common to be shot in the face when approaching such enemies. Bullet spreads with varying degrees of density are the norm when you're fighting bosses, which often cave in with well placed bombs (the 5th boss tended to drift off screen when I bombed too much; I even thought the game had bugged on me once because he took more than a minute to show up again). The minor screen tearing from the HD resolution didn't bother me at all.

Since there's no rank in ΔZeal practice soon leads to success no matter how tough or crowded some sections appear to be. The game sure has a few highlights in the graphical department, such as the huge bomber that flies over something straight out of Sonic Wings in stage 5 (the New York scramble) or the whole post-apocalyptic industrial look of the final level, but overall it's rather plain looking and pretty much serves as a preamble to what Triangle Service would deliver later in XII Zeal. The music sort of follows the same trend, with the ominous tune for the final stage being the clear highlight for me. Replay saving, online leaderboards, the unlocking of stage select (score attack), timed extra credits and several image/audio tweaks are all included in the Shooting Love 10th Anniversary region-free package, both in the regular and limited edition variations.

My 1CC high score playing on Normal difficulty is below. I chose the player 1 side (slower ship, player 2 is faster) and went through stages 3A and 5B, which I admittedly found the easiest choices. I just wasn't prepared to take a photo of the high score table, if you miss it as you input the initials you won't be able to see it again unless you score a new valid entry!

Friday, July 27, 2018

Dezaemon Plus [Daioh Gale Ver. 2] (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Athena
Published by Athena in 1996

Originally released only in Japan for the Playstation, Dezaemon Plus suceeded Dezaemon on the Super Famicom as the next one in the series of shmupmaking titles. Known primarily only within the circles of hardcore shmup collectors, the title gained a little bit of extra exposition thanks to the worldwide digital re-release for the Playstation Network at around 2010. This "little bit" could've been a "lot more" had the publisher provided mouse support and a proper English translation. With all the game's interfaces still in Japanese I doubt any Westerner actually bothered to tinker with it (an online translation guide just doesn't cut it).

Anyway, if you don't care about the shmupmaking aspect of Dezaemon Plus you can still enjoy the sample games included in the package. The main title here is Daioh Gale Ver. 2, an updated version of Daioh Gale (from the SNES chapter) that's supposed to showcase the improvements in the development tools of the Playstation disc, most notably the ability to handle sprites at will with rotation, zooming and collision manipulation. There are also ten user-developed games that won two separate competitions held by Athena, but these unfortunately don't use the sprite resources from Dezaemon Plus and are instead based upon the SNES Dezaemon platform.

To complete the line-up of 13 playable games on the disc, one of the two hidden extra titles at the player's disposal is none other than the original Daioh Gale, which can be accessed by pressing L2 while choosing the option for the main sample game (first option in GAME PLAY). For those who care about the sample games only, this obviously makes the SNES entry in the series completely redundant and useless.

A stretched snippet of Daioh Gale Ver. 2
(courtesy of YouTube user Dontian)

The only real link between arcade Daioh and the home variations of Daioh Gale is developer Athena. A few similarities in the gameplay also apply, but other than that Daioh Gale is in its own separate league of a console-friendly challenge that shouldn't give anyone much trouble to beat. One button is used to shoot (□), another to bomb (×) and several power-ups give some diversity as you play. Weapons come in three switchable flavors: red is the starting vulcan shot, blue is a missile discharge with secondary homing missiles and green is a fast-moving homing bubble stream (get two consecutive ones to max out firepower). Other items include speed-ups (S), extra bombs (B) and 1-hit shields (SH).

As the flagship sample game in Dezaemon Plus, Daioh Gale Ver. 2 comes with a few differences from the "vanilla" version, as listed below:

  • Ver. 2 has only 5 stages instead of the original 6 (the last level of Daioh Gale is gone);
  • the music for level 6 of Daioh Gale is used in the final stage of Ver. 2 (tracks for the previous levels are the same);
  • several parts of Ver. 2 have rearranged enemies, some of them with slightly different rates of fire and bullet speeds;
  • lots of enemies now zoom in and out of the screen;
  • there are less power-up items and less extra bombs in Ver. 2;
  • the maxed-out vulcan weapon is just a straight stream instead of the previous spread pattern;
  • the whole obstacle field of the final level has been altered and made more difficult (some memorization is definitely needed there).

It's easy to notice that all changes were pretty much aimed at increasing the difficulty of the game by just a short margin, perhaps as a compensation for having one less stage than the "original". Completely botching the efficiency of the red/vulcan weapon wasn't needed though, especially since it isn't anyone's first choice unless you take into account its bomb animation, which is the best one for panic purposes or for hitting far beyond you current position. After all, the effect of bombing depends on the the weapon you're using. Red detonates a round blast that expands outwards, blue creates a vertical beam of inwards fading energy and green sort of increases the damage inflicted by the homing bubbles. It's also important to remember that weapon types are carried over when you die (there's no default besides the start of the 1st stage).

4th boss amidst the clouds

Extra lives are score-based and come at the mark of 200.000 points and for each consecutive 500.000 points after that. Since getting repeated items gives you nothing and milking opportunities are so few and far between, there are no special remarks to be made about the scoring system other than exploiting checkpoints to score higher. Though I'm normally against this technique in checkpoint-based games, I didn't feel guilty by doing it this time because the game is pretty short and, quite frankly, as much a cakewalk as its predecessor was. I'm only left to wonder if the other sample titles in Dezaemon Plus are of the same caliber. We shall see in the future.

For some weird reason the save option in the disc did not work on my console, so my high scores could not be saved. Either this function is solely dedicated to the shmupmaking part of the package or my memory card was faulty. In any case, here goes the best 1CC high score I got for Daioh Gale Ver. 2 (Normal difficulty).

And while comparing titles I achieved the following high score in the original Daioh Gale, also on Normal difficulty (hold L2 when choosing the main sample game):

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Final Blaster (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco
 in 1990

In a library that spans dozens of shooting games it's quite common to overlook Final Blaster, either for its mundane phrasal proximity with the Star Soldier series (there is a Final Soldier after all, and I've confused them more times than I like to remember ~ even when writing this blog post) or for the subdued aspect of the package when compared with more recognizable offerings by Namco (such as Galaga '88, Dragon Spirit and Xevious, for example). Whatever the reasons, the truth is that Final Blaster tends to be unfairly left aside by everybody. That in itself is a very sad fate for a game that's certainly above average among it's 16-bit or PC Engine peers.

Much more interesting is the obscure tie-in of Final Blaster to other Namco titles such as Bosconian. The most prominent link between these two is the 7th and last level of the game, which takes place in planet Bosconian itself. This connection kinda justifies the arcade-like structure of Final Blaster, but it also hints at a deeper meaning within the works of developer Namco. Upon a quick reasearch I found out they're part of an integrated universe called United Galaxy Space Force (UGSF), which spans several years and includes titles of all genres. It's a very nice concept for those who enjoy tracking down the stories behind the games they play.

Final Blaster puts the player in the seat of the Blaster mk-II Phoenix, a powerful spaceship sent out to stop another invasion from Bosconian baddies. Armed with a nice weapon selection, it departs from the Moon and cruises all sorts of environments until the face-off against the mother alien. Fire away with button II or hold it to charge the "phoenix" attack, which upon release emits a powerful blast shaped after the mythic bird. This blast pierces through walls and is your only ally against some of the bosses (notably the 3th and the 7th). The only gripe is that you need to get used to the relatively long charging cycle, as well as switching that turbo function on and off when needed since there's no autofire at all in the game.

Just a couple more kills to finally face the boss

In order to increase the efficiency of the regular shot you must destroy the carriers and collect power-ups that cycle between two colors only. There's a catch though, since reds and blues don't exactly work according to regular conventions: red is responsible for the ship's power, whereas blue endows it with options whose behavior depend on the amount of red power-ups you have already collected. It works as a single 3×3 matrix where a few seemingly less powerful combinations end up being better than the most powerful ones. The awesome configuration for trailing laser options, for instance, is achieved with 2 reds and 3 blues, while the double directional options with missiles is activated with 3 reds and 2 blues. Max power (3/3) corresponds to the rotating laser options, which although powerful lacks the coverage you can get with the previously mentioned configurations.

And then comes the purpose of button I. When pressed, it sacrifices one blue power level for a bomb flash that kills everything on screen, so to get the ship back to its previous status you need to get another blue power-up. Survival mechanics aside, I just wish I could do the same with the red power to get the configurations available for 2 reds, but it's not possible. The final input at the player's disposal is the SELECT button, which switches the flying speed up and down through four settings visually indicated by the number of spiky edges of the ship itself. I mostly used speed 3, changing to 2 and 4 only once each (2 during the hydraulic clutch passage of the 5th stage and 4 against the final boss).

Once you finish a stage in Final Blaster the game measures your firepower and performance in order to determine the difficulty level of the next area (OPT for blues, POW for reds and MISS for deaths). This rudimentary rank system is very subtle, and is mostly noticed in the enemy resilience after you die in a condition of max rank (level 4). In any case, things will just be very difficult during the second half of the game no matter how powered up you are or how many times you have died. And dying can be extremely cruel: the green icon left behind gives back all the power you had if you're able to pick it up. It's easily recoverable if you die close to the top, but will be irrevocably lost if you bite the dust close to the bottom. And then it's back to the default power level, despair knocking at your door as the enemies relentlessly proceed with their attacks. Factor in the vertical span of the play area, which is a good degree wider than usual, and you'll also have to deal with enemies you can't see firing bullets after they've already left the screen.

Blasting reaches its final instance
(courtesy of YouTube user EnciclopediaLusa)

With great variety in stage design and bosses, all levels in Final Blaster feel quite unique. The very first impression might be of another Star Soldier lookalike but soon you notice the game actually bears a striking resemblance to Irem's Image Fight, as hinted by the ship's directional firing patterns, the floating islands of stage 3 or the shaft full of platforms and walkers of stage 4. Irem is also a very strong influence in other parts of the game, such as the final stretch prior to the last boss. Throwbacks to Xevious and Dragon Spirit can also be spotted, yet Final Blaster manages to leave a mark of its own with very specific sets of hazards and traps amidst cramped, claustrophobic areas that require careful maneuvering. The music is also of very good quality and plays in perfect balance with the sound effects.

Good performances in Final Blaster are duly and fairly reflected by the tight scoring system. A nice bonus is achieved if you complete a level without losing any lives, with the final stage obviously granting the highest prize of all. Items in excess are worth 500 points each, and mild milking is possible in certain areas. Watch out for that Galaga-like insect that cruises the screen in erratic patterns: if you don't kill it the thing will return in a larger and stronger form that descends slowly from the top while tracking the player's position. Not only is this huge insect a pain in the ass, but if you fail to kill it again you'll be robbed of one level of blue power, a downgrade that can be disastrous at times (the big slow bug is also worth less points than the zapping little bug). Extra lives are score-based and come with 50.000, 100.000 and then for every 100.000 points afterwards, with a few continues making it possible to practice once the credit is over.

After all the hard work one has to put into beating the game, the ending sequence does feel like a worthy reward for us brave pilots. It's got a very emotional tone, giving closure to the simple opening panels and putting an end to the experience on a high note. Of course this high gets even better with a higher score (if you miss your final number just wait for the attract mode to run to see it again). My best result is below, having died twice and being denied the bonuses of stages 5 and 6.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Gun Frontier (Saturn)

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

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

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

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

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

Opening screen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 29, 2018

Mushihimesama Futari (Xbox 360)

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

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

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

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

Opening screen

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

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

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

Palm takes on the 3rd boss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 21, 2018

R-Type Delta (Playstation)

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

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

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

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

Trying to come to grips with a gigantic attack

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

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

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

First contact
(courtesy of YouTube user MatrixAndrAla)

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

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

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

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

Next: R-Type Final.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Adventures of Dino Riki (NES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boots and skulls

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

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

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

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