Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Dangerous Seed (Mega Drive)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are ring bombs good enough for bugs?

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

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

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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Prismatic Solid (Xbox Live)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Yo1 Komori
Published by
Yo1 Komori in 2010

Sometimes protection is everything. Everybody knows how upsetting it is to play late stages of a Darius game with a bare ship. Or the despair that comes with cruising a tight area in any R-Type without the help of the force pod. It’s as if you’re missing an arm or a leg, that’s why in shmups shields are life. And if you’re the kind of player who cherishes shields and enjoys having them at all times regardless of how many bullets they need to block, then Prismatic Solid is right up your alley. It’s prismatic, it’s solid and it’s got shields. Of the colored type, on top of that. In fact, you can easily rename this game as "Color Orgy" if you so will.

Up front one thing is undeniable: the slick visuals and the spectacle of particles are amazing for a game released through XBLIG for a measly buck. Sparks and shards fly with gusto from every destroyed enemy as pulsating bullets and vivid lasers flood the screen once the action picks up. The adventure is eye-catching and oozes style, so it’s no wonder Prismatic Solid fulfills the initial tough task of luring players into the gameplay. Keeping the momentum, however, is always a whole different story.

Considering the Japanese are crazy for bullet barrages and intricate patterns, as far as difficulty goes the small Japanese developer responsible for this little game was certainly able to strike a decent balance between “casual” and “not so casual”. All things considered, it works. The array of influences includes the likes of Xexex and Silpheed, plus another one of those obvious nods to Xevious in the flying invincible monolith areas. “Destroy the core” is another unspoken staple of the genre – those familiar with any Gradius game know very well what I’m talking about.

A shardy-slimy first boss in the Ridge area

Most of the content of Prismatic Solid lies in the realm of abstract design, in a minimalistic approach that gets slowly beefed up as you reach successive loops. The difficulty increase during the levels themselves isn't that taxing, but all bosses are doubled in the second round and tripled in subsequent loops. It all starts with a bare ship, three upgrade bars for each shield filament (blue, yellow, red) and six weapons readily available for use. Fire with button A, cycle through weapons with the bumpers (LB and RB) and sacrifice a little of each color's power to trigger a bomb blast with buttons X, Y and B. For a faster grasp of the function of each button, note how all shields and their respective powers match the native colors of the Xbox 360's controller. And the spaceship is green, which is a pretty cool touch (in any case, controls are fully customizable).

Contrary to what we’d normally think, the little colored stars released by specific enemies in each level serve only to increase the reach of each corresponding shield and not to actually upgrade firepower, therefore weapons remain at the same power level at all times. From left to right you have homing (pink), split (Y-shaped yellow spread), 3way (red), rainbow (multicolored straight shot), shower (all-out blue spread) and snow (white all around scatter shot). Each selected weapon alters the position of the three shields, which are designed exclusively for defense and whose degree of frontal protection is inversely proportional to how focused/straight the shot type is. They can’t be tossed away like the flint from Xexex, and even though their filaments move around as you move the ship they never deviate from their fixed positions.

Such a defensive style of gameplay is bound to disappoint players who enjoy heavy dodging. Actually, if you stick to the shower weapon, which protects you from everything that comes from the front and the sides, you can bet your life Prismatic Solid gets heavily unbalanced towards defensive play. Okay, you might lose some points by sticking to shower, but it’s the safest way by far to advance in the game. Getting hit with the shower weapon is only possible in the case of collisions, large laser beams in the face or if you’re moving like crazy and a stray bullet manages to get through the moving strands of those maxed-out shields.

Some notes I can share on what I learned: the split shot is the best choice to create gaps during the xeviousy monolith areas; bombing comes with a brief stint of invincibility but my favorite one is the red, which sends an outward laser circle that's perfect to clean the screen of incoming enemies from all sides.

Ridge over troubled particles
(courtesy of YouTube user GameplaysELV)

Low difficulty aside, Prismatic Solid is a gorgeous game to look at, yet I can’t help but wonder what it could’ve achieved had the developer had more resources at hand. Polygons play a large part both in the enemy as well as in the stage design, that's why I expected a little more boldness from its usage in stages 3 and 5. They scream Silpheed all over but lack the cinematic edge that made it such a classic on the Sega CD. Granted, we still get trippy sections with lots of insect-based zakos that seem to have been lifted directly from Exed Exes. I like the fact that in further loops bosses finally put those shields to the test by cluttering the screen with thick lasers or solid matter, whereas textures and colors are drastically changed. The water level is particularly interesting since there comes a point where it seems you’re flying over a pool of blood instead of water.

To make up for the lenience on dodging, the good news is that there is at least a proper scoring system in place that rewards both survival and performance. For instance, every power-up star is worth 500 points once its energy bar is full, so it's possible to reap a nice deal of extra points for not bombing. Upon arriving at the terminal (a fancy expression for beating the game) all extra lives + energy are converted into points before the next loop starts with the default life stock. With an extend routine that grants an extra life at every 30.000 points, who can be blamed for adopting an overly defensive attitude just to squeeze the most of out this final bonus? Beware though: if you beat the 5th boss on your last life you get a negative reward!

Even if Prismatic Solid sounds like a wasted opportunity for something bombastic gameplaywise, it's still reasonably fun to warrant a little of anyone’s precious time. The game was also made available for download on the Playstation 4 in 2015, but I have no idea of any relevant differences from the original XBLIG version. As seen in the high score table below, in my best run I was able to reach stage 4-4.

Friday, February 24, 2017

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

Arena
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)

Vertical
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)

Vertical
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)

Vertical
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)

Vertical
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.