Saturday, October 18, 2014

Judgement Silversword (Xbox 360)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
31 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by M-Kai in 2004
Published by Qute in 2011


My knowledge of the Bandai Wonderswan haldheld game console is virtually none. I know only that it’s somehow close to the Atari Lynx as far as technical specs go. Since I’m not coming close to a Wonderswan anytime soon, it seems reasonable to accept that Judgement Silversword represents the shmup apex of this relatively unknown gaming platform. And the most interesting fact about it is that Judgement Silversword started as an entry in a game development competition held by Qute in 2001. After winning the contest it still received a few tweaks before a definitive physical release in 2004 with the subtitle Rebirth Edition.

There was nothing but praise for this game among those who had experienced it in its original platform, so it’s no wonder many people were excited to know it would be included as a bonus title in the 2011 release of Eschatos for the Xbox 360. The disc also includes Silversword’s spiritual sequel Cardinal Sins, and for that reason Eschatos is considered to be a perfect package to get to know the works of developer M-Kai. All three games share similar characteristics, that’s why playing one of them automatically makes the others somehow familiar. And going by the time I spent with Judgement Silversword – because it's the first one I actually decided to play – what lies ahead of me is nothing short of outstanding. I heard somewhere that the epicness of Radiant Silvergun was one of the main inspirations for the overall feel of this game and I agree. Obvious differences aside, it makes perfect sense.

Stages in Judgement Silversword are very short in the beginning, increasing in length and difficulty as the game progresses. They connect to each other seamlessly as you clear successive waves of enemies and fight the “judges”, bosses that are always preceded by the ominous message HERE COMES THE JUDGE. Graphics and music are wisely minimalistic and bear a delightful 8-bit flavor, creating a unique atmosphere and effectively adorning the game’s rhythm. All things considered though, it doesn’t take long to realize that the strongest asset here is gameplay. Intense, twitchy, demanding gameplay where urgency plays a big part and drives most of the player’s actions. Basically, kill a wave faster to trigger the next one and reap better time bonuses. And if you really care about scoring, in between speed-killing all efforts should be aimed at increasing the multiplier.

Original aspect ratio in all its old school glory

Your ship’s hitbox is that small square in the very center of its sprite, and its arsenal consists of three simple inputs: a straight shot, a wide shot and a shield. These are fully configurable, and my adopted setting was X for straight shot, RB for wide shot and RT for shield. Wide shot overrides straight shot, and shield has precedence over both of them. With the exception of lasers and a few evil projectiles fired by the true last boss, the shield is capable of wiping out or at least slowing down incoming bullets depending on their momentum: bigger bullets can’t be nullified, and the ship will be pushed back as a direct result from the mass/speed condition of the enemy or bullet. Shield usage is limited and indicated by the percentage shown at the lower left corner. It shrinks as the percentage lowers, being automatically recharged if you stop using it (it recharges a little faster if you also refrain from shooting).

By using the shield and connecting shots on enemies you can raise the multiplier to be applied over everything that takes damage. Note how you momentarily boost the multiplier by grazing bigger bullets or damaging large enemies with the shield. Whenever a multiplier is in place you see it appear beside the destroyed enemy, and the risk/reward relation that arises from this mechanic is what often causes the player to unconsciously improve his strategies towards the successively tougher enemy formations and bullet spreads. Of course that only applies for those who want to delve deeper into the scoring side of the game, otherwise the shield is pretty much just a resource for safety against the most intricate bullet showers.

Surely Judgement Silversword has a light start, but the ambience inspired by titles like Star Force and Zanac eventually evolves to something very close to bullet hell in the second half of the game. Surviving the harder waves and bosses of later stages is only possible with due practice, but those frequent extra lives granted by the game definitely help, if only at a psychological level (and in pure Compile fashion every time you take a 1UP there's a brief invincibility period that can be useful to evade hairy situations). The 1UP routine seems to be directly related to survival time and the number of enemies you’re able to kill (kill more enemies and die more often to get 1UPs sooner). You might even get a 1UP after you die your last life! In a well played credit it’s possible to reach Divine Flow, the evil judge of stage 30, with more than 10 spare lives. That’s a good entry point for the fight against the true last boss in stage 31, which can only be seen by getting there on a single credit. Continuing makes the game end after stage 30, but since the continue sends you back to the start of the level I doubt anyone will consider beating Divine Flow with only three lives an easy task.


My 1CC + only two deaths against Divine Flow!

Regardless of how you approach it, Judgement Silversword is an incredibly fun and addictive shooter. There are, however, two non-intuitive aspects in the gameplay that are extremely important if you're committed to the task of achieving a 1CC or chasing a higher score. The first one is the firepower boost you get by holding straight shot and tapping wide shot at the same time, which produces the effect of having both shot types active simultaneously. Not only this leads to faster enemy kills, but it also induces slowdown in key areas and helps to raise the multiplier faster (by doing it you’re landing more shots on nearby enemies). The second non-intuitive aspect of the game is the fact that the base multiplier increases automatically if you keep the shield at 100% at all times, meaning you can’t use it on bullets at all, only on enemies (by doing this the multiplier won’t go down to ×1 whenever you stop shooting). Blocking a bullet with the shield or dying will reset the base multiplier, therefore the general plan is simple: don’t die and don’t use the shield unless you know there are no bullets around. The benefits to scoring in the long run outweigh anything you can do by normally manipulating your resources to increase the multiplier.

Of all great features built into this wonderful shmup, the one that strikes me the most is how varied it is in regards to the amount of techniques you need to bring into play in order to survive the challenge set by the game. Macro and micro-dodging play huge roles in equal measure, as well as point-blanking, herding, grazing and a good deal of crowd controlling. The hardest parts often derive from pattern overlapping, so knowing enemy behavior and proactively reading their random formations is imperative to survive. I only wish the judges had a health bar so that I could know when they're about to die.

Upon beating the main game on Normal you unlock a Special mode made of only bosses. Some of them are lifted from the regular game, some of them shoot harder patterns and some are completely new. It’s a much harder game to beat, but if you succeed you’ll then unlock a secret ship to be used across all game modes. The interface provided by Qute for Judgement Silversword is excellent and includes stats for everything you do, from play time to number of coined credits. Play time is also what seems to determine the increase of available credits until you get to free play status (there’s a stage select option that doesn’t quite cut it for practice because the latest stage it will let you start on is the 27th).

If the Xbox 360 is connected to the Internet high scores can be uploaded to the online leaderboards. Unfortunately I wasn't online when I got the 1CC high score below. Coming up next is Cardinal Sins. :)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Forgotten Worlds (Master System)

Arena
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Reprogrammed and published by Sega in 1991


The apocalyptic setting of Forgotten Worlds, as devised in the arcade game, was certainly too much for the Master System to handle. As Sega took it and reworked graphics and music to fit its 8-bit platform, concessions were made and the original nine stages were condensed in five. It wasn’t just a matter of downscaling the material though, since one of these five stages is a brand-new underwater-themed area, complete with a new crab boss. Nothing extraordinarily fancy, but if you’re the kind of player who likes to compare versions and try them all because they have exclusive material, feel free to put this one in your checklist of ports to be experienced.

As expected, this adaptation got away with the ability to play in co-op. Now it’s just one lone nameless flying warrior fighting against the threat of emperor Bios, a winged man who slaves a world that time forgot. In your quest to rid the planet from evil you’ll be travelling through a junkyard, a barren wasteland, an Egyptian temple, an underwater passage and the ultimate tower of doom from where Bios exerts his dirty deeds. It’s a short game, but it’s got no continues and it still demands a bit of strategy to be properly learned and played. Downgrades notwithstanding, Forgotten Worlds for the Master System can actually be considered a relatively faithful port.

First stage of Forgotten Worlds on Easy
(courtesy of YouTube user sylesis)

Since the Master System controller has only two buttons, both of them are used to rotate the character (each one in a different direction). In an awkward little twist for a shooting game, the very act of shooting occurs automatically so you don’t need to worry about it at all. The constant firing doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay, with the exception of the gas pipe area at the end of the 1st stage and the splitting pathways of the 3rd stage, where it would certainly be good to refrain from shooting. You can either get a gas blow in your face by hitting the pipes or choose the wrong path inside the pyramid. The satellite - that thing that surrounds the character as you rotate the aim - provides protection against incoming bullets and also fires a powerful special weapon. Last but not least, a “mega crush” can be triggered by pressing both buttons at once, quickly oblitering all enemies and bullets on screen at the cost of a little health.

In Forgotten Worlds there’s only a single power bar as life meter, therefore preserving power/health is extremely important to not bite the dust and have to start all over again. By entering the shop in every level you are allowed to purchase several types of upgrades, depending on how much money you have collected up to that point. “Zenny” is the official currency and consists of those blue spheres left behind by some types of enemies, and the good news is that this port is rather generous in money: you never feel that you need to be stingy when going into the shop, unlike in the arcade original where Zenny was as precious as fuel for Max Rockatansky. Besides, there's no time limit for when you're shopping. Note that the last stage has two shops, one in the ground and another in the vertically scrolling section of the tower.

Of all items available inside the shop, the most important ones are the flying stone (to change the sluggish starting speed of the character / buy only once), the power packs (increase the power gauge), the two types of boosters (they upgrade firing strength), the life potion (resurrects the player upon death) and the aqua stone (available only in the underwater level / improves your maneuverability and makes it actually possible to do something). Only one type of satellite is allowed at any time, so you need to choose carefully when trading your current sattellite in for another from the shop. The satellite gallery isn't as rich as in the arcade version, but there are a few exclusive satellites to try here. One of my favorites in this version is the 4-way laser, which is great to deal with the turrets from the last stage.

Purchasing items like the protector armor becomes unnecessary when you get more comfortable with the game. By shooting at certain locations you uncover hidden items for immediate taking, such as these armors and others like a star (extra points), a yasichi (full health) and a Pow sign that refills most of the power gauge. Because the armor item is so small and may go unnoticed, you need to pay attention or you'll miss it.

Really!?

My choices of satellite purchases in the shop were guided missiles in the first level, fire bomb (a.k.a. napalm) in the second level, burner (flamethrower) for the third and fourth levels and 4-way laser in the final stage. The enemy gallery preserves the most iconic creatures like the lizardmen, the snakes, the turrets, the Egyptians, the flying heads, etc. Some of the larger foes, such as the ice boss, were downranked to just a few ice minions that precede the entry to the tower leading to the final boss. The action is relatively slow, but if you choose to play with the super high speed flying stone the flow of the game gets a lot better. I did get stuck in parts of the scenery and lost health unfairly a couple of times, so it's good practice to avoid going into the gaps in walls an such. Normally you don't lose any energy by leaning against the scenery.

Forgotten Worlds for the Master System was only released is Europe and Brazil. Knowing its arcade origins is probably what attracts most people to the game, but it's not a bad title at all by Master System standards. Flicker is minimum, as well as slowdown. It's reasonably fun but a little on the easy side once you get used to the controls. It even includes the famous cut scenes showing the nameless warrior before each stage starts. Would the game be better if these were left out in favor of more actual gameplay, I wonder? We'll never know!

Below is my final 1CC score on Normal. Tip: save a little money for the last stage and buy the item named “dress” if you want to get an even higher score upon completing the game.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Atlantean (PC Engine)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Aetherbyte

Published by Aetherbyte in 2014


In this day and age the PC Engine is all but a footnote in video game history for many people. Real video game lovers, however, cannot help but appreciate it as one of the most charming classic platforms, and having a new shooter released 20 years after its demise is nothing short of outstanding. Developed by an independent little studio, Atlantean has recently hit the market in full retail form with case, manual and the game in a proper HuCard – or AbCard, as baptized by developer Aetherbyte. For all purposes it’s the result of a labor of love targeted at the hardcore fan base, like many other examples that came before it in recent years.

Atlantean doesn’t try anything new or groundbreaking, and at first glance could be mistaken as a pseudo-sequel to the universally pawned Deep Blue. Fortunately the only thing in common between both games is the underwater theme, with actual gameplay being vastly different between each other. The homebrew homage to Defender is clearly evident in Atlantean, and since there’s no game with an equivalent style in the PC Engine library we can all hail this as the first one of its kind for NEC’s video game console. Granted, it only took more than 20 years to happen, but now that it’s here I guess a few more people will get a taste of the old Defender gameplay rush. Then we can all go play Resogun and meditate on all that stands between and at the same time unites the PC Engine and the Playstation 4 in this regard.

Anyway, in Atlantean the player’s mission is to guard the underwater inhabitants of planet Atlantis from being abducted by Aquanoid robotic invaders for unspeakable purposes (never mind the fact that the bad guys look just like sea creatures from Earth and the inhabitants look like statues of Baby Sinclair). In order to fulfill the heroic task you’re allowed to shoot (button II), trigger screen-clearing bombs (button I) and move horizontally at hyperspeed (START). The play field is the expected vertical cylinder, the scrolling speed is dictated by the player and an overhead radar tells you the location of all enemies and also the atlanteans you’re supposed to protect from abduction. Turning left and right needs to take into consideration the ongoing combination of speed and inertia.

Atlantean's release trailer
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Aetherbyte)

Each stage is comprised by five sections. In the first one you face three consecutive invader waves, in the second you’re brought to the middle of the screen in order to weave through the gaps of incoming mine walls and in the third part you face another invader wave. Then comes the stage “aqualord” boss, followed by a bonus section where you need to catch falling atlanteans for an opportunity to repopulate some of the inhabitants that were abducted or died. This bonus round is only absent in the 4th and last stage, since the game ends when the 4th aqualord is defeated. Besides the regular game you can also choose to play an “Endurance” mode that removes all bosses and supposedly has no ending. This is set in the options screen (note that the difficulty appears under the “speed” setting).

Survival play in Atlantean is quite easy. Extends come loosely at the ten thousand marks and extra bombs are added to the stock at key points, e.g. when a section is completed. Preventing atlanteans from being captured leads to slightly higher scores, I just couldn’t figure out a clear rule for how it works. Since the only type of enemy that’s capable of abducting atlanteans is the jellyfish, watch out for them and act preventively to stop them from taking their prey away. Even if you destroy the kidnapping jellyfish beware not to lose an atlantean by letting it fall from too high. However, a falling atlantean can be picked up, carried around and dropped safely anywhere you want at the bottom of the sea.

Sounds and graphics in Atlantean are fairly average for PC Engine standards. The complete lack of power-ups is a bit disappointing, but at least the core gameplay is enough to keep the interest going. Parallax layers are used throughout and may induce a little jerkiness (particularly in the mines section), while the colorful design feels samey and doesn’t allow any stage to stand out from the rest. There’s a wrecked Statue of Liberty somewhere in the game, but what’s it exactly doing in an alien planet? Jokes aside, while capable to deliver the goods, Atlantean fails to go beyond the basic level of accomplishment. On the whole, the only real downside in the actual gameplay is the considerable slowdown when you come across too many enemies at the same time, which briefly makes controls unresponsive and affects the firing/bombing functions.

Mines on the third stage

On the surface the scoring system appears to be very straightforward, but as I mentioned above you’re bound to score a little higher if you manage to avoid the abduction of atlanteans. Every stage has 9 atlanteans to be protected, and the more of them you lose the less you’ll score in the end. It doesn’t matter whether you carry them around (by recovering them after they’re been lifted) or just let them lie peacefully at the bottom of the sea. If all atlanteans are killed in a level the scenery explodes and you're left to deal with only one type of enemy that approaches from the right in concentrated flocks. In order to return the enemy gallery back to normal you need to start repopulating the bottom of the sea by collecting falling atlanteans in the bonus area.

While attempting to achieve the highest possible score in the game I have come across a weird programming bug: the sudden cumulating of an obscene amount of lives (one for each enemy killed). It usually kicks in by the time I reach the third stage and it seems to be related to how successful I am at keeping atlanteans alive. At one time I even rolled over the life count. Unfortunately I wasn't able to top the highest score in the default ranking table, and unless there's a deeply hidden secret in Atlantean's gameplay I have the feeling it might be just impossible to accomplish that. What a downer, really... Well, at least there are different tables for Normal and Endurance modes.

In the last credit I played I was able to keep all atlanteans alive across all four levels, but nonetheless I couldn't even reach my best result, which is shown below with the yellow arrow. The game was played on Normal speed/difficulty.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Strike Gunner S.T.G (SNES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Athena
Published by Vap Inc. in 1992


Ah, the appeal of war against intergalactic invaders! How could we, as shoot’em up fans, ever resist it? The publisher of Strike Gunner S.T.G came up with an extremely convoluted story just to tell you that but don’t worry, the animated intro is more than enough to show you everything that’s needed to, well… get you in the mood, I guess. It even includes a neat mode-7 effect that obviously isn’t present in the original attract mode of the arcade game. In the end it’s all about aliens attempting to conquer planet Earth in the year 2008, and scientists developing the Strike Gunner fighter to try and stop them.

Strike Gunner S.T.G on the SNES is a prime example of a shmup that hasn’t aged well at all. Originally a fast and frantic experience in its arcade form, the game was turned into a repetitive ordeal for the console format. Monotonous graphics, simplified enemies and increased stage duration are far from being an alluring combination in a 16-bit shooter. When I passed the first level for the first time I thought for a minute that I’d be stuck with that forest setting for the rest of the game! Anyway, the graphics did change but despite following the same stage progress originally presented in Raiden (first half of the game on Earth, second half in outer space) they lack color and overall it just feels you’re up against a gray-tinted alien army.

Maybe the reason for the subdued impression one gets when playing the game is the fact that the developer actually chose to focus on beefing up the simultaneous two-player mode, which seems to come with rather dynamic collaboration mechanics (check the instruction manual for specifics). Unfortunately I didn’t get to test that, nor do I know how faithful this part of the gameplay is when compared to the arcade original. I wonder if the SNES port would’ve been a better solo game if it had shunned the co-op thing. After all, it does add extra material such as five brand-new special weapons and new graphics: the sea stage is totally new, as well as the flight over the Moon in the 7th stage. Too bad the action is dull and boring for the most part.


"I never thought I'd be spraying missiles over a jungle"
(courtesy of YouTube user Diego Lima)

Button B shoots and button A fires special weapons. Before starting each stage the player must select a special weapon to be used throughout the level, initially from a list of 15 available options. Each special weapon may be selected only once, so think wisely before choosing the plasma shield, admittedly the best of the bunch. While the regular shot comes with unlimited ammo, special weapon usage is limited by an energy gauge, and the rate at which this gauge depletes depends on the weapon itself. Autoaim vulcan and homing missile drain it slowly, whereas the megabeam cannon consumes it all in just one powerful single blast. Therefore, out of the 15 special weapons 7 will not be used during any normal run. Don't take too log to choose one: if the timer reaches zero the game will assign the uppermost special weapon for you.

To refill the energy gauge you need to collect one of the items brought by a carrier arriving from the bottom of the screen (a stealth plane, a space shuttle or a rocket container). Other items include speed-up and the power-up for the main shot. Now for the weird news: item management is one of the most bungled features of Strike Gunner S.T.G. For example, out of a total of three speed-ups in the entire game, the first one only appears in stage 5. When you take it for the first time you’re left wondering what just happened to the ship’s speed. In my opinion you get too fast with this single speed-up, and considering that all items look like each other avoiding the speed-up requires you to devise some sort of visual recognition based on the details of the item sprites.

According to the instruction manual the game comes with four difficulties. The option screen, however, shows five different numbered settings with the default being 1. In this setting the ship starts with pre-upgraded firepower, which I thought was strange. When set to difficulty 2 you get the basic pea shot that must be powered up nine times to be maxed out into a double blue shot with greater destructive effect. I figured difficulty 2 corresponds to Normal, so that was my chosen setting. By doing that the player must be aware that dying comes with a huge power loss, to which the only remedy in later levels is to select a relatively powerful special weapon as compensation because power-ups are extremely scarce. Just to have an idea, most stages after the first one have only one power-up to be collected.

Megabeam cannon, sonic shooter, adhesive bomb, heavy vulcan and heat arrow can only be tried in the SNES version

Ordinary enemy behavior is the main culprit of the lack of appeal in Strike Gunner S.T.G. You'll be facing a long streak of choppers, tiny jets, boats, a handful of mid-bosses and weird creatures in the outer space levels. Pretty much all aerial foes arrive in mirrored patterns, so if a sequence of five choppers arrives from the left you can expect the same five arriving from the right. Most bosses were changed completely in the port and are often easier, but a couple of them are downright cheap in how they attack, killing you in a snap if you don't pay attention. Dying, by the way, happens with absolutely no fanfare and makes you feel like a toasted mosquito. Well, at least it recharges your special weapon at once... Slowdown is rare and more akin to brief frame drops when the screen is cluttered. And I might be wrong here, but I had the feeling that special weapons with lingering contact, such as the laser cannon, add more points to the score.

Moving the HUD to the sides of the screen seems to make a little sense for the 2-player mode, but otherwise it just feels awkward and useless. You can't even see your score while you're playing, and the only glimpses you'll have of it appear in-between levels (at least you're also allowed to check your high score in those same screens). Score-based extends start with 50.000 points and continue progressively on double values (100K, 200K, 400K, 800K, etc.). Sometimes you hear a characteristic sound when the extend registers, sometimes you don't. Speaking of sound, the music is probably the only aspect of the game that escapes being subpar, even though a few themes appear in more than one level.

The special weapons of choice in my 1CC run were laser cannon (1 - forest), autoaim vulcan (2 - forest/desert), homing missile (3 - desert), sonic wave (4 - beach/sea), plasma shield (5 - sky/stratosphere), heat arrow (6 - outer space), atomic missile (7 - Moon) and comrade fighter (8 - base). I played on difficulty 2/Normal. After the game ends you need to reset and replay the first level to see your high score.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Gradius III (Playstation 2)

Horizontal
Checkpoints ON
6 Difficulty levels
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by KCET in 2000


Lovers of the Gradius series owe themselves a great deal of thanks to the Konami of old. As we entered the new millennium they were still capable of presenting shmup fans with stuff like Gradius III and IV for the Playstation 2. This fantastic bundle doesn’t need any explanation as to what is inside that shiny blue-tinted CD. As far as I know these are the only ports of the last real arcade Gradiuses, wrapped in a package that’s enriched by a few nice tweaks and two distinct animated intros that work as a sweet homage to the series. One of these intros is, in fact, very similar in style to the psychedelic intro to Mars Matrix on the Dreamcast. Were they made by the same team, perhaps? I wouldn’t doubt that.

The most well-known fact concerning the arcade version of Gradius III is the consensus among gamers about the extraordinary leap in difficulty from Gradius II, which isn’t actually that shabby in this regard. You’ll often see people cursing the checkpoints in the game and how it's impossible to recover when you die. Now I can say that’s partially true, and I take the opportunity to grant forgiveness to the SNES port for everything I might have declared in the past. Much accursed for its alleged slowdown problems, now I know that this slowdown was *already* heavily present in the arcade game (judging by what I could see from MAME). With four options/multiples the slowdown was so heavy in the last part of the volcano stage that very early on I decided I would play without the slowdown on the port for Playstation 2.

This slowdown tweak is one of the neatest things you get in the console version. Go to the options and set “wait level” to 2 in order to experience the original slowdown, but leave it at 0 to get rid of it and enjoy a seamless game with no loading times whatsoever (you can also change it on the fly by pausing the game). Gradius III has absolutely no continues, but each checkpoint reached is unlocked in the Stage Select option for your suffering delight. You even get to unlock a special practice area for the dreaded cube rush in the “Extra Mode” screen, which also includes Gradius / Salamander bonus stages (unlocked by getting hit by the energy balls from the final boss) and Extra Edit (allows selection of weapons from all ship configurations, including the exclusive ones from the SNES version / finish the game to unlock).

Pop the bubbles to go from legend to myth!

As the story goes, the Vic Viper spaceship returns to battle the evil Bacterion army in Gradius III. Not much has changed from the basic gameplay of earlier games, except for the weapons rearranged in four basic configurations (A, B, C, D), a limited weapon edit alternative and several shield options. Besides that, the player must choose between the technical course (regular game) and a beginner’s course (easier game with only the three initial stages). By default one button shoots, another drops missiles and a third one triggers upgrades. These upgrades correspond to the highlighted cells of the weapon array, which in turn is cycled by collecting orange power-up capsules. The order of the cells in the weapon array is as follows: speed-up, missile, double, laser, option/multiple, ? (shield) and ! (a screen-clearing smart bomb that replaces the effect of the gray capsule seen in previous chapters). Each configuration plays drastically different from the next, to the point where you need to practically devise completely different strategies to play the game with each one of them.

Sounds pretty simple, wouldn’t you say? Yes, there are no complications in the way controls work. Using them to overcome the odds is a whole different story though, for brutal is the most common word used to describe Gradius III and its checkpoints. One of the early examples in the game is in the bubble stage, which is merely the second one and also the reason why most casual players remember it as a painful experience. Dying there makes getting back on your knees simply impossible, and in my opinion the same can be said about a few parts in the volcano, moai and fortress levels. Whenever it happened I would give up the credit immediately. While these checkpoint drawbacks certainly pose extra pressure upon players, they also tell you up front to accept the challenge as it is: relentless, ruthless, vicious, merciless, you name it. Playing a full credit for over half an hour to die horribly in a place where you just can’t recover? Oh, I’ve been there countless times, as I’m sure those who’ve already been there also were...

Of course that doesn’t mean Gradius III isn’t fun. It’s just that the fun in this case is irrevocably related to the player’s dedication and the overall sensation of achieving a grand objective in a shooter of epic proportions. Each level won feels like a small victory, but coping with all variables and hazards still takes lots of practice because more often than not the game likes to throw something different to screw things up. The asymmetrical stage lengths help keep things in perspective – the volcano (3rd) and fortress (10th) levels are very, very long, in a strong contrast with the brief rail segment of stage 4. That one is an anomaly in the Gradius universe since it only appears here, acting as a bridge between levels that are common to both courses and levels that can only be played in the normal course. This section is devoid of enemies and you're not allowed to shoot, only weave through wall corridors and collect power-up capsules. The cool thing is that any shield you had prior to entering the level is fully recharged when you come out of it directly into the moai stage.

Allow me to break down the game in stages:
  1. Desert – easy first level; I guess those sand lions sort of represent the most iconic image people have from Gradius III.
  2. Bubble – knowing where the turrets are and being aggressive to destroy the larger bubbles is important, since a clean screen is needed when those minions start coming from behind.
  3. Volcano – a 3-part level where the first part throws lots of those hatches that unleash hordes of minions/bullets, the second part unfolds as a huge maze of walls and the third part is filled with destructible matter; it all ends in the staggering laser boss after a mini-volcano spree.
  4. High speed – the short rail segment.
  5. Moai – yet another one of these... urgh; aggressive behavior works well for the whole stage, but don’t hesitate to protect yourself from the ring showers if needed.
  6. Cell – looks like a leftover from Salamander, but it’s a lot trickier and more claustrophobic.
  7. Fire – this one is a nightmare because it's impossible to destroy the fireballs completely and even the shield can be deceiving with its bigger hitbox; at least there’s no randomness at all to the fireballs, so I memorized safe routes in order to get back up upon dying.
  8. Plant – a relatively easier level that ends in a considerably tougher boss; I never reached him with full power, so I had to learn how to survive his approaches and time him out.
  9. Crystal – cubes mount from the right to form the stage itself, and then try to crush you when the screen stops prior to the boss (I think this is the second most iconic image people have from Gradius III); my strategy on the cube rush concerns two elements – cube spawning position is random, while the point where they “rush” on you is fixed; knowing the second element is the key to build a wall and shelter yourself until the boss arrives.
  10. Fortress – first there’s the boss rush and then a long stretch inside the fortress itself with very tight passages, lots of difficult hatches to take care of and the dreaded combo of wall + mechanical spider prior to an organic wall + last boss + high speed escape.

Things got kinda nervous at the end of this 1CC...

The reason why I never got past the fire stage with a fullly powered ship without dying is rank, which is directly related to your firepower level and survival time. Enemies don’t get any more sympathetic either if you give away all your options to the capturing bug before entering the fireball area. The truth is that reducing rank is only really achieved by dying, but in a good run where I perish in the fire level I feel comfortable to bridge the game to the end if I can get “good” cubes in the cube rush. If I get a stream of “bad” cubes the earned extends are much welcome to provide extra attempts at surviving them (first one with 20K, then at every 70K).

Just like in the first games in the series, the scoring system of Gradius III is very basic and totally detached from any more noble objectives due to the checkpoint system. For instance, a no-death run would result in a measly score when compared to a credit where the player exploits the cube rush or the boss rush checkpoints. I have gotten several scores higher than the 1CC result shown below but refused to have them registered because, you know, for me it's 1CC or bust.

There isn’t anything special about the graphics of Gradius III especially when comparing this chapter to the second one, which came out just one year earlier. Everything is just cruelly exquisitely designed, that’s all. Musically the game is okay in the recycled levels (volcano, moai, fortress) and quite good in the ones that bring new themes (bubble, cell, plant, crystal). Digitized voices are everywhere, from activating upgrades to the creepy monologue of the final boss and the trademark bossy messages (destroy the mouth, destroy the eye, destroy the chest). In between each lesson learned when being killed the umpteenth time by one of the bosses or crashing onto a wall due to nervousness or greed, my final impression is that Gradius III excels at flooding the player with feelings of joy and anger in equal measure. At least it doesn’t tease you like Gradius II did (you need some practice!), otherwise the anger factor could be even higher.

I am proud to say I have succeeded in beating Gradius III for the Playstation 2 on Normal with slowdown disabled (wait level 0). It was a joyous ride full of failure, yet extremely rich in acquiring deep Gradius knowledge. I used the type B ship configuration and the original shield (force field), reaching the middle of stage 2-1. Note: besides being a lot harder, the second loop has completely rearranged enemy patterns.


Next in line is Gradius Gaiden on the Playstation!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Keio Flying Squadron 2 (Saturn)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints ON/OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Victor Entertainment
Published by JVC in 1996


A quick glance at Keio Flying Squadron 2 isn’t enough to tell you everything about the game, at least as far as quick glances go for regular games. Sequel to Keio Flying Squadron on the Sega CD, this second chapter appears as an amalgam of action genres where platforming represents the main gameplay style you’re bound to taste. It’s an eclectic adventure infused with all sorts of little deviations from the norm, including several autoscrolling levels from which two sections mirror the shmup ambience of the first game. For a while I wondered if that was too little to label it as a symmetrical hydrid shooter, but given the awesome nature of the game and the gorgeous sprite work involved I figured it was definitely worth a look.

The wackiness that was already present on the Sega CD is naturally heightened by the platforming element, an aspect that allows for a more diverse touch of humor and Japanese culture. Bunny-suited Rami is still hungry, but this time she’s after an ancient orb stolen by a mysterious princess. Her pet dragon Spot is back, as well as Dr. Pon’s raccoon army in their neverending mission to spoil Rami’s quest, which spans across five stages with three to five areas each. Several low-res animated sequences are shown throughout the game, and together with the spoken dialogue they provide some laughs and a good insight into the story and the characters. One note though: Keio Flying Squadron 2 was released in all main regions except the US, so the best version for Westerners to enjoy it is the European one (it’s got fine dubbing - same voices from the Sega CD). Besides, the Japanese disc is extremely heavy on the Japanese language, down to the menus and score display.

A colorful Edo river

Even though the flow of the game is a little clunky in the platforming sections, the general design is much in the vein of the classic Sonic the Hedgehog. Dispatching opponents is primarily achieved by jumping on them with button C, but you can also attack with button B by using one of the three weapons found with enemies or inside chests: a hammer, an umbrella or a bow. The umbrella makes Rami fall slowly and offers protection against falling objects, and the bow can be used to hit enemies at a distance by being charged. To pick up or get rid of a weapon you need to press A (only A throws it away, ↓ + A puts it down gently on the ground). Rami is also able to run, and by default you just need to keep the directionals pressed to do it (you can also double tap or use buttons L/R, these need to be set in the options screen). As usual, jumping and running go hand in hand with button holding and preserving momentum.

Death happens instantly when Rami gets hit unless you’re carrying an object or a weapon. In that circumstance, after you get hit you let go of whatever you're carrying while being invincible for a very short time. This means that carrying something at all times is the key to survival in the platform sections, just be quick to recover the weapon before it disappears after flashing for a few seconds. Don’t count on the invincibility window when hit to get through the danger though, the grace period is really very brief. Dying sends you back to the latest checkpoint, always memorized at the point where you meet and wakes up a sleeping Spot dragon. Notes about weapons/objects: Rami must be bare-handed to pick any weapon, but she will always be able to lift one object while carrying a weapon or not; when umbrellas are open you're not able to hold on to ladders.

Regarding items, golden rabbits are the main ones you’ll see everywhere in the game, either just waiting to be collected or hidden inside chests. For each hundred rabbits you win an extra life, and the good news is that the rabbit counter isn’t reset when you die. Other items placed at tricky locations or inside secret passages consist of 1UPs (Rami’s face), extra continues (Spot’s head) and entry tickets to a bonus level (a green creature waving his arms). Additionally, a plethora of objects is scattered around for the player to tinker with, each one supposedly having a specific use in the game. They can all be carried around and thrown, but aside from the most obvious ones (the spring pads, the big hand, the boxes, the clown sticks) I haven’t figured out the use of any of them. Many of these objects can’t be broken either, otherwise they’ll add negative points to the score. Wait, negative points you say? Yes, scoring in Keio 2 is displayed in positive and negative terms. Every hit suffered deducts 5 points from the score, so if you keep getting hit without dying the score display might eventually reach negative hundreds. On the other end of the spectrum, most enemies are worth 1 point only, with special foes or boss phases giving out 2 or 3 points each.

The only shooting segments in the game are stages 1-3 and 5-1. The first takes place over a river in Edo/Tokyo and the second unfolds in outer space. Gameplay is almost the same from the original chapter on the Sega CD, with shot set to B and speed selection to X/Y/Z. Incoming items consist of P (power-up) and auxiliary shots that cycle between homing baby dragons and directional mines (each of these attacks can be powered up three times). Both shmup stages are rather easygoing and do not pose much of a threat. Just beware of huge cannonballs shot from the background in the river stage, as well as sharks coming out of the water and leaving almost no room to dodge. Don’t be afraid to fly behind boats and within the water because you’ll find a few hidden items there. Last but not least, whenever you die in a shooting section you’re instantly respawned.

Intro to Keio Flying Squadron 2
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

There’s no denying that Keio Flying Squadron 2 boasts outstanding graphics with vivid colors, lots of details and sheer creativity in every single corner of the screen. For a gamer that doesn’t fancy platforming games that much anymore, the two shmup parts are totally worth the extra effort to get there. Granted, the music in both of them is lifted directly from the first game, in what seems to be the only glaring slip (or sign of laziness) from the developer. The rest of the soundtrack ranges from mellow to upbeat, but always with a nice Japanese flavor to them. Other autoscrolling stages include a train ride (2-1) and a trippy rollercoaster (3-1). Rami also goes underwater in section 3-2, “takes part” in a martial arts tournament in 5-2 and faces a handful of weird looking bosses, from which my favorite is the haunted mansion floating head. The final boss is disappointing though, instead of fighting that huge green beast you’re just supposed to escape from his throat in a sort of dynamic ladder generator. In stage 5-4 you don't even get to play as you just watch Rami getting sucked into the creature's mouth. Speaking of character interactions, these can't be skipped during the actual gameplay. Cut scenes can be properly skipped though.

As far as scoring goes, the biggest source of points is by far the bonus level, followed closely by the two shooting stages. A bonus level offers several point tokens (negative or positive) accessible by jumping over spring mats in an endless vertical pit. Since the big points are at the very top, not falling is essential to come out of the level with a nice score boost. On the other hand, if you keep falling chances are you might come out with a lesser score than the one you had prior to entering the level. When you start the game it takes just one special item (the green creature waving his arms) to have access to this bonus area, but later on you definitely need more of them because bonus levels get scarcer. Bad performances in platforming stages can be disastrous to the score, and I can surely say I had my quote of ruined runs because I panicked and kept dying inside the caverns, the flying boat stage or the ninja castle. By the way, the ninja castle is probably the hardest level in the game, full of traps, revolving floors and deadly iron pendulums.

Every progress is properly saved in the console’s internal memory. Besides the regular settings of the options menu there’s also an “Extra” area that shows maximum and minimum scores achieved, several helpful tips for progressively negative results (down to -125 points) and lots of rewards in the form of artwork and background information on all characters and enemies (up to +500 points). It’s all very neat and definitely worth a read/sight, just like the game itself: a moderately challenging and fun action romp. Too bad the next (and last) installment in the series, released for the Playstation, is a party game that's pretty much unplayable for us Westerners.

My 1CC score in Keio Flying Squadron 2 on Normal is below. The picture was taken at the last platform of the final level, before the screen fades into the ending credits.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Curse (Mega Drive)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Micronet
Published by Micronet in 1989


For most people Micronet is just a footnote in gaming history, and publishing Raiden Trad is probably their most recognizable contribution to the Mega Drive shmup library. Despite being both developed and released by Micronet, Curse never received the same attention for obvious reasons. The first one of them is that the game never left Japan, while other reasons can easily relate to the frame rate, the short duration or the fact that the game has a broken scoring system. This wasn't the first time I played Curse, but only now I noticed you can milk the last boss infinitely for a theoretical counterstop.

By taking a look at the cover art it's not possible to know what's inside as a game. Suffice it to say that the stylish cybernetic head is the last boss, and between the start and the end of the journey you get through a mix of organic, outer space and high-tech environments. Reasoning for the name Curse probably exists somehow in the instruction manual since there's no indication whatsoever in the game itself, a feeble shooting romp marked by a strangely odd frame rate. As low as it seems, this frame rate is no impediment for the gameplay to throw a series of high speed sections that demand some level of anticipation from the player. Multiple parallax layers abound in most stages, and the aggressive choice of colors just lends a peculiar feel to the experience, one that resembles Bio-Ship Paladin at times.

Anyway, if you're able to accept the frame rate as it is then there's some sort of enjoyment to be had here. The level of cheapness doesn't veer into the realm of "blazing fast bullets you can't dodge", which is one of the flaws of games designed with bad frame rates. You'll still die a few times from things popping out of nowhere, mind you.

Deadly spores of the first level

A basic pea shot is all you have on your ship as the credit starts. Shooting is accomplished with button B, whereas button A deploys a bomb and button C is used to set the position of the orb (see below). Despite the lack of side reach the pea shot is actually pretty decent in its effectiveness, but you can also activate three other weapons by taking their respective icons: V (vulcan), W (wave) and C (cluster bombs). Once active, each weapon can be upgraded twice by successively taking the same item, and to switch them just take a different one. Vulcan is excellent for its spread capabilities, wave is the only one that can pierce though walls and cluster bombs provide a little destructive spectacle as debris and shards fly everywhere when the projectiles hit something. A better set of sound effects would've done wonders to the way weapons work, but unfortunately that's not the case. They just sound too soft.

Each life has a shield that can withstand a few hits and is fully recovered when you take the E icon. Other items to be collected are S (speed-up), M (homing missiles) and an orb that surrounds the ship and rests in a fixed position defined with button C. Once you get two orbs they're positioned against each other and can only be placed in two different ways, either horizontally or vertically. Orbs provide protection against regular bullets and extra firepower, which can be upgraded by acquiring further orbs (fully powered orbs will fire three-way shots in both directions). The same upgrade scheme applies to the homing missiles, and at the maximum level the ship fires three of them at once. They might be slow but they're still useful since most enemies are 1-hit kills.

In the forest of the first stage the wave weapon is good to deal with all those drones sitting behind roots and trees. I prefer to use vulcan in the second stage in order to have enough coverage to blast all the destructible rocks, and anything is fine inside the fiery cave of the third level. The open space of the fourth stage is deceiving because if you die there it might get tough to get things back together. Everything considered, Curse isn't really a hard game up to that point, so maybe that's why Micronet decided to add a single checkpoint to the last stage (die anywhere and restart the level). This adds a bit of difficulty and gives some use to the benevolent extend scheme that grants an extra life for every million points scored.

Second level in Curse's attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user Gunstar red)

Most of the time I completely forgot I could use button A to trigger screen-clearing bombs, when in fact they're very handy to handle cluttered situations. You won't see any item to be collected for extra bombs though. Bomb stock is increased by taking successive weapon power-ups after you've maxed out firepower. Example: with a maxed out wave gun, each successive W icon will give you an extra bomb. By pressing either A, B or C + START at the title screen you can have access to very basic configuration options. Unfortunately there are no additional difficulty settings and no way to remap buttons, but it's possible to select any of the first four stages as the starting one.

In between the frame rate, the unremarkable challenge (bosses are all wimps) and the botched scoring system, the best quality of Curse is definitely the excellent soundtrack. I'm very fond of the themes for the first and the last stages, and they pretty much make the game worthwhile for me. Once I got the final stage down I started experimenting with different weapons and places to find how to exploit the last boss's projectiles for points. Then I left the controller shooting by itself for a while until I noticed a graphical glitch as the boss stopped throwing rocks at me. Finally I died and proceeded to beat the game with the score below, never mind which 1CC score I had previously.