Thursday, August 27, 2009

Undeadline (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by T&E Soft
Published by Palsoft in 1991

From all shmups that deviate from the norm (the norm being spaceship or airplane shooters), Undeadline for the Mega Drive is one the most notorious "walk'n'shoot" games, a sub-genre that also includes the likes of Elemental Master and Twinkle Tale, if we stick to Mega Drive only titles. Undeadline's notoriety relates almost solely to a presumed extremely high difficulty, something that elevated the game's fame far above the high price it sometimes fetches in online auctions. Due to widespread strong reviews and negative bashing regarding its challenge level, the game is so feared that many people won't even try it. They'd rather play the MSX or X68000 versions - both came before the MD port and are considered a tad easier.

As the name implies, the gameplay in Undeadline revolves around killing lines of undead creatures. Hordes of them come your way relentlessly in 7 vertical stages of great 16-bit action. As Leon the warrior you must fight your way through the armies of the undead while evolving your power and speed to face Dracula in the end. The evolving part adds an extra difficulty and strategy feel to the game, as reaching the last stage in an underpowered condition means horrible and utter death.

When starting a game, don't forget to go to the OPTIONS screen and switch "Rensha" to ON, since without it you'll have no autofire! After that, I believe the secret to perform well in Undeadline is to understand as fast as possible how the icon chests work. Some people won't agree, but this is more important than the use of the shield that prevents the player from shooting but protects against incoming bullets (C button). There are 2 types of icons when the chests are open: the power-ups and the items. They cycle with each hit, so it's paramount to know the order in which they appear - almost always taking a wrong power-up or item will result in painful death. They also cycle only twice, after when you'll be left with a diamond that's worth some points. Soon you'll find out that most power-ups for weapons are useless, with the crossed/double knives being the most recommended 95% of the time. As for the items, only the 3-hit shield and the blue potion (+1 energy cell) are really useful - for instance, the transparent potion will give you back your default shot and the red potion will take away one of your energy cells. Each life starts with 3 energy cells that allow Leon to take 3 hits, and upon dying you're sent to the very beginning of the stage.

Each credit comes with 3 options that can be used at any time. The option is activated by the A button and surrounds the player with a rotating ball that blocks incoming fire and disappears after taking enough damage. This is a crucial resource that should only be used in certain parts of the game (I use it only twice). Since the first 6 stages can be tackled in any order, I had a lot to try and experience when I started playing. When I reached the boss of the Ruins stage I noticed I would have to use a different weapon to beat him. Enter the flamethrower and an option and voilá! He's history!

Overall I liked Undeadline's design and graphics very much. The enemies are well animated and there's a fine balance in colors that enhances the dark theme of the game without making it too grim. My favorite stage is the Cemetery, with all those skeleton warriors, ghosts coming out of the tombs, living dead surfacing, the thunderstorm and the creepy floating boss. This stage also has the coolest BGM from a soundtrack that's pleasing overall. Parallax is used in a very subtle way and adds to the charm of some stages as the Cave and the Castle. Every stage has an extra life that can be easily found, and each fairy collected gives you 1 point of experience to add to your stats at the end of the stage (ST = knives, MP = magic power, DX = flame, AG = speed). Upon beating the game every life left is worth 100.000 points, but since it's possible to get more than 100.000 points by playing the Drain stage some people decide to explore this in their search for higher scores.

Besides the whole thing with the power-up and item chests, other difficult aspects I can name here are the boss battles (some of them will see you fighting for minutes before they break down), the initial slow speed of the character and the lack of familiarity with the shield defense, which is something rather unique for a shmup (almost all enemy fire can be blocked, you just have to remember that!). Even with all these quirks, Undeadline's difficulty doesn't live up to the hype created by all unaware reviews I read out there. It's not even close to the challenge provided by games like Hellfire, Twin Cobra or Truxton.

I had a NO MISS 1CC run on NORMAL going through the route Ruins, Forest, Rock, Cemetery, Cave, Drains and Castle. Experience points went all to ST and AG in a 2 to 1 ratio from start to finish, which I think gave me enough speed to face some tricky bosses and also provided me with enough power to handle the Castle stage without being easily overwhelmed. Here's the score:


  1. Great pedestrian shooter IMO. & kinda underrated & most of the time by people who only judge it after playing few minutes & being ass kicked to the bone. But that's one of the many reasons why this game is great : it's hard, but in a good way. Also it has fine & unusual gameplay, you really need to understand how it works as well as you really need to make good choices throughout the game.
    Then compared to the others versions, sure we've lost 2 characters during the transition but the experience system is still here + the game is now more Arcade-like since it runs fullscreen, without that huge HUD on the MSX / X68K versions + the bosses are way bigger, among others things. & what a fine soundtrack too!
    Definitely among the numerous amazing shooters on the systems =)
    (oh &, what a nice boxart too)

    1. Thanks for sharing your point of view, I myself do not know these other versions of Undeadline.
      I liked the "pedestrian" definition, and will certainly use it in the future!

  2. This game was tremendously disappointing despite being one of the best action games I've ever played. The severe weapon imbalance is mind-boggling and extremely aggravating. Why would they design a game like this? I'm guessing they couldn't figure out how to make it hard and balanced, so they opted for hard. I would have made the same choice, but... the weapons should be a huge selling-point for this game, not some stupid puzzle that you figure out almost immediately. This is like a competitive fighting game: pick the best thing or you're just wasting your time.

    If even half the weapons were usable, it would add so much replayability. And believe me, I tried long and hard to get other weapons to work. It's so insanely imbalanced that playing with shitty weapons on Normal is still significantly harder than playing on Crazy, even though Crazy has a sadistic level of challenge. I tried playing on Normal and denying myself the Boomerang and Daggers, but the later stages feel borderline impossible because the screen fills up with enemies that approach from behind that you can't take out.

    The saddest thing is how well-designed the weapons are. For example, the Axe is cleverly designed so that after you throw a bunch, they hang in the air so you can hold your shield up as they return. And the White Magic is the only one that eats enemy projectiles, allowing you to play the game in a different way.

    I think if you could shoot backwards it would address the balance issue. If you press the shield button while shooting, it could swap your direction (you need to stop shooting to use shield instead.) Either that, or lesser weapons should have a very short-range wave that hits next to and behind your character so you can at least deal with enemies in tough spots, although you're forced to get very close.

    1. I agree that when some weapons are left aside because only a few (or one) are actually good to use, there is something fundamentally wrong with the game no matter how good or awesome it is. A little more tweaking would've helped, maybe? Or the game is just supposed to be that anal, who knows what was the mindset of the guy who programmed it?

      Going out on the exercise of "what if" with the games we play is often a good thing to do, especially for developers.

      Thanks for the comment, Andreas!