Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sagaia (Mega Drive)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1991


Even before I was aware of my unconditional passion for shoot’em ups there were those shooters that I played - and loved - extensively. They might have been mixed with platformers and racers, but would still draw my attention much more than other titles. One that really stood out from the glorious 16-bit golden era was Taito’s Darius II, renamed in the west as Sagaia. It was and still is one of my favorite games of all time – simply put, the Mega Drive version was among the 3 games I first bought when I started collecting in September 2007.

I must have beaten this game dozens of times. The reason it’s being included in this log is that recently I was urged to improve my previous high score, which led me to a search campaign for the best route for scoring purposes. One of the results is that I acquired an even deeper understanding of the gameplay, and by doing that I also learned how to easily beat different final bosses other than the easy Little Stripes (stages W and Y).


The probability that a shmup addict has boarded one Silver Hawk for space fish blasting at least once in his lifetime is really high. If you haven’t done this yet, you can always go for the various ports of this game and also of the first Darius, Darius Gaiden or G-Darius (not mentioning the special SNES titles). However, differences exist between all of them, and Sagaia has probably the easiest albeit most unique power-up system of all the franchise. Gameplay 101: start out with a pea shooter and destroy a recurring particular wave of enemies to release power-ups for main shot, missiles, green lasers and shield (occasionally a 1UP will appear as well). As death means getting back to a stripped ship, this game is one of those where you can’t ever die. When you manage to do so, in the last stages the Silver Hawk is so powerful that the firepower will take a whole deal of screen space. Therefore a fully powered Darius ship is also a thing to behold and be proud of, especially if you manage to destroy the final boss without dying.

Even though the Mega Drive port of the 3-screen arcade game lacks the co-op feature, everything is finely presented and holds up well according to 16-bit standards. You can choose in the options screen which character you want to play with: Proco Jr. (default red Silver Hawk) or Tiat Young (alternative blue Silver Hawk, with default weapons increased by 1 power-up each). The graphics are nice and the music is awesome - the 1st stage is an epic flight over the surface of the sun, and conveys what I just wrote really well. You can pretty much say Sagaia is an overall easy shooter, and apart from the slowdown present when 2 or more of those wall tentacles appear it’s definitely a very solid and fun game, even for those who are not so hyped about shmups. The stage branching boosts replay value to a great degree, as every run can be made completely different from the previous one.


Reasons why I love the Darius series in a whole: design of the ship - curvy, pointy and mysteriously threatening; shield - awesome, simple and yet beautiful; gravity center flip - the way the Silver Hawk flips when moving past the bosses’ gravity center is the epitome of hori-shmup coolness (the fight against Red Crab is a perfect example). Even so, there is one thing I like most about the Mega Drive version of Sagaia: the exploding effect of the bomb that appears from time to time, which is cooler than the Arcade or any other available port.

Here is a list of some score-related aspects of the game:
  • An extra life is granted for each 700.000 points;
  • Each remaining life is worth 300.000 points upon game completion;
  • Life counter stops at 9 with no hidden stock, so the maximum possible final bonus is 2.700.000 points (9 × 300.000);
  • The only difference when playing in higher difficulty levels is bullet speed/count.

Other cool side of the Mega Drive port is the possibility to activate a "special mode" at the title screen by pressing the C button 12 times. Here there is no stage branching, and you play on a very hard difficulty straight until level L. Almost all stages are boss rushes - only G and H are full stages with minor enemies. All bosses have to be beaten once, with mid-bosses repeating themselves as the game progresses. The last bastard to be taken down is Bio Strong.

A methodical approach was used to get the high score shown below, with all defaults (path ACEINTZ). Wish I could've reached a higher number, but I exhausted my score attack time with the game and I'll only get back to it for fun!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ordyne (PC Engine)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco in 1989


Ordyne is originally an arcade title released by Namco in 1988. It was ported one year later for the PC Engine/Turbografx-16 home console, and would eventually appear in the 4th installment of the Namco Museum series for the Playstation.

I spent two nights playing the PCE HuCard, and my impressions were very clear as to what it reminded me of: Fantasy Zone and Parodius. From Fantasy Zone you have both the colorful design and the flying shop gimmick, which is an in-stage icon where you go to buy extra weaponry, speed-ups and lives with the money you collect from certain defeated enemies. From Parodius you have the whole feel of the game, both in the graphics and music departments. Of course Ordyne’s popularity is miles away from the popularity of these two games though.


The setting in this little shooter revolves around rescuing a lady in danger, a situation shown during the opening scenes. While on your mission to accomplish this task, you’ll be going through cute designs for backgrounds and objects and a decent array of special weapons beyond your regular shot and bomb. One differential in Ordyne is that the big weapons have faces on them when shot, which looks neat and cartoonishinly menacing. And again, just like in Fantasy Zone, these weapons can only be used during a limited amount of time. Since there’s no trick for getting unlimited ammo, it’s advisable to get used to the default shots as fast as possible. It’s not such a big deal really, because the game is designed on the easy side and requires just a little precaution for you not to die repeatedly. In general, it’s good practice to avoid standing too much on the right side of the screen - there are lots of instances where enemies will materialize out of nowhere and kill you instantly!

Besides the shop for enhancements there’s also a lottery flying shop that grants you a random prize in exchange for some of your money. It’s not possible to understand much in the Japanese version of the game, but it doesn’t matter because there are no bogus prizes (speed down, power down, life loss or such). Extends are given every 50.000 points, and each extra life is worth 20.000 points upon completing the game.


At times Ordyne feels rather claustrophobic, like in the rotating globes passage of stages 2 and 5 and the “K” blocks of the last stage. Stage 6 is a boss rush that’s strangely easier than other levels - the 3rd boss shows up again but this time it won’t shoot those pesky fireballs of its first appearance, throwing up small spaceships instead. The overall feel of the game is very childish albeit not so recommended for kids since it has no difficulty adjustments or any options at all. It’s ultimately an unremarkable experience that’s hardly prone to thrill gamers nowadays, except for those who keep a warm place in their hearts for 8/16-bit regular cute shooters.

So here’s my final score for the PCE version of Ordyne:

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Biometal (SNES)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Athena
Published by Activision in 1993


The heyday of the 16-bit game wars saw good releases both from Sega and Nintendo. Sometimes the companies would even push strange marketing moves into their games, which led to some weird combinations that provided at least for new discussion subjects. The North American version of Biometal was a clear example of this flashy trend, because it abandoned its original Japanese game soundtrack in favor of some arranged tunes from then popular dance duo 2 Unlimited. What? Don't have a clue about them? If you have a copy of an US Biometal lying around (or an SNES emulator installed in your computer) and you were at least a teenager during the early 90s I can bet you're just seconds away from remembering who they were!

Playing again after so many years feels like going home. The comeback however isn't entirely cheerful, because this game has aged a bit, and surprisingly so in the music department. I've never had the chance to hear the original compositions, but the dance tracks included in the US Biometal don't sound as cool as they used to be, or maybe that's just the poor way the SNES handled the sound here. It might have been good for its time, but today the most recognizable tunes sound bland and lacking in depth - the only moment where it actually shines is during the 4th stage, when the beat fits the graphical style perfectly and renders the best thing in the whole package. All other stages seem either too graphically shallow or just overall displaced. The 3rd stage reminds me of Axelay, but without any of the graphical excellence or the aural bliss present in Konami's shmup masterpiece.


Even with the mentioned shortcomings I still had fun playing this game again. The organo-metallic stage design inspired by H. R. Giger and the Alien movies is cool, and somehow the 1st boss brings to mind the big creatures in the last stage of Hellfire (nerdy note, I know). I like the sense of speed during most of the time, and the GAM (Gel Analog Mutant) shield aspect is enticing as far as gameplay variety goes. By pressing one button you activate it, and by pressing two other buttons it's possible to throw it away - opposite your current D-pad direction - or expand its radius for a circle attack. You can even do both moves at the same time. While at rest around the ship the GAM offers invincibility against almost all incoming shots, any offensive activity causes a great deal of damage on enemies but leaves you unprotected. The GAM has an energy bar that depletes as long as you're using it and replenishes when it's deactivated, so recharging it whenever you have a chance is a good thing to do. You can try playing without using the GAM at all (nice excuse for a special challenge), but there are times where it's just plain impossible to go through without it.

From all 3 types of weapons my favorite is the vulcan. The laser is powerful but lacks side firepower. The same happens with the wave shot, even though it shoots backwards when powered up. It's possible to power up twice when you keep getting the same icon of the weapon you're using. Like the shot power-ups, the missile icons cycle between 4 types of 2-way missile aids. All of them are pretty much the same, but the H gets my preference due to its homing nature.


With all the buttons present in the SNES controller, I just wish Biometal had a speed selection function. The ship speed is fixed and for my taste a bit too fast, which makes it difficult to dodge some bullet waves with precision and forces you to activate the GAM to evade them. GAM activation is almost always followed by slowdown, fortunately not in an abusive way. The game is not overly difficult, so it shouldn't take anyone too long to beat, although the cycling nature of the icons is something you must get used to - getting the wrong one in the wrong place is a sure ticket to a sad game over.

My high score on this 1CC run, on NORMAL:

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Radirgy (Dreamcast)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Milestone
Published by Milestone in 2006


Games continued to be released for the Sega Dreamcast way after the console's demise, and Radirgy is part of a shooter batch that helped keep the console alive among fans of the genre in early 2006. Following the unique Chaos Field, it was Milestone's second outing for the platform and continued the company's intent to bring something new to the table, this time in the way graphics were rendered. Some people liked it, some people still don't dig it, but I personally find the cell shaded graphics rather charming and inviting, even relaxing, especially given the frantic nature of most bullet hell shooters out there.

People who don't have patience with shooters that seem plain on the surface tend to shy away from this game, saying bollocks about it being too slow and generic. Their loss, huh?

"Radirgy" is a short for Radio Allergy. This concept lends itself to a whole particular style applied to the gameplay, the graphics, the music and the characters. You pilot a mecha that can shoot 1 out of 3 start selectable weapons (green vulcan, orange laser and blue bubbles) and can travel at 1 out of 3 start selectable speeds. You have a sword that can be used in up-close combat and a deflector shield (the ABSNET) that melts bullets, damages enemies and makes you invincible for some seconds. If you stop shooting a tiny barrier will appear in front of you and deflect all small incoming bullets. The ABSNET meter must be filled with blue pills collected from killed enemies, but sword attacks fill it faster than your regular shot. Everything that's hit by the shield or the tiny barrier generates green pills that fill up the multiplier meter, which is split into 4 zones (×1, ×4, ×8 and ×16). Using the sword while firing is possible, but the firepower range is reduced when you do it. The whole catch of the game is finding a balance between filling and using the ABSNET shield at the right moment and keeping the multiplier in the ×16 red zone for maximum scoring possibilities.


Icons left by enemies include lots of unrelated small point bonuses and meter fillers. They can be bounced by using the sword, and this action will either increase their value or change them to another kind of icon. The most valuable ones are the purple diamond that replenishes your ABSNET, the yellow triangle that boosts your multiplier by ×4 and the one that changes all on-screen bullets to blue ABSNET bits/points. An extend is granted at 8 million and 20 million points, but you gotta be smart: only if you catch the green icon that appears right after you reach the extend score will you get the extend. If you let it pass you’ll lose a precious extra life! This green icon looks just like the power-up icon, only it comes out of nowhere instead of being guarded by a flying enemy.

Radirgy is a bullet hell shooter, but of a special kind. With the exception of the attacks from mid-stage and stage bosses, all bullets and enemies travel rather slowly. The more experienced the player the faster he’ll find himself looking for the best strategy to kill enemy waves and keep the meters filled. However, bullet count does get extremely high by the middle of the game, and that's when you realize you must master the control of the ABSNET shield in order to survive the bullet curtains. This automatically forces the player to score high in later stages, while taking away the natural bullet hell characteristic of the game and turning it into pure adrenaline bullet sucking mayhem. That’s where most of the fun lies in Radirgy – when you’re deep into the heaviest parts of stages 4 and 5. But soon enough the bosses come to remind you it takes more than the ABSNET to reach the end of the game…


It’s easy to get tricked by the slow pacing, just how it’s also easy to lose all your lives in a snap. I really enjoyed the learning curve here though. Just like all good late shooters it offers several points of overwhelming difficulty that get you really thrilled once you find out how to overcome them, this time with no considerable frustration factor (and yes, by that I mean Cave). An example is that pricky 4th mid-boss: I can go past him unharmed, but I still haven’t worked out a suitable way to beat him before he leaves the screen…

There’s a lot of flexibility provided by the speed selected at the start. I feel very comfortable with the mid-speed (3 stars). Maximum speed (5 stars) is the best option for score purposes, but it makes weaving though bullet waves more difficult, whereas minimum speed (2 stars) did not allow me to cover all the screen area I wanted. For the sake of time and less stress, be aware that those email messages received in-game can be turned off by pressing X at the selection screen.

On a last note, Radirgy’s music is of a laid back nature, just barely complementing the graphical style in a non-remarkable fashion. It’s the sort of work that does not draw any attention up front, but grows on you with repeated plays. My favorite tune is played during my favorite stage, the 4th one. And I don’t know why, but the main girl character reminds me of Daria from Beavis and Butt-Head!

The score below was achieved on NORMAL using the laser mecha running on mid-speed (3 stars):

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Rock-on (PC Engine)

Horizontal
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Big Club
Published by Big Club in 1989


Time to beat another early and obscure HuCard game! And the chosen one was this highly schizophrenic title that seems to not know where it's going in its 4 stages. In a library that's got much better stuff to offer, Rock-on stands as a game that everybody will immediately disregard and leave aside, since there's absolutely nothing to atract attention: the cover is ridiculous, the opening screen is lame, gameplay isn't inspired and the intro brings to you an Engrish message that rivals the most famous bad translations in gaming history.

I mentioned schizophrenic because all 4 stages are highly unbalanced, as far as length and design go. If you start playing it out of the blue, the first stage seems to have no end - but that's only because you touch the infinite icon, which pulls you back to the beginning! You'll have to avoid it to proceed.

For a budget shooter, Rock-on has a good variety of special weapons to be used with the default shot. These can be stocked up to 3; the one you're using is kept and the other 2 get dropped as you pick up more weapons, with the new ones replacing the ones in stock. Since the 2 original controller buttons are used to fire, the special weapons are selected using the START button (to pause you have to press SELECT). Additional icons consist of speed-ups, extra lives and shield. The shield here lasts for a predetermined amount of time and can withstand all bullets while active, but be careful. The ship bounces when hit and can go straight to a wall!


Back to schizophrenia! The 2nd stage is the best looking one, but it ends really fast if you know which weapon to use against the floating ball that appears after a brief while (note: use "Lock-on"). The 3rd stage is the longest one, and comes packed with claustrophobic passages that seem to have no end at all! However, if the walls change their color then you know you're in the right direction. New sections with different backgrounds will follow, each one with two branches in the end. The problem is that depending on the braching you choose you might get back to the beginning... That's highly annoying, so I'll tell you which paths to choose after the first background change: up, down, down. During this level various rubys appear when certain enemies are defeated. It seems that you must collect all 5 rubys in order to see the "real" ending.

The 4th and last level is just like the 1st, but is very short and practically revolves around killing the final boss (hint: use the "Crack" weapon). And then you're done.


The score in Rock-on appears as money ($) only when you die, during stage transitions and briefly in the end. However, in this game scoring is not a measure of performance at all. Since you can loop the first stage forever by collecting the infinite icon, you can theoretically reach the counter stop if you want. At least this makes it a perfect title for a minimum score challenge!

While the graphics are very primitive and simple and the music is nothing to write home about, there's a bit of fun factor after you get a grip on how to deal with the weapons and how to defeat the bosses. Too bad the game is so cheap, short and so obscure nobody will even care about it.

Here's my useless score during one of the 1CCs I got:

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Night Striker (Sega CD)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 1993


This is mindless blasting in its purest form, but is it fun?

Taito tried and surely succeeded with the arcade incarnation of Night Striker. It was a homage in every single aspect to the now classic Sega arcade games that ruled the 80s, but its main influences are certainly Space Harrier and Thunder Blade. It borrows bullet and enemy styles from one and scrolling backgrounds from the other, while throwing an unique setting where you fly an "armored car" and face countless enemies in a stage branching system very similar to Out Run - or, to keep things in-company, Darius.

The Mega CD was the first home console to receive a port, and the game remained restricted to the Japanese market. While many may complain about this, now that I have played and beaten it I'm confident people here in the west didn't really need it. Honestly, from a graphical point of view this is probably one of the worst rail shooters I have ever played in my life.


Everything in this game is a pixelated mess! I feel lucky that at least the score is readable and escaped the pixel-blown fest that renders this port of Night Striker practically unplayable. Just try to identify something from the screenshots... Everybody knows the Sega CD was capable of pulling off some scaling effects, but they serve no purpose here when everything that comes your way is deformed almost beyond recognition. The result of that is something that plagued most crappy rail shooters of that era: since dodging is useless, during the hardest parts gameplay will resume to endless circular movements while you pray something will get hit by your line of fire.

OK, so much for bashing and a little bit of insight. You only have one kind of shot, no power-ups and no speed adjustments. Your default control is reversed, and the car will always get back to the center of the screen if you let go of the D-pad (these can be changed in the options though). All bosses thoughout the 6 stages come with a timer, after which they'll self-destruct. Each timer unit left when you kill them is worth 100.000 points, the same as each shield/life left in the end of the stage. If you kill all enemies within a stage you'll get a "wipe out" bonus of 1.000.000 points at the end of it, and upon clearing all the game each shield/life will also convert to 1.000.000 points. Additionally, pretty soon you'll notice that when you "fly" with your armored car landed the score will increase at a higher rate.


The CD comes with 2 choices of soundtrack: original and arranged. The music in the game definitely has qualities, but the sound effects are so loud that you can hardly enjoy it. All stages have recognizable themes (city, sea, suburbs, streets, temple, tunnel), but I learned pretty fast that I should avoid the tunnel stages. They are so difficult! Every final level (6th) has a special treat. There was a time where my car was destroyed and I was stripped down to a flying robot suit. In another stage my car received a pod in its top left, giving me additional firepower. There was also another one where the armored car changed into some sort of flying pod. Each one of them resulted in different endings.

Truth be told, my friends, everybody is much better off with the ports released years later for the PS1 or the Saturn, since the Sega CD Night Striker is a game for hardcore Sega CD owners or hardcore rail shmuppers only. Just pure mindless blasting severely damaged by graphical mutilation.

My final score on full defaults, route ABDGLR:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Choplifter (NES)

Horizontal
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Broderbund Software
Published by Jaleco in 1986


I believe the most famous home port of Choplifter is the Master System one, and for a long time I thought it was the only 8-bit rendition of this awesome game. When I learned there was also an exclusive Famicom version I almost immediately rushed to get it. What other goodies beyond those I already knew would that tiny Jaleco box hold for me to uncover?

A few days ago I finally plugged it in to see what it looked like, and the first impression was NOT good. The first stage looked absolutely awful (especially when compared to the SMS game), the helicopter was too slow and the controls were sluggish as hell. After such a sad hit it took me some special will to seriously face it. There should be a way to overcome what seemed to be a chore, because when you start playing this little shooter you get so many game over screens that you can't help but wonder what went wrong with this version. Bear in mind I'm writing this as a long time SMS Choplifter fan, so maybe that wouldn't happen to someone exposed to the NES version first.


One of the buttons is used to fire, and the other to turn the chopper around in 3 positions: left, right and facing the screen, from where the regular fire becomes a bomb dropper used to kill tanks. Heli's movement is based on the real deal, so it tilts forwards and backwards as you move around, also tilting shot direction. If you try to land while tilted you'll die. The mission is to rescue POWs in bunkers/ships. Hit the building, land to allow them to board and fly back to the base to drop them. You can carrry 8 hostages at a time, and when you rescue more than 20 you'll advance to the next stage. If you manage to rescue these without killing any hostages you'll be rewarded with 50.000 points. They can be killed if you land the chopper right above them as they flee their prison, run around and wave.

I don't know about you, but I think this is one of the most simple yet brilliant concepts for a shooter. Sadly, Jaleco was no Sega so the Famicom game didn't turn out as good as Sega's. The slower pacing will make you want to clear the surrounding area before rescuing hostages, which wasn't actually necessary in the SMS version. There are also lots of other differences - in some of them the NES version is closer to the arcade game, like in the fuel bar that's replenished whenever you deliver back the hostages. Tanks here are dumber and their bombs don't kill hostages at all, but the trick with the up tapping to keep'em from coming doesn't work. Enemy fire is deadly and almost always aimed, so a good deal of precaution is necessary. The game is comprised of only 4 stages (desert, sea, cave and city). I don't know if the city stage is inherited from the arcade, but it's absent in the SMS version and is definitely the cooler one in the NES. The game feels unbalanced though, because the most difficult stages are the first and the last - the cave level being the easiest. Adding to the mediocrity in the graphic department, there's only one tune played during the whole game.


A good thing I can say about this port is that the second loop is a lot harder than the first. Ground enemies fire much faster bullets, and each stage has a new enemy to deal with (straight out-of-nowhere missiles in the ocean stage, a faster moving launcher in the caves). I also admit that after you get in the mood, get past that damn first stage and adapt yourself to the pace of the game, the NES Choplifter can be fun. But it will never, ever, come even close to the faster, better port released for the Sega Master System.

My final score, playing up to loop 2-3: