Thursday, July 30, 2009

Grid Seeker (Playstation 2)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito in 1992
Published by Empire Interactive (Xplosiv) in 2006


As soon as I got back from a trip to Europe and unpacked I spent an afternoon testing the games I bought there. One of them was the Taito Legends 2 compilation, a bulky 43-title collection with some shmups thrown in. With some exceptions, most of them are very well known and already had ports in other systems, so I decided to check if there was a game I hadn't heard of at all. That's when I came across Grid Seeker: Project Storm Hammer, an arcade vertical shooter released by Taito in 1992.

The story emulates a war in the Gulf (it was 1992!) and at first sight the game itself didn't offer anything extra at all when compared to other shooters from the time period. It did seem harmless and 1CC-able in the short run, and that was what made me want to beat it. You see, I do have a knack for obscure and largely unplayed games! If only I had known where I was going into... Not since Robo Aleste for the Sega CD had I played an old school shooter that was so treacherous and kept me on my toes almost all the time if I wanted to play a serious credit. Simply put, it took me a lot longer to beat than what I had envisioned when I started the journey.


Grid Seeker presents itself as a variation on Sonic Wings. There are 3 planes available: a jet (fast + concentrated shot), a helicopter (mid-speed + spread shot) and a stealth bomber (slow + widespread shot). The "grid" is a pair of options attached to the fighter that absorb bullets, something that serves the purpose of protection but also fills a special meter. When the meter gets full the player gets a bomb to use, in a maximum of 4. By holding down the fire button instead of tapping it, these options can be moved around the fighter, which also affects the way the special bullets provided by the options are shot. The nature of the grid can be changed with an icon that cycles colors: red gives a straight shot, blue a straight laser, orange an impact blast and green a homing mist. The color of your weapon affects how the bombs work: red will explode and damage everything in a certain radius (good for panic), blue fires a very powerful entire-screen double laser, orange gives a series of forward impact blasts and green forms a bigger homing fog that pursues enemies.

The main shot can be powered up 6 times with the P icon. There's also a helper provided by the H icon, which can be a huge helicopter or a huge jet that flies and fires by your side until it's too damaged and dies. Extends are given with 200.000 and 700.000 points.

Beating the game with CONTINUES is one thing, but 1CCing it is a totally different matter due to the elusively implemented rank. And I must say, I could almost call it unfair. Almost in every game that uses bombs it's natural for people to try and play without bombing (after all, bombing is a sign of unpolished - not bad, just unpolished - gameplay). However, in Grid Seeker they are part of survival, thus representing a necessary resource for the mayhem that starts as early as the 4th stage, if you manage to reach it without dying. Rank in this game works primarily with new enemy firepower: don't die, and you'll be presented with stronger foes and straight or heat-seeking missiles that "just weren't there before". Since regular firepower can't overcome everything, bombing becomes part of normal gameplay. And soon it comes to a point where every soaked bullet counts. Every single one.


Scorewise, every extra P icon is worth 1.000 points. End of stage bonuses include: 100 points for each enemy destroyed, 50.000 points for a full bomb stock (4 bombs = 20.000, 3 bombs = 10.000, 2 bombs = 3.000, 1 bomb = 1.000) and 40.000 points if the helper makes it out alive from the boss fight. If you know that a certain enemy will release an icon, don't kill it using the grid (yes, the grid can also damage them) or the item will not appear! It seems that your score also increases the more you protect the helper and don't let it get shot, but that's something I'm not really sure about.

And then comes the dilemma of which fighter to use. The only reasonably fast one is the jet, while the other two are just too slow for my taste. Strangely enough, they are the best choices! The straightforward and concentrated shot of the jet wasn't enough to handle side attacks, so I shifted to the helicopter. And then there was a point where I just used the bomber, a reaaally slow moving wreck whose shot can cover a whole deal of the screen. You can't rely on it to move, so I found it's mandatory to (1) know where to stand, (2) know which grid color works best for each stage, (3) know when to bomb and (4) tap that fire button hard!

I spent more time with this game than I thought I should, so the conclusion is clear: it's not as fun as I thought it would be. It's sluggish and deceitfully difficult, and I bordered the feeling of frustration for not being able to cope with that damn last stage for a long while. In the end it became a matter of honor, and that's never good for an activity that should provide me fun. At least it is over, and over with a bullet: the high score below (level 4 - NORMAL) was reached on a 1-life clear with the bomber. I don't want to play this again any time soon.


About the Taito Legends 2 compilation: it's a very decent one. My copy is the PAL version, but upon boot you can adjust the language and change the frequency to 60 Hz. It seems all vertical shooters are stretched out on a horizontal screen - in order to correct this just go to OPTIONS from the main menu and change "Original Aspect Ratio" to ON. All settings for a particular game can be changed or defaulted before you load it (difficulty, lives, controls). While in the game, you feed credits with the SELECT button and start a run with the L1 button. To save a high score it's necessary to leave the game by pressing START and returning to the main screen. Unfortunately there's no support for TATE.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sky Shark (NES)

Vertical
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Taito in 1988


Originally developed by Toaplan for the arcades under the name Flying Shark, Sky Shark was handled for the NES by Software Creations and published by the almighty Taito. No matter what platform we’re talking about, it was definitely supposed to be a development from what was accomplished years earlier with Tiger-Heli. As for the NES cart, it’s a mildly decent 8-bit shooter that expands on the gameplay front (now with more than just 8 direction bullets) while providing a nice atmosphere due to an upbeat music score and a comprehensive progressive difficulty.

On the surface Sky Shark takes a lot from 1942 by Capcom, which was a massive success Toaplan was surely trying to repeat. Both games share strong similarities, like the way enemies arrive in formation and overall sprite design. The most important thing is that Sky Shark stands on its own among other similar NES shmups: the terrain in every stage is very characteristic as well as the music, comprised of very cool compositions that sometimes remind me of classic Mega Man tunes. The BGM for the 1st stage is so cool it gets replayed on the 5th stage – or maybe that’s just one of the tricks they used to squeeze the whole game into the NES cartridge.

You start the game with 5 lives. The main shot can be powered up by collecting the S icons left when you destroy all red enemies from a particular formation. When the formation arrives in yellow you’ll get 1.000 points instead. Bombs are restocked with the B icons left by selected ground targets, and are worth 3.000 points each at the end of a stage. Regardless of your bomb stock when you finish a stage, you’ll always start the next one with 3 bombs available. The game has no autofire, but luckily it's not that much of a button masher either because you don't have to tap too much to get a useful firing rate.

There are 5 stages in total, and no end credits are shown whatsoever before you start the second loop. Much like in Xevious and Tiger-Heli, Sky Shark has an asymmetrical second loop, this time starting from the second stage instead of the first. To finish the first loop without lying on CONTINUES some memorization is necessary, as well as a reasonable sense of how enemy waves are scattered and programmed throughout the game. Of utmost importance is keeping your main shot powered up. If you move a lot and are able to retain a good firepower level, bombing becomes almost unnecessary and valuable bonus points will be awarded at the end of a stage. Some big enemies can present impossible obstacles, and I found better to avoid them. Since the bomb has a decent blast radius, turret concentrations were the places where I bombed the most, besides using them for panic purposes.

As fun as an 8-bit shooter can be – and this game is definitely fun – Sky Shark has some potentially upsetting flaws. There are instances where the color palette will make bullets hard to see, like in the very final part of the 3rd stage. Light bullet flicker also happens but will eventually become less of a problem, either by increased experience or reasonable pattern anticipation. Don’t even think about point blanking, and beware of borders and shots fired when enemies seem to have left the screen. If you want to CONTINUE after a GAME OVER remember to take your finger off the trigger, because the firing button will cancel the continue function!

In the high score table below, the column to the far right seems to display the % of game completion, without acknowledging further loops. In my best run I reached stage 2-4.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cotton 100% (SNES)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Success
Published by Datam Polystar in 1994


Witches in brooms, crystals and gothic pastel graphics. Why not continue the fun after having beaten the PC Engine CD Cotton game? The next in the series timeline is Cotton 100% (also known as Märchen Adventure Cotton 100%), a revision of the original game specifically designed for the Super Famicom. Some people deem it as a pure rehash, and I admit that a few years ago my evil self would agree with this while thinking "yeah, that's what the SNES deserves, rehashes!". I'm more mature now and my Sega fanboyism is long gone (relapses sometimes allowed), so I can see the qualities of this game and how it actually tries to improve on the mechanics of the title that started it all.

My mission this time was to improve my previous high score (it was more than succesfully accomplished, in a lucky and unforeseen run that practically doubled my achievement - scroll down if you can't wait).


For those familiar with the original Cotton, the SNES game will sound extremely like it. Apart from some new bosses, the stage structure is almost the same. Enemy sprites were redrawn in order to fit the bright design, as opposed to the original dark tone, and have acquired a more harmless, almost childish appearance. With the new graphical capabilities provided by the SNES hardware, Cotton 100% turned out even more colorful, with delightfully beautiful visuals that showcase the best feature Nintendo's 16-bit platform had to offer. The difficulty however was made even easier, and on top of that CONTINUES don't send you back to the beginning of the stage. That's why reaching the end shouldn't take any ounce of sweat from an experienced player.

The best improvement of the SNES game over its predecessor is definitely the mapping of a single button for autofire and a different one for magic. There's also a third button for bomb dropping and another one for magic selection. This time around you don't need to rely so much on crystal power-ups, for they come in only two colors, and they both increase experience for main shot and bombs. The magic arsenal is now replenished by some "?" icons that don't come very often, and was expanded to include fairy fireballs, bubble attacks and a twinkle star shower. It's mandatory to select one out of four 3-spell combinations during the start screen. I still prefer to have the original dragon and lightning spells, since the new ones are awkward and ultimately useless, with the exception of the twinkling stars. You can have up to 3 fairies helping you, they move according to the magic you have selected and can still be thrown forward by charging the bomb button.


The only extend granted by the score comes with 200.000 points (there are also extends for 50.000 and 100.000 points as well - EDIT 25-OCT-2010), but there are several extra lives hidden in the scenery that show up and move upwards when their area is shot. Everything else in the gameplay is very much the same: some bosses are easier while others were given an extra upgrade in their firepower (namely the last boss). One of the coolest moments comes when you have to face a mirrored mean version of Cotton in the 6th stage. The music is very upbeat, making the whole experience a relaxing fun ride for when you don't want to strive too much to beat a game.

As every Cotton player/fan knows, the tea time end level bonus area will give you a special bonus if you avoid all teacups that come towards you. What I found out this time was that 6 special bonuses is a row will add 375.000 points to your score. I seriously doubt I will do that again so easily! The 3rd stage tea time shower is the most difficult one because there's a big hill in the middle of the screen that reduces it to half its size.

The very special tea time bonus helped me get the highest score shown in the board below. In this run, however, I died facing the last boss... The 2nd place in the board was achieved in a 1CC run. The game was played in NORMAL mode (those units that appear in the score value are the number of times you die).

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cotton - Fantastic Night Dreams (PC Engine CD)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Success
Published by Hudson Soft in 1993


More than any other series in their portfolio, the Cotton games are the shooting flagship of Success, a video game developer whose other important contribution to the genre falls in the bullet hell category (Psyvariar). Cotton, the main character, and their friends and foes appeared in lots of platforms since their inception in the arcade scene, and the PC Engine CD port of the first game was also the first home version to see the light of day. It also holds the distinction of being the only Cotton game ever released out of Japan (on the US Turbografx-CD) along with the port for the Neo Geo Pocket Color handheld.

If you're new to the shmup world (like I was a few years ago), you probably never heard of Cotton. Don't worry though, eventually you will grasp the importance this lovely series carries for both the horizontal and the cute'em up subgenres, especially if you decide to add the games to your collection. With the exception of a very, very rare Mega Drive chapter (a rail shooter!), all other games are relatively affordable - not dirt cheap affordable, but... you know what I mean.

Cotton - Fantastic Night Dreams, the PC Engine CD incarnation, brings us the adventures of Cotton, a red haired witch who's obsessed about these candies called "willows". She'll do anything to have them, even fight malevolent entities who have unleashed a dark mist over the entire world. She's aided by the curvy Silk, the fairy who convinced her to fight. You know, rarely do I delve into the story behind the shmups I write about, but this one is a little different, in the sense that you can set the game's whole language to English in the opening screen (by pressing SELECT). It's sort of nice to finally know what those flashy and exaggerated characters actually say - even though it's most of the time stupid. Cotton the witch does provide for some funny moments, especially after she beats the last boss and gets to Fairyland to collect her giant willow!


Cotton's gameplay can be overwhelming up front but trust me, it gets more compelling with repeated plays. The main shot is powered up as you collect the proper crystals left by killed enemies. It goes down one level when you die, and is carried out by tapping the appropriate button. When held down and released, this same button triggers one of two types of available magic: the powerful dragon or the longer lasting lightning (magic powers can be stocked up to 4). The other controller button drops bombs/missiles like in Darius, and can also be charged for some fairy special attacks. It's possible to collect more fairies to help you by hitting a certain vase and letting it escape the screen to return (don't destroy it right away!).

The final aspect of gameplay concerns the colored crystals. I think I finally figured out how to work them: red gives you the dragon magic, blue adds to the lightning magic, orange increases your EXP faster and yellow yields points. It's possible to change their colors by shooting at them. These crystals can't be destroyed and always move forward when shot, so don't hurry to collect them! The game is relatively easy, but most of my deaths happened while I was trying to get the correct crystal when I was too close to the right side of the screen.


On the graphical side, the game is comprised mainly of dark stages with gothic and sometimes psychedelic figures, with some cool effects here and there. The little amount of flicker is negligible, and slowdown only appears during huge boss confrontations. What should be noted is that it's on the soundtrack department that this game really shines. Lots of people even consider it better than the original arcade music, also present in the Cotton Original release for the Playstation. It certainly is upbeat and truly deserves to be listened carefully amidst the cacophony that results from the louder sound effects.

Again, Cotton on the PC Engine CD is really easy. Don't mind the big hitbox. The game can be beaten in no time, although it will take more runs if you want to really grasp the complete aspects of gameplay. Extra lives are granted every 20.000 points, and the tea time end level intermission (another trademark of every Cotton game) gives you a secret bonus of 20.000 points if you avoid all falling teacups instead of grabbing them. When the game is finished, it politely asks you if you want to "go extra", a somewhat rare invitation to face a second loop. Also be aware that CONTINUES do not reset your score, so be honest to your shmup beliefs. ;)

Here's my final high score while reaching stage 2-5. I could've gotten more, but my special tea time bonus results in this run were hideous...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Sengoku Blade (Saturn)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Atlus in 1996


Heh. It's weird that I've been playing so much Psikyo games lately. While my urge to face Sengoku Blade came from a nice shmup competition (check the oldschool Brasil forum), it was a very welcome departure from the Psikyo norm, a company that's notorious for its vertical quick shooters. This game is a direct sequel to Sengoku Ace, which I beat just a month ago on the Playstation 2, and is in every aspect superior to its prequel - starting with the horizontal scrolling and everything it allows aesthetically.

Some of the characters return to this second adventure, the most notable one being Koyori. What will please most male players is how she has grown - her huge boobs sometimes overshadow everything Sengoku Blade is about! Tengai the monk is also back, as well as the samurai Ain, although he's a secret character (to choose him go to the random character selection, press UP 3 times, DOWN 3 times and UP 7 times). New to the scene are the robot samurai Katana, two teenagers (Sho and Junis) and Marion from Psikyo's own Gunbird (playable after you beat the game with all characters, including Ain). She's by far the strongest character and does make you feel as if you're playing Cotton on steroids!


The gameplay hasn't changed much at all. Each character can rapid shoot, charge his/her shot and drop bombs. This time they fly instead of piloting an aircraft, and a minor addition to each one is a familiar/helper that appears and adds to your firepower as soon as you collect the 1st power-up. All characters are very different from each other: Junis has a great charge shot, a fine-looking but weak bomb and an awkward main shot; Katana has the most powerful charge shot (close range only), but his bomb is also weak; Koyori's familiar fires very effective homing bubbles, her charge shot is almost useless and her bomb, despite being very powerful, cannot be used with panic purposes. Released coins this time spin and are valid 2.000 points if you collect them while facing the screen (much like the gold bar scoring scheme in the Strikers 1945 series). The game is still comprised of 3 out of 4 initial stages and 4 additional last stages. However, there's a branch in the 6th stage that allows you to face completely different routes and enemies. It all contributes to deliver a harder experience, one in which the chosen character seems to have far more influence in how you play than in other games.

Sengoku Blade is remarkable for being a very dense shooter with great visuals and gorgeous parallax backgrounds, with Japanese themed music that's much more fitting this time. It's a shame that this is a rarity among Psikyo games, since their only other horizontal shooter I recall now is the awful Sol Divide. It would have been great to see more like it, for every time Psikyo ventured into new grounds it was almost certain they would develop great looking material (another great example is the Zero Gunner series). Allow me to state that the "almost" is there because of Sol Divide, which deserves a special place in shmup hell as one of the worst games ever developed.


Let me now write something about rank. This particular title did give me some trouble and made me try to find out how to lower rank during the 5th stage while at the same time reaching it without losing any lives. The results of my tests were useless, as even getting there with no power-ups and no bombs does not affect how the bullet swarms engulf you into a painful death. After a while I decided to preserve my firepower/bombs and just bomb my way into the 5th stage against totems and giant hands, trying to last as long as I could. Needless to say I never once got the extend at 600.000 points without first losing a life...

My favorite character is Koyori. And I don't mean it as an eye pleasing preference, but really as a gameplay choice. As I mentioned earlier in this text, her homing bubbles are good for scoring, and the greater challenge comes from making the best use of her bomb stock and deciding when to drop them. Extra hints on scoring: there are secret coins that appear if you "walk" (yes, your character can walk on the ground!) in certain areas; if you kill mid-bosses fast enough extra enemy waves will appear (Katana is great for this); some mid-bosses yield more points when destroyed by parts.

So here it is, my high score with Koyori on difficulty 5 (NORMAL).

Monday, July 6, 2009

Truxton (Mega Drive)

Vertical
Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan in 1988
Published by Sega in 1989


Wow, a Mega Drive launch shoot'em up! Wouldn't that cover make you anticipate the best from it if you lived in 1990 and were to experience it for the first time? That monster in the box is just the last boss of this brick hard game, one that I honestly overlooked for years, deeming it as another run of the mill effort that didn't really show what Sega's 16-bit machine was capable of. Come on, back then we had Thunder Force III and Darius II. Who would give a shit about a vertical shooter with poor visuals?

Well, I didn't.

Only recently did I dust this game from my glorious MD shelf in order to see what some people regarded as one of the most underrated shooters ever, even for a port of a very famous arcade game. Damn, was I really blind for all these years? Was I to swallow my pride and finally pledge some devotion to a title that I could not beat (or don't remember beating) when I was a teenage 16-bit video game nerd?


Graphically, Truxton is a mixed bag of poor backgrounds, some nice textures in the middle and great boss designs/battles. From what I've seen, it's not that far from the arcade original. The 1st BGM is one of the cheesiest yet most adequate space-themed songs ever, and I also love the tune for the last stage, for it does convey the danger of reaching the final boss amidst lava and spikes while being extremely cool.

Upon firing up, Truxton does not try to overwhelm anybody. In fact, it does quite the opposite: what you get is a slow lone spacheship with a weak vulcan weapon flying over a dark blue background dotted by tiny sprites that should resemble stars. This must be one of the most modest initial stages I've ever seen in a shooter, and at first it seems frightening because it takes a little while until you reach a different scenario.

Fortunately, the slow beginning later on develops into a more action-packed flight, as you start collecting speed-ups (S) and power-ups (P). Your firepower is augmented with each 5 P icons collected, to a maximum of two upgrades. After that the power-ups are stocked for an eventual respawn. Three types of weapons are at the player's disposal and can be changed with the appropriate icon: the red one is the standard vulcan, the green one is a straightforward shot and the blue one is a visually stunning laser beam that latches on more powerful enemies until they are killed and covers almost the whole screen when maxed out. Each weapon has its strenghts and weaknesses, but I found myself using more of the red, due to the shooting shield that surrounds the ship with maximum power, and the blue, in order to protect myself from the space enemy blizzard that takes over the screen during the last stages. Let's not forget about Truxton's famous bomb, which has the shape of a skull and obliterates all bullets and weak enemies during its brief detonation time.


This is a game that tricks you into thinking it's easy. Enemy bullets are slow at the start, and there are instances in which no enemies at all approach you. All 5 stages are really long and demand some memorization for you to succeed. One/two speed-ups are enough in order to dodge the incoming fire, but to maximize your score it's necessary to take all speed-ups (after the 5th one you get 5.000 points for each additional icon). The problem with this is that the ship gets too fast and makes it almost impossible to maneuver your rather large hitbox during boss battles. And they're all huge, menacing and tough to dispatch! The game also has a rank system that boosts bullet speed if you perform well, and the last two stages offer some of the most difficult shmupping tasks you're likely to find among all Mega Drive titles. Unfortunately, that stems mostly from a horrible choice of colors, one that makes it almost impossible to see the bullets and provides an unfair extra difficulty that ultimately hurts the overall experience.

To the player's relief, one extend is granted at 70.000 points and then for each 200.000 points after that. Special 1UPs are triggered if you reach certain areas with the right weapon and destroy a central pod that moves upwards when shot (pay attention to some 2UPs though!). With so many extra lives, it's perfectly possible to fill the life meter to the top if you play well enough, stocking some precious ammo against the final waves of the enemy forces. Make no mistake, you'll need it: this is a tough game.

I could reach the first stage of the second loop with the score below (NORMAL):