Monday, October 26, 2009

Super Darius (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by NEC Avenue in 1990

In a system that already had a port of Darius (Darius Plus), the existence of Super Darius for the PC Engine CD seems totally useless. It is yet another port of the original game, and at a glance exactly the same apart from the obvious CD quality music. What could have warranted a new release? Is it worth owning both?

By 1990 Taito had already released the sequel Darius II on the arcade scene, and maybe Super Darius was their way of warming up to the process of porting the second game to home consoles. This is evident by the inclusion of several bosses from Darius II as new ones in Super Darius, something that gave the game an unique boss for each zone/stage. And so we come to the main difference between this title and the Darius Plus HuCard. The gameplay and general rules are the same, so check out my Darius Plus text for some insight.

Super Darius was the first game I ever played and beat on my PC Engine. I went back to it because (1) my high score was a lot higher when I played Darius Plus; (2) both games share the same save slot, meaning they share the same high score table and (3) I'm not sure if this sharing is really fair with both games. Much like I did with Sagaia on the Mega Drive, I decided to carry an organized approach on how to improve my score on Super Darius, studying the stages, power-ups available, scoring possibilities and best routes. In this process I learned more about the game, and that's what I'm going to write about.

Want to score higher in Super Darius? I can give away some tips:
  • Try to not let any enemy wave escape. I don't feel bad about the difficult ones (those who are blocked by the scenery or pass by too fast), but to let an easily destroyable wave go away can be frustrating (this is true for every Darius game actually);
  • Destroy every damageable part of the bosses. Most of the time, each one is worth 30.000 extra points.
  • If the boss takes too long to be beaten, those dreaded annoying rotating cubes appear and home on you. Well, you can at least get some points from them.
  • Those red missiles that hang on the top of the scenery and fall down as you get closer are worth more points than the incoming waves of small enemies. Destroy the big missiles before they explode, or else you get nothing.
  • Give priority to powering up the main shot (missile-laser-wave) and preserve the shield as much as you can (arm-super-hyper). As a rule of thumb, powering up the main shot to the "wave" level is paramount for both surviving AND scoring during the last stages.

According to the wikipedia article on the game, among the 26 distinct zones (V and Z are represented twice) there are five graphical motifs: cavern, city, mountain, space around the Van Allen belt (?) and underwater. Just like in Darius Plus but with noticeable changes, some stages/zones/bosses are a lot harder than others. Zone L, for instance, is a living nightmare, while zone M is easy and great for scoring. I don't like to fight Fatty Glutton (zone H), My Home Daddy (zone G) or the new incarnation of Alloy Lantern (L), one of the bosses from Darius II. Here Mr. Lantern can summon a series of rocks from outside the screen and trap you with almost no room to evade. Another Darius II boss that can get tricky is Drio Sawn, the space eel. He doesn't perform that dive attack anymore, instead wandering around the screen and trapping you between his body and a fast series of bullets.
No matter what's your deal when it comes to shmups, if you're into the Darius series then you should sooner or later surrender to the coolness that involves everything about the bosses: design, names, colors, attack patterns. As I mentioned, in Super Darius you have one boss for each stage, and that's what I like most about it.

My high score was improved approximately 9,3% from the previous one I had, going through route ABDHMRX.

[EDIT 2009-12-02] To activate difficulty selection press SELECT + RUN.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trizeal (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Triangle Service
Published by Triangle Service in 2005

Many people like to bitch about how much shmups are neglected nowadays. Keeping it restricted to current generations, as of today the PS3 hasn't got any, the Nintendo Wii is a joke and the Xbox 360 is the only platform whose shmup library is steadily growing (not considering downloadable shit). Yes, we shooting fans starve. That's why I don't see this constant bitching with good eyes, and in the case of Triangle Service and their public pledge for people to buy Trizeal, I cannot think of anything else but to praise their pure love to the genre. After all, they went along, released another game after it and even a retail compilation title for the Xbox 360. And from what they showed in Trizeal for the Dreamcast I do believe they deserve all the support we can give.

In an era where the rule was to drop curtains of bullets on players, Trizeal stuck to the genre's roots and offered challenging, traditional old school gameplay. Though slightly not as graphically sharp as XII Stag, Triangle Service's first shooter, it is a sure step-up in the gameplay department. All six stages feel very different from each other and require specific strategies to be properly overcome, in a very balanced shooting experience that comes with some secrets and cool homages to famous shooters from the past.


Trizeal's ship can assume 3 different forms that shoot different types of weapons: the vulcan, the homing missiles and the laser. Each one of them can be powered up 5 times with icons released every time a certain number of enemies is destroyed. There comes a moment in the power-up process where each weapon will influence and add to the firepower of the other weapons, with a fully powered ship shooting all 3 types at the same time with one of them predominant over the others. Each life has 2 smart bombs whose stock can be increased by fulfilling certain tasks during the game, and extends are given with 900.000 and 2.700.000 points. The scoring system relies on killing all enemies during the stage, bomb stock bonuses, triggering special parts of the game and collecting multiple medals without letting any fall down the screen - their value will increase until each one is worth 1.000 points. It's all very simple and straightforward.

Simplicity however isn't a sign of dullness, as the various secrets in this game clearly show. Special parts appear if you can clear everything that comes up in the "breakout" sections. What you get are new enemies, extra bombs and great new opportunities for scoring (including a nice homage to Space Invaders in the 4th stage). There's also a secret bomb that can be collected when you hover over an obelisk at the end of the 2nd stage, and extra bombs can be obtained in the downward shaft descent of the 5th stage. Other typical shooting sceneries, such as the huge spaceship battle (level 3) and the bosses that must be broken bit by bit, collaborate for delivering a nice package that should please old school shmuppers. Moreover, those who are familiar with XII Stag will recognize the obvious similarities in bullet patterns and stage design (the whole 2nd level and the asteroid field in level 4 are very much like XII Stag).

Battle over the mountains
(courtesy of YouTube user Peter's Trophies)

There are only a couple of things that should get some criticism in Trizeal. There are parts of the game, for instance, that feel graphically unpolished and below standards. I refer exclusively to the whole 2nd stage, which consists of a linear approach to a nasty spider-like boss. It's definitely the most uninspired section of the game, but thankfully it gets better after that. Slowdown arises during busy parts, especially when you use a maxed out laser weapon, due to its piercing bullet. It's actually very handy, especially when you consider another factor that's annoying at first sight: bullet visibility. Some color schemes used will make it hard to distinguish bullets between explosions and backgrounds. Don't let this frighten you though, this feeling vanished after I started dedicating myself to learn the patterns and anticipate the attacks. If you never had any problem with asteroid fields and rotating turrets before, be prepared for some tense moments if you decide to tackle Trizeal. The asteroid field is way treacherous and ends in the coolest boss fight of the whole game in my opinion. The rotating turrets are tricky and can wipe you out really fast if you lose concentration. I went through it unharmed and without bombing only once, normally I bomb once or twice because things generally get very nasty on my side!

It's possible to play with alternate ships. The second player in co-op gets a slightly faster yellow ship with different sprites and slightly altered weapons (example: the space between the laser beams is narrower). To play alone with this yellow ship you only have to plug the controller to the second port in the Dreamcast console and hit START. XII Stag's ship is also available by inputting a code in the title screen (right, left, left, shot × 12), and if you use it the 1st stage BGM will change into XII Stag's 1st stage BGM. Unlockables when beating the game include two new score attack modes: an OMAKE stage and a special one called LIFTING. Trizeal was also ported for the Playstation 2 and the Xbox 360 as Trizeal Remix.

My 1CC score shown below was obtained with the default red ship, on NORMAL.

Friday, October 16, 2009

BlaZeon (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Atlus
Published by Atlus in 1991

The universe of BlaZeon is a lazy one. This laziness starts with game presentation, continues within the gameplay itself and ultimately castrates your sense of accomplishment after you reach the end. It's probably the most representative example of the term "snooze-fest" in the shooter genre. If the extremely slow pacing wasn't snoozy enough, I also have to mention that I've never seen anything that comes close to it as far as dead spaces go.

Any shooting game that has one or two giant robots in the cover is automatically ranked above its peers for the sake of coolness alone. Having a spaceship transform into a powerful mecha is indeed one of the foundations of BlaZeon, and represents the game's core. Execution in this SNES port of an arcade title is, however, as poor as the widespread fame the console has for being slow when compared with its competition, the Mega Drive. The problem is that the game seems to run in permanent slowdown, with an incredibly tedious scrolling speed that's borderline choppy. Add to that several moments where absolutely nothing happens - you can pretty much go to the kitchen for water or to the bathroom and get back to the game and still wait some seconds for an enemy to show up. Honestly, the first time this happened I thought the game was bugged or something like it.

When you start the game you feel like you've been thrown into R-Type. The main ship, the "Garland", is very close to a perfect reproduction of the original R-9, while the first wave of enemies appears exactly like the first incoming wave in Irem's classic shooter. One button in the controller is used to fire, and another one to shoot the so-called "Tranquilander", a projectile that freezes certain enemies and allows the player to take over their forms and abilities by flying over them. Some of these enemies or "bio-cyborgs" require more than one Tranquilander to be frozen, and they all vary in firepower, speed and special attacks, which are deployed by the button used to fire the Tranquilander and are not available depending on the possessed robot/ship. They have their firepower reduced when hit (or when frozen after being damaged) and revert back to the original ship after taking the last possible hit. With only one exception, their hitbox is huge and requires careful maneuvering in tight spaces. And, of course, some robots are more useful than others in certain parts of the game.

You have to unconditionallly love the robot theme if you want to go over the boredom that plagues BlaZeon. Those who consider the lack of action an inadmissible characteristic in a shmup should stay away from it. Speaking of challenge alone, there's not much I can mention besides the slow speed of the Garland, a couple of claustrophobic passages and some mid-boss confrontations later in the game. The only help you have are two extends that are given with 300.000 and 600.000 points only. There's the motivation to kill the bosses as fast as you can, because this yields a better bonus - no points are given if you take too long to destroy them (point blanking is a must, and don't even dare losing the bio-cyborg when fighting the 4th boss!). Maybe the developers thought it was enough of a reward to grant the player with one million points for completing the game, instead of actually including a proper ending. You just get resent to the first level in a higher difficulty, which is signalled by a different color for the Garland and the robots. Talk about a cheap port, huh? In contrast to that, every boss fight is preceded by a ridiculous message that babbles about bullshit and tells us how much effort went to, well... establishing the overall mediocrity of the game (see pic below).

Animation on the bio-cyborgs is very poor or inexistent, but at least some backgrounds and parallax sections are decent. The music does get better towards the end, to the point where it almost gets enjoyable to cruise open space while waiting forever for some kind of action. But when you are in the last stage and see three big chunks of moving background walls scroll past you, with absolutely no hint of enemy spacecraft, it's impossible to believe the damage in this game can be actually fixed. And it just isn't. For a similar and much better mecha shooting fix you can always go for Android Assault on the Sega CD.

I'm glad this game is past me, and here's the high score I got (NORMAL) when I reached the second stage of the second loop:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Soukyugurentai (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Raizing
Published by Electronic Arts in 1997

I remember the first day I played Soukyugurentai on my Sega Saturn, during my first weeks of active collecting. I remember I was stunned by the graphics, by the music and by the way the weapons worked. And I thought to myself that I would beat it one day. Fast forward a year and a couple of months and picture me getting to the 5th stage's boss after just a few plays and thinking "OK, this is not going to be so hard... Just a couple more runs and I'm done with it". Can you imagine how wrong I was? I bet the people who already ventured into the 1 credit clear on this game would get a big laugh of me if I had said it out loud...

Soukyugurentai was made by Raizing, the guys behind Battle Garegga's fame. Suffice it to say, Garegga is a game that always instilled fear into my naive shmupper heart - I never actually played it, but I read about it so many times that I can't help but feel scared to try to beat it and see myself in the same situation of my gripe with DoDonPachi: helpless, useless, a wreck of a player who's owned by a game instead of owning it. With Souky, however, I felt confident enough to face the challenge and so I did. I had to have my first Raizing 1CC. I chose one of the 3 available ships (the red), I learned how to use the "web" net and the bombs and I tried to get a hold of the enemies and bullet patterns, all those things we do when we try to break a regular game. Ahn... did I mention I was naive?

This game seems to be easy at first, but then... I died and died and died so many times I had to leave it aside for a while before turning it into my lunch shmup.

This game is known in the west as Terra Diver, which was its name in the arcade. I don't know if this is actually true, but the Sega Saturn version is considered to be arcade perfect. It's a beautiful yet very dark title that is graphically on par with masterpieces like Radiant Silvergun. Damn, sometimes it feels like Silvergun, and maybe that's due to the music composer being the same for both titles. That's when the similarities end though, for Souky is a fiercer and faster experience instead of a methodic and epic adventure. Of course a good knowledge of the gameplay is necessary for anyone to succeed, but it demands more if you want to play for score. Take the main weapon, for instance. You won't go very far by using it. For maximum score it's mandatory to kill everything with the "web" weapon that locks onto enemies and comes in two variations for each ship. Every enemy that's caught inside the range of this web will be hit by a sort of homing laser/burst as you release the web button. All ships have a weaker and a stronger web (usually the trickiest to use), and each ship can lock onto a certain number of spots (6 to 8). The more lock-ons you have when you release the web attack the highest the multiplier (maximum of ×6 depending on the ship). Locking on to just 1 or 2 enemies will give you a reducing multiplier (!) of ×1/2, so the game forces you to lock on as many enemies as you can. Trying to play without using the web is out of the question, since some enemies are in different planes and can only be damaged with this type of attack.

The bombs work in different ways, according to how you have the web activated. Bombing with no web releases the powerful cluster bomb. Bombing with an active web releases a series of smaller bursts surrounding the ship. Regardless of the way the bomb is deployed, it always works with panic function and makes you invincible for a short period of time. Bombs and power-ups come in capsules that have to be shot, while extends are given with 3 million and 6 million points. At the end of the stage a special bonus is awarded for enemy wipe-out. The percentage shown is the % of enemies you didn't destroy - a perfect destruction ratio will give 0% and 300.000 points, with higher % ratios giving increasingly smaller bonuses. The most important thing is that shooting down all enemies, not dying, powering up and not bombing will increase rank in such a way that every part of the game has to be mastered, especially the boss battles.

I truly think that it's during the boss battles that this game achieves a peak of magnificence. We're talking about a beautiful game here, where most of the boss fights are nothing less of epic. At times the screen zooms out so that you can actually see the whole scope of their attacks. They all fire huge and varied shots/bullets/lasers/beams/flames that call for perfect maneuvering and deep knowledge of their patterns. Here's a special nod to the 3rd boss, one of the most annoying and unpredictable mechanical beasts I've had to deal with in my entire shmupping life. Sincerely, I hate him.

I don't believe I have actually mastered everything that I could in Soukyugurentai, from strategies for better use of the web weapon in some specific parts to milking bosses and destroying all their bit parts. I didn't have the patience, for instance, to properly kill the 5th boss. I just bombed his first form when he started spitting the staggering vulcan shots and then shot his core to death. In some places, as in the asteroid area of stage 4, you can touch the rocks and big enemies without dying, but there are times when targeting enemies with the web is just too much to handle, so the regular shot comes in very handy. Using different ships requires a totally different approach for each, and my favorite was always the faster Swordfish (red). The Mackerel (blue) and the Scallop (green) have different power/speed levels and lock-on limits.

The version I played is called Soukyugurentai "Otokuyo", a special edition that corrected some bugs found in the original release when it was played in western consoles. It comes with a demo of the 1st stage of Battle Garegga. There's something you have to deal with when playing the Saturn version though: all messages in the game are in Japanese, including the options. That's why I decided to make a treat when I photographed my high score, translating everything for future reference.

Click for a larger picture of the menus translation for Soukyugurentai Otokuyo

I didn't get to mess with the extended options after unlocking them, but I heard it's possible to do things like controlling the zoom while playing and mapping shot and web attacks to the same button. Since that's way out of the default league, I thought it would be better to keep it simple! And here's the 1CC high score I got on difficulty 5 (Arcade).

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cho Aniki (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Masaya
Published by NCS in 1992

The start of a successful franchise is always something worth of curiosity for those who want to know the roots of most recent games. But can we deem an obscure series like Cho Aniki as being successful? If you consider the whole line-up that came after this starting title, then yes - it's not everyday that you see a shmup get three cross-platform sequels. But then again, we're talking about Cho Aniki. I bet if you've never heard it's the most gay shooter franchise ever...

Back in 1992, Cho Aniki was released for the PC Engine CD with not much of a bang. It was developed by the same people who had done Wings of Wor for the Mega Drive. The similarities definitely show, even though Cho Aniki lacks the polish and difficulty of the shooter previously designed for the Sega platform. What Masaya started and further developed with it was a very distinct set of shmups starring a group of non-orthodox characters, namely the semi-nude bodybuilders who shoot beams from holes in their heads in an increasingly gay setting. Since Cho Aniki was the first game, much of the edgier stuff isn't yet present, and the famous bodybuilders have just a supporting role within the story.

You can select one of two characters to fight the crazy evil creatures. There's Idaten the guy and Benten the girl. The only thing they have in common is the main shot. Idaten can select up to 8 different speeds, while Benten has only 4. His charge shot is the glowing beam, and hers is a series of 45ยบ green shards. The charge shot is fired whenever the main shot button is released, which is by far the coolest aspect of the gameplay. When the players have options, these also fire the glowing beams, providing for a massive amount of firepower. The power-up icons are released by special enemies (proteins for "build-up", not "power-up"), but the options appear randomly and can be one of the 2 bodybuilders Adam or Samson, a baby angel or a blue alien (!). They can be used in two ways: hovering by the side of the characters or performing their particular kamikaze attacks. To toggle between these two modes it's necessary to press the bomb button while firing. This means that to actually bomb you must stop shooting. I found the kamikaze attack to be a waste, so I pretty much left my options in side formation all the time. And I preferred to play with the guy, because the girl's charge shot is weak and makes it difficult to overtake the swarms that appear later on.

If the options take too much damage they will die, but soon enough others will come by. The problem is that once you've got used to the shot/charge mechanics and how to properly employ the options, the game becomes too easy. This hurts Cho Aniki's overall replay value, even if the gameplay is spot on with plenty of action and bosses. Each stage has nothing less than 3 mid-bosses and 1 main boss, intertwined with brief bursts of the most varied enemies you can imagine. The music adds to the weirdness in that it's sometimes uplifting and sometimes just plain offbeat.

Graphically, Cho Aniki boasts very good sprite work and nice parallax effects, with absolutely no trace of flicker or slowdown. It's extremely colorful and, though wacky and generally unique, stage and enemy design isn't as homossexually creepy as the sequels would turn out to be (gay poses are reserved for the cut scenes only). It's a perfectly fit game for a fast and easy session, since even in the HARD setting it's still pretty manageable.

In the 1CC run below I got relaxed and lost 2 lives in the last stage (NORMAL). There are instances where you get extra bombs from defeated enemies, but there is absolutely no way to get extra lives. However, I believe 3 attempts are more than enough for anybody to breeze through it to the end.

Next chapter in the series: Ai Cho Aniki.