Friday, April 30, 2010

1942 - Joint Strike (Playstation Network)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Backbone Entertainment
Published by Capcom in 2008

Capcom's oldest shooting license recently got a rebirth in modern day consoles with 1942 - Joint Strike. Let's not be fooled by the impression that this is a remake of the original 1942, one of the cornerstones of arcades in the 80s and the first in a sequence of rather successful games. It is, in a sense, an HD reimagination of the whole series, taking aspects from several titles in order to deliver a renewed experience that ultimately fails to live up to the 19XX legacy. 1942 - Joint Strike is one of the most severe cases of shmup disappointment to ever have graced a console screen. It shamelessly joins the roster of cheap downlodable titles that don't do any good to the genre, especially in a platform where real, full-fledged shooters are practically non-existent.

I first beat this game while waiting for the After Burner Climax download to complete. The transfer was so slow that I thought it would be a good opportunity to finally get acquainted with one of the games I've had for months but never cared to even touch. Imagine my surprise when after just five stages the game was simply over. Of course this wouldn't be so shocking if these five stages weren't so easy and riddled with such unimpressive music. It's like watching one of those blurry war dramas of the 60s at 2 AM. The music is so dull that it's like there's no soundtrack at all. Just to have an idea, even the beeps and blips from 1942 on the NES sound better to me than the yawn-inducing musical score that was composed for Joint Strike.

And you thought I would complain about the gameplay, didn't you?

Why do so many bosses rely on napalm when they're about to die?

The gameplay isn't that bad. It even offers a few thrills if you decide to explore the scoring system. The first rule to get higher scores is to kill all enemies as close to them as you can. The second rule is to kill all bosses as fast as you can. In order to achieve that there are three planes at the player's disposal, each one with different characteristics for speed, firepower and health. They all share the same weaponry, which comprises three icon-switchable types of main shot (straight, spread and laser), bombs and a constantly renewable stock of special attacks. The main shot can be upgraded twice by collecting the same weapon icon, and up to 8 special attacks can be stocked (and replenished) just by killing enemies. This special attack works as a series of missiles that home on the nearest enemy/enemies. During co-op or online play it works differently, but I haven't bothered to check that. There are two kinds of temporary extra weapons, but they are so scarce and last so little time that don't do any real difference in the game. Adding to score-based extends (for each 500.000 points), occasional 1UPs might also pop up. Each life has a health bar and health replenishers appear constantly, alternating with extra bombs in the same icon.

Following the trend of the series, all icons are released by the red planes, and the red ones that arrive in formations must all be destroyed for the icon to appear. Some of these will be converted into medals, which are worth points, but medals can also be triggered by hitting certain areas of the terrain.

Minor annoyances such as resetting the weapon's power when switching it are no big deal, but I did miss an option for autofire - which is partially justified by the existing charge mechanic. Sure, the charge is reasonably fast, but with so many buttons on the controller why not have one of them mapped to autofire?

1942 - Joint Strike played solo on PENGUIN difficulty
(courtesy of YouTube user xXAshe9949Xx)

In its native setting, 1942 - Joint Strike plays vertically in glorious, pure widescreen. This is probably the first vertical genuine shmup to do so, and while some people might be put off by that, I think it has no bearing at all in how it feels or plays. From the moment you hit START some dedicated and brief cut scenes try to convey the idea of a moving picture, where the main parts come to life as the game itself. This is one of the features that tell how gorgeous Joint Strike really is, and it's just a shame that all this excellence isn't really put to full use into the overall game design.

The turning point for this game to get really easy is when you find out the special attacks are somewhat unlimited, that is, they get replenished pretty fast. All four difficulty settings are just the same, what changes is only the number of starting lives. I believe everybody agrees that the sequence after the 1st boss where you fly backwards and can't shoot is the most stupid idea in the game, but what I find even more annoying is the awful music. The sound effects are loud and effective, whereas the music simply kills the game. It's even worse than the bug I have on my console, where my score refuses to appear on the local scoreboard. That's why I took the picture of the last result I had when I beat the game on the DRAGON FLY difficulty (one level above the default) with the Mosquito airplane.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Psycho Chaser (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by naxat soft
Published by naxat soft in 1990

Before even laying eyes on this game, I'm quite sure everybody has his/her own idea of what a shooter named Psycho Chaser should be like. I wonder if the title shouldn't have been Psychic instead of Psycho. After all, is the main character a psycho or are his targets the psychos? For such a suggestive name, it's a bit underwhelming to find out we're just talking about a rather tame vertical shooter that doesn't really offer anything to raise itself above its PC Engine siblings. Maybe its most unique aspect is the main character, a bulky android that walks relentlessly in his quest to destroy all types of weird creatures in a series of awkward settings. At first I was impressed by his size, but the developer was clever enough not to turn the game into another "huge hitbox suffering fest". With a challenge level that's not over the top, Psycho Chaser plays fine enough and for a checkpoint shooter it isn't that punishing at all.

The overhead animation frames for the robot are quite nice, and while he moves slowly it takes just one or two speed-up icons for things to get pretty much leveled up in the gameplay department. You can take as many as you want because it's impossible to get too fast, but beware of the yellow speed-down icons that start appearing more frequently as the game comes close to the end. Right from the get go the player is allowed to switch between four available weapons, in a mechanic that is exactly identical to that of Toaplan's Hellfire. As such, success in the game relies heavily in mastering how these weapons work and how their cycling order is established. Fire is the default forward shot, Multiway allows some backward shots, Buster is the side shot and Thunder activates continuous homing lightning bursts.

One of the several undescribable opponents from Psycho Chaser

In order to power up the android it's necessary to collect those orange shaped icons that look like diamonds. They're not worth any points, but the more of them you collect the more "psycho" energy bits will be available at the end of the stage for you to distribute across all types of weapons. Once distributed, these power-up units can only be rearranged if you die during the current stage, since they remain permanently applied when the next stage is reached. The current power level for each weapon is displayed in bottom right corner of the screen. As a rule of thumb, I think the upgrading priority should go to Fire and Buster, for these were the weapons I used the most.

Other incoming icons you might encounter are the missile upgrades (which will add up to 6 very helpful side missiles), temporary invincibility (a dark orange symbol that changes the robot's color into a darker shade as long as invincibility lasts) and the awesome ultimate upgrade (an exclamation sign). This exclamation upgrade is very rare and I've only seen it appear during the 3rd and 5th stages. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't, and I couldn't figure out how to properly trigger it. Getting this upgrade will double the range and strength of all weapons: Fire will have two forward streams instead of one, Multiway will turn into an 8-way shot, Buster will have two horizontal side arches instead of one and Thunder will generate two lightning bursts instead of one. There was one icon whose function I could not grasp during all the time I spent playing Psycho Chaser: it's the one that looks like the invincibility symbol but in the green color. Leave me a comment if you know what it actually does!

Beware of the psycho robot!
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

Sound effects like explosions and beeps are taken from the regular stock that most of the shooters in the PC Engine seem to use. I think the graphics do the job in conveying the scrolling alien landscapes: skulls are carved on the ground of the entire 1st stage, boomerang shooting androids guard the main sections of the 2nd stage and green lizards try to block your way in the 3rd stage. The challenge picks up during the organic-like environment of the 4th level, and things get a bit hairy in the platform confined 5th area. The last stage has all bosses and some mid bosses returning for a rematch before you can finally face the game's final boss. Speaking of bosses, I have to say they're not in the same challenge league as the stages themselves, standing overall on the easy side. Some regular enemies have tricky attack patterns, but since most of them arrive in waves, knowing in advance how they will show up is a key factor in choosing the right weapon to welcome them. And beware not to get crushed by incoming obstacles.

Psycho Chaser's 2nd loop starts with no apparent increase in difficulty, but soon enough enemies will become more resilient, and bosses will finally start giving some tough fights. And unless you're equipped with the exclamation upgrade, there comes a point where the amount of on-screen enemies will start to overcome your firepower, with no hint of noticeable slowdown. I was able to reach loop 2-4 with the high score shown below.

Sadly, I must warn you this is also one of those games with no score buffering of any kind.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

D-Force (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Asmik
Published by Asmik in 1991

There must be some kind of theory that explains why someone would even bother to try playing D-Force, when there is a handful of quality shoot'em ups available for the SNES. As a shmupper, at times I lean towards utter masochism, so that's all I can think of as far as motivation goes. Or maybe I feel like I should be punished for not performing well in decent shmups, so I indulge myself in the enjoyment of enduring pain from time to time. I can't deny though that there's some odd sense of pleasure in emerging victorious out of such a dreadful experience. It means that (1) I'll never play this game again unless I'm forced to and (2) I'm now part of the strict club of people who beat D-Force. Yeah! Wanna join? Be my guest!

D-Force is an early SNES title that was certainly part of the Mode 7 flagship batch. Think about a basic vertical scrolling shooter with annoying Mode 7 effects that not only are superfluous to the game itself but also represent a test of the player's patience (there's nothing more frustrating than dying and having to uselessly WAIT to coin a new credit). When starting a stage, the helicopter takes off from a ground base with - aham - a "glorious" scaling effect. And when the last life is lost, the screen starts spinning and the chopper spirals to death. While the first effect is rather harmless, the spiralling death sequence is just unnerving because it cannot be skipped, and is followed by some atrocious waiting time for the high score board. Damn, if I'm going to play this piece of shit, why do I have to even lose my precious time with all this waiting?

Fighting the mid boss in the 1st stage of D-Force

The rant in the above paragraph also stems from another aspect of the game, and that is cheapness. Until learning how to deal with the choppy scrolling and the weird hit detection, I died a whole freakin' lot. No kidding, there are times in D-Force where you'll see your life stock get depleted in a snap. Cheapness reaches its peak during later stages, and almost motivated me to start all over again instead of continuing for practice purposes. There are only 4 lives in a credit with no extends of any kind, but it's possible to increase the number of starting lives to 9 in the OPTIONS screen - a very handy resource for practicing. There's only one button to be used during the whole game. It fires a single shot that can be powered up quite a few times (red icons) and auxiliary side missiles which will be acquired at a certain point (green icons). When maxed out, all surplus power-up icons are useless, even for scoring. On the other hand, one of the few good things in this game is that you lose only one power-up level when dying.

In order to drift away from the whole Twin Cobra obvious reminiscence, D-Force makes an attempt at something new in the way even stages are arranged. These are deemed as "exploration" missions, where you'll be flying in two different heights that can be alternated with the shoulder buttons in the controller. Some enemies will be in the higher plane, while others in the ground level. It's a neat concept, but it doesn't add that much substance to the game. After all, these stages are too easy, and the bosses are a joke. To the player's astonishment, they're also populated with dinosaurs, phoenix birds, centaurs and mythological labyrinths. The explanation for this is that the middle eastern nation you're fighting against has been conducting some nasty research to develop new creatures to conquer the world. Maybe this is the reason why in Japan the game is called Dimension Force? Well, at least this gave me a good laugh.

The sand ripple effect isn't really visible here, but everything else is
(courtesy of YouTube user KamilDowonna)

D-Force is underwhelming in every possible way you can imagine. Graphics are subpar and don't do justice to the SNES at all. The ripple effect on water and sand (which I believe is done with Mode 7 as well) is visually distracting and requires getting used to. Music can be catchy sometimes, but is overall soaked with cheesiness. Watch out for a special take on the French national anthem in the start screen. Here you can also choose to play only the regular "shooting" stages (missions 1, 3 and 5) or only the exploration stages (missions 2, 4 and 6). This means the 7th and last stage can only be played in the main game. Strangely enough, I should also point out that missiles are not fired during exploration missions, and I just can't figure out why.

As hard as it is, this is a game that will bow down to anyone armed with some memorization skills and a great deal of patience. I exhausted mine when I beat the game in my last life. Therefore, the 1CC objective was proudly achieved on NORMAL with the score shown below.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Homura (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Skonec
Published by Taito in 2005

At last! After several brief spells of playing this game I finally managed to beat it, and it feels good! Just to have an idea, I started dedicating myself to Homura in June last year, but I had to stop because I fell irrevocably in love with Mushihimesama. Unless it's purely for fun (meaning no compromise to the 1CC goal), I usually don't play two bullet hell shooters at the same time. So only recently was I able to resume and conclude the journey of the fallen angel who battles through the skies of ancient Japan. I believe that's the main story behind the game, since my copy is the Japanese one and I understand bollocks of this language. European gamers were lucky enough to receive a port with translated text though, and these are the two options to go if you want to play Homura on the Playstation 2.

This vertical bullet hell shmup bears great resemblance to several other games. Psyvariar is the obvious first mention, since developer Skonec is involved with both titles. Gameplay mechanics are akin to the Giga Wing series, but the game is aesthetically much closer to Shikigami No Shiro. Apart from a few bosses, there are absolutely no ground targets, and that feeling of detachment of foreground to background is there throughout all stages. That's why you'll only notice any beauty or detail in the backgrounds when you see someone else playing the game. While playing you'll be much more worried about surviving and scoring. To be honest, upon a shallow playthrough Homura comes out as a rather unimpressive experience, be it for its lethargic initial pacing, the lack of flashy explosions or (in the case of noob reviewers) the ease provided by timely awarded extra credits and subsequent credit feeding the game to the end. This image, however, changes drastically with a few further runs, and a whole new shooting scenario reveals itself to the player.

One of the several phases of the 1st boss

As a sort of angel, you have the abilities to shoot and to use your heavenly sword to get rid of the bad guys. Whenever you shoot, the angel moves a little bit slower. Slashing with the sword can be done in two ways: (1) close to an enemy - when the character will enter a kind of berserker mode and slash all enemies on-screen no matter how large they are, with the obvious exception of bosses, in a move that most players call "mad-dash"; (2) at a safe distance from any enemy - the slash will deflect all surrounding bullets, which in turn will damage all on-screen enemies. On both types of slashing you get a brief window of invincibility (approximately 1 second) as soon as it ends, and only 5 seconds afterwards will a new sword slash be possible, as indicated by a very recognizable sound and the return of the character's surrounding aura. All defeated enemies release gold coins for points. When doing a mad-dash the coins are automatically absorbed by the player, but you have to collect them after bullet slashing or bombing (see below). A blue bar in the upper corner is filled as these coins are collected, eventually adding two bits of energy to the character and substantially increasing his firepower.

End of stage bonuses aren't nearly as substantial as the points you can get during normal play, where the secret to higher scores really lies: the mad-dash. Whenever a mad-dash is carried out, all killed enemies will result in a multipler combo value (for instance, 10 enemies results in a ×10 multiplier). This combo value will decrease 1 unit for every 5 seconds, until it reaches zero. If a new mad-dash is made before that, half of the current combo (rounded down) is added to the new amount of enemies killed from this new mad-dash, resulting in a new combo value. That's why the more enemies are on-screen when you slash the higher the combo. Having a high multiplier and mad-dashing just a few enemies drastically reduces the combo value. Therefore, more than serving the purpose of panic evading, the mad-dash has to be done very selectively in order to not compromise the pursuit of higher scores. Let's not forget that bullet slashing is also important for scoring, since slashing a dense bullet/laser/fire stream will yield big point chunks.

The last aspect of the gameplay is the bomb. Contrary to the norm, it doesn't work like 98% of the bomb functions in the shmup world. In order to trigger a bomb you have to press both shot + slash buttons at the exactly same time. Keeping the shot button pressed and then pushing the slash button will just result in a slash. The PS2 controller has the bomb command mapped to the R1/L1 buttons, but even so you have to release both shot + slash buttons in order to use it. This is somewhat annoying, and definitely takes some time to get used to. Bomb stock is also implemented in a weird way. Whenever you die you don't lose the bombs in stock, being awarded an extra bomb instead. Since a credit starts with 2 bombs, the maximum number of bombs that can be used is 6 - if you get down to the last life and you're able to get the 2 extends, given with 150 and 300 million points. Slash recovery is independent from bomb usage, so be prepared for this during those dense bullet curtains from the last stages.

Gameplay of Homura's initial stages - European version
(courtesy of YouTube user GGGamesVideos)

During the game, a decision point awaits halfway the first 3 stages, where the left one represents the EASY path and the right one the HARD path. Enemy arrangement is different in each one, but ultimately you'll reach the same stage boss. The 3rd stage HARD path is only accessible by letting the mid boss survive and timing out the fight. Credit feeding will allow you to see only 4 stages, and facing the true final boss in stage 5 requires getting there on a single credit.

Homura's graphics might not be the fanciest around, and the movie-like gloomy soundtrack might turn some people off (I personally love it, as well as those green slimy boss explosions!). Nevertheless, after everything is learned there's no doubt this turns into a very fun game. Like all good late shoot'em ups, it keeps you coming back for more. The challenge slope as the game progresses is one of the best I've ever seen, practically forcing the player to use all of the twitch and bullet herding techniques he/she's got. Gameplay intricacies demand a huge deal of memorization and absolute focus for anyone to succeed. I really appreciate the fact that Homura doesn't punish you that much for dying, and how there's always a better way to get that higher combo, to go unharmed through that seemingly impossible bullet barrage, to polish every single section to a better degree of strategy.

I only wish there was a stage select option in the disc. If it was there it would make it easier for everybody to reach the end, and I would certainly try to improve my approach on the 4th stage. For me it's counter-productive to keep playing over and over again just to try and see the results of new strategies so far into the game. It's still a lot of fun, but I feel I should move on to the next challenge. So for now I wrap my 1CC performance in Homura with the high score below, playing on NORMAL. Route choices were EASY-HARD-HARD and the maximum combo was 66.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hawk F-123 (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Make Software
Published by Pack-in-video in 1992

Instead of using the well-known strategy of adding “Super”, “Special” or “Custom” to the title, which was the common practice for CD-revamped versions of HuCard games, Pack-in-Video decided to rename Power Gate as Hawk F-123 when releasing it for the PC Engine CD in 1992. Granted, it’s not the same game, but Hawk F-123 recycles a handful of sprites from Power Gate, also servicing the expected overhaul in music and presentation. Add a few changes in gameplay and the final result is a slightly better shooting experience, a bit more balanced in some areas but overall still more recommended to hardcore 1CC completists such as myself.

The setting is pretty much the same, although this time there are 8 stages instead of 6. The game starts and ends with the obligatory CD cut scenes of the era, with accompanying music but no spoken dialogue. Once more you pilot a jet airplane against the usual flock of enemies, aided by an arsenal of 3 main weapons and several types of auxiliary firepower.

Going from HuCard to CD media made the gameplay a little more fluid, or at least that’s how I felt when controlling the jet’s hitbox in Hawk F-123. I couldn’t help but think of how much of an Aero Blasters (aka Air Buster) wannabe it turned out, especially during the sections where those missiles start falling from out of the screen onto your back. There are more similarities, but these are very subtle, and I wonder if Pack-in-Video’s programmers received word to emulate Kaneko’s style when making the game. Or maybe this is just a stupid observation, I don't know.

This cruiser is the main source of resistance in the 4th stage of Hawk F-123

With the exception of the homing special weapon, Hawk F-123 incorporates almost everything Power Gate had as gameplay and adds new stuff to it. The biggest difference is the addition of 2 new weapons that are interchangeable with colored icons. Besides the default straight shot (red), now it's possible to use a laser (blue) and a special shot with impact blast (yellow). This last shot type gets split every time it hits something, damaging other targets along the way. They are powered up by getting the same icons repeatedly. Other permanent weapons are homing missiles (H), bouncing energy balls (P) and options/multiples (up to 2 tracing small planes). You must choose between homing missiles and energy balls, it's not possible to use both at once, and the auxiliary small planes absorb enemy bullets but disappear after taking enough hits. There are 4 limited special weapons: the temporary shield, the protecting circle, straight power missile and the 8-way power blast. They work the same way as in Power Gate. The hourglass activates the ground bombs, S goes for speed-ups and D for speed-downs. Every icon is worth 200 points, and you can get all speed-ups you want because the jet never gets too fast.

When trying to improve the difficulty, the developer ditched the health bar and increased the extend routine to 50.000, 100.000 and for every 100.000 points thereafter. Bosses also got tougher, and the increased amount of parallax in some stages adds to the challenge of dealing with bullets and enemies. That would've worked fine if it weren't for one thing: the shield special weapon. After you've learned how to deal with it every single boss becomes a joke - saving at least one shield for every tricky boss is the best hint ever to be given about Hawk F-123. It's almost unfair against the game's AI, really! It's so unfair I was able to clear the game on one life, an accomplishment that wouldn't be so easy had this shield thing been left out of the game.
Complete opening and selected takes on Hawk F-123
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR - that's me!)

There is some slowdown, but it doesn't hurt the gameplay that much. Morevover, plenty of color and a decent variety in graphics help establish the mild entertainment this title is capable of providing. The music is probably the most interesting aspect though. Most of the tunes from Power Gate received better quality renditions, and it was a clever move to reserve the best BGM for the 4th stage, by far the longest one in the package. The soundtrack's got a surprisingly jazzy feel, thankfully not in the sense of elevator music, but just enough to keep you wondering "wow, that's not exactly the type of music I would expect here... and here". I thought it was okay.
To wrap it up, let me point out some laziness signs from Pack-in-Video, which seemed to be one of the out-of-the-mill developers/publishers for the PC Engine. In Hawk F-123:
  • there's no high score buffering - if you're going for the 1CC remember to pause the game right after the final boss is beaten or you'll lose your score!
  • the game halts indefinitely in the end credits screen (RUN + SELECT to leave it)
  • there was no planning for when the stock display reaches 10 lives - check my HS picture below to see why
  • problem: the game crashed on me once when I defeated the 2nd boss - the jet was kept flying forever and the stage would never end (Earth Defense, anyone?)
  • problem: the game froze on me once during the 6th stage
So, without further ado, here's the 1LC score I got from Hawk F-123:

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Power Gate (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Pack-in-video
Published by Pack-in-video in 1991

Joining the glut of generic horizontal shooters that emerged during the shmup boom of the 90s we have yet another one: Power Gate, a rather poor game that will forever remain in the shadow of any other similar title of that era. Nevertheless, the fact that it's one of the most underwhelming shmups in the PC Engine library doesn't mean it's downright unplayable. Poor graphics and music can be somewhat forgiven, although having a gameplay that's free of severe flaws is not enough of an excuse for being so slow and ultimately so easy.

Following the trend in the majority of the PC Engine shooters, Power Gate has absolutely no options or ways to adjust the difficulty. The game unfolds at a very relaxed pace, and takes its time into really demanding something from the player. In later levels the screen does get crammed with enemies coming from all sides, with some very narrow and claustrophobic passages to boot. Other than that, the feeling of cruising through waves and waves of planes, helicopters, bombers, rockets and stray missiles is prone to put adrenaline-hungry shmuppers to sleep. Your bullets, for instance, move almost as fast (meaning slow) as your jet fighter!

What? A huge battleship has approached fast!

There's only one type of shot, and that's of the pea type. It will have its power increased maybe once or twice with the appropriate icon, but it will never change into something that doesn’t resemble a pea type shot. Eventually ground bombs/missiles will be acquired and appended to the main firepower. The other button in the controller is responsible for triggering special weapons, which come in limited quantities according to distinct icons: there's a frontal missile crush, a bomb that has an 8-way explosion effect, a protective circle that depletes itself as enemies hit it, a strange sort of locking/homing weapon and the very effective but temporary shield (it makes the plane invincible to everything except walls). Which special weapon is to be used has to be chosen with the SELECT button. In addition, every 5 or 6 seconds the act of pressing SELECT will also cause the jet's thrusters to light up, a useful graphical detail that can inflict damage and block enemy bullets. As for the rest of the incoming icons - which are always released by red or blinking red enemies - S provides the speed-up function, D represents speed-down and E replenishes one point of the health bar associated to each life.

With the presence of this health bar and all the extra lives gained with 20.000, 50.000 and then for every 50.000 points afterwards, it's no surprise Power Gate ends up being extremely easy. Stages 4 and 5 have no bosses, maybe as a compensation for their long duration. They're not missing much, simply because all existent bosses - including the last one - are complete pussies. Some stages will scroll up and down according to the scenery, which is cool and adds a bit of variety. The music, however, is quite limited and repeats itself more than once. At least it's not boring or annoying...

Starting the journey across mountains and city in Power Gate
(courtesy of YouTube user djvatio)

During gameplay, the upper display shows not only your current score (SC), but also the in-stage score (SSC). I have no idea why the developer did this, since there's no special scoring aspect of any kind. Maybe they tried to do something but eventually dropped it, as indicated by everything that's shown regarding the remaining special weapons when a stage ends.

My 1CC high score in Power Gate is shown below. Upon completion, the game halts in this "clear score" screen. If by any chance you think this game is worthwhile despite its simplicity, you can also go for the remake/sequel released for the CD add-on in 1992, called Hawk F-123.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Game Paradise! (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Jaleco
Published by Jaleco in 1997

March was the Intergalactic Shmuppreciation Month, and The Game Paradise! was the challenge assigned to me as I registered in the 2010 celebration/contest. All I needed to do was spread awareness of the genre by playing the game, 1CCing it and sharing my thoughts about the experience. I’ve always wanted to play this after giving it a fast go with my brother in co-op a long while ago. By that time I found it very hard, but the truth is you can never say you know a shmup until you actually play it.

Known in Japan as Game Tengoku, this incredibly off-beat title is a port of a Jaleco arcade game. Despite some contributions to the genre Jaleco was never known for its shmups, but there's no denying they delivered a great product here. It's a cross-over that unites several characters from other games developed by the company (Exerion is the only one I'm familiar with though), in a totally wacky setting that puts them against an evil villain who took over an arcade joint. Imagine the crazy ambience of Parodius with a Psikyo-style of gameplay and you get the picture. According to its unique theme, the game has the player flying over arcade cabs and literally diving into some of them during certain stages, with several unforgettable, colorful and diverse sights to behold along the way. The most surprising one for me was the computer program that's hijacked by an 8-bit CPU, complete with aliens from Space Invaders and Demon Attack, followed by things such as the colored blocks from Breakout.

Showdown with karaoke boss Misato, during the 4th stage of the Arrange Mode

Out of the five available characters it didn't take me too long to choose the Z-Dyne robot. They're all very distinct from one another, and Z-Dyne's main advantage is the lock-on nature of his main weapon. Jeynus reminds me of Ain from the Sengoku Ace series, Selia pilots the regular jet with spread gun, Momoko fires heart-shaped shots and Pig's arsenal is comprised of bombs, which can actually be devastating at point blank distance. During gameplay you can get 2 additional helpers, which are smaller versions of the characters that hover in a formation behind you, adding a bit of firepower. All characters seem to fly at the same speed, and they all have smart bombs and a charge attack at their disposal (those familiar with the control scheme of the Strikers or Gunbird series on the Saturn will feel right at home). Maximum power is reached after collecting 6 power-up icons, and the good news is that upon dying the player loses only one power-up level. As for bonus points, most of them are gained by collecting the eggplants/aubergines.

Aubergines. It seems rather silly, I know. But in Game Tengoku they are the secret to higher scores. So much that the score achieved by killing regular enemies becomes almost irrelevant. Here's how it works: some enemies release aubergines. Every time an aubergine is collected the associated bonus points hover over it before disappearing. If another aubergine is collected before it disappears, this next aubergine's points will increase. By doing this repeatedly, the 5th aubergine will be worth 7.000 points, and as long as you keep collecting them before the points disappear every new aubergine that's generated when an enemy is killed will be bigger and worth exactly 46.530 points. That's why lots of simultaneous on-screen enemies (not necessarily aubergines) represent a huge potential for scoring. Larger enemies release big aubergines that split into 6 when shot, so getting them during a chain results in nothing less than 46.530 × 6 points.

Here's the insanely catchy intro for The Game Paradise! on the Sega Saturn
(courtesy of YouTube user kojiroh30)

Chaining aubergines requires some positioning knowledge, but mainly what it takes is timing. Breaking a good chain because you rushed and got them too quickly is disappointing. That's when the Sega Saturn release comes in handy, since there's a practice mode included in the CD. The problem is that everything in the game is in Japanese, making it impossible to know where you're going 90% of the time! Since I'm a generous guy, below you find a translation for it. You'll notice that Jaleco went beyond the ordinary and included an arrange mode as well: it plays just like the regular game but comes with 2 extra stages, including the one that has famous karaoke boss Misato, where you'll be fighting the lyrics from the song she sings. In this mode there's also an additional ship, the flying saucer piloted by Misato and Miki. Several challenging time attack modes are also present, as well as some exquisite special options such as the activation of auto-bomb or suicide bullets. Omake presentations and info on Jaleco previous games (all in Japanese) complete the package.

But wait! I'm not finished with the aubergines yet! As I said, successfully chaining them will boost the score considerably. But there's a side effect to that, and it relates to rank. My impression is that high scores are the main reason for the subtle increase in difficulty. Survival plays a role in rank as well, but not as much as scoring. One of the turning points for this can be verified when you fight the doll mid-boss in the 2nd stage, right after beating the teddy bear. Normally she will fire 5 spread round bullets, but when you get there with more than 3,2 million she will increase that number to 6 or 7, making it almost impossible to avoid the pattern. Fortunately the game gives away lots of bombs, and they have a very welcome panic function. The end of stage bonus is another great source of points, which are given for the amount of aubergines collected and current life/bomb stock. On a last note, the only extend is granted with 2 million points.

Click for a larger picture of the menus translation for The Game Paradise! on the Sega Saturn

This Saturn release is a must-have for all people who crave different yet challenging games, and also for those who have a special place in their hearts for anime-style shooters. The fact that it's so unkown and to a certain extent underappreciated makes it even more of a curiosity, and a charming one at that. Besides being a very good and fun shooter, The Game Paradise! also packs a great presentation, with a lovely intro that improves over the original one found in the arcade version. And from what I could gather, the sympathetic green-haired hostess from the game menus is also the owner of the hijacked arcade shop.

Below is my high score in regular arcade mode, playing on NORMAL until loop 2-5 (Z-Dyne). The 2nd loop seems to start with the same difficulty of the 1st loop, however evolving as if rank was being maxed out.

Note on the ISM final podcast: I don't know what happened, maybe MC Wilson had too much to handle during these last weeks and accidentally missed the report I sent him for the contest. I'm a bit disappointed but... Playing shmups is what really matters!