Monday, May 31, 2010

Zero Gunner 2 (Dreamcast)

Arena
Checkpoints OFF

7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Psikyo in 2001


The first Zero Gunner was a tilted arcade vertical shooter, much like Silpheed, and did not see any release for a home console. Zero Gunner 2, the sequel, was promptly published for the Japanese Dreamcast right after hitting the arcades. It was a lot different from the first one and a great improvement in many ways, and together with Cannon Spike and Dragon Blaze it certainly pointed to a bright creative future for developer Psikyo. Unfortunately, Psikyo folded in 2002 and fell under the wings of X-nauts, ceasing to take part in the dwindling shmup scene. It's debatable if it can indeed be considered the best one, but in my opinion Zero Gunner 2 remains at least as the most enjoyable and fun shmup Psikyo ever developed.

Reasons for the above statement are many. What we have here is a very polished and cool-looking title that makes great use of the best known Psikyo concepts while offering a refreshing take on the shooter formula. The four initial stages are always shuffled, so you rarely follow the same path in consecutive credits. On top of that, the implemented rank system will demand that you learn how to play all of these stages in their various dynamic difficulties. Of course this is absolutely no news for Psikyo-initiated shmuppers. Regardless of any previous familiarity with their work, what sets Zero Gunner 2 apart from other Psikyo outings, or any contemporary shooters for that matter, is its unique arena gameplay. Because, you all know, there aren't many scrolling arena shooters out there.

The Comanche helicopter in action against a deadly rotating turret

There are three helicopters to choose from after hitting start. They all reach maximum power after three power-ups collected, and the main difference in their weaponry is side reach. In order to turn the chopper around it's necessary to press an auxiliary button so that a crosshair will appear for the player to use it as a fixed rotating point. It may sound tricky just by reading this, but it's actually very functional and effective.

What makes each chopper unique is definitely its special attack. The Apache releases an extremely powerful short-range set of homing blades, the Comanche deploys a fixed minion that keeps shooting for a short while and the Hokum model (my favorite) enables a series of options that follow it around and add greatly to the chopper's firepower. Stocking special attacks (6 maximum) is done by collecting floating diamonds left by killed enemies. Doing this effectively is one of the secrets to win the game, and that's why letting go of the firing button sometimes is important, since this will make all diamonds/power-ups home in directly on the helicopter instead of straying away. Most importantly, diamonds also add to the score (the only extra life in the game comes with 600.000 points).

I can imagine how much of a breath of freah air Zero Gunner 2 was during the time of its release. And the fact that it retained Psikyo's style while at the same time being so much fun is remarkable (not that Psikyo games aren't fun, it's just that they're dry hard and mostly intimidating whenever you aim for the 1CC). With the exception of the music, it's really hard to be picky with this game: there's a great intro, stage design is varied and never repetitive, bosses are mostly huge Transformer-like beasts that evolve from military vehicles and the difficulty curve is much more forgiving than the average Psikyo game. You could even say the first stages are kind of relaxing, be it flying high above over a metropolis or approaching a marine base. Enemy design/placement is so well done that you don't even notice that all background graphics during the cloud stage are... just plain clouds. In other words, this is nothing more than simplicity geared towards top notch results. Another example of this are the brief animated cut scenes that connect the main sections in a stage: they can be instantly skipped with absolutely no interruption or delay (developers take note: this is the correct way to handle cut scenes in shmups). Simply put, there are no loading times in Zero Gunner 2.


Russian chopper Hokum blasts over ocean and high above the clouds in difficulty level 3 (EASY)
(courtesy of YouTube user Fanaticcism)

This last couple of weeks wasn't the first time I played this game. I had beaten it in the default difficulty (4 - Normal) a while ago, but recently I found out the correct setting should be 5 (Arcade). Going just one step up in this setting gauge wasn't as easy as I had envisioned though. Bullets get a bit faster, but the trickiest aspect of all is that the safe point blank distance gets severely reduced in later stages if you don't die. I sincerely considered - and even find it feasible if one's aiming for a 1st-loop clear only - to suicide at the beginning of the 6th stage. This kept things much more manageable for me to reach the last boss without dying again, because dying in the middle of the 6th stage leaves the chopper with a low stock of special attacks. Besides the change in the color palette and the increased difficulty, the second loop also comes with suicide bullets for every single destroyed enemy, with no point blank safe distance at all.

Credit feeders won't be able to "beat" the game right away, but it does add extra credits with repeated plays. As for the extras, I'm really fond of the little ones provided by the Dreamcast port. First of all, you're allowed to record replays. Secondly, reaching the end of the 1st loop will unlock a replay with a complete run for both loops. Yay!

So here's my high score in Arcade difficulty (5), playing with the Hokum until stage 2-1:

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Space Turtle Battleship (Mega Drive)

Vertical
Checkpoints ON

3 Difficulty levels
14 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Samsung
Published by Samsung
in 1992

In the history of military development all around the world, one of the most interesting and unique war devices ever conceived was the turtle ship - a large warship used by the Korean army to defend their waters from successive invasions attempted by Japanese forces. Today the turtle ship is a relique reserved for museums, but it was very active from the early 15th century up until the 19th century. Many different versions of the these ships existed but in general they were about 30 to 40 meters long, with the "turtle" name owing to the hull that was placed on the top of the ship. On the bow of the vessel a dragon head was mounted, and it was large enough for a cannon to fit inside. The dragon head served as a form of psychological warfare, with the aim of striking fear into the hearts of Japanese sailors.

Space Turtle Battleship puts the player in control of one of these war vessels, but instead of cruising through open sea it flies and eventually ventures into outer space. The game was only released in Korea, and is without a doubt not only one of the rarest Mega Drive games but also one of the least known shmups in the system. Since it is a localized effort, everything in the game is written in Korean, but this fortunately doesn't get in the way of what really matters, which is shooting and blowing up stuff. One of the most notable features of the game is how this "stuff" is presented. The graphic design is highly schizophrenic, going from an initial pre-historic setting to ancient villages, fireball storms over a ravine, cities patrolled by tanks, high speed chases, big battleships, outer space bases and computer circuit boards. Judging by how this design is arranged, would it seem that Samsung was aiming at a story timeline that covers several stages in the evolution of mankind? Or would the story involve some sort of time travel? Too bad my knowledge of Korean is as real as teeth in a parrot's beek...

Beware of my turtle flying power, you stinky slimy lizards!

Following an introductory sequence, the turtle battleship takes to the skies armed with two switchable weapons: a forward spread shot and a secondary weapon capable of also shooting left and right. All power-ups are released by a floating head carrier, and both weapons are powered up at the same time when the appropriate icon is obtained. Once you reach maximum power, further power-ups will upgrade the ship and change the weapons completely in two different stages: in the first upgrade, spread shot turns into a forward/backward yellow circle launcher, while side shot becomes a powerful forward thick laser; in the second and final upgrade, the circle weapon will change into wave shot, and the thick laser will turn into a blue shuriken spider-pattern. Each new form of the ship awards the player with a 1-hit shield, so that getting hit by a bullet will only downgrade the ship (and consequently the weapons) to its previous form instead of killing it. Bulky in size, the battleship is fortunately never overwhelmed by enemy bullets in an unfair way, but cheap deaths can occur from enemies coming from behind.

The bomb has a limited radius blast and works like all regular smart bombs, with a minor but interesting twist. It's possible to guide where it will explode by keeping the button pressed and releasing it where the bomb should detonate. That's especially useful during boss battles. Bombs are replenished through icons, which can also appear in the form of speed-ups, temporary shields and extra lives. Since the maximum speed doesn't make the ship too fast, it's perfectly fine to get all incoming speed-ups. That's also encouraged by the fact that all surplus speed-ups and power-ups are worth 5.000 points each, which is not bad at all for scoring. Milking some bosses is feasible by destroying their guided missiles, lasers and fireballs, and the coolest thing here is that every boss has a health counter so you know exactly how long it is taking for them to die.


Selected pieces of a complete Space Turtle Battleship run
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

In general, there isn't anything really special about the graphics in Space Turtle Battleship, and that can also be said about the music, but the main charm of the game - despite everything related to its rarity - consists exactly in how it mixes so many different graphical concepts into just one package. The overall style owes a lot to previous shooters of the era, and experienced players will definitely recognize rather explicit nods to Compile's M.U.S.H.A. or to Toaplan verts such as Twin Cobra. The last stage, for instance, is as much a reference to Darwin 4081 as it is a precursor to the shmup stage found in the late Segagaga Dreamcast hit.

Since it's not too punishing and it also gives away lots of extra lives later in the game, Space Turtle Battleship can't be classified as overly difficult. However, just as in Truxton, dying repeatedly keeps sending the player further back in the stage. There are three difficulty levels available, with unlimited continues that allow you to resume at the current checkpoint instead of starting the level all over again. Stages themselves are strangely numbered: there are officialy eight, but six of them are divided in two areas, with all areas basically sharing the same length and having unique bosses (bosses are a bit repetitive and generic, and that's probably the weakest aspect of the game). In the end, what you get is a whopping number of 14 stages to go through until you can accomplish the mission, which is mildly entertaining and worth a look if you're into shooters.

I was able to 1-life the game, but in the run I did for the video above I died once and got a higher score. Here's a frozen frame of the video for posterity (played on NORMAL):


Note: this text was cross-posted with minor changes on Sega-16.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Söldner-X - Himmelsstürmer (Playstation Network)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by SideQuest Studios
Published by Eastasiasoft in 2008


Every shmup fan who's got a modern video game console knows that the Playstation 3 is absolutely no source of new material when it comes down to retail releases. After all, as of today it has none. However, its downloadable shmup catalog is steadily moving away from the void, led by one of the first games in this era to offer full-fledged 2D HD sidescrolling shooting action: Söldner-X - Himmelsstürmer. At one point in this blog I mentioned this game was the reason why I decided to finally take the plunge into the world of downloadable software. For a while I had only sparse runs that would always end on the 2nd boss, but a couple of weeks ago I decided to finally go the whole way to save my endangered planet from the bad guys because, you know, the sequel Söldner-X 2 - Final Prototype is right out the door (it’s in fact being released on the very same day this piece of writing is being published!).

Visually, Söldner-X is one of the finest shmups out there, there's no doubt about it. Seeing this game in motion is a thing of beauty, and upon taking a glance at a single video I doubt any real shmupper would resist trying it. It takes great advantage of the HD capabilities of the PS3, boasting some jaw-dropping moments and cluttering the screen with so much stuff it's sometimes hard to focus on all possible threats to the mercenary spaceship that departs with the impossible mission to save the earth. For those who’re into it, this mission is narrated in a very cool fashion from start to finish. I couldn't care less about it, in a game that's this enticing my only interest was always to dive right in and blow things up.

One of the aspects that struck me when I started playing was the cheesiness of the game’s narrator, who yells things like “you fight like a maniac, keep it up!”. It’s awkward and funny, but the cheese factor eventually fades as you get deeper and deeper in the heat of the battle. Sound effects are great and definitely enhance the animation (explosions!), whereas the music is pure bliss, definitely one of the best soundtracks to grace the genre in a long, long time.

Evil snakes try to stop Söldner-X in a deep thick jungle scenery

The game does feel a bit complicated and cluttered at first sight. It takes more plays than usual to learn how to deal with the five main weapons. Pulse and Beam are always available from the start, while the three other weapons (Bow, Flame and Rocket) are acquired with icons and have limited ammo, which can be replenished by new icons or by the "weapon cooler" power-up (except for the rockets). This "weapon cooler" is also used to refill the Pulse and Beam weapons, since they can "overheat" and automatically provoke the switch to the next one. This means that whenever one of them is used for too long and the weapon bar is depleted, the next available weapon is automatically activated so the overheated one can cool down. All weapons are very distinct from one another, and most of the challenge in the game relies on finding out which one is better for each situation, or for the most efficient chaining strategy. And contrary to popular beginner's belief, the Beam weapon (the lightning cloud) is very, very useful in certain parts of the game.

Chaining is important not only for scoring, but also for getting new power-up items. The good thing is that the chaining technique is very simple: (1) the chain bar gets filled by destroying enemies; (2) when it gets green, switch the weapon; (3) repeat. Power-up items are released randomly by selected enemies, but items triggered by chaining can be foreseen on the left side of the chain bar. And there are so many it might take quite a bit to get used to all of them: multi shot (the basic item to increase weapon spread range), fast shot, shield (temporary), armour breaker, speed-up, shock wave (smart bomb, only one at a time), weapon cooler, weapon protection (if you have it you don't lose weapons/power-ups when you die), option (the best of them all), extra points, chain level up, enemy freeze, score multipliers, health, 1UP, speed-down and death bombs (don’t get these!). It’s an overwhelming array of items, and the only way to know them all is to play the game over and over again. Since there's no rank, all initial efforts should be directed towards not getting hit and not dying, or at least grabbing a new weapon protection item right after dying. Being stripped down to the basic ship is really not fun in later stages.

After I grasped the basics of the gameplay I was able to admire the graphics and keep my focus on the stage layout. Doing this was important not only because the graphics are beautiful, but also because it was critical for survival during the 2nd stage. That's where things start getting nasty, with lots of walls, narrow passages, exploding mines, foreground objects and screen acceleration. Enemies and scenery sort of blend into each other, creating a chaos maze that's very criticized by lazy, picky players (strangely enough, some of them being the same people who idolize stuff like Battle Garegga). To make things even more taxing, the 2nd boss was extremely frustrating during my initial runs. That beast just wouldn't die! It took me a little while to know he can only be harmed in the neck by the spikes from the ceiling, and a great further deal of observation to learn how to make those spikes fall at the right moment.

Stage 4-1 played by an expert in the maximum difficulty setting
(courtesy of YouTube user eastasiasoft - the publisher's channel!)

Scoring well in this game revolves around killing as many enemies as possible and finishing bosses fast. Stage performance is ranked from S (ultimate) to G (lousy). Everybody should pay close attention to the rockets fired by the mechas, which fly through walls and are very hard to see. Brute force is key to survival in places like the asteroid belt, so try not to miss the armour breaker, rapid shot and option items to obtain maximum firepower. For the mine field during the 4th stage, the only advice I can give is practice. Then practice again. And then practice a little bit more.

A full Söldner-X run lasts way over an hour, which is nothing less than an epic shmup undertaking. The game carries some of the expected online features, such as worldwide scoreboards and trophies/achievements, but no online co-op. What really bugged me here is the fact that in order to have access to the 5th and last stage you must collect 4 of 5 secret keys in all previous levels. These keys are always hidden, sometimes in places where it's impossible not to die getting them, so prepare to waste a few credits in any difficulty setting of your choice. Extra continues are unlocked with time, but credit feeding is totally discouraged by the punishing difficulty of later stages. Speaking of which, the only difference from a difficulty setting to the other is the amount of damage you take when hit – keep in mind you have to beat the current harder setting to unlock even harder ones. Beaten stages can be played separately for practice, while the main game can be played with a tutorial mode activated.

The only glaring flaw I see in this title is how unbalanced it feels when you decide to play strictly for score, since luck plays a huge part in how power-up items are obtained. There’s a great difference, for instance, between entering the asteroid belt with the armour breaker/rapid shot/option winning combo and facing the barrage without it. However, since Söldner-X is such a rewarding challenge, the fun factor will always be there regardless.

My 1CC high score on NORMAL is the one highlighted here:


And below is my current global ranking in my Söldner-X profile (be sure to check their webpage for hints and other great material). Future improvements, if any, might appear directly is this stylish little box.

kollision_BR’s Söldner-X profile

Friday, May 14, 2010

Rabio Lepus (Playstation 2)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
12 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Video System
Published by Hamster in 2006


Video System would become famous in the arcade scene with the Sonic Wings series, but their first game ever released was a bunny starred horizontal shooter named Rabio Lepus, also known as Rabbit Punch in the west. This game is an oddball early example of a cute'em up, and it would only get a straight port through the PS2 Oretachi Game Center series almost 20 years after its debut (the existing PC Engine version is a different game altogether). The fact that Rabio Lepus is now outdated by all standards doesn't take away the importance it had in the style of future Video System games, or the old shool challenge it is certainly able to unleash upon unknowingly naive players.

The main characters are two robotic red/green bunnies, which depart on a mission to rescue three kidnapped members of the Bunnyland royal family: the king, the princess and another playmate dressed girl. The bunnies must travel through 12 increasingly harder stages that take place on a spaceship, a floating asteroid and the enemy's planet. All levels have bosses, but every 4th stage will house only a single more powerful boss that holds one of the kidnapped hostages captive.

An avenger bunny cruises a treacherous asteroid in his quest for justice

In order to fulfill the mission, each bunny is equipped with a single pea shooter and a limited stock of homing missiles acquired from item barrels. There are no power-ups whatsoever. The bunny can also automatically punch enemies if he gets close enough to them. This attack is more powerful than the regular shot, but it can only be used safely on item barrels and slow moving enemies. Extra items released by these barrels consist of a yellow ribbon that presumably increases the power of the missiles, temporary invincibilty, carrots and money bags for extra points (item barrels are lost if you touch them). All carrots replenish the existing health bar for each life, so that means you can take a few hits before going down. On top of that, the carrot shower after every defeated boss is a guaranteed recovery aid before starting a new stage. During the first levels, this certainly gives the wrong idea that the game is easy, but soon enough the illusion gets vaporized when enemies start appearing with invincibility cloaks, firing deathly lasers and ramming into you in almost unavoidable kamikaze attacks. And the single extra life you get is only granted with 500.000 points.

Rabio Lepus has very short levels for a horizontal shooter, so all 12 stages can be completed in around 20 minutes. Game motifs are very consistent with the three main environments (spaceship, asteroid and planet), and enemy design isn't always as cute as it looks, with such things as floating heads, flaming dragons and flying mammoths to be fought along the way. I liked how colors are used here, because they sort of enhance the scrolling backgrounds and certainly help the feeling of depth you can amass from just a single parallax layer. The music doesn't have anything special but it's no disaster either, with robotic digitized voices being heard throughout the whole game.

Rescuing a bunny playmate - with continues
(courtesy of YouTube user vitoxgamesend)

There could've been a little more care in how the game was programmed, since some silly things sometimes contribute to stress the player unnecessarily. Take the hidden springs, for instance. In Rabio Lepus, the character can "walk" over surfaces after landing on them. If you touch one of these hidden springs you'll get tossed up very fast, which leaves you at the mercy of incoming enemies. It's also possible to activate this spring effect by pressing down while landed and suddenly going up, but the way this works is so flawed it's not even remotely reliable. Other tricky details are how money bags give totally random amounts of points and how enemy bullets shot towards the very right side of the screen will warp and magically appear on its left side. Yes, one can cope with all these minor setbacks, but they do get on my nerves when I score poorly or when I get hit due to a stray bullet or a hidden spring.

Upon starting a game it's possible to select an arrange version to play (lower option after you press start). It's got a different color palette, new and more enemies and plays a lot harder than the regular game. The Playstation 2 interface is the same as in other Oretachi titles I've seen so far, so R1+L1 will pause and grant access the main menu (all in Japanese) while SELECT will insert coins.

Click for the option menus translation for Rabio Lepus on the PS2

Besides all the manual/folder paperwork, the PS2 package also includes a music mini-CD (18 tracks with 23:47 of total time) and a mini-DVD with advertising for Rabio Lepus and Nekketsu Koukou Dodgeball Bu (!), some other weird Japanese ads, a gameplay sample of Rabio Lepus' six initial stages and a video for the remixed track included in the mini-CD.

My 1CC high score was achieved on the NORMAL difficulty, with the following humble outcome:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Batsugun (Saturn)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by Banpresto in 1996


There's no doubt that today's shmup scene belongs to bullet hell shooters. If you think about it, the genre is currently sustained and supported mostly by one developer alone, and that developer is Cave. Cave was one of the companies created from the ashes of the bankruptcy from Toaplan, another pivotal company that prevailed in the arcade scene of the golden era of shmups, and the connection between the two is mainly related to the inevitable question that lots of people (shmuppers or not) sooner or later come up with: where and when was bullet hell born? If you ask the most knowledgeable about it, there's a great chance they will mention Batsugun, the last shmup developed by the once great Toaplan.

Batsugun is a fast, frantic and straight-to-the-point vertical shooter that saw the light of day in 1993 and was ported to the Japanese Sega Saturn three years later. It's at the same time a testament to the characteristic style of shooters from the early 90s and a step forward in a new direction, which is the main reason why it is regarded by some as the first bullet hell in shmup history. Though this statement is open to debate, I do comply with the fact that Batsugun is the mold which would later be used as main inspiration to DonPachi, the first title in Cave's most prestigious series to date (not forgetting that Grind Stormer also had a strong influence over the style of DonPachi). As such and being obviously less famous that its successor, Batsugun comes highly recommended for everyone who's into Cave's portfolio and appreciates solid old school blasting fun, with nice crisp graphics and a pleasing soundtrack to boot.

Jeeno pilots the type A ship against 2nd boss Madzella

This game is well known for its huge, astounding weapons. Initially you won't notice that, since they are upgraded in a very original fashion. Besides collecting power-ups, the ship "evolves" every time the experience bar gets filled up by consistently destroying enemies (RPG-like my ass!). This means the more enemies you kill the faster you evolve. This evolution is signalled by an explosion, a big LEVEL UP message and a considerable change in the weapon's graphics. The ship can evolve three times and power up five times within each experience level, with all surplus power-up icons being converted into points (starting with 1.000 and peaking with 10.000 points each). When in experience level 3, further fillings of the experience bar result in extra bombs, which can be stocked up to 7.

Of all three ships to choose from my favorite is type B, whose pilot can be Beltiana (player 1) or Alteeno (player 2). This ship is the strongest and best one all around, period. The starting level for it is just a continuous straightforward lightning stream, but in the maximum level it fires an additional powerful dual round shot and a secondary homing flux that's really useful in later stages. It's mostly a concentrated weapon when compared to types A and C, which behave completely different and have a spread-style to them. From what I've noticed all ships share the same speed, but types A and C are overall weaker. However, types A and C can also be devastating when used in point-blank distance. No matter which one you choose, they're all a sight to behold when working in full power, since all of them cover a great area of the screen without ever causing any slowdown, be it playing solo or in co-op (tip: the shoulder buttons toggle the lower hud display, which impairs ship visibility if you remain in the bottom of the screen).

First 3 stages of Batsugun played on EASY difficulty with the type A ship
(courtesy of YouTube user Madroms)

Adding to the simple gameplay mechanics, an easy scoring system is also in place to boost the fun factor. Certain enemies release V-shaped golden medals, which in turn award bonus points when completing a stage. You have to be careful not to die during boss battles, because that will result in no bonus at all - only the medals collected since the last death are accounted for. In certain occasions ground pigs will be revealed, and hovering over them will grant extra points. There are other intricate ways to score higher, mainly involving bombing + boss milking, but these are extremely risky or difficult to pull off (check the Shmups Forum strategy thread if you want to know more about them). With just a single extend given with one million points, the rest of the gameplay consists of getting used to the rank progression if you don't die and the sudden difficulty ramp that starts in stage 3. I was sort of scared by how fast enemy attacks become later on, but I assure everybody that with some practice Batsugun can be properly beaten by anyone. The game is great fun to play, and after a while it's easy to notice that it does carry some of the traits that would eventually be incorporated by bullet hell shooters. It isn't as overly difficult as it seems, and I think several previous Toaplan games are much more demanding.

Included in the Saturn release is also an optional arranged soundtrack and Batsugun Special Version, the precursor to all Arrange Modes you see in today's shooters. The main differences from the regular game are: different colors, reduced initial difficulty, smaller hitbox, total of five asymmetrical loops (15 stages), suicide bullets starting in the 2nd loop, more continues, different behavior for uncovered pigs, different bombs and a 1-hit shield granted when levelling up. This lengthy mode should definitely please those who're game for a considerably harder and longer shooting challenge.

My initial aim was to beat the main game, so here's the final result I got on NORMAL:

Monday, May 3, 2010

Darius II (Playstation 2)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF

4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 2006


I've seen in a few manuals for Darius games that the upper route is the easiest one of all, with the lower route being regarded as the hardest. Well, after having my way with Darius II for the Playstation 2 I can definitely say I disagree with that, at least with this particular chapter. This is not like an Out Run title, which indeed gives the player an easier challenge if he/she sticks to the leftmost choices.

Darius II appears in the first volume of the Taito Memories II compilation (also known as Taito Memories II Joukan), which is a Japan exclusive release. When I decided to play it, I sort of envisioned an easy ride both because I had previously beaten the Saturn port and also because I decided to go through the upper route. For the uninitiated people, this game has a branching system where you must choose one out of two paths after every stage is completed, in a total of 7 levels. As in all other Darius games, your mission consists of blasting all sorts of sea/ocean creatures that infested the cosmos. This entry takes place in the Solar System, starting on the Sun and ending in Jupiter. Power-ups will help you out as you proceed, but unless you're very close to the last boss you simply cannot die, or else your game is pretty much finished.

Fighting Hyper Sting over the surface of the Sun

In order to replicate the arcade experience, on the Playstation 2 Darius II is presented in a 8:3 aspect ratio, which means it is displayed in an aggressive widescreen format. In terms of comparison, it's just like the zoomed out view from the Saturn port. Both versions are nearly identical, with only very minor differences between both games, such as some explosion sounds, the gap between two of those laser-firing drones that arrive in groups of five (nerdy note, I know) and a slightly lower resilience of all main bosses in the PS2 port (on NORMAL difficulty at least). Since every different route is a different game in itself, mastering a specific one is challenge enough for the majority of the people who aim for the 1CC. After all, this is no easy task, so don't make the mistake of underestimating the challenge provided here. I'm also assuming the PS2 port is the closest one to the arcade original.

As I attempted to follow the upper route, there came a point where I stumbled upon boss Yamato, in the K stage. As much as I try to come up with some sort of organized means to destroy his last form, I just can't do it consistently. For each time that I manage to beat him hitless I get nine frustrated attempts where he crushes me with his pink homing bullets and his gigantic shell. Whenever I'm in control of the Silver Hawk, Yamato is Proco Jr.'s nemesis in Darius II. The solution for that was a small detour to the L stage and Yamato's ally Leadain. Leadain is much more manageable, even if he hits my glowing shield maybe once or twice. The rest of my journey was dealt with smoothly, but there was a minor graphical bug that caught me off guard at first: in certain occasions the shield will flicker and disappear momentarily when one of those huge bombs explode, leaving you wondering what the hell happened to it. Since losing the shield in Darius II is much like losing the credit, you can imagine my surprise when it first happened.


Proco Jr. and Tiat Young board their Silver Hawks on Darius II for the PS2
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

All other gameplay traits remain the same. Power up main shot, bombs/missiles, laser and shield. Get extra lives through 1UPs and for every 800.000 points. Learn to deal with the slow speed of the ship and kill all enemies in a single wave to receive bonus points. This time I also had to get used with the HUD invading the top of the gameplay area. Co-op play is allowed, and both players (Proco Jr. and Tiat Young) start with the same default power level.

I wish Taito had given us the ability to choose a different wallpaper other than the one that's fixed there while you play. For all other options the game is pretty much customizable, although it's still not possible to map both shot and bomb functions to the same button. Credits are added with the L2 button, and SELECT pauses and gives access to a branching menu. The main interface of the compilation is English-friendly, but specific game options are all in Japanese.

Click for the option menus translation for Darius II on the Taito Memories II Vol. 1

On NORMAL, the 1CC high score below was achieved on route ABDGLQV. The last boss in this case is Bio Strong. See you in Darius Twin!