Thursday, December 23, 2010

Papillon Gals (NES)

Vertical
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Joy Van (Sachen)
Published by Kinema Music in 1989


Oh my, the pleasure (?) of digging into obscure stuff... It's always a risky endeavor, for you never know where you'll be getting at. The world of unlicensed games isn't what we could call a superb exploration field, but once you start checking out stuff you can definitely expect to find in the least cool subjects for conversation. Sachen, one of the most prolific unlicensed developers for the NES, is often bashed and trashed by critics and gamers alike, and with good reason. After savoring the wonders of - aham - Metal Fighter and reading a bit about the company's history, I figured I could try another shmup made by them just to take advantage of this brief thrill of mine. And the chosen one was Papillon Gals, also known as Galactic Crusader in the US.

Now let me get one thing straight up front: Papillon Gals is a hentai themed shmup. As far as I know, it's the only one of its kind on the Famicom. I say Famicom because, apparently, all hentai references were removed for the USA release of Galactic Crusader, which makes the Japanese version the obvious choice both for collectors and shmuppers. Papillon is a French word that means "butterfly", which is the shape of the ship/character and makes the western title stupid because the in-game sprites were not changed and still resemble a space butterfly (Mothra, perhaps?). The title screen of the Japanese cartridge only displays Pappilon, and this makes me think that the "Gals" might have been added to the box art after someone in the company had the clever idea of inserting the hentai pictures in the game, sadly with no one around to revise the title screen.

Godzilla prepare! I'm coming for you, you slimy ├╝berdeveloped lizard!

Papillon Gals starts out against a pretty basic background, and you'd better get used to it. All levels are just the same star-filled black void punctuated by little planets or meteors of various colors. Additionally, you'd better get used to the tunes on the first stage because even though the music fits the action well they just won't change for all subsequent levels. The good news is that these observations are the only criticism I have to say about the game. Papillon Gals is surprisingly fresh on the gameplay front, drawing heavy inspiration from two classics of the genre in order to deliver a fairly decent challenge rush.

Initially equipped with a single pea shot, the huge butterfly must destroy waves and waves of all sorts of enemies, and here comes its first influence: Galaga. Most but not all of the threats will arrive in several different formations, presenting danger both by shooting and by moving erratically on screen, and the influence goes even further with the same sound effects from Galaga's beeps and shots. The butterfly will shrink as it gets hit, reaching minimum size after two hits and dying on the 3rd hit. However, it will grow again upon grabbing the appropriate regeneration icon. Every time the butterfly is hit it also loses one power-up level for whatever weapon it's using. These weapons are changed by taking colored capsules: red (laser), blue (straight shot), yellow (revolving shot) and orange (wave). All of them have three levels of power, accessed by sticking to the same capsule. Taking a different capsule will activate the new weapon at its initial power level.

The second big influence of the game comes with the docking pod. And, of course, I'm speaking of R-Type. Sometimes a slow enemy will arrive - kill it and avoid the spiral bullets to safely collect the pod. This is when the other button in the controller becomes functional, as it can be used to summon the pod and detach it both up and down. This pod shoots an additional stream of bullets and also protects against incoming enemy fire, disappearing as soon as you get hit. It also has a second power level, obtained when you get the pod icon twice. A weapon winning combo for me was having a level 2 pod with level 3 lasers with a mid-sized ship (the big butterfly is too large to avoid the enemy onslaught).

A butterfly fights for peace in the galaxy!
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

Who would have guessed that an unlicensed shooter could have such rich gameplay? On top of that, every stage has a unique set of enemies. Collision detection is very well implemented, slowdown only sets in during a few seconds in heavier parts and I didn't notice any flicker. The first couple of bosses are easy but they offer quite a fight later in the game - the overall difficulty isn't very high but it's not a piece of cake either (take advantage of the occasional 1UPs and the blinking invincibility capsule, it lasts almost 15 seconds!). You don't see your score while playing, but every killed enemy is converted into points after the boss is beaten.

And what of the hentai? You only start seeing it after you beat the 3rd stage. One lady will show up alone in a sexy position for half a minute (unskippable) for each defeated boss. And that's it. I just wish I could understand what they say in those word balloons... If you're able to accept the poor background graphics and the lack of music variety, Papillon Gals is definitely worth checking out. It's the best unlicensed shmup I have played so far, and I've played a few already. It's better than a handful of regularly licensed NES games and gameplaywise it ranks really well amongst the ones in the high tier.

And here's my 1CC high score!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Metal Fighter (NES)

Horizontal
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Joy Van (Sachen)
Published by Color Dreams in 1989


What are the impressions you get when you hear about a game called Metal Fighter? With such a name I thought it would probably be a badass crazy robot shooter, with beeps and clanks all over the place as you fight successive hordes of mechanical foes. The truth couldn't be more far from that, as Metal Fighter on the NES is nothing like it. According to the story in the manual, you are MCS-920 aka Metal Fighter, and as you return home from three centuries of intergalactic missions you get caught by surprise with an alien infested planet. Okay, now I get it! I'm actually a badass robot who needs to do some house cleaning even though my MF rank qualifies me for much grander and more honorable intergalactic missions.

Well, I guess that's a valid way to see it, right?

Metal Fighter is an unlicensed game, one of many that were made for the NES by infamous rogue developer Sachen. Surprisingly, the expected low quality aspects of such a product don't show up right away, since there's nothing really wrong or terribly off with the game. It is as generic as they come for NES standards, lacking any flair that could make it stand out (except for its cool name) and catering for masochistic audiences or bored people with no expectations whatsoever. I guess I'm a little bit of both in this case.


A laser-shooting metal bird cruises the urban landscape

The first thing I noticed when I started playing Metal Fighter is the design of the main character. It's supposed to be a robot, but in my eyes it just looks like a bird. A big-headed humming bird to be exact. I guess the idea of playing a precursor do Sega 32X's Kolibri is what ultimately attracted me to the game. And this 8-bit bird is so primitive that it must first learn to fly before it can actually do something! The very first item released by destroying a weapon capsule is the letter F, which allows the character to take flight and relinquish the jump 'n shoot abilities he starts with. Therefore, when flying the second button in the controller (used to jump) is rendered useless.

In order to deal with all incoming threats, our bird is able to shoot left and right. He can charge the shot for a supposedly more powerful blast, but this attack has almost no advantage at all over regular firing. Further weapon capsules will release different kinds of items. S is for speed-up, while all others will send the hero to a separate room so that he can fight a clone robot for the rights of taking his weapon (much like the special robot fights of Atomic Robo-Kid). These weapons are: M for a short-range 360┬║ multi-shot, D for a set of double straight lasers, L for a set of three
bouncing lasers and U for an auxiliary orb that's placed above the character and fires an additional regular shot. Getting weapons M, D and L overrides the previously used weapon, and each duel against a clone restores one dot in the health meter. Getting the same weapons again won't result in any upgrade at all.

The health meter starts with three dots, which means you can take 3 hits before dying. There are 3 lives upon game start, and score-based extends are given for every 30.000 points. All of these amenities make for an easy challenge once you have figured out enemy patterns and how to kill bosses quickly. Due to the character's ability to shoot both ways, some of them can be slaughtered from behind, but it's important to notice that
being touched by a boss means instant death. Another minor advantage on the player's side is that the upgrade orb placed above the character absorbs enemy bullets. And even though the game has checkpoints, they don't seem to send you any further back in the stage.

Oh my, why is it so damn hard to get that F icon so that I can fly?
(courtesy of YouTube user mistyfreak)

While noticeably poor overall, Metal Fighter can be mildly fun because it gets kind of intense in later levels, without being unfair. Graphics lack detail and enemy design is totally
uninspired (with the exception of some bosses), but the existing parallax adds a fine dynamic characteristic to all levels, which take place in several different environments. This variety, however, isn't enough to avoid the game being repetitive. You have to endure the same eastern-flavored song for all stages, but thankfully it's not grating to the ears.

In my runs I came accross some bugs, such as all of a sudden not being able to fire the regular shot, or dying without being hit by nothing during a boss battle. Behold,
at last some real traits of unlicensed material! Each of these bugs happened only once, so they weren't that critical. What's more disturbing for me are the total lack of score buffering and the fact that your health/score isn't displayed when you're fighting a clone or some of the bosses. Furthermore, destroying bosses doesn't give you any points, so the maximum possible score is the one you get prior to battling the 7th and last boss.

And that's the exact moment shown in the picture!


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mars Matrix (Dreamcast)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Takumi
Published by Capcom in 2001


I always hear from naive onlookers that bullet hell shooters are "all the same". Besides, you always get comments such as "impossible", "too hard to be fun" and "stupid". There are two sad misconceptions here, in that (1) they are not the same at all and (2) they are definitely not impossible. The point I'm trying to make is that underneath all the fear Mars Matrix instills in eager and not-so-eager shmupping hearts lies an engaging and addictive shooter, one whose scoring system is an excellent example of how to infuse the genre with a tough yet flexible gameplay concept. It's a natural evolution of the ideas originally created in Giga Wing, and in my opinion it stands as a golden staple of bullet hell design.

The Dreamcast port of the arcade game is a perfect conversion that seems to have improved the original material by slightly rebalancing scoring details, excluding the possibility of counterstop and adding a control functionality that takes away the pressure of doing everything with just one button. Theoretically the game can still be played by using a single button, but on the Dreamcast the piercing cannon (a powerful burst of energy) is mapped to a different button with built-in autofire. To use it in the original control scheme you have to press the fire button once and wait a little bit to do it again, whereas tapping it will result in the regular main shot. Furthermore, holding down the button will activate the mosquito function, a vortex that makes you invincible and absorbs all incoming bullets. While active, the mosquito vortex empties an energy gauge and ends up in two different ways: either you hold the button until this gauge is depleted, triggering a GHB explosion (Gravity Hole Bomb), or you release the button before the gauge is depleted and cast away all absorbed bullets. The longer you hold down the button the longer it takes for the mosquito attack to be available again.

All attack basics are covered in the previous paragraph, but the best way to use them is a whole different story. It's okay to play the game just shooting, piercing and absorbing bullets, never mind all those shiny golden cubes that fall from defeated enemies and reflected bullets that hit them. However, these same cubes are the core aspect of scoring and, to a certain degree, survival.

Mosquito 1 absorbing bullets for great justice

Going beyond the basic mechanics of shooting and dodging, focusing on golden cubes opens up a whole new world for Mars Matrix players. Each collected cube gives you a chaining window - shown by a dynamic bar below your score counter - and if you collect another cube before this window expires its value is added to the chain, which in turn keeps going with a new time window. All values from chained cubes add to the EXP counter, which is then used as a permanent multiplier to be applied over everything you're able to kill. Cubes come is several sizes and grant from 1 EXP to 50 EXP points, which equals 1 second to 8 seconds of chain time. Chain value is always displayed in tiny numbers for each cube you collect, and the challenge during most of the game is to keep the chain going to reach higher EXP values faster. After all, a valuable extra life is awarded with 100.000 EXP and ship/shot upgrades are only given upon reaching certain EXP values (up to level 8 with 1,6M EXP). Note: the only other extend is achieved by killing the mid-boss in the 4th stage.

EXP is so important in this game that after I while I just measured my performance by it instead of the actual score, which by all means is a consequence of the EXP value. There came a point, for instance, where I wouldn't be satisfied with less than 400.000 EXP by the end of the 1st stage. Mars Matrix is also special as a shooter because you don't die by colliding with enemies. You can fly over everything, from rocks to bosses, and you only die when hit by a bullet. Both available ships behave slightly different from each other: Mosquito 1 (orange) is slower but has a spread shot pattern, and Mosquito 2 (blue) is faster but comes with a straight shot. M1 is definitely better for survival, while M2 offers more possibilities for scoring as a compensation for being the hardest ship to control. Due to their different speeds, each one demands slightly different strategies for chaining.

What I love most about this game, especially in comparison with other danmaku titles, is how flexible the gameplay and the scoring system are. There's no defined route, every run can be made different from the other, there's always room for improvement. If I screw up during a chain it's not impossible to recover, even at the expense of losing some cubes. However, if I deviate just a little bit in a game like DoDonPachi I immediately lose my whole chain... The feeling of standing up against the odds in Mars Matrix is also amazingly conveyed by the overwhelming bullet count. In the last stage it's like all enemies are gateways to a pressurized parallel dimension, spewing bullets like uncontrollable fountains as if the universe was about to consume itself in chaos because the gates of hell were opened. It's a thing of beauty and it's mesmerizing just to watch someone playing it, let alone play it yourself.

Expert play: how to not break the cube chain during the whole 1st stage (MAME)
(courtesy of YouTube user apatia77)

There isn't really any rank in the game, it just gets increasingly brutal regardless of how many lives you lose. On the other hand, dying won't power down the ship at all, it will merely break any ongoing chain. The game does respond to the player's actions in a dynamic way, meaning when some enemies are killed very fast new ones will take their places. This can lead to lots of extra opportunities for chaining, including some precious cube fountains to considerably boost the EXP counter. Every stage has a unique feel to it, as well as secrets for scoring better. Lots of practice are needed in order to maximize the results from memorization, strategy and those split-second decisions required for higher chains and scores. As of the time of this writing I can get full chains in stages 1 and 5 and do some decent chaining in stages 2 and 4, but I totally suck in stage 3. Chaining in stage 6? Forget it!

My preferred method of playing the game on the Dreamcast is to use only two buttons: the auto-piercing cannon (R) and the normal shot (A). I don't need autofire for the normal shot (X) because when I need it I just tap A - most of the time A is just used to activate the mosquito vortex anyway. Besides, A overruns R, which overruns X, thus making X hard to use and ultimately useless.

Even though the graphics in Mars Matrix aren't what could be considered top notch, stage layouts are really diverse and provide the perfect arena for an outstanding shooting experience. Seeing those beautiful bullet patterns amidst the falling plethora of cubes is what pumps up the graphical qualities of the game, which almost never slows down. When I first started playing I wasn't really fond of the offbeat techno soundtrack, but as expected when you spend so much time with a game I grew to like it. The Dreamcast port is often praised for the inclusion of a great animated intro and a neat package of "extras". All of them have to be purchased, based on the amount of points you have scored. There are extra lives, more credits (eventually free play), extra modes, score attack for all levels (great for practice), sample expert gameplay for all levels (watch & learn!), art galleries and a handful of special tweaks to alter practically all gameplay mechanics.

My new 1CC high score was achieved with Mosquito 2 in full defaults (diff. 4). Such an epic run for me: 1.411.529.390.060 points, 2.854.230 EXP. It's an improvement of approximately 83% over my previous 1CC high score with Mosquito 1.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Panorama Cotton (Mega Drive)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Success
Published by Sunsoft in 1994


Panorama Cotton has several distinctions within the Cotton series of games. It's exclusive to the Mega Drive, it's one of the rarest titles for the console and unlike most chapters it eschews the horizontal scrolling and makes that cute little witch fly into the screen in an on-rails adventure, a concept that would be later revisited in Rainbow Cotton for the Dreamcast. Due to its rarity, Panorama Cotton is often hailed as one of the holy grails for Mega Drive collectors (especially if the teacup is included in the package), and is deemed by some as one of the most impressive technical achievements on Sega's 16-bit platform. In the past, whenever I thought about this I couldn't help but wonder if the game actually lived up to its hype.

A few days ago a had another go at the game, in order to relax a bit from the evil clutches of Master of Weapon and as a bridge between the first chapters and the subsequent sequels released for the Sega Saturn. I was also willing to top my previous 1CC high score, and I was able to get roughly a 10% improvement on it.

The greatest asset in Panorama Cotton is that it transports all gameplay aspects from the previous horizontal titles in the series to a frenetic, fast paced rail shooter scheme. Nothing is lost or neglected. Everything is there, from colored crystals and magic spells to the fairy sidekick that can be tossed forwards by holding the fire button. And let's not forget about the teatime shower bonus!

How did I end up on the outside?

With all things in place and having played it to the fullest, I feel obliged to say that Panorama Cotton is a bit overrated. I firmly believe that most of the praise the game gets, as far as technical excellence goes, is derived from people playing and being amazed by the scaling in the first stage alone. You see, as Cotton the witch approaches the ground and a rainbow-like river/road scrolls smoothly from inside the screen it's hard not to be impressed by the effect. The problem is that this is the coolest part of the game, and it is never topped or equaled for the rest of the following five stages. Sure they remain colorful, varied and filled with all kinds of creatures and obstacles, but the overall scaling effect isn't much better than what you get in other rail shooters in the system. One example is that I prefer the scaling results in Burning Force, even though that game doesn't even come close to Panorama Cotton in charm value.

So what we all have here is another cute adventure with the red-haired witch who's obsessed with those candies called Willows. It should please both Cotton fans and casual gamers/shmuppers alike, provided they don't expect the out-of-this-world experience many people make it out to be. Just like in previous Cotton games, there are lots of cut scenes with what seems to be very goofy Japanese dialogue. The music remains faithful to its roots, with upbeat compositions and at least a couple of stand-out tunes.

Shooting is pretty basic with semi-autofire enabled, in that pressing and holding the button will fire a short continuous bullet burst. If the button is held longer Silk the fairy is summoned and tossed forwards as you release it (this is a pretty useless attack by the way). The basic shot gets stronger with time and as long as you don't get hit, but it does power up faster if you get yellow crystals. All other crystal colors provide magic spells and are piled up in a 6-slot LIFO stack: blue activates a series of rotating orbs, red creates a homing dragon and green replaces the main shot with a series of missiles (avoid!). And here comes one of the major gripes of the gameplay... Crystals approach the character automatically if you stay put, but if you shoot them they bounce back and change colors - therefore, in order to get a crystal you have to stop shooting and stop moving, which is counterproductive both for survival and scoring (it's possible to get them while moving, though it isn't easy). Furthermore, lots of crystals on screen get really troublesome in busy sections because they stand in the way and block you from hitting enemies.


Opening, dialogue and 1st stage
(courtesy of YouTube user jinjinnim)

New to the gameplay is the selection of three scrolling speeds in the Z axis with the A button - you can't really move around any faster. Higher speeds can lead to a better time bonus at the end of the stage, but make dodging a bit harder. They're only mandatory as you chase the final boss in its last form, otherwise I recommend going slow all the time. As usual, you can score higher if you dodge all the teacups in the teatime bonus part, but here this is a lot more difficult to pull off due to the scaling effect not being really acurate. Strangely enough, teacups fall normally from the top during the last teatime shower... Why couldn't they have done this for all stages?

Panorama Cotton comes with a perfect length, with all five stages being comprised of various distinct sections. The game is on the easy side because there are initially 6 energy cells, and a new one is gained for every 50.000 points. Fun factor is enriched by nice touches such as direction changes that make you fly sideways/diagonally or a few parts where you're offered the choice to fly through alternate paths, complete with different graphics and enemies. Some transitions between different settings are awesome - I love the descent between the clouds in the last stage. Upon beating the game you unlock Silk as a playable character in both the main game and the score attack mode, it's just a shame that she's gone as soon as you power off the console!

And here's my 1CC high score on NORMAL:

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Zanac (NES)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
12 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Published by FCI in 1986


In shmup history, Compile stands as a company that’s both ditched by some and missed by others. Almost all of their shmups were extremely faithful to a very specific design concept, one that involves fast paced action and a plethora of weapons, but also very long stages/games and a presumed lack of challenge. Fan conflicts aside, I do enjoy variety in my shmups and I think Compile’s catalog is very much capable of standing on its own, even though I haven’t played it much. In order to fill this gap in my shmup education I finally decided to start my Compile journey by playing Zanac, for all purposes their first shmup released for a mainstream video game console.

Zanac was originally a MSX game, which was then reworked and tweaked for the NES. It established the whole feel most of Compile’s future shmups would have, but it is also a landmark for the NES itself due to the boldness of its programming: the game generates enemies based on
which weapons you're using and how well you perform. This isn't quite like common rank, where the game just gets progressively harder as it unfolds. In Zanac enemies respond instantaneously to the player's actions - aggression level can reach overwhelming heights if you decide to take, for instance, special weapon 2. Most amazing is the fact that everything is so well done that there's practically no slowdown, in an excellent showcase of how to successfully design a shooter in such an early, theoretically limited platform.


Is that cheese? Am I flying over the moon?

It will be hard to remember any of the graphical aspects in this game for a number of reasons. Even if the length of stages varies throughout, this is a long experience that can get tiresome depending on how it's faced. Graphics in general aren't elaborated, it's pretty much an endless series of open space landscapes with no obstacles and wide variations in color. However, they always scroll very fast, which adds to the feeling of intensity primarily provided by the AI. The music is much better represented though, with catchy tunes that kept my blood pumping for the action most of the time. Some of them are borderline epic!

So what makes this one of the best and most impressive NES shooters out there? Gameplay! Weapons! Intensity! Fair challenge! Zanac's ship can fire two kinds of weapons. The basic shot is upgraded by taking the so-called power chips from boxes that appear after a certain number of enemies is killed. The catch is that to achieve maximum power on the basic shot you have to hold on to the same special weapon. Changing it to any of the other seven special weapons resets the power chip counter to a lower level. Special weapons are numbered from 0 (default) to 7, and appear after destroying ground bunkers or special carriers that arrive from the top and hover on screen for a little while before disappearing. To increase their power you just have to keep getting the same number, and when you switch to a new weapon everything's back to the default level. Playing with all of them is mandatory to check which one suits best your style or serves a particular stage better - my favorites were type 7 (forward shot that bends slightly to the sides as you move), type 5 (back-and-forth energy ball that evolves into a mean piercing laser) and type 0 (yes, the default weapon is actually pretty decent). With the exception of type 0, all of them have limited/timed ammo.

As a rule of thumb, the more defensive the special weapon is the more aggressive the game gets. Special weapon 2 is hardly an option if you want to keep things safe and avoid death by sheer outnumbering. As if the game didn't have enough substance already, it also tosses in a respectable set of details and tricks that make a huge difference if you want to go the whole way and clear Zanac on one credit. These include stage warping, smart bombing, fairy uncovering (no, not like Raiden!), split-second invincibility windows and special enemies that allow for ways to power up faster. Figuring these out on your own could take ages, so my advice is that you head over to the great Strategywiki page on the game and read at least the sections about weapons and the walkthrough for the 1st stage. The hints displayed in these specific pages are invaluable and DO make a difference.

Expert play of Zanac's stage 10
(courtesy of YouTube user Warblefly41)

I feel that Zanac is one of those shmups that have a sharp gameplay turning point. If the player's competent enough to survive the first couple of stages and power up wisely, the initially steep challenge becomes perfectly manageable. It still takes a lot of effort in getting familiar with enemy attack patterns and better ways to deal with mid-bosses and boss fortresses (destroy the round turrets first!), but in the end practice and persistence are rewarded with one of the best shooting experiences it's possible to be had on the NES. Want more motivation? How about a very generous extend scheme? A first extend comes with 20.000 points, a second one with 80.000 points and then an extra life for every 80.000 points! Do you picture yourself having 40 or 50 ships in stock? Well, in Zanac you can!It's very reasonable to say that Zanac stands as as a true highlight of the 8-bit shmup era. In a nutshell, it's difficult without being unfair, you hardly notice any flicker, there's no slowdown of any kind, scrolling is smooth and hit detection is flawless.

Once the game is beaten it halts in the following screen until you press START. There's my humble 1CC high score!