Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ironclad (Neo Geo)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
4 to 6 Stages
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Saurus
Published by Saurus in 1996


Initially available only for the Neo Geo CD, which made it exclusive for the platform for a while, Ironclad would later appear as a cartridge conversion for the AES format, as well as a downlodable title on the Wii Virtual Console. Also known as Chotetsu Brikin'ger (a very cool Japanese name in my opinion), the game is part of the Neo Geo batch of shooters that pay homage to the classic R-Type formula, combining both aggressive and defensive play styles into a memorization-ridden adventure. It seems deceptively easy up front, but eventually it turns into a fierce, demanding and brutal challenge for lovers of old school horizontal shooters.

Ironclad is also the first shmup I beat on my Neo Geo AES, which means I played it with a conversion cartridge. From what I could see in videos and pictures, it's identical to the CD version with the exception of the music, which takes a severe hit and doesn't sound as good. Nevertheless, even though the soundtrack lacks the CD flair it's still solid enough to warrant a decent pumping background for the several challenges you face in the game. Another novelty for me was beating my first shmup by playing solely with an arcade stick, in this case the iconic stock Neo Geo controller. I thought it would be harder to get used to it, but now I'm seriously contemplating the possibility of getting one of those fancy sticks for some of the other consoles I own.

Don't sweat too much with this bastard, he's merely an illusion

Given the nature of how it plays, Ironclad isn't a game you're naturally inclined to like straight away, at least that was my impression. Getting the hang of any of the three ships available takes a while, as well as learning how to deal with the multitude of power-ups. Moreover, the graphical style, rather unique at the time of the game's release due to the oblique orientation applied to backgrounds (a precursor to the future and more famous Progear), has a tendency of using color palettes that focus on a single tone, which results in ups and downs of great looking sections intertwined with a few muddy and uninspired landscapes. The whole burning city of the first stage is one of the letdowns - the idea is great as a starting point, but the graphics surely could've used a bit more color to lure the player into the action. Thankfully the game gets better right afterwards, picking up the pace and putting the player in increasingly harder scenarios. I'm particularly fond of the parts where you fly through shafts and tunnels.

The bulk of the gameplay demands only two buttons. Fire your guns with A, manipulate an indestructible pod/orb with B. This pod is attached and controlled like the "force" in R-Type, but it will only dock in front of the ship. Mastering the use of this pod is the key to performing well in Ironclad. When the pod is attached, the main shot changes according to the current L icon you've got (blue, green or red). Holding down the fire button will activate three levels of charge, and releasing it will toss the pod forwards according to these charge levels, inflicting a great deal of damage to whatever stands in its path. When detached, pod behavior is determined by the current R power-up (blue, green and red). It will also fire a few additional shots in synch with the ship's regular firepower. The normal shot (podless ship) is upgraded with P icons in three levels, spanning 11 possible enhancements, while the act of shooting is also accompanied by a somewhat delayed single homing missile that's able to hit ground enemies.

As a last resort in moments of despair, pressing button C causes the pod to explode in a powerful burst similar to the one that happens right as the game starts. You're invincible while it lasts, but as a consequence the pod pales and loses its power completely afterwards. Once you grab another R power-up it gets back to normal, again ready for a new bomb/burst. Note: I never use this, I prefer to have an empowered pod all the time.

Surviving is gauged by an energy bar with 4 "lives". You can only take damage by getting shot at, so it's okay to lean against scenery or enemies. When latched, the orb is able to take a few number of hits to protect you, eventually self-detaching and "resting" for a few seconds before allowing the player to summon it back (no permanent shield yay!). Energy recovery items are pretty scarce, but you do get an extra energy bit every time a boss is killed.


The mission starts, amidst fire and flames
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

Underneath the apparently straightforward look and the slightly clunky controls lies a complex gameplay structure that's not really easy to grasp, especially when you notice how to score more points by killing enemies with pod attacks. You'll make them release more medals (silver for 1.000 and golden for 3.000 points each) and even extra items - later bosses can increase the energy bar to six "lives" if you kill them with a charge shot. That's why it's important to time their deaths by looking at their health meter on the top left of the screen. Another very important hint for scoring: the pod is also able to hit and kill most enemies by contact if it's attached and charged to the max.

Ironclad is a tough game and has its share of walls (such as the 3rd boss) but on the other hand it presents itself with a wealthy deal of variety. Stage branching is implemented in a Darius-like fashion, and you rarely fight the same boss in parallel routes - it's also possible to reach the end by playing from 4 to 6 stages. The main weapon is powered up differently for all ships, which also vary considerably in speed and weight (the faster the lighter/weaker, the slower the heavier/stronger). Even though Ironclad has a knack for occasionally flooding the screen with enemies, the rather large hitbox is never an issue. Bosses often threaten you with menacing messages before unleashing the most diverse attack patterns, and some of them provide epic fights. The last boss in stage 6C is certainly one of the trickiest bastards I've ever fought in any horizontal shooter. It might be brutal, but it's fun and, as expected, quite rewarding.

The attract mode tutorial in the conversion cartridge I got appears in Spanish, but all other messages are displayed in English (North American console). Some mild slowdown can be expected, but other than that there are no other gameplay issues. Technically, the product is perfect and I definitely recommend it to those who shun the dreaded Neo Geo CD hardware but still want to play the game.

My path of choice was 1A-2A-3B-4B-5B-6C, and the difficulty was set to MVS. I used the Bristol mk. 0 ship (the middle one) for its balanced performance on all levels. My favorite power-ups were green/blue (L for shot while attached) and green (R for pod behavior). And here it is, my first and proud 1CC result in a Neo Geo shmup:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sengoku Cannon (PSP)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels (1 unlockable)
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by X-Nauts (former Psikyo)
Published by X-Nauts in 2005


Finally, the third chapter of the Sengoku Ace series, an exclusive release for the Playstation Portable! Behold, Koyori’s voluptuous cleavage is yet again in display for some more welcome fan service (of course she’s back, a Sengoku Ace shooter without her isn’t a proper Sengoku Ace shooter). Even though it can be argued if Sengoku Cannon, also known as Sengoku Ace Episode III, is able to live up to the standards of previous chapters, it is common sense among everyone who has played it that the game is a letdown. I think this is only partially true - the problem with it is that the pros are certainly outweighed by the cons.

Sengoku Cannon retains the overall feel of Sengoku Blade, the previous chapter. It’s a horizontal shooter, and some of the same characters return in order to fight a new Dracula-like villain. While apparently the same from the outside, diving into the game will instantly make some (bad) things very clear. The most important issue is the frame rate, which isn’t ideal and makes the game harder than it should be. Then there’s the background graphics, which are all rendered in 3D and for the most part look sparse, poor and unpolished. Due to the complete absence of ground enemies, the game can be seen as a horizontal version of Shikigami No Shiro. The music is the least aspect prone to criticism, but there are parts of it that feel kind of displaced (one BGM reminded me of T. Hawk’s theme in Street Fighter). In the end, it’s clear that even though the Psikyo brand is stamped all over the game it’s not easy to see the company of old in the material delivered through the X-Nauts label.

Oh, no! It's you again!

Going beyond the weaknesses, it’s important to mention that the gameplay in Sengoku Cannon does boast a new style. And guess what - it works. Gone are the charge shots of before, as well as the familiars who generated them. It’s only you flying alone in the vastness of the skies. And here there’s no stunning effect when you crash into an enemy, doing this will incur in instant death. Each character can use four types of attack: rapid shot, concentrated shot, cannon and bomb. Tapping the main fire button results in rapid shot, while holding it down results in the concentrated shot, but both are also mapped to different buttons. The concentrated shot drastically reduces the character speed so that you can move better against tight bullet patterns. Bomb is the usual panic attack, and cannon corresponds to a more powerful burst of energy with lower (manual) firing rate.

Not only is the cannon attack more powerful, but it is also the key to scoring. Killing an enemy with a cannon shot turns all its bullets into coins and extra points, but only if you haven’t hit him with a cannon before. Popcorn enemies die with just one cannon, but larger enemies must first be weakened and only then wasted with a final cannon shot so that all their bullets are turned into coins/points. If an enemy is hit by a cannon shot and doesn’t die you lose the chance to collect his bullet bonus. The good news is that the health bar on the lower right corner helps to know when the enemy is about to die, but the bad news is that this bar is shared between all enemies, so it becomes difficult to use it when there are multiple ones on screen at the same time.

Trying to properly kill the maximum amount of enemies with cannon shots is what defines the challenge during the stages themselves. I had good fun doing it. For this reason my favorite character is Mizuko the teenager, apparently a disciple of Tengai the monk. She has the fastest recovery for cannon shots, a decent compensation for being the weakest of all characters. Playing with her also comes with a cruel disadvantage: her concentrated shot is a pink beam of energy, and pink is also the color of 98% of enemy bullets. Guess what you have to deal with during boss fights? Speaking of which, gone are the huge transforming mechanical beasts of before. The only exception is the first one, all other bosses are just super-powered humans who spew more and more bullets as the game draws to an end. Mid-bosses are frequent and can be as difficult as bosses to defeat.

Other important gameplay aspects are power-ups (P increases the power of rapid/concentrated shots, B adds one bomb to the player’s stock) and extends (400.000, one million and for every million points afterwards). Bonuses for completing a stage are awarded based on cannon usage, fast boss kills and no-missing.


Koyori goes through stages 3 and 4
(courtesy of YouTube user qhoang85)

Stages in Sengoku Cannon have a fixed order. There are only five of them, but they get increasingly longer and harder, with no looping. Don’t judge the game on the first three stages alone, there’s a bit of the trademark Psikyo patterns deep into the last couple of levels. I only wish there was a better balance for the character’s speed - I can’t help but feel that when you’re using the rapid shot you’re too fast, and when you’re using the concentrated shot you’re too slow (bad frame rate!). Shifting between these two speeds during a heavy bullet shower is almost always fatal. All other characters are well balanced and stronger then Mizuko, but their successive cannon attacks aren’t nearly as efficient as hers. Tengai the monk appears possessed in the final stage, and is unlocked as a playable character by finishing the game with continues. To unlock Junis you have to beat the game without continuing (she seems to be on par with Mizuko regarding cannon shot ratio).

X-Nauts was kind enough to include a practice mode in the game. However, you can only practice the stages you reached with the characters you have already played with. Likewise, a Hard difficulty is unlocked only for the character you beat the game with. Why, I wonder? Forcing replay value with such dictatorial devices is just stupid.

If you’re able to overcome the bad frame rate and the ugly graphics, Sengoku Cannon might be an enjoyable shooter for you. I admit I liked it more than I think I would, based on what I had read about it prior to playing. I feel a bit guilty for not choosing Koyori this time around, but Mizuko was a much better scorer for me. The result below was achieved with her.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Defender of Zorgaba (Xbox Live)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nashz99
Published by Nashz99


Planet Zorgaba needs you. It's under attack and must be defended at all costs. However, if you decide to accept this mission, be afraid. Be very afraid. Be more than afraid. For Zorgaba isn't an ordinary planet, nor is Defender of Zorgaba an ordinary shmup. It was, after all, designed by a couple of dudes and a chick (I'm not making this up, it's written in the game's opening screen). Not calling it ordinary is fair because for me the word ordinary evokes "poor and basic", as in "poor experience + basic execution". There are many shmups that fall into this category, and Defender of Zorgaba isn't one of them. It's more in the lines of "sleep-inducing experience + flawed execution", a sad combo that relates well with "disaster + torture".

We shmuppers have to beware of our choices when we select games randomly for friendly competitions. Defender of Zorgaba was a short-lived XBLIG choice that was soon replaced once the participants figured out what was at stake. Sure planet Zorgaba still needed protection, but to have the game as official ground for something that's supposed to be thrilling and fun is too much of a stretch for any shmup fan, even those who have a knack for stinkers such as myself. Therefore, the game was promptly dropped and neglected by all. Nevertheless the shmupper in me was still willing to give it a minor share of attention. I had started it, I would see it to the end.

"Zorgaba needs me!", ponders the lone intergalactic hero

Defender of Zorgaba
is a bare bones vertical shooter with a ship that looks like an alien insect. The proximity of the Zorgaba planet is full of asteroids flying against a fixed background (talk about a cheap way to achieve the scrolling effect), populated with a very limited selection of enemy spacecraft. The start of the journey is pretty void, but soon the screen gets a little busier with incoming bullets and enemies. Some of them will randomly drop items to collect, including health recovery cells, shields, extra bombs, extra lives and weapon upgrades. These upgrades are applied to whatever weapon you're using, out of four selectable with the bumper buttons (L1 + R1). There's the straight shot, the spread shot, a homing shot and a twin-stick shot, for which you must also use the right analog stick to fire. The twin-stick weapon is by far the oddest design choice of the game, since it also allows you to use a guided missile by aiming it while holding the right trigger (R2). Unfortunately, using it is so cumbersome that it becomes practically useless in the heat of the battle. Damn, even the twin-stick regular shot isn't that useful at all. And for those wondering, the use of the D-pad is totally disabled.

Each weapon can be upgraded three times and has two modes of attack (concentrated and wide), which are switched by pressing the X button. The straight shot is the most powerful one, while the spread pattern is good for overall coverage. The homing weapon serves a purpose when bosses fly in the lower part of the screen. Boss fights seem to drag forever, especially the first one, due to the nature of how power-ups are acquired - sometimes you get to him quite underpowered, even if you don't die. The good news is that there are only four bosses, and they become easier as the game unfolds. The sad news is that three of the four stages have basically the same background. Make no mistake, defending Zorgaba is a long, dull and repetitive ordeal.

Dying incurs in two consequences: (1) you lose all power for the weapon you're currently using and (2) the score multiplier is reset. The rule for the multiplier is pretty simple: kill enemies and it will slowly increase, die and kiss your scoring progression a sad goodbye. Now dying in any shmup isn't good at all, but dying because the game controls like shit is even worse. When you finally come to grips with the small inertia of the ship (noticed when you stop moving), eventually you discover that approaching a side border can be fatal because in 9 out of 10 times the ship will mysteriously get stuck, turning you into an intergalactic sitting duck! This is inadmissible, and during boss fights the situation is even more critical.

Hideous gameplay is hideous
(courtesy of YouTube user GameplaysELV)

Speaking of bad programming, a friend reported once that the 4th boss left the screen during the combat to not return anymore. "Forever alone in Zorgaba's defense", that's what it's all about. Not programming related, another feature that can be annoying at first is the shield, which increases the hitbox massively. There was a time when it became invisible on me - I noticed I had it by the noise I heard when I got hit without losing any health. The music can be defined as weird, with a few grating parts that match the game's atmosphere but ultimately get mixed up in a bag of uninspired crap.

With all its flaws and atrocious design traits, I still think I should congratulate the developers for coming up with such a unique name for this game. "Zorgaba" sounds very funny when pronounced in my language (Portuguese), and I can't help but feel all warm and fuzzy inside when people ask me what I played recently in my 360. "Zorgaba, dude, I was playing Zorgaba". And they all go "...but WTF is Zorgaba?" to which I grin as if it was the most precious guilty pleasure ever. Of course this is not the case. Defender of Zorgaba is a shmup and I love it for what it is, but I'd be crazy if I didn't give it its just desserts.

My 1CC high score and maximum multiplier can be seen below (no deaths):

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sengoku Blade (Playstation 2)

Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo in 1996
Published by Taito in 2004


It feels really odd to admit this, but I was missing Psikyo. I still remember when I thought this would be an impossible idea. I've been playing the most diverse kinds of shmups, so I guess my missing their games tells a lot about how unique they are, in every possible sense of the word. As much as I was reluctant to comply, Psikyo does play a big part in shmup history. Very few companies developed titles with such a characteristic challenge, one that practically defines the bulk of their releases: a combination of in-your-face fast bullet patterns and undeniably cruel rank.

Getting back to Psikyo can be a little of a shock, but in this case it wasn't an all new adventure. Sengoku Blade, the second chapter in the Sengoku Ace series (it's known after all as Sengoku Ace Episode II), is also available on the Sega Saturn, and that one was already looped almost two years ago. On the Playstation 2, it appears in the Japanese combo disc that puts it together with first chapter Sengoku Ace or in a stand-alone European release renamed as Tengai. This is the name of one of the characters - the protagonist, maybe?

My appreciation and respect for Sengoku Blade increased this time around. The sprite work is great, the art design leaves nothing to be desired and the difficulty is quintessential Psikyo, whatever that means - everybody needs to try it out to know how it feels. I did learn how to cope with the rank in the 5th stage, which is something that gave me a hard time when I played the Saturn version. Or maybe I'm just a more experienced player than I was before.

Sorry, babe, you can't beat Koyori as my fave Sengoku Blade chick

My aim when replaying Sengoku Blade on the PS2 was to best my Saturn high score. Initially, I tried not to use big-boobed Koyori/Miko, which I think suits me best, but I failed miserably. Shoumaru, the young ninja, has a weak shot and takes too long to deploy his charge attack. Tengai the monk and Hagane the robot have no reach on their charge shots. And the only good thing about Junis is her charge shot.

I mention charge shots a lot because I believe that playing Sengoku Blade seriously requires mastering the character's charge attack, beyond what you need to grasp with the good old method of regular shot + bombing. Doing well also relies heavily in memorization and detailed knowledge of enemy movement and bullet patterns (more than the usual share), especially when you beat the first set of three randomly selected stages and start the last four. Going through my old strategies with Koyori wasn't as easy as I had envisioned, but I did get to use a brand new gameplay technique, for me at least: while with all other characters the charge shot must be deployed one at a time, with Koyori you can spam the screen with it. This means that whenever the game lets you breathe, such as before boss fights or showdowns with stronger enemies, fire away as many of those slow bubble creatures as you want. It's a helpful way to easily get rid of a good deal of threats.

I still struggle a lot with the medal collecting, since the urge to time them all for maximum points (2.000 when taken in full size) often leads to hazardous conditions and horrible death. Trying to score higher also led me to the temptation of milking popcorn enemies while fighting bosses and large enemies, but I found out this must be done with caution. If they time out and flee/explode you get no score from them.


Opening and attract mode for the European release, Tengai
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

All facts considered, it's a shame Psikyo never ventured again into a full-fledged horizontal shooter in the same vein of Sengoku Blade (Sol Divide doesn't count). The company decided to concentrate its efforts into vertical fare such as the Strikers 1945 series. Much later a new episode in the Sengoku Ace series would arise for the PSP, but the result was nothing like it should've been since the real Psikyo was pretty much dead and buried by then.

If you ever managed to get there, then you know that Sengoku Blade's second loop is brutal. I tried to survive as much as I could but still wasn't able to proceed to stage 2-2. For the first loop, this time I chose the upper path in the last couple of stages, as opposed to the lower choice I made a couple of years before. And here's my new high score (difficulty 5 - NORMAL):

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Score Rush (Xbox Live)

Arena
Checkpoints OFF
6 Difficulty levels (5 unlockable)
1 Stage
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Xona Games
Published by Xona Games in 2010


In the beginning of February my good buddy Jorge (aka coffeejoerx) and I decided to select an XBLIG shmup for a friendly competition during the whole month, and our choice fell on Xona Game's Score Rush, the prequel to one of the most anticipated titles by all shmuppers these last months, Duality ZF. Duality ZF has created a considerably warm buzz within the community, but since its release has been barred by whatever problems the developers are having with its publishing, Score Rush is here to quench the thirst created by the sequel. And I must tell you people, it suceeds in every possible level.

Score Rush is definitely one of the best shmups you can get for 80 Microsoft points (~1 US dollars), which is the most common figure you find in the XBLIG service as of now. I wasn't impressed at all by Xona Game's earlier effort Decimation X, so when Score Rush came out I didn't feel enthusiastic about what seemed to be another Geometry Wars clone. However, after talking to some people and checking a few videos here and there I thought it would be nice to try it. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised by this sparking, color-heavy, intense and fluid twin-stick shooter that's nothing like Geometry Wars. It's got a soul of its own, lots of charm and an incredible potential to provide genuine shmup "rush", as its name clearly implies.

Color mayhem ahoy!

For a title that's so simple, the depth of the gameplay is nothing short of astounding. There's absolutely no bullshit in Score Rush. It's just you and your electrically charged shot, 100% benign power-ups and non-stop action from start to finish. It's so non-stop that you don't even see any indication of progress (i.e. stages) besides a report for the time you take to beat each boss, shown in detail when you get to the GAME OVER screen. These bosses are named by alphabet letters from I (first) to A (last) and blend seamlessly with the mayhem of bullets and colors amidst a plethora of abstract enemy spaceships, a design decision that seems odd but ultimately works really well within the graphical style of the game.

Following the concepts of the bullet hell school, the ship in Score Rush is just a few pixels wide. Weaving through countless streams and patterns while having a multidirectional shooting capability seems to be the natural way to go for twin-stick shooters, and is definitely my favorite take on this particular control scheme. The smooth HD overload of colors, bullets, shards and electrical sparks provides the perfect environment for a quick burst, but this intensity comes with a minor downside, especially if you, like me, enjoy playing very close to the TV screen: the game becomes very taxing to the eyes after about half an hour of playtime. As addictive as it is, I must warn people who have or are prone to have eyesight disorders to approach Score Rush with caution.

There are two types of power-ups in the game: one of them increases shot power, and the other adds trailing options. When maxed out, every extra power-up causes a localized explosion that nullifies nearby bullets. Every credit comes with three smart bombs that must be used wisely. Dying strips you off some power, just so you have to collect a few more power-ups to regain your previous destructive status. If you manage to survive long enough, at some point you will come accross a single 1UP to help you achieve the final goal. While the overall challenge level feels just fine, the scoring system is what makes Score Rush special. It uses a very simple risk-and-reward technique, in that higher score bonuses come with faster kills, be it for popcorn enemies or huge bosses. That's why memorizing patterns and places of enemy spawning is the key to a better performance. The closest you are to the enemy the more damage you cause, which leads to faster kill times.

Score Rush's official launch trailer
(courtesy of developer and YouTube user XonaGames)

Abusing point blank for faster kills will eventually lead the player to take advantage of screen shakes. When a mid-sized or large enemy dies, the shaking effect gives you a brief window of invincibility, which is invaluable to overcome bullet barrages and escape tight situations. This becomes more and more important as you unlock harder difficulty modes and face more dense bullet curtains. There's only one difficulty available upon start (Normal), and to access further difficulties you must complete the game on the hardest current one. Above Normal we have Hard, Expert, Crazy, Insane and Godlike. Enemies have higher base values in higher difficulties, providing for higher scores. Unfortunately, the high score table doesn't do any distinction between the difficulties - this is the only criticism Score Rush truly deserves.

Complementing the high definition graphics, the music in Score Rush is great and puts the player right in the mood for instant blasting. The game caters to the sensibilities of hardcore players and, for starters, represents an excellent introduction to the bullet hell style of gameplay. It's possible to play cooperatively with up to three friends, just bear in mind that score/lives are shared between everybody.

I was able to beat both Normal and Hard modes, unlocking Expert. It's important to mention that each difficulty has its own limits and rules (the highest the difficulty the highest the score). My best 1CC score on Hard was 276.091.912 points. Since Jorge and I concentrated on the Normal difficulty, my highest score in this mode was the following: