Thursday, June 30, 2011

Salamander (NES)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1987

Proud offshoot of the Gradius series, it was natural for Salamander to find its way home to the Nintendo Famicom soon after its release. While not as faithful a port as the first Gradius, the game does justice to the original material, albeit changing it completely in lots of ways. Console fans and Salamander admirers owe themselves a look for these changes alone, just don't expect the same kind of challenge the arcade game had.

One natural doubt about this game is its relation to the North American release of Life Force. "What were the differences?", I wondered before picking this up for another monthly competition. Not so many, at least not in the same level as the arcade versions. Both games use the power-up scheme from Gradius, but the weapon array in Salamander is better because it shows the full name for the power-ups in each cell. In Life Force you're offered tiny blue bars and a side display of the currently lit power-up. Salamander allows you to get three options, Life Force only lets you activate two. Lastly, Salamander has multiple endings depending on how many continues you use to complete the game, whereas Life Force has only one. I'll be describing any more differences I find when I play Life Force.

Vic Viper faces the meteor shower on the 2nd stage

One of the features that's part of Salamander's charm is the fact that the game alternates horizontal with vertical scrolling. Playing it naturally felt like a novelty, but the biggest asset at the time of its release was the possibility to do it with a friend, something quite rare for an 8-bit shooter. Since the game ditches the instant power-up system of the original in favor of the Gradius-style weapon array, gameplay basics are a no-brainer for fans of the series: pick up capsules left by completely destroying enemy waves or orange enemies to light up the cells in the weapon array. Activate the desired power-up and see Vic Viper (or Lord British, the second player) improve its speed, missile, ripple, laser, option and force/shield capabilities. Missile, ripple and laser can be powered up once more after they're activated and, as I mentioned above, you can have up to three options trailing you around. A special addition in this version is the occurrence of hidden 1UPs that appear as blinking power-up capsules - I found two of them in the first stage alone. This makes it quite common to stock more than a dozen lives, since you win extends with 10.000 points and for every 30.000 points afterwards.

The most representative changes in relation to the arcade game include: fourth stage is now stage 2, with a boss that merges both original bosses in one; stages four and five are completely new, and come with more organic motifs, a high speed section, egyptian aesthetics and brand new bosses (a skull and a flying sphinx head). I had the feeling that the game is longer, mainly due to the new stages added, and that stage 3 is harder in this version (those fireballs and little phoenixes are a pain in the ass). Bullet count is very low and practically non-existent in the first loop, so most of the opposition comes from enemies themselves and the environment. The game gets quite claustrophobic in the new 5th stage (horizontal), as opposed to the overall style you have in the rest of the journey.

Technically, there are times when the NES/Famicom isn't capable to handle everything that's happening on-screen, so slowdown and heavy flicker ensue. For instance, having a fully powered-up ship during the meteor shower of the second stage can make Vic Viper disappear completely for a few seconds. The music is great though, and the generally mild difficulty level sets Salamander apart from the somewhat higher challenge offered by Gradius.

Two stages of intense 8-bit outer space organic battle
(courtesy of YouTube user HEROAAAA)

With all its inherent goodness, I felt very sad to discover that the scoring system in this game is broken. As you can see from this video (thanks, Jorge!), due to a respawning tiny volcano it's possible to get the counterstop in stage 2-5. My motivation to keep playing suddenly died. In the high score below my credit ended in stage 2-6, after I successfully tested the trick and decided to go on to see how far I could get.

On a last note, we all know that Famicom cartridges are great to collect due to the variety of colors used by different publishers. However, a special nod goes to the transparent Famicom cartridge style used by Komani for Salamander. I wish there were more of them around. :)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Macross - Scrambled Valkyrie (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Big West/Winky Soft
Published by Zamuse in 1993

The Japanese anime TV series Macross, also known as Robotech in the west, was rather obscure on TV during my childhood, but I remember watching a few episodes and thinking it was a very cool cartoon. I don't recall much about it aside from that catchy short music theme that plays in every Macross video game ever since they started appearing on home consoles. Almost all platforms have their particular version, but the SNES game is a serious contender for best shmup based on the franchise. However, Macross - Scrambled Valkyrie stands on its own because it's simply an astonishing game from beginning to end, ranking pretty high in any list of SNES favorites, including mine. Fan service and pure nostalgia are also guaranteed by the cool intro and the amusing bits of Engrish.

The story of Macross is about an all-out war of humanity against evil aliens, and was unique in its time for mixing sci-fi concepts with cheesy romance and music. With the exception of the romance you can expect quite the same in this game. The designs for characters, enemies and stages are decently varied, abusing the graphical capabilities of the SNES through gorgeous colors and textures, with heaps of parallax here and there. However, it's the selection of three very different characters and the resulting variety in gameplay that attests the awesomeness herein. Each character has very defined strengths and weaknesses, which demand specific approaches for a player to conquer the game. My choice of character fell on Max, and I will explain why in a few paragraphs.

Hikaru's battroid form fighting the second boss

Each pilot controls a Valkyrie ship, a warcraft built upon alien technology that's capable of assuming three different forms: fighter (aircraft), gerwalk (half aircraft/half robot) and battroid (robot). The input scheme is pretty basic and uses only two butons: one to fire, one to switch forms. Firepower is somewhat balanced because the three forms have distinct speeds (fighter is the fastest, battroid is the slowest) and different shot types. Hikaru, the first pilot, has the most straightforward patterns, Max relies on a close-range plasma cloud + homing shots and Millia adds brute force on her battroid blast. Each form has three power levels and is separately leveled up by taking "P" icons left by mini-bosses and red enemies - the currently selected form is the one that will get powered up.

Survival is guaranteed as long as you have energy left in the lifebar, so if it's gone it's GAME OVER. Every time you get hit you consume some energy and lose one power level for the currently selected form. "S" items provide partial energy recovery, but the rarer blue-haired face, found when some mid-bosses are defeated, will replenish the whole life gauge instantly. Even though the game has a limited amount of continues, it's possible to get extra ones by finding the red arrow pointing up, hidden in fixed locations in every stage. They serve a more noble purpose if you're going for the 1-credit clear because each hidden arrow adds a precious chunk of 50.000 points to the score. Another important scoring hint is to get all items you can, since each one is worth 1.000 points.

Playing with all the different weapons is great, but the coolest gameplay aspect of Macross is the ability to capture enemies to fight by your side. Every time you stop shooting the ship will glow (imagine a raw version of the golden shield from the Darius series). While glowing, get close to an enemy and watch it change its color and join the human forces against their own kind, their names appearing to the right of your energy gauge. Not all enemies can be captured, but every captured enemy has its own unique behavior: some will swing back and forth, some will rotate around the Valkyrie, some will move erratically and shoot, some will even fire lasers or home on enemies until they're toast. Not all captured enemies will follow you during boss fights, and some will eventually die (this could be based on your energy level, I'm not sure). My favorite capture is this round minion found in the 4th stage, the one that homes on enemies. After I seize one of them it will follow me until the very end, providing invaluable help against popcorn and bulkier enemies alike.

Note: there are times when it seems you've been hit but you don't lose any energy. That happens because during the exact moment you switch forms you have a nick of invincibility. Even though this seems to be a worthy feature to be exploited, it's not really a good thing to count on it in the heat of the battle.

Intro and first stage of Macross - Scrambled Valkyrie
(courtesy of YouTube user Vysethedetermined2)

One of the criticisms I often see on this game is the length of the stages. This sounds strange to me because I think they're not that long, and with seven levels to go through the game length seems about quite right, and on par with most of the other shooters from its era. In fact, Macross - Scrambled Valkyrie does everything right in this regard, with the high speed section of stage 4 strategically positioned to give you a break from the overall slow pacing of the game. As with most good 16-bit shmups, Macross rewards consecutive plays once you've memorized the trickiest parts, and the variety in challenge you get with each available character is great. I like Max because of his battroid homing shot, definitely the best choice if you want to score higher (even enemies behind walls will not escape his wrath). On the other hand, his gerwalk shot (a kind of passive plasma thrower) is really awkward to use, but once you get the hang of it lots of bosses become a lot easier to beat.

Macross - Scrambled Valkyrie is easily one of the top three shmups on the SNES. It's a bit sad that it was never released outside of Japan, which probably hurt its much deserved success. When ranked against Axelay I think it loses by a nose just because of that game's heavenly soundtrack - not that the music in Macross is bad, it's actually quite engaging and atmospheric. I've only had glimpses of other shmups based on the Macross franchise (NES, PC Engine, Saturn, Playstation), but from what I've seen I doubt any of them will top this awesome SNES game.

The ending halts in a last credits screen, forcing the player to reset the console and go to the OPTIONS to check the high score. Here's the result to my 1CC campaign with Max on NORMAL:

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Isagoras (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Red Circle Studio
Published by Red Circle Studio in 2010

When a prototype spaceship is sent to war, things get more heroic than usual and the sense of accomplishment should achieve a similar status. Somewhere in the near future, Isagoras-001 is the name of the ship, and Crow is the codename of its pilot. Invaders and separatists from other solar systems threaten the Earth and other planets such as Mars. They must not prevail, for the fate of the galaxy rests in your skill and your ability to overcome the insurmountable odds.

And that's the main story of Isagoras, depicted through text balloons and cut scenes as you plow through five stages of widescreen vertical shooting action. I admit I was lured by the concept and by the varied backgrounds from the first level, but the truth is that this game is just painful. With such a cool-looking cover and a name that immediately brings to mind Treasure's overrated Ikaruga, you can't help but feel cheated once you start to realize what Isagoras is all about. There are many wrongs to it, and the saddest thing is that the Spanish developers were probably trying to come up with something different, only to fail miserably in several fronts. As a result, epicness gets reduced to boredom, and motivation is utterly ruined from the inside by stupid game mechanics.

Fighting baddies over the red surface of Mars

Ship sprites draw immediate attention upon start. The ship looks like two smaller spaceships glued together, and I wondered if there was a gimmick behind it reserved for later. There isn't any. The ship fires a single shot that cannot be powered up because there are absolutely no items to collect in the game. Health recovery items for the energy bar you have for each life? Forget it! Entropy is the absolute rule in Isagoras, therefore energy lost will never be replenished, not even when a new level starts. You must also learn how to deal with the rather slow speed of the ship, and memorization is the only way to stand a chance in sections where multiple enemies swarm around you. Each life grants the use of three special attacks, which can be deployed in two different ways: the left bumper slows down all enemies for a brief while, and the right bumper triggers a powerful beam that melts enemy bullets and gives you invincibility while it lasts.

There's nothing special in what I described above about the gameplay, but there's a lot more to worry. When I started playing the game I suddenly noticed that my score in the third stage had decreased from the one I had prior to fighting the second boss. To my horror, I realized that the game punishes you every time you get hit by taking away approximately 5% of your score. In other words, if you have 5.000 points and a single bullet hits you the score drops to 4.750 points. Talk about a frustrating feature! To make things worse, there are instances where you get hit without explanation during those ENEMY ALERT messages that precede boss fights. There are no obstacles anywhere during the whole damn game, and then you lose health and points out of nowhere! Honestly, when this happened I felt like punching someone in the face.

Graphically, Isagoras isn't really bad for an indie release. It uses simple textures and colors with good results for backgrounds, although it falls short when it comes down to enemies, most of them comprised of small formations of drones and ships with erratic movement. Large ships appear from time to time, and are the best targets to achieve more points. Screen tilting is used extensively, but sometimes the game exaggerates and makes the simple act of controlling the ship a real chore. The soundtrack has lots of guitar work but is ultimately awful, and you can tell it's not going to work by the depressing music that plays in the opening screen.

The human race is in danger!
(courtesy of YouTube user TheSandman83)

The only moments where the game offers a small degree of (fair) excitement are during boss fights. They all have these colored spheres/cores as weak points, and come with a good variety of attack patterns. Another glimpse of something that actually works is the meteor barricade of the third stage. On the subject of co-op play, the act of overlapping both ships increases firepower while the controllers vibrate (you can't turn it off). Cut scenes are correctly implemented since you can skip them instantly, but part of the storytelling is annoyingly intrusive. As if bullet visibility wasn't already an issue, sometimes the messages block a good portion of the screen while you're being bombarded from all sides.

Isagoras could've been a great game, but it fails in almost all aspects that matter. There are no continues, but you can practice the stages you have already beaten. The only visible difference between the two available difficulties is that on EASY you start with 9 lives in stock, while on HARD you start with 5.

The default #1 spot at the high score table marks 10.000 points. My target was to top this score, which wasn't easy in face of the idiotic scheme of losing points by getting hit. As you can see below, the objective was surpassed just slightly (HARD).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Andro Dunos (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Visco
Published by Visco in 1992

With 34 Megs stamped in its cover, Andro Dunos is probably the smallest shmup in the Neo Geo library, but it doesn't mean it's less fun than its peers. Coming out in an age where 16-bit was at its peak, the game is pure 16-bit bliss and surely looks like a slightly beefed up version of any average shooter developed for the Mega Drive. I tried to come up with an example for this comparison, and the closest one I could think of is Whip Rush. Andro Dunos, however, fulfills its purpose with better results, raising itself above the average-looking style of the whole package to deliver great fun, especially for those who appreciate the innocent good old days of the classic spaceship shooters of the 90s.

What initially caught my eye in Andro Dunos is the ship's design, which resembles a sleeker, thinner Zig fighter from the almighty Zero Wing, sans the cool side pods. The abundance of colors and the variety of weapons I saw while watching the attract mode were also irresistible hooks, so last week I thought it was about time I had some fun with it. Then came the common dilemma of most Neo Geo shooters: since they rarely have autofire, how would I be able to keep my wrists and fingers in good shape for whatever I had to do with them after playing Andro Dunos? Fortunately for myself I was able to score a Hori Fighting Stick Neo II a while back, so I was ready to go once I switched that turbo function on (there are almost no options of controllers with turbo fire for the Neo Geo, and the few ones are rather hard to come by).

I tried to find out what "Andro Dunos" means, but even the game manual offers no clue about it. What I did learn, besides the backstory on invaders from outer space and the last hope of mankind (you, the player), is that the ship is called Yellow Cherry, with player 2 being named as Red Fox. Watch them with more detail as they take off once you press start and glimpse the tutorial!

Yellow Cherry and Red Fox fight for peace in the galaxy

There are four types of weapons at your disposal in Andro Dunos, and they're properly named type 1 to type 4. Similar to Toaplan's Hellfire, they're cycled at the press of a button: type 1 is the straight shot, type 2 has an emphasis on the rear shot, type 3 offers a set of X-shaped diagonal laser blasts and type 4 activates a useful albeit week spread pattern. Power-ups are handled by taking the items that cycle according to four colors, each one of them upgrading a specific portion of the ship's firepower: S corresponds to the main power-up, B powers up the little lasers, M upgrades your guided missiles and U adds auxiliary pods that block bullets, whose behavior depends on the type of weapon you're using. There are 7 power levels for item S, while all others max out at level 5. The levels of each one are shown right below the score counter.

Choosing which aspect of the weapon to power up is kinda cool, but it's always a nice move to boost the main firepower as fast as you can (S). As soon as you take the first S you're entitled to use a powerful charge shot that once deployed consumes one level of the S upgrade. The charge shot is related to the current weapon type, and is very effective to take down more powerful enemies. Unfortunately, using it is rarely an advantage over the act of tapping the fire button, hence the overall preference for using auto/turbo fire in Andro Dunos, at least for the first half of the game. There are certain parts in the second half where a single charge blast is enough to get rid of troublesome enemies, such as the hovering ship in the beginning of stage 7. The challenge increase becomes quite noticeable in the 4th stage, which is when rank starts kicking in. Surviving longer and earning extends (100.000, 200.000, 400.000, 800.000 points, etc.) and 1UPs (one in stage 4 and one in stage 6) is what basically pumps up enemy agression - the only way to get it back down is to die until you have only a few lives left.

Scoring is pretty straightforward, but there's a small end-of-stage bonus for taking the B items that appear from specific enemies you kill. There are seven in each stage, and upon grabbing them all not only you get the maximum possible bonus, but you also earn one upgrade for each of the four power-ups. Minor milking in a few bosses is feasible, but troublesome because these demand a good deal of dodging and focus.

A dangerous lunar landscape
(courtesy of YouTube user NeoGeoForLife)

Overall Andro Dunos is rather generic in its space theme, but this broad scope also gives it liberty to embrace a much welcome variety in the level design. Among other stuff, you fly over a moon and its caves, cruise through mechanized corridors and outer space sections full of meteors, get into an organic stage with moving walls and invade a cave scenery that visibly borrows from Darius, fighting a handful of bosses and mid-bosses along the way. With the exception of the first stage, the action is never dull and definitely keeps you on your toes in the last couple of levels. The scrolling direction shifts a lot and because of this some enemy shots might unfairly take you off guard. The best way to deal with them is to be aggressive and avoid standing still, attitudes which are obviously enriched by some mild memorization.

I didn't find the soundtrack as effective as the other aspects in the game, but I can't say it's bad in any way. Though less shiny than the rest of the Neo Geo's shmup library, the solid old school atmosphere and the nice learning curve help make Andro Dunos a winner regarding what matters most in a game, which is being fun.

In my best run I reached stage 2-4, dying horribly soon after I passed the mid-boss. I played in the MVS difficulty setting and used autofire, disabling it only in two moments during the whole game: when stage 7 starts and when the last boss reaches its final form.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ketsui (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable, criteria-based)
Ship speed fixed / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by 5pb in 2010

For a very long time, Ketsui remained an object of cult by a specific portion of the shmup community who had access to arcades, while the unlucky ones were left with impressions from comments like "the definitive" or "the best" Cave shooter ever designed. It would take a good seven years for the game to be ported, and after all the scandals involving DoDonPachi Dai-ou-jou it was just refreshing to see that the guys at 5pb had learned their lesson, gracing the Xbox 360 with a fine product, hailed by experts as being pretty identical to the arcade. Widespread awareness was suddenly a reality as a whole legion of admirers finally had access to the game, but the expectations for yet another addictive bullet hell were met with mixed reactions. After all, it takes just a few credits to realize how brutal this game is.

My initial impression at the time was that Ketsui was pretty much another iteration of the well-established DoDonPachi formula. It seemed more of the same. Fast forward one year and I find myself having cleared the game's first loop. This process took me one month of solid playing sessions, and made me a lot less noobish about it. First of all, I ditched the DoDonPachi association completely. The vibe in Ketsui is different, as well as the scoring system. I also noticed that it's the last Cave shooter that focuses strictly on a military theme before the company shifted to fantasy-based stories with the subsequent Espgaluda. By all means, Ketsui seems to represent a turning point in Cave's portfolio, with one of the strongest mixes ever seen of 2D graphical excellence and extremely tough challenge level.

In Ketsui you take the role of a pair of pilots controlling one of two ships, the Tiger Schwert (wide shot, slow speed, orange for player 1) or the Panzer Jager (straight shot, faster speed, purple for player 1). They are sent to save the world from an evil corporation that's behind World War III in the near future, and what lies ahead of them is nothing less than the ultimate sacrifice (they will die, succeeding or not). Enemy forces become more and more aggressive in each of the five stages, and if you're good enough you can access a second loop upon beating the game, just don't die or bomb more than 6 times (the so-called "tsuujou" loop). Furthermore, beating the game without bombing/dying will grant access to the rarely seen URA loop, which then makes it possible to see the game's true last boss. Surely beating the regular first loop is challenge enough for mere mortals such as myself, but the greatest thing about Ketsui is that you always feel you can do better, with the ending for the first loop teasing you to come back for more - a new beginning of sorts.

I wish Panzer Jager's green tint was also on Tiger Schwert's shot...

Each ship is equipped with a regular shot (tap fire button) and a lock shot (hold fire button), for which your satellites will automatically lock onto the nearest enemy and hit it until it dies or leaves the screen. There's also a bomb that travels forward until it hits (regular shot) or homes (lock shot) on an enemy. The ship's speed is reduced when using the lock shot, and it's important to mention that the frontal laser the ship fires while you're using lock shot doesn't reach the whole stretch of the screen.

While these basic inputs are enough to enjoy the game, scoring higher requires a bit of knowledge about the scoring system. In a nutshell, here's how it goes: killed enemies release green chips with values that range from 1 to 5. The three counters on the upper left of the screen keep track of your chip performance: the 1st row is the sum of all chips collected and also the multiplier to be applied at the end of the stage, the 2nd row is the stage multiplier (depletes when you collect chips using the lock shot) and the 3rd row is the current chip value. Now here's the catch: the closer you are when an enemy is killed, the higher the chip value. The extra counter/timer that appears to the side of the 3rd row shows for how long you can extract chips of the current value, and depletes even faster if you kill enemies using the lock shot. The lock shot killings, however, release more chips than the regular shot.

It seems complicated, but a rule of thumb to start getting the hang of it is to kill an enemy close enough with the regular shot to get a chip of value 5, then use lock shot to take advantage of the timer to collect more of these chips until they get back to value 1. Advanced techniques will eventually unfold by themselves, such as memorizing the best killing route to get more chips or destroying larger enemies in two steps of regular + lock shot. The end-of-stage multiplier (1st row) depletes fast during boss battles, but you can recover lost chips by destroying their parts with the regular shot (using the lock shot will eat a considerable chunk of the multiplier).

The game has no rank, so the brutal difficulty will always be the same regardless of survival or scoring performance. Regular power-ups and extra bombs are obtained from specific carriers, and when you die all your power-up items get scattered around the screen for you to recover them. Dying isn't good because it slices 1/4 of the chip counter and considerably reduces the bonus you get at the end of the stage, which is based in life reserve and bomb stock. Extends are given with 20 and 45 million points, and 1UPs can be taken by destroying all turrets from the mid-boss in stage 3 and by killing both clone ships that appear before the mid-boss in stage 5.

My raw 1CC run for the first loop
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

So what makes Ketsui such a revered shmup despite its extremely hardcore nature? One of the reasons is also the staple of most Cave products, and that is the unmatched intensity of the gameplay. There's never a dull moment, the player is kept under pressure at all times and the amount of patterns and bullets provides for an overwhelming assault to the reflexes, which in turn must be exquisitely exercised through memorization and practice. Another good reason is the amazing soundtrack, which enhances and gets enhanced by the non-stop action. And of course, as with all hard games, getting better in a game like Ketsui requires a good deal of dedication but pays off as one of the most rewarding shmup experiences a player can have. You'd never guess how much of a destruction spectacle these hordes of tanks, planes, and deadly turrets can give, so coming out in one piece from those heavy bullet showers is no ordinary achievement.

The Xbox 360 port is named Ketsui Extra. It has a special arrange mode included, hence the "extra", and allows all kinds of aesthetical adjustments for both LCD and CRT TVs. It's possible to record replays and to practice each stage with any presetting for power/bombs, I just wish there was an option to also practice boss battles. It's a great package all around, and a mandatory item in every shmupper's Japanese 360 collection. The limited edition comes with two CDs with arranged music for both Ketsui and DoDonPachi Dai-ou-jou, an irresistible treat for soundtrack lovers.

As I mentioned above, I managed to achieve the 1-ALL on the regular Arcade mode within one month of dedication, and below is the final result (NORMAL) playing with Tiger Schwert. I guess my new objective in further Ketsui runs is to reach the tsuujou loop!