Saturday, December 29, 2012

Nexzr (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by naxat soft
Published by Kaneko/Inter State in 1992

Outer space is the most iconic and preferred setting of the shmup genre, to the point where some people will ignore titles such as Espgaluda, Homura or Cho Aniki simply because they have people flying in them instead of spaceships. That said, Nexzr is probably a perfect fit for those who shun shooters with flying people. It fits the bill more than other games because its outer space setting is stronger than in the average shmup, with outer space vastness filling the backgrounds for the majority of the game. And while this could easily imply that this is an empty, drab looking product, the real picture is much more favorable. In fact, Nexzr is one of the finest shmups ever released for the PC Engine CD.

What makes this game such a delight to play is the high level of polish applied to every detail, from the highly emotional introduction sequence (images are everything, no words or translation are needed to understand the grief suffered by the ship’s pilot) to the final battle against a mechanized deadly foe. Graphics are crisp, the action is fast and diverse and the difficulty is in line with what one would expect from a decent 16-bit vertical shooter. It’s clear to me that this challenge level and the quality presentation are a successful way of compensating for the extremely simple gameplay. In Nexzr you only use a single button to play, there are no bombs of any kind and there are no selectable weapons or speeds. Progress might be halted by dying and getting respawn in a previous checkpoint, fortunately with reasonable ways of recovery.

Behold the 4th boss in Nexzr

The spaceship in Nexzr is allowed to fire two types of weapons at once. All weapons/items are delivered by tiny carriers that zap across the screen, sometimes so fast you can barely see them. Main firepower can be a straight shot or a 3-way spread pattern (3-way is weaker but obviously provides better coverage). Secondary firepower comes in four flavors: a homing laser, a pair of self-sentient drones that fly around the screen and home on enemies, two piercing lasers that spread outward in approximately 45 degrees and crawling missiles that explode upon contact with the enemy. The last item is the ever so important shield, which offers invaluable protection against one hit only.

Lasers and bullets comprise the bulk of the enemy arsenal. Cannon fodder arrives in waves while large spaceships and robots materialize in neat morphing or zooming effects as the first stage unfolds against a battlefield background. It’s nothing as crowded as Eliminate Down’s first or Border Down’s third stages, but the atmosphere is pretty well established and the enemy forces are just as relentless. At this point one might see how the game resembles Recca or Star Soldier, but at the same time it’s quite clear that Nexzr has enough personality to stand on its own. Creative design dictates what comes next, as in the corridor that’s guarded by a mid-boss and must be navigated at high speed while the boss’s core tries to bomb you before he finally decides to fight. All of this is presented with no slowdown and no flicker, to the sound of absolutely fantastic music. There's no doubt the soundtrack complements the several changes of pace with ease and enhances the action with pumping energy.

Challenge-wise the game starts to show its claws in the fourth stage, with narrow passages amidst large meteors, enemies that explode in bullets, energy field obstacles, drones that shoot fast/cheap straight lasers and a large battleship that hatches waves of hazards. On the player’s side is a merciful extend scheme that grants extra lives with 20.000, 50.000 and 100.000 thousand points, with further ones at every 100.000 points afterwards. The scoring system is pretty straightforward and if you play well enough it’s not hard to achieve more than 10 lives by the time you reach the 4th stage. The difficulty increase by then isn’t a coincidence, it takes careful maneuvering and wise weapon choices to go on in one piece. As a rule of thumb, homing firepower is a must so that threats behind walls can be dealt with accordingly.

Bringing peace to the galaxy in stage 2
(courtesy of YouTube user Ryusennin)

The attempt to give Nexzr an arcade flavor with the “arcade” resolution mode is a nice one. No, it’s not a TATE feature, it just shortens the horizontal span of the screen a little bit. This special mode doesn’t offer any advantage over the regular resolution but it still allows proper play and is far from the atrocious cramped aspect of a similar option in Burning Angels. Higher difficulty settings add more enemies to the regular game and can be practically considered "arrange" modes.

Since Nexzr was chosen by naxat soft to be re-released in the Summer Carnival series of competition shooters there's a little confusion as to which version is official or which one a thrifty gamer should buy. To keep it simple, Summer Carnival ’93 - Nexzr Special is just a special release that contains the main game and additional Time Attack and Score Attack modes. It's a joy for fans of caravan variations, but be warned that it lacks all the animated sequences of the original disc.

My final 1CC result in Nexzr is below (Normal).

Monday, December 24, 2012

DoDonPachi (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable, criteria-based)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Atlus in 1997

Ever since my first contact with DoDonPachi a few years ago I have always wondered why so many shooter fans had it in such high regard. By that time I wasn’t as mature as I am today, and had strong feelings of disgust towards the famous scoring system that supposedly required pixel-perfect positioning for the player to succeed at scoring well. Yet here I am, after having successfully looped the game and come to grips with Cave’s fundamental bullet hell shooter.

Arriving two years after DonPachi (the first chapter), DoDonPachi boosted everything about that game to a new level, in aesthetical and functional ways. Even though the ship roster remains the same, visible upgrades were made to the animation, explosions, bullet count, overall speed and scoring possibilities. The key word is intensity, a characteristic that would become synonymous with Cave as time went by. Shooting intensity in DoDonPachi can be enjoyed in lots of ways. Genre outsiders marvel at the amount of bullets, average players often try to play for survival and the more experienced can’t help but get involved by the intricacies of the scoring system. More often than not this leads to an interesting love/hate dilemma since the game rewards dedicated players who try to perfect their chains and punishes those who lack the patience to do so. In a sense, if you want to squeeze the juice out of the game you inevitably need to learn and follow predefined routes throughout the stages. This definitely creates a wall for many people since not everyone is willing to surrender to such a strict gameplay demand for the sake of a higher score.

Another reason to properly learn DoDonPachi is that if you want to loop the game playing for survival doesn’t cut it. Since my main goal was to loop the game I decided early on that I would chain and achieve the minimum hit count for the loop (keep reading). As a consequence I also learned how to score higher and came out of the experience with a new mindset, as well as a better understanding of the mythical status that surrounds this particular shooter. DoDonPachi might as well be the single most important arcade danmaku – the one that cemented the genre’s evolution and paved the way for all other companies to follow. Disregarding personal taste towards the scoring system, if there's one thing for which the game should receive honest criticism is the repetition of the music after stage 3 (it's a great, pumping soundtrack though). And maybe the change of the announcer, since voices are now female and are restricted to boss confrontations and the start of the game.

Type A - Shot

The basic gameplay did not change from DonPachi and ideally only two buttons are needed. Tap the fire button to get the regular Shot (S) and hold it to generate a constant energy stream known as Laser (L). Hit the bomb button to either activate a screen clearing explosion (when used with shot or without firing) or a deadly beam of destruction (when used with laser). The Saturn port is friendly to all players by mapping Shot and Laser to different buttons, so the final controller layout is A (laser), B (bomb) and C (shot). Regular items brought by destructible carriers or bunkers on the ground are P (power-up) and B (extra bomb). MP (maximum power) is only granted when the player continues once the credit is over.

The first additions to the previous formula appear at the ship selection screen. It isn’t enough to just choose ship type (A/red/straight shot/faster, B/green/bending shot/medium speed or C/blue/spread shot/slower). Now players must choose between Shot (S) or Laser (L) power. S gives a slight boost to shot and reduces its power only by one level upon death (laser returns to default), whereas L boosts laser power a little and provides only one level of laser power loss when the player dies (shot gets back to default). Therefore ship selection in DoDonPachi is always specified with ship type and power emphasis, as in B-S or C-L. From what I’ve seen the most popular choices are A-L and C-S.

Further changes relate exclusively to the much expanded scoring system. Even though the famous chaining scheme remains the same (killing enemies in succession with very short gaps between each kill), it’s been expanded in a way that most stage layouts allow for full stage chaining. One of the crucial points of improvement is that “lasering” a large enemy freezes the chain and keeps it alive. Additionally, a vertical bar below the score counter allows for quick chain tracking, so you know when the chain is going to break if you refrain from shooting. 13 hidden bees per stage must be uncovered by hitting their spots with laser, and provided you can get all of them without dying the bees in the next stage will have higher values (cumulative bonus). Adding surplus bombs to a full bomb stock activates the “maximum” bonus and applies a multiplier to the score, continuously increasing it as the game progresses. This multiplier is incremented as you get more extra bombs, which makes it the most simple (don’t die and don’t use bombs) but second best scoring technique besides chaining. Bonuses at the end of stage reward the player for boss kill, stars collected, boss hit count, and “no miss” (not dying). Boss hit count is different from chaining hit count in that it’s only applicable to bosses, getting slowly reduced instead of instantly zeroed if you don’t hit them with laser. Secret flower fields in stages 2 and 4 are the most obscure bonus items, with the hardest ones being the 10 million reward for each remaining life when the second loop is beaten.

As the previous paragraph makes it clear there’s much more than meets the eye in the scoring system of DoDonPachi. Deeper aspects will only surface for those who really dedicate themselves, such as the double damage inflicted by the laser aura that surrounds the ship, the fact that a fully powered ship will allow longer gaps in between hits while chaining, boss parts that release bigger stars or bees, “planted” bugs that can freeze a boss (4th  one) or the power-up item breaking a laser chain if you’re not within at least 1/3 of the screen close to the enemy you’re lasering (this doesn’t happen when you’re fully powered, so you only need to be careful during the first two stages).

Credit feeding with type B-S through the Saturn mode of DoDonPachi
(courtesy of YouTube user shaurz)

Extends are fixed at 6 and 20 million, and a 1UP can be extracted from the middle turret of the battleship in stage 3 if you manage to destroy all of the ship's lateral boxes without bombing. A big departure from DonPachi is the fact that DoDonPachi has no rank at all, it just remains brutal regardless of performance or deaths. The game is keen on mixing all sorts of bullet patterns to stop the player from succeeding. Aimed bullets, overlapping spreads, concentrated bursts, slow-moving bullet clouds, pulsing lasers, kamikaze enemies, you name it. Dodge, herd, point-blank, bomb. Obliterate multiple waves with the laser, kill some enemies faster to avoid getting overwhelmed by a bullet barrage, let a few of them live to sustain the chain. I find the difficulty slope to be quite reasonable as the action gets increasingly more frantic, but the second half of the game can be particularly brutal to newcomers. In a nutshell, building up consistent strategies in a game like this is a lesson in memorization, dodging and coordination between tapping and holding (even though you can use separate buttons for shot and laser on the Saturn controller I still find myself using just laser and tapping a lot).

Looping DoDonPachi isn’t a matter of just beating the first loop. Besides doing that you still need to fulfill one of the following conditions: lose up to two fighters; score at least 50 million points; collect all 13 bees in four of the six areas; get a maximum hit count of at least 270 hits (type A), 300 hits (type B) or 330 hits (type C). The second loop is way harder and comes with a lot more bullets (no suicide bullets though), and if you manage to beat the game a second time true last boss Hibachi will show its hideous face. Obviously my aspirations did not include a fight against Hibachi... Since my ship of choice was A-L, I decided that my passport to the 2nd loop would be achieving at least a 270 hit chain in the 2nd stage. The dedication paid off and I must tell you, it felt good to fully chain the 2nd stage for the first time. At that moment DoDonPachi finally clicked with me as a great shooting game. Of course it still took me some time to do it consistently, and that leads me to a definitive conclusion: in the land of games that live up to the old saying of “practice makes perfect”, DoDonPachi is right at the top. Opportunities for improvement are nearly endless. As a side effect, playing without proper focus can be extremely frustrating due to severe restartitis. And the Sega Saturn is especially friendly to restartitis victims because of the soft reset feature (A+B+C and START).

Many people look down on the Saturn port as an inferior way of enjoying DoDonPachi because of the slightly pixelly explosions, and that’s a real shame. The truth is that besides this single downside the game is extremely faithful to the arcade, as far as my experience with MAME goes. TATE is available and loading times are non-existent once a credit is started. You even get a dedicated Saturn mode with an extra starting level (dubbed stage 0, with remixed music from DonPachi), slower/easier patterns, no loop, Hibachi at the end of the game and a few nice tweakables (select loop 1/2, adjust chaining tolerance, etc.). I initially thought Score Attack mode allowed stage practice, but it's just like the Arcade mode only without continues. The Playstation port of DoDonPachi has its own issues, which shall be addressed as soon as I have spent some time with it.

This time I was able to reach stage 2-2 with the A-L ship, playing in TATE. I maximized the chains in stages 1 and 2, however my strategies for stage 4 weren't reliable at all and often ruined my runs. I had constant problems with the spawning green ships of stage 3 but if I got past them I could no-bomb up until the 4th boss. Stage 5 is a clusterfuck of herding, tap dodging and corner-bombing. Stage 6 lacked proper training so I just tried my best not to die there in stupid ways. This was the result:

Monday, December 17, 2012

Magic Girl (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Gamtec
Published by Gamtec in 1993

Taiwanese companies like Gamtec were well-known for releasing unlicensed titles for various consoles, the majority of them with little to no redeeming quality whatsoever. Today Gamtec is an obscure footnote in gaming history, but not too long ago it was indirectly brought to the spotlight with the release of Super Fighter Team’s Legend of Wukong, a translation/reworking of one of the company’s RPGs. Gamtec’s contributions to the Mega Drive shmup library are still as obscure as ever though, consisting of Adventurous Boy (a rehash of Fantasy Zone), Thunderbolt II (with the company disguised as Sun Green) and Magic Girl, by far the single rarest Mega Drive title to be found complete with box. In over seven years of collecting I’ve yet to see a complete copy for sale (note: these games never had proper manuals). Good luck to all collectors who are still trying to find it.

Rarity definitely isn’t a sign of quality in this case. Magic Girl is a basic cute’em up, a colorful, linear, unimpressive title that won't bring any real excitement to those who fancy some 16-bit shooting action. This conclusion is mostly related to how the game plays as opposed to how the game looks. For an unlicensed shmup it’s visually not that bad and it successfully avoids being a rip-off, drawing loose inspiration from established franchises such as Twin Bee. If there’s anything that sounds explicitly derivative is the opening screen and its resemblance to a Looney Tunes cartoon title. A nice attract mode cycles permanently with this screen and shows the wizard girl being summoned to battle in order to save the world from evil, I guess. She's able to fire (button A) and drop spiralling bombs (button B). Unfortunately she gets no willows as rewards, unlike a much more famous flying witch.

No pencils are going to ruin my magic day!

Upon starting a credit the weakest aspect of the game becomes instantly clear: the choppiness of the animation/scrolling. There’s a constant feeling that several frame chunks are missing as everything seems to move faster than normal and bullets often catch you off guard. All players need to adapt to this, otherwise the little fun to be had here will quickly turn into disappointment. Once you get used to the bad frame rate you learn to avoid being too close to the bottom of the screen, for Magic Girl is yet another shooter where enemies will frequently spawn from behind the player’s frontal perspective. Hovering at mid level is the best way to go, other than that it’s just a matter of managing the items released by clouds that cross the screen from time to time.

Talking about optimum play in a shooter like this sounds a little overzealous since the gameplay is as engaging as, well, a snoozy autumn afternoon... Maybe that wouldn't be the case if some of the items weren't so confusing. Take blue, for instance. Light blue gives the little witch a single wave shot, dark blue adds three rotating orbs with additional firepower capability and dark blue with a faint crosshair inside activates a 5-way shot similar to the famous pattern from Star Soldier. It takes time to correctly distinguish them, and once you do you'll certainly avoid the undesired ones. The problem is that undesired items scroll down slowly and get in the way of dodging.

Besides the abovementioned wave and 5-way shots there's also a homing weapon (yellow), thus comprising three weapon types at the player's disposal. It's interesting to note that once you take the first weapon the initial default shot is gone as long as you don't die. Other items: a bubble shield that can take some hits (the Yin-Yang symbol), extra bombs (stars), points (purple) and full recovery for the character's health bar (heart). The rotating orbs (dark blue) also have a shielding function and don't allow the witch to take damage. Remember that the stock for bombs is unique to the whole game and is not renewed when you respawn after losing a life, which naturally happens when the health bar is depleted. Extra lives are obtained by scoring 50.000, 100.000 and successive 100.000 points afterwards.

It's raining over the desert
(courtesy of YouTube user Warblefly41)

Stage progression in Magic Girl starts with a medieval village in a forest setting and goes through desert (level 2), a rocky landscape with weird statues that look like kid's heads on fire (level 3), outer space (level 4) and waterfalls (level 5). It's all pretty repetitive, with wave after wave of enemies prior to fights against corpulent bosses that move around and attack in predetermined, sometimes cheap patterns. The enemy gallery is varied but they're all bound to appear in similar waves, what changes a bit as the game unfolds are the bullet spreads they fire. Expect to come across flowers, smiley faces, baloons, fireballs, missiles, pencils, bats, aliens, hats, weird haniwas and a few unidentified flying objects. Everything is quite colorful, albeit unremarkable, and the action is at least intense enough to avoid instant boredom. The music is surprisingly catchy (the BGM for stage 2 is nice), but it tends to get overwhelmed by the loud volume of the sound effects.

Provided you can cope with the lame frame rate, Magic Girl isn't a hard game by any means. Of course this happens because of the health bar mechanic, but a few aspects weigh on the other side of the challenge scale. One of them is the high degree of item randomness. Sometimes it takes forever for the homing shot to appear. As a rule, the game seems to avoid granting shields and orbs when you use homing shot, as if excluding mutual advantages from these types of items (homing is definitely the best weapon in the game, with the 5-way shot as a close second). Unlike the norm in pretty much all shooters, bombing doesn't have any panic function here. Bombs do not help at escaping incoming fire, you need to dodge everything otherwise you will get hit.

Twinkle Tale might not qualify as a cute'em up to some people because of its dark undertones, and since Magic Girl is far from being a worthy title it's not hard to realize that the Mega Drive library of vertical cute'em ups is a rather poor one, in a strong contrast with its direct competitors. Magic Girl still stands as a cherished unlicensed rarity, but as a game is lacks substance and ultimately fails to establish any lasting appeal.

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

Monday, December 10, 2012

Psychic Storm (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Alfa System
Published by Telenet Japan in 1992

How is it possible to ruin a game that has nice production values, excellent character design, good graphics and great bosses? Psychic Storm is the prime example of a practical answer to that. To put it in words is simple: just take away the challenge and ignore any sign of a scoring system. What's left of motivation for anyone to get back to a game like this? I rarely touch on the subject of replay value, but in this case it's necessary to emphasize how absolutely low it is. Shmup experiences are all about interaction and rewards, that's why I can't help but feel utterly frustrated when I beat a scoreless game in a single sitting twice. Legion, Hani in the Sky and Barunba at least offered some resistance.

Aliens invaded the planet, but hope exists in the form a super powerful spaceship known as STORM BRINGER. It endows its pilots with psychic powers, enhancing their spiritual strength and allowing them to face the "unspeakable" challenges ahead. This brief take on the story is conveyed in hilarious Engrish as nice animated sequences show the pilots preparing for battle. The insect influence on the design puts the game close to the thematic realm of Cyber Core, but the enemy roster also includes different creatures such as flaming dragons and organic worms.

Nastasia turns into a scorpion to deal with the second boss

One out of four pilots must be chosen at the start of every level. Besides having his/her own firepower (with auxiliary shots in the form of tiny missiles or short-range cluster bombs), each pilot is capable of activating a special "transform" attack that turns the ship into a powerful being for a brief while. No harm will be suffered by the main ship during the transform attack, which also allows you to take damage freely while it lasts.

Here's a summary of the pilots capabilities:
  • Alex "Duke in Scarlet" - Main gun: spread shot. Transform: a butterfly that shoots projections of its big wings.
  • Nastasia "The Blue Shooting Star" - Main gun: a drilling laser. Transform: a scorpion that shoots lightning bolts.
  • Joe "Pirates of Violet" - Main gun: a fire beam. Transform: a scarab beetle that fires lots of spread shots.
  • Charr "The Black Widow" - Main gun: a permanent sword. Transform: a crab whose maneuverable claws have charging abilities.

On the lower left corner the upper bar corresponds to health, and the lower bar is what I have baptized the "psychic attack bar". It fills up automatically, and once it's full you're able to unleash a smart bomb that melts all on screen bullets and kills cannon fodder. To do it you need to press both buttons at the same time, and the way I do it consists of holding the fire button first (II) and then pressing the transform button (I). This means that to use the transform attack you need to stop shooting. Blinking enemies are responsible for bringing upgrade items: successively collecting blue orbs powers up the main weapon, pills regenerate health and orbs with tiny arrows inside can extend the duration of the transform attack whenever its timer is active. Once the health bar is gone the game ends, but both the health bar and the stock for transform attacks (three, fixed) are replenished when a new stage starts.

Before beginning a credit the player has the chance to change the transform function from "auto" to "manual" at the start screen. Auto is the default, and it works simply by automatically activating a transform attack whenever the player gets hit and the health bar gets down to predetermined thresholds - an old fashioned auto-bomb feature, let's say. As expected, choosing manual hands the responsibility of activating transform to the player.

Complete run of Psychic Storm with pilot Alexander F. Linn
(courtesy of YouTube user cubex55)

All the good points about Psychic Storm slowly fade as you get through the game, despite the cool screens for stage introduction, the nice color choices, the abundant parallax scrolling and some impressive animations on bosses. Every stage is divided in two sections, where the second one unfolds as a close-up raid over the surface of the explored planet/spaceship. For some reason the first couple of levels last longer, with the order of the next three being selectable by the player. An extra stage is thrown in there as an unpexpected enemy appears from within the cosmos, so with the addition of a last level total stage count is seven. Being able to choose the pilot for each stage is made irrelevant in the long run because each pilot is powered up separately, and the only way to achieve maximum power with any of them is by sticking to the same character throughout the whole game. Switching pilots at the final stages isn't a wise move, for the new guy will face the increased challenge totally underpowered.

A good-looking shmup that's totally devoid of soul, Psychic Storm comes from the same Alfa System that would much later write its name in shmup history with the Shikigami No Shiro series. Amidst the forgetful experience what might linger on as an okay remembrance from this game is a slice of the music. It isn't remarkable by any means, but the BGM for the second stage is strangely soothing.

In my first credit (auto transform) I tested all pilots and settled with Joe for the final stages. After beating the game I did it again on manual transform, playing exclusively with Nastasia. Her transform creature isn't the best one, but her main weapon is excellent at higher power levels. Mission accomplished. The universe was saved and I was free to go to the next game.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Captain Planet and the Planeteers (NES)

Hybrid (Action / Horizontal)
Checkpoints ON/OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Mindscape
Published by Mindscape in 1990

There were much more interesting cartoons by the time Captain Planet was airing on TV in my neck of the woods. In fact, Captain Planet was downright dull and boring, absolutely no kid in my circle of friends wanted to watch it. I never had any further contact with it until recently, when a friend brought to my attention the amusing death animation of the aircraft in Captain Planet and the Planeteers for the NES, a hybrid between a shooter and an action game (so there you go with the reason why I'm writing about it here). The game itself has a nasty widespread reputation that's totally undeserved, typical of people who have no clue about how gaming used to be during the NES days. By that time we needed to work our asses off to beat a game, and Captain Planet was just another tough title that demanded dedication.

An environmentally concerned cartoon, Captain Planet is about a blue superhero who's summoned by five teenagers who fight to preserve the planet against villains that want to pollute and destroy our natural resources. Each teenager has a magical ring with the power of an element (fire, water, earth, wind and "heart"), and by combining their powers Captain Planet will materialize to fight the evil menace. This same idea is used in the NES video game, which sees the teens controlling a ship of some sort to reach an enemy base, followed by Captain Planet taking over inside the base to defeat a villain. Therefore all five stages are divided in two sections each, all of them with increasingly tougher hazards to be dealt with. Mother Earth presents a briefing of the mission prior to each level, but trust me when I say the old method of trial and error might not be enough to really enjoy the game. I was almost cursing it in the initial flying section when I had the blessed attitude of reading the manual. Yes, that small booklet that comes inside game cases and people always take for granted...

Captain Planet and the Planeteers offers several kinds of challenge across its checkpoint-based shooting sections. In these areas controls work with shot (A), turn (B) and weapon select (START). All five weapons are always available: fire (straight shots), earth (rocks with hyperbolic trajectory), wind (circle of whirlwinds), water (wave) and heart (a vertical tractor beam, a.k.a. "be kind to animals" or "help me, you furry thing"). There's an ammo gauge for weapon usage, so it isn't wise to shoot indiscriminately. Fortunately destroying some waves or specific enemies releases items such as ammo recharge, weapon enhancer, speed-up, faster firing rate, forward/rear shot, 3-way spread shot and extra lives (looks like a small world map). Turning the ship around and changing the scrolling direction seems to be stupid but is actually essential in several areas, whereas some obstacles can only be overcome with the correct weapon.

No, this is not Choplifter...

Once inside the bases you control Captain Planet himself, a superhero that flies 100% of the time and never lands on anything. He's able to punch (A) and morph into (B) the currently chosen element (START). When he "morphs" his body turns into a living molecule with the element's capabilities. Note that there's a slight delay whenever you use an elemental power, so make sure you've turned into a molecule before advancing against an obstacle. Generally water and wind are used to get through nets/walls, with fire and rock actively damaging enemies that block your path. Heart has its purpose but is seldom used in these areas. While Captain Planet doesn't have a health meter he can sustain a little damage before dying and respawning in the same place, but I noticed that if he remains unscathed for a while he's able to take more hits before biting the dust. Remember that getting hit also depletes the element power gauge faster, and once the bar is empty it's impossible to use any power. At least there are lots of items frequently released by killed enemies, consisting of small/full power recharge, temporary invincibility and extra lives.

On graphical merits Captain Planet is kinda ordinary, but the overall design at least gets the job done. Even though the enemy gallery isn't that diverse, each level has its own set of perils. The biggest complaint someone might have about the music is that the game doesn't have any tune from the TV show. Apart from that the soundtrack fits the stage themes nicely, and I'm quite fond of the song for the third level. Gameplay often gets claustrophobic, but hit detection is never a problem. Here are some pieces of advice I gathered for the shooting parts, some of them taken directly from the manual:
  • Level 1.1 (spaceship) - You don't need to dodge the oil bursts from the 5 successive stacks in the first stage. Just use rock and plug them, carefully turning around as you get close to each one.
  • Level 2.1 (helicopter, Choplifter-style) - Fly low and stop the trucks by dropping a rock in front of them before they reach the oil spilling machines and kill you; in the last of the three trucks summon the bear with the heart power so that he can slow down the truck for you to catch up;
  • Level 3.1 (submarine) - Use rock to take care of mines; missile hatches can only be destroyed when they're open; use heart to make the whales hit the boats and free their babies; in the second boat hit the net with a rock after the whale leaves the screen; summon the octopus from inside the mud in the section where the boat keeps dropping bombs.
  • Level 4.1 (helicopter again) - Use heart to lift the elephants and carry them, fly in medium to high altitude to evade the enemy choppers and turn around to hit them if they get past you; release the elephants before the dishes that shoot missiles to proceed.
  • Level 5.1 (spaceship again) - A very hard level, and the best advice I can give is to memorize optimal paths; remember to use heart on the penguins so that they remove the ice sheets that fall from the ceilings in tight corridors.
Note that at the end of every flying section you need to "land" the craft in a specific part of the scenery. As for the action parts, it's always better to be careful than hasteful. Stages themselves can be tough, but bosses are wimpy and might go out with one punch (stage 4) or simply surrender out of fear (stage 3). I giggled the first time I saw Captain Planet showing off his muscles after beating a boss! The trickiest action parts for me were always the third boss (passing through the fan corridor takes practice) and the whole 4.2 level, which is even harder than the last part of the game (5.2). Those dark robots are too strong and will kill you 100% of the time, so I was always prepared to lose at least three lives in that area. By the way, keeping track of the score and the number of lives is done by pausing the action with the SELECT button.

Watch out for the ships from Planet Patrol!
(courtesy of YouTube user Waldimart)

This is a hard game, there's no doubt about it. Nevertheless it's possible to take advantage of a few aspects that can help the player get through more easily. Every section starts with 5 lives, and as soon as you complete each checkpoint in the navigating sections of stages 2, 3 and 4 an extra life appears. This doesn't happen during stage 5.1, but the penguin in the last checkpoint always gives an extra life - a deserved reward for getting so far in that extremely hard level (it's not possible to stock more than 5 lives though). In stage 5.2 the upper cap of the spinning stationary robot that guards some teleport doors hides an extra life, so be prepared to hit it after the fourth punch gets in. Lucky streaks of invincibility items can get you through long distances inside bases, and many areas have corners with items that cycle automatically for you to choose which one to collect. For other hints at how to perform better in the game I heartily recommend everyone to read the instruction booklet. Seriously.

I was able to 1CC the game in 40 minutes. If it weren't for those unskippable parts where you must wait for the planeteers to rejoice on their success before summoning Captain Planet with their rings a complete credit would take less than that. At least you can take note of the passwords to jump to specific stages if you want to practice. Milking checkpoints or respawning enemies is possible, but it's risky and time consuming.

Those who enjoy challenging 8-bit games should give a chance to Captain Planet and the Planeteers on the NES, regardless of genre preference or how faithful it is to the source material. The good mix of shooting, exploring and strategy keeps you interested in seeing what comes next until you're finally able to face the ultimate villain Duke Nukem (!). The power is yours!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Metal Black (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 2005

Out of the ashes of the Darius series and with shady connections to the absolutely unrelated Gun Frontier, Metal Black graced the arcades in 1991. A few years later a port was released for the Sega Saturn, and it would take approximately ten years for the game to be available on the Playstation 2 by means of the first volume of the Taito Memories Japanese compilation, or the second volume of the Taito Legends Western disc. I chose to play it on Taito Memories Volume 1 because of rumors concerning a gameplay bug in the other version, even though it seemed to run fine from the few tests I did.

"Project Gun Frontier 2" is an alias written all over this game, but there’s nothing that really links both titles. There is, however, a handful of psychedelic images in the background of the fight against the last boss in Metal Black that definitely evoke the dark musings of Gun Frontier's story. The Darius heritage is a much stronger one, as hinted by the number of creatures with an aquatic flavor that populate the game. If it wasn’t for the general clunkiness of the gameplay anyone would mistake Metal Black as yet another Proco and Tiat adventure. The vibe is definitely different though, with an inescapable degree of cheapness that might spoil the experience for newcomers. I had some previous knowledge under my belt, so I knew where I was getting into.

What’s most interesting about Metal Black is that the game did try to innovate, and just like Gun Frontier it served as explicit inspiration for a much more polished later title: Border Down (in the case of Gun Frontier the evolution was Battle Garegga). Metal Black introduced the great concept of beam duel, but at the same time included those dreadful bonus stages whose sole purpose might have been to showcase that cylinder effect applied to some of the backgrounds in the game. Not only do these bonus stages break the natural shooting flow, but they’re also a pain because it’s not hard to fail and miss the much needed bonus points for a decent final score. It’s unnerving.

No enemy shall escape my wrath

So much about bitching, but what about the game itself? Stage progression involves a ship named Black Fly departing for outer space from a dead planet Earth. Its mission is to warp across the Solar System and annihilate the source of evil inside Jupiter. The ship was developed to hone stray energy from the enemy itself by collecting "newalone", molecule-like particles that float in space. Newalone is the source of the Black Fly’s offensive capabilities, upgrading its main firepower and providing fuel for a powerful energy beam. Main firepower evolves from a narrow shot into a wider straight shot, maxing out with a very useful range that hits things above and below the ship's horizontal axis. Firing the main weapon works in bursts, so it’s up to the player to keep pressing that button at regular intervals or to use some sort of autofire (not available). As for the beam, it comes with a strong laser discharge that consumes the whole power gauge, thus sending the main gun back to its default starting level (if activated with a maxed out gauge the beam will also create a series of lightning bolts that hit everything on screen for a few seconds). When the beam fades out completely it’s necessary to collect more newalone to regain power.

Pretty straightforward in execution, Metal Black is a mix of run-of-the-mill pixel art and a few nice graphical effects, such as the aforementioned cylinder-based backgrounds. Enemy and stage designs are decently varied, as well as the music. In fact, I believe I started to appreciate the soundtrack this time around, even if the best tracks are reserved for the second half of the game. However, where it actually shines is during boss fights, for that’s when the energy beam comes in as a valuable resource for victory. The catch is that bosses are also able to collect newalone and deploy their own beams, giving the player enough time to counter attack and create a powerful clash that quickly generates an energy sphere. Ideally the entity with the highest stock of newalone will end up sending the sphere against the opponent, but it’s also a good move to mash the buttons and keep collecting more newalone as the beam dissipates, hence sustaining it for a while longer. Also don’t let the boss stock more newalone or things will get nasty, especially against the dung beetle at the end of stage 3.

Death in stage 6 and bad ending to Metal Black
(courtesy of YouTube user khex74957495w)

And then there are the bonus intermissions after levels 1 and 3... The objective is to destroy aliens in a chaotic room where they’re all flying around at random. Hit the shot button when the crosshair is over one of them and watch as a series of guided missiles obliterates the creature. On the first bonus area there are 5 aliens to be killed within 30 seconds, on the second one it’s 60 seconds for 10 more aliens (the timer runs faster than normal). Kill them all and collect extra bonuses for time left and perfect destruction. Fail and go on with a miserable increase in your score and a growing anger against the scoring system. For me it was pretty common to do relatively well in these bonus stages for a while, only to get shafted in multiple credits afterwards. If this happens final scores suffer, regardless of how much milking you’re able to pull out from bosses. Well, at least it’s reasonably possible to reach the extends at 70.000 and every 150.000 points after that.

Tricky corners, closing walls, sticking bubbles and lots of things coming from behind complete the set of minor challenges the player is bound to face in Metal Black. Memorize the most critical parts to reduce the amount of cheap deaths and activate the energy beam wisely. Learn how to use the wide reach of a fully-powered weapon to hit enemies without aligning too close to them horizontally. Remember that starting from stage 3 most enemies are spawned and behave according to where you are on screen, therefore positioning is key for survival. Most of the time I prefer to stay on the far left. Rate of enemy fire is timed, so exploit the windows to take them out in safety. Getting greedy on newalone (each one is worth 10 points) is another reason for dying stupidly, so don’t get out of your way for them unless the horizon is clear.

Click for the option menus translation for Metal Black on Taito Memories Vol. 1

The real ending to Metal Black is only seen if the game is completed on one credit, and dying in the last stage triggers a bad ending. I consider the game to be a minor effort from Taito, but now I have a better idea of why it might represent a guilty pleasure to some people. The result of my comeback is below (played on Normal, with a turbo controller for the much needed autofire capability).

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sol-Feace (Sega CD)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Wolf Team
Published by Wolf Team in 1991

It just occurred to me that Sol-Feace might have been the only shmup to be included in a bundle release with a console. What an honor! This happened only in US and Europe, in Japan it was merely a launch title aimed at showcasing the technical prowess of the recently released add-on for the Mega Drive. This huge responsibility is partially the reason why a few people disregard the game as a valid effort, since it didn’t really step up Mega Drive specs to the revolutionary standards promised by Sega. Sol-Deace, the cartridge version released later only in the US, is there to prove it. Originally appearing for the Sharp X68000 computer, the game is a classic horizontal space shooter: scroll right, fight your way across the stage, beat the boss, repeat for six more levels to reach the end. Probably due to the genre saturation that took over the console market at the time and the negative hype from initial reviews, this simple yet elegantly executed shmup was taken for granted by lots of people.

One of the clear advantages that came with the CD format was the available space for programming, and Sol-Feace uses this extra room exclusively for a lengthy intro with crisp narration and cut scenes. I played the Japanese game, so the storytelling was a mystery to me because I understand bollocks of Japanese. I was content just to know that my spaceship is piloted by a guy and a girl (Engrish is present in brief messages in-between stages, but do not allude to the main story). I guess I never said that, but the spaceship’s main hull reminds me of a horse’s head. Horse of the galaxy, riding the universe to destroy an evil sentient computer! After departing from what seems to be an orbital landing field, the ship travels through an asteroid-filled area, an enemy base and the surface of an artificial sun, facing a huge battleship afterwards. A swift scramble into the enemy’s core facilities in Pluto precedes a treacherous mission on Jupiter's third moon, and then comes the final showdown for the fate of human kind.

Behold the most hated foe in Sol-Feace

Sol-Feace’s gimmick resides in the way power-ups are handled. All three weapons (vulcan, laser and grenade/missile) can be combined at the player’s will when an item is uncovered. Whenever the ship is spawned, either when the game starts or when you lose a life, the very first power-up generates the upper and lower cannons and provides a basic vulcan shot. After that touching a power-up icon is what determines where it will be activated: descending upon the item applies its power to the lower cannon, going up against it does the same to the upper cannon and approaching a power-up horizontally executes the effect on the main ship. Once the upper and lower cannons are activated, refrain from shooting, move around to adjust the cannon’s openings and fire to lock them in place. It’s possible to have firing angles close to 45º.

The soundtrack to Sol-Feace is awesome, but these days I must admit that I find the cartridge version renditions in Sol-Deace to be more charming. The Japanese version of Sol-Feace has a richer set of sound effects than the discs from other regions, but overall the sound design in all variations is pretty good. For example, besides changing the appearance of the cannons each weapon type has its own characteristic sound. My friends and I always thought of the vulcan as the "bubble gum" shot. Missiles are the most powerful weapon and make a neat sinking sound when they hit something. Laser is less powerful but is capable of piercing multiple enemies at once.

Some other aspects of the gameplay aren’t as explicit as the ones I mentioned above. One of them is the ship’s exhaust animation, which appears whenever you’re moving forward and is capable of damaging enemies. It’s an invaluable resource during the fifth stage, by the way my favorite one. Wait till the enemy ships approach from behind and dart forward as they come close, just beware of the blocking lasers inside the tunnels - they activate as soon as your ship crosses their detection range. If you want to alter ship speed you must do it in the configuration screen at the start menu. Default is Middle, with Slow and Fast as alternatives. For a game that uses only one button, I can't help but wonder why Wolf Team didn’t include selectable speeds during the actual gameplay.

Enter into a sphere of artificial solar gravity and pass through immediately
(courtesy of YouTube user kirgeez)

I think the challenge in this game suits the 16-bit format quite well. Practice and memorization become more important by the 4th stage, but even then Sol-Feace is always capable of taking the player by surprise due to random elements (the whole 5th stage and the 6th boss are to blame for this). Every credit is started with five lives, which is far above the average for any 1-hit death shmup. I couldn’t grasp the exact interval for extends due to the way scoring is implemented, but I noticed the first one comes with 30.000 points, with further extends reachable as the game unfolds. There seem to be shadier aspects in the scoring system, as indicated by when the 3rd boss gave me half of the expected 50.000 points when defeated. I have absolutely no idea why it happened, and since I was trying to beat my old high score that made quite a difference in the long run. Be aware that bosses time out, so don't abuse milking when playing for score.

Even though Sol-Feace doesn't get bold graphically and doesn’t take the genre any further (as expected from a launch title in a new console), it provides good fun and doesn’t sound derivative at all. The harder difficulty is dubbed "Mania" (or "Advanced" in Western versions) and practically consists of a new game, with more enemies and more bullets coming from every corner. What's important is that in whatever mode you choose the game oozes with nice atmosphere, and it’s hard to pick on any technical aspect besides the lack of instantly selectable speed. A little slowdown and flicker is to be expected, loading times are short and the available continues are surely welcome during the learning process.

My high score was improved roughly 5% over the previous one I had (Normal difficulty, Middle speed).

Monday, November 26, 2012

Zap Zap: Pew Pew (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
24 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Ergostudios Games
Published by Ergostudios Games in 2010

Another lazy evening trying to catch up with a couple of months of XBLIG releases, and there I was choosing another little shmup to pass the time while a new batch of trial downloads went on in the background. Zap Zap: Pew Pew (don’t laugh) was the chosen one. A humble vertical romp built completely over a retro mindset, with a simplicity that leads me to believe it might have been merely an exercise in programming. A joke to many but a charm to some, is it to be disregarded as unworthy of one’s time? Suffice it to say that within a plethora of games made out of scarce resources this one surely ranks above the average. In fact, it’s a nice way to spend an hour or so and sink back into the realms of 80s nostalgia.

This game is a short one. There are 24 stages but they all go by in a snap. Some of them have bosses, most of them don’t. Bare bones graphics dictate the flow, minimalistic music sets the vibe and shallow humor establishes the interaction within the story, since the main motivation for you to play the game is to gain access to the secrets of the universe. It's not a vertizontal and it looks and plays like Galaga at times, but a few tricks here and there offer some interesting albeit brief shooting moments. It’s so lighthearted in tone that you don’t even mind the amount of "air" in the action, an aspect that makes it an easy gateway for new-gen players who want to know how old-style shmups actually play.

Oops!!! Isn't this a vertical shooter?!?

Permanent firepower consists of a pea shot, a mine layer and a tractor beam. All weapons are activated with dedicated buttons, but the tractor beam and the mine layer are only acquired later in the game. Laying mines is used mainly to take care of enemies coming from behind, but since mines scroll down slowly they can also be used to hit enemies coming from the top of the screen. The tractor beam works just like in Zero Wing, grabbing whatever enemy is in front of the ship and releasing it if you will. However, here it’s much more useful for offense than defense. Special icons provide temporary upgrades that last for one stage only, and consist of three-way shots and exploding mines. Three-way is great, but the exploding mines cause more confusion than practical advantage. The final icon you’ll come across is the occasional extra life (1UP).

Zap Zap had the potential to be a great indie game. The incremental ideas implemented stage after stage show a fresh creativity, it only needed a bit of fleshing out to evolve into full-blown concepts for a meatier shmup. I can forgive the lack of support for the D-pad, the only unforgivable flaw is the poor (every enemy is worth only a single point) and broken scoring system (just park your ship below one of the respawning cells of the last boss and blast away for whatever score you want to achieve). Considering these drawbacks and the wasted gameplay potential it’s hard not to think of the game as a letdown, but let’s try to highlight the good parts in it, starting with the bosses. They’re a treat and a couple of them will hack your ship’s controls so that it behaves erratically. The first one will have you spinning as he fires a two-way spread while enemies pass by from below and from the sides. Later on a large spaceship will do something unexpected and switch control functions with the player: you're still able to fire but all movement inputs will be transferred over to the boss, meaning you must avoid hitting your own ship as it moves around at (the boss’s) will. It surely messes your head during a try or two. A few bosses will require the player to use mines on the back of their weak spots to be damaged. Some enemies/walls will only be destroyed if you grab something with the tractor beam and get aggressive on them.

One person missed that last part and set out on a journey
(courtesy of YouTube user PickHutHG)

Previously played stages can be directly selected for practicing, shortening the time to beat the game even more. The built-in autofire is nice but doesn't have a fast firing rate, so mashing the button might be necessary in certain areas. Despite the extreme simplicity the game doesn’t sound derivative when compared to the classics of old, and while the poor production values might scare some people off the fun factor doesn’t disappoint those who’re willing to support a decent effort from an indie developer. Besides the aforementioned influences there’s also a quick nod in the gameplay to the classic Demon Attack, and I could swear one of the tunes is directly lifted from the contemporary Space Invaders - Infinity Gene (note: Zap Zap was released between the iOS and XBLA/PSN versions of Taito’s classic revival title).

Contrary to what its name suggests, the game doesn't have much in the way of sound effects to properly match the title. The secrets of the universe weren't that exciting after all, but my hour of easy fun with Zap Zap: Pew Pew ended with the following final score.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

R-Type II (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem in 1989
Published by Ascii Entertainment in 1998

Those who’ve been there know that R-Type presented the outset of an intergalactic struggle, a desperate mission to free enslaved solar systems from the evil clutches of the Bydo empire. As expected (for us anyway), the Bydo weren’t really gone after the heroic actions of the first chapter, so in R-Type II we have yet another chance to kick their asses. A couple of weeks ago the time came to finally continue the battle against the evil clutches of doom, in more of the same alien, claustrophobic outer space landscapes filled with deaths in every corner. Yes, the style didn’t change a single bit, so players should prepare for another glorious dose of strategic memorization in order to fully enjoy the wonders of R-Type II.

It was with pleasure that I dusted off the R-Types compilation for the Playstation, a must-have package that includes arcade-perfect renditions of R-Type and R-Type II. Are you a shmupper and Playstation collector but still don’t own R-Types? Shame on you, my friend! If you’re one who enjoys extra stuff in your shmup media, you’re also missing out on a neat animated intro and several bits of valuable information about the enemies for both games, as well as a comprehensive glimpse at the Bydo backstory.

As a sequel, I feel that R-Type II doesn’t get much credit today. As far as sequels go it isn’t as well regarded as Gradius II, for instance. This probably stems from the fact that it doesn’t really offer a huge step-up above the original (unlike Gradius), but it should also be mentioned that further games in the series helped eclipse it because of their wider improvement leaps. Nevertheless R-Type II is just as much fun as the original, and for the regular bystander it might even surpass R-Type because of a few factors that make it a slightly easier challenge.

Battleships of doom

Classic gameplay: it returns intact from the first game. The new R9C (C for custom) is capable of firing single and charge shots, as well as missiles acquired with M items. By taking any of the weapon power-ups a force pod will appear from the left. The force is an invincible device, causing damage by contact and shielding the ship against regular bullets. It can be attached either in front or at the rear of the ship, with the detachment process being controlled by a separate button. A second power-up item will activate the selected weapon’s capabilities, and a third one will max it out, also granting maximum power to the force pod. Bits are tiny half-spheres that hover above and below the ship and carry some of the force pod power, providing extra firepower and protection. And let’s not forget about the ever so important speed-up (S). All items are concealed inside these tiny mechas that bounce around and leave the screen if they’re not destroyed in time.

New aspects of the gameplay include exclusive additions to the weapon gallery. Alongside the classic wave shot (red), bouncing lasers (blue) and crawling streams (yellow) we now have a forward laser that “bends” with mild homing ability (green) and exploding clusters (gray). An alternative to the regular homing missile type (red M) is the new ground missile (blue M) that explodes along the surface it hits for a brief distance. The charge shot has a secondary charge level that generates a wider, even more powerful blast. To trigger it you need to release the button at the correct time because the charge gauge keeps cycling over the initial charging round.

R-Type II is comprised of six loopable stages with two checkpoints each. Even though this might indicate the game is short, all levels are a bit longer than in the original and do not incur in any severe recovery problem – an aspect that killed R-Type for many people, since it was more reasonable to restart the game than to go on if you died in the last couple of stages. This alone is reason to qualify R-Type II as an easier, more approachable game. The design builds upon ideas of the original and blends them with graceful taste, such as in the baby aliens and the breakable serpents of the last level, or the moving blocks that create/destroy a living maze in the fifth stage prior to a boss that sounds a little familiar. The huge spaceship level is expanded to a deadly fleet of smaller battleships that move around the whole screen in a continuous attempt to corner and crush the player. And not everyone knows that to uncover Dobkeratops, R-Type’s iconic first boss, you need to actually blast the nose of the first boss in this game.

The start of a new mission against the Bydo empire
(courtesy of YouTube user KobayashiBR)

More intense from the get-go, R-Type II boasts an energetic BGM on the first stage, which follows a brief animation sequence that shows the R9C departing for battle. As in all games of the series, atmosphere is king and dictates the tone of the rest of the soundtrack. My favorite song has to be the one that plays during the 4th stage, I even decided to switch from wave shot to laser halfway through this level just to listen to it more clearly. You see, wave shot is still the best weapon to play the game, but the downside is that it’s too noisy. Its sound effects easily overshadow whatever is playing in the background.

Speaking of strategy, after taking wave shot in the first stage I stick to it until stage 4. Then I grab it again briefly during the fifth stage, but the game practically forces you to retake the laser in order to go through a vertical passage. Wave shot is again the key to safely get through the destructible net prior to the last boss, then the laser is once again shoved down the player’s throat. From the new weapons my favorite is the bending laser (green), the gray one is awkward, slow and its short reach doesn’t help at all. Missile type is mostly irrelevant, but it’s much better to have ground missiles during the whole battle against the space fleet of the third stage. One thing that bothered me is the score you get from the second boss: for reasons I yet don’t know, sometimes you lose points instead of getting the 7.000 you deserve for killing the creature. Maybe its moving penis is sensitive to something the player does, I can’t be sure (insert Giger-esque sexual imagery reference here FOR GREAT JUSTICE).

One thing in R-Type II that’s clearly tougher than in the first chapter is the second loop. It’s balls-to-the-wall hard. I wish I had gone past the first stage when I looped the game but I didn’t. I guess this serves as a hint that Irem actually listened to its audience when developing the game: make the first loop more manageable, but release the Kraken in the second loop. Extends come with 200.000, 350.000 and {probably} for every 150.000 points afterwards. Note that the Playstation disc allows the player to map a separate button for shot autofire (which makes a perfect control setup), as well as position the HUD wherever you want on the screen.

R-Type II was partially “ported” to the Super Nintendo as Super R-Type. This isn’t a pure port in that it only retains a few stages while adding new ones and replacing bosses. Another way to legally play the original arcade game is in the R-Type Dimensions compilation, released for the Xbox Live Arcade in 2009. My final score on the Playstation version is below (NORMAL, loop 2-1).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Side Arms (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
10 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Capcom in 2006

Shooting left and right was a concept pioneered by Defender. Great success in the arcades, Defender allowed the player to attack aliens from both sides of the screen and control scrolling speed at the same time. Many similar shooters followed its trail, but as far as I can tell associating the same bidirectional controls with automatic scrolling was only seen five years later with Capcom’s exquisite Section Z. Following the cool experience of that game Capcom continued their venture into the same gaming style with Side Arms, originally released in 1986. Some people refer to it as Side Arms - Hyper Dyne, as seen in the small subtitle at the start screen, but the shorter and less clunky Side Arms sounds better to me.

For those with no access to the arcade version, Capcom Classics Collection Volume 2 on the Playstation 2 is one of the legal ways to play Side Arms at home. The compilation is definitely a must have for any Capcom and arcade fan since it includes titles from several genres and a handful of other shmups. Side Arms is completely customizable with button mapping, optional autofire, multiple difficulties and general tweaks. I recommend turning off “infinite credits” if the player wants to have single credit sessions because once the credit is over pressing any active button will trigger a continue.

Piloting a giant space mecha across non-stop landscapes to destroy evil aliens is the heart of the mission in Side Arms. There are no fade-outs or intermissions between stages, just kill the boss and keep moving at the same steady pace, reacting to whatever hazards come from all sides. One buttons shoots right, another button shoots left and a third button is used to switch weapons. Weapons aren’t at your disposal from the start, it’s necessary to pick them up along the way. There lies the basic rule of the gameplay: icons are released by defeated enemies and change/cycle when shot at, so they must be sorted out until the desired function appears. In a few occasions fixed items will be released for direct pick-up (shooting them won’t do anything), often prior to boss fights. That’s the game giving an explicit hint that should be read as “use this weapon, it’s the best one”.

Infested caves need to be purified of all alien evil

Icons will cycle in the following manner: Pow, bit, Pow, SG, Pow, MBL, Pow, 3way, Pow, mirrored Pow (woP) and either a star or a yasichi (looks like a lollipop). Once the star or the yasichi is reached the icon won’t cycle anymore. Contrary to the standard assumption, instead of upgrading weapon power Pow increases the speed, with the mirrored Pow working as a speed-down item. Speed level is displayed by the three colored blocks below the weapon array. Now to the weapons: bit adds an option that circles the character and provides a bit of extra firepower, SG is a fan-shaped short spread pattern, MBL is your good old straight laser, 3way is a spread weapon with actual reach and "auto" depends on which of the last items you get (the star adds vertical shots with autofire and the yasichi adds autofire to the basic shot). All weapons can be powered up once by taking another item of the same type with the exception of the bit - it's possible to have up to three of them. Any currently weapon used is lost upon death.

Weapons are important, but even most important in Side Arms is the item that appears alone and alternates quickly between the Greek letters α and β. It invokes an armor that involves the mecha and fires auxiliary weaker shots in 8 directions, also providing protection against two hits (on the second hit the upgrade will be lost). In co-op the α/β item behaves in a different manner, combining both players into one whose control functions are shared by both parties. Losing the armor reverts it back to separate entities. α/β items always appear from selected enemies or by hitting certain areas in the screen, some of them unsuspectedly hidden (look for corners and flat platforms). Also hidden are 1UPs and score bonuses such as strawberries, cows and golden barrels. Besides 1UPs, extra lives are awarded with every 100.000 points you score.

While the graphic design still holds an underground charm that’s typical to the 1980s, the music in Side Arms is atrociously cheesy. It kinda makes me feel as if I’m playing a game late at night with dimmed lights, a false guilty pleasure of sorts. The action is somewhat repetitive, but the relentless enemy swarm in later levels only made me care about the repetition of bosses (there are only two of them, alternating between each other until the ultimate caterpillar boss appears). Each weapon comes with sprite changes on the character, but I find it funny that after the robot receives the α/β armor it looks like he's with stomach pain whenever he shoots. The effect is lessened if you decide to approach the game as player 2 because the second robot is bulkier and looks more menacing. Another difference is that the 8-way extra shots of the player 2 side work as boomerangs instead of regular outgoing projectiles.

Side Arm's attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user ReplayBurners)

Side Arms can be engaging for a while, but it isn't as cohesive or fun as Capcom's previous Section Z. Although built over an attractive concept, it fails to deliver a long-lasting experience because of some weird details in the gameplay. Explicit flaws relate to how easily confusing it can get. In certain areas you might practically go through a massive solid block, only to get stuck in a tiny tip of the scenery and die. There's a brief spell after losing the armor where the currently used weapon will revert back to the default shot, making the player believe he's lost it. Don't fret and wait for the weapon to resume its duties, if you don't keep the cool and die remember that there's almost no window to breathe upon respawn. That's why consecutive deaths abound while you're learning the game. Parallax is used with moderation but could've been of actual use in the 4th stage: most of the floating specks of mud belong to the background but a few of them will annoyingly get in your way, severely hampering navigation and dodging. On a minor note, stage duration is rather uneven, but thankfully later levels get increasingly shorter as you reach the end of the journey.

Even as irregular as it is I do appreciate some aspects of the game, such as the seamless connection between stages, the way the scrolling frequently goes up and down or the pressure added by those chasing caterpillars whenever the screen is cluttered with other enemies. Activating autofire in the options menu makes any the "auto" weapons useless, so my technique consisted of using mostly 3way for stages and MBL (laser) for bosses. Bits are an alternative if 3way isn't available, but that SG fan-shaped spread is downright dreadful.

In Side Arms the player's initials must be entered as soon as the credit is started, but there's a bug in the Capcom Classics Collection Volume 2: it won't register the result of a 1CC in the high score table of the attract mode. Fortunately it's at least kept in the upper display, as shown in the picture below (Normal difficulty, player 2 side, autofire ON).

Friday, October 26, 2012

Gradius III (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1991

Within the famous Konami series the original Gradius III is regarded as an absolute experience in pain. Very few shmups have the honor of being straightforwardly classified as "pure hell" or "downright impossible" by so many people. My time with it so far consists of a few hours with the Gradius Collection on the PSP, and suffice it to say I didn't get past the bubble stage... Gradius III on the SNES is a completely different story though. Famous for some massive slowdown, this port leaves no doubt about its watered down difficulty and it’s not nearly close to the arcade version as far as its legendary challenge goes. Nevertheless it’s still a valid option for those who want to have an idea about how the series evolved from the already tough as nails Gradius II.

In a nutshell, the SNES port of Gradius III is nothing but a simplified version of the arcade original. Stages are shorter, lack a few key enemies and are occasionally rearranged. Bullet count is considerably lower as a consequence of the softer rank progression. Even the weapon configurations available in Edit mode have been messed around a little. All things considered, the game probably offers a good entry point for Gradius neophytes due to the lower difficulty and the faithful graphics conversion. The soundtrack does take a hit, but since the compositions are so good it still retains the magic that makes this series so loved among shmup fans. It’s awesome, I know there's no relation at all between both franchises but I can't help but feel a vivid Sonic the Hedgehog vibe in the BGM for the volcano stage.

Damn, won't these Moai stop opening their mouths?

Giving the player a higher degree of freedom was Konami’s main innovation in Gradius III. Dressing up the ship at the start of a credit determines half the game’s difficulty, and doing it wisely is paramount if you want to have better chances at winning. Besides the four default configurations seen in Gradius II, an all-new “Edit mode” allows the player to select every item in the weapon array from several choices available (some of them exclusive to Edit mode). Since I tend to stick to the classic configurations it was hard for me to start editing my weapon array, but the “reduce” shield is just irresistible. It shrinks the hitbox and is able to absorb two hits before Vic Viper gets back to its normal size. A new slot in the weapon array under the exclamation symbol makes it possible to activate speed-down, full options (sacrifices spare lives for options), force field and mega crush (a smart bomb). Mega crush is the default item in the extra slot for all standard configurations.

Gradius III starts out nicely on a sand stage guarded by an insect boss. The absence of the sand lions is a bit disappointing but the great initial atmosphere isn’t affected. However, it’s clear that the rest of the game doesn’t excel at being a step-up from Gradius II in the same way the previous chapter did when compared to the first game. The arcade version did that only in terms of difficulty, whereas the SNES port throws the challenge boost out the window and presents itself as a softer ride that totally fits the console format. Expect staple levels such as the volcano, the moai, the high speed scramble and another boss rush comprised of several bosses from Gradius II. New to the adventure is a plant stage, two levels reminiscent of Salamander (the flaming rocks + the organic walls) and the bubble field in the second stage, which is actually a revamped crystal level.

Missing from the port is the Tetris block stage, the awkward 3D intermission, the maze after the volcano tunnel and the final escape after the last boss, as well as the most demanding enemies such as the huge moai heads, the fire dragon, the spinning boss from Salamander and the walker in the fortress stage (replaced by two destructible mechanical spiders like the one from Gradius II). The organic level is now the last one, and the number of secret areas was increased from 2 to 5. I only ventured to get into the first of these bonus areas – they come with very few enemies and lots of items, including 1UPs (green capsules) and bonus points (faint yellow capsules – don’t let any of them pass and they’ll be worth 1000 points each). If you go into a bonus area and die you get sent back to the regular stage and can’t access the bonus area again, if you succeed you bypass the boss and reappear at the next pre-stage section.

Gradius III for the SNES played on EASY
(courtesy of YouTube user Ataristic)

Subject of frequent mockery, the slowdown in this game is often used to showcase the SNES bad fame of being a slow console. With the exception of the subterranean volcano walls, where the screen slows down even if you don’t shoot a single bullet, it isn’t really that much of an issue. It does make the journey easier, that’s a fact, and probably plays a pivotal psychological role in the general consensus that the game is a bit too long. Anyway, after a while I wasn’t bothered by the slowdown anymore. I won't complain about the length of the game either. Ten stages of lighter Gradius goodness might be something people take for granted these days, but I definitely miss the Konami of old.

After tampering with several weapon configurations I settled with regular missiles, double shot, crushing laser, regular options, reduce and speed-down. I wish I could have the regular laser as well, but it’s not an available option in Edit mode. The mega crush was tempting, but I like to have my speed reduced after I get past the plant boss, the high speed section and the boss rush. Gradius III is often regarded as an easy shmup (for Gradius standards, that is), but that’s only true as long as you don’t die in later levels. You can build a respectable life stock with the 1UPs inside bonus areas and the merciful extend scheme (20.000 points for the first extend, further ones at every 70.000 points), but don’t even think about dying inside the fortress. Depending on the checkpoint you’re at it gets really tough to put things back together. As usual, in the second loop enemies fire faster bullets and drop suicide bullets when destroyed.

I reached stage 2-7 on my best scoring run on NORMAL. Do I feel prepared to try the arcade version of Gradius III on the PS2? Probably not, but that’s the beauty of this genre. We’re never ready but we go on anyway.