Wednesday, May 30, 2012

MechFish (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
14 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Lethal Martini Games
Published by Lethal Martini Games in 2010

XBLIG shmups are a complicated matter in the world of virtual releases of today. It's getting more and more difficult to fish the good ones out of the ocean of mediocrity that plagues the service, so I'm moving on through the back catalog of shmups I have already downloaded in what I have baptized as my "2012 discovery campaign" (quick XBLIG shmups to rest my head from heavy bricks such as Raystorm). For the last relaxation sessions I chose a title that kinda suits the sentences above: MechFish is a horizontal shooter totally set in watery grounds. Close to but not really embracing the aesthetics of a cute'em up, this game is more of a methodical environment blasting than pure bullet dodging. "Relaxing" is a relative word to be applied here, for there is no room for sloppiness if you want to pursue a 1CC on this game. Looks may be childish but the challenge definitely isn't, at least for the XBLIG average shmup level.

The story goes like this: the plans for the MechFish - a remote mechanical recon device - have been stolen and used to create an evil counterpart named as the DeathFish. Armed with reflexes, a high powered vertical propulsion system and an unlimited supply of explosive bombs and missiles, MechFish must swim through dangerous enemy waters, dodging mines and destroying DeathFish along the way. Start a credit by choosing one of the save slots and get familiar with the basics in the mandatory tutorial. You can't start a new journey unless you play the tutorial, but that's okay since this "stage zero" is rather short and adds a few points to the final score.

MechFish makes extensive use of a very reduced set of sprites/enemies to deliver 14 levels (not counting the tutorial) of aquatic perils. It goes a bit overboard on its length and tends to get repetitive if you're searching for a quick romp. There are no bosses and graphics are of borderline Flash quality, presenting no variety at all during half of the game. All these aspects shouldn't be a good sign, but the mix of different obstacles, offbeat gameplay and the emphasis on a classic shmup structure offer an interesting challenge for those willing to take the plunge. People can still continue over and over after dying, but the score is reset every time you do this. With only four lives and no extends whatsoever, completing the game in a single session is a task reserved for persistent players with sharply trimmed reflexes.

A deadly encounter against a beautiful sunset

Though it might seem a bit weird, the use of both analog thumbsticks works really well in this game. The left stick is used to move the MechFish, while the right stick offers the abilities to jump out of the water (press up) or dive (press down, hold it to stay at the bottom). Shooting missiles is done with the right trigger, dropping bombs is achieved with the left trigger. Scrolling speed can be influenced by the player: staying at the far left will lower speed to a minimum, moving to the far right makes the screen scroll faster. The MechFish will only occupy the left side of the screen at any time, so that there's always some room for you to react to whatever comes your way. Faster swimming is rewarded by a better time bonus once the stage ends, but gets quite risky later on.

Assuming the DeathFish are mechanical creatures, there are absolutely no live beings in the enemy gallery. Deathfish can appear in straight or jumping patterns, shooting single bullets forwards. Icebergs and different arrangements of stationary and moving mines make up for the rest of the things you need to work around in order to survive by diving, jumping and moving carefully. Although it seems pretty boring in the paper, the idea actually leads to an entertaining reflex-driven, racing-hybrid shooting experience. Early stages can get dull with repeated plays, but the game motivates you to finish them faster for better time bonuses. Controls certainly get in the way in a few key areas, with obstacles that are apparently impossible to overcome. Active and large foes are preceded by green warnings overhead, while icebergs and mines generate absolutely no warning signs.

A few useful hints I came up with:
  • Don't try to move up after diving, just release the right stick after doing it (the MechFish will be quickly placed at a good level for the next move instead of dragging like a retard);
  • Starting in stage 5, mines that come from behind are the main cause of sudden death; when the warning for a mine pops up just stay still dropping bombs at surface level, this often destroys it before it even enters the screen; if the mine gets through, jump and let it pass below you; in later stages these mines pop up without warning, so it's good practice to keep that left trigger pressed at all times;
  • The best way to deal with the jumping DeathFish is to remain shooting at surface level; if they still manage to get closer just swim forward through one of the jumps; don't try to dive.
  • Stationary mine barrages can be destroyed by jumping close to them and dropping bombs on a higher level (mid-air, if possible); inertia should take care of the rest;
  • Supply bonus crates (worth 10 points each) are often a bait to get the player into tricky situations; beware of weirdly positioned crates.

Promo trailer for MechFish
(courtesy of developer and YouTube user LethalMartiniGames)

All stages display stats for best level scores and best time bonuses, and most of them must be unlocked one after the other to be played. The music is of a subtle nature and fits the theme well, often heightening the tension of patrolling deadly waters. Halfway into the game the first real wall shows up: once you complete level 7 (Earning Stripes 4-4) three stages are unlocked at once, two of them being labeled as "bonus challenges". Well, suffice it to say that the first of these challenges has no bonus at all from a survival standpoint... Missiles are disabled and you can only count on bombs to get through tight moving sections. It's probably the hardest stage in the game, but I suppose it's possible to make the journey less stressful by starting a credit directly on it (use one of the save slots with previously unlocked levels). My 1CC credit was done from start to finish in regular stage order though.

Completing the game on one credit will let you see a special ending screen. Kudos to the developer for having included this neat message, but thumbs down for forgetting to register the 1CC score in the high score table, an almost unbelievable oversight in a rather decently designed shmup. I was glad I had the camera at hand when the credit was over! Note: if the mild controller vibration becomes distracting try switching to a different profile - it seems the vibration is active only on the account that was used to download the game.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Section Z (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Digital Eclipse in 2005

Some time ago I was thinking about playing one of the games from the Capcom compilations on the PS2. I realized that three of the shooters in them formed a kind of unofficial series: Section Z, Side Arms and Forgotten Worlds. Last week I took the PSP with me on a flight and finally dedicated some time to the first title, a pretty charming horizontal shmup that sucked me in completely. Section Z originally came out in 1985, but for such an old arcade game its fluidity and addictiveness are nothing short of outstanding. It's got an exquisite, creative design and provides instant, addictive fun. My first impressions revolved around the idea that the game kinda looked like a scrolling version of Dropzone.

All nine shmups emulated in the first volume of Capcom Classics Collection for the Playstation 2 belong to an early era of arcade games, where graphics and controls were more simple and the company was just another drop in the ocean of arcade developers. The idea behind Section Z is also simple yet very well executed: you are an astronaut sent on a mission to infiltrate an alien base. All areas inside the base are labeled after alphabet letters, starting in section A and ending in section Z. Every five sections the player must battle a boss, thefore Section Z has 5 stages with bosses awaiting in sections E, J, O, T and Z (the last stage is comprised of 6 sections). Once the game is beaten it loops in a harder difficulty.

I love the atmosphere in this game. It's a genuine sci-fi adventure with an old school charm that comes in a sleek shmup disguise - or is it the contrary? Graphics lack parallax and come with nothing fancy, but they're quite varied and get the job done. The atmospheric music is awesome and perfectly sets the mood for some deep underground action. Shmupping elements define the gameplay because the player's actions are restricted to shooting and turning left or right at the press of a button. The act of shooting will not only fire your shotgun horizontally, it will also drop bombs in a downward arch towards the direction you're facing. Enemies will appear from both sides as the screen scrolls in all four directions, and since there's very little room to breathe between one section and the next strategy and knowledge of the terrain and the enemies are essential to have a chance at survival.

Pinballs? What's next, furballs?

Following the descent into a surface hatch our hero finds himself inside a tunnel with some sort of mechanism with hose gears in the background. In the first section danger kicks in slowly, with only a few slow turrets here and there, a couple of flying drones and waves of spineless saucers. Then things start getting warmer. Green stacks expel smoke and more flying creatures approach from both sides as tricky-positioned turrets fill the screen with bullets. Turn right, turn left, shoot, be proactive and survive. Release items by destroying the small dome structures on the ground or on walls: P gives you more firepower, S increases the speed and B provides some bonus points. Speed and power can be upgraded in three steps (displayed in the upper right corner), but everything is lost when you die and get sent back to a previous checkpoint.

One of the refreshing aspects of the gameplay is the fact that you can touch and lean against walls with no harm. The astronaut is able to "land" on flat horizontal surfaces - while landed check out the cool animation when you fire and drop bombs. Landing and hiding behind walls often helps to hit special targets and herd or avoid incoming enemy fire, especially in the shaft descent of the 4th stage. Speaking of which, scrolling direction is what helps keep the game dynamic throughout: the first stage flows from left to right (A-E), the second stage flows upwards (F-J), the third stage scrolls from right to left (K-O), the fourth stage is the aforementioned descent (P-T) and the last stage (U-Z) resumes the initial scrolling direction. It works as a progressively dangerous spiral of death, with increasingly tougher sections with hardly any repetition in level design. The hardest parts for me are the stone barriers of stage 2 (wrong timing leads to frustratingly stupid deaths) and the second half of stage 4 (those sneaky moving eyes are a pain). The pinball area of section N is also tricky and often caught me off guard.

Despite the somewhat harsh difficulty that heavily rewards memorization, Section Z has an evenly spaced assortment of extends: first one with 30.000 and another for every 70.000 points afterwards. There's also a hidden 1UP that does not compute in the life stock counter (you don't see it decrease by one when you die). Just before section L is over there's this lower platform with a power-up dome that releases one of those tiny creatures. Keep hitting the dome spot to uncover a heart and destroy it to register the 1UP - my method is to stay in the upper platform and hit it with bombs. Some secrets for scoring include hidden objects which are also uncovered in a similar fashion in sections B (a head on ground level, 2.000 points) and H (a hand on the left wall amidst a group of four consecutive turrets, 5.000 points). Every once in a while you'll find a transmitter dish inside a dome that yields 10.000 points if you keep shooting at it for a brief while. Last but not least, speed-killing bosses results in better bonuses since they have a timer that's converted in points once they die.

A quick credit of Section Z
(courtesy of YouTube user ShadowTheHedgehog157)

Given the nature of the game it's safe to assume there are probably more secrets. I didn't get to find anything in the 4th and 5th stages, for example. There are lots of corners to explore, so maybe in a future endeavor I might dig it a bit further. As I mentioned above I first started playing Section Z by means of the PSP version present on the Capcom Classics Collection Remixed compilation, so when I fired up the PS2 disc I had a good idea of what was ahead of me. Both versions are pretty much the same, down to the minor graphical glitches in the emulation (if you kill something close to a side border you might glimpse its final animation on the other side). Other than that the game plays just fine, and the fun factor is definitely aided by an optional autofire switch, infinite continues and an alternating two-player mode.

I'm not sure if Section Z was the first horizontal shmup to allow bidirectional shooting, but it should certainly be included in the first batch of influential titles within the genre. I would love to see a proper sequel with the same mechanics, meaning a jetpack-propelled explorer fighting his way through non-stop auto-scrolling stages. The picture below shows the reward from my best Section Z credit playing on NORMAL. Result: section S reached in the second loop (4th stage).

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Over Horizon (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hot-B
Published by Hot-B in 1991

It came as a surprise to me that Over Horizon had a release outside of Japan, but on European shores only. I couldn't find much info on that one, but I assume it's just as obscure as the Japanese version. The Japanese cartridge is also a rare item, not often seen in auctions or retro game resellers. Developed by Hot-B, whose name I only associated with Mega Drive's Insector X, Over Horizon is an inventive horizontal shooter that clearly follows on the footsteps of the Gradius series while adding a few fresh concepts to the gameplay. As with many other shooters the title is somewhat cryptic because the whole game takes place in outer space environments. I guess a more suitable title would be "Beyond the Horizon" or something along those lines.

Check the resemblance both in the box cover and the game itself, the ship in this game reminds me of the ship from Toaplan's Zero Wing. That tiny and goofy ship would lend itself perfectly for a cute'em up, but this game has nothing of cute across six stages of well-crafted 8-bit shooting action. Vegetation ridden platfoms are followed by corridors with deadly turrets. Just before fire-breathing gargoyles appear ice blocks will need to be moved around so that you can safely pass, then a sewer-like factory will throw the ship around due to strong water currents. A mission outside and inside a huge spaceship leads you to the heart of evil in a final fight of cosmic proportions. Okay, you might take the cosmic part out of the sentence, but it's still impressive nonetheless. There isn't much in the way of color, the game's appeal is much more related to stage design and gameplay.

The first boss

Power-ups emerge from these tiny capsules that appear from the right. Destroy them to take an option or a character item that cycles and changes the weapon type: L stands for laser, M for missiles and H for homing. Up to two options can be grabbed, appearing above and below the ship. The control scheme in Over Horizon is quite original, in that you need to use both buttons in the controller to properly fire your weapons and choose the way options should be handled. Press A if you want to shoot to the right and B if you want to shoot to the left. While pressing one of these buttons push the other one to change the position of the options (either close or away from the ship). If the other button is kept pressed the options will keep moving up and down in circular patterns. In order to increase the weapon power stick to the same character item, eventually the shot from both options will also be powered up to the maximum level. Important: options can also block most enemy bullets!

The last aspect of gameplay is speed control. There are four speeds available but there's no clear indication of which one you're using (the screen is devoid of any displays whatsoever). You choose the speed by pressing SELECT, after which a brief burst animation is shown: if it appears at the ship's rear it means the speed is going up, if it appears at the front it means the speed is going down. The default speed when you start the game or when you're respawned after dying is 2. There are occasions where higher or slower speeds will be preferable, so keeping track of how fast you are and how fast you want to get is essential for better chances at survival.

Even though the control scheme is considerably rich and intuitive, it also tends to cause confusion when the screen gets too cluttered (and it will) and you want to take care of enemies from both sides of the ship. If you're shooting to the right and suddenly you want to shoot left you need to release button A first and only then press button B, otherwise you'll just move the options around if you press B while button A is held down. Over Horizon often calls for quick reactions and swift shot direction changes. The third stage in particular is a great example of this - you need to move the ice blocks around to get through, but it's also possible to crush enemies by doing that.

Pausing the game allows you to know your score and life stock. Extends are awarded with 100, 300 and 700 thousand points, and every stage has at least one extra life to be (easily) found. Scoring is straightforward and is ultimately made pointless by the fact that you can use one of the teleport doors in the last stage to loop back and score more points while getting a 1UP over and over. This teleport door is the lower one in that screen with two doors to the right. I guess it was left there so that you could power up the ship if you happened to be low on firepower, but they could at least have excluded the repeated 1UP appearances. The ending credits will halt on your final score for a brief while before showing the final boss's embryo fleeing and swearing revenge. The final message (YOU HAVE WON THIS TIME BUT I WILL BE BACK) only disappears when you reset the console, but unfortunately this also resets your high score.

A stage full of frozen blocks
(courtesy of YouTube user BrYaN5555)

Thanks to the varied design, the right degree of challenge and the unlimited continues, which helps practicing and successfully avoids frustration, Over Horizon is really fun and can definitely be labeled as a highlight of the NES library. The difficulty ramp is adequate and the game keeps you on your toes most of the time. Stages 5 and 6 come with extra bosses and will certainly demand some continues until you can safely deal with all the alien hazards. Level bosses are preceded by a WARNING message (one of the tiny bits of influence from Darius) and are often marked by easily recognizable movement patterns. Controls are spot-on, with built-in autofire and fair hit detection. The only possible gripe involves the weapon system - it's severely unbalanced towards the laser shot, so missile and homing are ultimately useless. A little bit of flicker and slowdown should be expected in key areas, thankfully with no negative impact on the game as a whole. If you stop shooting the music will gain an extra layer of bass, one of those smart moves to get the most out of the audio capabilities of the NES.

EDIT: there's an "edit" alternative at the start screen that allows you to reposition the ship's options to your liking, as well as mess around with the weapon's power levels.

My final score is the one below. Before entering the last chamber to deal with the brain boss (it's as if the final boss from a Gradius game could actually pose a fight) I warped back twice on that lower teleport door to max out my lasers.

Friday, May 18, 2012

DonPachi (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by SPS in 1996

There is one aspect of the DonPachi port on the Playstation that’s really harsh on those who value the best gameplay experience you can have on a home console. When played on default settings the screen wobbles up and down, in what was supposedly aimed at giving the player a complete view of the play area. The problem is that not all gamers are fans of this wobble effect, and the fact that you can’t turn it off on a regular 4:3 screen display is even more aggravating. One of the solutions to this is to turn the TV on its side and activate TATE mode. TATE is synonym to a 3:4 display and corresponds to the majority of the displays for arcade vertical shooters. When played in TATE the console game ocuppies the whole screen and the resolution is as close to the arcade as you can get, as well as the experience. In the case of PS1 DonPachi it’s been long since I promised myself I would play it only if I was able to TATE, and thanks to a few good shmupper fellows at the retrogamer forums I finally had no excuse not to do it. The game had been chosen as the competition title for a couple of weeks.

Being Cave’s first shooter, DonPachi bears strong resemblance to the late Toaplan games, most notably Batsugun and Grind Stormer. It's the cradle of one of today’s most revered shooting franchises, and despite the roughness around the edges it’s still capable of delivering bad ass challenge both for survival and scoring play styles. Bullet density can get tough amidst the myriad of turrets, tanks, ships and flying fortresses, but it's still heavily bent towards the old school feel of the abovementioned influences. Hence DonPachi's most important contribution to the shmup genre as a whole: besides giving birth to arcade danmaku it established the symbiosis between Shot and Laser, something that helped define the way people should approach a handful of Cave (and non-Cave) shooters over the years. Tap the button to get regular fire, henceforth known as Shot, and hold the button to unleash a continuous stream of energy, henceforth known as Laser (while "lasering" the ship moves at a slower speed). Note: on the console ports you have the advantage of getting separate buttons for Shot and Laser, with Laser overriding Shot.

The first TATE setup will never be forgotten!

Basics are applied to three very distinct ships. Type A (fastest) has a straight firing pattern, type B (middle speed) counts with side turrets that bend as you move sideways and type C (slowest) comes with a spread pattern that covers a huge chunk of the screen when maxed out. Powering up is done by taking P items, but you need to get two Ps in order to see a step up in firepower. B icons stand for extra bombs, which are also granted at the end of every stage (stage number equals the number of bombs refilled, so at the end of the 4th stage you can get 3 bombs back in stock). Bombs produce a screen clearing detonation, but when used with Laser they actually boost the ships’s fire stream into a hellish destructive blast, one that's so powerful that will pull the ship back while it lasts.

This time around I had a new opportunity to delve a bit more into the scoring side of the game, so I changed my ship preference from type B to type A. Therefore I needed to be more careful with survival and pay much more attention to ship placement so that I could get the longer possible chains. Chains in DonPachi are simply the act of killing successive enemies with no more than half a second between each one. The first kill is the most important since its base score will be multiplied by the chain value in a progressive succession (take a look at the multiplier figure below the score display to see how it works). The key is to weaken large enemies to the brink of destruction and let them live long enough so that a long chain can be started once other smaller enemies group around them or dive into the screen. Heavy memorization is the only way to get rewards from this.

Another source of points is bee collecting. They might appear from selected ground targets, but most of the time you need to laser hidden spots to uncover them. Taking all 13 hidden bees within a stage will give you a good scoring bonus. I can safely do this in stages 1 and 2, and have yet to try doing it in the rest of the game. Provided you don’t use any bombs the end-of-stage bonus also starts to become a relevant part of scoring. On the other hand, scoring higher and getting extra lives (an extend with 2 million points and a 1UP uncovered by destroying a central turret in stage 4 without bombing) will dangerously increase rank. Rank level is clearly noticeable by how enemies immediately get less aggressive when you die with a full life stock in later stages.

Most of the improvements I made this time were related to sustaining longer chains in stages 2, 3 and 4 in a consistent manner. That's when type A is more recommended than type B, since the helicopter's moving turrets induce an extra layer of difficulty during those split-second chaining sequences. I also learned how to get all bees in stage 2, and while I could have tried to do that in later levels I just didn't have the time to do it. Confidently no-bombing the fourth boss and getting a +400k bonus out of stage 3 were achieved as well. To get this bonus you can't die and the bomb counter can't be increased (the more you bomb the more bomb slots you open, which provide better bomb stock possibilities but reduce the end-of-stage bonus). Regarding chaining, it should be stressed that the act of lasering a stronger enemy in DonPachi does not keep the chain going - this is an improvement that came with DoDonPachi, the sequel. It might seem silly now, but it took me a while to fully understand this.

First stage with the helicopter (type B) on the PS1 (TATE display)
(courtesy of YouTube user KikenEnryu)

DonPachi is a true classic but it's in almost every way overshadowed by its sequel. Truth be told, this happens for very good reasons such as DoDonPachi's tougher difficulty, flashier graphics and full throttle bullet hell from the get go. Nevertheless there's one thing I definitely prefer on the first game: the cheesy announcer and his bossy commands. JUST A COUPLE MORE SHOTS is the most recognizable message, but there's a lot of other great ones. KEEP YOUR FINGER ON THE TRIGGER, ROOKIE! Unlike further entries in the series there are no requirements to get into the second loop in this first chapter. Not only does the game get harder on the extra loop, but everything killed at non-point blank distance generates loads of aimed suicide bullets. That's when memorization pays off as an essential resource to survive, since every now and then you're forced to stop shooting in order to get through the bullet mayhem. True last boss Hibachi awaits if you're skilled enough and beat the game again.

Comparisons between the Playstation and Saturn versions of DonPachi are inevitable. First and foremost, the only real advantage of the Saturn port is that it allows gameplay in YOKO without the vertical wobble. It is marred by awful loading times and admittedly has more slowdown than usual (nothing gamebreaking though in my opinion). On the other hand, even though the PS1 version has reasonable loading times and no slowdown ripples players who can't/don't TATE are chained to the vertical wobbling. There's an extra option to stretch the image horizontally (yuck!) but the wobble is still there.

The high score below was achieved on NORMAL with the type A ship (note that the default difficulty is EASY).

Friday, May 4, 2012

Heavy Unit (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Kaneko
Published by Taito in 1989

No home version of Heavy Unit was ever released outside of Japan, and in this case in particular probably for reasonable marketing reasons. The original arcade game seemed to be quite obscure, and both home versions aren't anything to write home about, technically speaking. The Mega Drive port is more beautiful all around, but the PC Engine version is more faithful to the source material. If that's any indication of port quality it's up to the player, but on graphical merits alone Heavy Unit for the PC Engine is a poor one. Most shmups that came out at about the same time look better. The good news for PC Engine lovers is that on gameplay merits it is the undeniable winner when compared to the Mega Drive version that was released later. It's harder and offers more action per square sprite on screen.

Heavy Unit is about a spaceship that's able to morph into a robot as if it were a legitimate Decepticon. There's nothing memorable about it, in fact it's rather unimpressive. There seemed to be a compromise to be met while keeping the game faithful to the arcade game, hence the tiny sprites and the lack of parallax. Considering the lack of graphical honey and how hard the first stage is when compared to the rest of the game, the entry ticket is a bit taxing if you're the kind of shmupper who digs eye candy and a few generous thrills from the get go. That's why first impressions about this port of Heavy Unit are often disastrous. It certainly takes a bit of endurance and good will to start seeing whatever positive experiences it might offer.

Cave worlds are pink and inhabited by robotic toads

Controls are simple: use one button to shoot the main weapon and another to shoot missiles. While in spaceship form you're able to shoot a spread pattern and drop missiles up and down. Once in robot form firepower consists of a more destructive narrow pattern and homing missiles. In order to increase their power it's necessary to take P power-ups left by selected enemies or by a small carrier that needs to be destroyed. Other items include speed-ups (S), extra lives (E), shields/barriers (B) and the much needed transforming icon (T). It's the T that triggers the transformation between spaceship and robot and vice-versa (it's not possible to switch at will).

Mixing the sci-fi theme with bio-creatures and devilish motifs is the main reason why the arcade game is visually interesting. However, the adaptation on the PC Engine port drags it down a good notch due to the resulting lifeless environments and washed out colors of certain sections. What's left for players to enjoy is pure straight gameplay, provided they are able to surpass the initial section with the large block and the serpent heads. Whereas the Mega Drive version lacks in action the PC Engine game excels with plenty of enemies to kill and a lot more bullets to dodge. Maybe in order to balance that the shield in this version is much more effective, sustaining a higher number of hits and even allowing the character to go through walls (something that's deadly on the Mega Drive port regardless of shield strength). A lot more maneuvering is needed to defeat bosses, as well as a few regular flocks of enemies.

One item that needs special consideration is the speed-up. The initially awful low speed of the ship is gone once you take the first speed-up, and every subsequent one doesn't seem to add much (or any) speed at all. Thought it might seem so from the first half of the game, ship's speed does reach dangerous levels by the time you go through the power-up rain of the fifth stage. Perhaps it takes ten S icons to see some actual increase in speed, but it eventually happens. Since every icon is worth 100 points the temptation to get them all is there for those who crave higher scores. The good news in this case is that the game loops in a higher difficulty and adds suicide bullets to a few enemies. Yes, you heard it right: suicide bullets in a 16-bit shmup! I guess most people don't expect this from such a poor-looking game, huh?

Heavy Unit's last boss and ending
(courtesy of YouTube user TheMeanArena)

To be honest, the only thing that sets Heavy Unit apart from a shooter with NES standards is the decent lack of flicker or slowdown. I love those huge serpents that break down in pieces that bounce above the ground and the green toads jumping inside the bio-cave of the fourth stage. Although it's also severely downgraded the music is still amusing for the most part, an obvious merit of the original material. The starting difficulty is to blame for scaring most people away, but those who are able to get the shield item and beat at least the first level will certainly find the rest of the game reasonably balanced, even considering the checkpoint system. Choosing between the spaceship and the robot isn't such a big deal because the robot's not that large, especially when compared with the Mega Drive version.

There's a boss rush in the fifth stage, where you fight all bosses from the previous levels one after the other. In my best run I died on the fifth stage of the second loop, on the rematch against the 3rd boss. Game was played on NORMAL (to access difficulty selection press ←, button I and RUN).