Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Imperium (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Vic Tokai
Published by Vic Tokai in 1992

Once upon a time a video game company named Compile created a shmup series called Aleste, which in some of its latest installments adopted mecha-based designs for character sprites instead of the well-known spaceship of old. It was a very recognizable trademark, made popular by the success of games like MUSHA, Spriggan and Robo Aleste. Much less known or successful, developer Vic Tokai dared to mimic these aesthetics with Imperium, which seems to be a downgraded offshoot from the games above. It’s not possible to envision the similarity going by the game box alone, it actually reminds me of a high-tech robot brawler instead of a proper shooter.

Known as Armored Maneuverer Dion in Japan, Imperium tells the story of an alien invasion to Earth in the near future. A powerful robot is sent into battle to free the cities occupied by the evil aliens and to crush the enemy base. It’s up to the player to guide Imperium (the robot) across six long stages over urban landscapes, forest, seas, desert, a large spaceship, moon bases, outer space voids and the mandatory alien fortress. It’s nothing out of the ordinary for a 16-bit shooter, but seeing the game in action might certainly lead unaware spectators to wonder if it’s yet another entry into the Aleste series. However, with the exception of the flying robot Imperium has little in common with Compile’s more famous shooters, especially on the gameplay front.

Patrolling the surface of the moon

Right off the bat you notice that lives consist of a health meter with five hit points. Lose them all and the game ends. In order to recover health and power up Imperium it’s necessary to kill enemies and add their value to the EXP counter, a convenient substitute to the regular score counter. A lower counter title NEXT EXP (N·EXP) tells how many points you need to reach the next upgrade and recover one bit of health. Starting out with just a straight vulcan weapon at level 1, you subsequently get a wave shot, a laser and a directional sparkling shot (fires in the opposite direction you’re pointing at). Further upgrades will boost the weapon power to level 2 and level 3 (maximum). Getting hit will take away one health point and downgrade the currently used weapon by one level.

The control scheme uses all four face buttons in the controller: by default Y shoots, B selects the weapon (left → right), X selects the speed (out of 4 choices) and A triggers the bomb. The more you advance in the game the more important higher speeds become. Bombing causes the screen to be raided by a series of missiles that damage everything on screen, wipe regular bullets and provide brief invincibility to the robot. Since upgrades are score-based the only item you’ll come across in the game is the extra bomb, which is always released by specific large enemies within the stages. Shooting and bombing comprise the basics, but selecting the most appropriate weapon for each enemy and correctly controlling speed are what really helps to achieve victory in this tough shooter. Making mistakes with the buttons is the main cause of failure in the beginning, and while it’s possible to reconfigure everything it’s just weird that you can’t remap them to the controller shoulders (as I would’ve done).

Even with the bullet jerkiness – which requires a slightly different approach to dodging – Imperium has a considerably decent difficulty curve in its first half. Enemies will arrive in slower and foreseeable patterns. Harm to the upgrade scheme will only happen after you’ve acquired all four weapons, therefore you can allow yourself to take a few hits in the process. Bosses are the main challenge and can give a little trouble, such as the ones who are only vulnerable for a short time window (2nd mid-boss and 3rd boss). However, once the 4th stage starts drones will swarm faster and more aggressively from both sides and from below. Large battleships will clutter the screen with strong minions and unless you have a level 3 vulcan or laser you’re in deep trouble. Several fast scrolling sections with lots of turrets firing blazing fast bullets will test your ability to keep that wave weapon maxed out. The increase in difficulty is so steep that the whole stage 4 seems to have been designed to screw the player over and over, and the three available continues aren’t of much use because you can’t do enough damage with all weapons starting at level 1.

Opening and first stage
(courtesy of YouTube user SaSheblShoot)

Backgrounds in Imperium are mostly quite poor, but this is somewhat disguised by several abrupt variations in scrolling speed. Although the overall enemy design is of the same caliber, a bit more character was given to bosses and mid-bosses. They’re often static-looking and devoid of animation but move around a lot, and once again the 4th stage comes to mind with its insect-lady boss, definitely the toughest of them all. The good news is that getting used to the 4th stage makes it easier to get to the end of the game. At this point general gameplay gets a bit predictable: if an enemy wave comes from the left you can bet another one will arrive from the right. All weapons in the game are equally useful, and you can even use them in conjunction with the slowdown to make the game easier. In regular circumstances slowdown kicks in when too many enemies/bullets are on screen, but a good example of how to exploit it is on the fight against the 5th boss: during his energy ball attack a level 3 laser will cause enough slowdown to move around safely with speed set to 4. Any other weapon power level takes away the slowdown and leads to a harder battle.

Imperium’s worst problem besides its weird frame rate and the sudden difficulty spike is the amount of dead space. There are long sections where nothing happens, especially in stage 3. Although it’s no disaster, there’s nothing special about the soundtrack. Infamous mode 7 appears in a neat rotation effect during the game’s introduction but is rather shy during the game itself, with a few zooming enemies here and there. The rip-off stench slowly fades as you start to realize the game is tougher than the regular Compile mecha shmup, but this doesn’t mean it’s more fun, not even close. It’s a dry, emotionless ride best suited to grinders and to curious Compile fans.

Since there’s no high score display in this game I paused right after I killed the last boss and took the picture below (NORMAL). After the credits roll you get stuck in an end screen and need to reset the console to keep playing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Parodius Da! (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
7 Difficulty levels
11 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1992

Of all ports produced by Konami for Parodius Da!, the second chapter of the now classic Parodius spin-off series of Gradius, the one made for the Super Nintendo strikes me as the most interesting of them all. The game was already long by regular standards, but Konami went the extra mile and added another full-fledged level before the final fortress, turning the game into a loopable 11-stage behemoth of Gradius-infused fun. It’s yet another proof that Konami loved the SNES hardware as far as shmups go, so if you’ve got the console and haven’t tried this particular version of Parodius Da! yet you’re missing out on a great game, which didn’t get a release in Western shores but can be properly savored with the Japanese and European editions (in Europe it appeared under the title Parodius - Non-Sense Fantasy).

Parody wasn’t really a strong trait of Parodius on the MSX, the first game. In Parodius Da!, however, three Gradius games (and Salamander) are taken as direct inspiration for stages and enemies, as hinted in the several screens of the introduction sequence. From Gradius we get the volcano stage and the last stage/boss. Gradius II is there in the form of the galactic dancer and the bald eagle with the USA hat of the second stage. Bubbles (some of them with nymphs inside) are the main contribution of Gradius III. Even the first game is parodied since the penguin boss reappears in the first stage. R-Type receives a homage on the spaceship level, the only one where moai statues appear – watch out for the female moai boss and the dirty prank related to her projectiles.

The experience of approaching the game is made different according to the character chosen. It’s possible to play it as pure Gradius, since Vic Viper possesses all capabilities from the first Gradius game. The same old rules apply: collect capsules to highlight a weapon array. If you decide to play the game on "manual power-up" you'll need to activate the weapon array slots with a dedicated button to get the desired upgrade, be it speed, missile, double shot, laser, option or shield. Choosing "auto power-up" will make the game activate the upgrades for the ship automatically (good for beginners or children, but not useful at all if you want to have full control of the ship). Since this is a Parodius game players must be aware of the new slot in the weapon array, the !? bogus switch. Activating this will take away all power from the ship and send it back to its default condition. !? is located between option and shield and normally offers no danger, unless you take one of the roulette capsules that makes the weapon array go crazy. If this happens the player should take the opportunity to exercise his/her ability to press the power-up button carefully.


All weapons are a bit different for the remaining characters of the game. Takosuke the Octopus uses a configuration inspired by the Salamander games, where tail gun replaces double shot and ripple laser replaces regular laser. Twinbee also has a tail gun but replaces laser with a 3-way shot. Pentaro the Penguin uses the combination of regular double shot and daggers with a cluster exploding effect. All characters have slight variations for missiles, with dedicated pre-stage musical themes and specific sprites for shield and power-up capsules.

Coming back to Parodius Da! on the SNES was relaxing, as it is with most of the games we’re familiarized with. It’s a little easier than the original Arcade original but just as fun. It could be just a vague impression from my sound setup, but I like how the bass seems more pronounced on the music for the SNES. Memory served me well on the strategies but I had forgotten how long the game actually is, so allow me to do a quick breakdown on all stages with some notes:

  1. Beach level: an easy introduction to the gameplay, but be careful of the roulette capsule in the middle of the stage (or take it to get another option faster).
  2. Circus level: clowns and incoming enemies can easily overwhelm, so hit them fast and hard. The dancer at the end of the stage is a lot easier than the original mechanical spider of Gradius II, just watch out for the lower penguins.
  3. Pyramid level: the final part of the maze is tricky, it’s better to ignore the capsules so you don’t get crushed by the walls.
  4. Volcano level: a big tree that runs back and forth might get you by surprise, as well as the towels from the sumo guys.
  5. Spaceship level: an easy ride up until the boss. The green moai coming out of her mouth are dangerous but can be destroyed.
  6. Pinball level: one of the toughest stages in the game. Stay centered, use double shot and try to take out stationary enemies as fast as you can. There are loads of roulette capsules and it’s really hard to come out of the stage without one.
  7. Bubble level: whenever I reach this stage on one life I activate the !? power down switch at once to reset rank. Things get really nasty if I go on with a fully powered ship.
  8. Ice cave level: another speed-up is definitely needed underwater, and being aggressive against all those fish is the best way to survive.
  9. Graveyard level: watch out for the bones coming out of destroyed skeletons. I like to get through the umbrella section by staying in the center of the screen.
  10. Bathhouse level: here’s the extra stage, with penguins and bathing pigs all over the place. The beer boss (or a glorified soap?) tosses bubbles in two different patterns but is quite easy to be dispatched.
  11. Fortress level: a carbon-copy of the last stage from Gradius, complete with the penguin-cage and a joke of a last boss (instead of the evil brain we get an octopus, of course).
More than the actual gameplay being a bit toned down, what makes this port of Parodius Da! easier than its Arcade counterpart is the extend scheme: one extra life at 20.000 points and another one for every 100.000 points afterwards.

Omake stage in Parodius Da! for the Super Famicom
(courtesy of YouTube user CHuCHoX246)

Scoring in Parodius Da! has everything to do with yellow bells. Bells? Yes, bells just like in Konami's own Twin Bee. Enemies that are supposed to release power-up capsules will regularly drop bells instead, which change color as the player shoots them. Each consecutive yellow bell collected will increase its value from 500 to 10.000 points in five steps. If you let one bell pass by the next one will be back to 500 points. Keeping a constant stream of maxed out yellow bells is a nice rush and adds an extra dimension to the game. Other colors for bells yield special powers to the ship, such as a smart bomb (blue), three stationary energy bars (brown), enlarging invincibility (green) and a horn that displays Japanese kanji (white). Blue and brown are kept for the player to trigger them with a specific button, but remember that while any of these bells is active the shield cannot be used.

Another treat Konami included in the SNES port is an Omake (special) stage with a lollipop setting. This mode is a single level with way more items to collect and no checkpoints.

I always thought that mocking sound that plays every time you die can be annoying if you're struggling to get past a tougher section. On the other hand the GAME OVER music is outstanding, uplifting enough to make me forget about the mockery - penguins, cats and all - and consider this game a solid and easygoing entry into the Gradius way to shmup. My new high score was achieved with Vic Viper on defaults (difficulty 4), a humble improvement of 15% over my previous best. I died my last life in stage 2-2.

The parody continues on the SNES in Gokujyou Parodius.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sine Mora (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Digital Reality/Grasshopper Manufacture
Published by Microsoft Studios in 2012

Ever since it came out Sine Mora generated strong polarized opinions on both sides of the shmup community spectrum. Long story short, it was highly praised by the mainstream gaming press but utterly desecrated by the so-called hardcore shmup fanbase. This relates easily to the neverending development battle that puts graphical lush against gameplay mechanics, a delicate dichotomy that defines and ultimately segregates the shoot'em up genre from all other types of gaming branches these days. I like when a game raises so many heated arguments because it makes me want to try it on a clean slate. On controversy alone Sine Mora is an undeniable winner, but here's my quick two cents: gameplay is really different (hence the hatred from hardcore people) but the game does try to cater to all segments of players (hence its mainstream success).

There are two main modes in Sine Mora: Story and Arcade. As its name implies, Story mode contains heavy doses of voice narration/dialogue, text messages and cut scenes in between the actual gameplay, as well as stage swapping and extensive interaction between a multitude of characters. Its target audience is the player who always thought of the absence of an explicit story as the Achilles' heel of shoot'em ups. Arcade mode, on the other hand, throws the player immediately into action on higher difficulty stakes, meaning it behaves more like a traditional shmup. Both modes have two difficulties each, Normal and Challenging (Story) and Hard and Insane (Arcade). The first thing I did when I fired up the game was try Story mode, only to be extremely bored by chunks of stuff who held me from actually playing the game - a lengthy unskippable tutorial and the aforementioned text, dialogue and cut scenes. That was the end of Story mode for me, so I have absolutely no clue of what's going on during those speeches in Hungarian.

The truth is that I play shmups to blow up stuff, if I want a story I read a book or go see a movie. Some people might fancy that much wording in a shooter, but for me it's enough to know that Sine Mora has a steampunk setting reminiscent of Steel Empire, only with gorgeous HD visuals and a new way to deal with lives. This is, in fact, its main departure from the norm. There are no lives in this game, instead the player must deal with time. If that dreaded timer reaches zero it's GAME OVER, so all efforts must be directed at keeping it at safe levels. Get more time by killing enemies and taking extend items, watch the timer deplete faster by getting hit. It's the same basic rule of all shmups, slightly disguised as something different. Real difficulty comes with the fact that every section has its own (sometimes quite low) time limit, and it's not possible to carry over extra time from one area to the next. Remaining time is always converted into points in what the game calls TIME STABILIZATION.

Hot as hell!

Upon starting a credit in Arcade mode you need to make three important choices. First there's the ship/plane: the Merenstein VI, the BS4-VR Soprano or the GE-22 Liberator. Ship choice defines main firepower (button A), but subweapons (button B) are associated with the pilot. There are seven pilots to choose from, each one with a very distinct subweapon. And then there's the capsule type that dictates how you activate the capsule power (RT): speed-up (slows down enemies and bullets), rollback (rewind time, even if you die) and reflection (protects the ship against all harm and deflects enemy bullets).

All ships start with pea shots, but soon enough power-ups show up from destroyed enemies. With one dreadful and very rare exception all items are useful. Here's a list from most to least important:
  • power-up (red) - increases the ship's main shot power, maxing out at 10;
  • shield (light blue) - protects the ship against 1 hit, leaving it invincible for 5 extra seconds;
  • capsule (blue) - fills 1/4 of the capsule power bar;
  • subweapon (green) - adds one subweapon to the stock (5 max);
  • extra time (orange) - adds extra seconds to the timer;
  • time extend (purple) - once the timer reaches zero some extra seconds are awarded (usually 10);
  • piano (grayish/dark blue) - the screen freezes for a split-second and a piano falls over the ship → GAME OVER.
There's one item missing from the list above, the medal coin. This is where the scoring side of Sine Mora kicks in. Medals appear after every 5th enemy killed and increase in value from 1.000 up to 100.000 points, provided you don't miss a single one. Missing a medal will break the chain and send its value back to 1.000 points. Another part of the scoring system comes naturally: the multiplier. Play without getting hit and without using capsules or subweapons, and eventually it maxes out at ×9. Last but not least there's the end-of-stage bonus, which awards extra scoring for destruction ratio, hits not taken, unused continues and rank time allocation. Rank is the same old device that makes the game harder the better you perform on it, and here it's divided in classes C, B and A. If you play well the rank meter will gradually increase and reach class A, thus incurring in more and faster enemy bullets. Using capsules/subweapons and getting hit can send it back to grades B or C. The score is properly rewarded according to the amount of time you spend on these rank classes, and the greatest chunk of the end-of-stage bonus definitely comes from keeping a class A rank at all times. Note: there's no rank in Story mode.

Graphic design is the best aspect of Sine Mora, there's no doubt about it. However, beyond the eye candy and the basic rules about lives and time control lies a layered shooter that's relentlessly cruel. Getting past the first mid-boss Kolobok is reason enough for some players to give up Arcade mode. Thanks to the Story side of things every stage and boss has a specific name, something that lends personality to the game. Developers claim that Sine Mora was heavily influenced by Battle Garegga, Einhänder and Under Defeat, but it's obvious that this influence is purely aesthetical rather than functional (the almost invisible underwater missiles reminded me of Battle Garegga, the first half of stage 6 is a homage to Einhänder). All things considered though, it's clear that the Arcade mode in Sine Mora could've benefited from better balancing. While the pacing is okay (cut scenes can be accelerated with the left bumper) there's no warm-up at all once the game starts, it's just full throttle time-based pressure from the get go (Kolobok's fault). Bosses are somewhat uneven and vary greatly in difficulty, and despite a few hollow spaces here and there the player is bound to face all types of bullet shapes, lasers and missiles as beautiful landscapes go by.

One of the trailers for Sine Mora
(courtesy of YouTube user alfadrops)

Sine Mora offers a challenge that can definitely be classified as unique due to the timer scheme. It gets rewardingly fun once you get to know how to use the items at your disposal. However, the share of infuriating details is higher than usual, with a few single mistakes meaning instant GAME OVER (let's not even talk about the piano thing). For instance, once you get hit all your power-ups will scatter away, and if you're not fast enough to reclaim them they'll be gone for good. If this happens you're left hopeless and might as well kiss the credit a sorry goodbye, especially prior to boss fights (hint: if you're not using the rollback capsule and lose all power-ups prior to a tough part suicide at once to continue and at least replay the section for practice). Other tricky or cheap parts are the pipe transition with lasers that must be avoided by hiding behind the debris, the hydraulic columns of the furnace area and the train section after the Domus boss. It's practically impossible not to die when reaching these parts for the first time, an aspect that definitely qualifies Sine Mora as a heavy memorizer.

Memorizer it is, but that's a good thing to have on such a long game. Every enemy wave and boss will attack you the very same way, so progression isn't impaired by random enemy behavior. Randomness is reserved to item drops, with the exception of medal coins. Sometimes you get to the first boss with a level 7 firepower, sometimes it's a mere level 4. Sometimes the game gives plenty of items for you to face Kolobok, sometimes it just doesn't happen. Although this seems like bad design it doesn't bother so much after a while. What's truly bad about Sine Mora is the music, a sleep-inducing collection of themes that do absolutely nothing to match the beauty of the graphics. With such a pleasing design and at least two large, exquisitely animated bosses per stage it's just a shame that the music can't match the grandeur of the graphics. For what it's worth only Papa Carlo's and Ophan's themes sounded a bit decent.

Another minor reason for frustration is the fact that most of the pilots aren't readily available in Arcade mode, they must be unlocked by playing Story mode. Tying the knots between both game modes like this wasn't a wise move, regardless of the related customizations available on Score Attack and Boss Practice modes. For this reason I adopted default pilot Argus Pytel, the one with the seeker missiles as subweapon. My favorite capsule power is the "reflection" type, and the ship definitely has to be the G-22 Liberator. It's more effective at lower power levels and has a nice spread when fully powered-up. Here's my general strategy to shoot for higher scores: (1) always try to go into boss battles with a shield and (2) dodge everything without using subweapons or capsules to preserve the multiplier, (3) if you get hit take advantage of the invincibility provided by the shield.

As I mentioned above I skipped Story mode completely. I did notice that you get to play with several configurations of ship + pilot + capsule, with much less aggressive time constraints. Granted, it's great for beginners and lovers of storylines in games. Beating it probably serves as good preparation for the Arcade mode, with the extra challenge of spiralling suicide bullets in the Insane difficulty.

Here's my 1CC high score on Arcade mode, Hard, using the GE-22 Liberator ship piloted by Argus Pytel with reflection capsule type. No turbo fire was used (it is known that turbo controllers make the game easier). Unfortunately there is no offline high score table for Sine Mora. I'm glad I took the picture below after I beat the final boss - the online leaderboards are bugged and did not register the score, keeping it at a previous lower achievement.