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).