Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Darius Gaiden (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Interbec in 1995

With the exception of Deep Blue earlier this year, it's been quite a while since I had blasted some dirty fish for the last time. Of course "dirty fish" has different meanings in this context: in the case of the outer space marine creatures from Darius it's a dear, affectionate name, but if we're talking about Deep Blue, well... it's as literal as it gets. In the past couple of weeks I spent some time with the least commented port of Darius Gaiden - the one released for the Playstation only in Japan - so now I understand why 99% of the talks about a console version is always geared towards the Saturn one. An extensive bullet list of the reasons isn't needed, for it all comes down to slowdown. Chronic, constant, sometimes challenge-crippling slowdown.

Maybe the root cause for such a botched disc is the simple fact that Taito didn't directly handle it. A company named Interbec (of Tekkaman Blade fame) is to blame. You see, such was the hysteria over 3D during the mid-90's that Interbec thought it would be a great bonus to include newly animated sequences at the start and the endings in order to enrich the story. Could it be that the slowdown happens because they sucked the energy out of the game itself to come up with these sequences? Yeah right... If things in video games were that simple! What matters is that even with all the unnecessary material, the slowdown and other minor issues Darius Gaiden for the Playstation is still Darius Gaiden. It's still a challenging shooter with tons of fun, but early on I deemed it as being the "training version" of the game in order to keep it in a separate category.

Extra and regular opening sequences for Darius Gaiden on the Playstation
(courtesy of YouTube user kantoku666)

Darius Gaiden continues the famous Taito fish-blasting saga with undeniable flair and power. It takes little to enjoy it, but a lot to master any of its routes. One button (□ or ○) is used to fire weapons, the other (×) triggers a black hole bomb (BHB) that sucks every single bullet and small enemies while making the Silver Hawk invincible. Destroy colored enemies and hit hidden spots in the scenery to release power-up badges and other equally important items. Power-ups consist of red (main shot), green (missiles) and blue (shield). Other items can be black (points), purple (extra bomb/BHB) or orange (screen-clearing bomb), and there's also a small Silver Hawk for an extra life. Main shot is constantly evolving, but for missiles and shield it might take a few power-ups to see their status change (check the gauges below the score counter). Dying degrades firepower by a partial amount only, unlike what happened in previous Darius arcade games.

Besides what's exposed in the above paragraph, the main aspect that defines Darius Gaiden is hidden within the game itself: rank. Basically, everything gets harder if you take all power-ups or if you destroy more boss parts. Therefore, if a particular section or boss is giving trouble try to refrain from taking a red or a green badge (blue ones are a must though, shields are really precious here), or try not to destroy all fins and tips of a boss. Besides offering different game routes, the branching nature of the game also allows for distinct challenge levels since some stages and bosses are noticeably easier or harder than others. Having beaten the Saturn port in the most common route for a higher score, this time I decided to tread the lower path, considered by some as the hardest one. There's no infamous autofire cheat available for the Playstation (maybe another reason why it's so neglected?), but you can get faster firing rates by tapping □ and ○ (same as A and C on the Saturn controller).

Since bosses play a big part in any Darius game, here's my take on the bosses in the lower route:
  • Golden Ogre (A): iconic and easy first boss, even easier when you avoid one of the red power-ups and get to him with the triple soft shot (the one that doesn't pierce);
  • King Fossil (C): the classic Darius coealacanth is now more dangerous because of the torpedoes coming out of his open belly in his last form.
  • Folding Fan (F): I always go for a quick kill on him, because if he's allowed to do a 3rd laser attack from his tail I'll either have to bomb or become dead Silver Hawk meat.
  • Neon Light Illusion (J): the first part is easy when you go around him from below and take care of his upper longer tentacle. When his inner shell is exposed it's all about herding and weaving. Pressure!
  • Fatty Gluton (O): the drill is the same as before, that is, try to crush whatever comes out of his mouth before it explodes. His third form is the trickiest, if you can't get close enough to the mouth just stand still from a distance and the bullets will go around you.
  • Deadly Crescent (U): pretty much avoid the fins and focus on his open mouth. If too many fins are destroyed his mouth will spit a tentacle in his last form and turn an easy fight into a brief nightmare.
  • Storm Causer (V'): bigger brother of Golden Ogre and my nemesis in the lower route, full of multiple forms and cheap random attacks. He's also the only boss where I'll bomb in order to keep my shield.

Facing the captain of stage D

By far the biggest innovation in Darius Gaiden is the ability to detach an orb from the body of the mid-boss (a.k.a. captain) and take it so that the creature will fight alongside the Silver Hawk. Try to hit the orb only, otherwise you end up just killing the captain. Not only is this über cool, but it also contributes to the final bonus you get when beating the game (each captured captain is worth 200.000 points). Other completion bonuses come from bomb stock (250.000 points each) and number of lives in reserve (1 million each). Reaching the end without losing any lives while capturing all bosses and having 5 bombs in stock (maximum) results in a final bonus of 6,7 million points. Sure this representes the bulk of any 1CC high score, but scoring well also comes from not letting any wave escape (you always get more points for destroying complete enemy waves) and getting lucky on the black badges.

Luck sucks, I know. I once heard that there are recommended ways to collect the black badges (9 o'clock for the first one in stage A, for instance), but I have now accepted that they're just random. Sometimes you get 51.200 points, sometimes you're left with 200 points only. And you can't help but feel robbed. As I said, luck sucks. But I don't love Darius Gaiden any less for that. :)

ACFJOUV' was done twice in the picture below. In my best run I was able to complete the game on one life (Normal), but I had to use four bombs on that prick Storm Causer. I also failed to capture the captain in the last stage. I feel I'm done with Darius Gaiden for now, so I expect to be moving to G Darius in the near future.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Kolibri (Sega 32X)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
20 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Novotrade International
Published by Amoeba/Sega in 1995

Ah, the 32X… The device that became a joke the instant it was released upon the then dying commercial era of the 16-bit system… What’s left for us, Sega fans, to enjoy from the 32X? Not much, given the reduced library of 41 titles… And what’s left for us, shmup fans, to enjoy from the 32X? Almost nothing, given the fact that the amount of shmups released for it can be counted with the fingers of one hand. Sad, isn’t it? It’s no surprise the 32X is shunned by players and collectors alike, but thankfully we 32X owners will always have Kolibri. The game represents half of the original shooters developed for the system and is considered by many as one of its highlights (the other original half is Zaxxon’s Motherbase 2000, arcade ports exist for After Burner and Space Harrier).

The best thing you can say about Kolibri is that it’s unique. Besides, it’s the best hummingbird-based shooter available for the 32X (sorry, I couldn’t resist that). Jokes aside, the game is indeed unique, and the beauty in its design is somewhat related to the classic Ecco The Dolphin. The company behind both games is the same, that’s why Kolibri shares many of the gameplay traits that made Ecco such a hit: excellence in graphics, atmospheric music and challenging puzzles are the most recognizable ones. I just wish at least one aspect had been left out, and that is the complete absence of a scoring system. That’s a disappointment in itself, but in Kolibri a scoring system wouldn’t help much anyway: most levels have no timeout and enemies are respawned all the time when you move back and forth. In the end, I guess having no scoring system is less harmful than having a broken one.

My 1CC run on Kolibri

Once upon a time, Earth was in peace and the hummingbirds happily sipped nectar from flowers, until onde day darkness fell across the land. One hummingbird was then chosen and given powers by a magic crystal, and there he went destroying bugs and creepy creatures in order to bring nature back to its glorious self. This part of the magic crystal endowing the bird with powers happens when you start the game, as soon as you find a specific flower and start sipping nectar from it (just get close and it will happen). That's when the game really begins: all stages are preceded by names and vary in atmosphere, length and difficulty. Some of them are of the exploring type, others scroll automatically. Scrolling levels are very straightforward, but exploring stages require you to perform some kind of task. Unfortunately these tasks aren't always clear and get progressively more complicated as the game unfolds (unlike Ecco, there are no text messages anywhere). Trial and error is the rule, encouraged by unlimited continues and a password system that allows players easy access to any stage reached.

Controls are easy: use button B to fire, button C to perform a quick dash and button A to trigger special attacks, whose function depends on your current situation. Tracking the number of lives is only possible when you get hit or when you take one life refill - that's when the number of lives left will briefly circle around you like faint shadows. Life refill items are released by flowers freed from parasite insects (early levels) or left behind randomly by regular enemies (later in the game). Note that lives are NOT refilled once you complete a stage, and life stock is also saved when you take note of passwords.

All weapons in the game have three power levels and are upgraded simply by sticking to the same weapon icon. The icons look like small bubbles and come in the following flavors: a pea shot (default), rings (small rings that expand forward), 3-way spread shot (rebounds off walls), exploding shot (explodes like fireworks), homing coconuts (evolve to a 3-way spread at maximum power), homing laser (thin long laser shot), homing peas (look like light blue petals) and homing thread (a "living" thread that chases after everything in sight). Note: I have named and listed these weapons from least to most useful ones, but it's easy to test the majority of them with the crystal that spits them out once you start playing. By the way, crystals are the normal source of weapons, but they're also released at random by flying enemies (actually it's very easy to switch weapons by mistake this way). Each weapon changes the color of the hummingbird and has its own characteristic sound, with upgrades that are signalled by an increase in either firing rate or spread capability. Finally, taking a hit downgrades the current weapon in one level.

There are also special items. The DNA fuels the shield that's activated by pressing button A and expands outward when the button is released. According to the manual, big transparent blobs are supposed to slow down the enemy, but what it actually does is increase your speed to uncontrollable heights. I avoid it at all costs. Much more useful are the several shield rings that protect you against one hit.  Yellow seeds are the key to destroy rock barriers and keep going in later stages, you just need to take them and then press A when you're close to the barrier. Some barriers are trickier to break and will require pushing a worm-like fuse bomb with one of your weapons so prepare, you'll need lots of patience. Checkpoint crystals appear in longer levels and save your progress (including powers/lives). They're irrelevant for 1CC attempts, but very useful while you're learning the game.

"Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning?"

Much of the challenge in Kolibri comes from decyphering the mysteries in each stage and locating the necessary items to progress. However, the game is also riddled with cheap deaths and becomes a little nightmare if you're willing to see the end without ever losing all four lives. Beware if you're surprised by toads, chameleons or carnivorous plants, because once you're swallowed that cute hummingbird turns into dead meat. In rare occasions a quick dash can save you though, but no dash of any kind will be able to avoid those unpredictable huge droplets that also kill you in one blow. Dark Obstruction, one of the hardest stages (14th), has a moving bridge that kills you at mere contact, requiring a good amount of practice to be safely crossed (try to get there with a shield). Just for the record, there's no harm in touching any other part of the scenery.

Kolibri is original and fun, but it can also be infuriating when you get lost within the mazes of later stages. Gameplaywise there's something odd about the controls because the hummingbird doesn't really stand still when you stop moving. I'm not sure if the developer wanted to mimic the real bird's behavior with this, but it definitely requires getting used to. Other than that it's okay: most of the time crowd control is more important than dodging, especially when you consider that there are no main enemies apart from the final boss. Given the chokes of slowdown here and there, it's difficult to justify the fact that Kolibri is a 32X exclusive. Except for the exquisite use of color, I'd safely put it in the same technical prowess of Ecco or Bio-Hazard Battle, with which it shares a few similarities (one thing I only now noticed is that the game also belongs to the group of shooters that are insect-themed).

Two selections in the options screen must be mentioned. D-pad allows you to chose between holding or changing direction while firing (I prefer hold). Bird speed offers the alternatives of "normal" and "fast", which remains in effect for the whole game (I always leave it set to normal). I was able to clear the game on one credit with these settings and difficulty set to Normal.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Side Arms (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
12 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by NEC Avenue in 1989

Since I haven’t played at least 50% of it, I can’t say I’m versed in the shmup gallery of the PC Engine. But I do know, as a fact, that the only arcade company whose ports really brought the best out of the console was Konami. Konami’s titles (all four of them) are of consistent top notch quality and stand out easily amongst the outings from other companies, arcade-related or not. But why am I babbling about Konami when the subject of the text is Side Arms? It's simple: this version of the game leaves nothing to be desired when compared to the arcade original developed by Capcom, therefore placing it in the same level of porting excellence of Konami even though other companies were behind its publishing in Japan and in the West.

As a game, of course Side Arms isn’t in the same league of Parodius Da! or Gradius. Practical evidence of that is the arcade board never being as famous as Konami’s and the game never seeing any sequel. Forgotten Worlds is as much a technical development over it as Side Arms is to Section Z (which by the way is my favorite of the three). That said, the PC Engine version of Side Arms is impressive in the way it retains virtually everything from the arcade experience, from graphics to difficulty. It even improves it in certain aspects, and the first noticeable one is in the music for the first level. Here it’s replaced with something more energetic and fitting, and if you care about music in a shmup as much as I do you’ll agree that this was no coincidence at all. The first tune in the arcade version is prone to draining the marrow out of the game’s bones before it’s even started.

The battle for survival has started!
(courtesy of YouTube user Encyclopegames)

Side Arms is about a robot on the loose, shooting the hell out of creepy stuff inside and outside of what’s supposed to be planet Earth invaded by aliens. Endowed with the ability to shoot both left and right, this mecha (also called Mobilsuit) is able to fire several different weapons activated by collecting the corresponding power-ups throughout the game. Items are released by selected enemies and cycle through the following when shot at: Pow, bit (an orange orb), SG (spread gun), Pow, MBL (mega bazooka launcher), Pow, 3way, Pow, mirrored Pow (light blue color) and either a star or a yasichi. Contrary to what everybody thinks at start, Pow is a speed-up, not a power-up. It takes three of them to reach maximum speed, and the only way to reduce speed is by taking a mirrored Pow. All other items correspond to actual weapons, which are powered up by collecting items of the same type.

Aside from the absence of a 2-player mode, the biggest departure from the original game is the method to select weapons. In the PC Engine port the player needs to pause the game and then cycle through them (that’s how you’re also allowed to check your speed level). I can’t help but wonder why the developer didn’t choose to have a visible weapon array cycled by pressing START or SELECT, like many other shooters do. Well, at least that makes for a cleaner screen. As for the weapons, the icons for bit and 3way are fairly intuitive (bits circle the robot when the default weapon is being used), all others aren’t. Icons for SG and MBL are very much alike, but these weapons couldn’t be more different: SG is a 5way slow-firing spread, while MBL is a powerful thin laser with low firing rate. The star and the yasichi are worth some points and enable a weapon called Auto, the only one that comes with autofire by default. Of course that becomes irrelevant when a turbo controller is used (it’s definitely recommended to use one).

As the game scrolls you need to be on the lookout for the α/β icon. It’s normally left behind by specific enemies but it can also be found in hidden places. Once uncovered, grab it and watch as a ship comes flying off-screen and docks with the robot to upgrade its armor and provide an additional 8-way shot to whatever weapon you’re using. Never mind the way the robot seems to briefly shrink in agony as he spits bullets from his chest (I always found it awkward). If you get hit while in the upgraded form you lose the extra armor and get back to the original Mobilsuit, and only when hit in that condition you lose a life and the weapon you're currently using. There are just a few frames of invincibility after that, so don’t try to take advantage of a supposedly longer window to ram into enemies. In fact, losing lots of lives in a row because you get overwhelmed upon dying is quite common in Side Arms, especially during the swarms of items and enemies of the later levels.

Weird landscapes in future planet Earth

Refraining to take items in order to collect stars/yasichis for more points is the biggest cause of deaths later in the game. Since all items block firepower until you turn them into stars/yasichis, there comes a point where you need to take the items in whatever form they are to clear the screen and destroy potential threats. By doing that it’s easy to collect successive Pows and start moving too fast, which is also another source of danger (for me any speed above the default is too fast to play the game safely). Balancing item collection with speed management is the key to get through the second half of the game, when creatures approach flying and crawling non-stop from both sides.

Looking out for secret places with hidden items is important not only because of the α/β upgrade, but also to find extra lives and bonus points. The latter category appears in the form of strawberries, cows and golden barrels (don’t ask me about the reasoning behind them). Score-based extends are awarded with every 100.000 points, but they stop coming once you’ve made it past half a million.

Vibrant colors and faithful mirroring of all relevant aspects of the arcade game are already remarkable traits, but Side Arms for the PC Engine goes beyond that and even corrects some things that were originally off. Background confusion, traps in the terrain and that brief period of weapon transition upon armor loss are all gone here, qualifying this version as having improved gameplay over the original. The only crucial changes are the spread gun (SG) being capable of destroying enemy bullets and the addition of two brief extra levels – that is, if you consider every boss fight as being the end of a level (there is no separation whatsoever between stages in Side Arms). Other than that, if for any reason this port fails to excite the only one to blame is the arcade original, since the game itself hasn’t aged that well.

Next in line is checking what’s in store for the upgraded Side Arms Special, released later on for the PC Engine CD. My final 1CC result for Side Arms is below.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cotton 2 (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed/variable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Success
Published by Success in 1997

I think Cotton 2 - Magical Night Dreams caught everybody by surprise when it appeared in the Japanese arcades. The first game had been out for more than five years, and the growing dominance of danmaku was remodeling everything people knew about arcade shmups. Original console titles Cotton 100% and Panorama Cotton were good in their own rights, but were no real sequel to Cotton. That said, Success (the company) was full of the best intentions when developing a real sequel, infusing the gameplay with a unique scoring system in order to make it sound fresh, faithful to its roots and at the same time engaging for those who valued something more than just blowing up stuff in a magical cute’em up setting.

So here’s to Cotton 2, my friends, a game that honestly took more time to draw me in than I think it would... First of all, I was virtually terrified when I learned it had fighting-style commands in the same vein of Ai Cho Aniki. By the time I had finally found the correct motivation to play it, at one moment I realized I hadn’t sworn so much at a shooter in ages. You see, this is one of those examples where a single mistake can easily ruin an excellent scoring performance, and screw-ups happen in the most awkward manner until you learn how to reduce the error margin down to a comfortable level. Of course you could just blast your way through the game, collecting colored crystals and casting magic spells like crazy... But what of the final score result? What about the rush?

We’re all here for the rush, aren’t we?

On the surface Cotton 2 isn’t much different from Cotton - Fantastic Night Dreams. Aside from the gorgeous graphical evolution, that little witch is still flying her broom in a neverending quest for those delicious willows. The first difference is that player 2 now controls a second character, Appli, who's followed around by a talking hat called Needle (he's to Appli what the fairy Silk is to Cotton). Both main characters have a single health bar instead of the traditional assortment of three lives. Basic gameplay is still related to crystals, which are released by destroying waves of enemies and color-cycled by being hit afterwards. With the exception of yellow, which gives you points and experience to upgrade firepower up to level 5, all other colors switch the element type that defines your shot while adding a magic spell: orange (fireballs), blue (ice shards), green (wave shots) and white/gray (thin laser beams, appear only after stage 5). Shooting is accomplished with button A and magic spells are cast with button C. A very brief invincibility window comes with each spell cast, and pretty much any element type is okay if you’re just playing for survival.

Meet Cotton Drake, Icegirl

Now here’s where things start to get intricate. Performing combinations of directionals + shot generates special attacks that “seal” regular enemies into a magic ball that can be grabbed with button B (grabbing can be done with pretty much anything, by the way). While holding the seal press A or B to throw it forward, hold B to put it in front of you. This seal is the most important aspect of scoring and can be used in two different ways: (1) defeat and seal further enemies by hitting them with the current seal, thus increasing the chain value for progressively higher rewards; (2) release the seal and hit it with regular shots in what’s called “pursuit” to increase a shot counter for more bonuses and generate a heart icon that refills health. The seal disappears/expires if it’s left untouched for too long or if it hits an enemy that’s too strong (bosses and midbosses), in which case a huge ball whose size varies according to the chain value will be created and flown towards your current position. Hint: you never need to worry about collecting yellow crystals when you play for score because then powering up happens automatically.

The catch with the seals is that they behave according to the current element/shot type. Wind and light seals tend to drift up, ice seals plummet heavily and fire seals fall slower. Therefore, optimal seal types are preferred in certain situations – pursuit of an ice seal in open space is extremely difficult, for example. Furthermore, response to shots during pursuits varies depending on the element type. Ice seals are also heavier to carry, and it's easy to notice how the caracter goes down faster while holding one. Having a favorite seal at the start may require some magic: Cotton always start with the fire element because that’s the first magic spell in stock, so if you want to quickly move to wind or ice you need to cast one or two magic spells. Appli, on the other hand, starts with ice. I play with Cotton and my favorite element is fire, so unless something goes really wrong in a credit I never use a single magic spell. Well, if I end up getting extra fire crystals I might use one against the knight boss of stage 6. He deserves it.

These are the commands you can use to start a seal:
  • ← → A (straight powerful shot)
  • → ← A (3-way spread shot)
  • ↓ ↓ A (downward little bomb)
  • ↑ ↑ A (upward little bomb)
  • → ↘ ↓ A (spray of three shots ahead/down)
  • → ↗ ↑ A (spray of three shots ahead/up)
I don't really like the last two commands listed, mainly because they're bound to create more than one seal and also because I can't perform them consistently. Nevertheless I think the controller response is decent, it just takes the same amount of practice as in any new fighting game. However, here’s an important note on the use of command shots: for some reason a chain started with little bombs (↑ ↑ A or ↓ ↓ A) isn’t always registered by the game. Enemies are regularly sealed but you don’t see the chain count grow and there’s no score increase either, the only thing you get is the bubble when the seal expires. All you can do to remedy that is let the “bad” seal expire and start a new one. What puzzled me for a long time is that at certain specific places bombs work 100% of the time, but alas! I learned to live with that.

There are a few more complicated commands than the ones listed above, such as the one that discards a magic element without firing it (because a spell always kills the seal) and the suicide (why, I wonder?). In any case, I only use command shots when I'm starting a chain or when a boss is in front of me. On top of all the beauty in the graphics of Cotton 2, bosses are definitely my favorite part of the design. To accommodate their awesomeness the screen has to zoom in or out slightly at times, and with the exception of the final witch boss the more you advance the more unpredictable and dangerous they get. And if you think that the emphasis on chaining and the low bullet count of the initial levels make the game a joyride without much dodging, well... Bosses will teach you a much deserved lesson. There's no magic, no chaining, no shot-commanding that suffices unless you get pretty good at reading patterns and moving out of bullet's way. And all bosses time out, so be quick if you want to take them down.

A 1CC run of Cotton 2 with cut scenes disabled

It doesn't matter whether you choose Cotton (1P) or Appli (2P) to play the game, they behave exactly the same way except for their initial spell elements. Due to the unique nature of the gameplay it takes time to confidently deal with seals and pursuits, but once it happens Cotton 2 acquires a whole new dimension. By then you'll be giving much more thought to positioning (it affects enemy spawning), as well as rebounding seals off walls, grabbing/throwing stuff to clear the way and reacting to the occasional odd response of the built-in physics. Every now and then the seal will drift farther than usual, ricochet towards a different direction or connect to a series of enemies that are just entering the screen. During my first weeks I tried to refrain from shooting to add all enemies to the chain, often getting hit and losing a large chunk of health. In the end, no matter how you look at it, controlling the environment is essential to succeed both for survival and for scoring, especially when you consider that the game has rank. The better you play and the higher you score the more aggressive the game gets. Get hit and score peanuts to keep it tamer (not by a large stretch though).

When a boss is defeated you’re given the chance to recover some health by collecting the falling cups during TEA TIME. If you manage to avoid all cups a secret higher bonus will replace the regular bonus at the cost of no health refill. Then you’re awarded extra points for the stock of spells, cups collected (or the secret bonus) and the sum of seal/pursuit results for the stage. TEA TIME is the only part of the game where I detach my sidekick from the broom (Silk or Needle) in order to move a little bit faster. The command for that is → → ← B (there's also a speed increase triggered by holding A, but that's an unreliable resource because the character moves in bursts). Besides TEA TIME the only other way to recover health is by engaging in pursuits during the levels, but that's a bit more complicated. However, it's easier to accomplish pursuit recoveries when you have a wall where you can lean the seal and shoot it away. One spot where I'll certainly do that is on the 5th stage, right after the diagonal shaft descent prior to the mid-boss. The breather in enemy activity allows you to pull the seal against the upper corner and blast away to harvest a tender heart.

It is true that the gameplay in Cotton 2 isn’t for all tastes, unlike the outstanding graphics and audio. There’s a dark layer all over the game, but it never gets too grim or sinister. Even the creepiest things (zombie flocks, ghosts, fiends) look cute. Some of the music is lifted from the soundtrack of the previous chapter, and unless you use a RAM expansion cartridge you won’t be able to hear voices and intermission dialogues (which is actually a blessing for many people, those exaggerated characters can get annoying with time). Not only is the Saturn port a perfect rendition of the arcade original, but it also comes with an exclusive extra mode with rearranged backgrounds and enemies. Both modes are selected in the options menu, which is beefed up with extra tweaks when you beat the game in successive difficulty settings. If you want to take the shortcut and unlock everything – including a very handy Practice mode – just place the cursor over "Option", press and hold X, Y and Z and then press and hold A, B and C. Bingo! Special attention should be given to the pad-XYZ option: it allows the player to use autofire or map command shots to extra buttons. I didn’t use it, but I bet some people would love to have it from the get go.

The only downside here? The Sega Saturn port came out only in Japan, just like the pseudo-sequel Cotton Boomerang, which is supposed to be just as cool, albeit more hectic. For now I can say that pursuits + seals = lots of fun, you just need to be a little patient with Cotton 2. The arcade mode 1CC score below was achieved on Normal at full defaults (no pad-XYZ). A cool feature of the disc is that you can see a breakdown per stage of your performance by checking it in the Ranking section.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Great Paper Adventure (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Valryon
Published by Valryon in 2011

Upon a quick look at the demo it’s almost impossible for anyone who once was a gamer during the glory days of 8-bit gaming not to get hooked to The Great Paper Adventure. If you identify yourself with that generation, how could you resist the infectious chip tune music that adorns the hand-drawn graphics of this little title? That’s what prompted me to purchase the game, regardless of how vanilla the actual gameplay looked. It seemed decent enough for another cheap downloadable romp, plus it had flying cows in the first stage. Flying cows! Not even the Parodius series had flying cows, as far as I can remember. And to be honest, the last I had seen cows being correctly used in video games was in Earthworm Jim. Or Deathsmiles, I guess.

Jokes aside, The Great Paper Adventure doesn't try to do anything out of the ordinary. In fact it's a pretty straightforward nonsensical cute'em up. As its name implies, the art design is crafted as if you were playing amongst colorful paper sheets, and it succeeds at that besides the simplicity. For example, it surpasses the efforts of Border Wars while being probably on par with Paper Sky, two other similarly designed XBLIG shmups I have already savored (do I have a soft spot for these kinds of graphics, I wonder?). The Great Paper Adventure plays marginally better than these two games though, albeit not quite adhering to all genre conventions. The most severe oversight is not having an overall score for the whole game, instead you register individual scores for each section of a level. That's the exact same way you deal with scoring in Who's That Flying? for the Playstation Network, for example.

How about more ice for that cream?

Unfortunately, whatever enthusiasm I might have had prior to playing the game waned fast once I actually sat down and spent some time with it. As colorful and lighthearted as it is, the appeal of The Great Paper Adventure wears off once you notice there's no real sense of progress through the levels. You're just thrown in a series of different environments marked by uneven enemy presence and the occasional quirky bosses (at least they move a lot despite the poor animation). There are a few sections with a little more variety, such as the one that scrolls to the left and ends with a fight against a zombified little mermaid or the one where you're chasing a flying ice-cream amidst a shower of snowballs. On the paper and in screenshots these descriptions sound really great, but the gameplay does not match that part of the design at all.

The right trigger shoots and the left trigger fires a screen-clearing bomb (it doesn't matter if the bomb doesn't hit anything, for as soon as it clashes against the edge of the screen the explosion will happen). Every now and then the player comes across temporary weapon power-ups, which include SMG (doubles and then spreads the regular shot), fire, rocket, shotgun (a severely capped 3-way shot) and "stuff". Two or more SMGs are good as well as rocket, while fire is very powerful but with weird reach. The idea behind "stuff" is nice, but the execution is awful because it ends up being the worst weapon in the game: what it does is drop a series of random stuff that bounces around and do almost no damage. What's worse is that the random stuff is rendered just like enemies and leads to unnecessary confusion. Other items that might appear are extra bombs and extra lives (hearts).

Attempts at humor in the story start with the journey of the nameless hero to reach his grandma's for dinner. That made me think... Is being hungry a reference to Rami or Cotton? Their main motivation is always food! Anyway, the influence from Parodius is obvious, but there's also a strong nod to Mega Man in the last boss fight. Other than that, be prepared to face several variations of octopuses, as well as dolphins, cactuses, dudes with sombreros, creatures mutated by toxic waste, inflating pumpkins and witches on brooms shooting cats. The hero's ship is a little too big for my taste but at least that doesn't get in the way of the gameplay, which shuns the widescreen format in favor of a classic 4:3 aspect ratio.

Official trailer for The Great Paper Adventure
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Valryon)

Since the game always refills your life stock for every level, more serious gamers will only want to play it on Hard. Besides, on Normal and Easy you're allowed to destroy lots of enemy shots! Deaths are often caused by enemies appearing from behind or from the sides, but most of the time bullets and enemies cruise the screen slowly. That makes even the Hard setting a comfortable and easy ride if you're a seasoned player. The scoring side of the experience is simple, with an added bonus at the end of every section where you get 10.000 points for each remaining life and 5.000 points for each bomb in stock. Therefore it's tempting to use bombs in order to wipe out large foes and reap more points, just remember that the number of bombs is unrelated to life stock. At certain parts bombs are definitely needed to escape walls of enemies coming from behind.

To accomplish a 1CC run I had to erase the save file from the game because it keeps a high score table for each section in a stage. The final group result is shown below, as well as the sum of all individual scores (7.191.923 points). And that's it: great music, disappointing action and truncated performance tracking. Probably more fun for starters.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Super Shooting Towns (FM Towns)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Amorphous
Published by Amorphous in 1991

In the realm of console titles that allow users to develop their own games, I'm sure some of the most famous ones are those from the Dezaemon series, dedicated exclusively to the classic shooting genre. Throughout history there were other more obscure attempts made for shmups and other genres as well, and in the case of the FM Towns computers/consoles the shooter representatives are Shooting Towns and Super Shooting Towns. Recently I spent some time with the latter, which is much less rare than the first one and is advertised by the developer as a "super shooting tool". Printed in the initial pages of the thick instruction manual is "welcome to the game factory", so if you're able to read Japanese feel free to start building your own shmup with it.

I have already thought about designing my own shooter, but no matter how willing I might get from time to time I certainly won't be using Super Shooting Towns to do that. Not only are the disc and system really old by now, but there's also the language barrier and a handful of hardware details that I'd have to learn prior to starting the journey. Therefore, as a shmupper the fun I could extract from Super Shooting Towns came down to the sample game, a very short demonstration of the engine's development capabilities. This sample game is so bare-bones in its presentation that it doesn’t even have a name, options or any other expected complements such as an attract mode. Just boot the disc and play it. By the contents of the manual I guess you can use the editing tools to tweak this sample game as you wish.

"Are my nice red wings okay, brother bee?" 

The nicest thing about the sample game in Super Shooting Towns is the choice the developer made for the overall design: everything is insect-based. I love insect-based games, and even though this one serves more as a collector’s diversion it’s still a valid entry into a gallery that includes titles such as Insector X. Here the player controls a red beetle and travels through two stages with horizontal scrolling and two stages with vertical scrolling, fighting other insects of varying sizes along the way (use button A to shoot). As a rule of thumb you don’t die by colliding against enemies of your own size, so besides dodging the star-shaped bullets you’re also supposed to avoid large foes.

Multiple planes that move at different speeds are what immediately attract the attention in the sample game. The sheer number of parallax layers creates an appealing atmosphere, especially in the dense forest of the first level. While that’s a neat demonstration of the capabilities of the construction engine, I can’t state the same about the frame rate. The scrolling and the animation aren’t exactly on par with the parallax and the abundance of colors, which results in the gameplay being slow, murky and a little choppy. That said, a couple of bosses are the graphical highlight of the game, even though they don’t get even close to the awesome bosses seen on the Mega Drive port of Insector X. That’s only a hint at how underwhelming Super Shooting Towns is if you consider it’s running on a 32-bit platform. The only aspect in the game that can stand on its own is the music, which is mildly amusing.

On the actual gameplay, soon you notice some bugs are invincible to your firepower. That happens because they’re of the same species as you! Most of the time they cruise the screen in straight lines, bringing power-up items behind them. Just shoot to release and take the items. Distinguishing between them, however, is a task in itself, especially with the upgrades and options: you can either have a forward increase in power or a rear shot, and you can either get up to two fixed options or two rotating options (they look like little versions of the protagonist beetle). Finally, a heart-shaped icon is equal to an extra life (plus there's also an extend for each defeated boss). Dying strips you off everything, but thankfully it’s easy to recover firepower. In fact, the whole experience is extremely light and should only offer proper difficulty for children.

Super Shooting Towns - complete game
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

As of now I’ve never been able to see what Shooting Towns is about, so I still can’t assess which is the “best” one. As for Super Shooting Towns, I’ll probably never be able to confirm if it’s actually a “super shooting tool” as the developer puts it, and since it’s far more worth as a collectible than a proper game real players won’t be missing much by avoiding it. In any case, FM Towns fans who dig oddities might feel compelled to check a disc called Excellent 10, which was published by the same company and includes ten games developed with the tools available in Shooting Towns and Super Shooting Towns.

Below is my final score for the sample game in this one. If it had been harder it would've been more fun, but alas... It's more of a collector's pleasure anyway!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fren-zE (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by hermitgames
Published by hermitgames in 2005

Going after the more obscure items is something that will eventually happen to all collectors if they continue digging deeper into their hobby. In my case, one of the most interesting shmup oddities I came across recently is Fren-zE, a little game inserted with absolutely no warning in a demo disc that came with the 55th issue of the Official UK Playstation 2 Magazine, released in 2005. By no warning I mean the game isn’t mentioned anywhere in the DVD-sized cover (since I only own the disc I can’t vouch for the magazine). Fren-zE is also present in the demo disc of the previous issue of the same publication (#54), and although normally hidden it can be unlocked with a simple controller button combination.

A rather simple homebrew vertical shooter with minimalistic design, Fren-zE has shades of previous independent works such as the ones delivered by ABA Games (rRootage, Parsec 47). Vector-based graphics establish the mood for your lone ship to go against a series of abstract enemies and bosses in three stages. We all know this visual approach has been beaten down to death by years of independent PC game development and tons of questionable similar games released through XBLIG, but nevertheless I’m thankful that this title exists in physical form for the Playstation 2. Despite its simplicity, Fren-zE is sympathetic enough and serves as a good exercise in micro-dodging and bullet pattern recognition. Plus I’ve finally found a shooter that rivals Score Rush in having just a single badass BGM playing during the whole game.

Opening screen

Once the disc boots you’ll find Fren-zE in the Comedown section of the main menu. There are absolutely no frills about it, no options, no special settings, just an opening screen waiting for the game to be started. Shapes of different colors and sizes convey the idea of spaceships and saucers while slow patterns of triangle and square bullets dictate the dodging flow. Lives and score display appear on the left, high score on the right. Destroy everything with button × and collect the blue dots left behind for points, each dot being worth 1 point only. Mid-bosses and bosses yield a yellow power-up, for every 50 points scored the player gains a new life and when you die you're respawned in the same place with no power loss. It’s that simple, so anything beyond this falls into the category of gameplay details.

Since every enemy leaves a single dot to be collected for score, the maximum amount of points a player can get from beating the game is 297. When a boss is defeated your performance is tallied and you're told if he was “unlocked”, a reward for getting all possible dots in the previously played level (55 in the first one, for example). Unlocked bosses return for a boss rush after the third stage is completed, and by defeating them again a brief message displays your rank status in a humorous fashion. There’s a very amateurish bug in the game that sends your score back to the one you had between stages 2 and 3 every time the boss rush starts, but at least the high score display keeps your performance up to that point. Since there’s no extra prize for getting through the boss rush, not even a few more points or a marginal increase in difficulty, it just comes out as a lame afterthought for an extra stage – the only real letdown in an otherwise competent little shooter.

Being so short naturally serves as motivation for one to try perfecting the score, and as soon as I had reached the end I decided to film a sample credit and refine my strategies based on it. The first level isn’t hard at all, but positioning gets increasingly relevant after that. Come the bullet spams of the third level it’s really hard not to lose lives in order to get all the blue dots. Speaking of which, dots are subject to the ship’s gravitational force, so you don’t need to exactly touch them to register the catch. This is very important because later on they come in flocks and it's pretty easy to lose them if they're spread around the screen. Using the gravity field of the ship to attract the dots is definitely needed if you want to score higher.

A brief look on the 3rd stage of Fren-zE on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user Ejay444)

Fren-zE might be a curiosity reserved only for those willing to track down a demo disc, but I can’t deny it’s a nice one. It’s an excellent way to introduce new players to the wonders of the reduced hitbox in shooting games, after all the glowing square in the spaceship’s dead center is the only part of it that’s subject to damage at any given time. As for the red cores present on bosses, never mind them. Bosses have no weak points at all, their whole bodies are always subject to damage. Considering the fact that bosses time out and might leave the screen, it's important to concentrate fire on them in order to always get the power-ups they leave behind. Point blanking helps a lot, but overall the firepower and the built-in firing rate are perfectly balanced and evolve in harmony with the increase in bullet count.

A more accessible PC remake/revision can be downloaded directly from the developer’s website (although a relatively obscure developer, hermitgames also made the moderately successful caravan-styled Leave Home for XBLIG). The PC reworking of Fren-zE includes an extra stage, improved presentation and is graphically a little more fleshed out than its PS2 counterpart. However, the added reflect mechanic makes a significant dent in the challenge level.

Below is my final result on the Playstation 2 game: maximized score, all bosses unlocked for the post-stage and pilot status of CAFFEINE FUELLED NINJA CAT. I recorded the run but unfortunately my capture card wasn't able to deal with the PAL video format, thus everything appeared in black and white.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Galaga '88 (Playstation 2)

Vertical fixed
Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
29 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco in 2005

Vertical shooters where you dodge bullets along a fixed horizontal line represent a very special category in the shooting genre. Most of them fail to offer any valuable excitement for whatever reasons, be it for their simplicity or the lack of a final goal, i.e. proper ending. Within the series initiated by Galaxian in 1979 on the trail of Space Invaders, the first game to offer both a batch of innovations and a clear ending is Galaga '88. Coming after Galaga and Gaplus, it's still regarded by many people as the highlight of the franchise and a classic in its own right. A few console ports of the game were released ever since, including a much lauded PC Engine/Turbografx-16 version and emulation jobs included in more recent Namco compilations.

Playstation 2 owners can enjoy Galaga '88 by means of the US release of Namco Museum 50th Anniversary. The only minor catch here is that when the disc is played for the first time you need to score at least 40.000 points in Galaga to unlock the game (don't forget to manually save your performance before turning off the console!). If you're playing the Japanese version of the compilation, titled Namco Museum Arcade Hits!, Galaga '88 comes unlocked right off the bat. I'm quite fond of the interface Namco came up with on these discs, the arcade cabinet arrangement and the songs from the 80s are a nice touch. Unfortunately there's no TATE option for any of the vertical games in the collection, so bigger TVs are definitely welcome (the other verticals are Galaxian, Galaga, Xevious and Dragon Spirit).

One of the nicest things about Galaga '88 is the scoring system. With 29 stages, the game has an organic structure and evolves according to the player's boldness. Play well, be aggressive and reach a higher dimension while scoring better along the way. Be shy, avoid danger and tread an easier game with lesser scores. That being said, I must confess I chickened out and chose the second path.

Boss Galagan in capture activity and a free-falling blue canister

Sticking to an easier game is pretty much a matter of choice. Advancing to higher dimensions isn't complicated, all you need to do is collect two of those blue canisters left behind by an obstacle or by one of those giant bugs formed from the fusion of two smaller enemies. By doing so a dimensional rift will open after the bonus level, granting a score bonus and sending the ship against different batches of enemies. Sure, the game gets increasingly harder no matter what, but sticking to lower dimensions keeps the odds more favorable to survival. But alas! I'm getting ahead of myself here!

Galaga '88 begins by allowing the player to choose a single or a double ship to start the credit (for the latter you get one spare ship only). Waves of outer space insect flocks dart into the screen in rotating patterns. They might shoot or dive into you while entering the play field, and once all of them have settled in formation they’ll start their specific attacks. Enemies come in varying sizes and in a multitude of colors, static backgrounds change for every level as you advance and there are even a couple of sections with scrolling backgrounds. The memorable sound design mixes a healthy gallery of bleeps and clanks with brief music snippets and longer BGMs, lending a nice, unique flavor to the twitchy gameplay.

Every once in a while, more specifically in stages 3, 7, 14, 18, 22 and 26, the message THAT’S GALACTIC DANCIN’ tells the player he/she is entering a bonus area, much like the challenging stage of the original Galaga. If you manage to destroy all 40 bugs in it you get 10.000 points (letting all of them live gives you a secret bonus of 10.000 points). The galactic dancing thing isn’t just a fancy name, the enemies really seem to be dancing – note how they always enter the screen at specific points of the music. Those who know where and when the bugs are coming from have better chances at grabbing the extra points in a bonus area.

As I mentioned above, after the bonus level the game checks how many blue canisters you have collected. Two canisters send you to the next dimension, one or none do nothing. Each dimension comes with different enemies in different formation patterns. For instance, if you keep advancing you’ll be facing inflatable bubble enemies and shielded bugs with progressively more aggressive behavior. The fifth dimension is the farthest you can reach, afterwards blue canisters serve only as source for a few more points. Such a branching system is quite unique and allows for a flexible management of the challenge level, since you just need to avoid the canisters to play an easier game. The only moment where you’re forced to advance dimensions is in stage 10, since you’re automatically sent forward if you haven’t reached dimension 2 yet. Because of this Galaga '88 comes with four different endings, one for each finishing dimension (2, 3, 4 or 5).

Probably the worst credit of Galaga '88 ever played
(courtesy of YouTube user Brian Dunaway)

There’s no doubt that this game is fun, and it’s probably one of the most accomplished old school fixed shooters. I do have some gripes with it though, such as the firing rate. In Galaga '88 (or any Galaga game for that matter) it’s not enough to shoot, you need to aim. Dying because you missed that pesky bug in its descending arch becomes more and more infuriating. Dying because an enemy dives on you and you have no firepower to fight back often comes with a “bullshit” exclamation, on my part at least. Of course memorization and dodging are still in order, but in a fixed shooter like Galaga '88 these skills are in a whole different league than the majority of the other games in the genre. And I suck at it... Having a turbo controller doesn't help much because bullets come out in bursts instead of a continuous firing stream. That’s why in order to keep the stakes at a favorable level 100% of the players prefer to start the game with the double ship, allowing a boss Galagan to capture it as soon as possible (they're the green bugs in the uppermost formation line that generally appear in the third or fourth incoming wave and take two hits to kill). One of these bugs always approaches and emits a tractor beam, so let yourself be taken when this happens. Wait until it leaves its resting place and kill it while in flight, without hitting the ship behind it. When done right, the released double ship will descend and merge with the spare ship to create a triple ship, with a larger hitbox but much more effective firepower.

Whenever the triple ship is hit you revert back to the double ship, get hit again and you’re left with a single ship. To regain another ship and make it double or triple just wait for the next tractor bug and do it all over again. That’s easier said than done, of course, especially in later levels. Speaking of which, later on the last enemy in a stage might leave a shiny pink canister behind: take it and get promoted to a triple ship at once, regardless of your current status. I’d say keeping the triple ship throughout the game is essential to survive in the long run, as well as to score better. By advancing dimensions scoring possibilities increase in line with the difficulty but there are also other ways to get more points, such as performing well in the galactic dancing or killing the lemon-like insects only when the bug formation has been fully assembled (destroy their falling debris, different colors award different points). All secondary forms of bugs that merge or split are also worth more, as well as all destructible obstacles.

By default the player wins extends at 50, 140, 300 and 480 thousand points. Once the credit is over a map shows your progress across the dimensions, as well as stats on shots fired, number of hits and destruction ratio. The port of Galaga '88 on the Namco Museum 50th Anniversary starts at difficulty 1, but the setting should be changed to 3 in order to match the arcade difficulty. There’s no auto-save feature on the disc, so if you want to keep your high scores remember to always get out of the game and save before turning off the console. The 1CC result below was achieved on difficulty 3. I got the ending for the 2nd dimension, with the aid of a turbo controller for proper autofire.

After Galaga '88 the series continued with Galaga Arrangement, released in a compilation arcade game in 1995 (not to be confused with the 2005 PSP version of Galaga Arrangement).

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Tekkaman Blade (SNES)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Fighting)
Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Interbec
Published by Interbec in 1993

We all know genre-hybrid titles have become more common as of late, but the mixture of a horizontal shooter with a fighting game is still very unlikely no matter how far-fetched the concept. If the idea sounds good to you then perhaps it would be worth to check out Tekkaman Blade, released exclusively for the Super Famicom in Japan. Enjoying the experience, however, isn’t guaranteed by any means, for both the shooting and the fighting aspects of this game aren’t engaging enough and leave a lot to be desired. It’s no wonder Tekkaman Blade is quite obscure even among shooter or SNES fans, and my guess is that most people that care (or cared) about it are in some way fond of the animated series, created by Tatsunoko Productions at around the time of the game’s release.

The story of the anime takes place in the future and involves a deviant hero name Tekkaman Blade helping the Earth to repel an outer space invasion led by other armored soldiers like Blade himself. This isn’t conveyed in any way by the game, the only hints to any story appear in the brief dialogue sequences prior to each boss fight and in the ending credits, all of them in Japanese. What matters for us is that Tekkaman Blade must fight his way through the horizontal levels to finally confront an enemy on the ground of several orbital stations, in pure Street Fighter fashion. A double-bladed spear is his weapon of choice, be it while flying or brawling.

Flying and exerting justice with a badass weapon is awesome, right? It kinda sounds as if you’re playing as one of the heralds of Galactus! Even the way in which the character arrives on screen in every stage supports this geeky association. Unfortunately the shooting side of the journey suffers from repetitive/clunky gameplay. The fighting engine doesn’t fare much better, actually it’s even worse.

Evil creatures on an icy planet

During six stages the first part of our hero’s quest consists of a straightforward shooting section (the 7th and last level is the only one with just a shooter style confrontation against the last boss). Use Y to throw a spear that comes back to you like a boomerang, use B to slash whatever is at close range (including most bullets). There’s a health bar that gets depleted as you receive damage, and once the health bar is emptied you lose a life. The good news in the gameplay is that you are respawned in the same place if you die in the shooting parts. The bad news is that there’s no health bar refill when it’s time to fight a boss. Since you have only three lives with no extends in sight, reaching the bosses with the maximum possible health becomes crucial if you want to stand a chance at finishing the game on one credit.

In general, performing decently in the shooting parts is enough to go a long distance, especially when you realize that the fighting engine is atrociously limited. As a result, bosses come out as retarded robots waiting to be annihilated. The same inputs of the shooting parts apply here, but the spear isn’t thrown as a long-distance weapon anymore: Y makes him stick it forward and B performs a slash at closer range. Crouching, jumping and blocking enemy attacks is accomplished as in a Street Fighter game. Whenever one of the fighters receives a certain amount of blows he/she loses the weapon and has to rely on punches and kicks only (in the case of Tekkaman Blade these replace Y and B, respectively). If this happens, avoiding further damage will make the weapon materialize again after a while.

Don’t be envious of the bosses when you see them fire long-range laser attacks. Provided you haven’t lost your weapon, you can also do it by pressing A and X at the same time. The problem is that this attack is unresponsive and quite slow, and as a rule of thumb the best “strategy” against most bosses consists of approaching, beating them so they lose their weapons and slashing them to death, preferably in a corner. Never mind the few punches they might land on you, keep going and don’t let them breathe. I used different methods in just two bosses because they were more retarded than others: in the case of Tekkaman Axe (stage 3) and Tekkaman Sword (stage 5), just retreat to the left and block; as soon as they jump and bounce back hit them with any of the two attacks at your disposal.

Stage 3 and a desperate fight against Tekkaman Axe
(courtesy of YouTube user penguinpanda0)

In order to get through the flying levels the player needs to get used to the slow speed of the spear throw. Some enemies tend to cruise the screen faster than the return of the spear, and the only remedy around this is either welcoming them with a slash or moving out of their way. The pair of mid-bosses prior to the actual boss fight requires some patience to be dealt with, but once you’re used to their moving patterns much of the danger is gone. Crystal power-ups appear when a particular drone wave is destroyed: the green one refills the health bar partially, the blue one makes Tekkaman Blade invincible for a little while and the red one adds one smart bomb to be triggered with button X during the shooting section only. Don’t try to save the smart bomb for the next stage, it will only be available during the level you’re currently playing.

Had Tekkaman Blade received proper technical attention, I’m sure it would be a terrific game. I already mentioned all elements that make the concept such a cool idea. What holds it from being even an average game are the abundance of star-dotted backgrounds, the average music, the slow shooting action and the stupid AI in the fighting sequences. Okay, at some point the music of the first level started growing on me, but when I noticed it appeared again towards the end of the game I was reminded of how modestly designed the whole product actually is. In fact, from the little I researched about it the anime seems to be quite amusing, so I guess I must be thankful to Tekkaman Blade on the SNES for bringing that to my attention. For those interested, the game also has a Versus mode where two friends can select their favorite Tekkamen for some awful mindless brawling. Remember Justice League Task Force?

After the end credits the game lets you take note of your final score in the screen below. As you can see, I played it on Normal. No lives were lost on this run.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Forgotten Worlds (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Reprogrammed and published by Sega in 1989

In a planet devastated by war against an alien race, two unknown soldiers battle the enemy to restore Earth to its previous glory, before it started being called a “dust world”. Fitted with flying gears, they tread the wastelands armed with rifle cannons and advanced weapon satellites, with the ultimate goal of dethroning and defeating the evil emperor Bios. As we can see, the story perfectly matches the Forgotten Worlds title. Originally created by Capcom for the arcades, on the Mega Drive the game appeared by courtesy of Sega themselves, with relatively faithful graphics and altered controls designed around the stock 3-button controller.

For those who are new to shmups or to 16-bit gaming in general, Forgotten Worlds for the Mega Drive comes with a prank that has unsurprisingly frustrated many people (at least for a brief while) and held a few unwary ones from actually playing the game. Case in question: fire up the cartridge on a console that has a 6-button controller attached and experience instant GAME OVER after starting a credit. Holy shit, talk about a hard game! Jokes aside, this is a rare case of a 6-button controller incompatibility with an “old” title. To bypass that just press the Mode button on the controller as the console is turned on and voilá! I know it seems stupid to mention this, but I’ve seen quite a few people go really mad thinking the game was damaged somehow.

Holy shit, talk about a hard game!
(courtesy of YouTube user wackywikivideos)

As a hint of how easier this port is when compared to the arcade game, the player starts with both the basic gun and the V-cannon satellite (there was no starting satellite originally). The satellite is an option that fires the currently chosen weapon and shields the player against most enemy bullets. Multidirectional shooting is accomplished by firing with button B and rotating the aim with buttons A (clockwise) and C (counterclockwise). Shooting direction follows what’s determined by A and C, but as long as you’re pressing B the position of the satellite is locked in place. Therefore, in order to rotate the satellite and park it in a desired position you need to stop shooting. Even though controls seem complicated, it takes just a little practice to get used to them.

The options screen allows you to tweak the speed of the satellite in three steps (slow/normal/fast). There's also a special “auto fire” switch that doesn’t correspond to the regular idea that we have of autofire because the game naturally has it. This “auto fire” just makes the characters shoot non-stop as if the B button was permanently pressed, but if you decide to use it do it as soon as you start to play the game since it kinda messes with the dynamics between the B button and the rotating inputs. I prefer to play without it because there are moments where shooting isn’t really a good idea, such as the parts with the oil pipes in the first stage or the gates that determine progression in the Egyptian levels (hitting the wrong gate triggers a different path than the intended one).

Enemy galleries of shooters starring flying people tend to be filled with other flying people. In the case of Forgotten Worlds these include strange lizard men, indians, ninjas, severed heads and the iconic final boss. Drones, laser turrets, giant snakes, crawling heads and a wealthy amount of weird bosses complete the package. Upgrading the arsenal and increasing the chances of success against them is possible by collecting the blue orbs left behind by some enemies or found in hidden areas – called Zenny, they’re the currency to be used inside the shops that appear once or twice throughout each stage. Beautiful Sylphie (or Mirabella, according to the manual) offers the player a wide assortment of upgrades and enhancements, from which the most important are the flying stone (speed-up, buy it only once), life pack, health treatment/refill, potion of resurrection and booster. Satellite upgrades should be chosen carefully, since you can carry only one and some of them are clearly more effective than others while being cheaper. Buying armor (protection against 3 hits) is important only until you discover hidden armors than can be uncovered in key places (by the way, watch out for more strange items). Abusing health treatment can lead to tricky situations in the end because for each purchase it gets increasingly more expensive.

Unkown soldiers are on the move

With the exception of two absent stages, all elements of the original game made it into this version of Forgotten Worlds, from the desolate wastelands of the first stages to the upward scrolling section leading towards the false god, two of the Egyptian levels, the cloud stage and the tower with the final boss (the cave with the twin bosses was left out). The three-way spread gun of player 2 was removed here, so both characters share the same straight gun type. Other than that the graphical and aural adaptation is decent but could’ve used a little more color, losing to the PC Engine CD port in this regard. At least the Mega Drive preserved the pictures showing the nameless ones blabbering in between stages. The difficulty is considerably toned down since the game has less enemies and allows blocking of many types of attacks by the soldier’s firepower. On the technical side, a crowded screen can lead to brief bouts of slowdown, but that’s it. I believe this might get a little worse when the game is played in co-op, but I didn't have the chance to check that.

Some of the items from the shop were downscaled or excluded, but the sheer amount of them offers lots of opportunities for experimenting. My favorite weapon for most of the game is still the napalm bomb (I used it a lot when I beat the port for the Playstation 2). On the Mega Drive the napalm bomb behaves a little differently, being fired in a straight line instead of a downward arch. In the end the homing laser still kicks lots of ass, and is even capable of blocking the attacks from emperor Bios. The "dress" item in the last shop is unique to this port, and its sole purpose is to grant a bonus of one million points once the game is completed.

Unless you have a potion of resurrection, once the health bar is gone it's GAME OVER, no continues allowed. While that's good to add replay value to a fairly manageable challenge, it's just unfortunate that Sega didn't include any type of high score display, not even when you beat the game. Since it's shown for approximately one second only, you have to be very fast to see your final score when the 1CC comes. Was I fast enough in the picture below? It's a crappy photo that should read 1.627.300, a result of playing the game on Normal, player 1 side, auto fire OFF and satellite speed set to Normal.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Let's Go! Burunyanman Portable (PSP)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by DigitalCute
Published by Alchemist in 2012

Originally a mini-game included in a Japanese PC visual novel called Musumaker, Let's Go! Burunyanman was beefed up by developer DigitalCute into a full-blown shooter. Heavily bent into a risqué anime style, the Portable version for the PSP is probably quite tame when compared with its PC counterpart, which bears the Hardcore!! subtitle and aims at adults with its +18 eroge rating. In the case of the PSP, character design is incredibly cute yet daring at the same time, maybe inappropriate to some but never explicit in any way. It’s definitely reminiscent of Parodius in the way it looks, but it plays with a mild bullet hell atmosphere that’s actually very attractive gameplaywise, especially for beginners.

Attractiveness relates to the ease of entry into the game mechanics, which involves focused firepower, grazing and medal collecting, three well-known staples in the danmaku subgenre. Bullet density, however, does not get taxing until much later in the game. Burunyanman slowly builds up steam by luring the player with a few easygoing levels, then starts demanding more from our dodging abilities as soon as the most visually audacious boss appears (the chick with the laser-firing crotch). It’s a well designed difficulty slope, and one that benefits from the presence of a proper practice mode that allows training in any stage that’s been already reached in the regular game. The only problem is that the game is entirely in Japanese, from the menus to all the spoken/written dialogue, so if you somehow care for the storyline you’d better understand those kanji for great justice.

Following one of the most catchy intros I’ve ever seen in any anime-based shooter (it’s really awesome), the first option in the start screen of Let's Go! Burunyanman Portable sends you directly into the game. Type your Japanese name, choose the difficulty level and select one of three cat-girl characters: Burunyan (slowest + spread pattern), Sukunyan (fastest + very wide spread pattern) or Maynyan (middle speed + straight pattern). All of them are rather balanced in firepower, so the choice criteria falls pretty much over movement speed. Somehow I adapted better to Suku, the other girls are too slow for my taste. They’re all invested in a fight against rat enemies, and this old rivalry is what seems to drive the story from start to finish.

Deadly spirals in the cemetery

All characters are able to use a normal shot (∆), a hold shot (○) and a bomb (×). While normal shot differs for all of them, they all share the same hold shot, a focused attack that reduces the character speed while deploying a thick laser beam (actually tapping hold shot results in normal shot). Whenever you get close to an enemy bullet (grazing) the action slows down and firepower gets boosted to new levels: normal shot is upgraded to an "adrenergic" shot and the laser from hold shot is thickened even further. The act of grazing also discloses the character's hitbox (the mouth in a heart-shaped form) and allows for better inch-dodging. Bombs make the player invincible, damage every on-screen enemy and generate coins at random in small explosions. Coins, by the way, are released by every single defeated enemy and head directly to the character’s hitbox in a straight line. If you’re close enough to them they are absorbed and increase in value from 200 to 2.000 points in steps of 2. However, if you lose at least one coin this value is reset to 200 and you have to build it up all over again. This is the bane of the scoring system, so a score-driven player will always strive to fully "chain" a stage without any coin loss.

As a rule of thumb, the larger the enemy the more coins you get from its demise. Large explosions convert all nearby bullets in coins, and whenever a boss form is defeated all bullets will turn into coins. Bosses are all gigantic and have three forms each, with the exception of the fifth karaoke boss and her single health bar (much like the karaoke girl-boss in the arrange mode of The Game Paradise). Every form of a boss has a specific behavior/pattern, and the first one generally enters the screen throwing stuff all around as if coming from below the ground: buildings, knives (!), houses, trees and tombstones are some of the things thrown at the player. Mid-bosses are smaller and closer to the character’s size, sometimes you can’t even see them well because they’re engulfed by the glow from the focused laser.

Given the nature of how weaponry works, the absence of power-ups in the game comes as no surprise. You do get options though, in the form of up to two cats that follow you around in a trailing fashion (normal shot) or in a character-specific formation (hold shot). Option cats, extra bombs and extra lives, as well as cat food cans for a few extra points, are released by killing specific enemies. All items keep bouncing around the edges of the screen, so there’s no need to rush to get them. Once the stage is over you get a few bonuses based on the amount of lives, bombs and options you’re currently carrying. However, these bonuses are kinda irrelevant when compared to the rush you get from coin chaining. If you want you’re better off detonating those bombs for the extra coins rather than keeping them for any final bonus.

Complete intro and first stages of the PSP version
(courtesy of YouTube user HCKStudios)

What makes Let's Go! Burunyanman a neat little title is the lighthearted tone of the game and the juxtaposing intensity you can extract from it when playing for score. Give it some time, understand how it works and soon enough you’re leaving enemies survive only to graze their bullets for more coins and more power to defeat tough enemies (such as the cute girl who throws candies in stage 5). Bosses do not time out and some of them offer lots of opportunities for extensive milking, but be warned that they start firing different patterns after a while. When things get out of hand bombing is definitely needed, after all the game does get harder than what it shows in its early levels. Fan service reaches its peak when bombing because you get six successive special background images of the character for six successive bombs used if you don’t die. Note: the later the bomb the more risqué the image.

Fact: high quality cartoony animation abounds in Burunyanman. All cat heroines move their tiny legs when flying, bosses attack with varying degrees of liberty across the screen and something’s almost always happening in the tiled backgrounds. Tiled backgrounds aren’t as bad as it seems here because everything’s very colorful, parallax is all over the place and there’s a lot going on at all times (graphical themes include highway, beach, cemetery, flower fields, an amusement park, volcano, rainy forest/above the clouds and rat city). For a shooter with such good animation, the soundtrack definitely matches the overall cuteness of the package. Although uneven, it’s really outstanding at certain points – the opening theme is awesome, some boss themes are great and most songs with singing are unexpectedly fitting. The gallery of sound effects is equally decent, with several different in-game voices alongside the impressive amount of dialogue that takes place during character interactions (skip them all by pressing ×).

Click for the option menus translation for Let's Go! Burunyanman Portable (work in progress)

In quite an original twist, once the game is beaten the player can destroy the end credits for more points as they scroll up. Beware though, those kanji start shooting after a while and can kill you (the first time I got there I died). Since this credits section unfolds like a regular stage and you can die there, I guess it's okay to consider that Let's Go! Burunyanman Portable has actually 9 stages of fun horizontal shooting action. Beating the game with different characters unlocks various extras in the album and replay galleries, as well as a series of short animations which unfortunately are totally in Japanese. The three tutorials are also rendered useless if you can't understand the language, but at least the option to remap controls is a little easier to find and use.

The limited edition of the game comes in a DVD-sized package that also includes a soundtrack CD, a booklet and fan cards. I even received a large poster showing Burunyan and Sukunyan taking a feline bath! My final 1CC result with Sukunyan is below, playing on Normal.