Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Line of Fire (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1991

Line of Fire for the Master System is a second generation port of Line of Fire, the arcade game developed by Sega. I like to call it second generation because the game switched genres from one platform to the other, going from a light-gun shooter to a vertically scrolling shoot’em up. What’s really interesting about the conversion is that despite the genre alteration and the fact that it’s a totally different experience the Master System port actually follows the same basic outline and stage settings of the arcade original. Don’t get your hopes up though, it’s an extremely downgraded and watered down vision to the same story, sort of a much slower and poorer cousin to Thundercade on the NES.

Coming to this game after being exposed to fast shooters can be a shock. The Master System is no powerhouse but it surely has faster games, and Line of Fire feels even slower than usual. I have no idea if the hidden 3D mode has something to do with this (hold buttons 1 and 2 as you power up the console), but adapting to the game’s slow pace takes a little while. Graphics and colors are very basic, and since the repetitive music follows the same quality standard it’s easy to see why the game isn’t technically remarkable by any means – at least without the 3D glasses, which is how I played it.

The game’s premise is established by a nice opening with huge fonts and a quick intro that presents Jack (you), supposedly a combat expert who happens to come across a super weapon inside an enemy base. How you got there in the first place doesn’t really matter, so it’s up to you to escape and take the super weapon back to your allies. A map shows your progress before each stage starts, and as you make your way through several areas around the original starting point you need to take control of different military vehicles such as a jeep, a boat and a helicopter.

A boat against a ship

It doesn’t matter which craft you’re controlling, they’re all able to fire straight shots from a machinegun (button 2) and missiles (button 1). The machinegun has unlimited ammo, but missiles are limited and start with a stock of 50. Don't fire them away at will, if you do so and you get to the second boss without missiles you'll be in deep trouble. Gun and missile attacks behave differently for each craft: for the jeep and the boat the machinegun will only hit ground enemies, with missiles being used against enemies in a higher level/altitude; for the helicopter it’s the opposite, naturally. Missiles are a little tricky to use, in that they follow your lateral movement and can make it either hard to hit moving obstacles (enemy helicopters and bosses) or easy to destroy turrets (plan your sweep or lean against a wall to “direct” the missile to its target).

One of the design decisions that immediately springs to mind as unusual in Line of Fire is that you're only allowed to move at around 40% of the screen. If you keep pressing up at mid-screen the scrolling will only accelerate a little, therefore you can't plan any dodging strategy that involves the upper half of the playing field. It isn't advisable to stay glued to the bottom of the screen either because sometimes you'll be surprised by trucks or jets coming from behind, or even the item carrier (ground missions only, levels 1 through 4). This carrier will stop for a few seconds as it appears, so wait until it moves up a little to destroy it and take either the missile round (30 missiles) or the first aid item that regenerates 1/3 of your health (each life in Line of Fire has a 20-point health meter). In aerial missions (levels 5 and 6) items appear from regular enemies, such as incoming jets or train wagons.

Though short and simplistic, the game comes with a few features that are strange to shmups in general, such as the ramps in the jungle stage or the bridges that need to be taken down in the river stage. You need to take the ramps to jump over the ravines, and when you do steer the jeep to the left or you’ll inevitably crash. Ramps will also appear during the boss fight, meaning you can use them to reach the enemy’s altitude and hit him with the machinegun – a risky and unnecessary possibility that’s there just for show actually. Use missiles to destroy the bridges in the river stage or you’ll crash, don’t get close to them until they have collapsed or you’ll get hit. By the way, hit detection in Line of Fire isn’t really a problem, but you can lose energy if you’re too close to a boss when it explodes or when the abovementioned bridges fall. You also get hit when you go over one of the falling rocks of the fourth stage after they’ve already stop rolling.

Caught inside the enemy base
(courtesy of YouTube user fakeplasticball)

Upon completing a stage you’re given a bonus based on destruction ratio and remaining health. On the merits of challenge there isn’t much to say about Line of Fire, at least until you get to the last boss. All previous bosses have easy and predictable patterns, but the secondary form of the final fortress poses a much harder challenge simply because it overwhelms the player with bullets, kamikaze jets and quick lasers that drain a lot of health. The first time I got there I panicked and died all my lives in a snap. Then I used the two available continues to practice and do better next time.

I had to beat the game once to find out how sloppy the programmers were with the high score buffering: all points achieved in the last stage aren’t added to the high score that’s permanently shown in the top of the HUD (even if you beat the game the highest score displayed is the one you get at the end of stage 5). It’s only possible to see your total score for a few seconds while the bonus for the last level is being computed, after that you’re treated with a relatively nice ending and the final credits. A few more plays later and I was able to register the 1CC result below (Normal). Note: Europe and Brazil were the only regions where Line of Fire was released.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Deep Blue (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Pack-in Video
Published by Pack-in Video in 1989

Have you ever felt the sensation of controlling a heavy brick and having to dodge rain at the same time? If you haven't but you'd like to know how it feels here's a good pick: Deep Blue. Almost unanimously heralded as the worst shmup in the PC Engine library, Pack-in Video's underwater shooter is a test to the patience, endurance and tolerance of all gamers out there. Steer away from this title if you're bothered by even the tiniest unfriendly gameplay feature you've ever imagined, for Deep Blue will probably have it implemented for you. Slow craft, health meter, underpowered weapons, irritating enemies, lame bosses, short duration, lack of enemy bullets, you name it.

Wait a minute, lack of enemy bullets? Exactly, there isn't a single one fired against the player throughout the whole game! Most of the time we take these things for granted and don't even notice how such an important aspect is absent from what's supposed to be a shooter, but alas! At least you can say Deep Blue's bullets are its own enemies. And if the lack of enemy bullets makes you think dodging is unecessary, well... think again. Those evil marine creatures are out to get you, and even if you choose to tread the safe route in any specific wave chances are you won't get away with it at all. I dare anyone to accomplish a no-hit run of the first stage, which is in fact the hardest stage in the whole game (that sea urchin shower of the fourth level nonwithstanding, even though it's an easily doable section once you've figured it out - in the first loop at least).

Wow, what big deep blue eyes you have!

The game box suggests the angelfish you play with is actually a mechanical craft, supposedly sent into battle to obliterate evil sea creatures. This is where reminiscences of Darius end, unfortunately. As soon as you start the game the impression you get is that the fish is swimming in a pool of mud instead of water, such is the sluggishness of his moving ability. The enemies, on the other hand, can sweep back and forth and up and down with graceful and irritating gusto. Your firing rate is ultimately useless if they arrive in a slightly higher number than that which you can handle. Once you get hit you're briefly paralyzed and prevented from shooting or taking any incoming items, and whatever's already coming can hit you in painful succession. The fish's big eye is the health meter and changes colors as you receive damage: it goes from blue (full health) to green, yellow and then red (imminent death), with blinking intervals in between these colors. When you die in an explosion it's GAME OVER, no continues in sight.

At least the game gives you full health when a new stage starts, but the little catch in Deep Blue is that to slowly recover health at any time all you need to do is refrain from shooting. Some of the enemy waves allow this if you lean against the upper/lower borders of the screen, but if you're lucky you might come across an item that provides full health recovery. This item is brought by a light-blue moonfish that can also carry a speed-up (an icon that looks like an arch) or three types of weapons: light bullet (default pea shot), swirl cutter (cone-shaped bursts) or bubble beam (purple thin laser). Collecting three of the same weapon icons will upgrade the ship to its maximum power. However, keeping powered-up weapons is often a feeble experience in Deep Blue since you lose one level of power every time you get hit (you can also say bye-bye to the speed-up as well). One of the most enraging moments in the game is going from a maxed out weapon with speed-up to zero power because a series of enemies just rammed into you in succession. To make things worse, the moonfish has a knack for appearing on the opposite side of the screen... Going after it is an invite for getting a red eye while being trashed along the way.

Stages in Deep Blue are alphabetically named and called "scenes". They go from A to D and slightly resemble blueish reefs, dark muddy waters, green corals and a sunken building. It's not artistically overwhelming, but the little amount of parallax helps to keep the design within PC Engine graphical standards. I didn't notice any slowdown or flicker. Even though the music can be grating at times, it actually fits the dire underwater theme quite well. Halfway a scene there's always a section where the music changes and angrier waves start ramming against you, and some of these enemies can hurt real bad. The rule of thumb is that the bigger and faster the enemy the larger the damage. Bosses are big and slow, but most of them can be dispatched even before they get close to you. The built-in autofire isn't ideal but gets the job done, using a turbo controller won't help that much anyway.

Deep Blue's first loop in its entirety
(courtesy of YouTube user cubex55)

With such dry gameplay for a shooter where you're supposed to be navigating waters, Deep Blue at least shows a wide array of enemies across its relatively short length. Waves are composed by practically all sorts of fish, it seems the developer wanted to grant each major species with at least one prominent representative. The scoring side of the game is pretty straightforward, and is only affected by the player's ability to avoid getting hit and not incur in periods of inactivity in order to recover health.

Regardless of how much you might love shooters, this game is most recommended to masochistic people looking for a painful experience or to those who're extremely bored. Deep Blue loops after the fourth stage (scene D), and the main difference in the second round is that it comes with faster enemy waves. Having been there twice, I honestly think it's impossible to survive the sea urchin rain of stage 2-4 (scene D').

Whenever you die the game halts while showing your score until you start a new credit. Here's the new high score I achieved when I died in stage 2-4, having improved a previous one in approximately 13%.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Giga Wing 2 (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Takumi
Published by Capcom in 2001

Keeping up with successful artistic endeavors is always a daunting task for any company. Takumi had just been born when they took control of the sequel to Kyūkyoku Tiger, hence the mixed results and reactions from fans. Fortunately, the amazing titles they delivered afterwards more than compensated for their lukewarm beginnings. Such was the awesomeness of the genre-shattering Giga Wing that it took only two years for Takumi to come up with Giga Wing 2, the sequel. And just like what happened to the first chapter, it also found its way from the arcades to the Western Dreamcast in a localization published by Capcom.

Intense gameplay, outrageous scores and the sweet gimmick of bullet reflection were some of the traits that made Giga Wing such a remarkable game. Giga Wing 2 builds upon that by adding secondary features to the reflection technique, hence creating new layers of strategy over the rush of collecting medals to achieve ludicrous multipliers and high scores. The resulting experience is just as exhilarating, even though the second chapter isn’t as engaging as the first one in a few aspects. I guess it all comes down to taste, but I prefer the pixel art and the pumping music from Giga Wing to the 3D background models and the orchestral soundtrack of Giga Wing 2. Who would guess the infamous C’MON! would be sorely missed? Explosions and bomb animations are as over-the-top as ever though, so the amount of mayhem is still guaranteed.

The polygonal art is clearly the greatest departure in the design front, but it sort of contributes to the same feeling of detachment I have towards the Shikigami No Shiro series: you’re often high above skyscrapers and neatly textured landscapes, but you don’t really get to notice that while playing. That didn’t happen at all to the first Giga Wing or Takumi’s own Mars Matrix, which always made me quite aware of what was going on around me at all times. Giga Wing 2 shares a very prominent feature with Mars Matrix by the way, that being the fact that there’s absolutely no damage on enemy collision. Therefore bullet manipulation is once again the absolute king, never mind dying by touching one of those stray airplanes.

Behold the power of the Reflect Laser

Similar to the story in the first chapter, this time the heroic pilots are summoned to stop an evil ark of doom. You can choose from five characters with distinct speed and firepower/bomb characteristics, as well as two types of bullet reflection devices: the Reflect Barrier (RB) or the Reflect Laser (RL). The default button lay-out works with regular shot (A), bomb (B) and autofire (R). Regular shot overrides autofire, and holding it initiates the process of reflection with a slight delay. Just like in Giga Wing, RB works by surrounding the ship in a powerful sphere of invincibility that reflects all incoming bullets. RL is the new feature, and it works by swallowing bullets and automatically distributing them to enemies in laser rays as the invincibility sphere fades. At the end of the reflect attack the ship is invincible for a few frames, thus making it possible to come out of bullet clouds in one piece. In order to use this attack again you need to wait for the reflect gauge to refill, which is also indicated by the famous OTAY! robotic voice cue.

Reflected bullets that hit an enemy give birth to medals, which when collected add to an ever-increasing multiplier that’s applied to the base value of everything you destroy. There are, of course, deeper meanderings to these apparently simple gameplay mechanics. The multiplier is the main source of scoring, and even though it’s unique across the whole game every stage has its own multiplier routine. It works like this: medals are spawned either by destroyed enemies or by reflected bullets, and increase in value for each successive one you collect; the value for each medal is added to the multiplier, and is only reset to 1 at the end of a stage or when you die. This means that at the start of a level medal value is 1, but by the time you defeat the boss it can be as high as you’re able to handle. Therefore dying represents an extreme blow to the scoring possibilities in Giga Wing 2, especially when it happens in the middle of a stage.

Now here comes the main innovation Takumi included in the game: bullet reflection can be manipulated in order to cause medals to split into many more medals, in an effect that looks like a cascading shower and is often referred to as a “volcanon”. To achieve that the player must generate more than 110 medals on screen at a given time. It’s possible to predict when this is going to happen because the screen fades to black slightly as the volcanon is about to erupt. The idea is that it’s really all about medals - not reflected bullets - so remember to reflect and refrain from collecting medals until the volcanon is in effect. Sometimes you can see it coming but it just doesn’t happen because only a few medals were missing. If it does happen, positioning the ship right below the flock of medals that’s about to burst into a volcanon is the best way to reap the earnings of those wonderful cascades and inflate the multiplier.

Due to the innate motivation to achieve the highest number of volcanons, Giga Wing 2 has an even heavier emphasis on bullet reflection than its predecessor. It’s only much later in the game that I start holding the autofire button, for instance. It’s also easy to notice that RB (also referred to as RF, Reflect Force) is better to score than RL because bullets reflected with the laser are often scattered all over the place, which makes it difficult to collect the secondary medals from volcanons. Although the game rules are easy to grasp, handling RB and RL requires lots of practice. Besides ship positioning and optimal bullet herding, the player needs to use the several phases of the reflection field to his/her advantage. An example is the final outgoing flare of the reflection sphere: use it wisely and you’ll have a higher degree of success in creating volcanons, maybe even double volcanons from a single reflection.

Despair is EXISTENCE

With so much going on, basic stuff such as collecting regular items are relegated to second place. These items can be a P (power-up, take three to maximize shot power) or a B (extra bomb), either brought by yellow carriers or released by destroying specific enemies. When you die all power-ups that emerge can be immediately reclaimed, but the bomb stock is reset to two. Even though there’s a bonus based on bomb stock at the end of a stage, it isn't that important in the long run. Same with the time bonus you get from destroying bosses faster, especially in later levels. Speaking of which, one of the things that probably put Giga Wing 2 slightly below the original for me is the fact that the three final stages consist of boss fights only. They’re not as hard or fun to battle as those from Giga Wing, and the final boss doesn’t even get the TLB treatment, meaning credit feeders will have free pass to see the game in its entirety. Do I sound elitist by saying this? I hope not.

Of all available characters the best one for scoring purposes is definitely Kart. It’s not a matter of appropriate firepower, instead it’s got more to do with his stage order. Every character or combination of characters (in co-op) has a specific stage order, and Kart’s very advantageous. It’s pretty easy to milk his first boss for lots of volcanons, whereas with Limi, my character of choice, it’s just really hard to trigger even one volcano on the first boss (it took me a long time to get it consistently). Limi’s main gun is quite powerful, her bomb animation is beautiful and story-wise she’s also the character that’s possessed by the evil ark at the end of the game, which leaves the control of her ship to Dewey, a “sentient” program installed by Kart. Those who enjoy character interaction will find this and other aspects of the story interesting. And if you miss the ships from the first chapter you’ll be happy to know that they can be unlocked here by 1CCing the game with all characters (hard way) or by entering a special code (easy/best way). Limi unlocks and serves as pilot for the Stranger’s ship (Kart > Raijin/Sinnosuke, Romi > Purchka/Isha, Ralugo > Widerstand/Stuck, Chery > Carmine/Ruby). To unlock all characters and other extras (see below) go to the first page of the Gallery and enter the following code: ↑, X, Y, X, ↓, Y, X, Y, Y.

As a game that makes everybody feel big with scores that might hit a few quadrillions, Giga Wing 2 is tons of fun and highly rewarding if you’re willing to dedicate some of your time to a little memorization and planning. On the Dreamcast the game has a special option that allows up to four people playing at the same time (!). The Score Attack mode has its own rules for scoring and less strict requirements to create volcanons, but at least it makes survival training possible. A dedicated gallery shows diverse artwork from the game, and secret options allow extras such as dual/tetra-play (control up to 4 ships at the same time) and the elimination of the dialogue text in-between stages.

I was able to get the following 1CC high score on the default difficulty (4) using Limi’s ship (named Raven) equipped with RB. Next stop: Giga Wing Generations!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Guerrilla Strike (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
15 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Mere Mortals
Published by Phoenix Games in 2005

Very few publishers had such an appalling fame as Phoenix Games. Everything indicates that they’re now defunct, but until recently they were very active in their mission of delivering hastily developed games to the European market, cluttering shelves with budget titles for the PC, the Playstation 2 and the Nintendo Wii/DS. Speaking of Sony’s platform, one cannot avoid the idea that a surprise in mediocrity is always hidden inside each one of those shiny blue boxes with relatively well-designed art. Guerrilla Strike is one of the three shooters released by the company for the Playstation 2 and does not stray from this general notion (the other two entries are Shadow of Ganymede and the extremely rare Ocean Commander).

Oh my, where do I start… There isn’t any starting point, really, at least not in the sense of what’s to be expected from a retail release for the Playstation 2. Yet the fact that such a low-standard product has been professionally pressed and sold is nothing short of amazing. Abandon all hope, ye who boot Guerrilla Strike in search of an exciting vertical shmup. The lack of real value in this game is unbelievable, therefore boredom will be the only real reward for giving it a chance. I almost fell asleep while playing.

A river raid, Guerrilla Strike style

As a pilot of the Allied forces deployed to fight an evil army, you need to take control of a helicopter and plow through 15 stages of some of the most basic shooting ever conceived. Imagine a rudimentary NES shmup with a repaint on graphics and you get the picture. In several aspects, however, Guerrilla Strike fails to even rise to the standards of a rudimentary NES shmup. Since when are bosses a staple of scrolling shooters? Forget about them here, you won’t find any. All levels end without a single trace of a battle against a more powerful enemy – the scrolling just stops and the game waits for you to authorize the start of the next level by pressing ×. As you can see, that huge dirigible in the game cover is just deceptive advertising.

The primary weapon is fired with button ×, and depending on availability a secondary weapon is fired with ○. Items are randomly released by some of the larger enemies. Only two upgrades exist for the main weapon, which in its maximum level receives two weak spread shots. If you have acquired more than one secondary weapon (up to three), cycling between them is accomplished with the L1 button. A wrench item provides full health recovery, and according to the manual there are also extra lives to be taken. Since I didn’t see any of them while completing the game without dying, I assume that either you only come across extra lives when you’ve died at least once or it's just another sign of the sloppy programming (the other is the fact that two secondary weapons are exactly the same despite being represented by different icons). Note: secondary weapons aren't carried over to the next stage, and although you can't see it they have limited ammo.

Guerrilla Strike is such a poor game that there are probably less than a total of 10 types of enemies (ground and aerial), which are combined throughout all stages as the terrain alternates between desert, grass, islands, sea and a recurring generic factory landscape. The pacing is lethargic, as well as the enemy spawning routines, and there’s no scoring system that goes beyond killing whatever comes your way. Besides being basic to the bone the game is pretty much devoid of any challenge, even with the capped firing rate. Not only is it tough to deplete that health bar, but you're also granted with those health wrenches all the time (the only way to die instantly is by crashing against an enemy). When you think things are about to become a little interesting the game soon gets back to its yawning rhythm, and as much as I waited for something different to take place nothing happened at all. Perhaps that mild screen flashing effect that comes with every enemy kill was introduced in order to liven up the game somehow. Unfortunately, Guerrilla Strike is so inane, long and repetitive that it doesn’t even serve as a poor man’s Under Defeat.

A credit of Guerrilla Strike
(courtesy of YouTube user GamerXZ95)

After trying to find at least one positive thing to say about this abomination, I think I could point out the animation the developer was able to come up with for the helicopter itself. I like it, the chopper bends and moves around with graceful sleekness, pretty much like a firefly would. Another highlight within the unremarkable soundtrack is the BGM for the second stage, it’s almost unfitting in its notable effectiveness. Themes start repeating in stage 6, so that cool song fulfills its purpose of helping the mood in stages 2, 7 and 12.

Since it was designed exclusively for PAL systems Guerrilla Strike does not offer a 60 Hz option, thus presenting that characteristic frequency flicker when played directly on a 60 Hz console (beware of headaches). There are no extra difficulty settings whatsoever, loading times are a bit abusive and the half-assed animated intro is never shown again once the start screen appears. Well, at least there’s a save function for all it’s worth. The 1LC high score below was saved to prove I endured the torture till the end.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

R-Type (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable - HuCard switch by code)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Hudson Soft in 1988

An alien race has been spreading terror throughout the galaxy, and it's up to a spaceship called R-9a "Arrowhead" to blast off and strike this evil empire. This brief and classic premise has been revered and dissected by shooter fans since 1987, when Irem unleashed R-Type upon the arcade world. Instant success and one of the most important shmups of all time, soon the game was ported to a variety of different computers and home systems, including NEC's PC Engine. Newcomers are often confused as to why there are R-Type I and R-Type II, when we all know the second game was never brought to this particular system. In fact, in Japan the original R-Type was split into two HuCards: R-Type I has the first four stages, whereas R-Type II contains the second half of the game. It seems this was done because of limitations regarding the HuCard memory capacity at the time. The limitation was bypassed later on, when the port received a Western localization for the Turbografx-16 and appeared in a single card.

So how are we supposed to play the complete game with two HuCards in our hands? It's simple! Once you finish stage 4 you're given a passcode. Take out R-Type I from the console, start R-Type II and press SELECT + START. Insert the code and voilà!, you're starting stage 5 with everything you had when you beat the 4th boss. After you complete the game a new passcode appears, and if you want to tackle the second loop just go back to R-Type I and insert this new code after pressing SELECT + START. And so it goes, two HuCards working together for the good of the universe against the Bydo empire.

The Bydo-worms that posed for the HuCard box art

These days the gameplay in R-Type is unknown only for those who are COMPLETELY new to the genre or have been living under a rock. The classic drill is as follows: a spaceship must battle across eight stages of exquisitely crafted design, collecting items to increase firepower and defensive capabilities. Tapping the shot button fires single pea shots, holding it for a while charges a powerful beam that’s fired upon release. As for special weapons, three main colored pick-ups are available: red (straight wave laser), blue (ricocheting 3-way laser) and yellow (crawling energy streams). Upon picking the first colored item a “force” pod will appear from the left, which can be docked to the ship’s rear or front as you please. Besides being the source of power for the currently used weapon this force pod is invincible, damages enemies by contact and protects the ship against all regular bullets. As you collect two additional power-up items its size will increase accordingly and the weapon will reach maximum power (further power-ups have no effect besides adding 400 points to the score). The force pod can be detached and sent forwards /backwards by pressing a dedicated button, but while detached weapon firepower is disabled and replaced by common shots fired in a K-shaped form. Pressing the same button again will summon the force pod back to the ship so that it can be re-docked to one of its sides.

In addition to the main items described above, there are also auxiliary pick-ups such as S for speed-up (at least one is needed to make the ship maneuverable), M for guided missiles (fired in pairs at regular intervals) and bits (small semi-spheres that hover above and below the ship, presumably made of the same type of energy of the force pod). If you play well enough you’ll have a fully powered ship by the half of stage 4. However, if you die you lose all power-ups and get sent back to a checkpoint. Is that the Achilles’ heel of R-Type? Many people think so. However, giving up is not an option for a real shmupper, is it? There are two checkpoints per stage, with the exception of levels 3 and 8 (die there and restart the stage from scratch). Extends are score-based and appear in asymmetrical intervals (50K, 200K, 350K, 500K, 700K, etc.).

The port that came out for the PC Engine is so impressive that at first glance one could deem it arcade-perfect. That’s not really the case, but the adaptation is extremely faithful and keeps the original thrills, if only for a slight reduction in difficulty, a small downgrade in the soundtrack (still awesome though) and negligible details in graphics. A little flicker can be seen here and there, but it's nothing close to what happens in the Master System port. First boss Dobkeratops is just as frightening and easy, and all major enemies and sections are duly preserved. What got my attention is that there are no power-ups within the shower of debris of the 7th boss – I never liked them anyway, you could end up getting an unwanted weapon or another speed-up against your will as the ship scrolled to the center of the screen upon stage completion. A nice exclusive extra is the new boss at the end of stage 6, which appears right after those moving blocks stop coming from the upper hatch.

I blasted off to strike the evil Bydo empire
(courtesy of YouTube user Jesper Engelbrektsson)

R-Type is the prime example of a game that’s punishing but rewarding in the same measure, and it would certainly be less revered if it were less difficult. Since it gets excruciatingly hard to recover (not to say impossible), dying in the second half of the game is often reason to give up and restart. Unless you’re aiming at getting the highest possible score, to which milking becomes an “applicable” device in stages 3 and 7, this is a shooter that strongly encourages the 1-life clear. Besides its unmistakable well-crafted design, that’s probably an underlying reason for why it’s regarded as an absolute classic: the simple yet larger-than-life nature of the challenge bestowed upon the player.

Owners of the CD add-on can enjoy the full game in a single package by means of R-Type Complete CD, which unites both HuCards, comes with an arranged soundtrack and adds cut scenes to enhance the storytelling. In its core it’s exactly the same experience, with the striking difference that it does not loop.

Given how the PC Engine handles the game, I must confess I didn’t switch HuCards when I died in its second half... I didn’t want to stress my precious Turbo Duo, so I just restarted from stage 5. Once I beat the game I did have a single go at the second loop, dying on the rematch against the battleship. Unfortunately there is no high score buffering in this version, so the picture below shows the score I had on me as I started stage 3 in my last life. Note: for the first time ever I managed to beat the final stage after dying on the last boss. My codes were CKL-8033-MI (stage 1-5) and EEA-5007-DM (stage 2-1).

Monday, March 11, 2013

RayForce (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 2006

Today Taito is a shadow of what it used to be when real arcade games were still being produced by the dozen. Though never reaching major preference among shooter fans, the company was a powerhouse in variety and one to respect in regards to pioneering ideas. That said, RayForce is probably the best example of such design qualities. It’s still regarded by most players as the best in its own series and also one of the most influential shooters of all time (some of the closest “children” are Soukyugurentai and Kamui, but I also see lots of similarities with G.rev’s Under Defeat).

Owners of the Playstation 2 ought to be happy because the developer included RayForce in the game gallery of the Taito Memories II - Vol. 1 compilation. Also known as Taito Memories II Joukan, this exclusive Japanese package carries the distinction of allowing all its vertical shooters to be played in TATE. Filtered graphics aside, it’s a great emulation job that’s probably closer to the arcade experience than the port available for the Sega Saturn, which I beat a few years ago. For the record, that version appeared with different names (Layer Section in Japan, Galactic Attack in US and Europe), whereas the arcade game also went by the name Gunlock in Europe. Console-wise, RayForce was also released in the Taito Legends 2 package for the Xbox.

Excluding the generic and stupid US/PAL Saturn title, all other names convey the mood of the game quite well. The force of laser rays is what drives the intensity of the gameplay, two targeting layers define how passive or aggressive you must play and locking on to enemies is the key to achieving higher scores.

The weak spot for the 6th boss can only be damaged with lasers

If you wait a minute to “insert a coin” (button L2 by default) and start a game, the mood is established with subtle efficiency by a short animated sequence that reveals the pilot to be a woman and shows the RVA-818 X-LAY firing its lasers to take down an opponent. Later on the characteristics that make RayForce such a remarkable game become evident: the exquisite art design, the array of graphical effects (morphing, transparency, rotation, distortion, zooming), the organic aspect of enemy attacks, the elusive evolution of the challenge level within the game itself and the sense of adventure you get from the stage succession (levels are tied into each other as you go deeper and deeper into the enemy’s core). The resulting grandeur is undeniable.

Only two buttons are used to play the game. Fire the regular weapon with one button, fire lasers with another. While the regular weapon hits enemies located at the same plane/layer as the spaceship, lasers will target everything in the lower layer that was previously locked on with the crosshair that’s permanently displayed in front of the ship. The crosshair will shrink a little once eight targets are locked on, so that means eight is the maximum number of simultaneous laser rays that can be fired. A lock-on will get lost after five seconds have elapsed or when the target gets off-screen, something that needs to be considered if you’re aiming at deploying the maximum number of lasers. Since a growing multiplier is applied to simultaneous lock-ons, getting eight of them in the same blast is absolutely important for scoring. The multiplier is applied to the enemy’s base value, starting with ×1 for the first lock-on and ending with ×256 for the last lock-on. For example, in a group of eight enemies worth 100 points each the last one will eventually yield 25.600 points if all of them are destroyed in a single laser attack.

Initially the player starts with the ability to lock on to five targets, but by collecting a green capsule power-up this number is increased to eight (the lower status bar shows how many multiple lock-ons you’re able to achieve). All power-ups are released from red-colored enemies, therefore it’s easy to spot the ones that are more important to kill in order to upgrade the ship. Besides the green capsule for an additional lock-on you also come across red and yellow crystals that increase the power of the main shot – it takes three reds or one yellow to upgrade one level, from a total of six. Surplus power-ups will be converted in points, starting in 1.000 and maxing out at 10.000 points each. Dying downgrades lock-on and shot power by one level, but if you’re lucky a random item will emerge at once from the top of the screen so that you can start rebuilding firepower faster.

RayForce is incredibly fun to play, but it’s also frustrating in the same measure. As you start to dig it it’s really common to end a credit in horrible ways, as in “WTF, that laser wasn’t there the last time I checked”. That happens because the game has one of the most cruel rank progressions in the history of the shooting genre. In order to survive it’s necessary to know each section and enemy beforehand, as well as the most appropriate strategies to take them out. Lasers emerging from the lower layer take some time to reach the ship’s altitude and can be suppressed by standing close to their source, but this safe point-blank distance is gradually reduced as the game progresses. Positioning is key to stay alive, and performing abrupt movements or behaving like a sitting duck often lead to unavoidable entrapment. With the exception of bosses, enemy bullets are 99% aimed at the player, with thin projectiles and flying enemies never having the same behavior in multiple credits.

Red power to pierce through the gravity of blue side
(courtesy of YouTube user tyouzameYSK)

Rank, by definition, is a programming device that increases the game’s difficulty in response to the performance of the player. Rank-controlled difficulty in RayForce is responsible for the increasingly faster speed/rate of enemy fire, as well as the overall enemy aggression. There are strict rules to how this is implemented, but in a nutshell it comes down to the simple fact that the longer you survive without dying the harder the game will become. Die and experience an immediate but brief decrease in difficulty. It doesn’t matter how you deal with your lives and your extends though (first with 1 million, second with 2 million points), by the time you reach the last stage the game will try to stop you in its hardest difficulty setting. Devising advanced scoring techniques and coming up with the best routes to chain lock-ons and reap more points from what the game throws at you is great, but you can never underestimate RayForce’s ability to surprise the player. You blink, you’re dead. You falter, you’re toast. Be cool, be on your toes, this game is great but it’s no piece of cake at all.

One thing is certain: this isn’t a good shooter to play under pressure. It’s perfect for relaxed stretches of constant practice – which is actually the best way to approach and improve on it – but having to learn and trying to score higher in RayForce during a short timespan can be more infuriating than usual, not to say devastating to its appreciation as an intricate yet highly rewarding experience. This time I did it under pressure, but I was extremely grateful for having previously played the Saturn port. I have even started to enjoy the game’s soundtrack more (or maybe I just prefer the original arcade music to the arranged tunes from the Saturn version).

Click for the option menus translation for RayForce on Taito Memories II - Vol. 1

If you haven't noticed yet, Taito Memories II Joukan is an outstanding collection. It offers fully customizable controls for RayForce, as well as two TATE orientations, co-op, save functionality for options/high scores and an absolute lack of loading times after the game is initially loaded. Although TATE is the biggest edge here, the game plays fine in YOKO with no loss of play area at all. I beat the game on TATE (Normal difficulty) and tried to get the best lock-on chains I could in the first half of the credit, playing safer in the last stages so that I could finally see the end.