Monday, July 29, 2013

Earth Defense Force (SNES)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Jaleco
Published by Jaleco in 1991

For a game that causes a little confusion with a couple of different acronyms (such as EDF or Super EDF, which comes from the in-game title), Earth Defense Force is actually a pretty straightforward outer space shooting romp. Please do not mistake it as being similar to the dreadful Earth Defense for the Mega Drive, nor include in the Earth Defense Force action series released for more modern consoles. The SNES game is a port from an arcade game commonly referred to as EDF - Earth Defense Force, and a decent one at that... if you don’t get too technical on graphics and such and you're not too picky about the suppression of a few sections.

I had a very strange experience when booting the game for serious play this time. There was almost no music and the BGM on the first level was incredibly minimal. Only when I entered the boss fight and the audio went fully silent I figured something was definitely wrong. When I returned to it later on things were back to normal, and I noticed that upon powering up the console whenever the Jaleco logo was absent I would get the same sound problems. And if this happened I had to keep trying (power on/off) until I was able to get the damn thing back to normal... Is my SNES dying by any chance? Or is this particular to EDF? Note: with audio problems the difficulty in the options menu gets stuck on EASY, even though it’s not supposed to be there (regular difficulties are only NORMAL and HARD). I didn't really play the game again on this bastard easy setting, I had to seize the little time I had to play.

Well, so much about bugs, but what about the game itself? Storywise it’s you against an alien threat. Again. This time they have apparently devised a secret super weapon on the Moon, so there you go with your lone spaceship on a mission to save the Solar System.

Above the clouds in Earth Defense Force
(courtesy of YouTube user djgyixx)

Prior to each stage in Earth Defense Force the player has to configure the ship’s weapon, choosing one of eight choices graded according to three criteria (speed, power, firing rate). These weapons are vulcan, laser, atomic, homing, explode, search/seeking laser, photon and grenade. Ship controls allow you to fly at three different speeds and to use the selected weapon in conjunction with two auxiliary satellites that can initially be set to the ship’s nose (concentrated fire) or in rotating formation (distributed fire). Satellites are invincible, block enemy bullets and are also able to damage by contact. Control inputs can be set in the options menu according to six different configurations, and my preferred choice was config #3 (Y for shot, L for option formation and R for speed change).

Some of the most interesting aspects in the game are the complete absence of power-up items and an almost total absence of fixed obstacles. The only few walls you’ll need to worry about appear in the last stage. As for the lack of power-ups, Earth Defense Force uses an experience upgrade system instead, which is tracked by the overhead bar. Killing enemies will automatically fill this bar and increase firepower from level 1 up to level 5. Each level upgrade applies sprite changes to the currently used weapon and increments its firepower. Extra satellite formations are activated once you achieve higher levels: level 3 adds a trailing formation (satellites follow your movement around the screen) and level 5 adds the homing formation (both satellites stand behind the ship, automatically homing on the nearest enemy).  When you get hit you lose one shield and the process of leveling up is delayed a little bit.

Shield, you say? Yes, that’s actually how the game calls your lives. Initially each level starts out with three of them. Every time you get hit the ship smokes for a few seconds, going down in permanent smoke and failure if you get hit on the last shield point (GAME OVER). Acquiring more lives is possible, but only after you reach a power level of 5. When this happens every subsequent filling of the upgrade bar results in an extra shield, a very important accomplishment during later stages.

Earth Defense Force is better than the actual generic package makes it out to be. Stages are a bit long but the fast scrolling and resulting sense of speed in most of them keeps the action going at a reasonable rate. Slowdown ensues here and there but it’s not gamebreaking in any way. The challenge varies wildly depending on which weapon you choose, but if you want to cruise through the first half of the game just go with homing and you’ll be okay. Once the ship is sufficiently leveled up it’s safer to try other weapon types. In any case, the last stage definitely requires another weapon other than homing, or else you’ll spend a long time in the process of killing one of the mid-bosses (his electrical sphere is a magnet for homing shots, thus making the weapon almost useless).

Search laser, search!

Regarding music, I have to say I enjoyed the soundtrack of Earth Defense Force mostly for its heavy use of bass (it’s great). My favorite stage is the third one inside the caves. Good BGM, cool graphics that somehow remind me of Thunder Force III and a purely Darius-inspired boss to close the treat. Ugly mode 7 effects kick in during the outer space approach of stage 4, and that’s exactly where the game starts to get a little bit more demanding. And just when repetition threatens to kill the pace the game throws a shorter last stage to speed things up. Soon enough you find yourself in the final showdown against the aliens, who try to stop you in a series of consecutive boss fights.

Even though there’s a lot to be squeezed from the game as far as weapon choices and scoring goes, there’s no doubt that half the weapons are considerably hard to use. Sure, the satellite formations are there to fill in the gaps of a less powerful gun, but playing the game with a slow-firing weapon requires thorough memorization of enemy patterns. Especially interesting is the photon weapon, which creates a bullet-absorbing shield when used with the concentrated satellite formation.The scoring side of the game is based on a stage bonus that’s proportional to the number of enemies you destroy, but there’s also a secret bonus of 100.000 points to be had if you manage to beat the level without getting hit.

During my 1CC run I used homing for the whole game except in the last stage, where I switched to photon. And here's the final score:

Friday, July 19, 2013

Zed Blade (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by NMK
Published by NMK in 1994

Until very recently I knew nothing about Zed Blade apart from its famous “love-it or hate-it” techno soundtrack, composed by the now celebrated Manabu Namiki (Battle Garegga, DoDonPachi Dai-ou-jou, Mushihimesama). Also known as Operation Ragnarok in Japan, the game was originally released on the MVS arcade platform, but soon found its way to the Neo Geo AES home system thanks to the cartridge converting wizards. That’s how I was able to enjoy it.

You don’t need to know the story to realize that as soon as the game starts you’ll be drifting away from Earth into the heart of the Solar System. All levels and bosses have names, and I guess that’s one of the easiest and yet most efficient ways to carve key aspects of any game into the player’s memory. If you play Zed Blade to the end I bet you won’t forget how it depicts names such as Constrictor, Loki and Yggdrasil. And what about a boss whose title is none other than Insane Ship? Unfortunately, the curious names and the great soundtrack represent the peak of whatever personality you will find in Zed Blade. I won't complain about the challenge as well, since it's actually of decent caliber.

Three different pilots define how fast you’re able to move. Uncle Beard is slow, Ms. Charlotte flies at middle speed and Swift Arnold is fast, and while their ships have different sprites they all seem to posses the same hitbox areas. Once the pilot is chosen you must configure the ship’s weaponry in three steps: (1) shot, (2) missiles and (3) rear. There are three options for each weapon, and these include common types such as spread/3-way, wave, straight/twin or homing, as well as a variation with vertical reach for the shot/frontal weapon. I believe that configurations like 3-way/A-S/2-way are the reason why many people see a similarity between Zed Blade and Darius Gaiden. That’s absolutely not true for the rest of the weapons or the game itself, which does not resemble Taito’s epic shooter at all.

Are you ready for the battles?

A single button is used to fire all weapons at once. A secondary button is used to deploy the bomb, a powerful energy outburst that makes the ship invincible as long as it lasts. Upgrade items and extra bombs appear inside certain enemies, which must be destroyed for you to take them. Power-ups cycle continuously through P (shot), M (missiles) and R (rear). All items, including extra bombs, will bounce on the left border of the screen and disappear to the right. The blue bomb item is special because it upgrades all bombs to “hyper” status for the current life (all icons in the bomb stock switch to a shiny green H). It takes three power-ups to max out each respective weapon, and the good news is that you’re downgraded only one level for all of them when you die. Upon every death two random items will appear from the right, so if you’re fast enough it’s possible to regain maximum frontal power almost at once.

The odds you’ll face when armed with the arsenal and resources described above will depend on your life stock, for that’s primarily what defines rank in Zed Blade. 1UPs will automatically come into the screen as soon as you reach 200.000, 800.000 and 2 million points, and if you go on without dying each extra life adds an extra layer of aggressiveness to the enemy behavior. This increase in difficulty results in a much higher bullet density combined with increasingly faster bullet spreads, to the point where deaths almost often happen due to sheer overwhelming and inevitable cornering. Performing well in the first half of the game is a safe pass to a second half filled with tighter patterns and overlapping enemy attacks. The only way to deal with that is to rely on methodical memorization (beware of enemies coming from behind) and panic bombing (don’t be greedy!).

Occasional slowdown might kick in depending on how crowded the screen gets, but it's much more common when two people are playing together. While the basic gameplay and the challenge rules complement each other well, the same cannot be said about two important aspects in the game. The first one is the graphic design. NMK tried to infuse dynamism through several layers of parallax, but when you have stages 3, 4, 6 and 7 with basically the same backgrounds (bar a few asteroids here and there) you can’t help but feel the stench of laziness and lack of creativity. That makes the game seem longer than it actually is and leaves all responsibility for any graphical appreciation on the enemy gallery's shoulders.

Zed Blade's auto demo
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

The second aspect that kinda falls apart in Zed Blade is the scoring system. Besides the extra points gained for every surplus power-up collected (5.000 or 10.000 points), it relies heavily on the fact that every hit you land on an enemy/scenery results in even more points. That opens lots of possibilities for milking, and while valid this technique just comes out as boring and stupid. Just to have an idea, to score higher in the first stage it's always better to avoid all enemies and focus on hitting the ground only! During boss fights simply avoid hitting their weak spots and point-blank their bodies to no end (bosses don’t time out but at least react on abusive milking by firing unexpected extra bullets). And here's where things get really dumb: rewards for the hit-based scoring vary according to the character used. Uncle Beard gets 50 points per hit and Ms. Charlotte 30 points, while Swift Arnold gets shafted with only 10 points per hit. This is the first time I see a shmup with multiple characters render some of them totally useless for score chasers, and in my opinion that’s just complete fail.

Even with all the aesthetical and functional shortcomings there’s no denying that Zed Blade is a fun shooter, provided you can play it with autofire. At its core the game offers an engaging mix of strategic/twitchy dodging, with a reasonable learning curve that duly considers the seemingly huge ship’s hitbox and keeps players on their toes all the time once you're halfway into the game. Late bosses are cheap (6th on high rank, 7th at all times) and disappointing (last one), but the action in the levels themselves more than compensate for that. And the soundtrack? At some points it might make you want to shake your body a little. It’s awesome.

My 1CC score was achieved with Uncle Beard on the MVS difficulty setting of an AES cartridge conversion, with the ship configured as 3-way/homing/twin (S/M/R). I had autofire enabled (PS2 turbo controller + Tototek adapter) and didn’t do any extensive milking… Just a little to get the first 1UP prior to the first boss and a short beating spell on Lunar Walker’s body.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

F-15 City War (NES)

Rail shooter / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Idea-tek / Sachen
Published by American Video Entertainment in 1990

F-15 City War shows no credits at all during any of its regular screens, but online sources reveal a company named Idea-tek to be the developer. More obscure online paragraphs, however, hint at the fact that Idea-tek is, in fact, just another incarnation of infamous unlicensed developer Sachen. It makes sense, given the circumstances in which the game found its place all around the globe.

A shameless copy of Thunder Blade, F-15 City War replaces the combat helicopter of Sega’s classic with an F-15 jet model and reworks its assets to deliver five stages of unbelievable boredom. Sure, the game does get taxing in its final level as a consequence of sudden checkpoints where previously were none. That makes no real sense, but I guess the developer was aiming at giving a little more life to what could otherwise be a meaningless experience. For those wondering, besides trumping F-15 City War on all fronts Thunder Blade on the Master System is also a much more uniform and fair game as far as challenge goes. This NES clone is riddled with washed out colors, poor scaling effects, bad sound design and dull music - which never changes from a monotone series of muffled beats and sounds (it does remind me of the theme for the Savage Land stage in X-Men for the Mega Drive though).

The first boss

Kinda following what was established in the original mold, stages alternate between rail shooting and vertical shooting. Prepare to face three rail segments (city, oil refinery and caves) and two extremely slow and sleep-inducing vertical campaigns in open water. All levels are drawn-out and seem to take forever, with the same gameplay rules applied to all of them: regular shot with button B and missiles with button A, no autofire whatsoever. Missiles are aimed at ground targets and have a lower firing rate. In any case, my advice is to get a turbo controller to make the experience less painful. There are no power-ups at all, and the only item you’ll come across is the 1UP left by the static red choppers in the vertical levels.

In the first stage enemies are restricted to tanks, helicopters that don't shoot (they never shoot anything) and a few incredibly fast jets that spam a bunch of bullets before disappearing. They are almost impossible to hit, just like the tie fighters from Star Wars (!) that start appearing in the third stage. By the way, just the simple task of destroying all tanks in a single line isn't easily done either due to the low firepower or the horrid hit detection. At least it's not hard to dodge their incoming fire, otherwise the frustration level would be even higher. And don't worry about meeting any other types of enemy in the following rail shooting sections. Apart from bosses and an indestructible robot that likes to visit and leave in the third stage everything else you'll see follows the same unimaginative pattern of tanks, helicopters, jets and the occasional batch of tie fighters.

During both vertical levels most of the danger (if any) comes from the boats and mines overlapping their shots with descending choppers and solitary turrets from large battleships. Hint: the closer you are to the bullet sources the slower their bullets will be. If you let mines stay on screen too long they will turn into missiles and home in the jet's direction, so just prioritize them and you'll be okay (remember that boats and mines are only killed with missiles). Most of the time the screen is so empty that after a while those little dots that are supposed to convey water movement start to hypnotize you, sort of fullfilling their intent in a weird way. Long after the player has grown tired, vertical levels come to an end with no boss fights whatsoever. The scrolling just stops and you're launched into the next rail shooting stage.

I am the hero of the city war!
(courtesy of YouTube user Vysethedetermined2)

Horizontal pipes in the oil refinery level are there just for show, which makes this stage as easy as the first one in the city. The graphics are still devoid of much life, but the scaling effect is worse and barely makes you believe you're flying forward. However, City War's poor production values only show their true face in the last stage. What you have there is just a psychedelic series of scrolling horizontal bars, which fade out after a while and give way to rock pillars as if you were inside a cave. The bad news is that if you die amidst the pillars you get sent back to the previous section instead of instantly resuming play. The first time I got there I lost all ten lives I had in stock in my attempts to figure out ways to deal with the dreadful frame rate. My final strategy was to be on my guard for two tricky pillar combinations: two close pillars offset by just a little space (dodge full left or full right) and three pillars with the middle one slightly delayed (dodge full left). Pillars are ramdomly generated, so memorizing is useless. As for the bosses in the rail shooting parts, they're all pushovers - just circle around and dodge their bullet streams until all turrets are gone.

I mentioned ten spare lives, right? Well, besides the 1UPs you're also entitled to score-based extends. I don't know how these work though since the score isn't displayed anywhere during gameplay (pausing only shows the number of lives left). Stage bonuses are based on the number of enemies killed, and to see your final high score you need to reset the console from the last screen in the ending sequence.

F-15 City War is done. My next rail shooter on the NES will be a better one, I'm sure!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Thunder Force II (Mega Drive)

Forced Arena / Horizontal
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1989

Included in the first wave of games that marked the release of the Mega Drive in the Western world, Thunder Force II arrived to ignite the spark that would eventually make way to one of the most successful shmup franchises of all time. Despite being technically inferior to its first incarnation for the Sharp X68000 computer, it was actually because of this game that the Thunder Force name gained more popularity among video game fans. Besides, it offers a solid shmup experience and is regarded by many people as the console's best launch title, serving as a suitable bridge between the primitive style of the first game in the series (only available for extremely obscure computer platforms) and the awesome experience provided by the now classic Thunder Force III.

Unique among all hybrid shmups out there, Thunder Force II mixes horizontal scrolling with a multidirectional style of shooting that's reminiscent from the first chapter's gameplay. Similar in style to Bosconian or Technosoft's own real time strategy game Herzog Zwei, it soon became clear that the overhead levels in Thunder Force II weren't as popular as the brand-new, more exciting horizontal stages. Reasons to this are the overlapping of the scenery with no navigation maps at all (which lends itself to frustration in later levels), the chaotic nature of the AI (easier to die from sudden/stray bullets) and the forced displacement of the ship (it's always moving). Some people like these levels, but I'll be honest and say I'm glad Technosoft got rid of them in the next game. That's not to say I hate them, after all they're part of what makes Thunder Force II special, either within its own series or as a stand-alone decent shooter.

According to the instruction manual a “stage” in the game is divided in two sections: first you need to destroy four ground bases in the overhead area, then you infiltrate the enemy's defense line in the horizontal level to fight the boss. If this is true then Thunder Force II has 5 stages, the last one being a single overhead confrontation against the huge Preareos spaceship. However, I prefer to face the game as an adventure with 5 overhead and 4 horizontal sections. Even though some aspects are shared between both styles of gameplay, each one has its own set of rules. For instance, they both share input controls (shoot with button B, choose weapon with A or C), fixed speed for the ship and some of the weapons. In the overhead levels the ship must take on both aerial and ground targets, therefore almost all weapons in these sections are capable of firing ground shots, much like in Xevious. This does not apply to the horizontal parts.

The maggot boss in stage 6

Thunder Force's classic weapon system is based on collecting icons and selecting the desired weapon at any time. In Thunder Force II every new life comes with only two default weapons: twin (forward dual shot) and back (forward/backward single shot). Further weapons in the overhead sections include five-way (F), destroy (D), clash (C) and hunter (H). Once taken, laser (L) and wide (W) replace twin and back respectively. Attention: hunter is the only weapon that lacks the ability to fire ground shots. For the horizontal sections twin and back are still the default, laser (L) returns slightly different and hunter (H) remains unaltered. New additions are side blaster (S), wave (W), nova (N) and the upgrade to back called mega flash (M). Common to all areas are the following upgrades: claw (C, adds a rotating orb that absorbs bullets and provides additional firepower), roll (R, makes the claw rotate even faster for a while), breaker (B, temporary invincibility shield) and 1UP (extra life). It’s important to note that both the arena and the horizontal stages keep track of weapons separately. At the start of a horizontal level you’ll be as powered up as you were in the previous horizontal level, and the same happens to the overhead stages.

With so many weapons to choose from, it might seem the arsenal at the player's disposal is a bit overwhelming. That's only partially true since the more you play the more you veer into using two or three favorite weapons (mine for the horizontal levels are wave shot, side blaster and hunter). I don't care much about weapons in the arena levels because my objective there is always to take out the bases as fast as possible to maximize scoring, even at the cost of a few lives. That's actually the first part of the scoring techniques in Thunder Force II: finish an overhead stage in less than one minute and win a bonus of 250.000 points, take longer and get lower bonuses (not valid for the last stage). The second scoring technique involves aiming for the highest kill ratio in the horizontal levels. No bonuses are given for remaining life stock, so take advantage of the rather benevolent extend scheme to amass lots of lives and make the way to the 1CC a little easier. The first extend comes with 34.000 points, and further ones are granted at approximately every 100.000 points.

Many of the features that would become synonym with the series are already at display in Thunder Force II, such as the exquisite graphic design, the great music and an overall sense of style that's pleasing to the eye and to the ears. Slowdown is totally absent and hit detection is flawless. Some of the reasons why the horizontal stages were much more successful appear as soon as the second stage starts: better level design, better weapon implementation, obstacles that demand fast maneuvering and encourages strategic positioning, the sheer feeling that you have more control over everything. Later on you come across high speed sections, moving gates, laser walls and even changes in scrolling direction. Since dying strips you of all weapons and leaves you only with twin and back, memorization plays a big part towards success. Dying can be really harsh in itself, but coming out of any of those horizontal stages in one piece definitely feels gratifying (and showcases how much of a rush a real shooter can provide).

Montage of cool moments in Thunder Force II
(courtesy of YouTube user GenesisDrive)

As for the overhead arena levels, they have their own set of challenges to be won. On the first stage, for instance, you need to hit the gate switches to go from one chamber to the other. Further levels become increasingly claustrophobic, twitchy and confusing, with narrow walls and organic matter that must be pierced through with a forward weapon, enemies tending to swarm around in the most unpredictable patterns. Besides polarizing opinions thanks to these particular sections, Thunder Force II is also famous for its scratchy digitized voices, the initial message in particular. Everybody has his/her own version of it, but the official one should read “This is Exceliza, roger, good luck!”. The name Exceliza is related to the game's background story, which is rather complicated and not really important in the grand scheme of things. Go read the manual if you want to know more about it.

When compared to the defining horizontal shooting series of the 80s, namely Gradius and R-Type, the reason behind the initial and later success of Thunder Force probably lies in the fact that the horizontal stages in Thunder Force II felt considerably fresh by offering an arcade-like experience at home, coupled with fast action and no checkpoints at all in an era where it was still considered commonplace to implement methodical gameplay with checkpoints. This is one of the reasons why I disagree with people who consider Thunder Force II a difficult shooter. It’s got its quirks like any other game, but the lack of checkpoints and the generous extend scheme certainly helps those who want to see it to the end.

Saturn owners can play this game by means of the Thunder Force Gold Pack 1 disc, which unites Thunder Force II and Thunder Force III in the same shiny package. I managed to max out all bonuses from the arena stages when trying to top my previous high score in Thunder Force II for the Mega Drive, achieving a final improvement of 24% on the Normal difficulty (in order to have access to the options, hold A and press START when the start screen appears; the main difference when playing on Hard is that enemies shoot twice more bullets).