Monday, January 27, 2014

MUSHA (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Published by Seismic in 1990

Even though MUSHA is part of the Aleste series, it is more of an offshoot than what we would normally call a sequel. Rare and expensive are two words constantly associated with the Genesis cartridge, in one of those uncommon inversions of the norm (where Japanese goods are often costlier than their Western counterparts, when these exist). Strangely enough, the Japanese game is named MUSHA Aleste whereas the Genesis version excludes all references to the Aleste brand, starting with the title. The meaning of MUSHA is clearly displayed in the game’s box: it stands for “Metallic Uniframe Super Hybrid Armor”.

Despite being released very early in the Mega Drive lifespan, I only came to know MUSHA much later in my gaming life. The oddest thing was my very first impression: in its naked form (naked = with no special weapon) this super hybrid armor reminded me of a beetle. Then for a long while I just referred to MUSHA as the game of the “flying beetle” (don’t mock me, I know beetles are capable of flying). As the intro shows, a group of pilots with their armors is suddenly knocked out by a powerful enemy from afar. You, as the player, are the sole survivor. You decide to go into battle all alone, against the express order of your commander. The adventure starts and soon you see yourself flying over elevated Japanese villages, a factory with moving walls, deep ravines, thunderbolt-stricken clouds, forests, huge battleships and a deadly enemy fortress.

According to the tradition of previous Aleste games, relentless action awaits the player in seven stages of frantic, dynamic gameplay. Graphic design excels at pretty much all levels, presenting creative enemies and bosses based on all sorts of ancient Japanese warfare/warrior culture while offering fast scrolling with lots of bullets and debris flying everywhere. Best of all, it’s virtually free of any slowdown. MUSHA is a technical 16-bit marvel, it's no wonder this game is so highly regarded by so many people.

It's real!

Replacing the spaceship with a flying robot shifted the series to a different level, and that’s another reason for the game's widespread aesthetic appreciation (the idea of a badass mecha clicked much better than the walking robot of Aleste Gaiden, for instance). The music also seems to play a big part in the community praise, even though I particularly consider the soundtrack to be overrated. One thing is certain though: MUSHA plays like a charm from start to finish, without a single dull section. It's a busy shooter and a considerably manageable achievement at the same time, easy yet highly entertaining. The lower difficulty is somehow compensated by the lesser number of extends (when compared to previous chapters in the series), which imposes a certain degree of distress depending on where you die.

Okay, so your friends were pulverized and you’re alone as flaming skulls start dropping from the top. Button C shoots, button A cycles the arrangement of your options and button B fires the currently active special weapon. Hovering harmless ships are responsible for bringing two types of upgrades: power chips and special weapons. Chips slowly increase the main firepower while adding extra options that automatically replace the dead ones (3 chips for 1 option, see beside the life stock on the top). Special weapons come in three colors: green for lasers, orange for cluster bombs and blue for a rotating shield. Rule: stick to the same special weapon to increase its power up to “arm” level 4. Having a special weapon is not only good for attack but also for defense, since you just lose it instead of dying when hit. Death and loss of all power only occurs if the robot gets shot while carrying no special weapon. I guess the comparison is appropriate for those who know Darius: a weaponless mecha in MUSHA is much like a shieldless Silver Hawk.

It’s also possible to select between eight available flying speeds by pausing. This is the only functional oversight of the gameplay: why not map button B to fire both shot + special weapon and leave button C for speed selection? Anyway, pausing is no big deal, the game memorizes the setting in between credits and even upon a console reset. The last part of the basic gameplay is the behavior of options. They eventually die by taking too much damage and get instantly crushed when touching walls. Choosing the option configuration that best fits each situation is important, as in the wall gaps of the high speed scramble of stage 3 (keep them in back or reverse) or the mid-boss of stage 7 (select form-free to hit him while you stay on the outside). The order of option cycling is form- "forward" → "3way" → "back" → "reverse" → "roll" → "free" → "forward".

First stage
(courtesy of YouTube user pestro87)

Extends are signaled by a very characteristic coin-like noise. They come with 100.000, 1 million, 5 million, 10 million and every 10 million points afterwards. Normally scoring higher is achieved by milking projectiles and taking all special weapons (4.000 points each), while beating the game adds a massive 100 million bonus to the final score. There are some very shady occurrences of bosses or mid-bosses granting outrageous score boosts, but these seem to be totally random and can’t be properly reproduced.

Unfortunately any normal attempt at scoring higher is useless because the scoring system in MUSHA is broken. I have to admit I was very disappointed when I realized that you can get as many points as you want as soon as the game starts: after the brief shower of flaming skulls wait for the chip carrier, get at least 3 of them to create an option, choose form-reverse and align yourself on one side so that you avoid the turrets and hit only the dropping bullets. When I tested this it took a little over half an hour to achieve one million points - be my guest if you want to counterstop in a few days.

Even with its natural glow diminished by the above screw-up (damn it, Compile!), MUSHA still stands as a game with remarkable fun factor. I really like the attention to details, such as the special weapon cartridges being replaced on the robot's back when you switch colors, the desperate final attempt of that recurring enemy as soon as the ending sequence starts or the black hole ability of a fully powered orange weapon (it even sucks bullets!). From what I remember, direct sequel Robo Aleste doesn't suffer from the same scoring system oversight and is considerably harder as well. Let's see if I can improve my high score on that one soon, for now I'll wrap this text with the picture below, a 1CC of MUSHA on Normal from which 5 million points were achieved with the shameful milking described above.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

300 1CCed shmups!

I have done this 300 times already. I mean, playing a shmup to the end with no continues and then writing a bit about the experience here.

Is that too much?
Have I started to scratch the bottom of the barrel?

The answer to both questions is, obviously, NO.

So here's to 300 blog entries for shmups 1CCed on video game consoles. From the last hundred 89 were done for the first time (cross-platform games counted), and 11 were comebacks for higher 1CC scores.

Shmup distribution by platform so far:

Shmup distribution by sub-genre so far:

Top 5 hardest 1CCs in the last hundred, in no particular order:

Top 5 easiest 1CCs in the last hundred, in no particular order:

Back in July 2010 I wrote a similar article celebrating 100 1CCs. By then I asked people what games they'd like to see here, and a fellow shmupper suggested Wings of Wor, Giga Wing 2 and Shikigami No Shiro II. The only one left for me to conquer is the latter, which is just as brutal as I expected but is about to break - if I'm competent enough. Apologies for taking so long to actually play them, buddy!

So now I repeat the same question. Is there any shmup you'd like to see here?
And before the funny bunch starts making jokes: yes, I'm ready to face DoDonPachi Dai-ou-jou!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Twinkle Star Sprites (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
8 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by ADK
Published by ADK in 1996

It was another lazy afternoon. I took the AES out of the box again in order to test two newly arrived games, and half an hour later I was ready to return it to the shelf when I thought “well, it wouldn’t hurt to spend some leisurely time with Twinkle Star Sprites”. Based on the previous experience I had with the Saturn version, my thinking was that it would take little to no sweat to beat the game with two or three different characters. And it was also the chance to finally try it in its original incarnation – the only thing that wasn’t original in my case is the cartridge, a flawless conversion that saved me an arm and a leg (for those who don’t know, Twinkle Star Sprites is the rarest and most overpriced AES shooter).

It turns out the 1CC task wasn’t as easy as I had envisioned, in fact it was pretty much the opposite. I tried playing with the weakest characters to see if the fights would last a little longer, but soon enough it became clear that Mevious and Memory were quite a diabolical couple. Long story short, I was forced to leave my leisurely intentions aside and dedicate serious time into plowing my way through the game. Granted, it was still a fun ride, maybe more fun this time around playing solo, even though I would love to have a coleague around to taste the Competitive Mode in its full glory.

With its versus-oriented gameplay, Twinkle Star Sprites is definitely one of a kind (there are others like it but none of them as charming). The objective in each of its seven stages is to defeat the opponent on the other side of the split-screen. Everything is extremely colorful and cheerful, the design dominated by a cutesy anime style from start to finish. I was thrilled to finally be able to understand the snippets of dialogue in between levels (all text defaults to English - or hilarious Engrish - in a Western console) and because of that I even felt compelled to try the game with different characters in order to find more about their behavior.

It's raining Nanja Monja!
(courtesy of YouTube user Kae De)

Only two buttons are needed to play the game, but it’s possible to activate an additional function for main shot with autofire. When this is enabled you get main shot on button A, bomb on button B and auto-shot on button C. Bombs have limited stock and charge shots can be fired in three power levels by holding down and releasing A. Both players are faced with the same enemy (golem) waves in order; each destroyed golem produces a minor explosion that affects all nearby golems, and if they get popped in groups of three or four a fireball is launched into the other player’s area for a basic attack. If an incoming fireball gets sufficiently shot at it's possible to send it back to its creator, and if it gets caught in an explosion it might return as a more potent fireball or the character’s specific attack (which can also be generated by firing charge shots at level 2 or 3). Some fireballs descend from the top in a straight line, others develop an aimed arching trajectory. This second type leads to a very important and strategic aspect of the gameplay, the one related to positioning and the ability to lure enemy fireballs for better dodging opportunities.

Destroying golems in a row gets progressively trickier because their health is color-coded. Red enemies take one hit to destroy while purple ones take five (the complete health scale is 1-2-3-4-5 for red < yellow < green < blue < purple). At some point they start coming with colored shields that must be broken before you can actually hit them. Successive explosions and reflections are registered into a hit count that gives out score bonuses, and the resulting mayhem can be heightened by two factors: boss attacks and fever. Boss attacks can be generated either by a full level 3 charge shot or by achieving an extraordinarily high hit combo. Fever is what happens when you explode a glowing orb within a golem formation: the character moves faster and the amount and speed of fireballs going to the opponent’s side is increased considerably. The fever orb is always preceded by two exclamation marks (!!) that can also mean you’ll be getting a coin that flies around flipping between two of the following items: extra bomb, star (eliminates all golem shields on screen) or $ (successive bonuses of 10, 100, 1.000 and 10.000 points while you keep getting to the same item – get a different one and the next $ will be worth 10 points). A PERFECT is achieved when a golem wave is destroyed with the minimum amount of shots possible, and getting many of them in a row results both in more points and faster appearances of the !! symbol.

How many blows do you need to kill an opponent? All characters start with a health bar of five hearts. Bumping against a golem takes away one heart, getting hit takes three hearts. Every time a competitor is hit half the damage is refilled in the opponent's health bar. Whenever you bump into a golem you get stunned for a few seconds, and during this time you’re completely at the mercy of your foe because you can’t even bomb (dying quickly by getting bumped twice and then toasted is really rage-inducing). Also when stunned the character's power and speed are kept at a lower level for a few seconds (getting hit by a projectile doesn't have the same effect though). You can't die by being stunned when you have one or half a star left.

For each completed round you get bonuses for maximum hit count and clear time. If the fight drags for too long a death golem appears alternately for both players, gradually increasing in speed as he gets killed and respawned. Getting touched by him means instant death.


There are three modes of play in Twinkle Star Sprites. Character Mode lets you choose between nine goofy competitors with varying attributes for speed and power (they all share the same health). In Story Mode you play exclusively as Load Ran, the protagonist Sailor Moon-esque blonde witch. And Competitive Mode is where you want to go for some head-to-head shooting combat. In both Character and Story modes you play five levels with randomized opponents before facing the trio of final bosses: Dark Ran, Mevious and Memory. Character voices abound and music themes are nice overall, with more than one BGM for the some of the initial stages. It’s obvious that the real value of this game lies in the Competitive mode. Playing the solo variations can be either delightful or infuriating: relax and enjoy the ride for a tour de force on opponent reading and reflex testing, play for score and see yourself go nuts with opponents dying for nothing or fiercely walling up for no reason. Extends are earned at every 500.000 points, and for each life in stock upon completion you get 100.000 points.

In revisiting this game I tried to play exclusively with the weakest + fastest characters (1/3 power, 3/3 speed). Arthur Schmitt was the first, and the one thing I didn’t like about him was how weak and slow his shot is. In later levels it’s really tough to handle things when under pressure. Then I switched to Kim, whose shot seems to be slightly more powerful. His bomb also lasts a little longer and often causes slowdown (which, by the way, is a constant companion but never hinders the gameplay in any way). Regardless of the character chosen, Twinkle Star Sprites offers an intricate shooting engine where timing and anticipation might matter more than the actual dodging. Pursuing a 1CC with the highest possible score can be particularly painful due to the nature of the AI: I defeated Dark Ran with 5 seconds of play once, but I lost count of how many times Memory fried all three lives I had in stock when reaching her. After a while I couldn’t help but think about Takashi Miike's Audition, that movie where a cute girl tortures, dismembers and slowly kills the protagonist with the sweetest smile on her face. Memory is the same, all cute and sweet while raping her opponents to shreds. While Mevious is at least evil-looking although not nearly as tough, Memory is so cute it hurts!

I assume having a tougher final boss is good for scoring in the long run (meaning for very experienced players), but I was really surprised by how harder the Neo Geo original is when compared with the Saturn port. Was it maybe the amount of slowdown? The stock Neo Geo stick I used? Or maybe I’m just too old for this shit, who knows? Well, by his last appearance Roger Murtaugh had been too old for his shit for more than 10 years so there’s still hope for me, right? I wonder how I'll fare when I have the chance to try out the ports for the Dreamcast and the Playstation 2...

Anyway, the 1CC mission was accomplished with Kim on difficulty setting 4 (MVS):

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Space Shot (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by C.I.I.
Published by A1 Games / D3 Publisher in 2000

Have you ever wondered what a mix between Einhänder and Thunder Force V would look like? Now give it the most rudimentary budget treatment you can think of and chances are you’ll end up with something like Space Shot in mind. If it’s still hard to figure what I’m talking about don’t worry, the “dirt cheap” qualification applied to this game easily extends to price tags. With that also in mind Space Shot might actually achieve an enjoyable status, even if for a brief moment as a guilty pleasure. The problem with it is that the gameplay is marked by ambitious ideas bungled by poor execution, in a clear case where simpler, more straightforward mechanics would’ve been much better.

As a courtesy from the budget publishers, the “Shooter” name in the cover is merely an attempt at establishing a series rather than the proper name for a game. It was only recently that I found out the Japanese counterpart to this one is the 35th volume of the Simple Series 1500, stupidly titled The Shooting. As poor as the game is, at least the Western companies gave it a more decent name. They also added subtitles instead of dubbing all the Japanese dialogue, which can be considered another wise move for not running the risk of putting the game to widespread shame (Castle Shikigami 2, anyone?). Just for the record, the other entry in this short-lived budget shooter series is Starfighter Sanvein.

Cyber, Nigo, Wells and POSS

Space Shot is full of animated sequences that tell the story of three teenage pilots and their interaction in battle. While not exactly state-of-the-art material, it’s no disaster either and at least doesn’t veer into annoying grounds. Japanese light humor with grainy 3D and dodgy subtitles set the mood for a first level amidst building and beacons. It’s impossible not to notice the immediate nod to Einhänder, only with unpolished polygonal backgrounds. The same atmosphere and the blocky designs continue throughout the game as you navigate through city, ocean, desert, lava and an orbital station. Some stage themes seem to have been lifted directly out of Thunder Force V, an influence that’s also noticeable in some bosses and on the design of the ship.

Unlike most horizontal shmups Space Shot unfolds in an open space scenario where no walls or indestructible obstacles of any kind are to be found. The angle of the main shot spread (□) can be adjusted whenever you stop shooting, locking in place when you’re actually firing – kinda like what you have in Sol-Deace, only here you can also shoot backwards. A detection area defined by the opening of the cannons is activated by pressing ×, with missiles being fired on all targeted enemies upon the release of the button. The next two attacks are limited by the overdrive gauge. There’s the purple laser of death (R2) and a boost that can be equally used for evasion and offense (R1). Both will cause overheating if the gauge reaches its maximum, and if that happens the ship needs to go through a cooldown period before you can use these attacks again. There are absolutely to items or power-ups in the game, which implements a health bar for each life.

Boosting against and around enemies and bullets is the only scoring device that "matters" in Space Shot. You can also kill simultaneous enemies with the laser beam, but the rewards aren't nearly close to what you get by boosting, and when I say they aren't I mean it: this is by far the most fucked up scoring system I've ever seen. For example, try playing the first stage as you would in a regular shooter, taking note of your score. Restart and restrict your actions to boosting around those blue ships and the exploding mines, never mind losing lives. See what I mean? It’s not even funny! The gimmick keeps adding crazy multipliers for continuous boosting, but it’s extremely unreliable for several reasons: the animation is too fast, you can’t clearly tell when you’re invincible so you often materialize inside an enemy/bullet, you need to be going somewhere or the boost won’t do anything (it’s really annoying). The developer could’ve gone for something else more palatable, such as slowing things down when boost-grazing or simply giving rewards for multiple missile targeting (there’s no reward whatsoever for simultaneous missile kills). But then again, the missile attack is slow and ultimately useless, unless you're looking to induce a bit of slowdown on bosses.

In order to have a taste of how every aspect of the gameplay reflects in scoring, the player can try to complete the missions in the Training mode or just view the game samples built therein (access by pausing when a mission is started). They pretty much give away how distressing the scoring system actually is.

Space Shot: gameplay and Training mode
(courtesy of YouTube user teh2Dgamer)

Scoring problems and ugliness aside, as a regular shooter Space Shot isn’t a total waste. Bosses are large and some of them can take you by surprise, the graphics of the revolving base in the last level are really cool (definitely the highlight of the game) and the music can be fairly engaging at times. Sound effects are kinda grating but strangely fitting. Enemy resistance often appears in flocks and waves, and with the exception of the last stage there’s always time to breath in between their attacks. Cheap deaths might occur due to enemies appearing from behind or materializing from the background, but regardless of how you perceive the game it’s not possible to make it any easier or harder because there are no difficulty tweaks available. Controls are fully customizable and a Stage Select feature is unlocked inside the options menu when you complete the game with or without (unlimited) continues, but keep in mind that the last boss is less of a wimp if you get to him on one credit.

Normally there are no extends, but I found out that you can get extra lives by destroying whole sets of those blue ships with the boost command in the first level. Whenever I succeeded at that I’d go berserk with the boost thing just to see how far I could shoot scorewise without depleting my life stock – one or two lives in reserve would be okay to make it through the rest of the game.

I wonder if anyone out there is capable of filling the rest of the billion/trillion digits in the high score table (there is a save function). I almost doubled my previous high score, with over 90% of it being achieved in the first stage alone.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Rabio Lepus Special (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Video System
Published by Video System in 1990

For a little while I was thinking how rude Video System was to PC Engine fans. Why did the company give them Rabio Lepus Special, a rearranged version of their first shooter, instead of making a port for Sonic Wings? And then I figured the PC Engine was probably out of the mainstream curve by 1992, the year Sonic Wings hit the arcade scene... Rabio Lepus Special is from 1990, and a brief look upon some screenshots doesn’t give away the differences from arcade and console variations of the game starring a flying rabbit. That says a lot about how simple the original is, which leaves some room for the PC Engine iteration to shine on its own merits even if it’s just in a faint glow of obscurity.

No hints to the story exist before you start the game, but the shooting bunny is actually on a mission to rescue a royal family kidnapped by a dark villain. In between some of the stages you get a glimpse of them amidst a few lines of Japanese dialogue (the game was never released in the West). The rabbit’s arsenal consists of a single shot (button II), an assortment of homing missiles (button I) and his bare, glove-clad hands. The single shot can’t be upgraded but you can acquire more homing missiles by taking the correct item, whereas if you’re shooting the act of punching happens automatically whenever an object or enemy is at point-blank distance (hence the original’s Western title of Rabbit Punch). The punching thing is what makes this game unique, but using it requires a certain bit of practice because it’s really easy to get hit and die.

A snippet of the first stage
(courtesy of YouTube user Encyclopegames)

Every life comes with three health cells, so unless you take a carrot to restore an empty cell you’ll die on the third hit and get sent back to a previous checkpoint (there’s no partial damage anymore, therefore no carrot shower at the end of the level). On his way across outer space, satellite caves, a planet’s surface and the enemy’s lair the bunny hero is able to find carrots and other items inside static spinning barrels. You must shoot or punch the barrels to release the items, nothing comes out if you just touch or ram into them. Besides extra missiles and carrots for health there are also money (extra points), a red raccoon (a generously long period of invincibility) and a yellow ribbon (increases the power and duration of the homing missile attack).

Looking at Rabio Lepus Special more closely we can see that it lacks the intensity of the arcade while having fewer details, but nevertheless the game preserves the original style and feel with good results. Not only do the main inputs and most gameplay devices make the transition intact (only the spring effect is missing), but the enemy cheapness is also duly reproduced. This means you won’t go very far just by reacting to whatever comes at you while the screen scrolls. Certain enemy attacks will hit you no matter what you do unless you’re cleverly positioned or use a homing missile to proactively take care of them. There’s no going around this aspect of the gameplay, and in order to enjoy the game you must accept it. When you do that Rabio Lepus Special becomes less of an annoyance, turning into a manageable challenge once you notice that you don’t need to be stingy with the homing missiles.

Stage structure is where the biggest departure from the original lies. Earlier levels are the longest ones, and as the game draws to a close Video System gets shamelessly lazy: the last two stages (out of six) are just made of previously seen bosses (except for the final boss). The boss rush seems to have been split just so we wouldn’t notice how short the game actually is, even with the uneven stage lengths. With three bosses, the 2nd level is the longest one, while the 3rd and 4th go by really quickly due to the fast scrolling. Of course it takes lots of attempts and solid memorization to handle the ridiculous speed of some enemies. Floors and ceilings don’t do any damage but walls are just as harmful as the next jumping fish. At least health is fully restored when you start a new stage, and whatever items you had are properly carried over.

Where have I seen this before?

Digging a little deeper for details gives a bit more substance to Rabio Lepus Special. For instance, preserving health is better for scoring because each extra carrot is worth 2.000 points. Punching a barrel that’s closer to the bottom of the screen is the most guaranteed way to get the corresponding item, otherwise it will just land off-screen or inside a wall. A lost power ribbon drifts slowly to the left, so by all means try to take it again you if lose it: more powerful missiles make a huge difference in survival, especially because they are capable of smashing stuff that’s normally indestructible (such as the crystals in stage 4). And don’t underestimate the power of your fists, even some bosses can be punched in the face for faster and cleaner kills. By the way, the biggest part of the fun is in figuring out boss patterns and how to deal with them.

Even though Rabio Lepus Special is underwhelming in many aspects, it should at least be commended for having a more fitting soundtrack than its source. Given the game’s short duration, the lack of extra lives and extends isn’t such a constraint (more continues and other tweaks can be added by means of simple tricks). Thanks to the absence of any proper message during the end credits, the first couple of times I beat the final boss I failed to notice there was a second loop with a slightly different color palette, more bullets and much stronger enemies.

And this is my best score, reaching stage 2-1:

Monday, January 6, 2014

Power Strike II (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Published by Compile in 1993

Top rarity on the Master System? Check. Top shmup on the Master System? Well, that’s debatable. Released only in Europe and Brazil, Power Strike II is a late sequel that does not correspond to Aleste 2 in the same way Power Strike corresponds to the first Aleste. Even though it follows on the same gameplay footsteps it's actually an independent adventure with a wacky storyline involving the great depression of 1929, sky pirates and Italy. All is shown in a nifty intro that also tells your daily job is to take down these pirates (we see their ugly faces at the start of every stage, as well as their reward figure in points). Other than that, prepare for another iteration of the frantic formula initially presented by Compile in Zanac.

On the outside this sequel looks very much like Power Strike, therefore it takes some playthroughs to fully understand how different both games are. They’re graphically comparable, but in Power Strike II the general plant menace is replaced by landscapes on water, islands, mountains, refineries and medieval castles (Italy?). As in every Zanac variation released till then there isn’t anything special about the ground sprites, what makes the experience feel memorable is the speed at which the screen scrolls. Power Strike II pushes the brake pedal a little bit and doesn’t fare that well in the music department, but the characteristic 8-bit Compile rush is still there. A little of the regular Master System flicker and rare bouts of slowdown should be expected though.

Chasing pirates across the sky

The act of starting a credit lets you choose which special weapon to take off with. Special weapons are numbered from 0 to 6 and fired along with the regular shot that’s upgraded by taking the tiny P chips released by carriers or by destroying specific enemy waves. This numbering makes sense within the context of the gameplay, for every special weapon has six upgrade levels that are reached by sticking to the same number (in the lower right corner you see, from top to bottom, your current special weapon, upgrade level and life stock). Firing is accomplished with button 1, and selecting between four available flying speeds can be done with button 2 (you see the current speed “come out” from the ship as you press the button). If you so wish it’s possible to fix the speed in a unique setting and enable the pause function on button 2, thus eliminating the most glaring functional weakness of the Master System console. While that might be advantageous for some I don’t use this special pause because I like to fly faster in certain places, such as during the fight against the 3rd boss.

Available special weapons are: 0/shell up (just rapid fire on the regular shot), 1/shot gun (spread pattern with shorter reach), 2/missile (guided missile that flies forward), 3/burner (short-reach fire weapon that expands with trailing options when upgraded), 4/absorption (homing shots that look like the hunter weapon from the Thunder Force series), 5/destroyer (forward-travelling missiles) and 6/napalm (spiraling clusters that don’t actually look like napalm to me). All special weapons are useful and none of them is downright awful, but of course we all have our favorites. I always start with 4 and keep it for half the game at least, then I’ll either move to 3 or 5. Especially important for tight situations is the special wave blast that’s triggered whenever you let go of the fire button. After all, it destroys enemy bullets! The duration of this charge release seems to be directly proportional to the power level of the main weapon.

One of the main differences from the first Power Strike is that here there’s no limited ammo for any weapon, and when you die you only lose half your power instead of losing it all. Other items you might come across consist of colored crystals (red, blue, yellow) that spin quickly around the ship and protect it from incoming bullets while providing slight upgrades to the ship's firepower. Honestly, everything moves so fast and some crystals cycle colors so often that I don’t even care which color I take… The player can also come across a small ship or a smiley face for 1UPs, but besides granting the 1UP the smiley also adds 3 power levels to the special weapon. Tip: timing the moment of collecting any of these items is important if you want to take advantage of the brief invincibility that comes with it. Finally, besides item 1UPs the player can also count with score-based extends at 20.000, 100.000, 200.000 and cyclically at every 200.000 points afterwards.

Power Strike II legendary intro
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

With 8 stages and fast paced gameplay, Power Strike II outshines the first chapter mainly because of two design aspects: bosses and the scoring system. Bosses aren’t just a gathering of turrets anymore, they’re bulky flying machines and get increasingly harder towards the end. There’s no time out during boss fights but no safe spots either, so you’re still allowed to milk them as much as you want provided you’re sharp enough to dodge lots of bullets (crystals help for a while but they eventually disappear). As for the scoring system, once you max out a special weapon all further items of the same type are worth 10.000 points each. For this reason milking bosses is not only about destroying their bullets and missiles, but also letting them live so that the item carriers keep coming at regular intervals (carriers always bring special weapons in order, as in 0 → 1 → 2 → 3 → 4 → 5 → 6 → P chips → 0 → …). All of this leads to a simple high scoring rule: stick to the same weapon, don’t die and let bosses live longer for more 10K bonuses.

After spending a good time with this game I must say I agree only partially with the widespread praise it gets. I can understand why it ranks as best Master System shooter for some people, however my shmup clock ticks faster for stuff like Choplifter and Fantasy Zone. Power Strike II is solid and fun but in my opinion it’s no standout for graphics or music, and would’ve benefited a great deal if it had random enemy spawning routines - that’s the reason why none of the Aleste games on the Master System can’t really match the brilliance of Zanac.

Here’s my best 1CC result on Power Strike II, played on Normal. I had no pause activated on button 2 and chose absorption (4) as the initial special weapon.

Following the trend of changing basic mechanics while preserving the Aleste name somewhere within the game concept, the series continued in adaptations for the Game Gear and more powerful consoles. Next in my list to (re)play is MUSHA on the Mega Drive.