Friday, May 30, 2014

Thunderbolt II (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Gamtec
Published by Gamtec in 1993

The wonders of unlicensed games are for the brave only. Brave players, brave collectors! Whatever the case, playing with an actual retail copy of a game like this almost feels like pure waste for a variety of reasons. Firstly, why spend effort and lots of money trying to track down an unlicensed shooter that’s almost impossible to find? And then, why spend time with such low-level gaming when I could be getting raped again and again by stuff like Gradius III? I don’t need to answer either question. The answers are obvious, and those who value both collecting and gaming in equal measure will know what I mean.

Gamtec was historically more active in the 16-bit scene, but the company at least managed to deliver this single shmup for the Famicom. I have already come across lots of confusion regarding its actual name, with many sources pointing that it was somehow related to Raiden. Of course Thunderbolt II – or Thunderbolt Fighting Plane, as shown in the game’s start screen – has nothing to do with Seibu Kaihatsu’s classic. It doesn’t even bear any resemblance with Thunderbolt II for the Mega Drive, which supposedly came out a couple of years later and uses the same artwork for box and cartridge. I say “supposedly” because the back of the Famicom box shows screenshots from the Mega Drive version.

Don't try to find where bullets are coming from

Shady connections with the Mega Drive counterpart aside, the gameplay in the 8-bit version is actually very similar to another Gamtec shooter: pacing and frame rate, particularly, seem to have been based on the same mold that gave birth to Magic Girl. Poor frame rate combined with poor hit detection is the biggest culprit of Thunderbolt II’s lackluster nature, and pretty much crushes any good impression that might come from the game's few but cool graphical effects, namely the smart bomb explosions and the wavy graphics preceding some boss fights. Well, in an extremely far-fetched comparison you could also say that the first boss might be mistaken as something straight out of Recca.

Anyway, the game comes with a quick intro showing an alien attack on Earth. The cannon-looking spaceship darts into outer space armed with a single weapon fired by button A (autofire enabled by default). By shooting a characteristic carrier colored power-up items are released and descend slowly across the screen. Take them in order to switch/upgrade your weapon: blue (default shot that evolves into a 5-way Star Soldier style pattern), brown (cross-shaped 4-way shot when maxed out), green (3-way forward laser at max power) and yellow (6-way shot at max power). Take the same color in order to power up the weapon, and once it's maxed out watch as all same-colored items create a big explosion that works as a screen-clearing bomb. Finally, a flashing power-up works as a smart bomb regardless of the weapon used or its current level.

Getting hit powers down the weapon in one level, and if the ship is hit in its lowest condition the player dies. Since it takes three items to max out firepower and start taking advantage of the smart bombs, three hits is also the amount of damage you can withstand from a maxed out condition before dying. This leads to an interesting survival mechanic, where taking two equal items of a different color guarantees a little extra health if you feel threatened at the lowest power level. Auxiliary weapons appear in the form of homing shots (M) or rotating options (R), both with two levels of power. Homing is good to destroy stray enemies but lacks the protection provided by options against regular bullets, and both are also downgraded when you get hit.

A full-blown bolt of thunder
(courtesy of YouTube user MrTrizeal)

In total, Thunderbolt II boasts an overwhelmingly disappointing amount of three stages. The themes are outer space, forest/city/ocean and desert, with enemies spawning from all sides in formations ranging from naive to schizophrenic. Of all the wrongs in the game, some of the most annoying are bullets coming out of nowhere (!) and bosses spitting nearly unavoidable attacks aggravated by the awful frame rate. Sometimes power-ups get stuck on the top of the screen or change colors without notice. Even the abysmal music slows down when things get too hectic or too heavy for the Famicom to handle, as in the fight against the first boss.

Don’t try to look for any score display during the game itself, it only shows up for a few seconds after you beat the boss. I can’t even tell how the extend routine works! Suffice it to say you earn lots of lives, which is good for when you need to face the cheap attacks of the third and last boss. Fortunately you’re allowed to pause and take note of your final score once he dies and the three-panel ending starts cycling forever (see below).

Note for collectors: I doubt the original box was supposed to house anything more than the cartridge, so I assume the game never had any manual. Despite its Taiwanese origin, the text on back of the box is all written in Japanese.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Thunder Force III (Mega Drive)

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

Even though the Mega Drive was already out since at least 1988 in Japan, it would still take the right games to finally cement its aura as one of the definitive video game machines in the console market. As a launch title Thunder Force II was decent enough to hold the attention of shooter fans, but it didn't quite represent the leap forward most people expected. On the grand scheme of things for Sega Thunder Force III might not be in the same league of a title like Sonic the Hedgehog, but I am pretty sure those who appreciated shmups back then were nothing less than blown away when they laid eyes on the game for the first time. To keep it simple, it was the first shooter to really showcase the true potential of the 16-bit generation.

Part of this success is certainly related to the changes made by Technosoft for the continuation of the series. Gone are the forced multidirectional stages of Thunder Force II, for example. Now it’s all about horizontal shooting, with a complete weapons overhaul and a very welcome speed selection feature. Crowned by polished presentation, sleek visuals and an outstanding soundtrack, the experience comes out as nearly flawless (voices are still scratchy but that's obviously irrelevant). Most impressive is the absolute lack of slowdown, no matter how busy the screen gets with multiple parallax and background layers. If you think that’s an overstatement, perhaps you might want to consider the fact that Thunder Force III is also one of the very rare instances of a console shooter giving birth to an arcade title.

A credit starts by choosing one of five planets to tackle first: Hydra, Gorgon, Seiren, Haides and Ellis. Once all of them are pacified you move onto Cerberus, the evil spaceship that guards the heart of the Orn empire. Every planet has its own particular setting and is preceded by a panel showing basic information on the boss to be defeated, such as its name and weak point. The way the music overflows from the panels into the levels themselves is a stroke of genius in establishing atmosphere, and I’m pretty sure many people regard levels Hydra and Gorgon as iconic staples of the series (not to mention the genre). I know there might be some inherent nostalgia when I say this, but in my eyes Hydra is synonym with the Thunder Force brand. Also note how the music volume is pumped up a notch whenever Gorgon starts against those awesome flaming backgrounds. It’s just so simple and yet so fulfilling.

The caves of Haides
(courtesy of YouTube user kamaji75)

Hydra and Gorgon being the highlights doesn’t mean the rest of the game is devoid of great moments. After all, variety is to be seen everywhere. The scrolling speed picks up every now and then, walls move up and down trying to crush the player in the Haides stage, water currents throw the ship upwards in planet Seiren and there’s a constant need to shoot ice blocks in order to clear the way in the diagonal scrolling parts of Ellis. I still remember the first time I saw the jaw-droppingly bright, beautiful waterfalls appearing in the final sections of Haides. The only negative thing I can say about the stage design in Thunder Force III is this: everything is so exquisitely put together in these five initial stages that the rest of the game fails to keep the same level of awesomeness. There’s nothing basically wrong with the final stages, but they somehow lack the punch of the planet levels. The huge spaceship approach looks too clean and is too easy, whereas the whole enemy base sounds a little repetitive. At least the bosses are sort of redeeming, which kinda compensates some of the pushovers from the starting levels.

Button A switches flying speed between four predefined settings, while button C switches the weapon type that’s fired by button B. In line with what makes shmups such a delight to play, these three simple inputs are more than enough to provide the gameplay with a high degree of flexibility and strategy. The bare ship is endowed with two basic weapons, the twin shot (forward vulcan) and the back fire (shoots backwards). All other weapons, including enhancements to the basic two, are acquired by hitting a small carrier and taking the released icons. The first and most important icon to get is the claw, which creates two permanent rotating options around the ship and strongly amplifies its firepower. Weapon items include sever (red S: upgrades twin shot with lasers), lancer (L: upgrades back fire), wave (W), fire (F: drops surface-crawling missiles above and below the ship) and hunter (H, weaker bubbles that target everything anywhere on the screen). This is also the order in which weapons are cycled by pressing C (twin shot → back fire → wave → fire → hunter).

Just as precious as the claw is the shield (blue S), an item that grants protection against three hits – when the protection level is down to the last hit the color of the shield shifts from blue to red. Sometimes you don’t need to count with shields to protect the ship because claws are also capable of absorbing regular enemy bullets. Lastly, icons for extra lives can be found in specific places, most of them requiring a swift or careful maneuver to be taken.

Dying causes the player to lose the weapon he/she is currently using (the only ones that will remain, although in their default conditions, is twin shot and back fire). However, when the game is played in higher difficulties all weapons are lost and you’re back to the default firepower. Choosing difficulties, remapping buttons and tweaking other aspects of the game is accomplished by pressing A, B or C + START during the start screen. Speaking of which, it feels natural for everybody to move to higher difficulties because Thunder Force III is a very easy game on the default setting (Normal). The reason for this is that besides the occasional 1UP items the game distributes score-based extends like lollipops on children's day, making it easy to amass over 20 lives by the end of it on a well-played credit. I didn’t even bother to check the exact extend rate to write this text.

After failing to qualify for Darius, King Fish decided to overtake Seiren

A lower challenge level at least makes this game a perfect fit for people who are new to the genre, but there are other factors that also make Thunder Force III a very good introductory shmup. Although seemingly straightforward, the scoring system comes with a shiny carrot at the end of the stick in the form of multiple bonuses when you beat the game. Each remaining life is rewarded with 10.000 points, each remaining credit is worth 50.000 points (so in a 1CC run you get an extra 350K) and each difficulty setting applies a different multiplier to the overall score. On Normal the multiplier is ×1, while on Mania (Very Hard) it’s ×5. And there you have it: if you want to score higher you need to face more hazards, more enemies, more (and faster) bullets and more aggressive bosses. Milking in Thunder Force III is possible, but only in certain areas and for a very short period. You’ll get nowhere by trying to milk minions thrown by bosses (they’re not worth anything), so the bulk of higher scores really comes from final bonuses + choice of difficulty.

Good games age like good wine and this one is no exception. I know of many people who consider it even superior to Thunder Force IV, which is often listed as the best Mega Drive shooter, and I can’t really argue with that because this game is really that impressive. In a sense it was decidedly more influential than the direct sequel, as seen by the release of Thunder Force AC in the arcades and the secondary port for the SNES called Thunder Spirits. How do they compare to the original? I hope to check them out soon for the first time, as I never touched either one before. :)

My efforts were successful and resulted in the following final score. I played on Mania and 1-lifed the game starting on Hydra, achieving an improvement of 26% over my previous best mark.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Rayxanber II (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Data West
Published by Data West in 1991

Once upon a time there was a Japanese 32-bit computer known as FM Towns. It had a console variation named FM Towns Marty. Despite the system’s impending obscurity and swift descent into failure a few unique and exclusive titles were developed for it, such as the first Rayxanber. It offered a different take on the methodical school cemented by R-Type, even though it lacked any of the flair one naturally expects from a 32-bit game. Seeing that the FM Towns wasn’t really going anywhere and Data West still had more of the same under their belt, the company decided to continue the series in a different system, granting the PC Engine CD add-on with not only one, but two exclusive sequels.

I should stress the above part where you read “more of the same”. There are absolutely no functional differences between Rayxanber II and the first game. You still have the same three single upgrades and you still win an extra life at every 50.000 points, fighting the same intergalactic organic-like enemy forces while aided by unlimited continues. Therefore if you’ve ever played the first one you’ll know exactly how to approach the second. However, this doesn’t mean Rayxanber II treads the same path of its predecessor in other gameplay aspects such as pacing and challenge. Most of the time everything moves much faster, whereas difficulty gets elusively heightened by a couple of infuriating design choices. And this in a shooter with unusually low bullet count, where the easier stages are too easy and the harder ones are too hard.

Working out the mechanics of the game takes little time. Button II fires your weapon, be it the pea shot of the default ship or the single-level enhanced weapon acquired by taking the colored power-ups released by a carrier that looks like a dark shadow of your own craft. The firing direction of the upgrade is defined by the moving dial inside the icon, thus demanding a little bit of timing from the player. Blue corresponds to a pattern of thin shards, orange is the flame gun and green activates a lightning bolt. By holding and releasing the firing button you trigger a charge shot that varies according to the current weapon: 8-way blast (blue), flame shots with homing ability (orange) and a quick circling attack that surrounds the ship (green).

Stage 3

The other button in the controller is responsible for the dash maneuver. It propels the ship towards its moving direction, providing a very much needed evasion capability. You can’t dash continuously though, because then the engine overheats. The lower bar in the HUD serves as a meter both for charging and overheating, and whenever it’s in the red zone you have to wait for the engines to cool down. Dashing three times in a row is enough to cause overheating, but from my experience a triple dash is rarely needed.

Rayxanber II throws you in the action right away, with little gusto for any warming-up preamble. A series of drones and space stations cross the screen as multiple graphical layers scroll by really fast. What’s instantly clear is that in order to play decently you need some sort of autofire, and since the game has none you should definitely get a turbo controller. The need for autofire is also related to the fact that all weapons were made less powerful this time around. Charge attacks were also affected by the power downgrade, but that doesn’t mean they’re all useless. The effectiveness of the homing flame was severely toned down, but the green charge is still capable of damaging enemies behind walls in spite of its reduced range.

Further stages vary in theme quite nicely, from an open area over the sea to the barrage of walls and blocks of the last level. In the third stage you must weave below the paws of a gigantic insect-like spaceship. Huge creatures and deadly eyes protruding from walls populate the fifth level, but to get there you must make way through one of the most unsettling stages I have ever seen in any horizontal shooter. It’s like a nightmare turned into a shmup: a mud (or ice) mesh covers everything and impairs your firepower, rocks bounce around freely, huge snakes appear out of nowhere and kamikaze enemies home on you from all sides. What makes this stage extremely unpredictable is the fact that the trajectory of the bouncing rocks is affected by the movement of your own ship and your enemy’s. Memorization can only get you to a certain point, and after that it’s all about hazard anticipation and wise dashing decisions amid hiccups of slowdown (note about the slowdown in stage 4: it totally messed with my controller, and halfway into the level I had to turn turbo off to actually be able to fire). This is the place where most credits end in Rayxanber II… a stage without a single bullet fired at you, and that pretty much includes the boss.

Bosses are, in fact and literally speaking, in a league of their own. When the stage ends the screen fades and you enter the boss chamber. Every boss has a weak point with limited access, and each one demands a very particular and sometimes tricky approach to be defeated. Except for the third boss, if you die in their chamber you’ll need to restart the fight with a bare ship and no upgrades at all. Bosses are at least consistent in how progressively difficult they get, unlike the levels themselves, which are heavily unbalanced. The last stage, for example, is almost as maddening as the fourth, and it’s pretty common to get shot in the face by a turret you have just destroyed. Lots of memorizing and planning ahead might eventually iron out random deaths, but there will always be a strong rage-inducing nature to that section. And of course, the same applies to the fourth stage.

A rough 1-credit clear of Rayxanber II

I believe developing Rayxanber II for the PC Engine CD was a wise decision from Data West, at least in Japan. It’s graphically and musically on par with Rayxanber on the FM Towns, and a worthy successor in its own right. Remixed with faster tempo and reused in the sequel, the music for the first stage works remarkably well as starting theme in a soundtrack that once again evolves into gloomier compositions later on. Everything else is pretty tight and straightforward, stages fading and succeeding each other in a hellish checkpoint-based experience – stages 3 and 6 have only one checkpoint, die anywhere there and restart from the beginning. Is it hard? Hell yes. Is it fun? I guess so. But it surely feels more fun when you finally manage to 1CC it. Tricky question: is rewarding equal to fun?

As it stands, it seems that every single resource in Rayxanber II went into the game itself, after all it’s got no options, no attract mode and no high score buffering, halting at the copyright screen in the end. Well, if you consider the company hired Homer Simpson to provide a voice snippet at the start screen then that’s where some of the investment might have gone to.

Considering those orbs can probably be exploited forever on the second boss we could say the scoring system in this game is unfortunately broken, so this is yet another case where the journey is what matters most. And here’s my final 1CC score (as you can see in the video above, I died in several places from stages 4 to 6).

Next: Rayxanber III !!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Twin Cobra (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
10 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan / American Sammy
Published by American Sammy in 1989

Thinking back in retrospect, NES shmuppers were very lucky not only due to the sheer amount of titles available (which trumped the Master System by miles), but also because they were able to have a taste of some of the finest arcade games of that era. At the time, in my little corner of the world I never imagined the system had a port of Twin Cobra, for example. That in itself is amazing. Unofficial sequel to Tiger-Heli and a true representative of Toaplan’s second wave of arcade games, we all know it also appeared in more powerful platforms. However, being able to play Twin Cobra in an 8-bit system is a guilty pleasure of sorts.

In Famicom language the name of the game is KyÅ«kyoku Tiger, a disparity that also mirrors the existing confusion with the arcade titles. Since my game is the 72-pin US variation published by Sammy, as soon as I finished it I went to the emulator to check if the main difference from both arcade versions was also applicable to the Nintendo platform. I confirmed they have no checkpoints, so yeah... The lack of checkpoints qualifies both NES and Famicom cartridges as true Twin Cobra. Surprisingly decent for NES standards, the port manages to capture the essence of the original down to its relentless difficulty, hardware constraints considered. It probably does it better than previous Toaplan NES ports Tiger-Heli and Sky/Flying Shark, even though it’s been more severely toned down than both of them in graphical and musical terms.

Bending the yellow weapon for great justice

Twin Cobra is about an attack helicopter that flies from one ship base to another while destroying everything in its path, ground and aerial. Just assume you’re actually flying over an enemy country that’s been evacuated, so you don’t need to feel bad for any civilian casualties... In order to fulfill your mission an assortment of upgrade items is definitely needed, especially the ones that are released by the green helicarrier that fires a spread of three bullets: S stands for "supercharger" and increases the power of the current weapon, B adds another bomb to the stock and the colored saucer/circle is used to switch the weapon type. Its colors cycle from red (straight default vulcan shot) to green (laser), blue (spread shot), yellow (4-way shot with slight homing ability) and then back to red and so on and so forth. Note that taking the colored icon merely changes the weapon type, with no power-up function at all. Due to the washed out colors of this port yellow can also be mistaken as a shade of muddy green or even brown - as stated in the instruction manual.

Selected ground targets also reveal several items, the majority of them consisting of a star-shaped yellow P. These contribute greatly to the overall score if you can beat the level without dying, since each P collected within the stage or since your last death is worth 3.000 points whenever you land. Other items to be taken from ground targets are the white P (brief invincibility), extra bombs and extra lives (1UP) that appear only when you survive long enough. Speaking of extra lives, you can also gain them by scoring: the first extend comes with 50.000 points, and then you get another one at every 150.000 points.

As with many other Toaplan titles, a very distinct aspect about Twin Cobra is its enemy gallery, which in this case is formed exclusively by helicopters, turrets, ships and tanks. The NES adaptation retained many of their characteristics, such as the flying patterns of enemy choppers (which change in each level) and turret formations. On the other hand, tanks do not appear from inside bunkers anymore and are restricted to open areas only, and I’m sure most people will be pleased to know that there are no more enemies approaching from the bottom of the screen. The homing ability of the yellow weapon is new to this port, actually making it an useful resource this time around (an improvement, yay!). Later boss fights were made easier because the NES just can’t handle two bosses/tanks at once. Some of the consequences are the player facing one tank boss at a time and the 8th and 3rd bosses being the same. Another clear concession is the square bullet pattern of the 9th boss, which was simplified to something less dangerous.

First stage of Twin Cobra on the NES
(courtesy of YouTube user GoodYume P.)

Despite all the simplifications made during the transition to the 8-bit platform you still need to be extra careful with treacherous sniper tanks appearing from the sides. From all enemies, at least one of them is more dangerous than its original counterpart: the firing rate of that green tank with two hatches on the sides is nasty! Be warned that in the last couple of levels enemy bullet speed increases considerably and does not subside, therefore stocking lives and bombs is the best strategy to deal with the final mayhem. Just like in the original, bombs must be used proactively because they have a delay and lack any panic effect (note: the maximum number of lives/bombs you can carry is 9, anything acquired beyond that is lost).

Of course there are better ways to experience the game at home, but if the NES is all you've got then there's no need to be afraid of this port. Overall the gameplay isn't affected negatively by the reduced frame rate (there are far better examples on the console), so fortunately Twin Cobra moves and scrolls just fast enough to keep things visible and under control. It's reasonably fun, and you even get to experience a few decent dodging battles against bosses. Flicker isn’t an issue but a little bit of slowdown is to be expected.

A curious aspect of the game is that half the helicopter disappears on the bottom of the screen if you move against the lower border. And it's not a graphical hiccup "per se", but in my TV set the ripple effect in the water behaves awkwardly, disappearing completely whenever you’re moving to the right. I don't know if the developer thought people wouldn't care about finishing the game in a single credit, but when this happens you get stuck in the ending (the game doesn't loop). Unfortunately the act of resetting also resets the high score display in the opening screen, so players need to pause as soon as the last boss is beaten to take note of the score. Here's my final result: