Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Novastorm (Sega CD)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psygnosis
Published by Psygnosis in 1994

There are people who still remember the Sega CD as the failure with a library made of only FMV (full motion video) video games, and one of the sorriest flunks in Sega’s otherwise glorious history. However, if you think FMV was restricted to ugly simulators only, try taking a look at Novastorm, a rail shooter that comes out as a genuine Star Wars-like adventure in its heart. Originally developed and released for the FM Towns as Scavenger 4, Novastorm landed on the Sega CD without being given much of a chance from anyone, after all the unavoidable visual downgrade was apparently too much for people to bear. For that reason alone many gamers fling to the FM Towns original and the MS-DOS or Playstation versions as if the Sega CD entry didn’t even exist.

Well, all I can say is that if you dig rail shooters ignoring Novastorm on the Sega CD might be a mistake. Not only is the charm of Sega’s 16-bit add-on wrongly overlooked, but considering the fact that this is a game that plays vastly different from one version to the next chances are you might also be missing some precious rail shooting rush. So far I have only tried the FM Towns original, and my assessment is that the Sega CD port has richer gameplay despite the obvious limitations in graphics and color. Sure, you will crash against obstacles with confusing sense of depth or that suddenly shift direction. You will lose energy by scraping seemingly safe surfaces. You will get toasted by fierce boss attacks. On the other hand, cruising across alien landscapes, dodging futuristic architecture and weaving through giant spaceship thrusters is awesome. That’s why rising above the odds feels so great in the end.

It is the future. Once again a computer has gone berserk and is now uniting machines in a war against mankind. It’s up to you to board and pilot one of the Scavenger 4 spaceships on a mission to restore peace. There’s a whole lot of narrated story shown in good old grainy FMV during the intro and between levels. FMV animation is also present in each and every transition within levels, and also prior to bosses and during boss fights. Save for a few post-boss sequences all of them can be duly skipped, and thankfully loading times aren’t abusive. Most importantly, FMV is used to create all environments and obstacles in the gameplay itself while the spaceship, enemies, bullets and a few mid-bosses are purely sprite-based. It’s a combination that works and definitely fulfills the task of immersing the player in an outer space journey.

Callinhor, the lava planet
(courtesy of YouTube user ChaƮne de MegaCdChannel)

For each life in Novastorm you get an energy shield showing how much damage you’re allowed to take before biting the dust. The amount of energy you lose upon taking a hit depends on how severe the blow/crash is. Basic inputs consist of shot (button C), plasma cannon (button B) and bomb (button A). Shot works in bursts: hold the button for a quick stream of bullets, and when the ship stops shooting just hold it again (counter-tapping slowly is best). The plasma cannon can be charged for a more powerful blast, as seen by the overhead meter that appears when you hold down the button. As usual, bombs are initially limited to three per life. By shooting down specific enemies or a certain number of enemies in a wave you unlock a set of three items that hover on the top of the screen, of which you can pick only one. Items range from different types of shot to extra lives, however most of them aren’t exactly easy to identify. Shot types include single (default) shot, double shot, triple shot, explosion/split shot, spread shot and wave/cross shot. Other items consist of power upgrade, speed-up, partial/full health recovery (a sort of underlined triangle), temporary options (fixed, circling or trailing), temporary shield, extra bomb, extra life (looks like double/triple shot, only without the “shots”) and random effect (?).

Surviving the challenge of a rail shooter often takes successive sessions and much practice, and Novastorm is no different. Memorizing enemy routes and playing proactively is still the best strategy to win, but here the most important thing is to manage item pick-up as wisely as possible. You should power up the ship as fast as you can, since each one of those dark-blue circle items adds one slice in the upgrade meter (below the cannon charge meter). The benefits of doing that include easier clearing of enemy waves and much faster boss kills. Then there’s the shot type, of which my favorite is the triple shot. Be careful not to take the wrong item if you get your favorite weapon, the game has a knack for sending stupid items such as the default single shot. Temporary items aren't really useful because they last too little and revert your main weapon to the single shot, whereas speed-up isn’t important since the starting speed is fine (even though you cant set it in the OPTIONS). The random item is only a valid alternative in the very first area, where it might immediately give you a triple shot (I assume you must first get double shot and two power upgrades).

Provided they’re not temporary, all upgrades are preserved when you respawn after death. Note, however, that dying on bosses can also happen in a weird, different way: when a boss fight is about to time out an ALERT message flashes on screen, and unless you kill him in the next seconds you’ll die with a nice animation of the boss obliterating your ship as evil reward. Then you’ll be sent to the start of the section prior to the boss. In order to avoid that, pay close attention to the boss health gauge, a thin red line that appears below that useless radar on the top of the screen. Hit him hard on his weak spot and win the animation of victory. And if it's the stage main boss you can rejoice for having your shield fully replenished!

Behold the sleekness of Scavenger 4

Even though the game seems short with only four stages, each stage is divided into several sections with at least three midbosses before the stage boss. Boss designs range from insect-like creatures to high-tech constructions protected by turret arrangements, also including the mandatory robot variations. The first half of Novastorm takes place on a fiery planet and over a desert, with easy surface navigation and few obstacles to dodge. The second half sees you flying over an ice planet and the enemy base, speeding through progressively tighter trenches. Expect to face ice spikes, crystal shards, gigantic towers, wormholes, narrow tunnels, asteroid fields, heavily guarded cities and huge battleships. Just like in all other versions of the game, the visual scope is outstanding and is definitely a sight to behold, so don’t be discouraged by the absolute lack of continues. The effort to get there is totally worth it.

Getting into the third stage with more lives is always a good thing, so watch out for score extends achieved regularly (with 50K, 100K, 200K, 350K, 600K points etc., after that I stopped paying any attention because I was too busy trying to survive). In any case, Novastorm gets more fun the more you learn the importance of powering up and staying away from false safe zones – those areas where it seems safe to go but can actually cause you to lose shield energy. The music is good and the sound effects used throughout are distinct enough to always let you know items are about to pop up (love that sound) or when a boss is being correctly pummeled. On the bad side, the Sega CD struggles whenever the screen is cluttered with enemies, which leads to momentary slowdown. As for the FMV, it's true that the visuals of any Sega CD game that uses the technique will always be an acquired taste. In Novastorm some of them are uglier than usual (that brief scene showing the shaky pilot’s face looks like something straight out of Splatterhouse), but overall I think they’re used to very good effect.

I beat the game on default settings (ship speed 2, lives 3) and got the high score below. Note: Novastorm is the spiritual sequel to Microcosm, which on the Sega CD and the 3DO is also a rail shooter (not on the FM Towns or the 3DO).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Astro Tripper (Playstation Network)

Horizontal, confined
Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
14 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by PomPom Games
Published by PomPom Games in 2009

It is true that the top-down view in the shooter genre is pretty much restricted to vertically oriented games. In horizontals you normally see the spaceship/avatar from the sides. Astro Tripper, however, goes against the norm and presents itself as a top down horizontal shmup. You see the spaceship from above, kinda like an elevated guardian angel controlling its actions. I tried to list similar pure top-down horizontal shooters and couldn’t find many, surprised by how unusual the concept actually is. The only ones I could think of are Uridium, The Last Starfighter (none other than Uridium in disguise) and a few levels of the relatively recent Sturmwind.

In the case of Astro Tripper (and Uridium to a certain extent), the fore inspiration is none other than Defender. Both games ditch the automatic scrolling staple of the genre, but whereas Defender allowed unlimited displacement around a cylinder, the stages in Astro Tripper unfold in an enclosed area where enemies materialize in time-based routines, sometimes associated with generators that must be wiped out for the player to proceed – which is in fact a direct influence from Fantasy Zone, by no coincidence another famous cylinder-based horizontal shooter.

Influences aside, Astro Tripper has a style of its own. The spaceship comes endowed with slight inertia, sliding nervously across different alien surfaces as if carried by wind puffs or interstellar vacuum voids. For inertia haters, it’s actually not as bad as it sounds.

Wreaking havoc over a flying ship

“Adventure game” is where the proper fun is, with 14 stages spread in four distinct worlds marked by trippy platforms, organic environments and deadly corridors. “Challenge game” offers four options for you to play endlessly with random enemy generation in each world of the main game. Gameplay rules are the same for both of them: fire with ×, flip shooting direction with ○ and switch weapons with □. Weapons come in two types/colors: blue is the straight gun and red provides a spread pattern with limited reach. Keeping the fire button pressed will eventually “overheat” the cannons and reduce the firing rate, so the best way to deal with it is by tapping regularly (also note that point-blanking is excellent to take down enemies faster). Leveling up is done by taking the colored power-up dropped by enemies every once in a while. Instead of being forced a particular upgrade, here you can choose the weapon to be powered up just by using it – the power-up item changes its color accordingly.

Silver items are released in between power-ups, and each of these items corresponds to a score multiplier of ×2. However, the maximum multiplier you can reach is ×8 (further silver items are worth 40.000 points each). The secret to get them is to kill enemies in quick succession, as indicated by the kill gauge located underneath the score display (when the gauge is filled the multiplier item appears). Unless it’s a very crowded level, the only way to get to the ×8 multiplier is by letting enemies mount to a good number before going on a killing spree. On the other hand, extra care is needed due to the sheer amount of hazards and the fact that some enemies morph into more unpredictable creatures if you let them linger long enough on screen. Also note how some of them fill the multiplier gauge faster than others.

Waiting to cash in on more enemies is good for scoring, but the player must also take into consideration the time limit in every level. Some of these limits are very strict, particularly on boss fights where you need to clear the screen of all nearby enemies to have access to their weak spots. If the stage times out you die. By the way, whenever you die you need to restart the level from scratch.

So the primordial question is this: how much risk are you willing to take? Initially there are only two difficulty levels available. The only significant difference between them is that on Hard you die by falling off the boundary of the level, which doesn’t happen on Easy. That’s why it’s important to check and trust in the overhead map showing the location of existent and spawning enemies. A credit can be started at any previously reached world, and while that’s good to practice later levels I just wish you could also choose the stage directly (for example, in order to face the boss of the second world you need to play the three previous levels).

Official trailer for Astro Tripper
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer PomPomTV)

I enjoyed Astro Tripper exclusively on Hard, a mode that seems to be balanced around survival, crowd control and power-up strategy, in that order. Bullets are slow and clearly visible, and there’s always room to move around if you approach enemy formations correctly. It’s impossible to power up both weapons to their maximum, so do it wisely if you want to survive the cube onslaught of the Temple of the Gods, the last world in the game. My strategy was to favor blue in the first world, red in the second and blue during the rest of the game, with only one red upgrade somewhere around the third/fourth world. Extends exist and are awarded for every million points scored.

Despite some relatively empty spells in the first levels, Astro Tripper manages to provide decent shooting rush with good production values. The frame rate isn’t really on par with the finest material from PSN, but the graphics are clean and create a sleek sense of moving across a 3D environment. Tilted platforms are an example of how smart the graphic design is, as well as the fitting music and the excellent array of sound effects. The otherworldly sci-fi atmosphere is duly enriched by lots of diverse explosions and noises. Particularly amusing is the whole third world, aptly titled “Insect Infestation” and filled with deadly spores, flying bugs and serpent-like menaces.

What struck me as extremely odd is that there’s no offline high score table of any kind, but if you’re logged into PSN the highest score for all modes is always added to the worldwide leaderboards. At least the highest score is always shown locally as you play, regardless of Internet availability. As of now, the game is also available on Steam for those interested.

Astro Tripper loops on a higher difficulty level once beaten. Below in yellow is my best result on Hard after reaching stage 2-2 – meaning second level of the first world in the second loop (completing the game on Hard unlocks Hardest). Look how my two friends above me performed!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Last Resort (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by SNK
Published by SNK in 1992

In the history of the greatest horizontal shooting games of all time, both R-Type and Gradius are always somehow present in any relevant discussion. However, many of those who also consider them to be difficult games have a hard time dealing with the checkpoints and the painfully slow default speed of their respective ships. Assuming that these people would still be game for this particular shooting style, I can now attest that Last Resort is the compensation they certainly need - especially for R-Type fans because, to put it simply, Last Resort is by all means an easier take on R-Type. It's just as fantastic in graphics and sound, but the decent starting speed of the ship and the absence of excessively hard checkpoint recoveries are very attractive if you want something more bearable challenge-wise.

As is the case with the later Pulstar, some people believe that part of Irem's staff also worked on Last Resort. The graphic design is definitely to blame for this assumption, even though there's a uniqueness to the overall style of the game. Particularly amusing are the tiny men/pilots ejected from pretty much every destroyed enemy, which lends it a singular feel and further deepens its shadowy relation to Irem. The inspiration drawn from the anime film Akira is also evident as you start the game amidst a busy rendition of its Neo Tokyo setting. As the stages unfold, scary bosses try to stop you while you pilot that pointy ship through rain over the ocean, face an emerging submarine, weave across laser-infested corridors and battle a huge spaceship before entering the final enemy's lair.

Where have I seen this snake creature before?

With only two buttons to be used, the gameplay is pretty straightforward and requires very little to be learned, basically expanding on the classic scheme of R-Type. Kill specific enemies in a wave or a particular carrier to release speed-ups (S), speed-downs (mirrored S) or colored power-ups. These power-ups are defined by their inner characters (G, H or L) and their cycling colors (red or blue). Take any of them to activate an invincible satellite that remains permanently attached to the ship and can be used both for offense and defense, since it blocks all regular enemy bullets.

Moving the ship causes the satellite to rotate around it, and at the press of the B button you can lock it in place or release it to continue rotating. As soon as the sattelite is activated the player is also entitled to use the charge shot by holding the fire button (A). Once charged and released, the satellite will dart forward from its initial direction with great destructive power, and the longer you hold the button the more powerful the attack is. The color of the last power-up collected is also important for the charge attack because it defines how the satellite behaves upon hitting a wall. Red will make it trail along the surface, blue will make it bounce around. In both cases the satellite will automatically return to the ship once the attack is done.

Upon collection of the second power-up the letter inside it activates its corresponding weapon: G is a set of two napalm bombs with trailing capabilities dropped above and below the ship, H is a set of straight missiles with very slight homing ability and L is the classic straight laser. It then takes just two successive power-ups (regardless of letter type) to max out the ship's attack power. You can cruise through the game with any of these weapons, but at certain spots the ground bombs (G) are certainly more helpful. Some examples are the turret corridor in stage 2, the initial laser cannon area of stage 4 and the whole scramble around the large battleship of the last level + last boss. I use missiles mainly against the 2th boss, and laser on the 4th boss due to its piercing ability making it possible to hit the little turrets on the other side of the boss's body.

More gauge, more strong!
(courtesy of YouTube user superdeadite)

No matter how you look at it, you can't really say there's something technically special about Last Resort. Not only is the gameplay derivative from R-Type, but it even copies some of that game's traits - like the way your ship gets drawn to the center of the screen as the bonus of 10.000 points gets computed. Slowdown can be heavy during boss confrontations, as well as flicker. What Last Resort does, and does really well, is keep a steady flow of action from beginning to end while allowing the player to get back on his knees upon death with no heavy work/practice required. I daresay you can beat the game without taking any speed-ups, such is the ease provided by the default speed of the ship. Furthermore, the game is finely suited both for a stock joystick with no autofire (abuse charge shots to win) or an autofire-enabled controller where you pretty much don't need to charge. It's a fun ride in whatever form you take it.

Another aspect where Last Resort shines is in its amazing soundtrack. Diverse and pumping with lots of cool bass, it matches the graphics with outstanding results. I can imagine people complaining that the game is too short, but it must be known that SNK designed it as a shooter with two loops. Of course the second time you play enemies and bosses become more aggressive. There is no intricacy in the scoring system whatsoever, and the only extends are achieved with 60.000 and 130.000 points. Last Resort is also another example of a game with a considerably steep default highest score.

Other than on the Neo Geo AES and its CD version, players are also able to enjoy Last Resort on the PSP, PS2 and Nintendo Wii by means of a compilation titled SNK Arcade Classics Vol. 1. It includes 16 Neo Geo games, of which only Last Resort appears as a representative of the shmup genre. Prior to playing it on the AES I practiced and credit-fed the game on the PSP. In the high score below I reached stage 2-3 playing on MVS difficulty with a turbo controller for proper autofire (I didn't use charge shots at all).