Friday, April 24, 2015

Hellfire S (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan / NEC Avenue
Published by NEC Avenue in 1991

As a kid growing in South America, I was naturally exposed to just a fraction of the video game industry during the 16-bit era. The Mega Drive and the Super Nintendo were all that mattered back then, the PC Engine being a totally unknown system up until my adulthood. So I grew up with a very specific idea about a titled called Hellfire, which I had obviously played (probably on a pirate cartridge) on my good old Japanese Mega Drive. No matter how you approached that game, Hellfire lived up to its name. The crushing difficulty demanded us little kids to get better or just give up, after all the game had checkpoints and checkpoints were one of the most evil things created by video game developers.

Enter Hellfire S, a colorful and cut scene ridden alternate version of Toaplan’s arcade shooter, reworked by NEC Avenue and released exclusively for the PC Engine CD. Subtitled in its opening screen as The Another Story [sic], Hellfire S can be a lot of things, especially when compared to the Mega Drive version, but the aspect that will matter most for a lot of people is that it’s a lot easier than Sega’s counterpart released in cartridge format. The port for the PC Engine CD is also more faithful to its arcade origins in gameplay, except for the toned down difficulty and the fact that it doesn’t loop. Since this is yet another title that halts at a dead end after the closing credits are shown, pause the game as soon as the final boss goes down or else you won’t be able to see your score.

Is that someone playing Tetris in the background?

The anime paint applied over the game seems to tell the story of two female pilots dragged to another one of those missions where the fate of the galaxy rests on the multidirectional guns of their spaceships. Unfortunately everything is in Japanese, so proper understanding of the story is severely compromised for Japanese illiterates like myself. The gameplay is simple enough to allow immediate acquaintance for everyone, with button II used to shoot and button I used to cycle through the four available types of directional weapons: forward (red), rear (yellow), 2-way vertical (green) and 4-way diagonals (blue). Collectible items brought by special carriers include speed-ups (S), power-ups (P), two-hit shields (G), 2.000 point bonuses (B) and extra lives (1UP).

Each stage in Hellfire S is a colony that needs to be freed from evil. Overall the tone of the graphics is a bit of a mess, with the opening level happening inside a space station, the second one on an Egyptian-theme planet and the third and the fourth mixing organic and cave-like walls. Moving beacons and large ships appear in stage 5, while huge monsters with turret-ridden hulls try to stop you in the last level. Naturally, freeing all of these colonies requires the player to make good use of the available arsenal. Weapons cycle in a predetermined order (red → yellow → green → blue → red), and that leads to the instinctive development of switching strategies in some of the most intricate parts of the game.

Under pretty much all circumstances, the gameplay in Hellfire S doesn’t live up to the game’s name. Bullet count and speed is easily manageable from start to finish (it can be quite a shock if you try this version right after playing the Mega Drive port), most bosses are pushovers and the only level that demands a more dedicated approach is the last one. The absence of checkpoints is another factor that corroborates the conclusion that this version boasts an easier challenge, regardless of the default slow speed of the ship. Be careful though, collecting more than one speed-up can be risky during sections with many narrow corridors, such as the final stretch of the fifth stage.

The lengthy intro animations before and after the start screen of Hellfire S
(courtesy of YouTube user Succulla Channel)

Other details that might be brought to the table in a comparison between ports are the ship’s color not changing according to the current weapon and the overall lack of parallax layers on the PC Engine CD. The first of these characteristics is actually in line with the nature of the original arcade game, which only serves to cement the notion that Hellfire on the Mega Drive is one of the most interesting cases of a console adaptation being actually richer than its source. Of course it’s still a very punishing shooter and for that reason Hellfire S is a more sensible option for many people, never mind the apparent lack of depth in the scoring system of the latter. EDIT MAY-2015: In a very obscure and unexpected twist, if you manage to destroy a weapon carrier with the rear shot (yellow), it will release three pick-up items instead of just one (kudos to my fellow shmupper Perikles for contributing with this precious info). Also play risky for more points: all items turn into Bs once power and speed are maxed out.

For those who care about such an option, Hellfire S allows co-op play, a mode that’s absent on Sega’s console. Just remember to carry a pair of turbo controllers because there is no autofire in this port. As with many other PC Engine CD adaptations of arcade titles, the game comes with a rearranged soundtrack that’s especially cool if you happen to like the original tunes. I was never overly crazy about them, but the synth-infused CD tracks definitely sound better and less grating than the primary compositions. It's more of an improvement that what was accomplished with Zero Wing, another Toaplan horizontal shooter that also got a port for the PC Engine CD but on musical terms doesn't fare better than its couterpart on the Mega Drive.

By going into the Mode Select option at the start screen you can select difficulty (default is Easy) and player speed (slow/fast, slow as default). There’s also an option called “vector reset” but I couldn’t figure out what it does – I played the game and continued a few times with different settings for it, but I didn’t notice anything. The 1CC high score below was achieved on Normal with everything else at defaults (player speed = slow).

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Image Fight (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem in 1988
Published by Irem / Xing in 1998

Everybody knows that Irem’s image in the golden era of arcade shooters will always be associated with R-Type. The company was never able to come up with a title or a franchise that could match R-Type’s incredible success, but at one point in time Image Fight was certainly one of its more prominent efforts, as indicated by the plethora of ports the game received across many different platforms. The 32-bit bundle releases of Image Fight & X-Multiply is one of them, and the Saturn disc is sure bound to please those who want an arcade-like experience at home, TATE mode included.

Image Fight is also famous for packing a remarkable challenge, another trait that somehow became synonym with Irem games as time went by and arcade shooters evolved through the 90s. As demanding as it is, the game just uses and abuses the same mold of its more famous horizontal sibling. Memorization and proper piloting of the OF-1 Daedalus ship can certainly help dedicated players in their mission to save humanity from another unspeakable evil. I just couldn’t find any reasoning for the game’s name besides the obvious fact that the first five stages take place in a simulation environment, working as training for the real deal that unfolds in the last three levels. You also need to achieve a minimum destruction ratio of 90% in the drill levels, otherwise you’ll have to get through a penalty area before proceeding to stage 6. And if that happens be ready to face twice the opposition you had until then because this penalty area is nearly impossible to conquer. It’s so obnoxiously hard I never even dared to try to learn it.

Stage 3 corridor drill

Up front I can tell why Image Fight failed to reach the level of stardom achieved almost instantly by R-Type: meager flocks of erratic cannon fodder flying around against a forest background and the sorry lack of a good opening tune. Yes, the first level is boring and uninspired as hell. Moreover, the spaceship stage comes too soon and doesn’t impress either. At least you’re given the chance to get used to the controls, which on the Saturn work with shot on button A, speed switch on button B, pod attack on button C and autofire on button R. An excellent set-up that’s a bit marred by the awkward fact that you can’t reliably switch speeds while shooting... If you want to safely do that stop firing for a bit, or else you’ll risk your precious strategy by moving at an unwanted speed or performing the pod attack when you least expect it (though some people might think so, that's not the port's fault; in the original controls the pod attack is accomplished by pressing shot + speed at the same time).

By destroying specific carriers the player releases upgrade items. The main one is a pod that provides additional firepower and comes in two colors: blue (straight shot) and red (opposite-movement free aim). Up to three pods can be attached to the ship: the first one will hover on its left, the second one to the right and the third one on the ship’s rear. By pressing button C you make the frontal pods dash forward in a quick boomerang attack, a move that can also be used to have the pods crawl the other sides of walls while you remain unharmed (don’t worry, the pods will always come back to the ship). All other upgrade items consist of a series of frontal attachments that equip the ship with special abilities. These can be v-shaped, ring or wave spreads, bending lasers, side shot, homing missiles and a straight drilling shot, among others such as a charge-based shield that works against autofire.

Frontal attachments represent the backbone of sucessful gameplay in Image Fight, and without them it’s really hard to get anywhere in the game. They’re a bit tricky to use because in order to get a different attachment you need to get rid of the current one, and the only way to do that is by destroying it. Allow it to scrape a wall or get hit by a bullet (all of them work as a 1-hit shield, which is cool). Fortunately every single upgrade item throughout the game appears at the exact same place, which allows for all kinds of strategic planning. As tough as some sections and checkpoints are (two per level), there’s always a way to get back up upon dying. One neat addition to the gameplay is the fact that the thrust animation whenever you switch speeds is also capable of inflicting damage. Remember that if you need to start from a checkpoint in the last stage.

Getting the game down to a science is often the feeling you get when you are dedicating yourself to a shooter like Image Fight. Ironing out the details and devising optimal ship placement, constantly trying to reduce risks while greed hovers like a ghost at the back of our minds (simple scoring system, kill everything, milk checkpoints if you want). To make matters just a bit more complicated Irem decided to throw in a rank system that makes the game harder the longer you go without dying. That’s easily noticeable on the varying intensity of enemy aggression and the appearance of extra enemies that vanish after you die once or twice, especially in stage 7. Extends are score-based and come with 100, 300 and 500 thousand points.

Intro to Image Fight & X-Multiply on the Sega Saturn
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

I’d say seeing past the first couple of levels is often what it takes for most people to start developing some love for Image Fight, for that’s when the game finally starts to get interesting and fun. Narrow corridors full of turrets, walkers descending over you as need to tear down energy nets, organic beasts protected by impenetrable hulls and outer space mazes guarantee the kind of rush that’s expected from the makers of R-Type, with lots of the same sound effects. Most bosses can be dealt with as if you were in a Wild West duel, where you can gun them down in seconds if you manage to position yourself close to their weak spots. The gameplay is tight, so learn how to take good advantage of the four different speed settings at your disposal.

Initially I had a major gripe with the Saturn port, related to the way TATE mode is implemented. The resolution is wider than the regular TV screen, to the point where the developers added an “adjust” option accessible whenever you pause the game. I had to make a decision on what I was able to see, and I tweaked the screen so that I could at least glance the speed settings while losing sight of a thin strip at the top. I couldn’t see side borders at all in stages that have them (3, 4, 8), so I had to memorize how far I could go at any given point. Just an unnecessary annoyance that I was fortunately able to overcome... I guess YOKO mode is okay if you can't TATE, but the resolution makeover seemed odd for me. A final complaint I have is that in a few runs I achieved exactly 72% in stage 5 despite destroying every single creature in it. I wasn't able to figure out the catch, but I was very distressed when I couldn't get the 90% average to go directly into stage 6.

All other aspects of the port are quite decent. Loading times are negligible, continues are unlimited and every time you make into the high score table the game asks if you want to save it, which is very cool (loading is manual but no hassle at all). Most online sources state that the Saturn version of Image Fight & X-Multiply is superior to the Playstation one. Hopefully I'll be able to check the latter in the future and see if that's true, as well as try all other ports made for less powerful systems. Finally, a few other sources point to the fact that Image Fight was the main aesthetic inspiration for Treasure's masterpiece Radiant Silvergun, which is a huge compliment in my opinion.

In the number 1 spot of the high score table below I reached stage 2-3 (11) on Normal, dying just before reaching the boss to those unexpected floating turrets coming from below. Note: the sequel Image Fight II was released only for the PC Engine CD in 1992.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Violent Soldier (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by IGS (Information Global Service)
Published by IGS in 1991

Games and their titles can be deceiving sometimes. For a long time I thought that Violent Soldier was part of the Star Soldier series of shooters. It was then brought to my attention by some fellow shmuppers that not only did it have nothing to do with Hudson Soft’s popular franchise, but it also boasted one of the most intricate difficulty levels within the PC Engine shooter library. I was naturally curious, especially when reading a few comparisons between this game and Rayxanber II regarding their supposedly extreme difficulties.

Come the day and there I was on a Sunday morning, cruising through the first levels of Violent Soldier. Indeed there’s a steep increase in difficulty as the game enters its second half, a very clear point of inflexion that in this case segregates casuals from persistent players quite abruptly. Perhaps a way to warrant the game’s name, I wonder? On an even further assumption, would Violent Soldier be instinctively aiming at teaching players the importance of being proactive? Is it all about fighting violence with more violence then? Jokes aside, this is actually a very straightforward horizontal shooter that drinks from the R-Type fountain but has enough personality to stand on its own. Note that I’m talking about the Japanese HuCard here – the game was also released for the Turbografx-16 as Sinistron.

Undescribable creatures in the biological stage

There are six stages in Violent Soldier. Just like many other PC Engine shmups, shot works on button II. The ship you control is seemingly too long, but only until you acquire the first colored power-up, which by pressing button I allows you to open its frontal hull in order to stretch the side reach of your new gun. There’s a noble reason for the mobility of that golden hull: it protects the ship from incoming bullets. A second power-up allows an even wider opening angle for this “beak”, thus exposing the ship’s hitbox even more at the expense of a wider shielding offset area. Perhaps more important than the beak is the shard-looking item that acts as a shield once you take it, the first one hovering above and the second one below the ship. These glowing shards block enemy bullets and can deflect some of the asteroids in stage 4 (important: both the beak and the shards cause damage by contact).

Your arsenal consists of both the regular shot and a charge shot. By charging button II the player can unleash a circular blast that damages everything within a close radius. This blast is the same for all three types of weapons, which are switchable with the corresponding power-up colors collected from destroyed carriers: red (vulcan), blue (wave laser) and green (homing missiles). My first realization when playing this game is that the charge shot is slow, cumbersome and ultimately useless. On the other hand, if you want to go the whole way you’d better get yourself a turbo controller because the game has no autofire whatsoever. With the beak in the closed position you get a faster firing rate, whereas a full open beak reduces the rate of fire in proportion to how wide the shot becomes. It’s all a matter of how defensive or aggressive you want to get, but you also have to consider that point blanking plays an important role depending on the weapon you’re using.

The last aspect of the basic gameplay is speed. With such an awful default speed the ship can’t do much, but fortunately Violent Soldier always throws a good assortment of speed-up items at every checkpoint. Each level is broken in half by an intermediate checkpoint, and the ease of recovery is one of the aspects that help destroy the myth of this being an impossible game (classics like R-Type and Gradius have tougher recoveries). That absolutely doesn’t mean Violent Soldier goes easy on you, because it doesn’t, and we can all be very grateful for the unlimited continues and the ability to continue from the start of a level instead of the intermediate checkpoint, a very nice feature that should be mandatory in all checkpoint-based shooters.

On graphical and musical terms it’s fair to say that there’s nothing special in Violent Soldier. It is competently put together though, with great use of color and very little, quite negligible slowdown. Starting in outer space and entering a base, the first level deceives you into thinking the game will be a walk in the park. Lightning strikes in the backgrounds of the caves during the second level, while an organic setting dictates the atmosphere in stage 3. The 4th stage is populated with lots of asteroids. Most of them break out in smaller pieces, but the ones with a metallic color will be drawn towards the ship when hit.

My 1CC run of Violent Soldier

Stage 5 seems to be directly inspired by R-Type’s stage 6, with lots of narrow passages and all those block-shaped ships moving about. Even though it feels less claustrophobic here, those tiny green walkers can do lots of damage with those fast bullets they fire. The best way to succeed is by devising a predetermined route and sticking to it. Also abuse point-blanking whenever possible and use walls to protect yourself when needed. A small note on point-blanking: doing it with the red weapon is okay anywhere around the screen, but due to its piercing nature the blue laser can only inflict good damage when you’re very close to the right side; the homing shot is practically useless from stage 4 onwards.

Finally, the last level ramps up bullet count and enemy hazards quite a bit, throwing wave after wave of overlapping enemies and patterns. Good crowd control is the way to go, always aiming for the most powerful enemies first and paying attention to the green globs that follow you around. It's as unforgiving as the last stage of Cyber Core, the other shmup developed by IGS for the PC Engine. At first I thought there would be a boss rush, seeing that you have to fight two very angry forms of the bosses from stages 1 and 2. But no, after that there’s just the final boss. I wonder if the developers went out of time or money to add the remaining bosses or if they thought two hard rematches were enough of a preamble to the final showdown. Unfortunately we’ll never know.

I haven’t tried it yet, but according to the Brothers Duomazov the Western version Sinistron has quite a few differences from the Japanese Violent Soldier. If you fancy something with heavy emphasis on memorization and aggressive gameplay (a.k.a. violence), the game is perfect for you. It’s definitely hard but it’s fun nonetheless and never unfair, with a level of randomness that can be properly controlled without incurring in nearly unbearable frustration, as in (just to close the comparison loop) Rayxanber II. Score extends set at 20.000, 50.000 and at every 70.000 points give you several attempts to overcome the harder checkpoints, also allowing checkpoint exploitation for higher scores.

My 1CC result on Normal difficulty is the one shown at the end of the video linked above (difficulty is chosen with the SELECT button at the start screen). The game halts at the following panel after showing the end credits in a very unusual fashion, and only resumes back to the start screen when you press SELECT + START.