Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Vorpal (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Red Wolf
Published by Red Wolf in 2010

There are games, especially among the independent development scene, that often adopt a minimalistic approach towards a specific design aspect. Some people like to label such endeavors as artistic efforts, others simply discard them as boring crap. As one of these titles, Vorpal certainly has what it takes to fuel some quick discussion on a seminal question: what's important in the end, graphics or gameplay?

If you're one of those who'll right away dismiss games that do not present flashy explosions, cool effects and a plethora of colors, Vorpal will put you to sleep in less than a minute, so my recommendation is pass. If the thrill in your case resides in the act of dodging bullets and overcoming the odds while pursuing higher scores, then Vorpal might be a valid pick out of the gazillion games offered by the currently dwindling XBLIG platform.

In a nutshell, the main mode in this game (Story) is a boss rush where you select one out of six characters and battle the remaining five. As such, it's got echoes of Wartech and Chaos Field, whereas the bulk of the inspiration in the gameplay seems to come from the likes of the Touhou series. Unfortunately Versus mode isn't a 2-player option as its name implies, it's just a practice alternative where you can freely select an oponent for a single round.

Future or eternal void

The mechanics of Vorpal are simple enough to grasp, and certainly give you that quick one-more-go itch when the game is over. As the underdog fighter, the player counts with a single shield/health meter that can withstand a determined number of hits. The opponents, on the other hand, come with nothing less than eight health bars in reserve, which means you need to defeat nine different forms for each of them (by forms I mean attack patterns, they don't actually switch sprites or anything). Before each stage/encounter there's some boring dialogue between the characters, and then the action starts as if you're entering the arena of a fighting game, only with everything in only two color shades (black and red) and a white background devoid of any scrolling effect. All in the name of visibility, right?

Controls work with A for shot (slow movement with RB/RT) and B for the special/break attack, whose power is gauged by a so-called "stress" meter. This meter is filled slowly by hitting your enemy or getting hit, and faster by collecting S items. It's possible to unleash a break attack as soon as the stress meter reaches 25%, but the higher it is the longer the attack will last. Besides S, all other items are released whenever you destroy one of the small carriers that appear while the opponent is moving around. These also include + (health recovery), □ (score multiplier) and H (hell power-up).

H is the most important item to be collected once the round starts, simply because it's actually your regular and much needed firepower upgrade (you start every stage with the default pea shot). When level 4 is achieved the firing pattern receives an intermittent thin laser upgrade that considerably boosts its efficiency. If you receive damage to the point where the shield gets completely depleted you enter a danger state, which causes your firepower to degrade while the shield slowly regenerates. The credit is lost if you get hit before the last health cell is regenerated, of course.

Demo game with Abel Sigrid
(courtesy of YouTube user Splazer Productions)

Defeating boss phases with a high number of on-screen bullets is the main source of points within the level, simply because at that moment all bullets are converted into points that get automatically sucked into the player's craft. Since the game awards extra stage bonuses for remaining health, power-ups collected and shorter completion times, improving performance involves not getting hit, picking up everything and timing boss breaks accordingly. The only problem with this approach is that some characters are in clear advantage against others, be it for their strength ratings (regardless of shot style) or for the type of their native break attacks. The "barrage" break, for instance, is a total waste because it does nothing once the on-screen bullets are blocked. Note that boss phases time out, which is obviously bad for scoring.

One of the most interesting influences from Touhou is the enemy locator, a small bar at the bottom of the screen that follows the vertical movement of your opponent and helps you target your foe while focusing on dodging the bullet curtains. I can see why it's useful, even though I didn't feel the need to guide myself by it at all. Some boss patterns are tricky, in that lots of bullets get spammed in the same place and might eat away all your shields instantly (even with the screen-clearing effect that should follow). Other than that, a few sounds used in certain boss attacks are identical to the one that plays when you get hit, causing unnecessary confusion. Speaking of sound, there are lots of digitized robotic voices in Vorpal, but none of the dialogue interactions is voice-acted.

As much as I tried to get that PERFECT bonus at the end of the level by not getting hit during a round, the game never granted me such an honor. I wonder if you need to collect all power-ups in the stage in order to earn it, but I didn't bother to confirm that. Players that choose Hard difficulty start with only 3 shields instead of 6, coping with stronger bosses and the constant risk of timing out their phases. As a whole Vorpal isn't too demanding and can provide some relaxed dodging fun, but the enjoyment is bound to wear off fast due to the lack of visual flair. Additionally, the tribal art design isn't helped much by the techno-oriented soundtrack. Turning off vibration, sound effects and music is possible, which is a nice touch if you want to play listening to your own tunes so as to spice up the game a little bit.

Below is my best result playing on Normal with the character K' Gallant. There were talks of Vorpal 2 coming out for XBLIG soon after this game hit the platform, but apparently the sequel never saw the light of day in any form whatsoever.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Spriggan (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by naxat soft / Compile
Published by naxat soft
/ Compile (Nazac) in 1991

After MUSHA became a smash hit on the Mega Drive, the development team at Compile turned to the PC Engine CD and delivered Spriggan, a game that seems to have beeen conceived as an offshoot from the mecha Aleste series. Some people even consider them part of the same family of shooters, which is perfectly understandable even if Spriggan gave birth to a somewhat diverse trilogy that would see its end on the Super Nintendo. Similarities between this game and MUSHA are vivid but Spriggan also adds magical undertones to the mix of mechanical foes, offering a fun ride that undeniably bears its own sense of style.

A “spriggan” is by definition a mythological creature from the English folklore, a fairy bodyguard that’s visually related to hobgoblins and ogres and is able to grow in size and strength. Could that somehow relate to the giant robot that departs to save the world from evil in a fantasy setting where bosses are actually controlled by people who flock in panic into their hulls as they see you coming to exert justice? You’re supposed to be inside that shiny robot suit, bravely arguing with enemies before or after dispatching them into oblivion while in constant comms with a gorgeous lady. Sometimes a few companions will join you in battle, but their failing suits and speed won’t make them much of an aid. These are some of the tidbits of extra ambience in Seirei Senshi Spriggan, another name by which the game is often referred to.

Acts of magic

One of the coolest features of Spriggan is its unique power-up system, which is based on the combination of up to three colored orbs: red (fire), blue (water), green (air/wind) and yellow (earth). These orbs come from bug-like carriers arriving from the top of the screen at regular intervals and always head straight to the current position of the player, disappearing if uncollected. While you can always stick to the same color so that the defining aspect of the selected weapon is maximized, it’s the combination of two or three different colors that often provide some of the best choices in the game. Even more interesting is the fact that each and every weapon combination has a name, just wait and see the tutorial that alternates with the attract mode.

Shooting is accomplished with button II, while button I performs the very interesting act of sacrificing the leftmost/newest orb taken into a powerful bomb (orbs cycle in the weapon display from left to right). Although it’s possible to sacrifice all orbs in successive explosions, this ability is more useful when a new orb is coming and you glance the opportunity to inflict some extra damage on enemies by getting rid of just a single orb, especially once you’ve noticed that bomb blasts are also capable of nullifying bullets. As for the blinking orb, it has a double purpose: instantly exploding for great justice (smart bomb) + providing a 1-hit shield to the robot (indicated by the energy barrier appearing over its shoulders).

If you think you need more or less speed to deal with the hordes of magical creatures, all you need to do is press SELECT to find an ideal setting out of four available choices. During some boss fights I’ll decelerate down to the first setting so that I can safely weave between their attacks, but most of the time I’ll use speeds 2 or 3. Though not a very hard game in its default setting, Spriggan requires some careful playing from stage 5 onwards due to a few intricate bosses. However, no matter where you are in the game there’s always the danger of acquiring a bad choice for weapons, such as that weak homing puff of smoke. In that regard greedy players are prone to suffer more than survivalists, given that every orb is worth 1.000 precious points.

After playing some test runs for weapons I came to a personal strategy I decided to stick to at least halfway into the game: avoid three different colors and stick to at least one yellow orb and any other pair of the same colors. When combined with blue I’d get the “aqua crusher” (two forward thick watery streams), with red I’d have “firebolt” (5-way fireball spread) and with green I’d get the “wind destroyer” (forward shot with green side waves). In my opinion these were the most efficient combos, with a special note to the sheer power of the aqua crusher, definitely my favorite. Note: having 2 yellows and a second color is the same as having only 1 yellow and two other orbs of the same color, the result is the same.

Intro and first stage
(courtesy of YouTube user zwallop)

Stages (or acts) in Spriggan don’t always follow the same pattern and embrace a wider array of environments than your usual 16-bit shooter. The longest ones have midbosses that break the stage in halves that boast completely different settings. MUSHA of course plays a strong inspirational role, from some of the weapons to graphics that seem to have been lifted directly from it, such as the plates that fall into a ravine after you beat one of the midbosses. The game also draws clear influences from the Star Soldier series, from Dragon Spirit (the whole 2nd act) and of all unsuspected sources none other than Battletoads (the carnivorous plants straight out of that famous shaft descent, the giant snakes in the 3rd act).

Closing up on the gameplay aspects, extends are score-based and come at 20, 50, 100, 200, 400, 600 and 800 thousand points. Losing the shield brings another level of tension in the busiest areas of the game, with successive deaths leading to absolutely unexpected credit losses (it happened to me a couple of times). On a side note, Spriggan is the first game released in naxat soft’s Summer Carnival series, created to either compete against or capitalize on the success of Hudson Soft’s Caravan Tournament (which is based on the Star Soldier franchise). As such, the game includes a 2-minute Score Attack option and a Time Attack mode where the purpose is to reach 1 million points as fast as you can. The next titles in the Summer Carnival series are Alzadick, Recca and Nexzr.

Below is my final 1CC result for Spriggan on the default difficulty (Normal). I had to be quick to take a picture of the score after beating the last boss because the end credits halt at the final screen (I heard the pertaining section in the options does save your score though).

The next game in the series is Spriggan Mark 2 - Re-Terraform Project.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

REDUX - Dark Matters (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hucast / Kontechs
Published by Hucast in 2014

Once upon a time, in the realm of homebrew games released for the Dreamcast, there was DUX. Despite some weird flaws it was at least a playable and gorgeous game. Later on the developer felt the need to revise the game and cater to the complaints of the masses, and then there was DUX 1.5. It was a shameless disappointment and added nothing of real value to the original. Some time later, thanks yet again to sloppy programming, Hucast shoved DUX 1.1 onto customers, but I have no idea about what it does to the original game. And then, in 2012, a Kickstarter campaign was created and succesfully funded for REDUX - Dark Matters, a misleading title that made lots of people (myself included) believe we'd be getting a sequel to the game when, in fact, it was nothing more than a repaint of DUX with an extra stage and an extra ship.

One thing I learned from all this is to never get your hopes up when purchasing a product from German developer Hucast. Ever. REDUX was the last straw for me, especially when I received the Kickstarter-exclusive steelcase with a single sticker glued to the cover and two CDs that barely fit the lousy supports on the inside (the second CD is just a bonus disc that contains DUX 1.5). At that moment I envied those who had ordered the regular version and had at least received a normal box with proper art.

There is more to it though. A couple of months after the game finally saw the light of day a REDUX 1.1 revision disc was promised for all Kickstarter backers, addressing freezing issues on bosses and a scoring bug as well as the blurry image (only for S-video, VGA and RGB connections). At the time I was busy with real life and lost the window to request my disc, but since the reported issues are a lot like some of the ones identified in DUX (plaguing 50Hz/PAL users only), I certainly won't be losing my sleep over it.

Soaking bullets for measly justice

REDUX is indeed built upon the primordial mold that gave birth to DUX. However, due to all the details whose objective was to give a darker tone to the whole game, apparently there was this need to lower the original resolution, hence the awfully blurry graphics that put the almighty Dreamcast to shame. Of course the longer you play the more used you get to it, but the initial impact of the downgrade is astounding. However, apart from the graphics there are other more fundamental changes and additions to the formula, which make the game seemingly more dynamic than previous iterations and point to the fact that Dark Matters is the final product following all those beta versions disguised as proper releases.

For a starter, when thinking of R-Typean influences REDUX is more akin to Pulstar than R-Type itself. This means it doesn't allow players to detach and summon the pod anymore because the pod is permanently fixed in front of the ship once you get the first power-up. Pod manipulation was never needed anyway, so this takes a lot off the shoulders of players from the get go. In fact, REDUX is a game where it's okay to take everything that comes towards you since none of the icons/upgrades you come across interfere negatively in the gameplay. You have power-ups for main shot (the choice of more than one weapon is gone), missile upgrades (provides 2, 4 and 6 missiles with each icon collected), side shields, stars (bonus points), 1UPs and obvious energy (refill the bullet soaking bar faster). Golden flakes of varying sizes appear everywhere from destroyed enemies and are sucked into the ship if you get close enough to them, adding to the score in the process.

I guess I should now give a mention to the controls. They're all configurable, and my layout of choice is R for autofire, A for shot (charge for beam), X to switch missile direction (horizontal/vertical) and B for bullet soaking. The only input that needs some explanation is the last one: when B is pressed a circle is deployed around the ship and every bullet inside its radius gets sucked into it. This lasts until the bullet soaking bar is depleted (see below the charge gauge), during which the ship remains invincible to bullets (not enemies or lasers) and new taps at B fire homing lasers on all enemies caught inside the circle. In order to keep the bar filled you either need to soak more bullets or acquire more obvious energy, those pink bits released by square caskets that are automatically drawn into the ship no matter how far they are. Note: if a large enemy has been locked on and the bullet soaking bar depletes you're still able to fire homing shots at him.

Besides the invincibility factor and the fireworks display provided by the bullet soaking device, most golden flakes released by destroyed enemies turn blue and are also sucked into the ship automatically. “Nice!”, I thought at first sight, obviously expecting some sort of boost in score when doing it. Sadly everything about this bullet soaking scheme is there just for show. It doesn’t matter if you collect golden or blue flakes or if you absorb bullets while invincible or using the pod, the real practical purpose of bullet soaking is geared towards survival. It’s a wasted feature, and there’s absolutely no need to manage its usage for maximum performance as I tried to do for a while.

REDUX 1.1 - Entrance
(courtesy of YouTube user headbangersworld)

When starting a credit of REDUX - Dark Matters players are prompted to choose between a Normal (orange) and a Veteran (purple) ship. Note that all the above paragraphs refer to the Normal ship choice. When selecting Veteran, the charge beam and the missiles are the only aspects that remain the same: main shot is changed into a 3-way rapid fire spread, you can’t use the pod and bullet soaking is not possible. The game becomes a lot more challenging and claustrophobic when going the Veteran way, with stages 2 and 5 being really fun to navigate. Deadly flower blossoms and venomous spores were rarely so menacing.

Both ship types are downgraded a little every time you die. There are many 1UPs to collect throughout, but losing two or more lives in a row can put you in dire straits if you’re using the Veteran ship. Regardless of the chosen craft, the rule of thumb for scoring is to not die (life count seems to work as a multiplier for boss kills) and absorb as many flakes/bullets as you can. The bonus for each stage corresponds to its number × one million points (1st = one million, 2nd = 2 million, etc.). Scores are segregated by an N and a V in the only high score table available, which is really unfortunate.

When all is said and done about REDUX, the truth is that it does reach a better balance than its previous incarnations. I definitely can't complain about the stellar soundtrack! It manages to be even better than before by striking a finer balance between exciting and moody. That helps heaps in keeping the fun factor, despite the wasted opportunities regarding the bullet soaking feature. The muddy graphics become less of a strain on the eyes after a couple of hours, and while the extra 7th stage comes off as a bit lazy (same meteor-filled background of stages 1 and 4) it at least puts some pressure even when playing with the Normal ship. As I mentioned above the packaging for the steelcase edition is atrocious, just like the pamphlet that serves as a poor man’s instruction manual. Lastly, several times I ran into a bug where I'd get altered/exploded graphics and mute SFX whenever I rejected a continue on the GAME OVER screen.

My high scores are in the picture below. To the left is my 1CC result with the Normal ship. To the right is my 1CC result with the Veteran ship.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Fantasy Zone II (Master System)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Sega in 1987

I have no idea of the actual extent of the success the first Fantasy Zone achieved on the Master System, but it must have been quite remarkable. Especially in Japan. After all, Fantasy Zone II came out first for the Master System before being given an arcade release and seeing ports for other platforms, and if anything that says a lot about how much Sega believed in the sequel. The good news is that part II isn't merely a repetition of the first chapter, and in my eyes is just as engaging and addictive. Besides, every port and further revision based on this cute little game corroborates this assessment.

As expected, the world of Fantasy Zone II is as colorful as before. The action never stops, perils await at every corner and giant bosses try to stop you at least twice during the course of a credit. The only feature that declined a little is the music, but that's debatable since it's still filled with good tunes, yet not so catchy anymore (that song from the shop stays in my head for hours every time I play though). Opa-Opa is back and must destroy another batch of evil generators that are plaguing the beautiful areas of the Fantasy Zone. While the basic mechanics stay the same (one button fires, the other drops bombs), stage lay-outs are non-linear and require players to travel through warp gates across 3 or 5 panels within the level. Only when all generators/bases are destroyed you're allowed to face the boss by entering the red warp gate.

I already mentioned somewhere that dismissing this series as fluffy and childlike is a mistake. With this chapter it isn't any different, since a mere couple of credits is all it takes to get sucked into the fun and keep coming back for more. However, when I found out there's an item that gives you autofire I was even more excited about it. I say this because there's a huge difference in playing the original Fantasy Zone with and without autofire, a distinction that almost loses the purpose here.

Stage 1 - Pastaria
(courtesy of YouTube user coenak)

Each stage of Fantasy Zone II must be cleansed of enemy bases that pollute the scenery with all sorts of crazy enemies. Movement is allowed in both directions, and the scrolling can either be sped up by moving closer to the sides or halted by touching the ground. Some of the destroyed generators will uncover the warp gates, but most of them will release money bills. Regular enemies release gold coins, which are worth less than money bills, all values varying from stage to stage. Cumulated money is unrelated to score and is used to buy items in the shops spread around the stage, which provide several levels of upgrades for speed and firepower (some of these are temporary and last only 20 seconds), as well as a few survival aids.

Contrary to what we had in the first game, here all shops are static and can be accessed at all times (with the exception of the 3-panel shop of the final level, so don't be trigger-happy there). The assortment of items in each one is always the same, but in order to get the best upgrades players must look out for the hidden shops in stages 3, 5 and 6. There it’s possible to purchase autofire (auto beam) and power enhancers. “Power” is actually another name for health, indicated by a red gauge that can be made larger by getting red bottles and completely refilled by getting blue bottles. If you manage to get all bottles you’ll end up with a very generous life bar by the end of the game, allowing you to withstand lots of hits every time you’re respawned after dying (the upgrade is permanent). The main catch of the game is that autofire appears only in two of the hidden shops and is forever lost when you die. Remember that every time you buy an item its price will increase in the next purchase, with the prices of some items inflating even if you don't buy them.

Uncovering hidden shops is done by targeting their spots (shots disappear and you hear the sound of something being hit). A few precious items are also hidden in the same fashion throughout the game and can help you go the distance, namely the red/blue bottles (the clock gives an extra 30 seconds to any temporary weapon that's currently active, other than that it's useless). The moment I figured out the preciousness of the hidden bottles I planned the whole game around them because they’re both life and money savers. Speaking of which, in this installment money does not decrease in value no matter how long you take to kill generators or enemies, which of course opens the door for milking. I haven't tried to test it to the point of noticing any real climb in enemy aggression, but in any case it's a very time consuming and risky way to try and get more points.

All the improvements made to the classic gameplay serve to balance out the slightly tougher challenge, and in that regard Fantasy Zone II is a successful sequel. Not only is the power/health meter a very welcome addition in the long run, but the way shops are handled cleverly compensate for Opa-Opa’s sluggish default speed. Dying in later levels can be aggravating, yet it’s always possible to fetch a nearby shop and start getting back on your knees. Slowdown will occur when the screen gets crowded, but it's never game breaking in any way (actually it might be one of the best examples of "correct" slowdown in an 8-bit shooter). Flicker is minimal, I've only seen it during the fight against the 4th boss.

Ahouys, rollerballs/magoburus and cacti in stage 7 (Sbardian)

Before playing the game I was a bit wary of the warp gate gimmick, but the truth is that it works. Navigation from one screen to the next is fluid, fast and elegant. It allows for more backgrounds within the level, thus lending an alleviated complexity to the game while beefing it up in terms of graphics and length. Expect a very linear difficulty progression and a horde of zapping creatures as you reach the second-to-last stage, prior to facing rematches against angrier bosses in the final level. The last boss reserves a surprise for Opa-Opa and justifies the game’s subtitle The Tears of Opa-Opa. He's a bit underwhelming, but at least some of the previous bosses are quite impressive creatures, such as Bombdran in stage 4 and Halorings in stage 7.

My strategic approach in Fantasy Zone II was very simple. Get the normal engine and twin bombs on the first shop. Get the hidden red bottle in the 2nd stage. In the hidden shop of the 3rd stage purchase auto beam, big shot and another red bottle. Fill the expanded power meter with a hidden blue bottle in the 4th stage. Get twin big bombs and the red bottle in the hidden shop of the 5th stage. Purchase another red bottle from the hidden shop in the 6th stage (plus a bargain extra life for $100) prior to filling up the power meter with the hidden blue bottle. Get the final hidden red bottle and preserve health in the onslaught of the 7th stage. And, finally, spend all the money I can on extra lives and do my best to survive against the boss rush of the final stage. Each extra life in reserve upon completing the game is worth one million points, whereas all the remaining money is multiplied by ×10 and added to the final score. The game does not loop.

Below is my final 1CC result, with no additional auto/turbo fire. Next in the series I'll tackle either the NES port or the arcade version.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Astebreed (PC)

Horizontal / Vertical / Rail
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Edelweiss
Published by Edelweiss in 2014 (Steam)

I have always been a sucker for shooting games that dare to switch the scrolling direction or bend camera perspectives. Some of the most famous titles that did this with varying degrees of success include Salamander, Axelay, Galaga - Destination Earth, Philosoma, Einhänder and Thunder Force 6. In a way Astebreed is the apex of such deviations from the norm since it has everything I hinted at above plus a plethora of awesome cinematic transitions, and for story geeks a rather encompassing and convoluted sci-fi drama as well.

Suffice it to say when I downloaded Astebreed on Steam I was amazed at the graphics and the spectacle of particles, lasers and explosions. It was like seeing a crazy mix of Sol Divide and Raystorm, and this coming from an independent/doujin development team is nothing short of amazing. Sure many of the aspects that define Astebreed were inherited from Edelweiss previous effort Ether Vapor / Remaster, but the overload provided by the mecha motif and the boost in speed and frantic action lend the game an amazing sense of visual flair, something that's easily conveyed by trailers and all the footage available on the Internet. I heard that on top of some minor improvements the later version released for the Playstation 4 is even more polished.

Anyway, as we can see we're pretty covered in style when talking about this game. Lots of it. But what about substance?

It takes some time to see what the gameplay is about here. For a while I was completely lost amidst the chaos and the constant radio chatter of the characters, a feeling that subsided more or less when I was able to clear the game. Then I tried to learn it more properly and, if possible, ditch the idea that Astebreed is nothing more than a mess of a game in beautiful packaging.

Meteors ahoy!

The most important thing to do after starting up Astebreed is head straight to the tutorial section in order to learn how to use your arsenal. And then return to it once you think you have figured things out. In a nutshell, all you need to control your mecha is four buttons (I'll point out my Xbox 360 controller configuration). Two of them provide two shot / lock-on types: scatter shot / spherical lock-on (button A) and focus shot / conical lock-on (button B). Tap these buttons to fire your regular shots, hold them to throw your lock-on nets and release them to launch homing shots on the locked targets. The lock-on nets are reminiscent of Soukyugurentai, but it's important to note that despite being harder to use the conical net provides much faster lock-ons on stronger enemies.

With the blade attack (button X) players are able to draw the mecha's sword and inflict up close damage, as well as block most regular bullets. Keep tapping it for a combo or hold it while pressing a direction to perform a blade dash attack, a move that also makes you invincible as you zap from one point to the other. There's a brief recovery time after a full combo or a dash is unleashed, so you need to consider that in crowded situations. The last input is the EX attack (button Y), which can only be used when you have a full yellow gauge below the character. When no lock-ons are in place it triggers the spin EX attack, a powerful blade burst that leaves behind a golden barrier that protects the mecha from damage for a little while. If you activate the EX attack with active lock-ons the robot will target all of them himself.

The mecha will acquire a golden glow whenever the yellow gauge mentioned above is full. Note that this gauge is refilled automatically but can be refilled faster by destroying enemy bullets with the blade attack. The blue semicircle gauge that's below represents health, and if it gets depleted it's GAME OVER. Luckily the technology of the mecha suit is designed in a way that if you refrain from taking further damage it will automatically repair itself. And that's how you're able to survive the barrages of zakos, ships and alien creatures that flood the screen with the most diverse forms of attack. Speaking of which, as long as enemies don't display a red aura it's safe to touch their bodies.

Combining all the above inputs and resources can be a daunting task, one that will only become natural with a good deal of practice. Fortunately Astebreed is one of those games that comes with a wide array of practice aids and performance tracking devices that help you do that, especially if you want to achieve better scores.

Trailer for Astebreed
(courtesy of YouTube user GOG.com)

I don't know why anyone would turn off the score display, but it's possible to do that in Astebreed. It doesn't make any sense because how else would you measure your playing finesse credit after credit? The first rule for scoring in this game is to not get hit. Every time that happens the tension gauge in the upper right corner is emptied and the multiplier is reset. This tension gauge rises whenever you're shooting at or locking on to enemies, whereas the multiplier is applied only on enemies killed with blade and EX attacks, which in turn decrease the tension gauge (important: you can shoot and use the blade at the same time). The multiplier receives a shield bonus of ×2 whenever the shield gauge is full or recovering, maxing out at ×16. During boss fights it's mandatory to kill them as fast as possible in order to collect your scoring rewards, if the timer reaches zero you get no points at all.

Beautiful and fluid are two qualities the graphics of this game are often associated with. The entrance over the ocean below cloudy skies is as gorgeous as it gets, as is the camera shifts that guide the player from one area to the next. The difficulty curve is overall steady, making you deal with all sorts of hazards at different heights and distances. That's when you notice the rail shooting sections are actually the easiest ones because there's no need to dodge anything. Strangely enough, some enemies are dispatched by your mecha during the animation pieces, making you wonder why the game didn't allow you to take the matter into your own hands. Most cinema and conversation intermissions can be properly skipped, and those that can't kinda lose their purpose when you choose to disable the in-game dialogue, creating some odd empty spells here and there.

Even though Astebreed does not come out as overly difficult at first contact, beating it will require some careful play in its second half. Conquering the game, on the other hand, demands heavy memorization due to the constant damage you're prone to take from the increasingly tougher enemy swarms. In that sense the game strikes a feeble balance between casual and hardcore/dedicated play, as you can see from the scores in the online leaderboards. No matter what kind of player you are the experience is fast, furious and often exhilarating when you're able to connect a good string of attacks, dispatch a boss with a ×16 multiplier or get through a whole stage unscathed, which is of course easier said than done.

Extras in Astebreed include local and online leaderboards, achievements, playtime tracking, stage select, art galleries, the aforementioned tutorials, lots of visual/input/audio customizations and a separate special stage (the Prologue) where the very start of the story takes place while you have the chance to learn the gameplay foundations. Once the game is beaten a new mecha is unlocked for players to choose, but the differences are purely aesthetical (the default one is called Xbreed, the unlocked one is called Astebreed). As for my personal evaluation, at first I was knocked off by the amount of hits I could take and not die, then it slowly started to make sense the more I paid attention to the scoring side of things. It's an elusively devised carrot for dedicated players, and I salute the developer for doing that. I remained humble on my 1CC objective, which was to score more than 20 million on Normal difficulty, and here's the result playing with Xbreed:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Robo Aleste (Sega CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
11 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Compile
Published by Tengen in 1993

Going through the cronology of the Aleste series can be very confusing. Born on the MSX and the Master System, it never really followed a naming standard in the sequels. However, it's possible to recognize a legitimate entry in the series by checking out the core gameplay, which stays the same despite the change in identity and theme across some of its chapters. Both games released for the Mega Drive, for example, represent a remarkable departure from the original spaceship motif since they adopt a strong steampunk mechanized influence. The first one, MUSHA (or MUSHA Aleste), is still regarded as one of the best shmups on the system, but what of its sequel Robo Aleste, also named Dennin Aleste in Japan?

Storywise Robo Aleste has little in common with MUSHA, since it's a prequel that happens in ancient Japan. The long intro shows how a feudal rivalry gets altered when a giant mecha called Aleste falls in the hands of a particular clan. The game mixes that with a dispute involving brothers on opposite sides of the fight, fleshing it out with further cut scenes and providing some depth for those who enjoy this particular aspect of the game design. Of course all the intermissions with full English narration (most of it quite wooden) and the excellent CD soundtrack are there to showcase the capabilities of the Sega CD add-on. Fortunately for us shmup fans, the game itself is in every way a step-up above MUSHA since it's equally intense yet more dynamic, visually more polished and a good notch harder.

As a whole Robo Aleste is excellent, and just like MUSHA it never slows down or breaks up graphically. The visual bit I like the most is the new look of the flying robot. It's sleek and elegant, and doesn't remind me of a beetle this time around.

Robo Aleste's ambitious intro
(courtesy of YouTube user SegaCDUniverse)

At its default power level, Aleste fires only two streams of the straight kunai shot with button B. In order to increase its power and reach you need to collect "power" chips brought by waves of harmless carriers that enter the screen in Galaga-like fashion. Another type of friendly carrier brings a colored power-up that activates Aleste's shoulder attachments and provide the bulk of the firepower you'll need to get through the game. These weapons are coded in green (spread of shuriken-shaped shots), yellow (attachments rotate and home on nearby enemies/bullets), blue (pulsating lasers) and orange (exploding cluster bombs). To increase their firepower it's necessary to keep collecting the same item without switching to a different one.

Whenever a weapon icon is released it floats slowly towards the bottom of the screen, bounces and disappears on the top. Note that all of their carriers are preceded by a bird-like scout that zaps across the screen and indicates the side they're coming from, which is important for when you need to avoid an unwanted power-up. Button C allows you to toggle between eight settings of flying speed, while button A is used to quickly charge and send forward the shoulder attachments of the robot, a move that has no connection to any weapon and can be done at any time but rarely finds any practical purpose.

By sticking to a tight gameplay style and a cohesive enemy gallery, Robo Aleste delivers a great mix of challenge and fun. The most important departure from MUSHA is the 1-hit death, which sets you back a little on the straight shot but completely resets the firepower of the main weapon. At least the enemy aggression cuts off a little since rank is reduced upon death. Oh yes, this is a Compile shooter with rank!

Granted, Robo Aleste is never utterly hard, but it won't for any second allow players to rest their senses. Some levels seem easier than others, only to take you by surprise and eat away a few lives because you blinked. Blame it on the lightly colored bullet sprite, the inefficiency of some weapons (green and yellow aren't to be trusted, the first one because it's weak and the second because it refuses to work at times) and the unpredictable recharging routine of some bosses (there are several of them that shoot treacherous lonely bullets that often catch you off guard). Bosses can also be very deceiving since some of them will give in really fast, only to put up a longer fight on the next credit. Now for a deceiving trait: at first it took me a while to notice that normal bullets can be wiped out by Aleste's firepower, but that's not really something you can count on. When things heat up and enemy bullets get faster it's not uncommon to be shot in the face and die horribly. For what it's worth the two shoulder attachments can also block bullets, but it's very risky to rely on that when moving around and dodging stuff.

"In the name of Lord Nobunaga!"

Even with the quirks I pointed out in the previous paragraph this game is still in my opinion one of the highlights of the 16-bit shmup era. It's longer than the usual console shooter, has good pacing, shows lovely variety from start to finish and is really fun once you get the hang of it. Speaking about pace, the third stage does get criticized often for being a long stretch where you slowly dismantle a gigantic train over a snowy terrain. Indeed it's a long and easy section that's typical of Compile, but it's also full of waves of power chips that try to divert the player's attention (try dying there to see what happens). As for power-ups, I love when the weapon that spits little bombs all over the screen gets maxed out, it's really cool and can even surpass the laser in brute force if you manage to corner an enemy with it.

The only thing players need to know about the scoring system in Robo Aleste is that everything you can destroy or collect is worth something. As for survival, attention as you go around obstacles is important because lives can be lost if you get crushed by the scrolling effect. There are four score-based extends in total, gained at 100 thousand, 500 thousand, 1 million and 10 million points. After the credit is over continues can be activated from the start screen. Unfortunately the Omake options that appear when the game is beaten do not work on the US disc, and just freeze the game if you try to see what they do.

Robo Aleste is officially the last game in the Aleste series (Super Aleste / Space Megaforce came a year before on the SNES), and as such is one of the best signature mecha shmups from Compile. We do get to see an unexpected influence from R-Type in the final moments of the game, which is very cool (the baby aliens creeping in from all sides in the alternate dimension), but it's a bit unfortunate the company didn't continue investing in this particular STG branch. The unfulfilling ending to Robo Aleste is there because its consequences will further develop in MUSHA, however it would've been really interesting to see new iterations of mecha Aleste games for 32-bit video game systems.

While revisiting the game I was able to boost my previous 1CC score just a little bit on Normal difficulty. I had a great time doing it and here's the final result:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rayxanber III (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Data West
Published by Data West
in 1992

The Rayxanber series was never popular back in the 90s. I guess it was never supposed to be since the first game came out on an obscure system and the second one scared the shit out of people who had trouble coping with its high difficulty. Both games essentially followed the same rulebook, down to the last detail of the gameplay, but for the third chapter developer Data West decided to implement something different. The result is that while still remaining faithful to the style originated on the FM Towns, Rayxanber III changes the formula a little bit and by doing so delivers an experience that's much more approachable challengewise. The R-Type school of horizontal shooting still remains as the main source of inspiration though.

War rages on against the organic armada of the Zoul empire. The player must board the cockpit of one of the resistance's spaceships, in a final and desperate attempt to save the universe. Your weapons arsenal is fired with button II, whereas button I triggers the series' trademark dash move. Watch as the upper bar in the HUD indicates the energy used while dashing, if it enters the red area it means the engine has overheated and you must wait a little to use the dash again. Not that it matters much anyway, but dashing is the only unaltered aspect of the classic Rayxanber gameplay and just like before successive dashing is rarely needed.

The adventure starts with the departure from the mothership, and as you fly around to defend it you have a nice opportunity to get to know the new weapons.

Hard caves

When the carrier ship is destroyed it releases a weapon item that has a moving dial inside. This dial affects the way the weapon behaves, so according to its orientation the ship will fire in a particular direction/way. Green activates a bubble shot that's very powerful despite its slow speed, yellow corresponds to a continuous series of laser shots and red generates a couple of thick flame bursts above and below the ship. A little experimentation is certainly needed to get a grasp of which weapon works best in every situation, especially on boss fights, but the important thing to have in mind is that there isn't really any useless choice. Of course the reach of the red flame is the only glaring limitation when compared to the other weapons.

The greatest departure from the gameplay in the previous chapters is in the charge shot. Instead of being associated with the current weapon, in Rayxanber III it's automatically charged as you keep the firing button pressed even if you're only equipped with the default pea shot. When the lower charge bar gets yellow you're ready to unleash it, so just let go of the firing button and watch as a pair of missiles gets shot forward. Press the button again and these missiles will explode in a batch of homing missiles that will fetch everything that takes damage anywhere on the screen, even behind most walls. Granted, in the heat of the battle 99% of the time I was just tapping the shot button to release the homing missiles and recharge them.

When you take out the need to stop shooting to charge a stronger attack, the gameplay certainly becomes more dynamic. I consider this to be a clear evolution from the previous games in the series. On the other hand, this improvement is not followed by a proportional adjustment in difficulty. If it weren't for the overall theme and gameplay, you couldn't really tell Rayxanber III is part of the same series that has such demading horis as Rayxanber and Rayxanber II. It is a lot easier than the others and in that regard it's an inevitable disappointment (or not). You come to it expecting some sort of memorizing hurdle and it has none, which of course is excellent news for those who crave lighter challenges.

The Zoul empire must fall
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

On graphical and musical merits, I also think Rayxanber III isn't on par with the rest of the series. There are no voices for weapons anymore, and in my opinion the music isn't bad but it doesn't engage the same way it did before. Backgrounds are lacking from beginning to end, with black voids everywhere and no additional parallax layers whatsoever. There's a lot of detail in the way caves and walls are conveyed but that's about it, and the abundance of caverns/rocks + too little environment or outer space gives the game a cramped feeling. I might be wrong here, but I wouldn't be surprised to know there was some rush in the publishing process. The absolute lack of polish on the fight against the last boss is an example, something that a close friend compared to the boss fights from Atomic Robo-Kid (no grudge against Robo-Kid, but the boss fights there are an overall design choice instead of a weird, unexpected final showdown).

The worst thing about the last boss is that it allows infinite milking. Destroying all of its turrets and innards nets you more than 50.000 points, which is the amount you need to get an extra life. Talk about a broken scoring system! Milking in other areas of the game is also possible but more time consuming, such as when fighting the gigantic crawling monster at the beginning of stage 3. Speaking of monsters, the second boss is an obvious reference to the big marine creatures from Darius. And following with the trend in the series, there's also a cryptic boss here that won't give in just by hopelessly shooting at its core.

Rayxanber III is quick and easy, but I won't deny it's got decent fun factor. If you think the standard difficulty is already too tame, you can always try the maniac option. The main differences are in enemies being more resilient, coming in slightly higher numbers and behaving just a little more aggressively. All other gameplay aspects stay the same. Regardless of how you play the game, the ending gives a very nice closure to the series by showing stills of backgrounds from all stages in Rayxanber and Rayxanber II as you listen to the awesome theme for the very first level of the original chapter.

I just wanted to score more than half a million points, so here's my final 1CC result on Standard/Normal difficulty:

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Excellent 10 [Brenner] (FM Towns)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Team Fiat
Published by Amorphous in 1990

Before shoving the FM Towns Marty back into the box I figured it was a good time to resume exploring the contents of Excellent 10, the compilation released by Amorphous with games exclusively developed with their shmup-making tool Shooting Towns. And true to my initial resolution when I played Beams, the chosen title had to be the next one in alphabetical order.

Even though it shares a lot of aspects with Beams – mainly the poor graphics, the absence of autofire and most of the music – Brenner is of a different breed. With only four levels it barely justifies being called a complete game, yet it doesn't come off as a complete pushover. Difficulty in this case is directly related to the fact that you need to mash button A to survive, and also because Brenner does not hold your hand by granting excessive extends. All you get is an extra life for each defeated boss.

Surrounded by evil fluffy slimy green tennis balls

First of all, we need to make it clear that this is an 8-bit standard game. There's nothing here that could not be done with the same or even better results in an NES, for example, and that seriously hurts the reputation of a 32-bit video game/computer system. Back then it must have been thrilling to finally be able to design your own shmup, but I have already learned that you shouldn't get your hopes up on this system's technical prowess when it comes down to the games developed with the Shooting Towns tool.

That said, Brenner at least delivers something more palatable than Beams. As a simple game that follows a classic mold, players just need to adopt a methodical approach in order to deal with the obstacles and the lack of autofire. Most of the time that weird spaceship that looks like a racing car feels underpowered, especially after dying. The good news is that everything has a fixed behavior and there are no aimed shots at the player, so regardless of how many enemy bullets or fireballs cruise the screen they will always follow the same routine, as will the power-ups released by them. That's the saving grace in a game where button mashing is such a necessity.

The default pea shot can be changed into other weapons according to their respective icons: 2-way (forward + rear shot), 3-way spread, 4-way cross shot, a combination of 3-way and 4-way (best weapon in the game) and the laser (inexplicably the only one with autofire). I don't know what those guys in Team Fiat (the only "developer" in the compilation with a non-Japanese name) were thinking, but the single weapon with native autofire only appears in the second stage. There are no upgrades at all and no advantage is seen by taking successive items of the same type, be it for survival or scoring. Speaking of which, I believe the most difficult part of the plain scoring system is actually reading your score. All fonts in the game are so small they might strain some people's eyes.

From the beginning to the end of Brenner

Although simple, Brenner tries to show a little variety throughout. It starts very outer-spacey, making you fly through a meteor shower and fireballs before facing a series of turrets prior to the boss, then it slowly shifts to a biological theme. In the third stage you'll be surrounded by spores, amoebas and breakable caterpillars. If only the bosses had some minimally interesting design... But no, they're all huge wrecks that bounce around the screen in repetitive patterns. Don't try to move too far up when going around them, the game cuts you off a good stretch before you're able to reach the top of the play area. The final level has no enemies, only a brief escape sequence inspired by the Salamander games.

Note: do not press START once you lose all lives or you'll come back to the start screen. Continues are unlimited but you should always press buttons A or B to restart the level. In order to get back to the OS screen to select a different game you need to reset the console. Whenever you boot one of the games in Excellent 10 on the FM Towns Marty you're given the chance to select between under scan (31,47 kHz) or over scan (15,73 kHz) displays.

My final score for Brenner is below. I managed to beat it on a single life.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Ku2++ (FM Towns)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 / 10 Stages (Comical / Scerious mode)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Panther Software
Published by Panther Software in 1993

The FM Towns was never a mainstream computer, nor was the FM Towns Marty, its equally obscure consolized version. Owning one of them is already proof of how much people are capable of cherishing video game collecting, but going after the games can be an even more challenging quest. With a few exceptions they tend to be rare, expensive and above all not language-friendly (unless we’re talking about shmups, of course). On the far end of the rarity spectrum are games like Ku2++, which are so scarce and collector-protected that only surface on the market when Earth aligns with Saturn and Pluto. I happened to be there when one of these events took place, luck and everything else included since I was even able to bypass the ridiculous price these games command these days.

Released for the Sharp X68000 computer as Ku2, the title was soon ported to the FM Towns as Ku2++, down to the way both games on the disc behave. Wait, two games? Yes, Ku2++ actually comes with two completely different games that besides being verticals have only one aspect in common: the presence of a leeching parasite that flies alongside the player and is able to swallow enemy ships to unleash a devastating attack. Having two games on one disc is probably where the double plus in the title comes from, whereas “KU” is supposed to be the name of the alien leech.

As soon as the disc is booted you must select between Scerious [sic] and Comical mode, a choice that can only be reverted by resetting the console. Scerious mode is your classic sci-fi shooter, complete with an extremely convoluted story fully narrated in English/Engrish. Comical mode, on the other hand, is a cute’em up narrated in Japanese with a foolish, exaggerated kusoge style.

Comical mode: the American dream ends in hamburguer rage over the clouds

The long intro for Scerious mode introduces a character named Wayne Shadowick, the heroic pilot of the XF-33V/U001, an advanced spaceship equipped with two of those leeching maggots that fly beside it all the time. The XF-33V/U001 is the last hope of mankind against an evil alien threat called Soridum, and must travel across eight areas plagued by all sorts of enemies, both mechanical and biological. Button B shoots and button A fires the energy accumulated inside the KUs, which change color when absorbing enemies. A pulsating green tint means they’ve soaked the maximum amount of energy, whose blast upon hitting a target results in a big explosion with a skull figure inside – an obvious nod to Truxton. As expected, triggering the bomb with half-full KUs will result in less powerful blasts.

Prior to starting the credit it’s important to go to the options screen first. Besides turning on autofire, you can also choose from three weapon “packs” to be used in the game, each one allowing the ship to use three different weapons according to the letter-coded power up item that cycles as it leaves the screen. Pack 1 is the default and comes with M (homing missiles), L (laser) and V (spread vulcan). Pack 2 comes with M (multidirectional shot), R (ring shot) and H (straight + homing). Pack 3 consists of R (straight), W (winding spread) and P (bending spread). All weapons can be upgraded twice by collecting the same item successively, with speed-ups providing three additional levels of maneuverability (as seen in the overhead display). There are no shields of any kind, but the good news is that your maggot friends are able to absorb all bullets.

Although relatively quirky and strangely cool on the outside, Scerious mode (by all means the main game in Ku2++) is rather bland when it comes to graphics, and doesn’t flow at the frame rate you’d expect from a 32-bit console. Some weapons send the gameplay into a numb/dazed condition where you can’t fire without being affected by very mild slowdown, in a smaller scale than what can be seen in Thunder Spirits for the SNES (in a weird inversion of the norm when it comes down to shmups, homing weapons induce no such slowdown here). Flicker isn’t a problem, but bullet visibility does become an issue in certain areas. The scoring system is as basic as it gets, and sadly totally wastes the potential provided by the KU gimmick.

Since there are no continues or additional difficulty settings in place, the developer tried to address the challenge spikes by handing out extra lives like candy (one at every 80.000 points). The build-up in challenge is okay until you reach stage 6 (Ancient Temple), the hardest and most dangerous area, where all weapons seem to lack the firepower to deal with both ground and aerial enemies. The game gets more manageable afterwards, but remains quite intense and a lot more demanding in regards to the usage of KUs both for defense and offense. Also beware of walls with blurry borders and turrets that spit bullets right in your face. Throughout the journey dedicated shmup fans will certainly spot influences from other games in the genre: Salamander and Dragon Spirit seem to be the strongest sources of inspiration, but there are also echoes of Raiden and Star Soldier here and there. It’s just a bit disappointing that the result isn’t remarkable in any way whatsoever, except for a few pieces in the synth-based soundtrack. The theme that plays on the Alien Ferociousness level is great, for instance.

A full run of the "Scerious mode" on Ku2++ for the FM Towns

And what about Comical mode? I doubt any serious shmupper will be able to play more than two full credits of this travesty. Blame it on the annoying Japanese narrator and the complete lack of challenge. Comical mode draws a lot from Twin Bee in graphics and overall tone, but the gameplay is just marginally better than Magic Girl on the Mega Drive, frame rate included. Instead of two KUs now there’s only one, following the ship around and swallowing whatever comes across its path. Weapons are restricted to three, a forward shot, spread bombs and a flamethrower, all of them activated and upgraded by collecting the appropriate icon that cycles with speed-ups and bounces around before disappearing.

What makes this mode so easy is the same extend routine of one extra life with every 80.000 points and the additional assortment of 1UPs you’re able to pick up. On top of that, an icon that appears every 30 seconds and looks like a fireball endows the ship with a shield barrier that can withstand a good number of hits. Frankly, if you don’t die by boredom after a while you’ll only know your first death when a few enemies start coming from below at the end of the third stage. Bosses are a joke and might surrender instantly when hit by the KU bomb, which at medium or full power materializes as a giant fly swatter. It’s quite fun to do it, too bad it becomes almost impossible to feed the KU parasite once you get all possible speed-ups. Not that it really matters, but you can adjust the speed of the KU in the options between low/middle/high.

With just five stages, Comical mode offers a bit more in the way of scoring, given the fact that every surplus power-up gives you some extra points. The poor gameplay and the astounding lack of challenge hurt it bad though, and the inability to skip that retarded ending to finally see your score forced me to endure one of the most annoying things ever in a video game. Twice.

Pausing in both games lets you turn autofire OFF/ON (button B) and alter other options that don't work at all (palet STOP/FLASH with button A and wait NORMAL/ZERO with ↑). I don't know what this “palet” thing is, but the ZERO wait function would've been nice if it even worked. I suppose these extra switches might have a purpose on a FM Towns computer. The pictures below show my best results on both game modes of Ku2++, with Scerious mode beaten using weapon pack 1.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Star Fox (SNES)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
6/7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nintendo
Published by Nintendo in 1993

At the height of the 16-bit video game wars, both Sega and Nintendo were at full throttle trying to cater to each company’s avid fanbase. With an enhancer chip that allowed the processing of incredible polygonal graphics, Star Fox certainly left its mark in video game history as one of the most impressive punches thrown by Nintendo against the competition. And as a Segaphile myself I was forced to temporarily throw in the towel in order to (happily) enjoy this amazing rail shooter. Later on Sega would bounce back with their own enhancer chip, which produced an equally impressive experience albeit in a different genre with Virtua Racing.

That said, to this day I believe Star Fox (released in Europe as Star Wing) is one of the most immersive video games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play. All rail shooters share immersion as a functional trait, but here it reaches a point where graphics, gameplay and music unite in order to create something unique. The only aspect that might look dated today is also what gives the game its undeniable charm: the blocky geometry of obstacles and the aspect of folded paper with which ships and enemies are rendered. The action is intense and supported by a gallery of anthropomorphic characters that interact a lot throughout the journey, in another story of good against evil that can be played across three different paths.

Players take the role of Fox McCloud, the captain of the Star Fox team. Aided by Falco, Peppy and Slippy (an avian creature, a rabbit and a toad, respectively), Fox departs from planet Corneria with the mission to stop an evil villain called Andross in the distant planet Venom. Brief cinematics precede, take over at specific points and give closure to their quest, with lots of style and an awesome sense of scope.

Level 1, the adventure starts in planet Corneria
(courtesy of YouTube user Espaciodejuegos)

When you press start you need to select your control scheme out of 4 options, as well as decide if you want to go straight to the game itself or if you want to play a training course that teaches you how to control the ship (it's always good to practice a little in order to get the hang of how things work when starting out). I've always felt more comfortable with the type A configuration, which works with reverse verticals and has the following inputs: Y = shot, A = bomb, X = brief boost, B = brief brake/deceleration (check the lower right gauge for boost/brake intensity), L/R = tilt left/right (tap quickly to perform barrel rolls). I think this setup is very intuitive and makes great use of the SNES controller.

In Star Fox there are no extra difficulty settings, instead we must decide on which route to play the game. All three start and end on the same planets, occasionally sharing enemies and environments while providing distinct challenges. Level 1 is the easiest and Level 3 is the hardest and longest course with one more stage than the others. All stages share the same structure, with a boss waiting at the end and the possibility to shift between three viewpoints with the SELECT button: standard, approach and cockpit. When in approach the ship is viewed at a closer rear view, whereas cockpit puts you inside it but is only available during outer space levels. Frankly I never use the cockpit view because I like to see my vessel from afar in true rail shooter fashion.

Each life gives the player a shield bar that allows the ship to withstand damage from collisions and enemy bullets, with death only happening when this bar is depleted. The most common pick-up in the item gallery is a revolving ring that refills part of your energy and is often released by killing specific foes. A stationary blue ring not only refills more energy, but also serves as a checkpoint. Then there are the blaster upgrades (first one gives you double shot, second one turns it into a plasma double shot), a shield (three basic hits or less, depending on the density of the obstacle you crush into), extra bombs and extra ship (to get it you need to shoot all three corners of the triangle, which starts to spin once the first one is hit). Bomb usage requires aiming, that's why a bomb that's dropped while the ship is pointing up will be practically wasted. The maximum amount of bombs you can carry at any time is five. If one of the ship's wings gets damaged you'll lose it, and the only way to repair it without losing a life is by collecting a blaster upgrade.

As one of the most impressive rail shooters of its generation, Star Fox flows at an almost perfect pace, scrolling by gracefully while throwing all sorts of obstacles and enemies towards the player. The game conveys depth successfully, and even though textures lack finesse and detail they certainly excel at the use of color and shading. Ship control feels natural and fluid, never mind the few bouts of slowdown here and there. I do love the several rules you need to adhere to in certain stages in order to be successful, such as flying through all the arches to collect an item or going pacifist against the space stingrays of Sector Y (stage 4 in Level 2). There will be times, however, where it’s virtually impossible not to get hit, and while trying to find the best path to dodge things you’ll often rely on pure luck to get through. The worst passage is the storm of stray bars prior to the 4th boss in Level/course 3.

You'll depart from Corneria late in the day if you choose to play course 3

Star Fox has a lot going on with regards to gameplay, but the interactions between protagonist Fox and his wingmen surely add a special flavor to the action. Each pilot has his own life bar, and once this bar is depleted the character is also gone for good. They tend to cruise the screen while chasing or being chased by an enemy, some will ask for assistance and others will rant against it if you decide to help them. Apparently you can’t damage their ships when you hit them by accident, so fire away even if they decide to obnoxiously stand in the way (this happens often). Not that the scoring system here is deep and gets hurt by it, but having a wingman die is detrimental to the stage completion percentage because the few enemies they chase will be missing from the tallying.

There's no actual score display for Star Fox in the common sense. Score is based on destruction ratio and maxes out at 10.000 points per level, which corresponds to 100% completion. So theoretically the highest achievable score is 70.000 points in Level 3. Extra credits are gained with 10K, 30K and 50K, and definitely help a lot when you're learning how to approach the later stages. Speaking of which, the briefing message from the captain prior to each mission might give important clues about what to do to succeed, so don't be hasty and read them at least once. Boss battles are often intense, diverse and fun, with a few exceptions where hit detection becomes an issue (stage 3-6). Beyond the basics there are still two hidden areas accessed at stages 1-2 (Black Hole) or 3-2 (Out of This Dimension), but they work more as easter egg novelties than anything.

Of all aspects of this incredibly fun game, my favorite one is probably the music. It's a magnificent work of art, full of pumping, atmospheric and eerie compositions that put to shame most sci-fi film soundtracks. There are those who seem to dislike Star Fox for its supposedly slow frame rate, but they forget to analyze that everything about the game works incredibly well thanks to the way the control scheme works. In my humble opinion it took the foundations of this subgenre and infused it with pure awesomeness, to the point where many people still consider it the best game in a series that also saw entries for the Nintendo 64, the GameCube and the Nintendo DS. Others insist on comparing Star Fox to Silpheed, ignoring the fact that the gameplay of both titles is vastly different from each other (the only thing they have in common is the use of polygons).

I don't remember if I actually did it back in the day, but this time I 1CCed all three courses in Star Fox. Level 1 is indeed an easy ride, I don't think I ever boosted or braked the ship there, but boosting and braking are of utmost importance in Levels 2 and 3. Below is my final result for Level 3 (the game halts at this screen indefinitely until you reset the console).

Note: a special competition cartridge for Star Fox with a heavily tweaked game was released and contains a full fledged scoring system, but that's a whole different story. A direct sequel for the SNES was planned and partially developed, but eventually got canned.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Gokujyou Parodius (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (+1)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1994

The STG division at Konami surely loved the SNES back in the 90s. The company graced Nintendo’s 16-bit platform with solid titles, be it ports or exclusive games, and helped put the competition against Sega’s mighty Mega Drive on fair grounds. A long running Gradius spin-off series, the Parodius games were well-represented in that regard, with three excellent cartridges that shouldn’t be absent in the shelf of any serious aficionado. Coming right after Parodius Da!, Gokujyou Parodius again brings home the workings of those evil wacky penguins while – expectedly so – toning down the difficulty of the arcade original. Which was a good move, I should say.

Awesomeness, in this case, relates to many things, including a welcome approachability towards the structure devised by Konami for Gokujyou Parodius, released only in Japan and in Europe as Fantastic Journey. Not only do we have a spaceship level that appears randomly throughout the game (and isn’t completely seen unless you don’t die in it), but players who beat the final boss are also faced with a Special Stage right after the credits, an ingenious carrot placed by the developer in order to lure those who’re brave enough into pursuing an extra achievement. This Special Stage serves its purpose as a worthy substitute for the loop in a game that doesn’t loop by default, while at the same time presenting reasonable challenge on the SNES port (for mortal gamers like me, in the arcade original it just feels impossible).

Modern Times for Takosuke and his companions

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Unless you’re a total beginner in this genre or you’ve been living in an alternate dimension where Konami doesn’t exist, you certainly know what Parodius games are about. At their core they’re mocking everything about the Gradius franchise, from ships to iconic characters and stages. It borrows the main gameplay rules for power-ups, meaning you have the same weapon array and the same capsule collecting scheme where players activate the desired upgrade by pressing a button whenever the upgrade is lit in the weapon array. A third button (after shot/missile and power-up) is responsible for triggering the stored effect of a blue or brown/red colored bell, a trait inherited from the Twin Bee franchise.

What started out as a franchise mockery, however, begins to evolve into something unique in Gokujyou Parodius when you pay close attention to the game. The character roster, for instance, expands far beyond the idea of an avatar with trailing options, while elements from other games/developers also show up in the design, with rather obvious nods to classics like Xevious, Galaga, R-Type and Darius. It’s the epitome of a warped homage, blended in a surreal adventure that becomes even more diverse depending on the selected character, in a sequel that’s shorter but slightly wackier than predecessor Parodius Da!.

Regular upgrades such as missiles, double, laser and options will be very familiar if you know Gradius well and choose Vic Viper/Lord British, Pentaro/Hanako or Takosuke/Belial (P1/P2), but might display completely different behavior with characters like Koitsu/Aitsu, Mambo/Samba and Michael/Gabriel. Unlike the arcade version, which pretty much requires players to go with Koitsu in order to beat it, the same does not apply in the port so it’s a lot more fun to test out different characters here. And as usual for console ports developed and released by Konami, the company gave the game a special touch by adding three new characters to the roster: Goemon/Ebisumaru, Upa/Rupa and Dracula-kun/Kid Dracula. All these characters have new powers that are loosely based on other Konami games.

Besides some cosmetic tinkerings, this port of Gokujyou Parodius differs functionally from the original by having mandatory checkpoints regardless of the selected power-up scheme: in MANUAL all upgrades are up to the player, in AUTO the game automatically applies the upgrades except for roulette items, those "contaminated" capsules that make the weapon array go crazy and require the player to choose one upgrade to cut out of the quick cycling. One of the reasons why AUTO doesn't eliminate checkpoints as in the arcade game is that the port only allows alternated multiplayer, ditching the ability to play simultaneously with a friend.

Intro of Gokujyou Parodius on the SNES
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Players earn extra lives starting at 20.000 points and at every 100.000 points afterwards, in an extremely generous extend scheme. Since checkpoints aren’t that taxing, these extra lives are great for those who like to exploit them for scoring, in particular the very last checkpoint of the Special Stage (score extends are absent after the end credits). There are lots of bells to be collected there more than in any other part of the game, and here’s a brief recap of how they work: yellow bells are the norm and evolve in value from 500 to 10.000 points if you don't let any fall to the left of the screen. By shooting them a certain number of times they cycle colors that provide special abilities: blue (powerful single bomb), green (instantaneous inflation + invincibility), white (instantaneous activation of a powerful shot with random messages in kanji), brown/red (three vertical energy bars) and purple (turn all popcorn enemies into power-ups/bells at once).

Compared to the arcade original, Gokujyou Parodius is a lot lighter in difficulty and doesn’t bear the same rage-inducing factor that comes with an evil rank system. Rank is still there but is much less aggressive, and only really hits if you max out power and decide to activate the shield (having many lives in stock will also increase enemy bullet count/speed). This port relates to the arcade version kinda like Gradius III does to its source, even though Goku Paro is more faithful overall and merely reduces the scope of everything for the SNES processor to cope with the mayhem. Nevertheless slowdown kicks in heavily in certain parts, such as the candy stage and the octopus flocks of the Special Stage. Flicker can be a minor problem in a few areas, all of them happening when those ring-shaped shots overlap with regular bullets and enemies.

When a game is this fun and so exquisitely crafted, it's always great to try it with as many characters as possible. Maybe in the future I'll venture into that, but for now I'm satisfied with clearing it completely, Special Stage included, with Dracula-kun at full default settings (difficulty 4, autoshot ON, roulette ON, revival OFF, 1 loop end) on AUTO power-up mode. The final score is shown below.