Saturday, January 30, 2016

Tasac (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
14 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Thin Chen Enterprises (Sachen)
Published by Sachen in 1992

If you want to know which were the worst shmups ever released for the NES, leave it to developer Thin Chen Enterprise, also known as Sachen, to educate you on the mediocre side of the shooting force. Some might argue that this not-so-honorable distinction should actually be attributed to Mega Soft, but in my opinion Sachen wins. We can’t even say it’s a matter of quantity over quality because quality is a characteristic that’s sorely lacking in any of these companies’ outputs.

That said, let it be known that this extremely rare game called Tasac represents Sachen’s magnum opus of ineptitude. With the exception of Huge Insect (which manages to be even rarer), it was the last shmup produced and released by Sachen. Looking from the outside I had hopes it would somehow improve a little over their previous stuff, but oh boy I was wrong… The box art is interesting, as well as the deceivingly decent opening screen, but everything falls apart after you press start. Monotonous action, dull enemies, stupid power-ups, botched interface, drab colors, empty backgrounds, atrocious music, screwed-up resolution, it’s all there in pathetically executed 8-bit programming.

In outer space no one can hear you yawn

In the world of Tasac the player is fighting against alien bionic mutants. The problem is that the spaceship you pilot is a generic piece of junk capable of firing three types of shot with button A, according to items released at random by destroyed enemies. You have L (straight shot), F (five-way shot spread) and T (three-way laser spread), the latter being the default weapon. All of them are upgraded slowly by taking the same successive item or faster by collecting the P (power-up). And that’s it, there’s nothing else to say about the gameplay other than getting familiar with the eight variations for enemies and their recurring naive patterns.

In every single stage the shadow of the boss appears on screen and stays there for a little while before solidifying into the boss itself – an irregular arrangement of turrets that try to protect the core. These increase in size with every successive level, to the point where you’ll have more than 15 turrets to destroy in the final stages. Luckily you don’t need to eliminate them all, so if the core becomes visible a quicker kill can be achieved.

Although the basics of the gameplay aren’t broken, Tasac suffers from many problems that lead to quick boredom. For example, there is only one regular enemy that shoots bullets, and even those might not be considered proper bullets (the enemy ship halts at mid-level and explodes in seven big pieces of junk). All others arrive and move around in a never-changing fixed pattern for you to gallery-shoot them. There is no wave overlapping at all, so as long as there’s at least one enemy on screen or an item released by the current wave the next one won’t come into play. On top of that, all bullets fired by the boss’s turrets are destructible, and later on sprite manipulation becomes so heavy that both bullets and enemies start disappearing without being hit by anything.

In a nutshell, it gets boring fast.

Will I make it to the boss?
(courtesy of YouTube user NesShortGameplays)

Another reason why Tasac is even more tedious than your usual Sachen shooting game is the lethargic nature of your weapons. They’re slow. Very slow. The three-way lasers aren’t that bad once you upgrade them a little (lasers get thicker), but the severely capped firing rate of the 5-way gun makes it pretty much useless, especially against later bosses. The straight shot fares better, but eventually you’ll miss some piercing/side coverage. Just to have an idea of the mediocrity that’s present here all you have to do is check Papillon Gals/Galactic Crusader, which was also delivered by Sachen. It’s kinda close in spirits to Tasac, but seems like a masterpiece in comparison.

Don’t bother checking your score during gameplay. You’ll only ever see it in-between stages and when the credit is over. The same happens with the number of lives and the extend routine that’s hidden by the inability to see the score. Speaking of hidden, watch out for the extended area at the bottom of the screen, which can safely hide your whole ship! And this is yet another case where your shot reappears from the bottom if you hug the upper border of the playing field.

Isn’t there anything good about Tasac then? Well, for all it’s worth it allows co-operative simultaneous play. And the ending shows a neat still of the spaceships flying into glory before, well... As if all of the above wasn’t enough to make you sleep in front of the TV, this travesty loops with practically no difficulty change whatsoever (I tried moving the switch in the cartridge case from Old to New and noticed no alterations at all in the gameplay). In the final score shown below I succumbed out of sheer apathy in stage 2-10.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Star Prince (Nintendo DS)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by indies 0

Published by Namco Bandai in 2007

I feel a little sad when certain video game releases are "too" Japanese, since this often tends to detract from their appeal in other markets. Game Center CX - Arino no Chōsenjō (Arino no Chōsenjō means Arino's Challenge) is a prime example of this: a compilation title originated from a TV show where a comediant would talk about old video games and try to beat them. Luckily for a few Westerners, the cultural barrier imposed by the language was gone when a translated port appeared in the US as Retro Game Challenge. Unfortunately it failed to garner attention and was eventually considered a failure by its publisher, botching any plans the company might have had of also porting the sequels.

Game Center CX has lots of options and menus, many of them leading to libraries, galleries and boring dialogue (for me at least). Of course one can go directly to Retro Game Challenge for an easier interface since the Nintendo DS has no region lock, however I made the choice to get the Japanese package so I had to deal with all that foreign text… which is a challenge in itself, but fortunately finding what really matters – the games – isn’t hard at all. These span several genres and come presented as Famicom/NES titles, complete with fake developers and release dates. The shmup highlight is Star Prince, “released” by Tomato on 6-JUN-1986.

Star Prince owes a lot to the likes of Star Force, Star Soldier and early outings of developer Compile. Much of its design was, in fact, influenced by Shinya Arino’s Star Force challenge in one of the first episodes of the show. The result is a fun and fairly charming homage to these old classics, one that fits the DS format well and doesn’t make you struggle with the secondary screen, unless you decide to have fun inside the virtual game room and you’re bothered by the two boys who’re supposedly watching you play.

Princes, princes who adore you...

In all stages players must fly over terrains full of turrets and destructible blocks, dealing with the mandatory stops against bosses and mid-bosses and all sorts of incoming aerial waves that approach from everywhere. Button Y provides autofire while buttons A or B fire a single shot and activate a shield when held, a protection device that initially covers the front of the ship but is automatically upgraded to a full circling barrier once you take the first power-up. Power-ups are always released by a particular ground enemy and consist of P (power/straight shot), S (spread shot), B (back shot) and M (missile shot). There are no upgrades beyond acquiring the characteristics of each weapon, but the lack of further levels of firepower couldn’t be more deceiving. After all, Star Prince’s gameplay is much richer than what the basic inputs make it out to be.

Everything you shoot and destroy is worth some points. There are certain targets, however, that can lead to a lot more points when you manage to destroy them in a certain way. Every weapon item released, for example, can be destroyed with a few shots. When it blows up, all enemies and bullets on screen are also destroyed and over their amount a multiplier of ×1.000 or more is applied (huge points can be scored from that!). You can also choose to collect the same weapon you're already carrying, which is then worth 8.000 points. Every once in a while enemies will stop coming and a ship will materialize at the center of the screen before an attachment comes from below: destroy it before the attachment latches and win a big bonus. This might seem familiar to some, since it pretty much copies a similar enemy from Star Force.

Another easy source of points, provided you know their locations, is uncovering the six tiles in every level for the characters that form the word PRINCE. By uncovering them all you win 40.000 points, and for each one you miss this amount is divided by two. An extra life is also hidden in a specific place in every stage, and to get it all you have to do is hit its hidden spot. Finally, since I'm talking about the scoring system, at the end of the game each life in reserve is worth 50.000 points. By end I mean the second loop because the game is bold enough to go DDP on you after you beat its four levels, saying that all enemies were not real and you must play the game again to face the real ones. And with all the extra score-based extends (50K, 100K, 200K, 500K, 1M, …), not dying ends up being the biggest addition to a credit aimed at high scoring.

Cruising the stars for a crown!
(courtesy of YouTube user IGN)

The second half/loop of Star Prince is obviously harder than the first, with the added quirk of changing around all locations for hidden items (characters and 1UPs). Since the bullet count is increased, this is when you'll be using the shield input the most. A neat feature of the shield is that after absorbing three bullets the ship will expel an outward blast that's able to hit everything around it. While definitely a life saver in tight situations, the shield doesn't protect against enemy collision, and these may happen a lot due to waves coming from behind and closing in from the sides.

Putting everything together, it's feasible to say this little game is a blast to play. It uses the same wave scheme of Star Force, meaning the fastest you dispatch a wave the more enemies you'll kill before the stage is over. Sometimes the checkpoints will mess with enemy/wave order, making them less or more difficult up front. Several turret arrangements in the mid-boss sections and the brief invincibility upon item collection will immediately remind people of Zanac, which is just a hint at how much Compile is infused in the gameplay, morphing with Tecmo and Hudson into a nice piece of handheld shmup rush. The music and the sound effects are equally competent, and the occasional voice samples just serve to add that odd flavor you'd expect from a Japanese title.

Click for the (lousy) option menus translation for Star Prince on Game Center CX
Any help would be greatly appreciated :)

During gameplay R+X works as a reset button and L+X calls up the main menu, from where you can select other options such as switch to another game, check the instruction manual, etc. Since I’m not versed at all in Japanese, I can’t comment on anything else about Game Center CX.

My humble final 1CC score for Star Prince is below. The game halts at this final panel before you're sent back to the start screen. And just like in good old 8-bit fashion, there are no continues!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Super Fantasy Zone (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega / Sunsoft
Published by Sega in 1992

With the exception of the makeover made on Fantasy Zone II, which was released in one of those Sega Ages discs on the Playstation 2, Super Fantasy Zone was the last real entry in one of the most original and endearing series created by Sega. However, probably due to its waning popularity in the West and the involvement of Sunsoft as a developer, the cartridge saw the light of day only in Japan and Europe. That’s a real shame considering the game brings more of that frantic action to the Mega Drive in a new adventure that feels quite fresh yet plays very much in the same way of the first chapter rather than the second (never mind those boring maze/medal variants).

In order to keep the same colorful nature of its arcade counterparts, Super Fantasy Zone extracts the most from the alleged limited color palette of the Mega Drive. As a result that familiar fluffy atmosphere remains intact, as well as the deceiving idea that this fluffiness naturally relates to a child’s game. Of course Super Fantasy Zone isn’t as hard as, let’s say, the original Fantasy Zone, but the difficulty slope implemented in subsequent loops brings the original challenge back and turns stages into dangerous mine fields that require very careful navigation. So sit back, relax and prepare to listen to that awesome boss theme once again while enjoying a new set of exclusive upgrades to Opa-Opa’s arsenal.

There is a story going on here, complete with an animated intro and an equally crafted ending. Of it I know nothing, nor do I care. But it's nice to see another huge variation of Opa-Opa as the final boss, even if it's soon replaced by a cranky little bouncing ball that's rather disappointing.

Dangers of the Le-Picker level

All three basic buttons of the Mega Drive controller are used in Super Fantasy Zone. By default you have A for special weapon, B for shot and C for bombs. Completely new to the classic gameplay here is this "special weapon", which corresponds to items bought in the shop for single use and are lost upon death. By the way, what's classic about the gameplay? Opa-Opa, that rounded ship with tiny wings, must destroy 10 evil enemy generators in each stage so that he can fight the boss (check their locations on the radar). There's freedom of movement both to the left and to the right, and it's also possible to speed up scrolling (by moving closer to the sides) or halting it completely (by "landing", to which Opa-Opa creates legs and walks on the ground). The 8th and last stage is a boss rush comprised of all previous bosses prior to the very final boss.

Enemies release gold coins for immediate collection so you can purchase items in the SHOP balloon that approaches from the top of the screen every time a stage starts or after you die (except on bosses). Some of the items are effective permanently provided you don't die, such as the speed-ups and the regular bomb enhancements. Others will only last the amount of time defined by the gauge that appears beside the item icon. Mandatory purchases are at least one choice of speed-up and the quartet missiles, which definitely surpass the old twin bombs because they home on enemies (not generators). If you buy more than one item with the same function you can choose which one you'll be using before leaving the shop, and if the multiple items purchased are special weapons or of the temporary kind an extra balloon labeled SEL will then appear and allow you to choose a different type after the current one has been depleted.

In the world of Super Fantasy Zone there's always the danger of running into a spawning enemy if you get too hasteful. On the other hand, the faster you destroy generators and the quicker you collect the gold released by bosses the more money you'll eventually have. The risk-reward ratio tends to reach a critical point because of inflation: every time an item is purchased its price increases. Therefore, that precious temporary laser beam upgrade and those useful lightning and smart bomb special weapons will eventually become too expensive. Extra lives start with a $ 5.000 price tag and max out at $ 100.000. Nabbing all the extra lives you can and not dying is the secret to higher scores, simply because each life in stock is worth one million points when beating the game. Remaining gold is then converted into points, but not to the same extent.

Intro and attract mode of Super Fantasy Zone
(courtesy of YouTube user Gee Tee)

Toying with all the items available in the shop is half the fun when you're learning how to properly approach all levels and bosses in Super Fantasy Zone. My advice is that players should try them all. Don't let any item pass by or you might be missing very helpful aids for the most difficult levels. Some of them, like the shield, are downright too expensive and of course should be avoided in a credit aimed at high scoring. Note that two special items must be purchased in order to make navigation easier: the first one is the "super lights" that increase your viewing abilities inside the dark caves of stage 4, the second is the "rubber boots" so you can land safely on the electrified floor of stage 6. These are permanent, so as long as you don't die you don't need to buy them again upon reaching the same levels in further loops.

Throwbacks to the first game appear in several places, from the way certain enemies attack to the original bosses frozen in the background of the last stage. A connection between this franchise and Space Harrier can also be seen in the checkerboard borders of the last level. Starting a loop with no lives in stock is definitely a cruel mechanic, but if you want to play the loop you gotta live with that. At least the rise in difficulty is steady, marked by increasingly more enemies and faster bullets – which have their sprites continuously changed the further you advance. Strangely enough, bosses don’t follow this pattern and remain pretty much the same except for the 4th boss and his faster bullets.

Either cartridge, European or Japanese, will play in Western consoles normally, and the Japanese text will even be automatically translated into English. Even though the music in Super Fantasy Zone is quite catchy, it’s possible to switch the entire soundtrack to that of the original arcade game by pressing A+B+C and START at the start screen. My overall strategy relied on playing the whole game with the first speed-up (big wings), quartet missiles and the occasional laser upgrade in stages with lots of gold (5th) or annoying enemies/design (6th). Thunder volts were the only special weapons I used, as well as an additional speed-up for the whole last level in order to better deal with the second form of the final boss. In the high score below I reached stage 3-6 on Normal.