Saturday, February 27, 2016

Star Soldier (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
16 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Taxan in 1988

We all know that being late to the party often comes with some sort of loss, and chances are we’ll end up partying alone. Nevertheless there are occasions when this is actually a good thing, as in approaching a game that had a healthy share of praise and fame in the past only to find out it’s actually very disappointing at its core. And by keeping a distance from hype one gets to know the real content beneath raving reviews, nostalgia patrolling trolls and any sort of rose-tinted glasses devised by gaming or marketing phenomena.

In my humble ignorance for a long time I thought Star Soldier was originally an arcade title, mostly because it’s considered to be a spiritual sequel to Tecmo’s Star Force. Only very recently did I know that Star Soldier was actually born on home platforms, more specifically the NES and the MSX – since I can’t precise which one came first I’ll assume both were released simultaneously by Hudson Soft in Japan in 1986. For some reason I can only relate to clever reading of audience preferences back then, Star Soldier became very popular and spawned a series of similarly designed games, some of them as spin-offs and some as proper sequels.

Having played this for the first time ever, I was left wondering in what sort of trance gamers in the 80s were to even consider it a good game since almost everything about it rubs me the wrong way. Just for the sake of comparison, in my opinion Star Force for the NES is leaps and bounds a more pleasing experience in its basic yet brutal simplicity.

That's what a star brain looks like, Caesar!

On the outside Star Soldier looks a lot like Star Force. In every stage players fly through outer space then over terrain, destroying ground blocks and a series of different enemies that arrive in specific formations. The order of the enemy waves is always the same and no wave (or wave group) appears before the previous one has been obliterated or has left the screen, that’s why after a while you can have different enemies in the same places even between stages. The normal boss to be faced is the star brain, but every four levels you’ll be fighting a larger boss called super star brain. A hidden timer exists for every boss fight, and if you take too long to beat the boss you’ll have to replay half the level in order to have a second/final go against him. And if you time out again the boss will start to shoot nasty homing bullets.

Bullet count and overall enemy aggression is slowly increased as you make your way across 16 stages. These are of considerably repetitive nature since there’s no special aspect at all about the graphics, which basically just change colors and tiles from beginning to end. When you hit little Ps on the ground you release a floating S icon that serves as the basic power-up: the first one works as a speed-up and a firing rate enhancer, the second one adds an additional stream to the main shot an a single rear shot (2-way) and the third one grants the ship with the famous 5-way spread shot the game became known for, as well as providing a shield that protects the ship against bullets (collisions are fatal). Further power-ups will work as smart bombs and kill all enemies on the screen.

Besides the S power-up there’s also an extensive gallery of hidden items to be discovered, and this is one of the many aspects of Star Soldier that I seriously dislike. Just thinking about it makes me angry because what’s the objective point of having an item hidden in the scenery but only being able to uncover it if you have a certain combination of digits in your score? Make life unnecessarily harder, suck the fun out of the game? In all my sessions, for example, I was simply unable to collect any of the 1UPs even though I knew exactly where they were! I won’t discuss how you’re supposed to unveil this or all the other hidden tiles in Star Soldier, so I’ll just recommend the reader to check the Strategywiki page on the game. Suffice it to say, I think I haven’t dug up any of the other items except for a big P (instantaneous maximum power) maybe once or twice. It sucks, but at least you get three score extends at 50, 200 and 500 thousand points...

That being said, would it be okay to say that I probably lacked the patience to really appreciate Star Soldier? I don’t think so, especially when I remember how I first felt when my ship wasn’t able to shoot. When I started playing I thought those bursts of unresponsiveness were due to a faulty controller, but then I noticed there are chunks of the scenery where the ship “hides itself” from the enemy. It wouldn’t be that bad if it weren’t for the fact that you also can’t shoot while covered. Knowing when this cloaking effect will take place is impossible because there’s no clear border anywhere, and until you realize what’s really going on confusion kicks in hard, with the ship resurfacing over enemies and precious items being out of reach. Tip: if you find yourself hidden get out from the closest border and you’ll be able to fly back over the terrain.

Attract mode
(courtesy of YouTube user GAMEINFO)

What makes me really sad about this game is that it comes out as a missed development opportunity over all the good there was in Star Force. As if the above annoyances weren’t enough, if you get hit with the 5-way weapon the ship is downgraded to 2-way but the next S item won’t restore 5-way. In order to recover the 5-way shot you need to take another 4 hits to lose the shield, only then being able to collect the S for the 5-way upgrade (successive power-ups while shielded in this condition will only result in the smart bomb). If things become too hectic while chasing bullets in order to get hit, guide yourself by the music. There are only two BGMs in the whole game after all, one for a default-powered ship and another that plays while you have an active shield (there's a very brief window of invincibility when you lose it).

Given all the weird traits I pointed above, what’s left to go for in Star Soldier? I’d say try to kill everything possible, including the big head that materializes from four pieces before these pieces are put together (80.000 points). There are six hidden X tiles in each stage that can be easily uncovered and destroyed while increasing in value, and if you find them all the last one will be worth 80.000 points (don’t wait to destroy them in the lower half of the screen though, they become “invincible” in their way out). And if you manage to blast both big eyes that precede the boss fight at around the same time you’ll also get 80.000 points. Lastly, don’t even think of entering the battle with a stock controller… Turbo function is a must, otherwise you can kiss goodbye to most of these bonuses.

Honestly, I don’t think I was ever this annoyed with an NES shmup. I don’t find the idea of hiding hidden items even more the least bit fun. Being hit to power back up again? No-no. Being prohibited from shooting? This last aspect only made a little sense in the last quarter of the game. At that point enemies start spitting the same timeout homing bullets from bosses, which remain on screen for a few seconds chasing you around and to which hiding beneath the ground does become a valid resource (another way to avoid the homing missiles is to downgrade the ship to its default firepower).

Compared to the evil difficulty of predecessor Star Force, Star Soldier is at least fairly manageable. Both bullet count and enemy speed aren’t as crazy, and the few overlapping waves aren’t nearly as brutal. I’m glad I’m done with it and I just hope the next chapters aren’t as annoying as this one. When the last super star brain explodes you’re treated with the following screen showing your completion score. I played it straight and didn’t time out any boss. The next game in the series is Super Star Soldier.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Thunder Force III (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft in 1989
Published by Technosoft in 1996

Thunder Force III on the Sega Saturn! In my case, through an S-video connection that surprisingly doesn’t make the game any more gorgeous than it is on a good old Mega Drive. Is that supposed to be bad, some people might wonder? Of course not! That just confirms how much of a 16-bit marvel this game actually is. Make no mistake, my friends: for those who lived that era to the fullest Thunder Force III was pure bliss. It was the bee’s knees. We were kids, gaming was naively fun and Technosoft was then a young god on the rise.

The success on the Mega Drive was such that years later a compilation titled Thunder Force Gold Pack 1 brought both Thunder Force II and Thunder Force III to Sega’s 32-bit platform, for the joy of nostalgia buffs everywhere. It’s been 20 years since this disc’s release, and here I am savoring the Saturn port for the first time. Blame it on a great bunch of shmupping peers who never cease to gleefully push me to play games I wouldn’t dare for the most different reasons. And the most interesting aspect in this case is that we were supposed to play it on Normal difficulty, something I never really cared about since I always went straight to Mania (Very Hard).

Why straight to Mania, you might ask?

Opening animation for Thunder Force Gold Pack 1
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Even though this game is known for wowing players and onlookers alike, it does have an inherent problem that might let many people down: it's just too darn easy in its default setting. Of course we all die here and there when we start to play it because of instant walls crushing you from the sides or enemies zapping quickly into the screen. However, Thunder Force III becomes a cakewalk once you memorize these obstacles, power up the ship and figure out the importance of the hunter (H) and sever (red S) upgrades. On top of that you get one of the most benevolent extend schemes of the genre, which grants extra lives like candy both by scoring and by collecting 1UP items.

For example, it's hard for evil final boss Orn to stand a chance when you get to him with more than 10 lives in reserve because even if you die plenty it's still possible to pound him away. The most logical challenge factor here, obviously, is to beat the game while losing the miminum amount of lives since each one will be worth 10.000 points in the end. Remaining credits are a no-brainer since you'll be conquering a 1CC, with a useless ×1 multiplier for playing on Normal difficulty. And then maximizing score comes down to killing everything in sight and milking the little drones or missiles you see coming out of hatches/enemies.

In order to try and boost my score this time around I started the game on planet Haides. By doing that you come out of the first level with the hunter weapon and a shield, resources that help greatly in scoring (you won't get those by starting on default planet Hydra). Shield is self-explanatory, but hunter is particularly useful because it will home on anything, including hidden items that must be shot at to be revealed. I don't want to repeat myself too much, so for further info on gameplay details please refer to the text I wrote on the Mega Drive original.

Gargoyle's lair is so cozy!

The important thing to note here is that Thunder Force III is still fun despite being too easy on Normal difficulty. I always crank up the volume when I'm playing it because the music is amazing, as well as the sense of flow it lends to the action. One little drawback of playing the Saturn port is that since the sound emulation had to be accomplished with CD tracks you need to cope with those brief pauses when the BGMs loop. Everything else about the game is just like in the original, with an added bonus of a nice low-res animated intro that plays before you choose which title you'll be playing.

My first 1LC when playing on Normal resulted in the score shown below. Then I found out that trying to maximize the score is a bit tricky, seeing that in a couple of further credits I thought I had killed more enemies even though my final score was lower.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

X-Multiply (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem in 1989
Published by Irem / Xing in 1998

I have mixed feelings towards X-Multiply. I do enjoy the organic setting that supposedly puts you inside the organs a living being. It's as if Irem had deviated from the path established by R-Type and somehow entered the world of Konami's Life Force. The issue here is that the game falls a little short in its graphic design, which at times lacks background detail and doesn't quite feel like an evolution from the company’s previous titles. The music, however, is absolutely superb in its otherworldly, deliciously eerie nature. All of this makes me think of X-Multiply as a lost link between the first wave of big horizontals and their sequels/progressions, seeing that it doesn’t really belong to either category.

As explicitly stated in the title, X-Multiply comes bundled with Image Fight in the Image Fight & X-Multiply compilation, released for the Sega Saturn and the Playstation only in Japan around ten years after both games were out in the arcade scene. Even though Image Fight is the superior one here, X-Multiply at least doesn't fail to provide decent atmosphere, fair challenge and reasonable recovery possibilities upon death. This last aspect of the game is what makes it relatively approachable especially when compared with Irem's own classic R-Type, where dying in certain parts of the credit pretty much meant a sorry GAME OVER.

X-Multiply on the Sega Saturn - Intro, attract mode and 1st stage
(courtesy of YouTube user Kylemeister13)

Throughout all seven stages of X-Multiply the player will be subject to a wide array of organic enemies, from a legion of spores glued on walls to deadly amoebas, pustulent orifices, tissue rashes releasing violent antibodies, moving bowels, acid droplets, invincible worms and alien parasites a.k.a. bosses. Gameplay couldn’t be more simple because only one button is used to shoot, with rapid fire naturally assigned to button B. Above all, the feature that defines this game is the moving pair of tentacles acquired by the spaceship as soon as the first power-up is collected. These tentacles bounce about gracefully as the player moves, resting in an elegant vertical alignment if you stop moving. And what a treat, the mechanical transmission of the tentacles is so advanced that not a single ounce of inertia exists! Thanks, Irem.

Not only do the tentacles increase your firepower and range, but they also provide protection against most enemy projectiles. Nonetheless special attention should be taken when moving them, since there’s always the risk of a stray bullet getting through. The first power-up collected will only activate the tentacles, but after the second one you’ll start to take advantage of their abilities according to a simple color code: red (lasers), blue (homing missiles) and yellow (directional shots – shoot backwards if you move forward and vice-versa). Since there’s no need to stick to the same item to upgrade your firepower just take whatever comes your way and be happy.

Other items available consist of speed-up (S), speed-down (Ƨ), ground bomb/missile (B) and extra life (1UP). Those Darius-like ground missiles can be fairly destructive when used at point blank distance (precious advice here), particularly after you take the second B, and while I do appreciate the ability to reduce speed if you happen to take successive speed-ups, in my opinion just one speed-up is enough to play through the whole game. No matter how many you decide to use, even the most simple memorization effort eventually leads to victory since this is a classic methodical shooter.

And even though it's definitely there, rank in X-Multiply seems to be simply related to the number of lives you have in stock (that's easily noticed when you die against one of the later bosses). Note that the only extra lives appear halfway into stages 3 and 6.

Come into my swift, swift arms

X-Multiply’s highlights are the bosses, a gallery of huge parasites that live up to the legacy started by Dobkeratops. Without a doubt they’re the best visual assets of the game, which might go unnoticed due to the amount of dodging you might need to execute at times. The fourth boss, for example, is nicely animated in its horrific representation, detaching the chest so that it chases you around amidst spreads of huge pink bullets, only then exposing the pulsating heart that needs to be destroyed for the battle to end.

Unfortunately, when talking about the porting job of this particular release I can’t help but show disappointment because X-Multiply suffers from the same resolution issue of Image Fight. Simply put, the game is just “too big” to fit a regular TV screen, to the point where the lower HUD won’t even show your score properly! To get around that the publisher added extra functions to the shoulder buttons: L moves the HUD into the visible area, R moves it back to its starting position. Don't get your hopes up though, seeing the HUD is totally detrimental to survival because it blocks a large chunk of the screen... And sadly there’s nothing to be done about the upper border, so I needed to educate myself on how far I could go in certain levels to not die by touching it. At the expense of sharpness, the Playstation port deals with that more gently.

Maybe retributing the move made by Irem, later on Konami took the concept of this game and further developed it into Xexex, a game that kinda turns X-Multiply into R-Type by having the tentacles detach from the ship just like the original force pod from the latter.

My best effort with the Saturn version of X-Multiply is below. I reached stage 2-6 playing on Normal difficulty.