Thursday, June 15, 2017

Soldier Blade (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Hudson Soft
in 1992

Whenever a video game series reaches its fourth chapter it's only natural for fans to expect nothing but greatness, is it not? I can't be considered a fan, but to me this is especially true in regards to the Star Soldier franchise, after all I wasn't the least thrilled by Final Soldier, the third game. The formula of Super Star Soldier seemed to have been copypasted without much enthusiasm, to the point where this particular style of sterile, alien landscapes started to feel samey.

That said, I'm glad I decided to tackle the next chapter right away, for not only does Soldier Blade dismiss the "final" epitaph from its predecessor, but it also presents shooting action over terrains that feel more down to earth. Granted, the overall style hasn't changed much, but the game certainly goes beyond the emphasis on sci-fi by adding a few military-themed areas and some sections with nice parallax scrolling. In addition to that, as it's possible to assert from the amount of influences seen both in the graphics and the gameplay, it was very wise from Hudson Soft to take a look at what the other companies were doing at the time.

In keeping with the series tradition, besides the main game the HuCard also includes 2 and 5 minute caravan modes. Gameplay rules aren't the same for all of these modes though. When playing caravan you're stuck with the vulcan weapon and it's not possible to sacrifice power-ups for special attacks as you do in the main course.

Blades over stars

The neverending battle for peace against outer space alien enemies is resumed as if nothing had changed, except for the arsenal your spaceship carries in its heroic quest. Commands work with shot in button II, special attack in button I and speed selection with SELECT (out of just two settings: low or high). There are three weapon types that change according to the color of the currently active power-up: classic Star Soldier 5-way vulcan shot (red), spread laser (blue) and wave shot (green). It takes only two power-ups of equal color to achieve maximum power, with every subsequent item of the same color resulting in a smart bomb that clears the screen of bullets and small enemies. Once any power-up is collected a single auxiliary invincible shadow ship starts trailing you around, improving your firepower a bit and blocking regular bullets. Every hit taken degrades firepower by one level, while deaths only occur if the ship is at its weakest condition.

I especially mentioned "currently active" above because of the way special attacks work. In the lower right corner there's a display that shows the last three collected power-ups. By pressing button I the current weapon is sacrificed into a special attack: if you're using vulcan the option homes in on the closest enemy, if you've got wave the option turns into a green cloud that travels around the screen damaging whatever lies in its path, if you've got laser the result is a thick laser beam. The good news is that the ship remains invincible during the whole special attack animation, and you can track how long it lasts by means of a small gauge that appears in the upper left corner of the screen. When the special attack is over the next weapon/power-up type in line takes over.

At first this mechanic of sacrifing weapons for special attacks doesn't seem to be so important. But once you get used to the different weapon types and the way they work you start noticing how well designed it actually is. Successively triggering all kinds of special attacks whenever you see a power-up coming is lots of fun, with the added benefit of making survival a tad easier if you're wise on your weapon choices. Most players will propably stick with the coverage provided by the blue laser inspired by Truxton, even though the other ones aren't too shabby either (the wave shot is clearly inspired by Thunder Force III). However, the best special attack by far is the vulcan's, simply because you're still allowed to shoot during the attack unlike with laser or wave. A vulcan special attack + point-blanking can be devastating against bosses, that's why a power-up stock of laser at the bottom and 1 or 2 vulcans at the front sounded like the perfect choice for me. Wave shot gets totally shafted in the end because its special attack is too slow against foes that move around a lot.

Soldier Blade's opening intro
(courtesy of YouTube user King Arthur Pendragon)

Just like in other Hudson Soft / Compile shooters, Soldier Blade has that split-second invincibility whenever you take a power-up. It does preserve the style of previous chapters while incorporating new elements that hint at a few external influences. I mentioned some of them above, but there's also an underlying touch of Raiden everywhere (the bridges above the city in stage 3 are a prime example) and a strong nod to MUSHA in stage 4. Bosses are obvious lightlights, often presenting themselves as multi-jointed ships that must be dismantled limb by limb. The final boss pesters you throughout the whole game in between mid-boss encounters, and upon defeat says "I'll be back" in a glorious scratchy digitized voice. And I know this might sound like a stretch, but the opening of the game has the honor of predating the awesome cinematics of the iconic opening to Thunder Force IV.

Difficultywise Soldier Blade shows a steady challenge slope with a generous extend scheme. The first extend comes with 100.000 points, and further ones will register at every 200.000 points afterwards. Dying can be severely aggravating though, even with that lone power-up that's left behind as your ship explodes. Bosses that tend to fill the screen with all sorts of attacks are particularly threatening, but only until you figure out their patterns. In any case, using special attacks wisely and trusting the protection provided by the option are the best advices players are bound to get when trying to beat this game.

Basic scoring is very straightforward, but unfortunately this is yet another case where the overall scoring system is broken. There are several boss encounters where it's possible to milk projectiles ad eternum with the use of the blue weapon (an easy example is in one of the phases of the tank boss in the third stage). Even though this certainly chips away some of the goodness in it, there's no doubt that Soldier Blade still stands as the most fun chapter of the series in HuCard form. The next installment is on the Nintendo 64 in the form of Star Soldier - Vanishing Earth, but there's also the spin-off comical spoof Star Parodier, which was released soon after Soldier Blade for the PC Engine CD.

And below is my second 1CC score for this episode (Normal difficulty). When the game halts at the final message after the credits just press SELECT + START to go back to the start screen and check out your high score.

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