Saturday, December 30, 2017

Terraforming (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Right Stuff
Published by Right Stuff 
in 1991

Considering that terraforming is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying the atmosphere, temperature, surface topography or ecology of a planet/moon so that it becomes similar to the environment of Earth, it doesn't take long to see that Terraforming never really embraces this idea to make it an integral part of the game. It's quite the contrary actually, since it only borrows the word for its latent punch... Everything you do throughout eight linear stages is kill all sorts of strange earth-like creatures, thus crushing an environment that's already been sort of terraformed.

Thankfully shmups were never really known for their stories or faithfulness to story concepts. What does matter in the end is the amount of action and the thrill of blowing up stuff in all sorts of environments possible. Give us that in spades and you can call your game whatever you want. In the case of Terraforming, the action is fast most of the time, with players being thrown wave after wave of enemies with little obstacle interaction. Visually and aurally close to CD titles like Rayxanber II and Metamor Jupiter, the game is famous within certains circles for having enemies and backgrounds designed by Syd Mead, a well known visionaire responsible for the visual concepts of sci-fi movie classics such as Star Trek, Blade Runner, Tron and Aliens. Such was Mead's fame at the time that his name is in the title of the Western release for the Turbografx CD. His contributions can be considered an odd mix of Darius and Bio-Hazard Battle at times, which is interesting but can't really compensate for the fact that the game fails to live up to the solid standards of these particular mentions.

The asteroid shower of stage 7

A short animated intro shows the spaceship departing for battle, and what initially struck me most was that it looks like a pointy jet coming out of Captain America's shield. Yeah, I know, I can certainly be weird in my visual associations. Anyway, there are two types of power-up icons in Terraforming. The main one is a little green box with a thin line inside it, which is responsible for upgrading the primary gun. Items for auxiliary weapons are color-coded and must be released from the carriers as soon as they reach the right border after darting from the left (you die if you collide against a carrier that's travelling to the left, so watch out). This auxiliary firepower can be a double straight laser (orange), a bidirectional spread pattern (yellow) or a constant stream of homing shards (blue). The main gun takes three power-ups to max out, and auxiliary weapons also take three items to max out once activated. Note that the pair of options generated when you have an active ancillary weapon can block bullets (in a flimsy way, so don't count too much on that).

Each press of button I switches the flying speed up and down between three settings, while button II is used to shoot. Refraining from shooting, however, can be extremely helpful due to the charging abilitites of the ship when firepower is not in use. The charge gauge fills up rather quickly, and once it's full a press of the shot button delivers a powerful, concentrated blast whose effectiveness does not depend on the power level of your weapons. Due to the amount of enemies the charge shot is rarely an option during the stages themselves, but the situation completely changes when you're dealing with bosses. Some of them will go down in the blink of an eye if you release some well-timed charge blasts.

One of the aspects that undermines the fun factor of Terraforming is the uneven duration of levels and the repetitive nature of the enemy waves during the initial stages. Later on there are some overlappings that require a little more caution from the player so that you don't get hit and lose power. Each hit degrades the ship's arsenal to its previous power level, and you only die by getting shot at the default condition. This lifebar system in disguise offers a lot of room for error, but depending on where you die it becomes quite hard to get back up. Some bosses can be a bitch if you haven't got the proper weapon to deal with them, such as the debris mower of stage 3 or the medusa creature of stage 5.

A short demonstration of the 1st stage
(courtesy of YouTube user FunCade 64)

For a game that implements some heavy parallax scrolling I just wish Terraforming offered more terrain in its straightforward design. The stages where you're flying in open space are the majority, with real obstacles only appearing in the 4th and the 8th areas. The dark caves in the 4th level are complemented by one of the most eerie BGMs in the soundtrack, which otherwise is dominated by synth- or guitar-driven themes that work better with the fast-paced action pieces (note: the orange weapon is the only one that can pass through walls). As for the last stage, it's a perfect example of how to impose extra difficulty with cheap lasers and tricky turret openings. Since you need to go around a large battleship, no weapon is actually perfect for that area. In all honesty, it's one of the most annoying final levels I've seen in a while.

Extra lives are score-based and come at the following point marks: 50K, 100K, 300K, 500K, 1000K, 2000K. The scoring system is very simple, with no extra points gained by taking items, and also very unbalanced towards the last couple of levels. It's also theoretically broken, since you can forever destroy the debris during the 3rd boss fight if you so wish. Playing the game for fun is possible though, even if it's an uneven ride and a tad weird for the regular standards of the 16-bit sci-fi shmup. There's very little slowdown when the screen is too cluttered, but that's it.

My final 1CC result for the Normal difficulty of Terraforming is below. Remember to pause the game as soon as the last boss dies or you won't be able to take note of your score. I didn't bother checking the three higher difficulty settings available.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Star Parodier (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON/OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Inter State / Kaneko 
in 1992

When Konami decided to launch a parody game about one of its flagship franchises I bet very few people thought the idea would catch on, let alone have any real influence in the shmup scene in the years to come. In time Parodius proved to be a hit both in the arcade and the home console formats, and most nonsensical shooters released afterwards only came to be because of the success the series eventually achieved. Star Parodier is one of the earlier examples if this, serving as a wacky take on everything about the Star Soldier series and its native platform the PC Engine.

There's a lot to like about Star Parodier, especially if you're into fan favorite Super Star Soldier, which is by far the most referenced game of the series. Next and unexpectedly for a self-referencing title, it goes a little overboard in its inspirational source and incorporates a lot of Konami traits in the gameplay. The first three levels, for instance, seem to have been lifted directly from Twin Bee, down to the characteristic floating domes and islands as well as some of the bosses, whereas echoes of Gradius III appear in the bubble-heavy 7th level. There are also a few rather explicit nods to Namco's Dragon Spirit in the underwater passage of stage 3, the icy landscapes of stage 4 and the corridors full of arrows in stage 5.

Paro-ceaser goes all CASTLE OF ILLUSION in stage 2

All three available characters are so distinct from each other that a lot of Star Parodier feels different depending on which one you choose. They're all capable of shooting (button II) and bombing (button I), as well as selecting three speed settings at the press of the SELECT button. Character-specific aspects of the gameplay include three different weapon types and one particular auxiliary attack, as briefly listed below:

  • PC Engine (power-up item is a hucard) — weapons: red (inverted T pattern), blue (forward/backward CD spread), yellow (basic shot + side/rear homing missiles); auxiliary weapon P for rotating options (up to 4);

  • Bomberman (power-up item is a cute bomb face) — weapons: red (inverted Y pattern), blue (black bomb spread), yellow (basic shot + red staggering balloons); auxiliary weapon O for trailing options (up to 3);

  • Paro-ceaser (power-up item is a regular capsule) — weapons: red (classic 5-way star soldier pattern), blue (straight laser with bidirectional wave shots), yellow (exploding soft clouds); auxiliary weapon H for homing missiles.

The following items are the same for all characters: S (shield), B (extra bomb), 1UP (extra life), golden orb (1.000 points), ? (random power-up), kanji sign (avoid, this sends you back to the basic pea shooter default power) and heart (one respawn). Getting as many hearts as you can is essential for survival in the long run since each one grants an instant respawn upon death – a situation that only happens if you're down to the default power level (getting hit successively degrades your firepower until you're in such a condition). Exactly like in Super Star Soldier, whenever you have respawns in reserve the symbol for the number of lives changes its color. Finally, beware of the white hand that appears randomly and steal items before you can take them.

Even though this game might sound excessively derivative at times, there's no denying it's got lots of charm and provides great fun while it lasts. Some bosses might offer a few thrills, but nothing really out of the ordinary for a 16-bit cute'em up. There is a scoring system in place which grants 2.000 points for every surplus item you're able to collect, but unfortunately the gameplay can be exploited for score if you avoid hearts and abuse checkpoints. After all, extra lives can also be obtained by scoring and some levels offer lots of points, the main one being the bubble area in the 7th stage.

Tids and bits of Star Parodier
(courtesy of YouTube user narox)

My favorite character in the game is Bomberman, just because it's so much fun to play with him and find the best way to use his blue and yellow weapons. With the expection of Paro-ceaser and its 5-way Star Soldier patten, the red shot for the other guys sucks. Blue, on the other hand, pretty much decides your character choice due to the way it behaves: for the PC Engine a power level of 2 is often better than max power due to its great forward spread, while the giant wave shots are just too confusing when using Paro-ceaser. Bomberman has the best blue weapon due to the shockwaves that go far beyond the impact spots of those black bombs. It's a murderer when paired with 3 trailing options.

No complaints should be made about the duration of Star Parodier, its lengthy animated intro, the abundance of digitized voices, the nice zooming effects, the absolute lack of slowdown or that marvelous soundtrack, but one thing I missed from the game is a dedicated level/area with a motif specifically designed for the PC Engine character. Lots of places and bosses mimic things from Star Soldier, with stage 6 serving as a very nice homage to the Bomberman series, but the PC Engine emphasis seems to be solely in the cool pixel art that's shown in between stages.

Following the trend established in the Star Soldier games, besides the normal campaign the CD also offers a separate "battle stage" with 2 and 5-minute game modes for caravan fans, complete with two different soundtrack variations. General options allow players to choose from a normal or a vertical/cramped screen ratio, soft rapid ON or OFF (for an even faster firing rate that the default autofire) and the starting stage for the main course (1 to 4).

I have beaten the game with all characters, but decided to show the first 1CC high score I achieved playing with Paro-ceaser on my first credit, Normal difficulty (the default kanji in the options screen). In this run I almost bit the dust halfway into the game and also during all those phases of the last boss.