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.

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