Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Lords of Thunder (Sega CD)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hudson Soft
Published by Hudson Soft in 1995

Shooter of medieval tone and flashy weapons galore, Lords of Thunder graced the Sega CD two years after its original release on the PC Engine CD/TurboGrafx-CD. Released both in Europe and in North America, the game has garnered a somewhat solid fanbase throughout the years and is frequently remembered as a flagship of the shooting genre when people talk about the Sega CD. It’s also one of the few Sega CD shmups that’s often remembered or cited by other retrogaming circles.

Why is that, I wonder? My best guess is the heavy metal, guitar-driven soundtrack, an aspect that not only celebrated the CD format but also stood as unique in the gaming scene at the time (perhaps the only other title that also dared to bring its music closer to contemporary rock sensibilities was Android Assault, also on the Sega CD). Heck, even in further generations I can't name a single game whose music leaned so much towards the style, so many kudos to Hudson Soft for the generous offering.

Several narrated intro and in-game sequences tell the story of a knight named Duran, who embarks on a mission to rid the kingdom of Mistral from evil dark generals – the lords of thunder, each one controlling this element of nature to morph into a devious creature that must the defeated at the end of every stage. Their order can be freely chosen by the player, but only after all six continents have been cleansed of evil is Duran able to enter the lair of the final enemy.

Meet the boss of the Dezant continent

Our brave knight Duran must choose one out of four different armors in every stage: fire, water, earth and wind. Each one has a specific bomb animation, and even though that might seem the case, the elemental tone of these armors/weapons is purely aesthetic, with no active effect during gameplay (water does not fight fire, for instance). That’s why a favorite armor is always determined by personal preference. Once the armor is selected the player stops by a shop where special items can be purchased with the crystals collected throughout the game, only then proceeding to experience heavy metal shooting action.

Two bars on the top of the screen measure the player’s current condition. The upper one determines firepower according to three levels, which must be filled by taking the colored items with thick borders: blue ones add one upgrade point, red ones add five upgrade points. The lower one represents health and is regularly replenished/filled by taking the heart item. Watch out for this one, it determines the end of the game if it gets depleted (attention: getting hit succesively also takes away precious power-up points). Item pick-ups are released in spades by defeated enemies, but most of them will be crystals/gems to be used as currency in the shop (blue ones have a value of 5, red ones are worth 10). Don’t take too long to collect them, they disappear after hovering in place for a little while.

Endowed with solid sprite work and great enemy diversity, Lords of Thunder has perfect pacing for a 16-bit shooter and doesn’t demand too much with regards to challenge. Durand is allowed to touch walls and even walks when at surface level, slashing his sword automatically whenever an enemy is at close range. This sword slash is the most powerful attack in the game, and the main reason why the Sega CD port sounds so much easier than the original on the PC Engine CD. The only addition that tries to impose some extra difficulty on the Sega CD is the brief stun effect the character suffers when he gets hit, but the truth is that it doesn't do anything too serious in the long run.

The start of an epic journey on the Sega CD
(courtesy of YouTube user Fabio Michelin)

Regardless of the perceived difficulty, playing the game safe is always possible due to the shop gimmick. Provided you have enough crystals, you can always get out of it with full health and fully powered with a 3-hit shield, a resurrection potion and the maximum amount of three bombs. Bombs, shields and resurrection can only be found in the shop, and the best news about this is that the lady who sells the items doesn't know the conecpt of inflation (unlike the shopkeepers from Fantasy Zone or Forgotten Worlds, for instance).

Being stingy and ignoring the shop, on the other hand, is an integral part of the game's scoring system, simply because at the end of the game (if you 1CC it, of course) the amount in the crystal counter is multiplied by ×10 and then added to the final score. This multiplier is one of the crucial changes in this port, one that diminishes the importance of crystal collecting by a large margin even if there's no max limit to this final bonus as in the PCE CD (where you have a ×100 multiplier but a final reward capped at 1 million points). Sure, crystals still provide a score boost on the Sega CD, but since it's not that great an addition the old "kill-everything-that-moves" ends up being the best scoring strategy in the grand scheme of things.

The Sega CD port of Lords of Thunder is often subject of heated fan disputes with the original on the PC Engine CD as to which is the best game. While the soundtrack certainly boils down to personal preference, the downgraded difficulty and the changes made to the scoring system on the Sega CD kinda tick me in a negative way, so in my opinion the original game stands as the superior version. Both are quite fun in their own right however, and should definitely be experienced by all 16-bit video game fans, shmuppers or not.

In my best 1CC result shown below (Normal difficulty) I used exclusively the water armor and restricted my purchases in the shop to bombs only.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Psyvariar Medium Unit (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Success
Published by Success in 2003

Whenever people think of shooters designed by Success, Cotton is immediately what comes to mind especially for oldschoolers such as myself. Unless you were aware of the developing trend that started to dominate the STG scene at the turn of the century, chances are you'll have missed their foray into bullet hell territory, a game stylishly called Psyvariar – or Psyvariar Medium Unit for completeness sake. It came out for the Playstation 2 in two versions: a stand-alone disc in the Superlite 2000 budget series (Japan-only) and in Psyvariar Complete Edition (Japan and Europe), a bundle that also includes its pseudo-sequel Psyvariar Revision. Much later both games would also appear in Psyvariar Delta for the Playstation 4.

Psyvariar is quite a unique experience in that it belongs to the branch of danmaku with strong emphasis on bullet grazing (another famous representative is the Shikigami No Shiro series). On top of that it's one of those shmups that needs to be experienced live because seeing footage of it is more often than not confusing instead of explanatory. In fact, the game is so geared towards the grazing mechanic that it falls in the same category of Radiant Silvergun with regards to survival: the more you ignore the scoring side of it the less likely you'll be able to make it to the end thanks to a weak ship and increasingly stronger bosses.

While a mixed bag in graphical merits, Psyvariar’s overall presentation is definitely a pleaser thanks to the slick, polished interface. The sci-fi motif rules the design and restricts the enemy gallery to the flying kind only. Background textures are minimalistic (not to say occasionally poor) and some even get reused in multiple stages. All the flair seems to have been applied to the foreground action, which is always full of bullets and provide great contrast for perfect visibility. It couldn’t be any different in a game where players must seek danger at all times if they want to succeed.

Axion against the universe

Even though you can play Psyvariar with only two buttons (shot and bomb), this port adds a third one for "rolling". Whenever the ship's hitbox passes closely by a bullet or an enemy a "buzz" is registered, which adds to the buzz counter and also to an experience gauge that measures the ship's current level (destroying enemies also contributes with some exp). Ascending to a higher level comes with a robotized LEVEL UP sound and approximately 2 seconds of invincibility, during which you can buzz more bullets and even collide against them for another subsequent LEVEL UP. Taking advantage of this brief invincibility window is the secret to level up faster, which brings the benefits of scoring higher (more scratched bullets), powering up faster (upgrades come at specific levels) and opening up new stage branches as you advance through the game (some will only be available if you reach a certain minimum level).

The rolling effect can be obtained by rapidly moving the joystick in opposite directions (just like in XII Stag / XII Zeal). When rolling, ship speed is reduced, firepower is focused into a more powerful stream and buzz count increases faster. Rolling is such an important part of the gameplay that it soon becomes second nature to shooting, and is of course much better done with a separate button than by wiggling the joystick. At key points when leveling up a bigger explosion occurs, the ship's sprites change with the boost in firepower and you also gain an extra bomb. Bomb stock is independent from life count, which means you'll always have your hard-earned bombs reserved for immediate use even in your last remaining life (max bomb reserve is 6). Speaking of which, there are no extends and no items of any kind in Psyvariar. There's no power degrade when dying, but the buzz count is reset and you can't buzz immediately upon respawn. A nice bonus is reserved at the end of the level based on destruction ratio and max buzz count.

Since buzzing/grazing is so important, letting enemies live long enough is mandatory. Sure you can dispatch them afterwards for points, but if you need to choose it will often be more advantageous to let the enemies do their thing and flee. Bullets are the heart and the soul of Psyvariar after all: slow, fast, fixed, aimed or beautifully arranged in the most varied patterns, weaving through them and leveling up becomes a real thrill after a while. The first stage on Earth's orbit – the only one without a boss – is perfect to practice and get the hang of the gameplay. Soon enough you'll be using the exp gauge as a dial for leveling up, knowing in advance if a few more buzzes are needed or if you can dive head-on into the closer bullet cloud for the next stint of invincibility. Watch closely, the fading circle around the ship works as a quick indicator for its duration.

See that thick mass of bullets coming? Dense bullet clouds are ideal for players to abuse the invincibility that comes with leveling up. Why not level up once and then ride the invulnerability wave in glorius Psyvariar fashion? LE-LE-LE-LE-LEVEL UP! That's what real rush sounds like in this game. The only occasion where you can't reap bullet clouds for more level-ups is during boss fights. The exp gauge increases much more slowly when fighting bosses, you can generally get no more than two level-ups by properly milking them before they time out and self-destruct. Don't let that happen or you'll lose a good chunk of the stage score.

Earth stage with wrecked speakers
(courtesy of YouTube user FunCade 64)

Psyvariar is a considerably short game, averaging in more or less 15 minutes depending on the chosen route and the amount of boss milking. When trying out the different stage variations that become available as the game progresses, players naturally end up choosing either the ones that are easier or the more profitable for scoring. The game labels them as Easy, Normal or Hard, but that isn't necessarily an indication of best route based on your strategy. Stage 2-B (Forest /Normal), for instance, is a better choice than stage 2-C (Valley /Hard) if you want to level up faster. In the second half of the game the ship leaves the Earth-related environments and darts into the cosmos, with the final levels being named as elementary particles in physics such as Photon, Graviton, Weak Boson and Gluon (final stage 6-B, unlocked if you reach level 52). The ship itself is titled Axion and its 5th/final form is only attained when you get to level 88.

One of the defining aspects of Psyvariar Medium Unit is that each bullet can be buzzed only once, as opposed to the possibility of multiple grazing implemented in Psyvariar Revision. Ignoring the buzz gimmick and playing Psyvariar like a standard shooter is fine of course. But then you lose out on the different stages and the often great music that plays with them, on top of becoming progresssively underpowered.

The stand-alone port for the Playstation 2 is excellent. After the introduction rolls and you press START the game and the options are toggled by pressing SELECT (a great soft reset function is implemented for whenever restartitis kicks in with SELECT + START). Besides the regular tweaks (configurable inputs, vibration, autosave and TATE) you can also enable a Replay mode in which it's possible to choose and watch the best performances in each level, playing them afterwards for some practice (the best performances are always saved in the memory card). All that weird "rotate" function does is rearrange the directionals to turn the game into a horizontal shooter. Finally, as far as I could check the game's rendition in the Psyvariar Complete Edition disc is exactly the same.

At the end of every credit a screen like the one below is displayed as you input your initials, showing details on every level played during the run. This was my best performance on the Normal difficulty, playing in TATE (it looks fantastic). Let's see if I can improve it when I revisit the game in Psyvariar Delta. For now my next step in the series will be Psyvariar Revision.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Gyrodine (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
1 Stage (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Crux in 1984
Published by Taito in 2006

As usual in the history of arcade development, many were the titles that followed in the footsteps of Namco's massive hit Xevious. One of the lesser known is Gyrodine, a gray point of connection between developers Taito and Toaplan. Both a secondary company to Orca and also an embrionary bridge to Toaplan according to most sources, Crux had in Gyrodine its only full-fledged arcade release with the newlyfound publishing aid of Taito. The relationship was so successful that during their long partnership game rights would sometimes blur between both companies, as hinted by the fact that Gyrodine got included in the Taito Memories II Vol. 2 compilation for the Playstation 2 (why not appear in Toaplan Shooting Battle, for example?).

Helicopter-based shooting wasn't exactly a novelty back in 1984, but Gyrodine still tried to offer something unique despite the drab visuals and the lack of a proper soundtrack. Two buttons are used, one to engage aerial enemies and another to shoot the ground at a predetermined distance. When these buttons are pressed at the same time the chopper fires an air-to-ground missile whose heat-seeking ability is able to target enemies in a tilted trajectory. And that's it, the rest of the gameplay consists of coming to grips with the incoming waves of resistance as you fly seamlessly over land and sea.

Player one start!
(courtesy of YouTube user Alcyon)

Controlling the helicopter comes with an unusual feeling due to the way the flight movement is implemented. As you move around your shot's direction is determined by the chopper's momentum. That means the only way to fire in a straight vertical line is by having the helicopter in standstill or moving strictly up/down. You can't lock shot direction to strafe left and right, a limitation that ends up demanding good anticipation from the player as enemies and bullets pour down more and more frequently. It's not uncommon to see those pesky jets and planes survive your attempts to take them down and leave, or worse, collide with your craft and take away a precious life. On top of that, the heat seeking missiles can behave quite erratically, missing easy targets or hitting the enemy in the most unexpected angles.

All the tiny details described above might drive people away from the game, but in my opinion Gyrodine isn't as hard as it seems. It also has that one-more-go factor that draws players back once they get more familiar with the layouts of the terrain and the enemy behavior. I for one was always curious to see what lied ahead because the game has no definition at all for stage progression and it's impossible to continue. It does loop with a higher difficulty though, you'll know you're starting over once you reach the beach with the couple of parasols on the ground. Enemy bullets don't seem to get any faster by then, but they do increase in numbers. Speaking of difficulty, let it be known that Gyrodine has only two settings, Easy and Hard, with the arcade default set to Easy.

Warning, civilians in barbecue formation ahead!

While scoring in hoary games like this one is as straightforward as it gets, players need to watch out for situations that can actually reduce the score instead of adding to it. This happens with a characteristic muffled sound whenever you kill civilians or animals. Now for a little secret: halfway into the loop you'll see a green civilian surrounded by three tanks on the right side of the screen; destroy the tanks without killing him and you'll earn an extra life. Another nice secret is the uncovering of mermaids, which give 10.000 points each. They're always located close to island's shores or within river banks, but just like the hidden flags from Xevious their exact position is randomized from one credit to the next.

Besides the extra life the green guy gives you there's also a score-based extend routine that starts at 20.000 points, continues with 50.000 points and goes on and on at every 50.000 points. More often than not the bulk of the life stock has serious chances of depletion during the passages where those crawling creatures clutter the screen with bullets or when multiple enemies decide to overlap their attacks. Since the screen never stops scrolling, sometimes you're better off just circling the danger to avoid the need for risky maneuvers. An interesting detail is that even though it's essentially built upon checkpoints, Gyrodine revives players pretty much in the same place where they died. A simple extra trick to obtain one more life from every run is to add at least one more coin/credit (button R2) before starting the game: when the last life is lost you'll see the pilot escaping death on a parachute, which is then followed by a final chance to proceed with a message of EXTRA PLAY START.

Click for the option menus translation for Gyrodine on Taito Memories II Vol. 2

Though devoid of any acompannying soundtrack, the game trusts in its sound effects to convey some sort of aural interaction. Granted, it's not as full of peeps and bleeps as Super Cobra, but it gets the job done – note how the chopper makes three different sounds for some ever-present white noise as it moves around. Enemies rarely make any noise because they're seemingly more worried about taking you down. As mentioned above, higher loops come with more bullets but also with different and more crowded aerial enemy waves (ground enemies remain the same no matter what). There comes a point, for instance, where those bullet-spraying red choppers start appearing non-stop instead of coming in waves of three.

I was able to get to the 4th loop of Gyrodine in the default difficulty (Easy), playing on a 20 inch CRT in TATE mode. The port is arcade-perfect, much like the other titles included in the Taito Memories II Vol. 2 disc. As for the version released for the Famicom, it's a tad different from the arcade source. I expect to loop it one day too, if only to quench some long overdue nostalgia itch.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Harmful Park (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sky Think System
Published by Sky Think System in 1997

Maybe it's destiny or perhaps a stroke of bad luck mixed with unfortunate circumstances that some game companies will strongly shine once and then disappear into oblivion. During its brief stint of existence, Sky Think System never delivered anything of note but did put out a game called Harmful Park for the Playstation. Released in small quantities with no special advertising only in Japan, it was only natural for it to acquire a minor rarity status soon after. However, once people realized it was actually a very good game despite the ridiculous cover art, Harmful Park became even more sought after and prices skyrocketed. Oh poor collectors!

The game in question a lighthearted, stylish, lovely cute'em up that takes the same approach to design as the Parodius series. It's a very nonsensical shooter with all kinds of wacky enemies thanks to a crazy scientist casting an evil spell on a theme park and populating the attractions with all sorts of flying machines. On that front the game also boasts some steampunk influences, which broadens its scope into a very unique experience defined by superb use of color and exquisite animation, duly backed up by an equally engaging soundtrack. The game is also a very relaxing ride in its starting difficulties (Easy or Normal, default is Easy), an aspect that can't be taken for granted when talking about its target audience.

And for those players who also like to dig beyond the surface of a game, the good news is that Harmful Park also offers a very solid scoring system.

Attraction 1 - Open Field
(courtesy of YouTube user Gbriel Valdez)

The skinny girl riding that flying bike sure doesn't seem that menacing, but the truth is that she's able to fire an impressive array of weapons. By default, these can be either cycled with buttons × and ○ or directly selected with the trigger/shoulder buttons. Potato (R1) fires a vulcan shot with decent power, ice (R2) fires long laser-like ice beams, pie (L1) throws one pie at a time in a specific arching trajectory and jerry (L2) shoots colored jelly slices with homing capability. Shooting is accomplished with button □ and bombing with button Δ. Bomb animations depend on the chosen shot type, which in turn can be separately powered up three times by collecting a P item.

The diversity of the weapon gallery allows for all sorts of approaches towards the gameplay, but in general seasoned players should breeze through the game if going for a simple survival run. Enemy bullets are often slow, and the few overwhelming bits are reserved for the final factory stage. Before that you'll cruise through an open amusement park, a haunted house, a tropical zoo, a rollercoaster and a carnival at night time, all crafted with impressive attention to detail. The most basic scoring techniques in a straightforward run include collecting the green diamonds for point bonuses (value starts at 100 and maxes out at 5.000 points if you don't let any of them fall to the left), uncovering hidden happy faces for 50.000 points each and reaping the end-of-stage bonuses for performance (including 200.000 points for a 100% destruction ratio).

Fun factor and excellent artwork aside, in the world of Harmful Park there's much more than meets the eye for score chasers. This is yet another case where a single rule can completely change the way you play a game, and the rule is: all enemies destroyed with the same projectile add to an instantaneous multiplier that can reach ×16. The italicized bit above explains why the potato gun is excellent for survival but extremely poor for scoring, whereas ice is the perfect choice to get multipliers from streamlined enemies. Once you realize that, the most logical extension to this basic scoring rule is that weakening stronger enemies before dispatching them with lots of popcorn around is the secret to amassing great numbers. While timing this requires lots and lots of pratice, striking the blow is easily achieved by using potato's bomb (it is, in fact, a huge potato that explodes and damages everything in sight).

The reason why the potato bomb is the ideal combo dealer is its huge explosion blow, which counts as a single projectile. Other bombs might win on the matter of power, but can't compete with potato as far as scoring goes. Ice creates an immense beam that can be slightly moved up and down, pie shoots out a rotating shower of pie shots and jerry surrounds the player with a big jelly that inflicts some mild damage on enemies but doesn't allow any weapon change while it lasts (all of them come with invincibility). For what it's worth, ice can't compare with potato but might be of some use for scoring, the other two don't serve any real purpose other than survival.

Marriages can be dangerous!

Since extra lives are achieved at every 500.000 points, bombing for a higher score and suiciding to get more bombs is a strategy that comes naturally after a while, just remember to not die with the weapon you want to preserve (only the weapon you're currently carrying is lost). It's okay to inflate the life stock if you want though, the game doesn't have rank and isn't a Raizing title after all. Note that getting more multipliers and scoring higher also increases the spawning rate of diamonds, power-ups and even extra bombs, to the point where collecting all diamonds might become tough due to the slow speed of the gadget you fly on.

Though simple in theory, the execution of the abovementioned actions isn't as easy as one might think. Since there's often a handful of decisions the player must make with regards to weapons and ideal timing, errors are very common due to the constant need of on-the-fly changes. Thankfully, for all our shameful restartitis needs there's a pseudo soft reset function that sends the game directly into game over status (SELECT + START).

With six stages of rather decent length, it's clear that Harmful Park provides good fun for all players, neophites and experienced alike. There could've been a seventh full stage, but the developer thought it was better to have it as a separate challenge in a Score Attack game option. Other offerings include a set of three non-shmup mini games accessed from inside the Options screen. All of them can be enjoyed with friends, but the most interesting is the racing one (Sky Circuit). Completing the package, we also get manual save/load functions and the ability to fully reconfigure the game inputs.

Soon after I understood the scoring system I established 6 million as my aim for a 1CC, and the result I got is below (Normal difficulty). I beat it, saw the full ending once (its's just as long as the opening) and decided to move on. I might try to improve this score in the future if I ever get back to the game. One interesting detail is that Harmful Park doesn't reset the score when you continue, but shows the number of used continues alongside your result in the high score table.

Friday, October 5, 2018

SD Gundam - V Sakusen Shidou (SNES)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Bandai / Angel
Published by Bandai in 1992

Dear readers, allow me to start this essay by saying that I know absolutely nothing about the Mobile Suit Gundam universe. I don't know how the multitude of sequels and spin-offs connect, let alone the intricate chronology that goes back and forth from one chapter to the next. What struck me even more is the fact that this particular anime is probably the most adapted ever in the form of video games, a personal knowledge gap that's probably related to the fact that most of these games never leave Japan, in the old days at least.

While only one true shmup based on the franchise exists (SD Gundam Neo Battling, released for the arcades in 1992), some other adaptations still warrant a few mentions in any shmup talk since they have a mix of shmup and platforming, as is the case with SD Gundam - V Sakusen Shidou for the Super Famicom. For a long while I thought this little game was the fifth in a completely obscure series, but that's not the case (Japanese terms can be a mess for us Westerners). The subtitle actually translates to something like Project V Start or Operation V Start (V for victory) and mirrors a particular event in the ridiculously detailed Mobile Suit Gundam storyline. In addition to that, SD is a short for Super Deformed, a variation that uses largely modified and anthropomorphic mecha designs based on the original Gundam franchise.

Long story short: unless you're a diehard fan of the anime there's absolutely no point in trying to understand the meaning behind the title or the game's story. Suffice it to say we're actually talking about the first in a limited series of two shmup hybrids released for the Super Famicom, the other one being SD Gundam 2.

Here comes the hyper bazooka!

Players control the RX-78 Gundam unit, a short, plump, big-headed cute robot that must battle other plump robots and their minions across seven stages that mix shooting and platforming sections, both of the autoscrolling kind; if a co-op credit is started both mechas are differentiated by their chest hulls, blue for player 1 and red for player 2. Platform inputs consist of B for shot, A for jump (press again for a double jump), R/L for upgrade selection and Y for upgrade/power-up activation. The shooting parts use the same inputs, but button A is then responsible for turning the character left/right. Finally, the mecha performs a saber melee attack automatically if the shot button is pressed when you are close enough to an enemy.

I'll be the first to admit there's an odd sense of charm in a game starring child-like chubby robots, and even though it doesn't shine in any technical aspect the soundtrack is kinda catchy with its alternation of light and darker themes. However, playing SD Gundam soon proves that any good first impressions couldn't be more far from the truth. The gameplay is slow and clunky, the resources are hard to manage, the AI is bastardly cheap most of the time and the mild inertia in the shooting parts is totally uncalled for. The game falls short is about every attribute that matters, failing to offer any sense of excitement or a single truly engaging moment. Of course one can always adapt to the rules imposed by the gameplay, but to my liking the price of admission is a bit too dire.

Take the upgrade scheme, for instance. There's an upgrade bar that fills up automatically with time. When one of the slots is full you can activate its function with the Y button, thus being able to use a laser rifle (16 shots), increase speed (5 steps), activate a shield to withstand more damage (3 levels, the last being a 15 second invincibility window), bear a mace, use a rocket launcher/bazooka (8 shots) or slow down time for a few seconds (a resource that's only available in the final level and only works on regular enemies, not bosses). The further to the right an upgrade is the longer it will take for the bar to reload for another use, so it's no wonder the most powerful weapon in the game is the bazooka. Thankfully the laser rifle is able to supply the basic weaponry and can always be recharged in due time if you don't spend all of its 16 shots too quickly.

Harnessing the benefits of the double jump is essential during the platforming parts, as well as devising a strategy to make the best out of the invincibility provided by a level 3 shield. Just remember that when the invincibility window is over you need to upgrade the shield again from scratch. In any case, preserving health for boss fights is the most important strategy to have in the game. The only single pick-up available, a green item that staggers across the screen every once in a while, recovers five energy cells but comes with a little evil twist: it will be immediately destroyed when shot at. This just reinforces the idea that SD Gundam isn't a game for trigger-happy players, and that memorization is the only real way to increase your chances to survive longer.

  Super Deformed fun on the Super Famicom
(courtesy of YouTube user Japanspel)

Memorization, you say? Be my guest in trying to come up with strategies to handle bosses without taking damage. With a few exceptions, they're all very erratic and bound on a holy mission to bleed you dry, taking away your lives in a snap (note that receiving too much damage can destroy your current shield and send a level 3 in reserve back to level 1). Another annoying thing that might happen is running out of ammo and returning to the pea shooter in the heat of the battle against any enemy. By the way, if you value survival above anything else many of them are better off avoided instead of engaged. You lose a few points but in the end that's irrelevant because every life in stock is converted into 700.000 points upon game completion, which is much more than you can amass during the whole credit. The first extend is registered with 10.000 points, all others at the hundred thousand marks.

SD Gundam also comes with a Versus mode where players can battle each other or against the computer. There are seven robots available and options to fight in platforming fashion (Earth) or in a free-roaming shmup style (outer space). My only stance about Versus mode is that the fighting mechanics are abysmal, and in general even worse than what you get in the main game. So much for cute robots, unfortunately! That said, if you're still game for other 16-bit experiences with big-headed cute characters my recommendations would be Ghostbusters on the Mega Drive (platforming) and Air Zonk on the PC Engine (shmup).

I have no qualms about the crappy 1CC score I was able to achieve on my last life, as shown in the picture below. The game is just so annoying I didn't bother to try again. There are distinct animations for the ending depending on how fast you're able to dispatch the final boss, but no direct impact on the final score. Based on what I've seen so far, I don't have high expectations for the sequel but nevertheless I'll try to make it my next SNES challenge.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1995

And here we come to the 4th chapter in the Parodius saga, the spin-off series that at this point mocks much, much more than its original inspiration Gradius. Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius continues one of the longest lived dinasties of video game wack and brings the franchise back to its living room roots, after all the series was born on the MSX and continued in the arcades for two chapters before this comeback developed exclusively for video game consoles; since it was released in the end of the Super Famicom's lifespan, one year later Konami was kind enough to also deliver enhanced ports for the Playstation and the Sega Saturn. How interesting, huh?

Jikkyou (or Jikkyō) succeeds Gokujyou Parodius and keeps the great quality standard that's so typical of 16-bit Konami, only with a defining difference: the abundance of comical voice snippets provided by a famous Japanese narrator, which was made possible by a special chip included in the cartridge (the "super accelerator" SA-1 chip). That's where the title of the game comes from, after all Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius translates to something like Chatting Parodius Live!. Another important feature is that now players can choose any of the 16 available characters instead of being restricted to the ones associated to the player sides. In addition to that, this time many sibling characters received completely different powers, such as babies Upa/Rupa and matchstick men Soitsu/Doitsu. The latter, for example, has a Vic Viper-like behavior that's quite distinct from original Koitsu/Aitsu. Once again there's no co-op available, only an alternating 2-player mode.

Many people have told me they were upset by the constant babbling of the narrator during gameplay, but it didn't bother me at all. It's possible to shut him up in the options by switching "oshaberi" to OFF though. The options screen is the second-to-last after you press START, and fortunately everything in it is in English. The main game is started in the first option, and despite the Japanese description all other options can be easily figured out. It's kinda puzzling that the main game hub was left in Japanese while almost everything else is in English.

Choose your might!

Nothing has changed in the basic way characters play in this new episode of the franchise. It's all Gradius gameplay 101 again: collect colored capsules to light up the slots in a weapon array and activate the desired slot to obtain the respective upgrade. Speed-up and missiles are the only untouched staples, along with the default power trap that's a Parodius trademark (a.k.a. one of the worst "upgrades" ever in shmup history). Following the trend started in GokujouJikkyou Oshaberi Parodius deviates from the norm in the other available upgrades, namely two types of firepower (originally double and laser in pure Gradius moniker), power enhancer (originally options/multiples) and shield, which for some characters was turned into a smart bomb.

Controls are fully customizable, and my setup of choice was Y for shot and missile, R for power-up and L for bell power. Oh yes, bells, you can't talk about Parodius without juggling some! They are as much a link to the TwinBee games as a full-on passport to survival refreshments and higher scores. Once released you can shoot them to change their colors and get blue (powerful bomb), green (inflate + invincibility), white (straight shot made of random messages in kanji, blocks bullets) brown (three vertical energy bars) and yellow. Yellow bells increase in value as long as you don't lose any of them, maxing out at 10.000 points each. Since the purple bell introduced in Gokujyou Parodius is gone, Konami came up with a new extra gimmick in Jikkyou, the hidden fairies worth 10.000 points each. They are freed for immediate pick-up if you shoot at their secret spots, which are often located in unsuspected corners as the stages unfold.

Checkpoints are mandatory regardless of your selection of the upgrade scheme, whether it's auto or manual power-up mode (upper/lower options after you choose the character). Since the differences in character behavior are more pronounced this time around, trusting the auto power-up mode might be a good idea to get to know all of them faster. A very welcome addition to the general power-up scheme is the giant capsule that performs the same function of the roulette. They are often strategically positioned so that you can cut corners when upgrading the character.

That's the way I like it!?
(courtesy of YouTube user Salvatore Forenza)

Even though I liked the stage themes chosen by Konami in Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius, I couldn't help but feel that the company didn't really push the series into new grounds as they did with the previous chapters. Was it the console format, I wonder? Of course there's still the customary abundance of colors and throwbacks to other Konami titles with cute and nonsensical details everywhere. However, the reappearance of many enemy designs from Gokujou (most apparent in the pre-stage sections and in a few boss choices) lowered the bar a little in my opinion. The new level layouts mocking games like Tokimeki Memorial, Xexex, Legend of the Mystical Ninja and Lethal Enforcers are welcome additions for variety but come on, did we really need another dancing panda as the first level boss?

I read everywhere that the SA-1 accelerator chip was reponsible for special feats in this game, such as the /enhanced/ graphics of the stage based on the bubble area of Xexex. Perhaps they're referring to the occasional spinning blocks, but quite frankly I didn't see anything there that couldn't be achieved in a regular cartridge. Much more impressive and useful is the ability to save high scores by character and difficulty, as well as "save" the game to start it again later (pause and press SELECT). Granted, it resets the score as you "load" the saved stage, but it's a nice resource nonetheless. Loop + stage select is also available but must be unlocked first by performing a few achievements such as beating the game or collecting all fairies.

By the time Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius reaches the end it returns to its roots by mimicking none other than arcade Gradius III, complete with a short boss rush level prior to a multistructured final stage that mirrors some of the sections of that game's final area. Since it was developed specifically for the Super Famicom, Jikkyou does not pack the same difficulty of its predecessors (even Super Famicom Gokujyou), mainly due to the amount of slowdown and the kind extend scheme that grants an extra life with 20.000 points and further ones for every 100.000 points scored. Fortunately extra lives stop coming once you reach one million points, which leaves the player with the challenge of making the best out of them as the second loop starts with more bullets and even more slowdown, depending on the chosen character of course.

Thanks to my baby girl handling me the cartridge the day I took it off the package, Rupa was my character of choice during most of the time I spent with the game. A very powerful character, Rupa creates an all-around wall when her powers are maxed out, the only downside is that she lacks a shield. Once I looped the game with her a couple of times I switched to Soitsu, admittedly the best character to uncover fairies and juggle them bells for higher scores. The final score below was achieved with Soitsu on default settings (diff. 4, auto shot ON, roulette ON, oshaberi ON) and manual power-up mode, reaching stage 2-5. Next time I'll try one of the 32-bit ports (Playstation or Saturn) to check the improvements made by Konami.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Daisenpu Custom (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nec Avenue / Toaplan
Published by Nec Avenue
 in 1991

It's hard to picture it these days, but back in the 90s some games were definitely a product of the general infatuation with new storage media, more specifically the compact disc. The widespread love for the CD was such that the expectation created by the video game add-ons allowed companies to market them as a true revolution in 16-bit console gaming.  The main reasoning for that was better audio and the addition of fully animated sequences plus crystal clear voice-overs, improvements that often warranted re-releases of cartridge games in CD format.

However, most CD versions of 16-bit cartridge or HuCard games didn't really need to exist. With a few exceptions that either expanded the original game (such as Super Raiden) or fully embraced the capabilities of the new media (such as Spider-Man and Batman Returns for the Sega CD), the majority of the upgraded titles offered very little extra content except for the presumed CD audio quality. And even this audio upgrade can be a debatable issue. So the question we ask ourselves today is: did games like Daisenpu Custom really need to exist?

Daisenpu had been out for a year already. A port of one of the least famous Toaplan vertical shooters, it wasn't a standout in any way, yet someone inside Nec Avenue thought that the PC Engine library needed a CD version of it.

Boss duo in stage 4

The basic gameplay is unchanged from HuCard Daisenpu. Button II shoots with no autofire (get a turbo controller!) and button I summons a helper squadron of 6 planes. The mission is to slowly raid land and sea to eliminate nazi tanks/boats/turrets in a world war setting of methodical progression, in a shooting adventure that never picks up the pace. Each plane in the helper squadron flies and shoots alongside the player, plummeting towards the closest enemy once hit. If you press button I once they are in position they will all perform a kamikaze attack as if they were hit. By quickly tapping this button before the squadron is in place after the initial summoning you get a bomb blast that sacrifices all planes in a huge explosion that nullifies incoming enemy bullets.

Upgrades are obtained by destroying color-coded trucks and picking up the items. There's the quintessential power-up (orange), extra helper squadron (white) and extra life (blue). Green trucks are all bogus and don't give out anything. You can't see your score while you play (not even by pausing the game), but an extend routine is in place to grant you more extra lives seemingly at every 100.000 points, an interval that's extended once you reach 300.000 points.

In the world of Daisenpu / Daisenpu Custom all the enemy will ever see is the player's plane. Every single aimed shot or aimed bullet spread will target the player, which means you can always draw enemy fire away from your squadron while they fly peacefully and do their job. Managing to do that and keeping clever angles as you dodge is one of the tricks to survive longer. When facing a bigger enemy, such as one of the bosses, there are times when it's best to bomb than to risk dodging the overlapping patterns. Each new life comes with two full squadrons, which should be okay to handle any boss checkpoint.

Entering the forest, Custom-style
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)

What's actually different in this CD version, one might ask? I would say the main difference is its clear division into separate stages. In the original Daisenpu the game unfolded with no stops whatsoever, with music change being the only indicator of level progression. The four original areas were expanded to seven complete levels in Daisenpu Custom. Graphical assets were rearranged, some large enemies were promoted to bosses and most stages were split in two, in a customization job that doesn't do anything wrong but somehow lacks the cohesion of the original. An example of a botched part is the start of the 6th stage, which puts the player directly into the frying pan with enemies from all sides.

There was no attempt by the developer to steer away from the game's original concept of having absolutely no aerial enemies, which is good. The final level is still familiar terrain but brings a more powerful type of tank that's exclusive to this version. Unfortunately the original military-themed music received a flamboyant synth-based makeover that doesn't always gel with the slow paced action; it's as if the soundtrack to one of those cheap war movies made by the Cannon Group in the 80s had been slapped onto the game itself. That would’ve been nice if only Chuck Norris or Michael Dudikoff had also been included in nice animated cut scenes, but alas! Daisenpu Custom didn't receive any special treatment in that regard.

While the game isn't essentially better or worse than its original mold, the shortage of new material and the minimal changes made for Daisenpu Custom are barely enough to qualify it as an expensive arrange version. After all it came out in a separate CD during an era when arrange modes were a rare treat in console gaming. The few ones that got it right appeared for the competition instead, as seen in Slap Fight and Grind Stormer.

The best 1CC score I got on the game is below, playing on Normal and reaching stage 2-7. Enemies fire more frequently in the second loop. Medium-sized boats coming from behind even fire as they become visible, so don't hug the bottom of the screen if you don't want to lose a precious life there.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Neo XYX (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by NG:Dev.Team
Published by NG:Dev.Team in 2014

One could say influences go a long way in defining your body of work, most importantly in projects of such creative nature as video games. You can't really reinvent the wheel, but it's always possible to try and adorn it with all sorts of different things. Neo XYX (or Neo Zaikusu in Japanese spelling) is very much an example of that, a love letter to the visual style of developer Toaplan, to the bullet curtains made popular by Cave and to the scoring systems devised by Raizing. Originally "cooked" in the MVS format, soon the game received ports of version 1.3 on the Dreamcast and the Neo Geo AES, which was my platform of choice for a first contact (I'll leave the Dreamcast version for a future opportunity since it's supposedly riddled with bugs).

Neo XYX has the honor of being the first TATE shooter released for the Neo Geo. Though quite an achievement in itself, this feature must be seen with caution by players who can't rotate their TV. Since the Neo Geo is a platform with natural 4:3 aspect ratio, it's not possible to play the game in true YOKO. What you get on a horizontally-aligned TV is rotated controls, a rotated HUD and some rotated items, which for a vertical shooter doesn't make sense at all (just as an example, a similar screen setting exists in Donpachi for the Sega Saturn). The practical result is that this version of Neo XYX is only viable for people who can turn their TVs on the side for that warm fuzzy feeling of emulating a vertical arcade cabinet in the comfort of their gaming/living rooms.

An initial itch also bugged me as soon as I switched on the catridge for the first time. The game starts running in that faux-horizontal mode with no options at all to switch it to TATE. Not even the instruction manual has useful information on this! I had to do some online research to discover that in order to boot it in TATE you must press A when turning on the console. If the game is already running in hori mode you need to start a credit, pause and hold A + SELECT until you hear a sound cue.

Would you say that's a silly oversight or just a sign of a rushed porting job? I'll stick to the latter.

Wait, did I just lose something back there?

Following an intro with several full screen panels showing what seems to be the destruction of a planet/moon by an alien space fleet and a female pilot departing for battle, Neo XYX presents a quick skippable tutorial and then throws the player directly into the action. Button A fires, button B triggers a bomb and button C reduces ship speed while narrowing and slightly increasing firepower if A is pressed. This control scheme is a little weird up front, but it's not that bad after a while; in fact it's very similar to the one used in most Cave games if you never let go of the A button.

An interesting aspect of the gameplay in Neo XYX is the complete absence of power-ups, but that doesn't mean you won't be picking up items along the way. Player focus gets totally shifted towards multiplier medals, gold tokens and bomb refills, a design decision that strongly emphasizes playing for score instead of survival. Medals appear at regular intervals from small destroyed enemies (big ones do not release medals) and increase in value from I to XIX (1 to 19) only if no other medal is on screen at the time (if there's an uncollected medal the next one will be spawned with the same value). Those gold tokens increase in size and a huge score boost is expected if you reach the XIX value and manage to not let any further XIX medal fall off the screen. On the other hand, a single lost medal sends its value back to I as the ship displays a fUCK! speech balloon (!).

The last item pick-up is the bomb, which might appear in two sizes. The big one adds an extra bomb to the bomb stock, the smaller ones fill up a bomb buffer and yield a full extra bomb once seven of them are collected. The bomb has a tiger-like aspect that sweeps upwards and does a little bit more than serving as homage to Toaplan, damaging enemies and shielding the player: it pushes all medals up, which is extremely useful to recover medals that would otherwise be lost because you couldn't reach them. Bomb items have to be flown over to be effectively picked up, but medals and gold are automatically sucked into the ship if you get close enough to them. Score chasers shouldn't take too long to collect the gold tokens though, they all disappear after a brief while.

My 1CC on Neo XYX, Normal mode
-- played on TATE, rotated for proper display --

For a company with such a long history of dedication to both the genre and the Neo Geo, NG:Dev.Team certainly had their share of previous expertise when developing Neo XYX. That's why this game is remarkably fun despite a few minor setbacks. Take the abnormally high difficulty level of the first stage, for example. It's not in the same league of Last Hope (at least while you're not trying to boost medal value from the get-go), but the overall sense of rush requires a mindset that's considerably different from pretty much every other shmup out there. In fact, the feeling you get is that Neo XYX is desperately trying to get somewhere with its accelerated pace, sheer lack of dynamic pauses and absolutely no slowdown. Strangely enough, enemies don't always seem so eager to put you down because once they get past you they won't shoot anymore – a device that helps survival and can certainly be exploited for an easier clear at the expense of a lesser score.

In pure Seibu Kaihatsu style, the first half of the credit takes place on Earth and the second half in outer space, and players who decide to face the enemy will be subject to a remarkable variety of bullet shapes and patterns. Macrododging works better against a handful of enemy spreads fired by bulkier foes, such as the occasional midboss. Boss fights, on the other hand, are the main reason why Neo XYX might be seen by some as a bullet hell shooter. The art style for the large creatures is one of the game's visual standouts, which boasts a very colorful enemy gallery designed by indie artist Perry "Gryzor" Sessions, the man behind the embrionary concept of the game. The soundtrack composed by in-house frequent collaborator Rafael Dyll is often energetic and escorts the action with nice results.

A minor bug appears in the random failure of bomb fragment carryover from one stage to the next, an event that's quite aggravating when you're short of just a single item to get the extra bomb (there were even occurrences of being denied a full bomb within the level itself after collecting all fragments, this happens at least once in the video above). Speaking of item collection, special caution must be taken whenever enemies are killed at the very bottom of the screen since there's always the risk of losing a medal there. Keeping a maxed out medal chain is even immune to deaths, which have minimum effect on the ongoing score and are only detrimental in the case of a 1CC (each remaining life in stock is worth 1,5 million points). And with the extend interval set at 10 million, it's easy to see why scoring is also very important to go all the way into the game. There is a true last boss that will only appear if you're able to get to the end without continuing.

When starting the credit you're prompted to choose between "Training" and "Normal" and that's it, no options or adjustments are available at all. This Training mode adds side pods to the regular ship and makes it stronger while the game itself throws less enemies at the player. Since it's actually an easier full game we're all left to wonder why it was named as "training". I guess most people will agree that a stage select feature would've been much more useful.

The picture record of my best 1CC result on Normal mode is below. Soon I'll try the Dreamcast port to see how it stands when compared to this version.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Robocco Wars (NES)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level
10 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by IGS (Information Global Service) in 1991

The sound of the word is neat, but what exactly is "Robocco" supposed to mean? My best guess is that it's a colorful world where robotized creatures live in and a gallant human hero named Lance battles evil robots inside a heroic robot codenamed R-10. At least that's what can be ascertained from the ending sequence, but in order to see it players must fight their way across ten stages that intercalate platforming and shooting in equal measure.

I'm not very familiar with Taito platformers from the 8-bit era, so I can't really touch on the subject of in-house connections or influences. In any case I think Robocco Wars sounds a lot like Mega Man in its platforming sections, which is of course a good thing. There's an obscure charm to them that extends to the shooting levels, all of them designed with nice variety and a few unexpected and interesting references to the Darius series. The main problem with the game, which saw release only in Japan, is that most of the time it's very easy, ramping up in difficulty and annoyance in its final level only.

Lance and R-10 are a go
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

During the platforming areas button B is used to shoot and button A is used to jump. Most of the time it's not possible to return once the screen scrolls as you move, which reduces the importance of exploration except for a few areas where you must fall through long shafts or need to choose between a few splitting directions or platforms. Every once in a while you'll enter a dedicated chamber to fight a miniboss before proceeding with the next area in the level, and when the stage boss appears it's often a larger mechanic foe that requires some jumping around and a little shooting to be defeated.

Surviving the challenge imposed by the mechanized enemies shouldn't be of much trouble for anyone in Robocco Wars thanks to the wide assortment of items to be collected. More important than the P for power-up, the S for speed-up, the star for temporary incinvibility and the occasional extra life are the heart-shaped items that extend the lifebar (blank heart) or refill it (colored heart for 1 refill, blinking heart for a full refill). Extensions to the lifebar are preserved for the rest of the credit regardless of deaths, plus the lifebar is completely refilled at the start of a new level. Dying comes from receiving too much damage and depleting the lifebar as well as falling into ground holes/pits (the number of lives and the ongoing score can be seen when you pause the game).

As expected, shooting sections are even more straightforward than the platforming areas. Button B is the main weapon and button A is the secondary weapon, which is either a ground bomb in the spaceship form or a vertical torpedo in the submarine form. It's not possible to fire both weapons at the same time (secondary takes preference when both buttons are held), that's why players must exert some rudimentary choicemaking at certain points. All the items from the platforming parts still apply here, as well as the frequent miniboss encounters prior to the stage boss. Due to their linearity, the shooting stages are also a tad easier and only start to show a little flair when you find yourself facing none other than Mother Hawk from Darius II. And if that wasn't enough, in the next shooting area you also have to deal with a variation of Guard Savage, one of the bosses that appears in the PC Engine Darius games.

An unexpected famous intruder

Taking power-up items will eventually bring up some more nods to Darius during the shooting areas, as seen in the wave shot and the needle laser you acquire in the second half of the game. Strangely enough you don't see these upgrades in the platforming parts, which are restricted to a few more powerfurl shots only. Dying does away with all upgrades, but since the game is so easy it won't matter much unless you're fighting a boss (boss fights are checkpoint-based, unlike the rest of the game). Mistakes are much more common while platforming, especially when sliding heavily during the levels covered on ice. R-10 seems to be subject to some sort of minor inertia, which is much worse under the ice effect.

Robocco Wars does everything right in regards to music and graphics, only with the occasional 8-bit sprite flicker. More than once you'll notice strong similiarities with Parodius, and it even adds some Sonic the Hedgehog flair in the Starlight Smile level. The walk in the park ends after two consecutive shooting stages prior to a final platforming level appropriately called Square Magic. Because "magic" is almost what must happen for you to figure out what to do in a cylinder maze that doesn't seem to have any way out. I entered multiple doors, fought the usual share of minibosses and wandered around like an idiot for a long time before realizing where the final boss was. The trick is to follow the green arrows until you see what looks like a portal at the very center of the screen.

And just to make the last stage even more out of synch with the rest of the game, the final boss is more difficult than all other bosses combined. One could say in the end Robocco Wars finally shows a boss that's worthy of its Mega Man inspiration. This odd difficulty spike might probably make you remember the game long after you've played it, since without it Robocco Wars would be just another colorful oddity in the Famicom library.

My 1CC mission was accomplished with the high score below. Note that projectile milking is possible during some boss fights, but it requires constant moving and would take forever to actually be worthwhile.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

ΔZeal (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Triangle Service
Published by Triangle Service in 2013

Once upon a time there was an obscure video game company named Oriental Soft. Many of its games were released in the arcades on poorly made boards that would soon break, as was the case with a 2002 vertical shooter called G-Stream G2020. Following the closure of Oriental Soft it was expected for the game to disappear from the face of the Earth, but thanks to the efforts of its main programmer and future founder of Triangle Service the source code for the game was safely preserved. With the publishing rights back in his hands, in 2013 the game was renamed as ΔZealDeltaZeal and re-released as one of the two titles in the Shooting Love 10th Anniversary compilation for the Xbox 360 (the other half of the package is XII Zeal).

By putting the Zeal suffix in the game's title, Triangle Service imposed a pseudo-retcon in its library and made ΔZeal the first in an unofficial series that continues with XII ZealTrizeal, Exzeal and the most recently released and extremely weird CombatZeal. Many aspects of ΔZeal's gameplay can be found in the sequels, so fortunately this is not just a matter of cheaply rearranging names for a little more profit. Even though the quality of their products is certainly debatable for fans of the genre, there's no denying that the much propagated Shooting Love is the heart and soul of Triangle Service, a company that has always been known as a one-man endeavor.

With seven stages, no extends of any kind and a strong mix of military and sci-fi themes, ΔZeal comes off as a seemingly straightforward shooter with some unique mechanics thrown in. The "seemingly" part is due to the dynamic branching that sends you off completely different paths in certain stages and require a good deal of knowledge to be properly treaded for survival or exploited for score.

Opening screen

Gameplay inputs consist of three buttons only: shot, rapid shot and bomb (which I have mapped as A, B, and RB in my Xbox controller). You can actually tap shot to obtain rapid shot, but the very nature of a specific attack pretty much requires having separate buttons for them (keep reading). Powering up the ship is achieved by collecting the colored icons released at a regular interval from defeated enemies, which then fill up a 10-slot power bar from the inside out; when the bar is full each new power-up pushes the oldest one out in the queue, with the current item combination determining firepower behavior. Red contributes with vulcan, blue with laser and green with homing missiles. Getting the desired firepower formation isn't as easy as it seems though because the power-up icon has a rather fast cycling routine and it often drifts off the screen or into bullet curtains.

The only other item related to firepower that you might come across is the extra bomb. Quick and powerful, the bomb animation is quite satisfying but it doesn't grant the player with invincibility outside of its hit zone. For total invincibility and other goodies the ship is equipped with a black hole device (sometimes called void-bomb or cancel-bomb) that creates an energy sphere that melts everything that's caught inside its radius except for your own ship. In order to be able to use it players need to collect the small green particles left behind by destroyed enemies (you need to pay close attention to see them, normally no one would even notice), stacking up the green little number that appears above the power-up bar. When an OK sign is shown close to it you're ready to use the black hole by holding and releasing shot. The higher the little green number when the black hole is deployed the longer it will last.

Going from survival to scoring in ΔZeal comes naturally the more you play it. The game is a slow burner for sure, with intrincacies that only become less confusing with repeated plays. Medal chaining is the biggest source of points, for instance. Every destroyed enemy or part of an enemy drops a medal that increases in value and size provided you don't let any of them fall off the screen; it starts with 10 then goes through 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 and 500, maximizing at 1.000 points. Medals generated at the same time have the same value but add to the progression regardless (e.g. four initial ones are worth 10, next one will be worth 50).

Losing just one medal sends their value back to 10, except for one particular situation: when a black hole is deployed medals are frozen at their current value, which opens up a huge opportunity for scoring if you can manage to use it when medals are maxed out because every single bullet that's caught within the black hole is turned into a medal (likewise, creating the black hole when you have a low medal value is an obvious waste). It's a great rush to get showers of maxed out medals from dense bullet streams fired by bosses, however it's imperative to adapt to the timing of the black hole deployment since it might appear at the top of the screen if you hold the shot button for too long. That's the worst that can happen because the black hole is then pretty much useless. There's also no way to cut it short for another use, it will simply consume all its energy. Then you have to restart filling it up from scratch.

Stage 1 score attack mode - Cloudy today!
(courtesy of YouTube user VixyNyan)

There are other scoring resources, such as collecting only one type of weapon so that once the power bar is full each successive item of the same color will give you 10.000 points. The problem is that the only worthy color to stick to is red. When maxed out it provides excellent spread and inflicts devastating damage at point-blank distance. Blue is good for medal collecting but awful for survival, whereas green hits all over the place with distributed power. This power-up scheme can be extremely annoying if you play for score because if you eventually take a different color you end up losing 100.000 points until you get rid of the unwanted item (or 90.000 points if you decide to completely change the power bar). That's why you can't be too close or over the enemy when killing it if you realize a power-up is about to be released.

The final touch in the scoring system is the quick killing of incoming enemies, which appears in small 5.000 point tags. I couldn't care less about this aspect though, sometimes I got them but most of the time I did the exactly same thing with no results whatsoever. Equally cryptic are some of the branching areas that bring up completely different sets of enemies in the initial stages of the game. I did assimilate how to get the railroad section in stage 2, but eventually learned to live with the randomness that's present in the first level. The alternate versions of stages 3 and 5 are chosen simply by sticking to the left and right halves of the screen once the previous bosses are destroyed (left for 3A/5A, right for 3B/5B).

Besides the obscure meanderings in its gameplay, ΔZeal incurs in some minor design choices that require a little patience from the player. There are many occasions where bullets are just plain white or gray, which makes visibility a chore when you're flying over similarly colored backgrounds and explosions. The safe distance from ground targets is also very limited, and it's rather common to be shot in the face when approaching such enemies. Bullet spreads with varying degrees of density are the norm when you're fighting bosses, which often cave in with well placed bombs (the 5th boss tended to drift off screen when I bombed too much; I even thought the game had bugged on me once because he took more than a minute to show up again). The minor screen tearing from the HD resolution didn't bother me at all.

Since there's no rank in ΔZeal practice soon leads to success no matter how tough or crowded some sections appear to be. The game sure has a few highlights in the graphical department, such as the huge bomber that flies over something straight out of Sonic Wings in stage 5 (the New York scramble) or the whole post-apocalyptic industrial look of the final level, but overall it's rather plain looking and pretty much serves as a preamble to what Triangle Service would deliver later in XII Zeal. The music sort of follows the same trend, with the ominous tune for the final stage being the clear highlight for me. Replay saving, online leaderboards, the unlocking of stage select (score attack), timed extra credits and several image/audio tweaks are all included in the Shooting Love 10th Anniversary region-free package, both in the regular and limited edition variations.

My 1CC high score playing on Normal difficulty is below. I chose the player 1 side (slower ship, player 2 is faster) and went through stages 3A and 5B, which I admittedly found the easiest choices. I just wasn't prepared to take a photo of the high score table, if you miss it as you input the initials you won't be able to see it again unless you score a new valid entry!

Friday, July 27, 2018

Dezaemon Plus [Daioh Gale Ver. 2] (Playstation)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Athena
Published by Athena in 1996

Originally released only in Japan for the Playstation, Dezaemon Plus suceeded Dezaemon on the Super Famicom as the next one in the series of shmupmaking titles. Known primarily only within the circles of hardcore shmup collectors, the title gained a little bit of extra exposition thanks to the worldwide digital re-release for the Playstation Network at around 2010. This "little bit" could've been a "lot more" had the publisher provided mouse support and a proper English translation. With all the game's interfaces still in Japanese I doubt any Westerner actually bothered to tinker with it (an online translation guide just doesn't cut it).

Anyway, if you don't care about the shmupmaking aspect of Dezaemon Plus you can still enjoy the sample games included in the package. The main title here is Daioh Gale Ver. 2, an updated version of Daioh Gale (from the SNES chapter) that's supposed to showcase the improvements in the development tools of the Playstation disc, most notably the ability to handle sprites at will with rotation, zooming and collision manipulation. There are also ten user-developed games that won two separate competitions held by Athena, but these unfortunately don't use the sprite resources from Dezaemon Plus and are instead based upon the SNES Dezaemon platform.

To complete the line-up of 13 playable games on the disc, one of the two hidden extra titles at the player's disposal is none other than the original Daioh Gale, which can be accessed by pressing L2 while choosing the option for the main sample game (first option in GAME PLAY). For those who care about the sample games only, this obviously makes the SNES entry in the series completely redundant and useless.

A stretched snippet of Daioh Gale Ver. 2
(courtesy of YouTube user Dontian)

The only real link between arcade Daioh and the home variations of Daioh Gale is developer Athena. A few similarities in the gameplay also apply, but other than that Daioh Gale is in its own separate league of a console-friendly challenge that shouldn't give anyone much trouble to beat. One button is used to shoot (□), another to bomb (×) and several power-ups give some diversity as you play. Weapons come in three switchable flavors: red is the starting vulcan shot, blue is a missile discharge with secondary homing missiles and green is a fast-moving homing bubble stream (get two consecutive ones to max out firepower). Other items include speed-ups (S), extra bombs (B) and 1-hit shields (SH).

As the flagship sample game in Dezaemon Plus, Daioh Gale Ver. 2 comes with a few differences from the "vanilla" version, as listed below:

  • Ver. 2 has only 5 stages instead of the original 6 (the last level of Daioh Gale is gone);
  • the music for level 6 of Daioh Gale is used in the final stage of Ver. 2 (tracks for the previous levels are the same);
  • several parts of Ver. 2 have rearranged enemies, some of them with slightly different rates of fire and bullet speeds;
  • lots of enemies now zoom in and out of the screen;
  • there are less power-up items and less extra bombs in Ver. 2;
  • the maxed-out vulcan weapon is just a straight stream instead of the previous spread pattern;
  • the whole obstacle field of the final level has been altered and made more difficult (some memorization is definitely needed there).

It's easy to notice that all changes were pretty much aimed at increasing the difficulty of the game by just a short margin, perhaps as a compensation for having one less stage than the "original". Completely botching the efficiency of the red/vulcan weapon wasn't needed though, especially since it isn't anyone's first choice unless you take into account its bomb animation, which is the best one for panic purposes or for hitting far beyond you current position. After all, the effect of bombing depends on the the weapon you're using. Red detonates a round blast that expands outwards, blue creates a vertical beam of inwards fading energy and green sort of increases the damage inflicted by the homing bubbles. It's also important to remember that weapon types are carried over when you die (there's no default besides the start of the 1st stage).

4th boss amidst the clouds

Extra lives are score-based and come at the mark of 200.000 points and for each consecutive 500.000 points after that. Since getting repeated items gives you nothing and milking opportunities are so few and far between, there are no special remarks to be made about the scoring system other than exploiting checkpoints to score higher. Though I'm normally against this technique in checkpoint-based games, I didn't feel guilty by doing it this time because the game is pretty short and, quite frankly, as much a cakewalk as its predecessor was. I'm only left to wonder if the other sample titles in Dezaemon Plus are of the same caliber. We shall see in the future.

For some weird reason the save option in the disc did not work on my console, so my high scores could not be saved. Either this function is solely dedicated to the shmupmaking part of the package or my memory card was faulty. In any case, here goes the best 1CC high score I got for Daioh Gale Ver. 2 (Normal difficulty).

And while comparing titles I achieved the following high score in the original Daioh Gale, also on Normal difficulty (hold L2 when choosing the main sample game):