Sunday, December 9, 2018

SD Gundam 2 (SNES)

Hybrid (Horizontal / Platformer)
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Bandai / Angel
Published by Bandai in 1993


Second and final entry in a limited series of shmup/platforming hybrids on the Super Famicom, SD Gundam 2 graced Nintendo's 16-bit platform almost at the same time as the first installment SD Gundam - V Sakusen Shidou, which was released in the previous year without much of an impact in the gaming scene. As a consequence, both games still remain obscure oddities mostly known by Gundam fans and stubborn people such as myself. So here I am doing my part in spreading the word out there for those who want to know a little bit more about them.

The story of SD Gundam 2 picks up exactly where the first one ended, but now the player can choose three different paths represented by the choice of three big-headed chubby robots. The paths are different because each one of them has a specific set of stages, so we kinda have three different games in a single package even though some levels or bosses appear in more than one storyline. These courses also differ a little in length since a few stages are split in two halves, but their overall duration isn't too long. Cooperative play is also available, but I didn't check how the stages unfold when two players join forces in the battle against an army of cute evil robots.

Bringing justice to cities in flames

Button Y shoots and button B is used to jump (platform areas, double jump is possible) or turn the character left/right (shmup areas). Besides the general gameplay style, the one thing that's preserved from the original game is the basic upgrading scheme. The power-up bar fills up automatically and lights up the upgrade slots, which must then be selected with buttons R/L and activated with button X. The first one is the rifle laser, the second is the power bazooka and the third one differs according to the chosen character. A fourth selectable slot actually corresponds to the special attack made available by collecting the blue item that appears every now and then and is also character-specific; white items refill a portion of the health bar and golden items fill up the upgrade bar instantly with a few bonus points on the side.

The best news about SD Gundam 2 is that there's no ammo constraints for weapons and autofire is implemented by default. On the other hand, getting hit sends you instantly back to the default pea shot (with only one exception, keep reading). If you played the first SD Gundam then you know how much of an improvement this is: on top of relieving you from dealing with speed-ups, the new upgrade method also allows an almost immediate return to the lost weapon if you manage to avoid getting hit for at least the time it takes to fill up the upgrade bar again. The close-range automatic melee attack is still there lest you happen to be surprised by an enemy at point-blank distance.

Here's a brief description on the behavior of the three available Gundams regarding the third upgrade and the special attack (blue item):

  • RX-178 "Gundam Mk-II" (left at the selection screen) - a direct evolution of the mecha from the first game, this one comes with the same shield with three levels, the last one being a brief invincibility period and then back to no shield status; the special attack is a powerful bomb blast.

  • RGM-179 "GM II" (middle one at the selection screen) - the third upgrade is a unique spaceship form equipped with the laser rifle; each extra upgrade level adds one spare hit that the ship can withstand; when the ship form is lost the character reverts back to whatever weapon was active prior to the ship's activation; when in ship form it's not possible to turn left; the special attack slows down all enemies for a specific amount of time.

  • RMS-106 "Hizack" (right at the selection screen) - the third upgrade is a useless mystery that looks like a large electrifying bazooka that does nothing at all; the special attack adds two rotating options to the character for a remarkable increase in firepower.


More Super Deformed fun on the Super Famicom
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)

SD Gundam 2 will not set anyone's world on fire, but it's surely an improvement over the first game. Despite the short gap between both titles, it's clear that Bandai seems to have tweaked the gameplay into something less contrived than what we got the first time around. Not only are the inputs more sensibly executed, but the game moves faster, the enemy gallery is a bit more varied and the AI is much less annoying, which makes the whole experience easier and more fun regardless of the chosen character. Speaking of which, my favorite of the bunch is the middle one due to the ability to turn him into a spaceship even during the platforming parts (if you play well enough you don't even need to use the robot form at all). That's quite nice since SD Gundam 2 feels a little more biased towards shmupping, as opposed to what happened in SD Gundam - V Sakusen Shidou.

The Versus mode now has 10 selectable characters for head-to-head combat either in a space colony setting (platforming) or in outer space (shmup style). Once again this fighting alternative offers nothing more than mindless button mashing chaos.

I beat the game with all three robots, and soon realized that the course for the RGM-179 robot has the best scoring potential. That's the robot I used in the 1CC high score shown below (Normal difficulty). For every 40.000 points you earn an extend, but this time there's no end bonus based on life stock after the game is completed.


Thursday, November 29, 2018

Battle Crust (Dreamcast)

Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Picorinne Soft
Published by JoshProd
 in 2018

As a few friends say around here, the Dreamcast is a platform that just refuses to die. A clear example of that is this new shmup called Battle Crust. Originally released for the Steam digital service in 2016, it found its way to Sega's console two years later. Giving the game a proper retail release on a dead niche platform is nothing short of commendable, even though its 16-bit sensibilities do not match the power of the Dreamcast at all. Sure it takes a lot less independent effort to offer a CD-based media instead of a cartridge, and the choice for Sega's much loved home machine was only natural given the expressive amount of independent releases it's been getting ever since its untimely demise.

Battle Crust speaks to those fans of the genre who enjoy the most pure methodical old school shooting action. By adhering to a simple set of rules and sticking to the tried-and-true formula of Irem classics such as Image Fight and R-Type, the game offers a decent space adventure with a challenge level that's much more akin to console than arcade standards. The disc is region-free and comes with TATE mode available at the press of a button (Y), but aside from that it's a bare bones release with no save functionality at all.

The story goes that Earth is at war against the rest of the universe. The invaders have dropped on our planet's surface deadly bombs made of a new metal (the "metal crust"), forcing the planet's defense forces to rise up and confront the menace. In order to level the odds against the universe, prior to departing for battle the ship must be equipped with one of three types of charge mechanisms: normal charge, mega charge and blast charge. Their power can only be unleashed once you acquire side pods by collecting at least one power-up. Charging is accomplished with button B (or L) and overrides the regular autoshot (button A or R), shooting out either a single beam if the button is released while the gauge is filling up or a fully-powered blast whose behavior depends on the chosen charge type.

Select charge system

Charge types differ enough to warrant slightly distinct strategies: the normal one is much like R-Type's classic beam, piercing through cannon fodder until reaching a tougher obstacle; the mega charge is the most powerful of them and even adds a short-range energy discharge to both sides of the ship, but freezes it in place for a split-second after being fired; finally, the blast charge comes out with a certain power, and once this power dissipates against the targets the energy radius stands there for a few seconds while damaging enerything that touches it. An extra benefit of the act of charging is creating a ball of energy that serves as shield against regular bullets and damages anything that touches it. All charge shots also possess a certain degree of bullet-cancelling capability.

After the first power-up is taken and the pods are generated, any further one will be fully active according to its color:
  • blue - straight lasers with rear shot capability;
  • brown - powerful soft forward shot;
  • red - wave shot with two spreading side shots;
  • yellow - a spread of impact shots;
  • green - needle-shaped gun with two homing side shots.

Choosing a favorite weapon is mostly a matter of aesthetical preference since all of them are pretty much equal in power. The green shot however does seem to oust the others when used at point-blank distance. In any case, the balance between charging and regular shooting is quite even, which means that most of the time the charge shot isn't needed at all. It only brings real advantage if you want to add a little extra damage as the bulkier enemies enter the screen.

In the world of Battle Crust players are constantly under a state of pressure due to the increasingly tight surroundings. While the first half of the credit unfolds in open areas, by stage 4 you'll find yourself navigating in cramped spaces and darting through closing gates. Stage 5 is the game's highlight in two parts: a meteor-filled entrance over alien terrain (mild Raiden vibe detected) and a fast-scrolling scramble with tight corridors and enemies arriving from all sides. And while bosses tend to die fast if pummeled hard, they often require lots of movement and bold positioning from the player who aims to properly beat the game.


Special trailer for the Dreamcast version of Battle Crust
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher JoshProd Video Game Producer)

Slow-pacing aside, Battle Crust is fun and rewards good performances accordingly. Having weapons that are equivalent in power might be a missed opportunity gameplaywise, but at least you can take all of them for a score bonus of 1.000 points each. Another scoring opportunity comes from dispatching midbosses quickly to get a golden bug that's worth 3.000 points. The first score-based extend is achieved with 30.000 points, all others arrive at every 100.000 points afterwards; once beaten, the game rewards each spare life with 5.000 points and then adds a huge completion bonus. Finally, any attempt at milking those small projectiles flying everywhere is useless because they're aren't worth anything.

A few brief bouts of stuttering slowdown are to be expected in the final levels. Other than that, some functional details weren't properly ironed out in the process of porting the game from its original PC incarnation to the Dreamcast. The spaceship rushing to the next stage is missing in those black screens between levels, for example. The audio presents some issues, such as this weird low-frequency humming that's more audible during silent moments or the music being randomly absent during the opening animation (the soundtrack is nice by the way, 4th stage BGM is my favorite). When playing in YOKO (standard orientation) the game doesn't fill up the entire screen and it's hard to read the opening texts due to the cramped resolution, that's why TATE or a bigger TV is a must in this case. Granted, my copy of Battle Crust is the European one and I was running it on a NTSC console, so that might be the reason for some of these minor setbacks.

The 1CC result below was achieved in Arcade/Normal difficulty with the blast charge type. The high score tallying is quite interesting in that it differentiates the difficulty by adding a determined number of points to the starting score (none on Easy, 10 on Normal/Arcade and 20 on Hard). Continues do not reset the score but add one single point to it.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Galaxy Force II (Mega Drive)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega / CRI
Published by Sega in 1991


Many people asked themselves if the rail shooting genre was a solid possibility during the 16-bit video game era. By solid I mean something fluid and dynamic, an experience that should get close to the likes of what people were seeing in the arcades at the time. Unfortunately the high expectations brought by the release of the Mega Drive weren't met by launch titles such as Super Thunder Blade and Space Harrier II, so the task of putting away that lukewarm impression was left for later releases.

Enter Galaxy Force II.

Originally released in 1988 and known in the arcades as the ultimate space adventure, the game represented the apex of the super scaling technology pioneered by Sega, with heavy sprite manipulation conveying the sensation of flying through outer space in all sorts of alien landscapes. Unlike the abovementioned titles, which were in fact pseudo-sequels with new gameplay elements, on the Mega Drive Galaxy Force II was supposed to be a straight port of the arcade. However, even when you consider the explicit differences in hardware, what Sega fans got at home with the 16-bit cartridge was a veritable disappointment, and for many people nothing more than a nearly unplayable disaster.

Defending the "jewel of the galaxy"
(courtesy of YouTube user Japanspel)

There is a very clear reason for the widespread backlash this game gets. It's a simple matter of realizing that the programmers could've done a much better porting job instead of delivering a watered down conversion renowned by its blocky graphics and sluggish controls. And yet, against all odds, here I am writing about it because I have plodded my way through all of that to beat the game. Mind you, since there are no continues of any kind it's impossible to beat Galaxy Force II on the Mega Drive without clearing it on one credit.

As an integral part of the Galaxy Force, the player pilots an elite starfighter with the mission to stop the evil Fourth Empire from overtaking the federation star systems. The journey can start in any of the five planets that have already been conquered by the bad guys, ending in a sixth area where you propel through hyperspace directly into the enemy's core. Either flying in open outer space or over the surface of the planet, in each one you'll be entering one or more tunnels filled with enemies, obstacles and trajectory turns. By default, controls work with B for missiles, A for speed down and C for speed up, with automatic single-shot firing. Button B is supposed to be used mostly when you have locked onto one or more enemies, and while the in-stage power-up remains active (it connects to the ship automatically) the number of simultaneous lock-ons is increased.

Lives are replaced by a fuel counter that starts with 1200 points and goes down pretty fast. Getting hit by bullets or flying into walls and obstacles makes it deplete even faster. Recovering fuel happens in only two occasions: when you come out of a tunnel or when you reach the end of the level. In both instances you'll cash in the energy bonus points from all the enemies you were able to destroy. However, that isn't enough for players to reach the end of the mission... Just like in the arcade game it's necessary to fly fast or eventually you'll run out of fuel, no matter how perfectly you play and how many targets you kill.

The dangers of the desert world

Even though the game doesn't do anything blatantly wrong (lousy hit detection, some flicker and a finnicky lock-on scheme notwithstanding), going straight from the arcade game to the Mega Drive port can be a shock due to the frame rate differences. Simplifying graphics and doing away with textures should've left some room for the so-called blast processing to do its magic, but in Galaxy Force II it just didn't happen. On my part I always wondered how awesome it would've been had it been given the same dynamic treatment of the After Burner II port, for example.

At least Galaxy Force II isn't an impossible task in its default settings. It's only a matter of abiding by the game's rules and eventually learning how to get around the trickiest areas. Tips: identify the enemies that don't shoot and kill them all; in several areas it's better to fly low and destroy as many ground enemies as possible (a few tunnel sections and much of the missile lines in the starting stretch of level 3); more fuel can be recovered by killing bigger enemies (flame snakes in stage 2, the mechanized serpents in stage 5); when inside the tunnels full of rocks of level 5 tap up a little and move left or right only when needed. Lastly, don't be frightened by the "shield broken" message you get as soon as the ship takes a predetermined number of hits. The manual says that from then on each hit should eat a bigger chunk of fuel but in my opinion that's pretty negligible.

When you get that weird feeling that you're still having fun with a game like this it's necessary to pinpoint where it's coming from. In this case the answer is easy: the soundtrack. The foundation was already there in the arcade original, but there's no denying that the Mega Drive music does wonders for the game's general appreciation. My high score on full defaults is below (Normal difficulty, Normal energy timer, Strong shield strength). Besides these available tweaks to the main game, vertical controls can also be inverted if you so wish.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Lords of Thunder (Sega CD)

Horizontal
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 concept 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)

Vertical
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 progressively 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)

Vertical
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)

Horizontal
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)

Horizontal
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)

Vertical
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)

Vertical
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.