Sunday, December 8, 2019

Galaxy Force (Master System)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sega
Published by Activision in 1989

I often ask myself if the the 8-bit generation was ready to handle arcade ports of rail shooters. Most examples say it wasn't, but when you realize several other rail shooters were also released for less powerful platforms then you can somehow forgive Galaxy Force on the Sega Master System. Never mind the confusion related to the arcade releases of Galaxy Force and Galaxy Force II, which widely replaced the former to the point almost no one ever saw it running. If you'd still like to have a glimpse of what it *looked like* you could try the Master System port, yet from the references I got it probably isn't the case.

Anyway, the only thing one can infer from playing this version of Galaxy Force is that little is to be expected that resembles the frantic, jaw-dropping action of the arcade game. Gone is the thrilling sensation of cruising through space taking down multiple targets. Just the basic framework was preserved in the transition: you fly a spaceship in rail shooter fashion through four different planets in any desired order, shooting down enemies until you enter a tunnel full of turns designed to test your piloting abilitites. For some cinematic flair, in every stage you see your ship taking off from a hangar.

Button 1 shoots single bullets, button 2 fires missiles that target enemies framed by your lock-on indicator. Button 1 has native autofire, button 2 doesn't. Ammo is unlimited for both.

Beware, floating platforms ahead

Stage selection is completely up to the player. The default order is an outer space station, then a volcanic planet, a plant world and a desertic landscape. Once all of them are conquered you will battle the final and only boss in the whole game. Yes, there's only one actual boss. Stages in Galaxy Force have no proper target cores at the end of the tunnel sections, which is one of the main sacrifices made to squeeze the game in the Master System cartridge (bosses are replaced by a brief animation showing the destruction of the planet). Sure, as the back of the box says it's got not double, not triple, but four times the playing power of a regular cartridge - meaning 4 Mega power! But hum... no, you don't get the hottest space combat, nor the baddest explosions. As for the sounds, well... at least we can say the soundtrack is undoubtedly the best thing about this port.

Many enemies are unique to this version, which tries to preserve the feel of the original game by means of the background scenery alone. Nevertheless the enemy gallery is practically the aspect that best conveys some sort of sprite scaling; tunnel sections use a flashing effect over static pillars to achieve the illusion of scrolling into the screen. For all it's worth, the trickery kinda works. The overall frame rate is still apalling and needs some getting used to. You still get to lock onto multiple enemies with your crosshair aim, but never in a reliable, repeatable fashion.

Another concession made on the port is the absence of the stage timer, and by extension the acceleration and break inputs. Everything is much more simple now, and your only concern while moving around in your killing spree is to preserve energy. The energy shield meter is color coded and changes as you get hit. As a general rule, the more red and flashing it gets the closer you are to biting the dust. Shield energy is automatically recovered at the end of the level after your bonus is calculated based on the amount of hits/kills you just achieved. Note that the more enemies you destroy the higher the bonus gets for each enemy in the final tallying.

Cruising the galaxy for justice
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)

The elimination of the timer element more than offsets the difficulty imposed by the confusing sprite scaling effect and the way the turns behave inside the tunnels. These turns vary a little in length with every new level, which means that each stage tunnel demands a certain tapping strategy for you to perform the movement without hitting the walls. After a while you notice that later levels are actually easier than the starting ones, at least this was my case. In fact, I even consider the first stage to be the hardest of them all by dint of the random nature of the meteors and the lack of ground scrolling for better evaluation of enemy approach. The turns inside the frst tunnel are also the hardest ones to perform.

Though considerably butchered in technical terms, my feeling after playing Galaxy Force on the Master System is that the game isn't a total wreck. It's fun in an awkward, nostalgic manner, with a final message that calls players out for using continues and advises them to beat the game again on a single credit if they want to watch the real ending (not the one where the ship crashes onto the landing platform). All in all, I liked that the difficulty was duly adapted to the console's limitations, unlike what happenened with the remarkably tough Space Harrier port.

Here's the final 1CC score I got for Galaxy Force on Sega's 8-bit machine:

Friday, November 29, 2019

Cloud Master (Master System)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hot-B / Taito
Published by Sega in 1989

Cloud Master, also known as Chuka Taisen, is the port of an arcade game of the same name. It stars a kid named Michael Chen, who flies on a cloud and shoots down enemies in ancient Japan. Michael is an apprentice and aspires to be considered a real "cloud master" by his enderly mentor. In order to achieve such honor he must get through five levels, destroying the incoming threats and defeating big bosses along the way.

The simple concept of this game fits the capabilities of the Master System much better than it did the arcade platform, especially when we consider design aspects such as the repetitive tiled backgrounds. Cloud Master on the Master System is an extremely colorful port that's rather competent in adapting the source material, with similar gameplay mechanics and faithful representation of both the enemy gallery and the stages (unlike the full-scale makeover seen in the PC Engine version). It's also no pushover, as one would imagine from the cute visuals. Hit detection is fine, a little flicker appears here and there and a sliver of slowdown might happen in crowded areas.

Flying over the Koh river

Controlling the kid on a cloud is extremely simple. Press button 1 to shoot and button 2 to fire a secondary attack. Upgrade items are released by destroying full enemy waves or specific enemies and consist of P (main shot power-up), S (two main shot power-ups), F (speed-up, means "fast"), A (autofire) and E (extra life). The evolution process of the main shot is very similar to that of Taito's own Darius II, in that each power-up adds another layer of power/spread to the current firing stream. When maxed out it assumes the form of a wave shot with regular bullets on the sides. Looking at it closely, the whole feel of the game and the upgrade system is like an amalgam of the first two Darius games.

Equally as important as the main shot is the secondary attack that's obtained by defeating a mid-boss and entering the door that he/she leaves behind. In there you'll be able to choose one of four special attacks, which remains active until you enter the next mid-boss door or die. Secondary attacks are automatically upgraded every time you enter one of these doors, even if you switch to a completely different type. Options include a rotating fire guard, spinning dragon fire, crescent arches, 2 or 3-way fireballs, a 4-way x-shaped mirror attack, bouncing/trailing fireballs and a scattering bomb that explodes when hitting the ground. I might be wrong here, but the impression I get is that the Master System port has more secondary attacks than the original arcade version, on top of allowing you to switch them even when at maximum power (doors don't stop coming when beating midbosses). 

Bowls of ramen, pigs with cannons, flying pig heads, bird flocks, large birds with human faces, tigers, pandas descending from clouds, dragons, turtles, monkeys, mushrooms, etc. With some exceptions there's always an animal or mythological creature appearing as basis for the enemy gallery. Regular enemies fire regular bullets, whereas midbosses and bosses shoot lightning bolts or round projectiles that force you to move more carefully due to their big sprites. From my experience at least three speed-ups are needed to fly around with decent maneuverability, just watch out for bullets that tend to travel slowly and might get mixed with backgrounds. You don't die by touching the short mounts of dirt at ground level, unless you get crushed by them at the edge of the screen.

Even with the hardware constraints of the platform it's nice to see a few animation details preserved, such as the character's eyes blinking and his hair and the cloud he rides on curling as he's moving around. On the other hand, graphics fade out before boss fights so that the Master System can handle their large figures. Eastern motifs rule the soundtrack, which fits the game but is otherwise pretty unremarkable.

Michael Chen starts his journey into enlightenment
(courtesy of YouTube user mrbeanchannel)

With two checkpoints per level, Cloud Master gets increasingly trickier to recover from death as the game progresses. Unless you play with some kind of turbo function doing it without the A power-up can be extremely demanding. Note that the rate of fire isn't the same at all power levels, which is the main reason why I avoided maxing out the main shot. If you keep your shot pattern at only two red blue balls or the spread before that you'll achieve a much better firing rate than the one you'd get with the maxed out wave shot. This is particularly important during boss fights, and you also need to consider hitting them at their weak points (mostly the head, or the belt for the shogun boss). You can kill them a lot quicker if you hammer them at point blank distance in between their attacks. Fun fact: the shogun is the last boss here instead of the dragon, which was demoted to guardian of the 4th level.

Besides the 1UPs you get with items, score-based extends are granted with 30.000 points and then at every 200.000 points afterwards. Attention: once you defeat the final boss and receive the definitive congrats from the elderly god figure there's a brief GAME OVER screen, but the game doesn't stop there. Wait a few seconds and it will start again in a second loop. The difficulty increase in further rounds is very subtle, the main difference I noticed is that the E item for extra lives does not appear anymore.

My best credit for Cloud Master on the Master System ended in stage 3-5. The unusual detail in this version, as you can see in the picture, is that the current score is on the right side of the panel and the high score is on the left side. It had me confused more than once as I was trying to figure out point values throughout the game.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

iS - Internal Section (Playstation)

Tube shooter
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Positron
Published by Square in 1999

Even for those who consider them part of the shmup genre, tube shooters were always a rare breed and barely get any discussion these days. The one game that comes to mind the most for pretty much everyone is Tempest and its sequels/clones, and Gyruss to a lesser extent. However, even though this particular subgenre never really thrived in a grand scale the truth is that the Sony Playstation was home to a few interesting tube shooters, one of which is iS - Internal Section. Unlike its bethren N2O - Nitrous Oxide, Nanotek Warrior and Tempest X3, it unfortunately never came out of Japan.

iS as trippy as it gets. The shaded forms in the tube surface and outer surroundings are constantly changing according to the electronic music, whereas enemies, bosses and bullets are formed by simple arrangements of polygons that fly around at varying speeds for an experience that some people consider an embrionary version of Rez. There are of course many similarities between both games, but iS is much more shooting-oriented rather than geared towards synesthesic player interactions. The good news is that the game is perfectly approachable, and even relaxing once you get more familiar with it. I daresay it's an excellent way to get acquainted with the world of tube shooters.

Dropping an eraser inside the tube

All game modes use the same control inputs, which are configurable in the options. One button shoots with natural autofire, two other buttons cycle through the available wepons and another one fires the so-called "eraser", the equivalent of a classic bomb. The eraser creates an energy circle that moves forward and sweeps all enemies across its path, including bullets. As for power-ups, you don't need to worry about them because there are none. Extra erasers are obtained every time you complete a new phase in the game, and all twelve weapons named after the Chinese zodiac are ready for immediate use. Part of the fun is in finding out which one works best in each situation, everything else revolves around shooting and dodging. It's that simple.

Quick note on my usage of weapons: favorite one for killing regular waves is Monkey, then Horse (which is good to hit enemies that float in the middle of the cylinder), Tiger (extremely powerful), Snake (good for some of the stronger waves and a few bosses/mid-bosses) and Bird (very efficient in specific areas); Sheep or Rat are best for hitting single spots (as in the riddles of the 6th stage), Ox is slow but blocks everything in its path; I practically never used Dog, Boar and Dragon, they're either clumsy or downright useless.

An interesting aspect, and in my opinion one that makes iS such an easy game to get into, is the fact that when you move the whole tube moves around you. You don't need to worry about the confusion of managing your craft's direction in a 360 degrees turn, as in Tempest or Gyruss. Both the gameplay and the actual difficulty benefit whenever this is implemented, after all moving around becomes easier regardless of what's coming ahead of you. Of course it wouldn't make a difference if the scrolling wasn't any good, but fortunately that's not the case with iS. The game never slips off its native framerate and is a beauty to look at when in motion.

Every stage has four "phases" prior to the boss, which is fought in an open plane in pure arena fashion. Phases are separated by a short section of invincible spinning blocks reminiscent of Xevious. Die anywhere, including during this block transition, and you have to restart the phase from the beginning. All enemies arrive and attack in specific formations with very rare instances of overlapping. There are lots of mini-bosses and a few surprising breaks in the game flow, such as the whole 6th stage and its block riddles, including a lengthy block maze in phase D. Even though the game adopts an abstract concept for graphics, each stage has a general theme that dictates the shapes forming everywhere around the player (gems, characters, bricks, outer space, etc.).

Stage 1
(courtesy of YouTube user plonk420)

For each fully destroyed wave and mini-boss an extra amount of points is obtained, as you can see from the bonus tags that float towards the player. Some of these small bonuses increase in value if you eliminate the opposition faster, and you can even trigger extra enemies by doing that (such as the extra laser snake in stage 5D). Regardless of how well you perform in killing everything, the bulk of the scoring system is actually in no-missing whole stages. Deaths are extremely detrimental to scoring because each death takes away a good chunk of the stage bonus completion. I couldn't grasp the exact rules, but from my brief experience with the game three deaths are enough to give you no bonus at all in any level. Besides, the amount of earned extends will be drastically reduced if you die, thus affecting the completion bonus of 30.000 points per extra life.

When you realize you can amass so many extra points and lives just by avoiding death, some of the most intricate full wave kills aren't worth the risk anymore. Keeping the finger on the trigger (as the announcer from Donpachi would say) is still good practice though, even when you're amidst the Xevious indestructible blocks. Sometimes you'll hit spots that hide fish, which then move out as if released from prison or something like it. Hitting fish spots gives you some points and perhaps a surprising view of an up close mackerel (saba) but that's it, just a quirky mysterious detail in a relatively straightforward shooting adventure.

Besides the Normal game mode, iS - Internal Section also has a few "arrange" modes such as Enhanced (which is considerably harder), Ambient 1/2/3 and Fullauto. I have no idea what's behind Fullauto, since the game doesn't respond to any input there and seems to play by itself. In all of the Ambient modes, which play just like Normal mode with minor difficulty alterations, you can select your own soundtrack by choosing a different song for any level or even swapping the disc for a music CD as soon as the credit starts (that's why you see a save moment before the start of any game). As mentioned above Options include button remapping as well as weapon edit (alter weapon cycling order), sound and screen adjustments and automatic saving.

I had great fun and urge everyone to try this neat little game. I tried to do my best in Normal mode, with the final results shown in the picture below. Cool detail: for all 1CC/ALL runs you're entitled to see a few extra stats just by pressing ○ at the highlighted score. I assume that "worst" section is supposed to save completion results with the lowest possible scores one can achieve, but I wasn't willing to test that.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle (Nintendo DS)

Horizontal / Rail
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Altron

Published by THQ in 2006

Danny Phantom was a relatively successful cartoon that aired on the Nickelodeon channel from 2004 to 2007, starring a teenage boy endowed with ghost-like supernatural powers who fights to protect his hometown from otherworldly menaces. One of the two video games to have come out from the show, Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle is based on a specific episode that gets reenacted in glorious shoot'em up fashion, full of all sorts of different weapons and colorful backgrounds. It only came out for two Nintendo handheld systems, the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS.

The DS version is of course the more accomplished of the two. Speaking of this particular version, while relatively competent in the art design front the game was obviously tailored to its target audience and doesn't demand much from the average player, serving solely as a breezy diversion from more serious shooting endeavors. Danny's two best friends are the main supporting characters and interact with him in between levels throughout the whole game, which should prove amusing for fans of the show at least. In both the cartoon and the game's story, an evil entity called Undergrowth attempts to turn the city into a warped jungle with an army of unfriendly ghosts. It's up to Danny to capture them and free the enslaved citizens.

Let's meet Undergrowth, shall we?
(courtesy of YouTube user IGN)

Each stage/world is comprised of two sections guarded by bosses and a bonus area where you must fulfill different tasks to improve your score. Danny shoots with button A and deploys his ghost powers with button B. These ghost powers are always selected before the stage section starts, from a gallery that starts off with the three most basic special attacks: the "phasing" (invencibiliy/invisibility), the boomerang and the thermos, a ray that weakens and sucks ghosts (yes, just like in that famous movie with Rick Moranis). Other ghost powers are unlocked as you get through the game, such as the ghostly ice/fire and other types of ghost-busting devices. Cycling through ghost powers is accomplished with button L, but you can also fire them directly by tapping the corresponding icon in the touch screen.

Besides the default main weapon (N), you'll also come across the piercing shot (P), the homing shot (H) and the laser (L). Non-default weapons are obtained by shooting and cycling the corresponding incoming icon. The departure from the norm here is that you must activate all of them in every single stage. There's also a charge shot that's activated by quickly tapping the shot button and holding it until you see Danny's hand glow. It's a very powerful attack that varies according to the current weapon. Green capsules upgrade the firepower and are also needed in every single level if you want to have a maxed out shot (three capsules needed). Buttons Y and X cycle through the available weapons, a selection that can also be made by means of the touch screen.

The last control input in Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle is button R, which toggles Danny's aura between red and blue. Each aura allows him to absorb bullets of the same color, just like in Ikaruga. Soaked bullets are the main way of filling up the gauge that provides energy for ghost attacks. You can also do it by trapping ghosts with the thermos: for a certain amount of ghosts trapped you acquire a special capsule that's stored in the lower left box in the touch panel; just touch one of them when you need to recover ghost power. Likewise, all hearts collected are stored in the upper left box in the touch panel, just touch one of them when you need to recover lost health. All ghost capsules and hearts in stock are wiped out when a new level starts.

As we can see, there's no shortage of resources in the gameplay and all buttons are put to good use. Unfortunately, the sheer number of survival aids is more than enough for you to cruise through the game on your first sitting, as was my case. What's left as a challenge, if you decide to do so, is exploring a few techniques to score higher. A chaining system is in place for successive enemy kills, where every enemy destroyed adds to a multiplier combo (approximately two seconds max between each kill). Besides, at the end of every level you're rewarded for the amount of ghosts/enemies you obliterated and also for speed-killing the boss.

I ain't 'fraid of no ghost

More than the lack of challenge, the aspect that undermines Urban Jungle's appreciation the most is certainly the repetitive gameplay. Little is to be expected besides taking down wave after wave of cannon fodder, the occasional medium-sized ghost and then the boss. Once you figure out how efficient the homing weapon is for crowd control there's little incentive to get out of your way to survive (for bosses the best one is the laser though). In a few levels you need to go around obstacles and walls, but that's it.

A glimpse of something more demanding appears in the area where you need to phase across buildings that block your whole path or else you'll take damage. No phasing available though? Don't worry, ramming across these buildings won't seriously impact your health meter. Another glimpse of diversity appears in the 4th world, which turns the game into a rail shooter where Danny pilots a spaceship. Gameplay rules change a little bit there, but everything is still as easy as the previous levels. What's left for real variety, strangely enough, are the bonus areas. The tasks you need to accomplish there are all different from each other. In one of them, for example, you're only allowed to soak bullets, whereas in another you're supposed to play for as long as you can if don't let a determined amount of ghosts escape.

All things considered, Danny Phantom - Urban Jungle at least serves as a good introductory shmup for kids. The cartoon seems to be a charming one from what I've quickly seen, so the fan service also represents a good part of the enjoyment factor. Beating the game unlocks a few extra things in the opening menu, such as a sound test and a boss battle mode that I didn't care to try. I just played two full credits in the main game on Normal difficulty, and the results for both are shown in the following high score table.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Atomic Robo-Kid (Mega Drive)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
18 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by UPL / Treco
Published by Treco in 1990

Playing Atomic Robo-Kid can feel weird, and I don't mean the sensation brought about by the push-scroll bidirectional control scheme. The way the stages are broken down and how the bits and pieces of the gameplay tie together give me the impression that there are too many ideas thrown in a shooter that doesn't have enough substance in the end. It's visually quite close to the arcade original by UPL, but something got lost in the porting process. The result is a silly sci-fi adventure with lumbering weapon functionalities, a game that's certainly one of the contenders for most awkward entry in the Mega Drive shmup library.

In the future one of Earth's colonies is bombarbed by radiation from outer space and all creatures suffer hideous mutations. Out of the ashes of the wasteland rises this chubby little robot that looks like a trash can, and he is of course the last hope of the survivors against the alien invaders. As the story unfolds he talks with AI stations to learn more about his mission, meanwhile the player needs to learn how to deal with an assortment of weapons/resources in order to defeat clusters of enemies and huge bosses across 18 areas. Don't fret about the number, it's there just to give a false impression of length. All areas are really short and you only fight five real bosses along the way.

Controls work with button A for shot and button B for weapon select. Weapons and items are obtained by shooting at crystals to change their status and then collecting the desired ones. The only exception is the first couple of crystals right when the credit starts, which only serve the purpose of allowing the character to fly. As you proceed other crystals appear, such as the red ones for weapons: F is the fission gun (which is actually an improved version of the default shot), M is the missile (slow, but explodes upon contact and blocks bullets), 3 is a 3-way needle gun and 5 is a straight large shot with limited reach. Yellow crystals enhance other aspects of the character: S is the speed-up and R stands for rensha (temporary autofire), but there's also the single yellow crystal with no symbol (four of them provide protection against one hit, for a maximum of three possible shields).

Facing the evil clutches of a Governor

Stages in Atomic Robo-Kid are divided into several short sections prior to a big boss that must be fought inside a large chamber. After the boss you get into a laser duel against another enemy robot in a smaller room. Everything is very linear, with only a few labyrinthine levels that require more careful navigation and a few sections where you're allowed to choose one out of two different routes. Some graphics, textures and backgrounds appear more than once, but the art design and its eventual repetition are the least of the problems that mine the appreciation for Atomic Robo-Kid. The same can be said about the slightly grating nature of the music and the sound effects.

There are many details in the gameplay that irk me. Our hero the boy in a trash can, for instance, automatically starts walking if contact is made to the ground. Pressing B will make him jump instead of choosing a different weapon. B is also responsible for locking shot direction for some precious strafing capability. I wonder why the developer couldn't simply get rid of the walking aspect, as well as put the locking function in the C button.

Item management is also another intriguingly problematic aspect of the gameplay. Getting a single speed-up by shooting crystals can be a chore in itself. To stand a chance against later bosses you definitely need it, but there were credits where I couldn't get it at all. Sure you can purchase one in the shop owned by a dinosaur-like creature that appears only twice in the game and trades items for lives, but unless you know it beforehand you'll probably hit the poor thing to death thinking he is an enemy. And how odd, in the duel against the small robots you have no speed-up activated yet if you die there you'll come out of it with no speed-up if you had one. Regarding the lack of autofire (the R item is only temporary after all), a turbo controller helps but try to get one with separate functions for each button, or else you won't be able to lock shot direction with button B.

Trash can to the rescue
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

Retreating in order to avoid enemy fire is often necessary, but beware of enemies respawning right away in the same places. The interesting thing is that you can't die by touching them, but on the other hand they become so numerous in later levels that the simple act of picking up a crystal can be a minor challenge. That said, since Atomic Robo-Kid for the Mega Drive lacks the timer from the arcade version and you can wander around forever killing enemies, the scoring system is by nature utterly broken. There's no sense talking about scoring, except for the extra lives you get at 30.000 points and at every 50.000 points afterwards.

In replaying this game it dawned on me how limited and botched it actually is, which is sort of sad given the nobility infused in the story, particularly the ending. It's just all around goofy and unengaging, and I wonder if the PC Engine version called Atomic Robo-Kid Special suffers from the same symptoms. I should try it and figure that out soon.

I did not try to improve my previous high score and went straight to the end on Normal difficulty (note that the default starting difficulty is Easy). A turbo controller at hand and no milking at all resulted in the following 1CC outcome, which I now log into my achievement archive for great justice. If you want to get a picture of your final score remember to pause as soon as the last boss dies or you won't see it anymore.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Space Defending Force SDF (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hal Laboratory
Published by Hal Laboratory in 1990

For a couple of reasons I almost feel sorry for Space Defending Force SDF, a game that's also frequently referred to by its Japanese title Uchuu Keibitai SDF. The main reason is that it was never released out of Japan, so it was practically relegated to obscurity by default. Given the fact that SDF came out in one of those square-shaped cartridges (the same format used in Dezaemon) and uses a special chip for improved graphics, I can somehow understand its confinement to the Japanese market. What baffles me is the absence of a scoring system in such a nicely crafted shmup. Getting through this game is one of the most interesting journeys to be had in the Famicom/NES library, so for fans of the genre the lack of a proper scoring system is truly a sorry letdown.

Since there's no need to worry about numbers and such, all you'll ever see when playing SDF is the action itself. There's no HUD, and not even a mention to stage structure as the screen fades into the next level when the boss goes down. The attract mode shows a silent animation that details the ship's capabilities, and once you press start a brief take-off sequence leads the player to open outer space. Soon you notice that the horizontal span of the level stretches beyond what you see in a single screen, an aspect that's ostensively present throughout the game and adds to the challenge in several distinct ways.

An honest credit in the first stage of Uchuu Keibitai SDF
(courtesy of YouTube user たぶやんゲームス)

Button B fires a single shot, so try to get a turbo controller for better enjoyment. Button A only becomes active after you take the first weapon power-up. These are released by destroying capsules that materialize in specific places and consist of H (spread shot), V (side shot) and L (laser shot). Other items you might come across are S (speed up), Ƨ (speed down) and E (extra life). Once you get a first power-up you'll also acquire two attachments that lock onto the ship at the front and provide a minor degree of protection against regular bullets/lasers. By pressing A these attachments are propelled outwards and latch onto the ship's rear, changing the weapon to the ship's original firing pattern. In essence, button A switches attachment positions + the choice for shot/weapon mode, but there's a little more to that.

Maximizing firepower is achieved by taking three consecutive power-ups of the same kind. For the second power level, shot mode also fires two side missiles. For the third (max) power level, these missiles acquire a very efficient homing ability. Since attachments are what actually gives the power to the ship, if at least one of them is destroyed you won't be able to fire neither the current weapon nor the missiles when in shot mode, meaning you'll be temporarily stuck with the default shot until you get the next power-up. Attachments are lost if they receive too much damage while latched onto the ship or if they hit more powerful enemies when travelling towards the other side of the ship upon pressing button A.

Managing weapons and resources is of course just one part of what the player needs to cope with in Space Defending Force SDF. The game makes great use of noble inspirations such as Gradius, R-Type, Star Soldier and Dragon Spirit, blending their elements with successful results in each and every stage. From stage 3 onwards, for example, you need to weave through several stretches of narrow passages while dealing with all sorts of opposition with varying attack methods. Ricocheting lasers, heat-seeking drones/missiles, aimed/fixed bullet spreads, splitting divers, closing gates, you name it. The enemy gallery is kinda eccentric, ranging from insects to mechanical and alien creatures. On that regard the game is very reminiscent of titles like Salamander / Life Force and Abadox, even though SDF carries an all around more ominous and ambitious tone.

Evil insect nests in the final stage

One of the best traits of SDF is its difficulty progression, with the glaring exception of stage 2. It severely breaks the pace of the game, but fortunately the action that comes afterwards excels at keeping players on their toes. Some intermediate checkpoints are guarded by mid-bosses, however the final stage is especially cruel since it's very tricky and has just one single checkpoint up until the final boss, giving you no upgrades at all if you die while fighting him. The best weapon against bosses is definitely the laser, which is devastating at point blank distance. On the other hand, the maxed out side shot (V) is awful because the firing streams bend up and down when you move. I avoided it like the plague, except when in shot mode because shot mode behaves the same regardless of the weapon you're using.

Technical excellence supports the varied design and the top notch challenge in SDF, with absolutely no slowdown and just minor negligible instances of flicker. One thing that bothered me a little is the way the attachments "dance" around the ship and take longer to latch if you are on the move, which had me killed more then once while I waited for the desired weapon to activate. I eventually learned how to circumvent these situations, of course, and I also learned a trick to attract power-up capsules if they appear in tight places or too far from my reach: just press START and see it happen. The act of pausing in this game is accomplished by pressing SELECT.

My time with Space Defending Force SDF has ended, but I couldn't recommend it more if you fancy some decent 8-bit methodical shooting. There might be no scoring system in it, but the unlimited continues are great for old school practicing and the tension that builds up in the final parts of the game certainly adds up when going for the 1CC.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Rym 9000 (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sonoshee / Rainbite
Published by eastasiasoft in 2019

For some time now video games have always exhibited messages aimed at photosensitive people, warning about the need to beware of visual stress or even risks concerning epilepsy seizures. However, how many times have we actually paid any attention to them? Fortunately I'm not affected by that at all, but if you are I strongly advise you to take these messages seriously if you intend to play Rym 9000.

Rarely has a shooter taken aesthetics to such limits with regards to visual stimulation factors such as flashing, shaking and color manipulation. Besides, the whole art design is also very dark and mysterious, as are the interfaces within the game itself. Just to have an idea, the borderline abstract visual elements and the whole feel of the game remind me of things like Polybius or the most experimental works by artists like Bill Sienkiewicz or David Lynch.

In simple words, Rym 9000 is a bloody weird shooter. The weird aspect goes beyond the visuals since the game also subverts a few features commonly associated with the genre while demanding players to figure out many things on their own. Even the instruction manual of the retail release doesn't tell you much, instead focusing on detailing the crazy story about a treasure hidden on Earth's moon and strange aliens watching over our planet as you fight your way through the game. My first advice is to press → at the start screen to go to the Options and set Effects to "reduced" so that the game becomes less of a deranged mess (this also turns off the vibration function). While we're at it, from the start screen ↓ selects the initial level from the ones you have already reached, ← takes you to the leaderboard/achievement lists and ↑ starts the actual game. Minor note: as much as I tried I couldn't figure out what Focus mode does in the Options screen.

Japanese trailer for Rym 9000 on the Playstation 4
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTrailers)

Quickly moving, visually dirty backgrounds scroll by as you dart into the clouds and then to outer space. Only a single input is used in the whole game so fire away with any button that does that in the controller, just note that whenever you're shooting the speed of the ship is reduced. Except for the final level all others share the same basic structure, including the parts halfway into the stage where you have the chance to pick one out of two new weapons. Lives work like this: if you get hit, the shot pattern will revert to a single double stream; after a short while a + item will appear, and as soon as you grab it you'll recover your current weapon; if you get hit before grabbing the + item you'll die. Deaths will take you back to the beginning of the level, with the same score and weapon you had when you first started it.

Rym 9000 is unique in many ways, but the way it treats deaths, as described above, is particularly elusive. From a credit perspective it means a GAME OVER / CONTINUE combo because it forces you to restart the level while preserving your previous score. This also means this isn't a shmup with infinite lives, where you could whore out the system for scoring advantages. The only way to see an actual GAME OVER screen is by quitting the game or finishing it. If you get confused when you get to that point (as I did), be aware that quitting is accomplished by pausing and holding ↓ for a few seconds until the down arrow at the bottom fills up.

In a rough comparison, Rym 9000 could be described as an assortment of caravan levels joined in a single game where you have only one/two lives per level. Gameplay is based on successive waves of different enemies coming up from all sides. They all arrive surrounded by a white aura that quickly turns to yellow and then to red. Destroying them when they're white returns more points than when they're red, so there you have the basis of the scoring system. The aura thing does not apply to bosses, but speed-killing them also gives you more points. What's particularly interesting in this case is that speed-killing is made easier by using the shot pattern that's active after you get hit since it's much more powerful than all other shot types, except for the Arrows weapon you acquire in stage 4. The risk/reward relation is clear: for better scoring possibilities you need to be at the brink of defeat, kinda like an alternate take on the same gimmick of Gunnail.

Unless you've memorized waves and attack patterns, being close to death isn't a good idea at all. Enemies are keen on displaying erratic movement, with all sorts of distinct behavior such as bouncing, homing, splitting and rotating/exploding, as well as being downright harmful when destroyed (some of them can't be killed or you'll be automatically hit). With very few exceptions, bullets and lasers come with huge sprites as an obvious compensation for the visibility mayhem. At the end of the day it works, provided you can cope with the aggressive visuals. One minor glitch I noticed in the scoring system is that the points you get for defeating the first boss aren't correctly applied so you end up scoring a little less than you should there. Fortunately that doesn't seem to be the case for rest of the game.

A moment of relative quiet amidst chaos

With such an otherworldly art design and all these quirks in the gameplay, Rym 9000 surely justifies being called unique. On the other hand, even though the game's identity is very clear it's hard not to think of it as yet another ambitious indie effort whose claim to fame is trying to make our eyes bleed. There's so much visual noise that snapshots can't do it justice, you need to try out and experience its particular kind of rush yourself. And unless there's more to it reserved for the future, the addition of a complex backstory is all but a misguided way to add content to the game, especially when you notice that the core experience is such a short one.

The disc release includes a TATE mode and several wallpapers if you decide to play it on a regularly oriented monitor. Even though the electronic music doesn't push the limits of the format in the same measure as the other features in Rym 9000 do, it still fits the tone nicely and represents the main extra of the retail Limited Edition in the form of a soundtrack CD. If you don't want to go for the retail release, the game is also available digitally for the PS4 and for PC fans/users by means of the Steam digital platform.

The online leaderboard available on the PS4 is very strict and allows only ten places, as seen in the picture below. My pure 1CC run (no deaths and stage restarts) was achieved by taking the following weapons: V in stage 1, Tricky in stage 2, Y in stage 3 and Arrows in stage 4. I think they're the best choices all around for screen coverage and power (note that some enemies are more vulnerable to certain weapons). As expected, playing this game felt different from the norm but it was equally fun.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Nanostray 2 (Nintendo DS)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed selectable (per level)
- - - - - - -
Developed by Shin'en Multimedia

Published by Majesco Entertainment in 2008

The best thing that can happen to a video game sequel is the feeling that things have really evolved and you're not just playing more of the same. I'm happy to state that Nanostray 2 is a prime example of that: a good, well designed sequel that takes the best out of the first game while moving things around a little in order to deliver a fresh, different and worthwhile shooting experience. Nanostray had flair, explosions and a nice challenge backed up by a neat sci-fi environment. The overall style and interface remains the same for Nanostray 2, but graphics are enhanced even further and stages now alternate between horizontal and vertical (which now unfold in a standard plane instead of the tilted perspective seen in the first game). Throw in a few gameplay changes and the improvement package is complete.

Another striking difference in Nanostray 2, at least for the more experienced shmuppers, is the amount of diverse influences developer Shin'en was able to incorporate into the gameplay. Think Gradius/Salamander meets Trizeal, with extra nods to games by Taito and even Cave. Of course everything is tailored to the handheld format with nice results, from the density in bullet patterns to the varying scrolling speeds you face across eight stages/planets with relatively long and varied campaigns. On top of that you're bound to listen to one of the best sci-fi soundtracks ever composed for a video game, an aspect that definitely plays a major part in understanding why Nanostray 2 is so engaging from the get go. And if you care about the story there are fully voiced intermissions between levels that flesh out the narrative quite nicely.

In every selected world you need to equip the ship before diving into the action. There are three preset speeds to choose from, as well as the choice of a special weapon and the preferred shot direction of your pods. Button A shoots, button B deploys a special attack and buttons L/R switch the position of the pods (no need to use the touchscreen at all, yay!). These pods/satellites are always absent when you start a level, but are also the first two items you get when destroying full enemy waves. That's an odd take on the weapon system, but it only causes real pressure in the Naizoh Habitat level (the 3rd one in the default order) since you must navigate a shower of organic flocks for quite a while with your pea shot until the first enemy wave appears.

Against the bullet sprays from boss Tessemi

Once the pods are acquired every single enemy wave that's obliterated will release a blue coin that refills a slice of the special attack gauge. Larger enemies and mid-bosses release yellow coins that give you some points. Coins always drift towards your current position as soon as they appear but never change course, so take that into consideration if you want to plan on getting them before they disappear (there's no attract effect as in the first Nanostray, unfortunately). The other item you might come across is the 1UP, which will only appear once per level if you happen to be on your last life. Pods aren't lost upon death if you have already got them within the stage.

Speaking of which, stage structure is always the same regardless of the scrolling orientation. Halfway into the level you must defeat a mid-boss, with a stage boss waiting at the end. An energy gauge tells you how much damage you must inflict before they fall, and in the case of some bosses the confrontation does seem a little longer than usual. These are the only moments where the game drags, but fortunately most boss fights are quite fun, requiring unique strategies from the player. The battle against second boss Tessemi, for instance, is one of my favorites because it's very claustrophobic. The overlapping pattern of fourth boss Ishigani om the other hand demands quite a few twitchy dodges, which is always a fun thing to have in a vertical shooter.

Completely up to the player's approach is the choice of special weapon. Their energy drainage of the special attack gauge varies, but since you're always refilling it with blue coins that doesn't pose any serious restraint in the long run. Each of the first three levels unlocks a new special weapon, so by the end of the third stage you'll have all six types available for selection. More important than the choice of special weapon, however, is your strategy for satellite usage. Knowing where the enemy is coming from is of course imperative, but beware of a minor dead zone up close to the pods where your firing stream does not do any damage. Enemies might get through it and inevitably kill you.

Nanostray 2 is a game that excels in diversity from beginning to end, especially with regards to the enemy gallery. Every level is unique, and some of them are just plain beautiful to look at. The sewer level, called Kohai City, is a prime example of amazing graphics, exquisite stage design, intelligent 3D modelling and outstanding music. Himuro Base, the final level, feels like a natural extension to the initial moments of Gradius Gaiden mixed with several other elements of Konami's most famous shmup frachise. With these observations I have come to the conclusion that in the case of Nanostray 2 stage highlights are in the horizontal sections, whereas vertical levels shine a little more during boss fights.

Official trailer for Nanostray 2
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayscopeTimeline)

The main mode in Nanostray 2 is Adventure, where you select stages and play them all until the end. Each level won is then unlocked for individual play in Arcade mode. Strangely enough, high scores are not tracked/memorized for Adventure mode, only for Arcade mode. The scoring system doesn't seem to change between them, and is primarily based on chaining enemy kills according to the time limit of the "nano gauge" (imagine a less strict Dodonpachi-like system and you get the picture). Unfortunately only Arcade mode includes some sort of visual aid for players to track their chaining progress, in the form of tiny multiplier tags that appear when enemies die. Adventure mode has no indication whatsoever, so I just tried to come up with a general sense of timing and worried only about destroying full waves to get their rewards (blue coins are also worth a few points). No end-of-stage bonuses exist this time around, unlike what we got in the first Nanostray.

Other variations available besides Adventure and Arcade (which also serves the noble purpose of single stage practice) include Challenge mode (where you must fulfill several short missions in order to unlock four simulators), Simulators (which consist of the mini-games unlocked by completing Challenge mode) and a couple of two-player distinct modes to try out with a friend. Given the fact that all simulators were available when I checked them out and I hadn't completed any challenge, I suspect that once you beat the game on a single credit they're all unlocked at the same time.

Except for the missed opportunities related to the scoring system, Nanostray 2 is by all means a truly awesome game. I beat Adventure mode on Normal difficulty with the final score shown below (pause as soon as the last boss dies or you won't be able to get a picture of your score). I followed the default stage order and used special weapons seeker in stages 1 and 2, pulse in stage 3 and spin for the rest of the game, with speed set to 1 and no alteration of pod positions from beginning to end.

Next in the Nano series of shooters is Nano Assault on the Nintendo 3DS.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Silver Surfer (NES)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Software Creations
Published by Arcadia Systems in 1990

When it comes down to the cosmic roster of Marvel Comics characters, Silver Surfer is probably the coolest one of them. Initially appearing as a supporting character in the adventures of the Fantastic Four, he was the first and most famous herald of the all powerful Galactus, devourer of planets. Rising up from a tragic past and a slew of ominous duties, the Surfer soon gained his own series and more notoriety, to the point of starring in his own video game. I can only imagine how awesome it might have been for a fan back in the 90s to control such an iconic comic book character in a shmup. Silver Surfer's reputation, however, soon delved into the ranks of oblivion thanks to successive reports of extreme difficulty, which for many people was reason enough to shun the game and make it infamous for all eternity.

The question that lingered since then, at least for me, is whether Silver Surfer is indeed the beast everybody says it is. I'm a sucker for comic book based media so I was already kinda engaged before even trying the game. As soon as I put my hands on it the reason for the hate became quite clear to me: kids at the time probably weren't akin to using turbo controllers, and since Silver Surfer is a shmup that demands a steady, intense firing rate, playing it without any means of autofire would be the equivalent to video game torture. On the other hand, if you have autofire from the get go there's no reason to fret as you accept yet another heroic mission imposed by none other than the almighty Galactus.

Mephisto and Reptyl unite against Norrin Radd
(courtesy of YouTube user KyperTrast)

Following the game's introduction the player must choose one of the five worlds that hide a piece of a powerful cosmic gadget. My suggestion is tackling the default order, which sees you battle through the domains of Reptyl, Firelord, Possessor, (Skrull) Emperor and Mephisto. Only when these five worlds have been conquered will you have a shot at the realm of Magik, apparently run by none other than X-Men's notorious villain Mr. Sinister – this is technically a spoiler, but one that doesn't make any sense storywise as you'll see from the visual appearance of the final boss. Each stage has three segments, with at least one of them being a vertical section where you see the character from above.

Shooting a single bullet is what button A does. SELECT triggers a screen-clearing bomb, provided you have one in stock. Button B is only functional once you get a silver orb that serves as an option and increments your firepower. It moves the orb's position around Silver Surfer: in horizontal parts the orb is switched between front, below and behind, whereas in vertical parts it's positioned at the front, sideways and behind. Additionally, with two orbs you're able to fire two additional bullet streams in vertical sections, as opposed to just one in horizontal ones. Besides the orb, which might appear from destroyed enemies or floating in fixed places, you'll also come across other very important items: F increases your firing rate and power, B gives you an extra bomb, an orange S acts as a speed-up and a silver S gives you an extra life (extends are also granted for every hundred thousand points scored).

Silver Surfer shows very nice production values. Graphics are creative and reflect the environments of the boss characters with a decent amount of detail (lame boss fights notwithstanding). The soundtrack composed by the revered Tim Follin is energetic enough to make you forgive the fact that there are only two very similar themes that repeat from beginning to end in all levels. As for the gameplay, all I can say is that Silver Surfer is a very demanding game that's best approached with an open mind. The rule is simple but allows little room for error: get shot or touch anything and you're dead meat. Die and restart at a previous checkpoint stripped of all powers you had already acquired. That said, it's important to mention that the extreme difficulty of the game is a myth.

Possessor shall fall

I'm well aware there are those who will fiercely contest my assessment of the game's difficulty. Many times I hear people stating it is "unfair", when in fact it's just "very strict". Yes, touching walls is deadly, often times you ram into something that kills you, the hitbox of that surfboard in vertical stages is huge and later levels tend to add enemies with erratic behavior on top of the character being clearly underpowered upon death. However, even though our hero comes out as a wimpy wreck instead of a badass cosmic entity, there are a few breathers we can rely on. The Surfer is able, for instance, to destroy some of the enemy bullets, and he can also wipe all enemies at once with a single bomb, a very useful resource that many people take for granted since it's activated by the SELECT button. After some practice the player can also hoard lots of extra lives, which is in line with the benefits brought about by successive credits. After all, just like in every classic shmup memorization is of utmost importance, especially when you realize all items are spawned in the very same place in every run.

My feeling is that Silver Surfer is a very special game in the NES library due to its particular setting. It's quite unique, even though Irem and Konami can be seen as the main sources of inspiration for gameplay and aesthetics. The game is definitely challenging and fun, frustating at times but never unfair. And the story bits shown in the introduction and in the intermission prior to the final stage are a treat for Marvel fans. Unfortunately Silver Surfer can't be played for score since it's easily exploitable by infinite milking on bosses. Those 4.000 points you get for each item picked up in excess will merely serve the purpose of gaining extends faster.

The picture below was taken as soon as the last boss was defeated. 1CC mission accomplished, now let's move on to the next challenge.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Go! Benny! (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by NTDEC / Mega Soft
Published by Gluk in 1992

Even without actually playing the game, it's a given for everyone that Go! Benny! (or Corre Benny, the clumsy title in Spanish) was never supposed to be anything more than just another piss-poor, derivative scrolling shooter with little in the way of excitement. Or fun. As an obscure and pale shadow of other bug-themed shmups such as Taito's Insector X, Go! Benny! puts the player in the shoes of a bee that must battle insects and other wildlife animals in a game that goes from point A to point B in an absolutely stale rhythm. What else could one expect from another unlicensed game by Mega Soft / NTDEC anyway?

Only button B is used in Go! Benny!, but try to get a turbo controller if you're not a fan of button mashing. As the box art indicates Benny the bee goes about with a bow and arrow, that's why his shots resemble darts. From the single dart of his default condition Benny evolves to a four-dart spreading pattern once he takes two power-ups. Items are concealed inside beehive nests that float on screen and must be dismantled with your firepower. Besides P for power-ups you'll also come across S for speed-ups and 1UP for extra lives. It doesn't get more complicated than that. There's at least one extra life per level, and even though the counter shows only four lives it still keeps track of the extra ones you pick along the way.

Happy bees and caterpillars after the rain

To be honest, the first impression I had of this game was not bad. Not much animation anywhere, but taking down butterflies and other bugs with fast-moving darts fits the bill nicely for a cheap NES shooter. Two or three speed-ups bring you up to a decent moving capability, dodging isn't too demanding and graphical themes follow some sort of natural logic with primitive parallax (garden, sunny rainbow day, mountain countryside, sunset, night time). The enemy gallery is marginally increased with each level won, with bosses consisting of larger creatures: a spider, a caterpillar, a deadly snail, a bat and a huge Parodius-inspired bird in the last stage.

Keeping it simple isn't a fault per se in any game. Simplicity can be blamed for an easy challenge / lack thereof or for low aesthetic standards, but never for bringing a game down on technical merits. Go! Benny! had all the ingredients to be a straightforward shooter of regular simplicity, but even this wasn't able for NTDEC to accomplish. As you fly up and down in your killing spree you'll inevitably come across instances where you'll die with no reason at all. You're just happily flying and then BAM! you're dead. It's as if the game wanted you to die no matter what. And depending where you stand you'll be too slow to overcome the next swarm of enemies, losing more lives right afterwards.

Speaking of dying, don't rush to get the items you want unless every cell in the honeycomb has been taken apart. If a single one is left and you touch it you'll die. Care must be taken with a specific enemy that might also come from behind, an ant that fires a single projectile that follows you around for some time before leaving the screen. Other than that, it's good practice to fly low and only go up when necessary, paying careful attention not to crash into slow-moving or spore-like bullets that often blend with the backgrounds.

Benny running on the first level of his game
(courtesy of YouTube user FamicomGuide)

Second to the crazy sudden deaths, another botched aspect of Go! Benny! is the scoring system. It's as straightforward as it gets, but that's not the problem. I can live with the fact that you don't see the score unless you advance from one level to the next or when the credit is over. However, high score buffering isn't well implemented since it seems that completion/1CC scores aren't computed correctly. During the couple of failed and full runs I did I noticed that one of my 1CC scores was much lower than the score I achieved right afterwards even though I bit the dust halfway into the final stage. Apparently all the points you get in the final level aren't added to the result of the clear.

Once the final boss is beaten players won't be treated to a proper ending. The victory song snippet plays and BAM! the game reverts back to the title screen. Benny does go (Benny corre) wherever he's supposed to go to destroy bouncing ants, snails, fireflies and flowers, but there is no special reward for him in the end. Nor for those brave or masochistic enough to get into his shoes.

Here's the high score I got after my final moments with the game:

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Seicross (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nichibutsu
Published by FCI in 1988

Have you ever wondered about how obscurity can hide cool games in plain sight? We can always blame it on their sources, as is the case with Seicross and developer Nichibutsu, which is mostly known by drab titles such as Moon Cresta and Terra Cresta. As a result, many shooter fans might have missed out on the tight arcade action of Sector Zone, which when ported to the NES had its name changed to Seicross.

I admit, on the outside Seicross isn't that much of a charmer. Blame it on the first impression of graphics (mostly dark scenery), music (not engaging at all) and controls (which feel kinda clunky on an initial contact, a sensation that's quickly forgotten once you get used to them). What Seicross does right, and that's often the reason why I appreciate any video game at its heart, is the nice challenge provided by decent gameplay rules and the continuous progression into more intricate levels and obstacles. That's why it ends up being an above average title no matter how you look at it.

Gliding to glory, here I go

The mission of the player is to glide through the grid surface of Seicross avoiding obstacles and dueling against the incoming hoverbikers arriving from all sides. According to the manual, you're piloting a powered mini-bike in order to rescue your fellows who escaped the wrath of an enemy race in planet Colura. Never mind the fact that you look like a postman while your opponents all wear cool helmets. Postman duties were never easy anywhere I guess, especially when you're dropped from a top hatch into such a dangerous field as in Seicross.

You can fire with any button in the controller, preferably with some sort of turbofire function because the game does not have it by default. Special attention must be taken to how long you hold the fire button though, since the more you shoot the faster your energy fuel runs out – in fact, if you don't let go of the button chances are you'll die horribly before you get to the first batch of radioactive fuel canisters. That doesn't mean however that Seicross is any close to fuel-critical games like Scramble. Just keep your cool and shoot as necessary and you'll be fine, the firing rhythm of the game isn't that taxing anyway.

Enemy bikers will always try to ram into you, but they never shoot anything. The good news is that you can ram into them as well, sending them to their deaths against walls/obstacles and still winning points for it. Bullets will always come from stationary turrets and enemies coming from the front. Dodging them isn't that complicated, but it's very common to get cornered by a bullet spread. I remember most of my deaths being due to crashing against something as I tried to grab one of the items the game threw at me. Besides the fuel canisters and the stray blue hostages found in the wild, one of the most common ones is the star uncovered by destroying green trees, which are worth 1.000 points. Dinosaur fossils hide a "Pilpul" alien that's worth 5.000 points, so don't ever stop shooting if you come across one of these skeletons.

Dinosaurs actually seem to be one of the defining elements in the enemy gallery. Seicross doesn't have any bosses per se, but all even levels end with at least two large dinosaurs that uncover weird heads also worth 5.000 points. Interesting details: while odd-numbered levels scroll at a fast speed, even-numbered levels scroll at a slower speed and are often crowded with more obstacles with no enemy bikers at all. Some special items such as swords, clocks, a pair of boots and 1UPs appear when you hit stone-like shells that get pushed forwards (with the exception of the 1UP none of them does anything noteworthy). That said, the most important item you can get is the special "power" star that's released by destroying a radar buoy that looks like a clown's head. It triples your firing stream and allows it to get through obstacles. According to the instruction manual, if you fail to destroy the radar buoy the enemy's attack gets stronger.

A quick credit of Seicross on the NES
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryuGL)

When going for higher scores the most precious items are the hidden brain tokens worth 10.000 points each, which appear and quickly drift towards the right side of the screen when hitting a few determined enemies. Scoring is also important because it's the main source of extra lives, first at 30.000 points and then for every 50.000 points afterwards. Finally, each saved blue man since the last time you died is worth 1.000 points at the end of the level. As you can see, playing for score involves many variables, and even though marathon runs are possible due to the game's difficulty plateauing once it loops Seicross is far from being a piece of cake. After the 6th stage the game displays the message GET TO PET and starts over with no fanfarre or proper ending screen, but the loops are restricted to the neverending repetition of only stages 5 and 6. The sixth level is especially claustrophobic, with lots of traps and tight spaces to move through. Keep in mind that it's safe to hug the upper/lower borders of the screen.

If you're able to accept the terribly monotonous soundtrack, Seicross is certainly bound to provide some fun thanks to the sci-fi Tron-like ambience and the emphasis on dealing with obstacles, bullets and random bikers trying to push you against walls in fast scrolling stages. I must confess that my general expectations for this game were pleasantly exceeded. If you happen to like it perhaps you should also try its spiritual sequel Magmax. I haven't done it myself, so that's probably one of the next NES titles I'll be playing.

If I remember correctly, the run for the high score shown below ended in stage 7-2.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Stinger (NES)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1987

Going by the name a lot of people might believe Stinger is a regular NES game, just like many others. At least that's what I thought for a while some time ago. Look closely though. It's actually a TwinBee title in disguise, in fact the second in the series after the arcade original and its NES port. Originally born on the Famicom Disk System and later converted to the cartridge format, it received a name change in the West that's quite puzzling and certainly makes it prone to bad jokes. Chances are you already heard people referring to it as "Stinker". I did so myself, after all I was never really into the gameplay of the TwinBee series to begin with.

The most noticeable alteration made on the cartridge release is the absence of the third simultaneous player (!) from the Japanese disk version. The three characters in the box cover are reminiscent of the original artwork but can't share the same screen anymore. Another major change is in the story, which sees you fighting evil aliens who kidnapped a genius professor in order to steal a sweetener formula from his brain (the start of the game shows a brief animation for the professor's abduction). The fate of the world rests in your ability to pilot a Stinger ship in order to rescue him. Even though it's not that much more accomplished – or challenging – than the original Famicom game, Stinger definitely packs more variety in colors and environments, as well as a whole different approach to bosses. Poor stage guardians, they've been reduced to wimpy wrecks that look like leftovers from Parodius or Fantasy Zone.

Besides the regular gameplay introduced in TwinBee, Stinger also incorporates a departure from the original formula that, to this day, is unique in the series. It sort of alternates the well-known vertical scrolling stages with horizontal ones. The relation isn't exactly symmetrical since only stages 1, 3 and 7 are horizontals. Strangely enough, gameplay behavior isn't the same across both types of levels.

Stinger to the rescue of professor Cinnamon
(courtesy of YouTube user GAMEINFO)

Starting from stage 2 the characters behave according to the classic gameplay of the franchise: shots are fired with button B and ground bombs are fired with button A. Many special items and upgrades can be collected at ground level, whereas hitting most incoming clouds releases yellow bells that can be juggled by successive shots. Once hit by a determined number of shots a bell switches to a different color before reverting back to yellow, then the shot cycle for a different color begins anew. The new colors provide the following upgrades: blue (speed up), red (laser), white (double shot), blinking blue (shield), blinking red (options). When collected successively, yellow bells increase in value from 500 to 1.000, 5.000 and 10.000 points, a number that's only reset to 500 if you lose a yellow bell or if you take a different bell color.

In horizontal levels both the aerial shots and ground bombs are fired with button B. Button A fires hearts upwards, but these can only be used to juggle bells (they don't hurt enemies). Ground enemies almost don't shoot in these levels so they aren't that much of a threat, which makes horizontal sections more manageable than the overhead ones. Even though the rules for bells remain the same in both types of levels, there's a pivotal difference between them when you get hit. If your arms are damaged in vertical areas an ambulance will cross the screen for you to heal them; if your main body gets shot you die and your ghost flies away to the top, but if you manage to get it back you recover not only your life but also the powers you had when you "died" (both the ambulance and the ghost happen only once per life). In horizontal sections you can recover only the ghost, with no ambulance in sight, which makes sense since the horizontal Stinger looks more like a regular ship and lacks the arms of the original TwinBee design.

There's no doubt the thrill of the game is in juggling yellow bells to maximize the score. However, in order to do that properly you need to acquire a minimum amount of upgrades. Besides a few mandatory speed-ups (blue bells), a good shot enhancer is very welcome. The best ones are obtained at ground level: a half moon gives you a 3-way shot and the star is supposed to give you a 5-way shot. In all my runs I never came across the star, but I found the half moon to be an all-around excellent weapon. In any case, there are so many other ground items to pick that learning what each one does might take a while. Most of them are converted into points (money bags and all sorts of strange symbols such as an ostrich head), some provide weapon enhancers (such as L and R, which give you single side shots) and a few others deserve more special attention. The cross, for example, grants you an extra life, while the professor's head serves as access to a bonus area after you beat the boss. There you'll only come across clouds with yellow bells in order to get as many points as you can before the time expires. No fruit is to be seen anywhere, as was the case with TwinBee. Besides the 1UP cross item, the game also grants score-based extends at 100K, 200K and then for every 200K until 1 million points.

Life is vertical too, you know

Powering up the ship also influences the music, which changes to a more upbeat higher tempo tune until you die or lose your weapon. This lack of variety in the soundtrack is only left aside during the final stage in outer space, which is actually the easiest one if you can get there with a decent speed + shot combo. As I mentioned above, the bosses are a joke and should pose no treat to anyone, that is as long as you're able to use a turbo controller for proper autofire (Stinger has no built-in autofire). Speaking of difficulty, the second loop adds very little in terms of challenge: just one type of enemy for each scrolling direction, and apparently a lower shot count for bell color cycling.

Due to the nature of the power-up system and the way enemy flocks behave, often ramming into you in erratic or unpredictable patterns, trying to power back up after dying can make you lose multiple lives very quickly. Vertical stages are especially aggravating on that matter. On the other hand, if you're able to cling to a powered-up ship with a shield chances are you'll cruise through the game very easily. As for co-op play, I never play my shmups with a friend but it's important to note that, just like in all other games in the series, Stinger allows you to join forces with your buddy to fire a more powerful shot pattern.

My longest credit ended in stage 3-4 (18) with the score below. The run was somewhat abbreviated by graphical glitches that appeared when I resumed playing after having to pause the game for a few hours. Coming up next in the series for me is TwinBee 3, still on the NES/Famicom.