Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Philosoma (Playstation)

Horizontal / Vertical / Rail
Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sony Computer Entertainment
Published by Sony Computer Entertainment in 1995

Even before I knew of how Philosoma played I happened to enjoy the game somehow. As a shooter fan, I've always played all sorts of variations of the genre, but my favorite ones were always those of the classic scrolling kind and the into-the-screen titles like After Burner. An ambitious game self published by Sony at the start of the Playstation lifetime, Philosoma dared to mix all the styles I mentioned above in a fully narrated, nicely animated story-driven outer space adventure, and by doing so it kinda catered to this personal dream I've ever had: the one of playing a shmup that changed its orientation frequently for a more cinematic, dynamic, fluid experience.

A lenghty intro details the formation of a special squadron sent to investigate a menace lurking in planet 220. The player assumes the role of a rookie pilot, initially taking the backseat in the action as the more experienced in the group fly ahead. Constant audio communication conveys tension during the battle, which switches perspectives very often and even puts the player in a situation of flying out of the screen, as in a rail shooter where you see the ship from the front instead of behind. Every single transition is animated into the next, in a total of four levels with several bosses and fast, relentless enemy waves. Each life has five shields, so death only comes when all shields are gone. A visible warning tells you when you're on your last remaining shield.

Intro to Philosoma, Western version
(courtesy of YouTube user TGApuleius)

The adoption of an energy bar for every life can be deceiving, for Philosoma is eager to eat away lives in a snap if you don't know what's coming. It's one of those shooters that value memorization a lot, with a strategic touch in the assortment of weapons at the player's disposal. There's a vulcan shot, a laser, a charge shot (A-Break) and a rear shot (Ray-B), all selectable at any moment at the press of dedicated buttons. Each one can be upgraded twice, but you need to be using the weapon for its power to be increased when picking up the corresponding item. All weapons are decent to use at any moment, but it took me some time to properly value the awesome power of the A-Break. Provided you have it maxed out (level 3), larger enemies and bosses yield much faster with well placed/timed charge shots.

Some items are certain to be generated every time in the same place, others are random. A green POW provides one upgrade to the currently selected weapon, while the purple POW maximizes all of them instantly. SHIELD recovers one energy hit, 1UP grants an extra life, BGR adds a bomb (a.k.a. buster grenades) to the bomb stock and only one type of auxiliary missiles can be activated for the current life (SRM for homing missiles, MRM for straight missiles). With an extend also achieved at every 100.000 points, one could say Philosoma isn't stingy at all on extra lives. A tiny detail in the power-up system is that every time you take an item you become invincible for a split second.

Experienced players will surely know where the inspiration for the abovementioned detail comes from. There are many others, including the classic rail shooters from Sega, the Thunder Force series, biological themed arcade titles like X-Multiply and even unexpected stuff like Xenon 2 (which is evident in the main boss fight of the 2nd stage). A particular part of this level throws a special nod to the Macross universe as the ship assumes a Gerwalk-like form and slides over a flat plane that sounds like something straight out of  a horizontal variation of Viewpoint. There might be more throwbacks to other games in there, but these are the ones that stand out the most.

The A-Break weapon in its full glory

On visual merits the game has a mix of standout moments and only a few segments with poorly designed textures, the latter mostly during rail shooting sections. The first stage is particularly tame when compared with the rest of the game, which boasts some rather impressive backgrounds. The level of variety also follows the constant shift in scrolling perspectives, even though the highlights are reserved for the horizontal parts due to the best results in mixing 3D polygons and sprite art. In that sense Philosoma predates more famous shmups like Thunder Force V, R-Type Delta and Einhänder. An excellent example of graphical and musical prowess is the section in the 3rd stage/phase that starts with a descent in a diagonal shaft followed by gigantic fan blades and a fast scrolling area, ending with an awesome revolving background. Most of the time the music is of a subdued nature and works well with the graphical style, but some tracks (like the one of the section above) do shine a bit more.

As engaging and exciting as Philosoma visually is, it's kinda baffling that Sony let players down by finishing the game with one of the most anticlimactic final bosses I've ever seen. At first I thought an enormous, menacing creature would emerge from that huge dome, but the thing just fades away as the end movie starts rolling. The emphasis on the FMV snippets, which are unlocked in a special movie gallery as you advance through the stages, is also another aspect that irks me a little. Why not give some love to the scoring system, for example? Not only does the game ignore high scores completely, but the size and visibility of the score in that transparent HUD are horrible. I had a hard time getting a proper picture of my result as I was fighting the final boss.

It would be amazing if a worthy STG developer looked back at the great possibilities hinted by Philosoma. Fleshing out the graphics and adding a scoring system that goes beyond the kill'em all basic rule would do it for me. Recent titles like Astebreed follow the same structure, but somehow fail to capture the idea of the multiple perspective design like Philosoma did. After all, it manages to deliver great atmosphere with intense action and tight gameplay. It's a rarely seen experience that every fan of the genre should have the chance to try.

My best 1CC result on the Normal difficulty is below. The last sight you'll ever have of your score in any run is this one during the fight against the last boss. Depending on the chosen difficulty, different epilogues narrated by different characters appear in the end. Control inputs can be selected from six distinct preset configurations. I used type E.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

L-Dis (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by NCS / Masaya
Published by NCS / Masaya 
in 1991

Fantasy themes where characters are abducted to live a great adventure have always been present in video games since I can remember. One of the most noteworthy entries of this kind of story in the shmup genre is Dragon Spirit. Even though it didn't achieve the success or notoriety of Namco's arcade/console classic, Masaya's L-Dis also has a main character being drafted into a fantastic but perilous adventure, one that certainly does not disappoint if you're a fan of horizontal shooters in general. It's leaps and bounds above Toilet Kids, for example, another PC Engine quirky game that also uses the abduction motif.

Granted, L-Dis is quite an obscure title, and it could never aspire to anything more than that since it was never released out of Japan. The game's story starts when a boy and a girl are drawing creatures and objects on a wall, then the girl gets kidnapped by an evil guy and the boy boards a spaceship that looks like a fish to rescue her. The catch is that their drawings become the enemies across six increasingly longer levels that show lots of inspiration from the Gradius series. Does that get you interested? A word of warning though: L-Dis is inspired by Gradius but doesn't play like Gradius at all, and I mean this as a compliment.

The start of a dangerous journey
(courtesy of YouTube user Old Games Database)

A colorful, cutesy shooter on the outside, this game actually presents a few interesting challenges for the player. One of them is figuring out the upgrade items brought by harmless floating yellow balloons. Since they're only differentiated by kanji characters, it does take a while to know what you're getting. The good news is that they always cycle in the same order when spawned, with three types of items to consider. The first one is the power-up / speed-up. The second one is the auxiliary shot, which has three forms (a straight type, a bomb/missile type and a special shot that passes through walls). The third item is the bomb / 1-hit shield. Auxiliary shots are fired by trailing options (2 max, no upgrades), you can carry only one bomb (it trails behind the options) and a maximum of three shields can be stocked at any given time.

Before starting the game you can choose to watch a tutorial by pressing left or right (in the end of the message はい means YES and いいえ means NO). Then you must choose one out of three weapon configurations. The best advice is to try them all to check which one fits your play style better, but suffice it to say you're bound to see some weird shot sprites, such as women's shoes, hatchets, pointy fingers or crawling toothpastes. Once the choice is made you're ready to go: fire with button II, drop the bomb with button I. Autofire is there by default, as is the possibility of losing lives in a snap with almost no breathing room on respawn. You do get the chance to recover some of the lost power-ups though.

L-Dis holds the distinction of having lots of sections within a level, with one or more mid-bosses prior to the main stage boss. The adventure begins above a city landscape, then descends into street level prior to a scramble outside a huge battleship that leads to an encounter with a revamped version of Big Core. From then on the challenge picks up in an underwater level and inside a factory filled with walker mechas, lasers and tricky hatches, ending in a lengthy boss rush with lots of cramped passageways in between deadly moving cylinders. The sheer amount of variety (stages and enemies), the sudden shifts in scrolling speed (5th boss, escape to the final boss) and the constant need to navigate tight corridors provide a remarkable challenge that's somewhat detached from the cute aspect of the whole package.

Watched by green eyes and guarded by green mechas

While technically very competent, L-Dis chokes a little bit when the screen gets too cluttered with bullets. Though not common and mostly present in the final parts of the game, the slowdown in these moments is actually welcome for survival. The final stages are also quite stingy in upgrade items, so do you best to get there with a fully powered arsenal. An interesting fact about maximum firepower (besides the long time it takes to be achieved) is that while the main shot sprite increases in size its efficiency is actually dimished. It can't get through tight spaces and turns out slightly less powerful, probably due to the reduced firing rate and the appearance of two side shots whose nature depends on the chosen arms configuration. In any case, these late side shots are very helpful and certainly compensate for the main shot power loss. And just for some basic rank routine, note how those mechas in stage 5 start to shoot thicker laser beams if you get there on a single life.

L-Dis isn't overly hard, but does require a good knowledge of what's coming. There's something shady about the scoring aspect though. Bonuses are registered every time you pick up a surplus power-up or bomb, but they seem to be random. Sometimes you get mere 100 points, only to win 100.000 points in the next one for no special reason at all. At times I thought it was the yellow color of the item badges, but it doesn't seem to be the case. 100 grand is a great figure not only for the overall score but also because extra lives are awarded at every hundred / two hundred thousand points, with a couple also granted as you enter the chamber for the final boss. A few bosses might allow some milking, but it's quite tricky to pull it off consistently.

With intro and ending sequences that properly present/give closure to a story that's akin to an urban faery tale, L-Dis also counts with crystal clear voice works, lovely parallax effects in several places and a nice soundtrack to match the wackily cute but solid challenge level. My best 1CC score is below, playing on Normal difficulty with the arms-B configuration. I did not do any milking whatsoever in this run.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

King of Fighters - Sky Stage (Xbox Live)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by MOSS
Published by SNK Playmore in 2010

As much as I prefer the likes of Street Fighter and Capcom brawlers in general, I must concede that The King of Fighters also has an enormous appeal within the fighting game community. I had my share of Fatal Fury back in the 16-bit days, but my actual experience with KOF was null until I knew about King of Fighters - Sky Stage (occasional rounds at friendly gatherings don’t count). Having those flashy, cocky characters flying in glorious shoot’em up fashion was right up my alley, if you know what I mean.

Born in the arcades, Sky Stage soon appeared worldwide for the Xbox Live Arcade service. Even though it was met with lukewarm feelings by pretty much everybody, I kept a soft spot for it ever since for a couple of reasons. One of them was its likeness to the Shikigami No Shiro series. The other was the absolutely awesome action-driven soundtrack. I also found the game quite challenging from a few test runs, an aspect that was surely put to the test in my gaming room recently.

The reason why we have KOF characters flying in this game is this: in order to rescue fighters trapped in Orochi's dimensional prison, Chizuru Kagura endowed a group of heroes with the ability to fly through the skies, using their skills to shoot down various demons and wraiths. Fans of the series who're keen on trying this different approach will certainly recognize common attacks and variations, as well as witness characters in new clothing as bosses or in special cameos along the way. The only "problem" is that KOF Sky Stage is a very hard bullet hell shooter, one that demands fierce dedication and more often than not tends to drive away casual players. For a lighter take on the game you can check the watered down secondary port that was included as an extra mode in the PSP title Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting.

Iori dropping his level 3 special move

Taking to the skies with any of the six available fighters is accomplished with the following buttons, all configurable: shot, bomb, special move and provocation. The first two are self-explanatory. Special moves can be done in three different manners: tap and you get the basic level 1 attack, or hold and release the button according to the power gauge in order to trigger two more powerful attacks (levels 2 and 3). Every time a special move is used a portion of the power gauge is consumed, then automatically refilled for another use. You can't shoot when using it, and as expected the more powerful the special move the longer the power bar takes to recharge (note that some special moves also have a secondary gauge that measures the duration of the attack). As for the provocation input, it covers the screen with a red hue and puts all enemies in overdrive mode, considerably increasing the difficulty for some time while affecting the scoring system (keep reading).

As a rule of thumb, all characters have some sort of defensive special move, but the girls certainly weren't given the best options on these. Kula Diamond, Athena Asamiya and Mai Shiranui all need to deploy level 2 or level 3 moves to obtain some sort of defensive edge, whereas Iori Yagami, Kyo Kusanagi and Terry Bogard can all nullify bullets with a single level 1 move. Kyo does carry the best defense due to his fireball, an attack that's also excellent for scoring since it's able to obliterate lots of bullets and cannon fodder in a single blow. On the other hand, his bomb has the shortest reach of all and will do no damage if you stand too far from your target. I'm quite fond of Athena's level 2/3 moves (deflecting mirrors, invincibility) as well as Mai's level 2 ricocheting attack, it's just too bad their shot patterns tend to be confusing and lack power. Kula has a great spread shot and cool special moves though, unlike Iori's weak shard pattern and lackluster specials.

Using all these moves to survive the mayhem is nice and fun, but the game takes on a whole new level when played for score. The first component of this is the hit combo: kill enemies within a certain time between each other (~3s) and watch the combo meter rise; if you lose the chain this number is reset; every time you get 100 hits an extra bonus is granted. The second component is the proximity bonus: every enemy releases one or more medals for pick-up, and the closer you are when you destroy them the higher their values will be; gold medals are worth 1.000 points, silver medals are worth 500 points and bronze medals are worth 200 points each.

Getting hit within the level itself resets both the medal counters and the combo meter. Everything from then on (or since the stage start) will be on hold for the end-of-stage bonus. If you succeed in killing the boss without getting hit you'll get the number of gold medals × 2.000, silver medals × 1.000, bronze medals × 500 and max combo × 2.000. If the boss hits you the only bonus you'll reap is max combo × 2.000. This obviously stresses the importance of flawless survival play for your scoring results. The worst that can happen is getting shot right before the boss, a situation that will grant you virtually no bonus at all. A hit at the very start of the level, on the other hand, does not affect scoring that much.

Now for the practical use of the provocation/taunt button: when active, all medals that would regularly be of the bronze kind will appear as silver medals instead. The potential scoring boost is obvious, of course, but be my guest in dealing with the crazy difficulty spike!

Taking Kyo Kusanagi for a 1CC ride in the 1st loop of KOF Sky Stage

By striking a nice balance in the risk × reward ratio, Sky Stage manages to remain attractive to both survivalists and score chasers. The game does start in a moderate tone, but as soon as the second stage kicks in the action gets much more hectic. Going the distance will require lots of practice, and even though the game allows stage select I seriously wish there were other training alternatives, such as a specific practice mode for bosses. After all, in stages 2, 3 and 4 you might face one out of two enemies (boss A or B). Fortunately there is a way to choose which boss you'll face in these levels: in the stage prior, as soon as you defeat the boss park your character on the side of the screen that aligns with the next boss choice (for example, after you beat Athena move left to fight Kyo or move right to fight Iori as the 2nd stage boss). Important: if you don't want to be challenged by Kula Diamond after you beat Orochi Shermie / Rugal Bernstein, do not use special moves when killing off the first three bosses.

Learning how to deal with different boss variations is just one of the things that make KOF Sky Stage quite a significant challenge. Besides that, players also need to cope with an absolute lack of slowdown, no extends / energy recovery of any kind and a bomb stock of only three for the whole credit. The only refreshments you'll get are score-based extra bombs, the first coming with 2 million points and further ones at every 4 million afterwards. The game is always at a default nominal rank, which only decreases a little on boss fights if you get to them after getting hit. Speaking of bosses, a good advice is to abuse point blanking whenever they stay idle. Depending on the chosen character you might inflict lots of damage, thus abbreviating the battle, avoiding some of their nastier patterns and getting better boss crash bonuses. Note that bosses also have a MAX attack gauge that fills up during the fight and might be unleashed at any random moment (you can try to predict them by always sticking to the same strategy though).

One of the traits Sky Stage shares with the Shikigami No Shiro series is the complete absence of ground enemies. The art design is also similar, even though Sky Stage bears a grittier look and has in-your-face bullet patterns that seem a lot more menacing due to the lack of slowdown. There are cool character panels throughout with nice English voicing and well made, concise interactions for a storyline that will make more sense for longtime fans of the regular series (turn Event to OFF if you don't want to see the story bits). Access to a second loop is granted if you beat the game in a single credit while killing all five character cameos and collecting the invitation letters they carry. Suffice it to say, the second loop is a lot harder with suicide bullets and much faster enemy attacks, but if you get to the end again you'll then face Omega Rugal, the game's True Last Boss.

Co-op and a Versus mode with distinct gameplay rules complete the package for those who enjoy tagging along (or against) a friend. I did not venture into these modes at all though. I dedicated myself to the main game ever since I started playing, trying to devise optimal routes and approaches to achieve complete stage chains while collecting the most gold medals. The character I felt most comfortable with was Kyo Kusanagi. Some of his fellows might have better chances at survival or scoring, but the fireball certainly shines for easier possibilities in getting more gold.

Character balance notwithstanding, if there's one thing I wish KOF Sky Stage did differently is the implementation of a focus shot / speed decrease button, simply because it would make dodging busy patterns a lot easier. My final score with Kyo on Normal difficulty is below, reaching stage 2-1. There is an online leaderboard available for the game, but I haven't gone online with my Xbox 360 in ages.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Macross (NES)

Checkpoints OFF / ON
1 Difficulty level
1 Stage (loopable)
Ship speed selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Big West / Namco
Published by Namco in 1985

Given the success achieved by the Super Dimension Fortress Macross sci-fi anime series, which originally aired in 1982, it was just a matter of time for a video game to be released based on it. The Nintendo Famicom had the honor to be the chosen platform. However, since Macross (or Chōjikū Yōsai Macross for completeness sake) came out during the system’s infancy, not much excitement was/is to be expected due to its simple, repetitive design.

Graphics are primitive and lack detail even for 8-bit game standards. The cheesy music is also totally forgettable. In all honesty, only longtime fans of the anime might be thrilled by such a primitive little shooter. And kids who played it back then, of course, after all nostalgia lives forever.

Unique boss

In this first Macross shmup the player controls a transformable VF-1 Valkyrie fighter in a neverending battle against an invading race of giant humanoid aliens known as the Zentradi (yes, I retrieved this sentence from Wikipedia since I know absolutely nothing about the series). The Valkyrie is a very versatile machine that shoots with button B and can assume three different forms with combinations of button A and directionals, as described below:
  • Fighter mode (→ + A) – acts as a jet fighter; in this form the screen scrolls the fastest but the Valkyrie has the slowest moving speed, with no autofire at all;
  • Gerwalk mode (↑ + A) – acts as a "chicken walker" mecha; scrolling and moving speed are average when compared with other Valkyrie modes, with average autofire;
  • Battroid mode (← + A) – acts as a humanoid mecha; moves at the highest speed against the slowest screen scrolling of all modes, and has bidirectional shooting capability with fast autofire.

All forms of the VF-1 Valkyrie fire a single laser shot that cannot be upgraded at all. Limiting the firing rate of the different modes is therefore extremely odd, so my best advice is to use a turbo controller for a slightly better enjoyment of the game. Besides its regular firepower, the Valkyrie can also shoot out a a flock of homing missiles with the SELECT button. The stock for this extra attack is increased by taking the M item. Other items you might randomly come across are energy refills (P), 5.000 bonus points (B) and extra lives (E). Shooting the icons propels them forward, which might be necessary lest they appear inside the mine fields from round 2 onwards.

Each life comes with an energy bar that, when depleted, sends the player back to the very start of the round/loop. The loop is extremely short with only two sections where you fly in outer space until you reach the entry to the enemy fortress that hides the boss. Beat him and start all over again with a slightly harder difficulty and some extra enemies (the abovementioned mine fields, new Zentradi fighters, turrets prior to the fortress entry). Every new loop refills the energy bar and adds two units to the stock of special attacks. The stretch inside the fortress up until the boss is timed, and when the boss is destroyed the player collects a reward for time and energy left. Since you gain a lot more from the time bonus than from the energy in reserve, I always prefer to switch to fighter mode so that I can finish that section as fast as I can. In the initial half my preferred way to go is the Gerwalk mode, because if you choose Battroid the game seems to take forever.

One round/loop of Macross on the Nintendo Famicom
(courtesy of YouTube user germaster22)

All things considered, at least Macross does everything right in its simplicity, except for the unresponsiveness of the special attack on the SELECT button. The challenge increase seems to hit a plateau very early on, but there's a catch. Though very similar in structure to TransBot, released at around the same time for the Sega Master System, the loops in Macross become increasingly longer as the game progresses.

Longer levels are actually what made me think a little higher of this game. On a quick glance it could be considered another neverending marathon, but fortunately the game does become more demanding during higher, longer loops. In round 10, for example, my life stock finally started to go down, simply because it gets harder to get from one P item to the next and also because missile-firing enemies become more frequent. That's also when I noticed that fuel/energy actually depletes by itself very, very slowly.

Don't fret if you notice the score display roll over once you get to one million points. The correct high score can be seen in the brief intro animation after you press start to begin the credit. I was able to reach loop 12 and could've gone a little further, but once the score counter rolled over one more time I decided to call it quits and give away the rest of my lives to the Zentradi. Here's the final result I got:

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Airwolf (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Kyugo
Published by Kyugo in 1988

First of all, let's get one thing straight about this game. This blog post is about the Japanese version released for the Famicom by Kyugo. It's a horizontal shooter that loosely resembles the arcade game of the same name. The Airwolf released for the NES in US and Europe by Acclaim is a completely different title that uses an inside-the-cockpit view for a totally boring experience that has nothing of the excitement the TV series was famous for. This doesn't mean that the Japanese game is the epitome of badass helicopter action though. For all its flaws and overall ineptitude, one could say it's almost as inane as its Western counterpart.

Airwolf is the codename of a high-tech helicopter equipped with heavy armament and stealth capabilities. It takes off from its hidden lair to fulfill secret missions around the world. According to the Famicom game, the ultimate mission is to rescue the pilot's brother, missing in action years ago and held hostage by an evil organization. To accomplish that you'll need to get through six stages of increasing perils armed with a combination of two types of weapons selected at the start of every mission. While this sounds great on paper, the execution unfortunately fails to live up to the legacy of such a great TV show. Slowdown, unstable frame rates, flicker, bad visibility, lack of autofire + capped firing rate, unresponsive controls, inertia... in essence, everything you need for another dose of inglorious 8-bit torture.

Cold, cold war

As mentioned above, prior to starting the level you need to equip the chopper. Button B cycles the primary weapon: chain guns (a 2-way shot that resembles "double" from Gradius), cannon (a very slow straight bullet) and falcon (like cannon, but faster). Button A cycles the secondary weapon: hellfire (a 45° downward shot), red eye (90° falling bombs) and copperhead (missiles fired downward at a 30° angle). Any weapon combination is possible, just note that some of them have similar design: chain guns + hellfire results in a 3-way spread shot, whereas falcon + copperhead combine the same bullet types for much stronger firepower. The only use for the cannon is being devastating at point-blank distance (tip for the final stage!). As for the red eye, it's pretty much useless.

Once the game begins, the player shoots with button B. Button A is of special nature since it toggles the supersonic capability of the Airwolf. When active, the helicopter flies at "supersonic" speed while being invulnerable and consuming the fuel gauge shown at the top of the screen. You don't need to worry about depleting fuel, if that happens you'll just be unable to engage in supersonic flight. The bad news is that unless you're qualified as a grade A button masher you'll need a decent turbo controller. The firing rate is severely capped and the only way to increase it is by taking the POW items left behind by selected destroyed enemies. The game only becomes acceptable after you take at least a couple of those.

Other items to be found consist of smart bombs (stars), extra lives (1UP) and a bonus token of 3.000 points. They are almost always released by destroying single jets that zap from behind trying to ram into you. Approximately halfway into some levels you'll also come across a stronger opponent that flies back and forth and takes a lot more hits to be destroyed. These minibosses are often escorted by lots of other enemies, so don't hesitate to use the supersonic speed if things get too hectic. One example of this is in stage 2, where bullets fired by antennas on the top of the buildings also tend to block your firepower.

Speaking of bosses, the main ones (except for the final boss) must be fought as if you were playing a gallery shooter. The problem is that these parts are plagued with a combination of reduced framerate, apalling slowdown, unresponsive controls, crosshair inertia (!) and just sheer confusion. You can't really tell the reason why your energy gauge goes down, for example. For all it's worth it's at least a harmless chore, for never once did I die in one of these bosses no matter how sloppy I played.

Sample credit of Airwolf, Famicom version
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

Despite all its shortcomings, Airwolf packs a surprisingly decent enemy gallery. It's not all about jets and choppers. Tanks, turrets, submarines, fast-moving missiles, slow bombers dropping rockets, falling missiles that go out in a huge flash, evil faces carved in the mountains. Stage themes range from the lakes and mountains of the countryside, city, caverns, ice and a desertic entry into the enemy headquarters prior to two timed sections where you fight the aforementioned carved sculptures and the final enemy helicopter. It's just too bad the game's execution is so poor. That said, the music is the only aspect that fares a little better. Though technically subpar, it includes the famous opening theme and in general tries to capture the essence of the show.

Since the 1UP will always be there even if you die and get sent back to a checkpoint, there's at least one instance in each level where you can exploit this to boost your score. Yes, the scoring system might be broken, but given the firing rate issues it's not uncommon to see that 1UP go away in between your shots. Note that there are also score-based extends, but these are awarded with successive double figures starting with 50.000 points (next ones at 100K, 200K, 400K, etc.).

An interesting twist in this version of Airwolf is the rescue command passcode gimmick. A combination of 5 numbers is shown at the end of levels 1 through 5. If you want to see the ending after you beat the final boss you must enter all five passcodes correctly or the game will end abruptly with that dreadful view of the Statue of Liberty fallen to the ground. A pen and a sheet of paper should suffice, there's plenty of time to write down the passcodes and to type them in the end. Time, however, is what you absolutely don't have to take note of your final score since it's shown very briefly once you defeat the last boss. After that you'll input the passcodes, see the ending, see the credits and then get stuck in a THE END panel.

Well then, if you just want to see your completion/1CC high score you might as well refuse to insert the passcodes and check it out at the start screen after the GAME OVER. Would failing to see the ending still count as a legit clear, I wonder? Anyway, I did it the hard way and filmed the game's final moments, so here's the 1CC score I got for Famicom Airwolf. I used chain guns + copperhead all the way, with the exception of chain guns + hellfire in stage 3 and cannon + copperhead in the final level.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Tetrastar - The Fighter (NES)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Home Data
Published by Taito in 1991

We all know the Famicom/NES was huge in its prime period. Even though the wonders of the 8-bit generation are way behind us, kids from the 80s happily enjoyed countless hours of fun with games that are still fun to play today. The mainstream genres were pretty much covered with instantly recognizable classics, an affirmation that sadly cannot be applied to rail shooters. In reality, most people would say that the 8-bit hardware wasn't tailored to handle them at all. At least until you decide to expose them to Tetrastar - The Fighter.

An impressive display of 8-bit processing marvel, Tetrastar is as smooth as it gets and comes filled with effects you wouldn't imagine possible at all on the NES. This excellence is also present in Cosmic Epsilon, another rail shooter released a few years back and co-developed by the same company that's just as good – and obscure – as this one. Even though they're easily the best rail shooters for the Famicom none of them came out of Japan, which is a shame.

In the future world of Tetrastar - The Fighter, Earth is under attack by a former alien ally that has gone evil. The only hope we have is a fleet of powerful spaceships and a navbot that looks like a robot dog. The animated opening, the several in-game cinematics and a slew of cut scenes with Japanese text further detail the story with remarkable depth, which is rather unusual for a shooter. Fortunately all the exposition is very well done, never disrupting and always skippable. It even throws some advice as to how you should behave during the game, to the point that the lack of knowledge in Japanese certainly detracts from the experience. You'll never really grasp, for example, the turmoil behind that segment where the Earth armada flies into the first warp gate or why during a brief passage the ship looks like a tie fighter from Star Wars, among other dramatic moments the pilot duo go through while chasing bad guys throughout the galaxy. All is not lost though, for a translated ROM exists for those who can emulate. :)

The start of a remarkable journey through the galaxy
(courtesy of YouTube user nesguide)

Button B is used to fire your main gun whereas button A is only active after you acquire at least one of the four special weapons. These are switched at the press of the SELECT button and consist of a "wide blaster" spread bomb (WID), an air-to-air homing missile (AAM), a napalm bomb that shakes the ground as it follows its fiery trail (NAP) and a chargeable bio-cannon (BIO). It's very important to take all the items that appear inside pink bubbles and stay on screen for a few seconds if you want to obtain additional ammo for their usage. Even though I didn't get to check that further, these icons might also provide some level of firepower upgrading.

Moving around the screen and never staying put is, of course, rule number one in any rail shooter. However, Tetrastar is different in that most of the time you're given lots of room to move and dodge those spinning 8-shaped bullets. It is, in fact, one of the easiest rail shooters I have ever played, both on the account of the softer challenge and the high number of extends earned as you play (some huge stage completion bonuses totally engulf the extend routine). Granted, you'll still have to face tricky areas where deaths are almost unavoidable if you haven't memorized them yet, such as the spiralling drones in stage 3 or the huge spaceships that ram into you in stage 6.

There are several reasons why I would recommend Tetrastar - The Fighter even to those who're not into this often neglected subgenre. Besides the great scrolling effects, the friendly difficulty and the involving storyline, there's also the outstanding diversity in gameplay. The game starts out epic enough as you need to defend New York from the alien invasion, but then it drifts into outer space, making you fly through blazing fast laser corridors and putting you against several alien fleets. Hazards also include enemies scrolling sideways, quickly-shrinking blockades, energized barriers, vertical rockets and bosses with several protected cores. Boss destruction is particularly neat in that some of them fall apart as if collapsing into multiple energy bubbles. These are the only moments when the game shows some slowdown, or perhaps it's just there for cinematic purposes.

In any case, this game needs to be seen it in motion. Static snapshots such as the one below don't do it justice.

Wide blaster armed and ready!

Tetrastar - The Fighter might not be that tough to beat, but it does pack an interesting scoring challenge. Each life in reserve is worth 140.000 points after you beat the final boss. Speaking of which, be warned that if the timer runs out in the final stage the game ends regardless of life stock. The good news on this is that in the final level you're given unlimited ammo for special weapons, so fire away those AACs and BIOs at will, if possible using a turbo controller for the AACs (there's no autofire at all in Tetrastar, so any kind of artificial autofire is definitely recommended). On the subject of special weapons, I rarely used the ground-based ones (WID and NAP) because I felt the ship's speed is enough to normally target most ground enemies.

If there's an aspect that isn't on par with the rest of this charming little game, that's definitely the soundtrack. You'd normally expect a collection of sci-fi inspired tunes to go along with the action, but instead all you'll listen to are classic songs of public domain. There's nothing wrong with their renditions per se, but it's impossible not to be thrown off a little when the music reminds you of something like Parodius... I wonder if that was a conscious decision by the developer or if they just ran out of money to hire a proper composer. A nice debug feature (check it here) gives access to a sound test, a stage select option and a few other tweaks – that's how I knew the game actually has 7 stages broken down into several checkpoint segments.

After the pilot (or pilots for the alternate ending) returns to Earth for a fireworks celebration over the New York city harbor the display for the final score appears for a few seconds only, so do your best to record it if you want to keep a historic memory of how well you performed in the game. Afterwards the screen halts in an ending panel and you need to reset the console to play again.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Steam-Heart's (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Giga / TGL
Published by TGL (Technical Group Laboratory) in 1995

A quick look from the outside won’t tell you that Steam-Heart’s is a special kind of shooter. Originally released for the NEC PC-98 series of personal computers, it gained its first port for the PC Engine CD practically at the end of the system’s lifespan. This port was actually the last shmup officially released for the platform, but this distinction is often overshadowed by the fact that the game's storyline is totally bent on a hentai approach. The same goes for the secondary Saturn port, even though that one has its own share of differences.

What’s interesting about the hentai in Steam-Heart’s for the PC Engine CD is that non-Japanese players might actually go through the whole game without noticing any of the sexually charged content. The problem is that the several pseudo-explicit cut scenes showing the game’s protagonists raping the defeated female pilot bosses take too long to load, have too much dialogue for too little imagery and can only be skipped in their entirety. In a nutshell, impatient pervs won't be too happy. Despite the cheaper production values, for example, Divine Sealing on the Mega Drive did a better job with its panel-by-panel skipping.

Anyway, when you exclude the hentai part from the game what’s left is a conventional shooter that draws inspiration from many contemporary titles for an uneven experience with above average difficulty.

Intro, unskipped pilot chatting and full 1st stage of Steam-Heart's
(courtesy of YouTube user 8-bit Days a Week)

There are two characters to choose from, a guy named Blow and a girl named Falla. They're both able to fire two types of shots selected with proper items, but their attacks differ a bit: Blow has a straight laser and his vulcan shot acquires some spread when upgraded, Falla’s vulcan has no spread but her thin laser gains two spread side shots later on. Vulcan (V) and laser (L) are powered up by always sticking to the same item. Auxiliary weaponry exist in the form of straight missiles and homing orbs, which have no upgrades and always disappear when a new level starts. Temporary shields and health/energy refills complete the item gallery.

As indicated by the HUD on the right side of the screen, the ship starts out with seven energy points that can be replenished with the abovementioned refill item. However, you also recover one energy cell in every transition (stage to stage and stage to the final boss chamber). If this health gauge is depleted the credit ends, but continues and stage selection are allowed for every level you have already reached. Besides shooting, which is accomplished with button I, button II provides a secondary input that's used to make the ship move very fast in a dash maneuver – it's the same gimmick of the Rayxanber series, only without the overheating limitation.

In terms of visuals, Steam-Heart's is a game with lots of highs and lows. The backgrounds of the first two levels are so bland that first impressions might be the worst possible. The first stage is also too long, which doesn't help either. Provided you're able to get past this initial lethargy you're in for a surprisinly busy third stage though. From that point on the game picks up both the pace and the quality of the graphics, peaking in stage 6 as you face a shower of indestructible asteroids prior to dealing with a series of drone waves and bulkier ships. It's nothing fancy but it works (there's no parallax scrolling, for example). In between you'll fly over alien bases and forests while avoiding tricky enemy fire. The dash mechanic certainly helps at times, even though crowd control and clever bullet herding are still the most important strategies for those who want to succeed.

Overall there's enough action to offset the average visuals, but all things considered the soundtrack is certainly the best aspect of the game. Since the challenge in Steam-Heart's is built around quick sprays of aimed bullets and multiple enemy waves that can't always be completely destroyed, staying alert at all times is essential to not deplete that energy bar in a snap. Still you can take a good number of hits because the game throws lots of those energy refill items in later stages.

Against the mechanized clutches of the third boss

In order to skip the in-game conversations that happen at the beginning of a level or prior to a boss fight you need to press START twice, which is quite odd. Some conversation bits cannot be skipped though, and in these cases it's always good to be ready for new boss phases with cheap, almost unavoidable surprise attacks. A few bosses have two or more forms to be defeated, ranging from the quintessential large ship with several cannons to mechas that tend to mix bullet spreads, lasers, homing shots and melee attacks. They might look familiar to PC Engine veterans because they're very reminiscent of other games such as Nexzr and the Soldier series. Note: you're forbidden from pausing the game during a boss fight.

An interesting quirk of Steam-Heart's is that the weapon upgrading process keeps happening until very late in the game. That's why it's not really a good move to switch weapons at will, at the risk of reaching the final enemy without maxed out firepower. On the other hand, every single item you take gives you 1.000 points, which actually mounts to a nice extra if you aim for a high score. Score chasers are also bound to blow up the destructible parts from bosses for a few more points, of course.

My best 1CC score on Normal difficulty is below. I played with Blow and used exclusively the vulcan shot, never switching to the laser weapon. The picture was taken during the escape sequence after you beat the final boss.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Darius (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Hamster / Taito in 2018

In the dawn of the modern horizontal shooting genre, Irem and Konami are often remembered as the absolute pioneers thanks to R-Type and Gradius. Even though Darius came out at around the same time and is technically on par with those two, my perception is that the game lags a little behind in any direct, general comparison. I can understand that if we focus solely in what each title brought to the table regarding pivotal innovations. R-Type introduced the offensive/defensive power of the force, Gradius showed us all the possibilities trailing options could provide, but what of Darius? Branching paths? The unique set of marine-based bosses?

Though very nice design choices, the above weren't really the defining aspect of Darius. What actually wowed arcadegoers at the time was the novelty of playing a shmup in three horizontally-aligned monitors. Due to this extreme widescreen scope the game was never given a proper home release until 2016 by means of the Arcade Archives series on the Japanese Playstation 4. Then one year later the game went retail with a few gameplay extras under the name Darius 30th Anniversary Edition, a gigantic package aimed primarily at diehard fans and collectors: besides the game disc you also get no less than 7 soundtrack CDs covering the entire series and ports (bar Dariusburst and its variations), a superplay disc with special runs for Darius, Darius Gaiden and G Darius and a booklet with designer interviews. A flamboyant variant called Famitsu DX Pack also included a tea cup, a bath towel and a 3D crystal souvenir with an LED light-up stand.

Now everybody who's been reading this blog for a while knows how much of a fan I am of this series. As soon as I heard of this package I knew I had to get it and I knew I would one day own a PS4. I just wasn't aiming for the Famitsu DX Pack, but I was kinda forced to buy it because the "regular" version was quickly sold out. Panic, my friends, pure panic, I'm just not sure if was due to diehard fandom or collector's syndrome.

Underwater perils in zone E

In the grand scope of Darius a stylish spaceship called Silver Hawk must travel through seven stages defeating all kinds of mechanical fish and marine creatures, in a branching scheme that allows players to take the most diverse routes and finish the journey in seven different levels. Some of them are easier, some are harder, some offer more opportunities for powering up, some give players more points. This gimmick of multiple paths provides awesome replay value and is reason enough to justify any sort of hype surrounding the game (and the series as a whole), even though in this case there are other reasons for praise – and criticism – as indicated by the presence of three different game iterations in the disc release.

Regardless of the chosen game mode, gameplay rules are the same. There's a main shot (here called missile) and a secondary air-to-ground shot (here called bomb), which can be mapped to the same button if desired. Natively there's no autofire but this can also be set in the options screen. Colored enemies release colored orbs that power up the ship: red upgrades missiles, green upgrades bombs and blue creates/upgrades the shield. A power-up bar shows your upgrade levels, and by filling the bar you advance into the next level of each ship aspect. The progression goes with missile → laser → wave, bomb → twin → multi and arm → super → hyper. Some firepower aspects change as you take a few items, others only show visual alterations when you get a full bar upgrade. Dying sends you back to a checkpoint and to the starting positions of the current weapon levels.

By hitting specific spots in the scenery (you'll see a different hit sprite), other items can be released for immediate pick-up: the gray orb gives random bonus points (from 50 to 51.200), the golden orb is a smart bomb that melts all on-screen enemies and bullets and a tiny spaceship gives you an extra life (a single extend is awarded with 600.000 points). With the exception of the ground opposition and a few specific foes, all enemies in Darius arrive in waves. Killing a complete wave awards bonuses that range from 1.000 to 40.000 points, an aspect that became a trademark of the series throughout all its chapters. It's interesting to note that all power-up orbs are concealed by the last enemy in a wave.

Though primitive and to a certain point repetitive, the art design of Darius carries an otherworldly touch that's duly escorted by an equally offbeat soundtrack. There are only four graphical themes (caves, fortress, surface, underwater) that get reworked from start to finish (colors and terrain obstacles change from zone to zone). Stage transitions are preceded by a split where the player must choose the desired route to follow, just remember to not stand in the middle of the screen or you'll die by colliding against the split. Speaking of which, in this original game the shield does not grant invincibility against obstacles so don't rely on it to get through walls (I reckon many people might be spoiled by having been exposed to Darius II or Darius Gaiden first, just like me).

Japanese trailer for Darius 30th Anniversary Edition
(courtesy of developer and YouTube user taitochannel)

Clear highlights of the game, bosses fill the entire screen with their attacks and often require constant movement by the player. Every boss is preceded by the now famous WARNING message and then an easy shower of splitting orbs. They are aided by a series of timeout cubes that home in on the player if the fight takes too long – if it drags even longer the cubes turn into blazing fast bullets that will inevitably kill you when destroyed. Boss difficulty is about average throughout but there are some extremes, such as pushover Octopus or pricky Fatty Glutton. In fact, Glutton exposes the worst side of the gameplay in Darius by demanding players to refrain from upgrading from missile to laser until they've beat him. The laser is too thin to actually be useful in blasting the exploding fish that come out of Fatty Glutton's mouth.

An obvious point of dissatisfaction in the game, the above observation on Fatty Glutton's difficulty is actually one of the reasons that led Taito to release an update called Darius Extra (Version). Besides reducing Fatty Glutton's health to a point where the fight becomes fair when you're using the laser, this revised version is overall harder, with faster bullets, tougher boss patterns, a few more aggressive enemies, new enemy formations in specific zones and more erratic pre-boss orbs. There's also a reward of one million points per each remaining life upon game completion, plus lots of those useless golden orbs were repainted gray. Too bad the random bonuses are still in place to upset any attempt at scoring in the most unexpected ways.

The good news is that the Extra version is included in this package along with regular Darius in its official "New version". There's also an "Old version" variant that plays exactly like the new version, as far as I could tell it only differs in the amount of health of some bosses (this can be easily noticed for Keen Bayonet and Octopus). Each version has its own high score tracking and even a few mode-specific tweaks, and overall there's a plethora of graphical and sound adjustments available in the options menu. Unfortunately autofire is disabled in both the "Hi score" and "Caravan" special modes, both of them aimed at uploading results to the online leaderboards.

Below is a quick translation I was able to come up with for all the Japanese menus in the game. Don't even bother looking for a way to activate continues, just be prepared to restart the game if you lose your last life (however, extending play time is possible by allowing a second player to join the credit at any time).

Click for the option menus translation for the Darius 30th Anniversary Edition package on the Playstation 4

Though pretty much the same product as the Arcade Archives digital port, the retail release is adorned by an exclusive display of the original arcade instruction panel (it can be disabled in the options). An extremely solid port in itself, I understand why this beefed up physical edition might have seemed like a cheap cash-in for Taito. However, for real lovers of the series (not only the first game, I mean), it is definitely a must have on the account of the soundtracks and the superplay discs. And the definitive rendition of Darius, naturally. Now I'm sure I'll see old ports Darius Plus and Super Darius a little bit differently, in a good way of course.

My final high scores for each main version are below (Normal difficulty). Even though I beat the game in several other routes in the New version, I decided to stick to ACEIMRX across all of them so that I could have a better stance at spotting the differences in between, and also because ACEIMRX has a very good scoring potential. Final boss Octopus was checkpoint-milked in the Old and New versions, the Extra version highest score was achieved in a no-miss run.

Darius - Old Version

Darius - New Version

Darius - Extra version

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Gunbird (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, start selectable
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Atlus in 2005

For me, as a collector, one of the good reasons of owning several versions of the same game across multiple platforms is that replaying them can always be done as if you were trying a new title, only with a head start thanks to all the experience you had in previous contacts with it. In the case of Gunbird, I had already tried the Saturn and the Playstation versions, looping each one with a different character (Yuan-Nang and Marion, respectively). So for the port that's present in the Gunbird 1 & 2 compilation for the Playstation 2 my choice was again for another pilot: slow-ass Tetsu and his pedalcopter.

Gunbird 1 & 2 was only released in Japan and Europe and stands as a nice package for this sympathetic little franchise. Granted, it's basically a bare bones collage of both arcade games, but the addition of a TATE mode is more than enough to warrant the purchase in my opinion. I reckon by now I should be aiming for Gunbird 2, but since I have always been a little terrified by the idea (the same goes for Dragon Blaze), being drafted back into the first game kinda makes me happy for enjoying some more lighthearted Psikyo fun and keeping the prospect alive of someday venturing into the colorful raping fest of Gunbird 2.

But I digress. Back to Tetsu.

Tetsu faces one of the multiple forms of the Trump pirates

Tetsu is, along with Ash, the most controversial character of Gunbird. He is openly homossexual, Ash is a pedophile. While Ash carries this adventurous, seemingly overconfident persona, little is to be seen of Tetsu's countenance due to his thick white beard. As the story about finding the missing pieces of a magic mirror goes on, character interactions are played out with light humor in brief dialogue panels that appear prior to and after boss confrontations. Of course none of this really matters in the Japanese version of the game (unless you're able to understand the language), and even so the character's traits are only important for those who care more about storylines than the actual gameplay.

The action in Gunbird is based in three inputs: shot, rapid shot and bomb. Rapid shot and bomb are self-explanatory, while shot can be charged for a more powerful attack by holding the button and releasing it once you hear a specific sound cue (while charging the character isn't allowed to shoot). Charging times and bomb/shot effectiveness varies a little for all five characters, so it's advisable to try all of them and see which one fits your play style. I used to think very lowly of Tetsu, but now I believe he's actually got the most powerful bomb of the ensemble. Its slow-moving fiery trail inflicts tons of damage and is devastating on bosses, but you need to cope with the triggering delay and eventual failure in blocking enemy bullets.

Special enemies release power-ups and extra bombs. It takes three Ps to max out the shot pattern, and each next power-up will be worth 2.000 points as long as you get it before the power down cycle expires and you lose one power level. That's why sometimes it's better to let the items float around before picking them up, though not too long to the point that they will leave the screen. The maximum number of bombs you can carry is six, with further ones resulting in extra points as well. Gold ground coins also contribute a little to the score, as well as the multiple boss parts you're able to destroy. There's only a single extend that comes with 400.000 points.

Going the distance without dying is nice but has a direct effect in the gameplay, which becomes progressively harder. This rank system is pure Psikyo, and if you played any of their games you'll know what to expect here. It's possible to use a trick to reduce rank without dying if desired: just touch an enemy and watch as one of your power-ups drifts away (the payoff might not be worth it because of the firepower loss though). The game also has a random factor in the stage order: one of the four starting levels (castle, factory, woods, village) is always randomly left out of the loop, and the order of the active three is also randomized. Then four increasingly weird stages unfold until you face a Gremlin-like final boss. An interesting feature of this PS2 port is that you can do away with the stage shuffling in the options menu. There's also a comprehensive practice mode where you can choose stage, character, power level and bomb stock. Very helpful indeed. No loading times and a proper save function complete the package.

Stage 6 in full, including a stray bullet through a bomb blast against the boss

As short as it might seem to many players, Gunbird definitely has that one-more-go factor and is a good representative of the fantasy branch in the shmup genre during the 90s (as is Strikers 1945 for military and Sengoku Ace for flying samurai, in the case of Psikyo). While not a stellar entry, its inherent charm becomes more and more clear as you learn how to use the different characters to overcome the quick, occasionally dense enemy bullet clouds. In essence, it's a short, fun little shooter. And if you're skilled and patient enough you can always face the even crazier challenge of the second loop and its suicide bullets in order to see the definitive endings.

I was able to loop the game a few times with Tetsu in the default difficulty level (5), but didn't get any further than stage 2-1. Playing exclusively with Tetsu for a while and then switching to any other character can be shocking due to how slow he is. Below is the final score table after this quick comeback round (remember that continuing doesn't reset the score but adds +1 for proper differentiation).

Now the next challenge definitely has to be Gunbird 2.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Space Harrier (PC Engine)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
18 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Nec Avenue / Sega
Published by Nec Avenue in 1988

The shooting genre had come a long way since the striking success of Space Invaders in the late 70s. However, by taking its two-dimensional aspect and adding another action plane Sega was able to create a new subgenre with games like After Burner, Galaxy Force and Space Harrier. Though not perfect, this new subgenre mimicked the feeling of immersion in a 3D environment by providing a zooming effect cleverly conveyed by sprite scaling.

What results from this approach is pure gameplay from start to finish. In the case of Space Harrier, it's as simple as it gets: shoot, dodge, kill enemies. No power-ups, no speed-ups, no special alteration of any kind except for a single extra life registered once a certain score is achieved. Much like its original arcade mold, Space Harrier on the PC Engine belongs to this unique category and makes no concessions with its absolute lack of continues. Just a single option exists, one that’s used to reverse vertical controls, but since our avatar is a man who flies around carrying a plasma cannon, reversing verticals doesn’t feel natural for me.

Natural is more an adequate word for the way the PC Engine is able to handle this great little port. It's a solid demonstration that this system is far beyond 8-bit specs even though many people put it in the same category of the NES and the Master System (as if it didn't go head-to-head against the Mega Drive and the Super Nintendo back in the day). Of course there were some concessions in the porting process, such as the absence of the checkerboard floors, the scratchy voices and the reduced (albeit solid) amount of frames per second, but otherwise this version of the game is a very faithful representation of the arcade original with overall great colors, a decent soundtrack and spot-on sound effects.

Welcome to Dragon Land
(courtesy of YouTube user Sepia MtAnoia)

In the no-frills universe of Space Harrier, the lone hero must fly through 18 levels while dodging all sorts of terrain obstacles, avoiding enemy fire and taking down hordes of drones, orbs, robots and strange creatures. I like to think of it as a game that demands players to dodge two kinds of bullets: the first one is the single aimed enemy projectile that's best evaded by always being on the move; the second one is the stationary obstacle that approaches at varying speeds (and sometimes varying heights), to which careful positioning works best. The mix and overlapping of both, as well as their increase in speed and density, is what defines the challenge bestowed upon all brave players who want to see the game to the end.

And it's a tough one, yes, but in a way that rewards memorization. All flying enemies, for instance, arrive in the very same manner. And while many stationary obstacles can be properly destroyed, they are all randomly generated. Going around them to get fast, clean kills of incoming waves is key to survival, but sometimes that's just not possible. Pushing the odds might lead you to a painful death with the characteristic agonising Harrier scream. And I might be wrong here, but I had the feeling that those dreadful marble pillars are a little bigger and more numerous in the third half of the game. Or maybe it's just the reduced frame rate that makes things a bit harder, I wonder?

Five million is the score you need to achieve to get a life extend, which generally comes before the first bonus stage. There are officially two of those, but we can also consider the last stage another bonus of sorts since it's just a repetition of a few selected bosses. Stages 16/17 are the hardest ones to survive, so once you come out of them into the final level the clear is pretty much guaranteed unless you mess up badly. After all, bosses are definitely the easiest parts of Space Harrier. And in the grand scheme of things the absence of a proper end boss is kinda disappointing.

Mushroom reality, mushroom-infused dreams

While not mandatory, a turbo controller definitely helps here. The absence of autofire becomes less stressful as you learn the game and come to terms with the enemy routine (note how the fired shots bend a little in order to hit nearby targets, an aspect that's duly preserved from the arcade version). Strangely enough, I couldn't find a way to consistently get good results while riding the giant creature in the bonus areas, something seems off with the directionals there.

As a final token of care from the team who handled the port, once the game is beaten a brief epilogue /epirogue/ text gives some closure to the adventure and sets it apart from the original story that happened in the famous Fantasy Zone. Dragon Land is where the action takes place on the PC Engine, in a battle to free the planet from death and devastation brought about by a mad ruler called Wi Wi Jumbo, the stage 17 boss. Yep, no kidding. Wi Wi Jumbo is his name.

My 1CC high score for Space Harrier on the PC Engine is below. Next in line in the port gallery is probably one of the Master System games or the exclusive special version on the Playstation 2.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Gaia Seed (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Techno Soleil
Published by Techno Soleil in 1996

Of all aspects related to Gaia Seed, which used to be quite inaccessible due to its rarity until it was released for the Playstation Network in 2009, the most interesting one is the way it deals with lives. It's got the usual three per credit, but each life comes with an energy bar that can withstand a determined number of hits and gets regenerated automatically as long as you're able to go on unscathed. Yes, a regenerating lifebar. Though not quite the equivalent to the dominant regenerating gimmick of today's gaming reality, that's a pretty close system that says a lot about how approachable this game is, especially for newcomers to the genre.

The above is also the reason why Gaia Seed - Project Seed Trap (full title) is an extremely easy game. To put it into perspective, I 1CCed it on my first try while extremely tired and somewhat sleepy very late at night. It's straightforward enough and should present no demanding challenge for those schooled in the traditional horizontal shooter formula, kinda like a typical 16-bit title with average 32-bit aesthetics and a certain penchant for resembling none other than Darius Gaiden. If that's up your alley then this game might cut it as a feeble curiosity, in my opinion it's no hidden gem as a few people might put it.

Wait, I have seen these enemies somewhere...

After an intro that shows what seems to be the downfall of our world through pollution and war, the player is dropped in outer space and initiates a mission to reignite the planet. A muffled English narration spoken by a Japanese fellow lends a little more flair to the strange vibe of this intro, whose spooky nature immediately reminded me of Gun Frontier. It kinda sets the tone for what's to come since the game is certainly offbeat in its dark settings and weird-looking bosses.

Controls in Gaia Seed work with □/× for shot and Δ/○ for the so-called "intense fire" attack, a weapon-dependent outburst of energy that, contrary to the expected common effect, doesn't render the ship invincible – that's why I don't really consider it to be a bomb. Main weapons consist of vulcan (red) and laser (blue), switchable by taking the respective color-coded cycling icon. There are also two auxiliary weapons: green shoots out four slow-moving outward projectiles and yellow sends out two similar alternating projectiles that cause minor explosions upon contact. Both are also switched by taking the respective cycling item.

When using the vulcan weapon, the intense fire attack sends out a series of homing shots that will target anything on screen, which is good to inflict damage regardless of your current position (it also melts regular bullets in its initial seconds of activation). In the case of the laser weapon what you get is a powerful laser beam that hits whatever stands in front of the ship. Once deployed, the intense fire energy bar starts recharging automatically for another use. What I did not like at all is that both gauges (ship's shield power and intense fire) occupy a large chunk of the screen and impair visibility if you need to fly low.

Main weapons can be upgraded three times by sticking to the same color, auxiliary weapons have no upgrades at all. Dying strips the ship off the auxiliary shot and reduces the main weapon power by one level. While the lifebar mechanic gives players lots of room to recover from eventual hits, I'm not really fond of all those sudden laser beams fired by bosses. It's as if the game was desperately trying to account for the lack of challenge, thus requiring players to exert at least a little memorization if they want to improve their performance. Since boss fights are all timed, it would be much better if we had some sort of related bonus for remaining health and fast kills. But no, the only extra opportunities for scoring are in avoiding weapon changes (1.000 points per extra power-up) and killing all enemies in selected formations (1.000 to 5.000 points).

Gaia Seed's gloomy intro
(courtesy of YouTube user ghegs)

A staple of the Darius series, enemy wave destruction bonus is just one of the many aspects that Gaia Seed borrows from Taito's fish-blasting franchise. Backgrounds, boss behavior and even the soundtrack, for example, are all very reminiscent of Darius Gaiden. Of course Gaia Seed does not compare in terms of difficulty, but some boss attacks and even the way multiple forms are dealt with are hauntingly similar. Also watch out for a few enemies that seem to have been lifted directly out of the first Darius.

In an interesting twist in its storyline, this game has three different endings. By beating the final boss the mission is deemed incomplete and you get a bad ending. By timing it out and then killing the secondary angel-looking boss you still get a bad ending. In order to see the good ending and a message of mission complete it's necessary to let them both live. Unfortunately there isn't any sort of scoring reward for the best ending.

No matter how you see it, Gaia Seed will never be more than a quick diversion that wears off pretty fast. Most people tend to praise its music, but in my opinion it's just a serviceable one that suits the atmosphere of the game and also comes out as Zuntata-inspired at times. I attempted to get as many wave bonuses as I could in three consecutive credits, with the final results shown below (Normal difficulty). My preferred choice for weapons was vulcan + yellow side shots. Manual load/save and a music gallery are the most useful functions in the options menu.