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 hearding 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.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Ghost Blade (Dreamcast)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Hucast
Published by Hucast / Play-Asia in 2015

My friends, I wish I was starting the log in the new year with a better game. However, one of my nephews saw the TV turned on its side and wanted to see how a video game looked in it, so on a whim I decided to take Ghost Blade off the shelf for a quick demonstration of its TATE mode. Then I thought it would be nice to tackle the game properly before putting it back, so here we are.

What a sad disappointment!

Aside from the usual letdown provided by pretty much all products made by Hucast (excessive development delays, promised game modes that never came to be, beta visual assets that never made it to the final product), Ghost Blade is a derivative mess that's completely devoid of any character. It lacks proper challenge and stutters a lot when the screen gets cluttered, in a frameskipping fest that strains the eye after only a few minutes. TATE mode is even worse because the frame rate is degraded all the time and practically makes you want to turn off the Dreamcast to go play something like Galaga instead. Don't be fooled by what you see from official trailers for this version of the game, that's not how it actually looks and plays.

One of the bosses

It's baffling how mediocre Ghost Blade is considering it was designed as a soft homage to developer Cave. The control scheme, for example, follows the classic Cave mold of shot, laser (focus) and bomb, which may be freely assigned in the Dreamcast controller so that you can play it as if you were playing Dodonpachi. Ghost Blade even comes with the choice of three ships: Milan (straight shot, no spread), Ghost (spread pattern) and Rekka (wider shot stream, no spread). Milan is the strongest and fastest of them all, Ghost is the weakest and Rekka stands between them as far as firepower goes. Upon selecting one of them the player is prompted to choose between Normal and Novice difficulties.

As you advance through the levels, little excitement is to be expected due to the generic sci-fi motif, the lethargic way the game is laid out and the naïve boss patterns. Destroyed enemies leave stars behind, and if you kill them with the focus shot they'll also release "tech orbs" that fill up a special gauge for extra bombs. All airborne items are automatically sucked into the ship, ground ones need to be flown over. There's no need to worry about powering up at all since you come out of the first level already fully powered and the Ps and Vs you pick up are never lost when you die. I also didn't care to check the extend routine because I got lost in numbers due to the massive bonus granted at the end of the level (a lone 1UP can also be picked during the 2nd stage).

The above is probably the most critical failure of this game and of any similarly designed shooter: if you don't even care about such precious things like powering up and extra lives, why bother at all? When you analyze the design closely, the background graphics in Ghost Blade are at least decent (faint nods to Ketsui and Pink Sweets included), and so is the soundtrack. But these aspects aren't enough to make a game, they just come off as a waste of resources. There's no kinetic balance when the game is in motion, and playing it often feels like crawling through quicksand, hiccups and bad visibility causing unexpected deaths when you least expect it. Nevertheless Ghost Blade is still remarkably easy, with lots of leeway provided by a bomb stock that's not reset upon death and bullet cancelling in place for most medium-sized enemies.

Intro for Ghost Blade on the Sega Dreamcast
(courtesy of YouTube user Team Shmup'Em-All)

Another similarity with Dodonpachi is in the chaining system, which tracks the number of enemies destroyed for an increasing score multiplier. However, combos in Ghost Blade don't give outrageous score boosts and are a lot less strict since the chain counter isn't lost if you take too long to kill the next enemy. It merely decreases, very slowly. Chains are only completely lost when you die. The end-of-level bonus mentioned above is based on the max combo and the amount of stars and tech orbs collected, as well as lives remaining. Now for something extremely odd: the max combo bonus is always the highest combo you can achieve, so if you manage to get a good one in the first stage you'll always get the very same bonus for all subsequent levels regardless of how badly you play them. This max combo bonus is even repeated in the next credits, so talk about an amateurish oversight! Lastly, I could swear I got an instant GAME OVER once or twice in the final level even though I still had lives in stock.

Besides the base game, Ghost Blade has a training mode and tweaks for the HUD and the audio balance. The collector's edition comes in two DVD cases with the game, the soundtrack and a "superplay" disc with special demonstrations for Ghost Blade, DUX 1.5 and REDUX - Dark Matters. As you can see, it's a royal feast for Hucast fans...

My best result for Ghost Blade in the Normal mode/difficulty is below, playing with the Ghost ship. Just note how even this high score table is messed up, some of the credits display zero as "max" combo. After this original Dreamcast release the game was also made available for more recent platforms such as the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 under the title Ghost Blade HD. It's supposedly a much improved final product, but I'll refrain from trying it for the time being.