Saturday, August 17, 2019

Seicross (NES)

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

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

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

Gliding to glory, here I go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Stinger (NES)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is vertical too, you know

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

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

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

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Sky Force Anniversary (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
9 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Infinite Dreams
Published by Limited Run Games in 2018

It was a long and perhaps not so bumpy road but Sky Force, originally born and released in 2004 for mobile phones, finally hit a proper console with Sky Force Anniversary. Bridged by a couple of intermediary iterations that improved on the original concept (Reloaded and 2014), Anniversary was supposed to be either the definitive version of the game or the definitive chapter of the "franchise". Not only on gameplay terms, actually. By definitive I also mean the fact that Sky Force Anniversary relinquished the microtransaction scheme of previous versions and also received a proper disc version a couple of years after the digital release.

Flashy without being overwhelming and designed with quite a bit of care around a limited set of graphical assets, the game preserves the legacy of the mobile format while going full widescreen. Even though it looks - and to a certain extent plays - like an arcade shmup, Sky Force Anniversary offers an experience that's quite different from your regular shmup lore. The game implements an unlocking system for stages/weapons that forces players to replay levels in order to advance, building upon the concept of incremental challenge with very strict resource management and stage-based performance meters. In short, it's a grindfest. That doesn't bode well at all for shmup addicts, but I'm sure casual players won't see anything wrong with that.

I have to be honest here and say I always abhorred any sort of grinding in a video game. Nevertheless I decided to give Sky Force Anniversary a chance. Firstly because I had some free time in a foreign environment, and secondly because, well, I was kinda in the mood for a different sort of challenge.

Official trailer for Sky Force Anniversary
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer idreamsgames)

When the disc is booted for the first time you're thrown directly into a short preamble where you'll inevitably die facing the big bad villain of the game. Then you'll start the adventure for real with a measly pea shooter. In order to at least match that initial taste of what your powered-up ship looks like you'll need a humongous amount of golden stars collected during the levels. They're the currency used to acquire upgrades in the "hangar". The basic ones consist of health, main cannon, wing cannons, missiles and magnet (the ability to automatically attract items). All primary weapons therein are fired by pressing ×. The other face buttons in the controller are reserved for extra upgrades that work with limited stock: □ turns on the energy shield, △ fires the laser and ○ triggers a mega bomb. Non-default items are activated by a first purchase and are marginally improved by further upgrades that get more and more expensive.

In every level the player is entitled to win four medals according to the following performance indicators: 70% enemies destroyed, 100% enemies destroyed, 100% people rescued and no damage taken. Rescuing people at ground level is just a matter of hovering above them for a few seconds until the pick-up cycle is complete. Grinding begins when you notice it's impossible to unlock the following levels unless you replay old ones in order to obtain missing medals and to collect more stars to equip the ship. If you succeed in collecting all four medals for a particular stage you'll also unlock a higher difficulty for that same stage with a new set of four medals to conquer. At first that happens twice, so from Normal you go to Hard and then Insane. I say "at first" because as soon as you beat stage 8 you also unlock a fourth stage difficulty called Nightmare. In each additional difficulty you get higher multipliers for points and stars (on Insane and Nightmare, for example, all collected stars get multiplied by 3).

Harder stage difficulties come with more bullets and more resilient enemies, with no change whatsoever in enemy formations, attack patterns or bullet speed. Scrolling speed is always kept at the same pace from start to finish, it never picks up. In the world of Sky Force Anniversary, whose main influence is the 19XX series from Capcom, pressure is solely conveyed by the increase in the amount of bullets and the natural step-up from one stage to the next. The final levels are much more dangerous due to a couple of different turrets that fire fast cannons, as well as shield generators that must be destroyed before anything else they protect. A glaring exception from the norm is stage 5, where an EMP flare follows you around and disables your weapons for the rest of the stage upon hitting you. You either rescue all humans or decide to take down all turrets for the 100% destruction ratio, you can't do both at the same time.

Welcome to the Hangar!

A few notes on items: the purpose of the "weapon upgrade" icon that appears within the level is just to increase the firing rate; the red heart refills lost health; big stars are worth 5 regular stars; with the exception of stage 5, once you choose a stage to play move right if you want to purchase shields, lasers or mega bombs before the action starts (tip: lasers are devastating against bosses). And then there's that tiny silver card that starts appearing at random after a while. These are special items that grant you permanent little improvements such as disposable side drones, extra free special attacks, extra star value multipliers, better missile reloading times and a marginal increase in speed, firing rate and range of the rope for human rescues, among others. What that means is that even when the game is beaten you might be attached to it like a little bunny to the carrot on a stick.

On all accounts, the progressive difficulty and no-penalty structure of Sky Force Anniversary are tailored for casual play. Lost your life? No problem, start again as many times as you like with no loss in score or star count. Feel like chickening out because you're about to bite the dust? Just pause and choose "retire", it won't even count as a life lost! Sure you can decide to apply your own rules like I did: no deaths and no retiring at all until beating the game, which of course meant lots of replaying to unlock medals and upgrade the ship. Afterwards I kinda felt like an idiot for not accepting the game's rules as they are, so once I reached the ending I whored out lives, stages and stars as far as I could before getting tired of the whole thing. The end comes after stage 8, with stage 9 serving as a glorified bonus of sorts.

Aside from the 19XX influence mentioned above, graphically the game owes a lot to other titles like Flying Shark and Under Defeat. Lots of clouds, smoke, rain and water effects are used to add a little more flair to the pretty (but repetitive) scenery. The same can be said of the music, which is decent but never takes that further step you'd expect from important confrontations with bosses or final levels. Artistically it's a nicely crafted game that also screams average all over. As for the grinding mechanics, they're still not my cup of tea. It was a mild diversion, at least. The medal system is a natural beacon for the scoring system since scores are maximized as long as you're able to get all of them in a single level (destroy everything, rescue all people, don't get hit) while collecting all items that come your way.

Below is the final result I got after a few days of grinding in Sky Force Anniversary. Only the highest score in each level is accounted for this final result, which means you can always go back to the game and see if you can improve on those stages that still have medals left to conquer. The game keeps track of all the stats from your save slot, from special cards to how many humans you rescued or failed to rescue, among others. Local co-op and online leaderboards are available, as well as the option to play global/local seasonal tournaments. Note: the game was followed by a sequel called Sky Force Reloaded, which is confusing because it bears the same title used more than 10 years ago.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting (PSP)

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

As a gaming platform, the Neo Geo was the birthplace of many famous franchises and characters. It was also notable for a library formed by games designed almost solely by its own creator SNK. Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting pays homage to their heritage by presenting a roster of ten handpicked characters from several Neo Geo titles battling each other in pure shmup fashion. The game was developed exclusively for the PSP and might be seen as either a sequel or a rearranged take on King of Fighters - Sky Stage, which hit the arcades and the Xbox Live Arcade service just a few months before the handheld release.

Even though it lacks the English translation for the main game story mode (which is available in the digital version), the retail Japanese edition at least keeps the English interface and is therefore totally friendly towards Western players. Amongst the different modes from the main menu there's even a port for King of Fighters - Sky Stage, so the disc actually bundles two games in a single package. The changes made on the Sky Stage version regarding game speed and difficulty are also extended to Neo Geo Heroes, in a porting/development job that properly adapts the bullet hell style to the handheld format. I just wish the framerate had been kept at 60 fps, but alas! It's fine as it is though.

The motive for all characters coming together to have fun flying and shooting stuff in Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting is a guy named Dr. Brown, who uses a time machine to summon them from their timelines in order to defeat final boss Geegus (both characters from World of Heroes). Joining the ensemble of six fighters from Sky Stage (Iori, Kyo, Terry, Athena, Mai and Kula Diamond) we now have Iroha (from Samurai Shodown VI), Marco Rossi (from Metal Slug), Akari Ichijo (from Last Blade) and SYD-III (the ship from Armored Scrum Object / Alpha Mission, piloted by a cute silver-haired lady). Just like in the original game, the new characters all differ a lot in shooting styles and special moves.

Kula Diamond versus first boss Marco Rossi

The 4-button gameplay works with shot, bomb, special move and provocation, all configurable as you please in the PSP button layout. Bombs are given for the credit, not for lives (meaning that you don't get a new bomb stock when losing a life). Each character can use three special moves defined by how long you charge the respective button: a single press results in a level 1 attack, with subsequent charging times resulting in a level 2 or level 3 (most powerful) special move. Once any of these moves is completed the corresponding gauge is automatically refilled for another use. You can't shoot when a special move or its charging is in effect, so take that in consideration in the heat of the battle.

With the exception of the scoring system, which is exactly the same as in KOF Sky Stage, Neo Geo Heroes changes things around a little bit, such as the way stages are organized. There are still five of them, but this time you must always choose the next one in a branching arrangement that grants several variations for levels/bosses and five distinct final stages with no loop (there's no invitation letter gimmick this time around). In Neo Geo Heroes you also know which boss you'll be facing prior to selecting the next stage. All bosses from KOF Sky Stage return in different parts of the game, which in general has shorter levels that reuse the enemy gallery of the original title in the most diverse ways. As usual, no ground targets are to be seen anywhere. The soundtrack recycles old themes while adding new ones to the mix, in a final result that's probably not as cohesive as in KOF Sky Stage but still decent nonetheless. There are times where it just lacks the punch of the original, such as the theme that plays in the stage tallying screen.

Now for scoring. Every destroyed target releases one or more medals whose value depends on how close you are to the enemy. Up close medals are worth 2.000 points, the next ones give either 1.000 or 500 points. They are also color-coded, which helps in identifying them even though they come labeled as "100 Mega" (red), "Neo" (yellow) and "Geo" (blue). Whenever you beat a level the medal count since the last time you got hit (in the level) is converted into extra points (red ×2.000, yellow ×1.000 and blue ×500). Whenever the provocation button is pressed the difficulty increases for a little while and all blue medals will come out yellow, thus increasing the scoring potential as far as medals are concerned.

The other important component of the scoring system is the chain/combo, a counter that increases if you manage to destroy enemies in succession with no more than approximately 3 seconds between each kill. As you enter a boss fight, the maximum combo you have since the last time you got hit is buffered in order to be multiplied by 2.000 points for the end-of-stage bonus.

Trailer for Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer snkGame)

Most of the initial fun of playing Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting is in trying the different characters and seeing which ones adapt better to the player's style. That said, it's no wonder the silver-haired pilot of the SYD-III ship is at the foreground in the game cover. She's by far the best character to use thanks solely to her level 1 special move, which renders her invincible for a precious few seconds and allows her to ram into anything unscathed, bosses included. There are boss phases, for instance, that yield with just two of her "shield" attacks. At least the characters from the new roster are more balanced than the original six, except maybe for Iroha's stupid level 3 special move. Both Marco Rossi and Akari Ichijo possess nice attack/defense capabilitities.

Even though Neo Geo Heroes never reaches the difficulty of the original or even the port of KOF Sky Stage that's included in this disc, the game still packs a certain degree of challenge that varies according to the chosen character. Extra bombs are awarded at 2 million and then at every 4 million afterwards, and you might even run into a very rare extend item if you happen to be in your last life. The stakes can be daunting in the long run, but at least the branching stage layout provides a little more variety and replay value to the whole experience. Some great fan service can also be seen in the art design for the story and the panels that show character interactions.

Besides the main game in Story mode, the UMD also includes a special Challenge option with two variations: in Subject mode the chosen character must complete little challenges as the game unfolds, whereas Survival mode presents 3 ranks/routes (beginner, middle, higher) for you to play a boss rush. Co-op is available in Multi Play, as long as your friend brings his/her own PSP. Sky Stage mode gives access to the special port of King of Fighters - Sky Stage and Museum allows you to check art/music galleries and ranking tables for all applicable modes. Both Neo Geo Heroes and KOF Sky Stage have stage select and the possibility of activating an Infinity switch that makes you invincible while denying entries in the high score rankings. And if you fancy turning the PSP on its side a TATE display is also available.

My character of choice for Neo Geo Heroes - Ultimate Shooting was SYD-III. I beat the game on Normal by going through the upper route (1-2A-3A-4A-5A) and fighting Orochi Yashiro prior to final boss Geegus. Note that the restart function sends you back to the start of a level but doesn't reset the score, so be nice and don't rely on that to achieve a high score.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Ice Cream Surfer (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Dolores Entertainment
Published by Red Art Games in 2018

For an extremely modest game born on the Wii U in 2014, Ice Cream Surfer was certainly granted a big honor with this physical release for the Playstation 4. It is, in fact, one of the many digital products that have recently been made into disc form thanks to the services of independent publishers catering to extremely niche portions of gaming audiences. I'm all for a real, concrete product myself, so yes, I'm definitely inserted into one of those niche markets. Unfortunately, poor Ice Cream Surfer is far from living up to the standards one would expect from a retail release for such a powerful platform as the Playstation 4.

Posing as a colorful cute'em up, the game is a bare bones adventure reminiscent of titles like Cloud Master and Parodius. The story takes place in the so-called Flavor Galaxy, which has been in turmoil since the evil Broccoli created a crazy army to destroy it as revenge for the fact that kids hate hate vegetables but love ice cream. The player assumes the role of one of the five members of the Cream Team, who depart from the ice-cream planet in order to rid the galaxy of the bad taste brought about by the evil Broccoli creature. Two friends can join forces to play in co-op.

Okay, the concept is cool for some wack, but the standards are those of an online Flash game, or one of those penniless XBLIG efforts. The characters you play with don't even have in-game names, but referring to the trailers you see them as Ace (protagonist "ice cream kid"), Hima (the big monkey), Super Cream (the superman), Sailor Twister (a loli surfing a lollipop) and Rei Tou (the samurai).

Trailer for Ice Cream Surfer on the PS4 and PS Vita
(courtesy of YouTube user and publisher RED ART GAMES)

Each character has his/her own capabilities for shot (×) and special attack (□ or ○). All characters share the same speed and roughly the same problems with their hitboxes, which just seem too big for their sprite work. This means you need to get used to a safe zone when dodging. All those colored diamonds released by destroyed enemies fill up the power gauge, which in turn allows player to use their special attacks. The mechanism for stocking special attacks is kinda shady, but as long as a star is shown on the power gauge you can use them. Special attacks make you invincible while they last.

Upgrades and other items appear randomly or by destroying a blue gift box. Popsicles are the regular power-ups. Their color is irrelevant except for the blinking popsicle that makes you invincible for a few seconds. Ice cream toppings that look like small keys, on the other hand, affect gameplay in the following way: blue creates a rotating option, orange creates a trailing option that provides additional firepower and green makes you suck all diamonds automatically. Toppings are self-excludent and their effect is restricted to a single stage only. There's also another item that grants you an extra life. The alphabet letters forming the word ICE CREAM are there just to provide some bonus points at the end of the level.

Following the ice cream environment of the first stage you'll venture into other planets with different themes (vegetable, candy, sushi and fire) before reaching the no-flavor world dominated by the evil Broccoli. The art style remains fluffy and colorful from start to finish, and the music is average with a few standout BGMs (the one for the third stage is cool). On challenge merits the whole game is rather easygoing, but dying in one of those sections with more enemies than usual can lead to tricky situations. You'll be respawned at the default power level and depending on how the game throws popsicles you might need to limp for a while in an underpowered condition. Each boss phase has its specific health bar, but all bosses are quite easy to defeat once you figure out their patterns. Beware of the invincibility popsicle, since it blocks you from shooting you might be caught off guard once its effect passes.

Super Cream and Sailor Twister get serious on a pack of flying onions

The best character to use is undoubtedly the ice cream kid. He achieves great coverage once his shot is maxed out (it takes four popsicles to max out firepower). His laser beam special attack is also the best one. The next best character is probably Super Cream. All others have deficient, crippled or capped firing patterns and only become half decent options if you join forces with a friend in co-op play. As a curiosity, the shoulder buttons (RB, LB) toggle a screen mode that simulates the slightly curved canvas of old TV sets.

With such a simple, easy and straightforward gameplay, Ice Cream Surfer is nothing more than a cheap pastime even for genre newcomers. Besides an assortment of easy achievements you'll unlock art snippets in a dedicated gallery as you play, as well as a lenghty comic book with the characters from the game. Don't bother checking the online leaderboards though. The scoring system is broken because some bosses and mid-bosses can be easily exploited. In the second boss fight, for instance, all you have to do is park your character in the upper left corner and fire away for an eventual counterstop.

As soon as I noticed the low bullet count in the Normal/Middle difficulty I chose Hard and beat the game twice with Ace. On Hard you need to deal with more resilient enemies and more bullets, but nothing too taxing. Here's the final result with some boss milking from testing spots for the broken score:

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Deathsmiles II X (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Cave in 2010

Truth be told, even though the Dodonpachi franchise seems to have been squeezed to the point of exhaustion, Cave was never a company to repeat itself from one game to the next. From the groundbreaking gameplay of Guwange to the unique ambience of Dangun Feveron, Cave was always bold enough to try new things. One of their last arcade forays into bullet hell territory, for example, was the remarkably polarizing Deathsmiles II, a sequel that drew lots of criticism from the get go due to the departure from sprite-based art to polygons as well as the game's housing in PC-based hardware instead of regular arcade boards.

I couldn't care less about the latter since I'll probably never venture into the world of arcade boards. The new design with polygons is a debatable part of the package, and my only real gripe with it would be if Cave had kept in this console release the inability to skip those dreadful cut scenes prior to boss fights. Fortunately there's a reason why the Xbox 360 version is called Deathsmiles II X instead of just Deathsmiles II. This enhanced port, which conveniently appears as "Deathsmiles II X mode" in the main menu, not only allows you to get rid of the cut scenes but also revamps the arcade game completely in glorious HD resolution while adding many gameplay improvements, thus making the original arcade iteration obsolete at the eyes of many (myself included).

The arcade version is, of course, also included in the disc. It just didn't receive any special makeover and originally had some bugs that can be corrected with a patch. Unless you're a diehard fan of arcade games in their natural form you should go directly to X mode since it's just so much more accomplished in terms of the usual intensity we all love about Cave titles. Arcade Deathsmiles II is simpler, has less rings/gems, less stages, less characters (Follett and Rosa are exclusive to X mode) and lacks the famous rank selection at the start of the level that was one of the most distinct trademarks of Deathsmiles. In essence, X mode is the definitive version of the sequel and that's the one I'm gonna write about for the rest of this blog post.

Windia against evil chess pawns in the final level

Christmas is the general setting this time around. The story involves a villain named Satan Claws who raids the castle where the heroines live and steals some magic music notes while injuring their father figure. And out they go get them notes back in order to heal him. Two new characters join the battle: a little girl named Supe, who's 7 years old, and a boy named Lei, who's 12. The visual catch (or outrage, as some might put it), is that Lei dresses as a girl. I read somewhere that there's a sensible reason for his unusual attire, but if you can't decipher Japanese you'll probably be kept thinking the Japanese are becoming weirder and weirder with their loli-based games. Fun fact 1: Lei and Supe are brother and sister. Fun fact 2: Supe's familiar is none other than a miniature of Tyrannosatan, one of the final bosses of the first Deathsmiles.

Once the game starts you'll notice that Cave preserved the same exact inputs for the sequel. Two buttons (A and B) shoot left and right (laser – when held makes the character fly slower), another two provide rapid shot left and right (shot) and a further one can be used to execute the lock shot (A + B). There's also a bomb for panic functions. Important: this time the lock shot also targets enemies that lurk in the background. As you shoot back and forth you'll notice that your familiar – the little creature that flies with you and provides additional firepower – freezes in place or moves around when you're using laser or shot (a situation that's reversed depending on the character). Familiars are important not only because their able to block some shots, but also because they can be used to influence the scoring system, the aspect that represents the biggest departure from the original Deathsmiles.

Now that's where things get a little complicated.

Two number displays appear on the bottom of the screen. The upper one is the counter, which goes up to 1.000. The lower one is the multiplier, which goes up to 10.000. To increase the counter you should collect smaller red rings, which are released by hitting/killing enemies with shot. The multiplier is increased by getting light blue rings from hitting/killing enemies with laser (even more with the familiar's firepower while lasering), and also by red rings if the counter is already maxed out. A proximity effect is in place, which means the closer you are to an enemy when hitting it the more rings you'll spawn for collection. Once the counter reaches 1.000 sperm-like suicide bullets appear when enemies are killed with shot. These bullets can be normally blocked by the familiar.

Having the counter at 1.000 gives you the ability to activate power-up/fever mode. All you have to do is use lock shot (don't use it if you want to build up the multipler first!). All bullets are instantly turned into rings and the counter starts decreasing. Enemies can't harm you when in fever mode, and two kinds of projectiles might emerge and follow you around. The first kind are the blue suicide missiles spawned from destroyed enemies; every time you press lock shot these missiles and their trailing lines are turned into a shower of rings (light blue if multiplier is not at 10.000, dark blue if it's maxed out at 10.000). The second kind are the bigger unblockable sperm-like suicide bullets, which emerge whenever you hold lock shot for a few seconds; they turn into even more blue rings when you let go of the lock shot button. Note that regardless of where you stand the lock shot is only effective as long as that circular aura around the character doesn't close at the top, a resource that must be constantly refilled by continuously collecting more rings.

If the counter gets to zero the multiplier is instantly reset and power-up mode ends. Then you'll have to build up those numbers again for another fever round. However, whenever fever mode is about to end you can generate another big shower of blue rings to immediately max out the counter, thus allowing you to instantly reignite fever mode with a decent boost on the multiplier. The trick is to reflect a bunch of missiles/suicide bullets with lock shot when the counter is about to reach zero, an action that can be executed lots of times within a single stage. Finding the best places to trigger lock shot and squeeze the most out of suicide missiles/bullets is the ultimate goal for high score players. Just remember that getting hit or bombing takes you out of power-up mode while eating away good chunks of your counter/multiplier.

Official trailer for the Xbox 360 release of Deathsmiles II X
(courtesy of YouTube user otakuxgamer)

Does the scoring system sound overly complex and convoluted? At first sight, yes. In spite of that, once you get the hang of it the game acquires a whole new level of fun that makes it hard to put down. As for the aesthetical appreciation, Deathsmiles II X is by all means a worthy sucessor to the first game. The music is great and every level comes with a very specific enemy gallery that reflects the current theme. I do believe the visuals are in general a tiny bit darker and more macabre in the sequel. Bosses remain large, menacing and visually impressive. Tamecos, the skinny old man, is quite a sight when you see him for the first time, and Tartaros seems to have come straight out of something like Mushihimesama. Only Mad Teddy & Mad Bunny are kinda silly as the bosses of the extra stage, but then again with the exception of the boss the whole level is a bit of a letdown in terms of challenge.

Speaking of diffficulty, Deathsmiles II X is easier than Deathsmiles thanks to the more linear design, the many bullet cancelling resources available and the copious slowdown that comes with it. Even when going for full level 3 rank selection the game does not sting that hard. Satan Claws surely is the toughest boss in the game, but you can also pursue a last fight against true last boss Pidgeon Blood Jitterbug. To earn the honor of facing him you need to go through the extra stage (thus playing all seven levels), beat every boss by using lock shot (it must be the final attack on the boss) and also pick up the large cake released by Satan Claws when he dies. If possible, try matching a boss kill lock shot with the activation of power-up mode. Since counter/multiplier values get transported to the next stage you'll then start it in full throttle to rack up a whole lot of points.

Score-based extends come with 20 million and 1 billion points, and you can also get extra bombs or refill lost health/lives by taking the small/large cakes. The problem with these items is that their spawning routine is a mystery that I wasn't able to solve this time around. Sometimes you get them at determined spots in the level, but most times you don't.

Besides X and Arcade, the disc also includes an Arrange mode that allows the player to throw familiars around so that they lock on to enemies while swallowing bullets (power-up mode is activated automatically once the counter reaches 1.000, multiplier increases with no limit). Extra Mode (a.k.a. Tukaima Race) is just a maze game where you play against the clock with the familiar gallery in scenes taken from the first Deathsmiles. There's a series of adjustments you can apply to the game as a whole, but each mode also allows specific tweaks as well. The ability to record/watch your replays and to download other players' runs from the online leaderboards complete the assortment of useful resources (protip: download one of the highest scoring runs with your character of choice and watch it to get a faster grasp of the whole gameplay).

The difference between the regular and limited editions of Deathsmiles II X is the soundtrack CD that's included in the latter. Unfortunately the game is region-locked to Japan, but at least it saw a digital release in the West through the Games on Demand service. I scored the 1CC result below on X mode with Follett, playing all stages at rank level 3 and beating the TLB. Sadly this is yet another one of those ports where you're not allowed to input your initials in the high score screen. Bummer!

Monday, May 27, 2019

Steredenn - Binary Stars (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Pixelnest Studio / Plug in Digital
Published by Strictly Limited Games in 2018

Steredenn - Binary Stars is the expanded revision of a digital game called Steredenn. First released digitally for several platforms, it soon received a limited print run for the Playstation 4. The game preserves the overblown pixelly graphical style of the original title and adds new ships, weapons and modes, keeping the aspect that distinguished it from its brethren: the roguelike gameplay. I confess I'd never really come close to the style ~ or the term itself ~ until now, probably because it is so rarely done in the shmup genre.

One of the fears I had before embarking on this game was the dreadful prospect of having to grind my way towards a playable situation. Fortunately that's not the case. Everything you need to achieve victory is supposed to be granted in each and every run, which ends when the last energy bit is gone with absolutely no continues allowed. Players (re)actions depend on very random factors that affect the spawning, placement and behavior of enemies as well as the selection of power-ups that come along the way. In essence, no run is like the next. That's one of the cornerstones of the roguelike approach originated in RPGs, the genre that actually gave birth to this very specific branch in video game design.

The graphical style in Sterendenn - Binary Stars is definitely an acquired taste, and my feeling is that the emphasis on foreground action kinda diverts the attention (on purpose) from the simplistic design of the backgrounds. That shaking effect when anything explodes can be toned up/down or eliminated in the options, which also allow the activation of a switch called "Cinema" that completely removes the HUD (beware, I did it by accident once and thought the game was bugged!). If the graphics aren't your cup of tea, chances are you'll feel a little better about the energetic, rock-driven soundtrack that certainly pumps things up a notch.

Trailer for Steredenn - Binary Stars
(courtesy of YouTube user and developer Pixelnest Studio)

After the federation mothership is obliterated you dart into your mission all by yourself, shooting your basic default weapon with button ×. Cargo ships pass by every once in a while, bringing new random weapons that can be collected with the Δ button. There are only two slots available for them, so if you want to take a new weapon you'll have to relinquish one of your ocuppied slots. Selecting the weapon to use (or to be exchanged for a new one) is done with buttons □ or L2. Finally, each ship has a particular special ability triggered with buttons ○ or L1. Tempest is the name of the default ship, and its default special move is a short-range melee attack.

There are more than 30 weapons in the game, of which only some will ever be available for use in any run. They are divided into categories that dictate the nature and use of most upgrades you'll come across in between stages after beating bosses. The main categories are bullet (yellow), energy (red), heavy (orange) and bots (purple), but you're also entitled to activate a couple of shield-like weapons and replace your special ability attacks. Weapon behavior varies greatly, so the only real advice to be given here is to try them all and see which ones work best for you in regard to power, reach, autofire, reload/burst mechanic, piercing ability and influence over ship speed. However, coming to terms with a certain assortment of favorite weapons is just one part of the general strategy, after all the choice of upgrades can make or break your chances at surviving the odds.

With each defeated boss any lost health during the stage is replenished and you're given the chance to activate one out of several random upgrades for attack, defense or scoring, as well as a few that provide influence on other gameplay factors. They all have some sort of self-explanatory text to guide you, but figuring them out does take a while nonetheless. Just like the weapon gallery, the amount of available upgrades is overwhelming at first and only becomes more natural after you've clocked a few hours with the game, eventually unlocking new ships and some extra game modes in the process. These new ships represent the most drastic change between different runs, to the point that the game becomes a completely different beast. The Specialist ship, for example, is only allowed to use bot weapon variations, whereas the Red Baron is given only two weapons besides its special ability. Moreover, some of the special abilities, such as the rocket circus from the Fortress ship, take a little time to recharge.

Regardless of the chosen ship, Steredenn - Binary Stars makes no concessions at all in its gameplay, so be prepared to get shafted with bad luck and lousy weapons for several credits in a row, only to be given that favorite weapon for a good while afterwards. Of course good weapons don't necessarily mean an easy ride though, as players are kept on their toes all the time. Blink and you'll be engulfed by successive traps and overlapping waves, not to mention those resilient and unpredictable bulky ships from the last couple of levels. Most hits consume only a health cell, but the ones of the heavy kind can take up to five cells in a single blow. And getting to the battleship (6th stage boss) or the mothership (7th stage boss) while low on health isn't encouraging at all. Speaking of bosses, it's interesting to note that they get bigger and bigger as the game progresses, and up to the carrier (5th boss) they can have at least two different forms, each one with its particular set of attack patterns.

The Red Baron against one of the not-so-large bosses

In the roguelike nature of Binary Stars, moving away from what comes off as luck to something that can be considered proper knowledge of the gameplay definitely takes lots of practice. The simple task of not getting hit and preserving health has another benefit that becomes clearer the more you play and aim for better scoring results: the multiplier rises up automatically as you destroy enemies and reduces a little for every hit you take. The more energy you lose the bigger the dent in the multiplier. That's cool because in the end you don't need to consciously think about the scoring system at all.

My favorite upgrades when trying to go the distance (the ones not related to power increase) are the laser shield (protects the ship from a laser hit and recharges automatically after a few seconds), chain reaction (makes all enemies explode into a short radius burst that damages everything that's close) and shield breaker (shields can be destroyed by your weapons). Only when I've collected those and the remaining ones aren't that useful I might pick up the ones that affect scoring (score boost, combo protection). There are lots of other mysterious upgrades to collect and some of them depend on the choice of ship, but much caution must be taken when beating one of the special hidden bosses. All upgrades released right after them have both a good and a bad effect on the gameplay. Note: by pausing the game you can see the upgrades you've already acquired.

Even with all the minor aspects that rub me the wrong way, such as the impossibility to remap controls or adjust the screen size to your liking (it's naturally a little larger than the usual widescreen TV), the need to press the fire button again when you switch to a different weapon (which can be eliminated with the "improved reconfiguration system" upgrade), the random hazard modifiers applied to complete stages (quantum asteroid field, sunburn, bulletstorm), the bogus items released by extra bosses and a few rare occurrences of severe framerate skipping, I had a very hard time leaving Steredenn - Binary Stars behind. It can be extremely unfair at times, but it's still a massively addictive game that will always pull you in if you give it a chance. It's a one of a kind achievement in the shmup genre, that's for sure.

The main game can be enjoyed solo or in co-op, but as I mentioned above the package also includes a few unlockable extra modes. In Daily Run players share the same levels, upgrades and weapons all over the world, Boss Rush is a challenge that changes weekly and Arena is a glorified boss practice mode where you can tweak everything for ship/weapon combinations. My favorite weapon duo for the Tempest ship is supergun + fusion hyperblaster, and that's the ship I used when reaching the 3rd stage of the 2nd loop in the picture below (online leaderboards available). Further loops have suicide bullets and bosses that fire trickier variations of their original patterns.

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.