Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Asuka & Asuka (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito
Published by Taito in 2005

I’m a real fan of the Playstation 2. An amazing system full of great games for all ages and tastes, it will certainly remain a powerhouse of fun no matter how old it gets. And as far as old school arcade ports go, in terms of sheer value for money there are very few discs capable to go toe to toe with any of those Taito Legends or Taito Memories compilations. They’re simply amazing, and the game selections hardly fail in delivering a handful of interesting titles across all video game genres.

Of course there are exceptions to the above expectations. One of them is Asuka & Asuka, included in the Japanese Taito Memories II - Vol. 1 collection and serious contender for the most annoying vertical shmup the company has ever put out in its entire history. Granted, one of the purposes of these compilations is to somewhat showcase Taito's evolution throughout the years, but Asuka & Asuka certainly takes the cake as the black sheep here. Rayforce, Scramble Formation and Fighting Hawk are the other verts in this particular Taito Memories disc, all of them of clearly higher caliber with regards to gameplay and fun factor.

Well, to its defense let it be known that a few online sources say that the actual developer of Asuka & Asuka was Visco, not Taito. You can definitely see graphical similarities with Ashura Blaster, for instance, but unfortunately Asuka & Asuka lacks the same punch and is far less exciting.

Travelling back in time to meet wild dinosaurs

Anyway, the premise of this primitive shooter is quite interesting, at least on paper. In the near future, alien invaders manipulate space and time to attack Earth in several different timelines. Enter the Asukas, the newest military marvels able to time travel, sent to battle to defeat the enemy and save the planet from an impending doom. Prepare to fly over a modern day metropolis, a jungle filled with dinosaurs, a demon-ridden ancient landscape and a military area with remnants of a World War. Suffice it to say that this idea found a much better rendition in Taito's own Gekirindan, released six years after Asuka & Asuka. By the way, I wonder if this weird title might be related to the fact that you can't play solo with the secondary jet (on the right side of the screen), which means you need to insert two coins to play a mandatory co-op credit if you want to see what the second jet looks like.

Your jet/plane is capable of shooting and bombing, actions that can be configured at will in the PS2 controller. Two types of upgrade items appear floating from the top. The power-up (P) increases your current firepower by one level, whereas the other icon cycles very slowly between S (straight shot), L (laser) and B (wave beam), also serving as a power-up if you stick to the same weapon type. Three upgrades max out weapon power, but while S is the strongest one it also has a shorter reach when compared with the others. Since there's no autofire available, a turbo controller is definitely recommended if you can afford to have one. As for bombs, even though they can nullify nearby bullets they offer no panic function and can't be completely trusted for defense.

The only single ground item you might eventually find is the B for extra bomb, but it's unfortunately very scarce. It doesn't help that the playing field is wider than the horizontal screen span, which demands players to sweep left and right in order to scoop the area for extra bombs or just to get a few more points from killing enemies. That's when the problems with Asuka & Asuka start, for enemies do not care if they can see you or not. They just go about their schedules and shoot non stop, often taking you by complete surprise if you happen to move in front or close to their bullet sprays. This can be really infuriating at first, but on the other hand players can count on the fact that enemy spawning routines are always the same no matter what. This means there's no way around thorough memorization, or the lazier strategy of sticking to one side/area of the screen and absolutely avoiding to venture sideways.

Watch as the game itself cheats in the attract mode for Asuka & Asuka
(courtesy of YouTube user Replay Burners)

Some vivid inspirations from Dragon Spirit and the back catalog of Toaplan aren't enough to give Asuka & Asuka any edge whatsoever. With no extends of any kind, unremarkable sound design, uneven difficulty (the 3rd boss is harder than the last), simplistic but unpredictable bullet patterns and lots of cheap death mine fields, the game can be considered a true representative of shmup kusoge. Besides a sorry lack of real intensity and fun, it throws a half-assed bonus area once a boss is defeated (you can still die and perfect destruction ratios give no extra points at all). And I don't know if it's an issue related to the porting job, but the controls tend to be slippery and unreliable at times, with directionals sticking randomly for no apparent reason. I also came across a few events of complete disc freeze, which didn't happen once with any of my previous Taito Memories experiences.

Just like with all other vertical shooters from Taito Memories II - Vol. 1, at least it's possible to play Asuka & Asuka in TATE mode. Then you might have a better view of when you are unfairly blindsided by enemy fire.

Click for the option menus translation for Asuka & Asuka on Taito Memories II - Vol. 1

For a brief while the enigmatic ending made me believe I could've dealt with the first boss differently, since he's the only one that escapes no matter how damaged he gets. But alas, as much as I tried and bombed him he'd still flee like a real coward. My best 1CC score in the Normal difficulty is below, playing with a turbo controller for great justice. A final note about this PS2 version is that the Normal difficulty is clearly harder than the default setting of the ROMs I tested in MAME. Bullets are definitely faster, thus requiring a higher degree of attention from those brave enough to try it.

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