Monday, May 22, 2023

Vulgus (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
2 Difficulty levels
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Digital Eclipse in 2005

Another first from another important developer, let's go!

Yes, every company has to start somewhere. I'm not saying that Vulgus was the first game designed by Capcom. It was however their first shmup, and as such deserves at least a bolded footnote in the history of the genre. Many would argue with that, and even more people simply ignore it because it was soon overshadowed by the games that followed. Fortunately Vulgus wasn't (and shouldn't be) forgotten, seeing that it was included in all of those compilations backed up by Capcom ever since the 32-bit generation hit the gaming world.

That said, It's possible to play Vulgus on the Playstation 2 by means of the Capcom Classics Collection. Unfortunately this compilation does not offer any option to play it in TATE, but that isn't that much of a loss if you've got a decently sized TV/monitor. The game's primitive mechanics don't require much as you're invited to attend the coming out party thrown by giant insect mutants from a planet callled... Vulgus. Basically it's just a relentless series of enemy waves attacking the player in random formations throughout three ever-looping ground levels separated by outer space intermissions.

Starting the fun with Vulgus on the Capcom Classics Collection
(courtesy of YouTube user VideoGaming4U)

In the world of Vulgus your tiny round spaceship is equipped with a regular shot and a more powerful and limited attack akin to a cannon, missile or torpedo. It drills straightly forward destroying all minor enemies, only stopping against those bigger bugs that cross the screen from time to time. It's mostly indicated against enemies that appear and enter into line formations after a brief while, kinda like those classic patterns first seen in Galaga. The difference here is that you also have other enemies flying around everywhere, which sometimes makes it difficult or impossible to aim the torpedo and kill complete enemy formations to get more points (the more you kill with a single blow the higher the bonus).

Another visual influence here is Xevious, particularly during the forest planet of the second level thanks to the simliar terrain and the appearance of revolving blocks that become invincible and scroll downwards if you fail to destroy them. The difficulty picks up accordingly from the crater planet of the first stage, quickly peaking as soon as you enter the icy planet in the third stage. Enemy movement patterns get more and more complicated, and since their shots are all directly aimed at the player it soon becomes clear that you absolutely can't stay put. Does this sound familiar? Of course it does, after all this is the same gameplay behavior seen in 1942 and Exed Exes, two spiritual successors in the Capcom shmup timeline.

Vulgus is also where you'll first see some trademark icons in the Capcom shmup lore, such as the Pow item and the yasichi (the colored lollipop). The Pow appears randomly as you defeat enemies, and each one adds an extra cannon/torpedo to your stock. The yasichi, on the other hand, is actually an enemy that approaches the ship and darts into its location. Other items show up in the form of letters D, E and S, which seemingly don't do anything. I don't think they affect enemy behavior to a noticeable extent (decrease quantity, increase number, increase speed) as seen in the hint included in this very same collection. What I noticed is that if you take many of them during the same stage without dying you'll eventually be able to collect a yellow star that's worth 10.000 points.

The loop boss!

An interesting aspect of the gameplay that might not be that intuitive in the beginning is that the quicker you take Pows and letters the quicker they will appear. If you fail or refuse to collect an item it will keep showing up until you take it, and only then the item spawning sequence will be resumed (most frequently it's a random letter for every two Pows). Items don't appear in outer space areas, but whenever they're on screen note that if you move left/right and leave it out of sight it might just disappear, as will some of the enemies.

For a quick burst of shooting action Vulgus is quite a decent diversion, given that it doesn't take too long to be looped. At the end of the 3rd stage a bigger enemy with rotating rocks appears, in what could be considered the loop boss. There are a few odd choices in the rudimentary mechanics, such as the cannon stock being retained even if you die and the routine for extends and extra lives. Extends are normally achieved at 20.000 and 60.000 points, whereas 1UPs come from destroying certain enemies and quickly vanish amidst the mayhem. No worries though because they get duly registered. And whatever your life stock is, the maximum amount shown in the life indicator is 4.

My final verdict on this game is simple. If you fancy the style of 1942 and Exed Exes but can't cope with their excruciatingly long campaigns and difficulty, which is my case, then Vulgus is certainly a nice option to try. It's just as relentless, but three stages is all it takes to add it to your 1CC achievement list. Both input buttons can be configured at will in the options screen, as well as rapid fire (a controller with turbo fire will give you better results though). The repetitive music is really the only atrocious aspect players need to endure, but there's a slightly less grating alternative in the Capcom Classic Collection disc. Just go to Options → Game Settings and switch on Sound Remix.

Here's my final result in the Normal difficulty, reaching the icy planet one more time on the second loop.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Tiger-Heli (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Toaplan
Published by M2 / Tatsujin in 2021

Paying respects to shmup classics is never a bad idea if you have some spare time. It also serves two noble purposes. One of them is to put into perspective their undeniable importance to the development of the genre. The other is, well, to have fun obviously. It could be easy fun, but challenging fun is preferrably the best option. Tiger-Heli is definitely one that fits the bill, and its resurfacing in new consoles thanks to the fine people from M2 offered a great chance to revisit this defining title in the history of Toaplan. After all, the only true arcade port of Tiger-Heli until recently was in the Toaplan Shooting Battle 1 compilation released for the Playstation in 1996.

Toaplan Arcade Garage - Kyukyoku Tiger-Heli is the first compilation in the M2 ShotTriggers Japanese series that's exclusively dedicated to Toaplan. It contains Tiger-Heli, Kyukyoku Tiger and Twin Cobra, in what's seemingly a repetition of the aforementioned package released for the PS1. However, it offers much more in terms of available adjustments, interface improvements and extra content since you can also play several console versions of these games through DLC. There's even a port of Get Star, an extremely odd platformer released by Toaplan in 1986. Unfortunately the downlodable content can only be redeemed with Japanese PSN accounts.

Even though it's quite different from the titles that followed in the Toaplan timeline, Tiger-Heli was immensely successful and established the company as one of the main shmup households during the 80s. The main inspiration for the game was Gyrodine, which actually had in its developmment team some of the guys who would later found Toaplan. However, despite the similar use of a helicopter as the player's avatar there isn't much in common between both games. Toaplan's debut enjoyed greater success both in the arcades and in people's homes, given that in certain regions the port of Tiger-Heli for the Famicom/NES was certainly one of the most popular shmups of the 8-bit era.

Art during the initial loading of Tiger-Heli on the PS4

As the first shmup developed by Toaplan, Tiger-Heli established the basic visual grounds that would define much of the company's style for a few years. In terms of gameplay, however, it's quite unique in how it deals with movement speed and bomb management for example. It's deceivingly slow and methodical, and despite the straightforward nature of enemy formations there comes a point when a solid amount of memorization becomes inevitable. It teaches the importance of never underestimating a simple game that uses only two buttons for shooting and for dropping bombs.

Once the helicopter takes flight over an urban landscape, tanks and turrets will fire aimed bullets at intervals that get increasingly shorter as the difficulty picks up proportionally. For each life you get two bombs placed on the sides of the chopper, which can explode if hit by a bullet. The firing rate is capped so you can only have a certain amount of bullets on screen at any time, nevertheless it's still possible to point blank in order to land a lot more shots per second. Bombs have no panic function but can still be used defensively, however a proactive approach can lead to much better survival chances in some of the trickiest sections.

Improving firepower is possible by hitting a tiny ground square that keeps cycling quickly between a white arrow pointing up, a red arrow point sideways and a blue B for extra bombs. The arrows generate "little helis" that float downwards and latch to the chopper on both sides when collected, providing great attack reinforcements. You can have a maximum of two little helis at any given time, but just like the bombs they can be destroyed with a single hit. As for the yellow pulsating squares, an extra life is achieved whenever ten of them are destroyed (a counter keeps track of how many you have). By the way, score-based extends are also registered with 50.000 points and for every 120.000 points after that.

Whenever you die and get sent back to a previous checkpoint the helicopter is respawned with two bombs. This bomb stock is also replenished during the landing/take-off sequence between levels, which is also where you can collect 5.000 bonus points for each bomb or little heli you're carrying when you land (surplus upgrades taken throughout the level give you 3.000 points). These are the main ways to score higher, but there are also a few secrets such as the indestructible red house at the start of the first stage that gives you 10.000 points (and more if you keep shooting it), or the areas where a racing car will slowly travel from right to left if you stand there after having fired exact multiples of 16 shots and is also worth 10.000 points.

Entering the second loop of Tiger-Heli on the PS4
(courtesy of YouTube user FunnyPlace Channel)

Before playing this port of Tiger-Heli, the 16-shot secret for the passing car was unknown to me. Achieving it is possible in all available spots of this version though, thanks to some of the gadgets designed by M2 (the shot counter and the stage map). A staple that has become synonym with the company, these gadgets are invaluable and give much more information than what you can see from the game screen alone. This port also offers four game modes to choose from. Arcade is locked in the Normal difficulty and denies any changes to the game settings, providing the unaltered original experience and avoiding the confusion related to different arcade board versions. Super Easy mode is also locked, Custom allows all sorts of tweaks possible and Arcade Challenge is a collection of stage-based score attack modes.

Since everything in this Playstation 4 version is in Japanese, if you want to watch a replay from the leaderboards note that you need to download it first by pressing ×, then proceed to Replay Theater inside the Materials Room menu to see it.

Click for the option menus translation for Tiger-Heli on Toaplan Arcade Garage - Kyukyoku Tiger-Heli

Despite the apparent bare-bones and primitive aspect of Tiger-Heli, its ability to keep sucking players for just one more credit is undeniable. There are no stage bosses, but those large tanks that appear in pairs at certain points could definitely claim the title of bosses if they wanted to. An interesting gameplay detail is that even though a few jets zap through the screen here and there there are absolutely no shots fired by aerial enemies, a concept that Toaplan would employ again in Daisenpu / Twin Hawk. And as far as looping games go, Tiger-Heli is also special because it excludes the first stage from subsequent loops, which then have only three stages instead of the initial four (the high score table mentions areas, with 8 areas comprising a full stage). Finally, the game makes the most out of the available music, changing its regular theme to an equally energetic variation whenever you're carrying at least one little heli.

My best result in Arcade mode / Normal difficulty is below. Once I got familiar with the game again I was able to reach the 3rd stage of the second loop (repetition of the 4th stage).

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Wonder 3 [Chariot] (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Capcom
Published by Digital Eclipse in 2006

Three full-blown games in one single arcade title isn't something you see regularly. Three Wonders, also known as Wonder 3 in Japan, was Capcom's take on such an odd formula, featuring a platformer, a shmup and a puzzler. The elf characters of the platformer Midnight Wanderers - Quest for the Chariot (Roosters in the Japanese version) are the same ones that appear in Chariot - Adventure through the Sky, whereas the puzzler Don't Pull features a cute design reminiscent of Pengo and Bomberman. Since this is a shmup-oriented blog, the option I played last week was obviously Chariot. It's actually my second time doing it, since I had already spent some time with the port released for the Sega Saturn in 1998.

Capcom Classics Collection Vol. 2 on the Playstation 2 is one of the several ways you can experience Three Wonders in the comfort of your living room. It's a perfectly fine version that includes automatic saving, full button remapping with additional autofire and a few related extras. The game itself is extremely colorful with a sweet art design that kinda predates the visual style Capcom would later infuse in titles like Eco Fighters. It's also got a simple rank progression that makes the game slightly harder the longer you remain alive, which is something I didn't really notice back when I played the Saturn port.

First stage of Chariot
(courtesy of YouTube user Oto Mitas)

As you take to the skies with any of the two characters (co-op possible) you’re allowed to shoot and to fire a "crash" attack based on your tail energy. There’s no autofire by default for the shot input but you can activate it the options (set rapid fire to ON). Shot type is dictated by colored power-ups released by floating chests. The wide shot (red, default) has a good spread coverage and generates a single straight blast as crash attack, whereas the straight/rapid shot (green) is totally focused but fires a wide staggering blast for crash attack. 

The basic and most important strategy to succeed in Chariot is to power up as fast as you can. Four consecutive items of the same color are necessary to maximize the shot power level, but chests also release other essential upgrades such as the option that increases the size of your tail (up to seven segments), the bomb (B) that activates a ground projectile (a second B adds a trailing effect that extends the reach of the bomb) and the emblem that gives you a 1-hit shield in the form of a golden chariot (appears only once in selected stages). Regarding tail size, it’s important to mention that the larger the tail the more crash attacks you can fire in succession. Each one consumes 3 tail segments, but fortunately tail energy recharges rather quickly over time. Tail energy is also consumed when you use the tail to deflect bullets and damage enemies coming from behind, so take note of that if you're surrounded by enemy flocks closing in from all sides. 

Remaining items related to survival and scoring can come either from chests or from destroying particular enemies or enemy waves. The first one is the heart that adds to an extend counter: the small heart adds +1 and the big heart adds +5 towards milestones of 50, 70 and 90 for three possible extra lives. The second item is the coin, one of the backbones of the game’s scoring system. The common rule in every stage is that for each coin collected before the next one appears its value increases in nine steps from 100 to 4.800 points. Special situations happen after mid-boss encounters (always take the coin of highest value last) and during sections with lots of coins appearing at the same time, where coin value increases slowly no matter how many of them are on screen.

Throughout the level the most simple way to increase coin value is by killing the enemy waves that give out coins, that's why you need to avoid destroying turrets that spit out said waves (each stage has its own type of coin-generating turret). A few other simple scoring techniques allow for easy extra points if you play well enough, such as speed-killing bosses and collecting all surplus power-ups once everything is already upgraded. Each one is worth 5.000 points, but another extra chariot on top of an active one yields 10.000 points. Finally, upon completing the game each remaining life is worth 50.000 points and all hearts in stock are also added to the score.

Choose your destiny

Within its classic structure and the somewhat uneven duration of stages, Chariot is certainly a charming fun shooter that's bound to please those who enjoy fantasy themed games. While it doesn't really fall into the cute'em up realm, the diversity is refreshing and bosses are a sight to behold with some incredible designs that evoke – or try to evoke – astrology signs. The item shower they spit out when dying is an amusing detail as well. On a broad assessment the game isn't overly hard, but rank does impose more pressure later on because it causes enemies to fire more bullets and bosses to become more aggressive. Remember that it's not harmful to touch walls and surfaces.

Even though the naming of the game is confusing with Three Wonders, 3 Wonders and Wonder 3 being thrown out there without much ceremony, it's clear by the name of the platformer (Midnight Wanderers) that I have played the World/Western version of Chariot. I noticed a few differences here and there when comparing my runs with footage of the Japanese version, such as the smaller size of bullets, slightly diverse movement/placement patterns for enemies and one noteworthy difference in the absence of debris from the moving blocks in stage 2. Some sources state that the Japanese version is harder, but I'd say there's not much to warrant any heated argument on difficulty differences.

My 1CC score was achieved in the Normal difficulty on the player 1 side. If you feel the continue feature is annoying because it registers automatically if you press the shot button during the continue countdown, just switch continues to NONE in the options screen.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Twinkle Star Sprites - La Petite Princesse (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by SNK Playmore
Published by SNK Playmore in 2004

An unexpected sequel that nobody thought was coming in 2004, Twinkle Star Sprites - La Petite Princesse is actually one of the first games released by SNK Playmore, which was formed from the ashes of the old SNK. Despite carrying the style of the predecessor in its veins, this sequel came out completely under SNK Playmore since the company had by then acquired the rights to all titles developed by ADK, including of course the first Twinkle Star Sprites.

Since almost nothing was changed from the core gameplay of the first game, many people hesitate or even refuse to consider La Petite Princesse a proper sequel. I for one can surely remonstrate this perspective, after all the game adds brand new characters while bringing a few old faces from the original, on top of applying a full 3D makeover to the cute approach to graphic design. In fact, the game is a real treat for anime fans since it's almost unbearably cute, it's just a little underwhelming that all voices and interactions are conveyed in Japanese only. Honestly, even character names are difficult for Western people to figure out.

Players can have fun in three game modes. In Story mode you take the role of a witch named Time Buttermint, fighting six adversaries in order to save the world from a dimensional star distortion rift. She flies a broom and is always followed around by her faithful dog, who also determines the behavior of her magical powers. Time Buttermint takes over the protagonist role from Load Ran, which is now only available in Character mode along with 14 other cute competitors with the most diverse stats for power and speed. However, from my experience no matter which mode you choose La Petite Princesse is definitely easier than its predecessor. Finally, Versus mode is only applicable when two people get together to face each other in glorious shooting combat mayhem.

Riding a powerful guitar to reap the spoils of victory

Even though shooting is the basic input as usual, combat is the core element of the gameplay in La Petite Princesse. In a nutshell, it's exactly the same as in the original Twinkle Star Sprites. The few differences are in the number of levels in Story and Character modes, which is now 6 instead of 7, a new item that can show up in the flipping coin (P), a few new golem wave formations and one single extend registered with 500.000 points (previously it was one extend at every 500K).

You can shoot indiscriminately at will, but that might just not cut it to defeat the opponent on the other side of the screen. Default inputs consist of shot (□ and ○), rapid shot (△) and bomb (×). Gameplay 101: several different waves of colorful minions/golems cruise the screen; destroy them in order to send fireballs to the player on the other side; popping all of them together/faster creates more fireballs; you can deflect enemy fireballs by shooting at them or engulfing them in your own golem explosions, which is even better; if the amount of aggression increases you automatically begin sending character-related special attacks to the other side, inclusing boss attacks; these attacks can also be triggered by using charge shots (hold □/○) powered by an energy gauge that fills up automatically; charge shots at max power (3) trigger boss attacks; when hit, fever orbs preceded by two exclamation marks (!!) increase the efficiency of your attacks for a short time; bomb to clean your own screen and survive impossible odds.

Each character gets a health bar of 5 hearts. Damage comes from getting hit by enemy fire or by touching a golem, which also stuns you for a few seconds and reduces your speed/firepower. The fight is lost if the health bar depletes. If the fight drags for too long cute grim reapers will appear alternately for both players and chase them around the screen, killing at contact regardless of the status of their health bars. Grim reapers can be killed though. Some golems are endowed with shields that add to their health, but these shields can be instantly broken if you collect the star item that comes on a flippling coin. In addition to the star, this coin can also appear carrying an extra bomb (B), extra points ($) or extra charge power (P). Health is recovered partially by successfully hitting your adversary.

Besides head-to-head shooting combat there's also an scoring system in place for Story and Character modes, which share the same high score tracking. Everything you hit lands some points, but you can use several techniques to score higher. Destroying golem waves without wasting a single shot, for example, starts a PERFECT chain that can be sustained for as long as you keep doing it. After each victory you get bonus points for max chain achieved and the time taken to beat the level. Time bonus is trivial though, after all sustaining longer fights is obviously better for scoring, it's just hard to do that in the starting levels because opponents will practically kill themselves.

A cute introduction to an even cuter game
(courtesy of YouTube user Hell Tantrumbull)

All the above techniques are familiar to those experienced with the previous game. However, Twinkle Star Sprites - La Petite Princesse brings a new element that makes all of them pale in comparison. This new element is the $ money sign in the flipping coin: the first one is worth 10 points only, but each subsequent $ you take multiplies the previous value by 10. This means the 6th one will be worth one million points, and so on and so forth! The catch is that this is valid only for the current fight/level, provided you continue getting $ signs consecutively without collecting any Bs, Ps or stars in between. Note: if you're wondering about not seeing the score counter during the fight, just press L1 to toggle its appearance.

Although not outstanding in terms of extras, the PS2 disc is at least competent on a basic level and includes automatic saving, vibration, input configuration, an art gallery and a few special contents to be unlocked. On the first contact with Character mode you'll notice three empty slots at the bottom, which are reserved for Realy Till, Load Ran and Mikoto, the new final boss. To unlock them all you need to do is beat them in Story mode, then complete the game afterwards (Realy Till is the only one that appears randomly in stage 4, so keep trying until you get the chance to fight her). A nice treat is that if you beat Character mode with these three competitors you'll then unlock the original Twinkle Star Sprites, which will be accessible from the start screen. All unlocks can be achieved with continues, so at least there's no 1CC grinding involved in any of this.

Time Buttermint is a nice replacement for Load Ran in Story mode, but except for Memory I admit I didn't try playing with any of the other characters besides the ones needed to perform the unlocks. My best 1CC score was achieved with Mikoto in the default difficulty (3).

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.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Magical Chase (PC Engine)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Quest
Published by Palsoft in 1991

Sometimes video games are so aptly named that almost everything you need to know about them is already in the title. Magical Chase is exactly what its name implies, for example. It’s a chase, and it’s magical. It’s also about a little witch flying on a broom, which is of course the most important design aspect of the game and mirrors the setting of a much more famous shooter featuring another witch named Cotton. Since the witch in Magical Chase is named Ripple, wouldn’t it have been a wise move for the developer to also release the game as Ripple? We could’ve have another similarly long and successful franchise then.

Jokes aside, even though no sequel was ever developed for Magical Chase the game at least got a port for the Turbografx-16 that holds the distinction of being one of the rarest titles for NEC’s console in the West. No differences exist in the core gameplay between both versions, but the Turbografx-16 port translates all Japanese texts and applies a few visual tweaks to character sprites while repainting the whole first level with a new medieval setting. Either way players are bound to experience a charming shooting romp with neat graphics, nice music and great variety from beginning to end. It doesn't take long to see the game's got plenty of personality without sounding too derivative, on top of exhibiting great parallax effects with absolutely no slowdown.

A brief snippet of the first stage of the Japanese PC Engine version
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade Forever)

Cute little witch Ripple accidentally released six devilish creatures from a forbidden book, and off she goes to undo this with the aid of two star friends/maidens. There’s a total of six levels to go through with increasingly higher survival stakes as you fight mechanized enemies, enchanted forest demons, a huge flying fortress, evil snowmen with hockey masks, a dreadful floating knight and a slew of powerful wizards and other strange beings. Ripple is capable of firing magical shots with button II, as well as have her star options locked in place or freed with a press of button I. A secondary and very important resource consists in pressing buttons I and II at the same time, which then fixes the direction of the bullets they fire. Just do it again to unlock shot direction.

Since the stars can fully block most enemy fire (exceptions are lasers and large ball-shaped projectiles), learning how to use them properly is extremely important in the long run. For every credit you get a health bar with 8 hearts and 6 slots for magic spells. The leftmost spell is used whenever you double tap button II (this is why you can't activate any turbo fire in Magical Chase), and if the hearts in the health gauge deplete the game is over. Health can be recovered by taking the candy lollipop (1 heart) or the cake (2 hearts), which are always left behind by killing specific enemies. Hearts can also be refilled by purchasing the necessary items from the shop that appears at certain points throughout the stage.

Shop purchases use the stock of crystals you're able to collect from every destroyed enemy or as a special bonus at the end of the level. Getting familiar with each item in the shop is important to devise an upgrade/recovery strategy, however the first and most important purchase is definitely maximum speed. Then you're set to experiment with all other items. The gallery of more powerful weapons includes 3-way, wave, staggering, bubble, homing, reflective and piercing shots. While there are no upgrades to these weapons, two specific improvements can also be applied to the behavior of the star maidens (cracker ball and cyclone), thus increasing Ripple's overall firepower. Magic spells consist of heart (recovers 2 hearts), bomb (screen-clearing blast) and × (stars turn green and also inflict damage for 15 seconds). Finally, the medicine completely refills the health gauge, the elixir gives you a full new health bar when the current one is gone and the fruit of life expands the health gauge by one heart.

Certainly not Super Mario Bros pipes!

At first Magical Chase doesn't impose any sort of pressure on the player. There's no damage incurred in touching the terrain, but you can still get scroll-crushed by objects and walls. The difficulty slope is relatively steady, nevertheless the bulk of the challenge is reserved for the last couple of stages. Some boss attacks can drain two and a half hearts, quickly leading to a horrible death if you don't have a good reserve of recovery spells to get back up during the battle. Every stage has a boss and one or more mid-bosses, and some of the later ones are quite demanding in terms of dodging. An interesting detail here is that it's not the main boss that gets quickly glimpsed at the start of every level, it's the mid-boss.

What makes Magical Chase an approachable game for everyone is the shop, definitely a lifesaver for the toughest sections mentioned above. Some of the items increase in value after a few purchases, but fortunately the inflation is nowhere near what you see in games like Fantasy Zone or Forgotten Worlds, which also have a similar shop gimmick. On a different note, if you're interested in scoring higher you absolutely can't purchase medicines, elixirs or extra health slots since each one deduces a good chunk of the final completion bonus. Other factors that contribute to this final reward include the number of crystals multiplied by 10, total life remaining and the chosen difficulty level. Even though some bosses can be milked for a few points, doing it isn't trivial and would take a long time to actually be profitable.

At the start screen the middle option corresponds to the setting for Normal difficulty (わくわく / Waku Waku / Bumpy). When played on Easy (らくらく / Raku Raku / Breeze) the game ends after three stages, whereas on Hard (どきどき / Doki Doki / Rough) players will face more bullets and a few different attack patterns from bosses. On my best 1CC result below I maximized all bonuses in the Normal/Bumpy difficulty. I only purchased swing shot and cracker ball in stage 2, then ×4 before the mid-boss in stage 5 while keeping the magic stock full of hearts at all times.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Strikers 1945 (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Psikyo
Published by Taito in 2004

As is usual with companies that aren't ashamed to squeeze everything they can from their brands, Psikyo didn't hold back when deciding to grant the Playstation 2 with collections of its shmups. Three official volumes were released (plus a special edition for the Gunbird series), with the first one highlighting Strikers 1945 and Strikers 1945 II, two sci-fi military themed shooters that had already been out for the previous generation of video games. Having both titles in a single disc is a nice way to experience the classic Psikyo gameplay, even if this particular release fumbles certain aspects in the most awkward manner.

Strikers 1945 is an obvious evolution to Psikyo's earlier Gunbird, sharing many of its features while boosting the challenge level a little. Half the game has shuffled levels, rank increases steeply the more powered up you are and a second loop proves to be in a completely different level as far as difficulty goes. An assortment of planes is available to the player in a mission to stop an alien race from taking over the planet, in a divergent World War II timeline that urges pilots from the most powerful nations to unite. Co-op is possible, which makes things even more insteresting if you care about the historical details of these once very powerful planes.

Experimenting with all planes is essential to find out the one that suits your play style. Each plane behaves differently in terms of hitbox, firepower and speed with controls provided by three fully configurable inputs: shot, rapid and bomb. The purpose of the shot button is to activate a charge attack when you have collected at least one power-up, giving the option(s) a more powerful and useful formation. It’s possible to collect a maximum of four power-ups (P), thus increasing the plane’s firepower and acquiring up to four options. Extra bombs (B) can be stocked up to a maximum of six, while gold ingots at ground level provide extra bonus points.

Japanese plane Shinden takes on the evolved Doramascher mecha

Since this is my third time having fun with the game I didn’t want to choose the Spitfire or the Messerschmidt Bf-109 again, so I decided to go with the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the same fighter plane made extremely popular by the 19XX series from Capcom. It even has the same type of looping animation on the bomb. It’s got one of the quickest charging times of the bunch, even though the charge shot lacks defensive capability and concentrated power (options are evenly spaced in a fixed straight arrangement). That’s why at times it’s better to just fire at will due to the extra homing shots provided by the options, kinda like the homing bunnies from Gunbird’s Marion.

One of the most distinctive features of Strikers 1945 is the random order of the first four levels. This of course wouldn't be anything special, however the progressive difficulty makes these stages play out much harder the further they appear. Bullet speed, bullet density and bullet patterns from bosses get increasingly harder. The only way to tone down rank is by dying (not acceptable) or by colliding against a flying enemy, an action that doesn't kill you but rather takes away one power level, instantly reducing enemy aggression. It's a valid resource alright, one that I used whenever possible against bosses during the second half of the game.

On the subject of scoring, this is also another game that has an interesting mechanic based on item collection. There's a varying shining effect on all gold ingots, and if you take them when they're the most bright you'll get 2.000 points (a different sound cue will be heard instead of the regular sound effect when you get 200, 500 or 1.000 points). Timing the collection of gold bars amidst the evergrowing barrage of bullets brings up an interesting risk/reward ratio. Another more simple source of points is collecting power-ups and bombs in excess for 4.000 points each. Don't get greedy on bombs though, it's better to use them than die with a full bomb stock, furthermore they don't amount to any bonus whatsoever at the end of the levels. On a last note, a single extra life is achieved when you score 600.000 points.

Unless you're going for the crazy hard second loop, bombing specific boss patterns is a good strategy to conquer the first loop, especially when you start to encounter those random midbosses in the last couple of stages. During the second half of the game continuing sends you back to the start of the level, which seems cruel but is actually good for practicing and coming back stronger next time. 

Strikers 1945's Original 1 mode on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user Arcade Forever)

Originally released for the Japanese Playstation 2 market, Psikyo Shooting Collection Vol. 1 - Strikers 1945 I & II eventually appeared in Europe with a shady art design under the title 1945 I & II - The Arcade Games. The box artwork for the Japanese package is rather beautiful to look at, and if you manage to snag the first edition you'll also get a special DVD with five superplays. The ports themselves are very bare bones with no saving functionality, mirroring the same display modes found in the standalone versions for the Playstation or the Saturn. In the case of Strikers 1945 it's Original 1 (fixed YOKO), Original 2 (wobbling YOKO) and Arcade (real TATE). Strikers 1945 suffers from an incredible oversight though, which is the activation of an immediate continue if you keep any of the shot/rapid buttons pressed when you lose your last life. That's certainly annoying because then you can't register your initials at all. Continues add a single point to the score, which keeps counting when you continue the game. Weirdly enough, this problem doesn't happen with Strikers 1945 II.

Below is my final result with the P-38 plane on Arcade/TATE mode in difficulty setting 5 (Normal), dying in stage 2-1. I know I should focus on the next titles in the series from now on, but if I'm still urged to play this one again there is at this moment at least one more Psikyo compilation waiting for a little bit of shmup love. But more on that when (and if) the time comes.