Friday, May 7, 2021

Cosmos Cop (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Mega Soft
Published by Gluk in 1991

Even those who have not lived it somehow know that the 80s was an awesome decade, especially when talking about video games and the delight they provided kids at home. The NES specifically was an endless fountain of fun for pretty much everyone, but even the best electronic systems couldn't deliver great games only. They also had their share of average titles, as well as the truly bad cartridges almost no one would dare to rent or buy. And then there were those games released by companies such as NTDEC/Mega Soft/Caltron, which in mediocrity terms are in a category of their own.

The more you dig into any video game library the more you learn, and this is as true now as it was back then. NTDEC wasn't on my radar as a child, therefore here I am very late to the party to share my less than enthusiastic impressions of yet another unlicensed product from the company. A rail shooter marketed at the time as having the same thrills as Sega's amazing Space Harrier, Cosmos Cop is another demonstration of the lousy work from some of the same people who delivered stuff like Magic Carpet 1001 (just check the end credits to see it). Although it can't really be qualified as torture, it does stand out as a truly shabby effort that smears the genre's flair for excitement and wonder.

The terror legion from alienation space invaded galaxy!
(courtesy of YouTube user DarkMurdoc666)

Cosmos Cop puts you inside a giant mecha that flies forward in a mission to save the galaxy from outer space scumbags. It’s a simple game with a simple objective: to defeat a giant boss after five short levels of straightforward shooting with very little variety. The scrolling surface never changes from its initial dark blue color, only the background in the distance does in order to reflect the themes for each stage, which is always preceded by a quick message describing the next mission. The first level is a "defensive" area, followed by a flight towards volcanoes, an enemy arsenal, an energy station, the mandatory end-of-game fortress and of course the final boss. This last enemy, in fact, seems to have been the object of most of the design efforts because it's got a really creepy and menacing look. Honestly speaking, it's the single highlight of the whole game.

Button B fires your regular cannon (with autofire) and button A deploys the so-called neutron missile, a supposedly more powerful attack that has limited ammo and no autofire. Each life comes with an energy gauge that allows you to take a few hits before dying. What's particularly weird about Cosmos Cop is the way enemy bullets are fired at the player. They deviate from the norm in that all projectiles explode into cross or × shaped patterns of four bullets that spread out in varying angles according to the enemy that fired them. In that sense, it's not enough to just dodge. You also need to keep your space until all expanding bullets have cleared the area.

Due to the peculiar nature of the enemy fire, losing lots of energy in a short period of time during a quick bullet shower is quite common in the beginning. Lost energy is recovered by collecting the P icon that approaches floating by (the only item you'll come across in the whole game). Besides refilling the energy gauge, this icon is also responsible for adding a few more neutron missiles to the stock. Energy is fully replenished at the start of a new level as well.

As I mentioned above you don't face any sort of boss until you reach the end of the game, but it can be quite hard to preserve health and not die on the way. The good news is that you're granted with an extra life for every 10.000 points you score. If it weren't for this somewhat merciful extend routine Cosmos Cop would certainly be more a challenge, regardless of how bare bones it looks like with all those generic formations of saucers, drones and rocks. At least it scrolls at a decent pace and doesn't incur in any slowdown or flicker.

The impending dangers of the volcano area

In the constricted realm of NES rail shooters it's very easy to mistake this game for Cosmic Epsilon due to their names looking alike. However, while Cosmos Cop's stale experience fails to leave any lasting impression, Cosmic Epsilon might possibly be the best 8-bit rail shooter ever created. Just take note of that if you happen to stumble upon both of them in any game discussion or in your next garage sale. Note that besides the standalone Spanish release by Gluk, Cosmos Cop is also included in the famous Caltron 6-in-1 multicart.

I beat Cosmos Cop in my first attempt playing it, but wasn't fast enough to pause and take the picture of my score (there's no hi-score buffering anywhere and the game halts at the credits screen). Then I played it once more and got a better result, shown in the picture below. It was quite quick, after all a full credit lasts about just 12 minutes!

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

TwinBee 3 (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
2 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1989

The last game in the TwinBee franchise to be published as a Famicom exclusive, TwinBee 3 - Poko Poko Daimaƍ never made it to Western shores as did Moero TwinBee / Stinger. Perhaps Konami had a gamer like me in mind when dealing with the series out of Japan, after all I never really cared about its gameplay and the whole concept of a cute'em up where you're supposed to be juggling bells at all times. There's something about this mechanic that doesn't quite click with me in the first entries of the franchise (my perception about future chapters such as Pop'n TwinBee is vastly different though).

That said, one of the most important things to be said about TwinBee 3 is that it returns to the roots of the series by offering vertical stages only, as opposed to the mix of horizontal and vertical levels seen in Stinger. In Famicom terms it plays just like the original TwinBee, only with some changes here and there. Cute and surreal enemies storm about from everywhere in the most erratic movement patterns amidst clouds that release colored bells when shot at. Commands are the basic combination of shot (button B) and ground bombs (button A), but a turbo controller comes in very handy since the game lacks autofire.

Lots of hive-like terrain ahead

Trying to go all the way with the default pea shot in a snail's pace is of course not the correct way to enjoy the game, so one of the first actions you need to take is get a blue bell for a welcome speed boost. The main bell color is yellow, with all other colors appearing after they take a few shots. However, in TwinBee 3 the amount of bells initially generated in blue color is considerable, so flying fast can actually be quite hard to avoid at times. In fact, the feeling I got in this chapter is that it's quite easy to get multiple speed-ups and start moving at breakneck speeds all over the place (the HUD even keeps track of the amount of speed-ups you get).

Keep hitting the bells to see more color variations besides yellow for the following functions: blue (speed-up), white (double shot), red (piercing laser shot), flashing red (trailing options) and flashing blue (shield barrier). Yellow bells serve the single purpose of scoring since for each one grabbed without letting any go down the screen you score 500, 2.500, 5.000 and then 10.000 points (max). Other bell colors do not influence the yellow bell combo, so there's no need to rush in order to juggle a blue bell that's far away or almost out of reach.

Besides the bells, other items can be uncovered by destroying ground targets with bombs. Most of them, such as fruit and money, result in a few extra points, but some items yield better rewards. The bottle gives an extra life, the candy gives you a 3-way spread shot, the question mark might destroy all on-screen enemies (not always), the match sets fire to the next bell for a lengthy period of invincibility and an old man's head gives access to a bonus cloud area once the stage boss is defeated. The old man is actually dr. Cinnamon, the game's villain who has kidnapped Gwinbee and prompts TwinBee and WinBee to go rescue their friend, solo or in a cooperative mission. 

A crazy TV ad for TwinBee 3
(courtesy of YouTube user Satoshi Matrix)

The lower option in the main screen sends the player to the options menu (see translation below). Besides selecting the difficulty between Easy and Hard, you can also choose the character (TwinBee or WinBee) and the order of the first four levels. One of the main differences between both difficulties, aside from the expected enemy opposition, is the fact that the ambulance appears as many times as needed on Easy. In regular TwinBee fashion, the ambulance shows up after you've taken two hits, restoring the character's arms once collected. In the Hard difficulty the ambulance appears only once, so losing the arms again afterwards will make it impossible to hit ground targets.

A feature that expands upon the ambulance gimmick in TwinBee 3 is the "soul recovery system", which leaves behind a ghost of the character that slowly moves upwards when you lose a life. Take it and you'll recover whatever upgrades you had prior to dying. While it's certainly helpful, sometimes it's impossible to pick it up when you die close to the top. There are also times when it doesn't appear at all, mostly during later loops in the Hard difficulty. Just like in previous entries, powering up the character with anything that takes it off its default condition accelerates the music into a new tune that remains playing until you lose a life.

Option menu translation for TwinBee 3
With sceneries that vary from the staple floating islands of the first stage to a psychedelic mix of checkerboards full of cannons in the fifth and final level, TwinBee 3 veers into something a bit different in its middle areas by showing a medieval setting in stage 3 and a coal mine where rail carts slide while shooting at you in stage 4. The last couple of levels is particularly demanding as far as survival goes, so it's always good to memorize where you can get fire matches and extra lives from ground targets.

After firing up the cartridge I went straight into Hard difficulty. While certainly tough in its own terms, my feeling is that most of the difficulty stemmed more from the choppy scrolling than the gameplay itself. If I had to choose a favorite NES entry in this series I'd definitely pick Stinger, yet TwinBee 3 might certainly shine more in the boss gallery department, which is totally wacky and seems more fitting to a Parodius chapter than a TwinBee game. Since extends are earned regularly with every 100.000 points you score and there's no change in difficulty whatsoever after you beat the game, I looped it four times with TwinBee and gave up at the start of the 5th round (stage 5-1) with the score below:

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Exzisus (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints ON
4 Difficulty levels
4 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Taito in 1987
Published by Taito in 2005

I always thought highly of well-made compilations of classic games. And one of the truths about this is that few of them compare or even come close to the sheer value provided by the discs Taito released for the Playstation 2 under the Taito Memories and Taito Legends monikers. Amongst the usual company flagships such as Darius Gaiden and Rayforce you'll still find interesting shmups to spend some time with. One example is Exzisus, a rather primitive yet fun horizontal shooter that appears both in Taito Legends (US version) and Taito Memories II - Vol. 1 (Japan version).

Even though Exzisus does have some sort of uniqueness to its gameplay, it’s obvious that the game has either predated Darius by a few months only or was developed concurrently with it. You can easily notice that in the way enemy formations are handled, how the ship form resembles a broken/sliced Silver Hawk and how one of the bosses actually looks like Dual Shears despite being a giant scorpion. Exzisus takes a simpler approach to backgrounds but the same raw, otherworldly quirkiness about the graphics also apply. Just note that the version in the Taito discs is the "conversion kit" variant, not the dedicated cabinet one. Differences between both can be checked in this page.

Exzisus is about a flying robot that’s capable of turning into a spaceship on the fly, in pure and glorious Transfomers-like style. Whenever you're respawned you materialize as the robot, a form that allows you to fly and to walk/crouch on ground level. Only two buttons are used to play the game. The first input fires both the main shot and the missiles that come out from the robot's jetpack, while the secondary input launches forward any options you might have acquired, which hover above the robot in the form of an eagle (above) and a dog (below). Options are acquired with the O item, released by destroying item carriers that appear from time to time.

"My brothers enlisted in the Bacterion empire and left me here alone to die!!"

Besides the options, other available items in the game are D (spread shot), L (laser shot), M (missile upgrade), F (autofire), dark D (smart bomb) and A (aerodynamic transformation). The two weapon types you can actually use are spread and laser, which get upgraded by picking up successive items of the same kind. The same is valid for missiles, which evolve into ground trailing missiles and then homing/heat-seeking missiles. The A item is the one that causes the transformation from robot to ship form, also causing any existing options to sink into the ship's hull. If you get hit in ship form you'll revert back to robot, and upon being hit as a robot you lose a life, respawning in a previous checkpoint.

Each level in Exzisus is split in half by an intermediate section where the player needs to deal with a special kind of obstacle. In these areas you'll be flying amidst meteorites, falling ice blocks, moving barriers and expanding spores. The difficulty increases accordingly, with the final stage being naturally the trickiest to get through. Normally there's no need for heavy memorization since the game does not include physical obstacles of any kind except for the aforementioned midde-stage areas and the ground itself: scratching it slightly when in ship form is admissible, just don't lean into it otherwise it'll count as a hit and you'll be sent back to the robot form.

Between the primitive yet functional graphics and the decent dodging action with enemy waves arriving from all sides, Exzisus is reasonably amusing despite a few awkward details. From very early on you need to get used to the way missiles are fired, for example, and you also need to adapt to the hitbox when in ship form (it looks larger than it actually is). The robot has a much larger hitbox but doesn't incur in a severe handicap during the stages themselves, and lest size becomes a problem you always come across an A item prior to boss confrontations.

A gameplay aspect that can be regularly exploited when in robot form is the fact that both mechanical helpers are able to block and absorb enemy bullets. Besides, there are instances where launching them forward repeatedly is quite helpful, either in robot or in ship form. The first extend is granted with 150.000 points, and further ones come in intervals of 200.000 points.

One quick credit in Exzisus
(courtesy of YouTube user zxspectrumgames4)

Progress in the level is measured by a "map" gauge on the upper corner of the screen. At the end of the level it changes to "dmg" to indicate the health of the boss. Speaking of which, bosses are in a league of their own as far as campy design goes, even though they're not exactly pushovers when it comes down to the amount of bullets they're able to fire against you. I giggled the first time I saw the gold moai (which is a far cry from the most famous moai in the shmup world) and its incredible moving ability in the first level. The mechanical yeti in stage 2 doesn't fare much better, the red scorpion in stage 3 is the one that looks like a boss straight out of Darius and the violet salamander looks nothing like the sort, resembling a giant cobra instead.

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

Cheese and camp aside, the game is enjoyable enough and a worthy predecessor to later shmups with similar visual or functional elements, such as Android Assault, Heavy UnitSpriggan Mark 2 - Re-Terraform Project and several titles in the Macross franchise. However, when going for the Playstation 2 as the platform of choice players should be aware that the Japanese disc allows full button remapping, unlike the Taito Legends release. Furthermore, upon testing the game in the latter I noticed it stutters during the asteroid shower of the first stage, which of course points to the fact that this particular disc isn’t the optimal choice to play the game. In fact, if you need to choose between regions you should always go for the Japanese releases in this case, there’s absolutely no doubt about it.

I reached stage 2-3 of Exzisus in my best high score on Normal difficulty. The scorpion boss spits out way more bullets the second time around, and losing the ship form while fighting him makes everything nigh impossible.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius - Forever with Me (Saturn)

Checkpoints ON
8 Difficulty levels
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1996

For those people who wondered what Konami was thinking when developing and releasing the fourth chapter of the Parodius series for the Super Famicom in 1995, the answer actually came quite quickly. As usual, the game was just too good to be restricted to a single console platform, so the company soon ported it to the 32-bit generation with the added subtitle of Forever with Me, whatever that's supposed to mean. On the outside it looks and plays just like the 16-bit original, albeit with a few standout changes in the core game that are obviously aimed at turning it into a better experience overall.

The aspect that gives Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius - Forever with Me its name is a comical announcer who’s always babbling random stuff (in Japanese) as the game unfolds. An extra female announcer is also present in the cooperative 2-player mode, which is one of the most prominent novelties of both 32-bit ports since there is no co-op in the Super Famicom version. Being able to tag along with a partner probably makes this particular chapter the best one for sheer co-op fun because of three things: a character roster that allows for great combinations of powers and abilities, the complete absence of slowdown and the difficulty level being the same as in the 16-bit original.

Vic Viper on manual power-up mode during two stages
(courtesy of YouTube user PepAlacant)

On top of the nonsensical and colorful design that had its details touched up a little bit, the Saturn version also comes with a few other changes (keep reading). The core gameplay remains intact of course, as defined by the classic mold first introduced in the Gradius series. If you decide for manual power-up mode after selecting the character (the lower option), you'll have to press a dedicated button in order to activate the upgrade that's highlighted in the weapon array, which gets shifted to the right as you collect power-up capsules. By choosing auto power-up mode the game does the upgrading automatically for the player, but it's still possible to activate the upgrade yourself if desired, such as when you want to have more speed. The other inputs are shot, missile (which can be combined in the same button, of course) and bell power.

As all Parodius fans know, rules on the use of bell powers are inherited from the TwinBee franchise. They are either generated periodically in between capsules or released in batches by mid-sized enemies, and come in the following colors: yellow (score), blue (bomb), green (instantaneous inflation + invincibility), white (bullet-cancelling kanji shot), red (three energy barriers) and purple (turns all weak enemies into power-ups and/or bells). Shoot the bells to juggle them and switch their colors, just note that it takes four shots to change from yellow to the other colors in sequence. As one of the main sources of scoring, yellow bells collected in sequence soon max out at 10.000 points each, provided you don't let any bell get past you.
In between regular power-up capsules and bells you also get gray capsules that work as smart bombs. Don't use them if you want to get the scores from the kills though, because all enemies wiped out with the gray capsule yield no points at all. That said, the other main source of points besides bells are the secret fairies that must be uncovered by shooting at their locations. Each one is worth 10.000 points, and if you're the type of player who cares about completing extravagant achievements you can strive to collect all 70 fairies to unlock secret character Dracula-kun, and then a whole new set of 70 faiires to unlock its sibling Kid Dracula. Fortunately it's possible to take a shortcut by means of a secret code if you want to add these extra characters to the default 16.

Relatively easygoing when compared with the arcade games in the series, Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius does not deny its console sensibilities and is probably the perfect chapter for immediate "pick up and play". Inspirations from several Konami titles abound, and not only related to the shoot'em up realm. Tokimeki Memorial, The Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Lethal Enforcers and Taisen Puzzle-Dama are used as themes for complete stages, with the later two being reworkings or completely new ventures on the Saturn and Playstation versions. New details on enemies and bosses, minor graphical enhancements and a few shifts in the CD-quality music are also in place.

Pentaro to the rescue

Going beyond the basics, high level play also involves the convenient use of the purple bell, which was introduced in Gokujyou Parodius but is absent from Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius on the Super Famicom. Another important alteration in this regard is that the extend routine is not interrupted when you score more than one million points. The first extend comes with 20.000 points, with new ones awarded for each 100.000 points afterwards. It's not uncommon to amass a huge amount of extra lives if you play well enough, which obviously helps in reaching higher loops more easily. Since the difficulty increase after you beat the game is also a tad tamer than what you'd get in any of the arcade titles of the franchise, chances are you'll be facing a dedicated Parodius marathon type of challenge on the first two rounds/loops at least.

As expected, this port also preserves the checkpoint-based save function. When you pause and press L, the middle option contains three save slots while the upper option is used to load them at any time. Pausing and pressing R, on the other hand, allows you to return to the title screen on the lower option. A tiny in-game improvement appears in a new display just below the indication for the hi-score, which shows the current difficulty level and loop. In the title screen you also have the choice of two new special game modes: Omake 1 is a completely new single stage where you're supposed to get high scores, whereas Omake 2 works as a racing mini-game where the objective is to get to the end of the area as fast as possible. 

Click for the main menu translation for the Normal game in Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius - Forever with Me on the Sega Saturn

Even though on a first glance both 32-bit ports are very similar, there is a specific switch in the options screen that alters the gameplay significantly. In the case of the Saturn version, this tweak is called "Extra". Its function is to change enemy formations completely, an alteration that makes the game a tad harder than usual. On the Playstation this is replaced by "Accident", which adds polygonal-based bonus areas to the end of each level. Besides these interesting tweaks to the base game, both ports allow the OH! bogus power-up to be replaced by a slot machine for bells if you turn "Slot!" on. As for "Duet", "Ikari" and "Nage", they are specific tweaks for co-op play.

Once I got re-acquainted with the game I decided to play with Upa (the baby boy) and got the result below in one of my first serious credits. I played with auto power-up on full defaults (difficulty 4, Roulette ON, Slot!/Extra/Revival OFF, Oshaberi ON) and reached stage 3-6. I had great fun and felt so comfortable with the automatic handling of my upgrade capsules that I didn't even try to play the game with manual power-ups. I did activate a second speed-up right after the first one though.

Now I guess I'm ready to move on to one of the ports for Sexy Parodius!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Eden's Aegis (PC)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by X.X Game Room
Published by X.X Game Room in 2010

Eden's Aegis is the last PC free shooter released by the enigmatic one-man development institution known as X.X Game Room. It's easy to mistake it for Eden's Edge, which is actually one of his first attempts at creating a challenge for those who enjoy the thrill of dodging bullet curtains. For the record, 1.11 is the definitive iteration of Eden's Aegis, so that's what everybody's been playing for years now.

It seems the original page from the developer is offline at the moment, so just head to the download page and extract the downloaded file, plug in your favorite controller, run the executable, hit OK on all pop-up boxes and there you go, bullet hell action instantly available. With obvious influences from the works by Cave, Eden's Aegis can be defined simply as a shooter where your main objective is to destroy larger enemies in order to cancel bullets, thus turning them into precious gold and surviving the odds in the process.

Graphically the game is very similar to the other main work by X.X Game Room, Blue Wish Resurrection and its Plus variation. And that’s probably my main gripe with it, since apart from the choice of the avatar being a flying girl instead of a spaceship both games bear a strikingly undistinguishable appearance, which is very much defined by open space punctuated by raw textures for ground surfaces and a fireworks display of medals and bullet patterns. Of course this is alleviated by the fact that we’ve been given the chance to play these very fine shooters for free, so no big qualms about that.

One could say these games are all about gameplay, meaning 100% substance over style.

Beautiful purple bullet curtains!

Inputs work with shot, full auto, special attack and bomb. By holding shot you get a focused firing stream with reduced movement speed. The special attack adds a concentrated burst of power to your shot pattern that lasts a few seconds, which then recharges automatically for the next use as seen in the meter on the bottom left of the screen. The bomb is self-explanatory, granting instant invincibility to the character during its animation. Autoguard is a feature that’s turned on by default and sacrifices one bomb for every hit you take. “Wait” is initially also set to ON and means that you’ll always have slowdown whenever bullet count reaches a certain threshold (set it to OFF if you’d like to experience a much harder game overall).

In all game modes there are originally only two characters available. You can either beat the game with them to unlock the other two or just create an empty .txt file on the game’s directory named “yutori”. All four exhibit different traits for firing patterns, bombs and recovery times for the special attack. In general the further down they are in the selection screen the harder it is to control them, which means Nanathy is the character to go for beginners while Ridmie requires a deeper knowledge both for survival and for scoring.

The rules of gameplay are the same for all modes (Heaven, Original and Hell). Enemies release golden gems for taking, and if you kill them with special attacks all medals are automatically sucked into the avatar. Death explosions of larger enemies turn every nearby bullet into gems, in what’s the most obvious device in the risk/reward scoring technique: kill them right away to survive or let them live long enough in order to reap more points from on-screen bullets? The good news in that regard is that you'll see health bars for all enemies that are at least mid-sized. Gem counter increases during the level and decreases during mid-boss fights (faster) and stage boss confrontations (slower), getting cut in 1/3 for every hit you take. 

Hidden ground items, such as extra bombs and a solitary extend in stage 4, will only be uncovered by hitting them with the special attack. Bombs are also very important for scoring since they turn all on-screen bullets into gems. Score-based extends are granted with 7 and 30 million points.

Hell mode's first stage with Nanathy
(courtesy of YouTube user Vysethedetermined2)

Like all previous titles from the same developer, Eden's Aegis is a great pick-up-and-play shmup that provides instant fun from the get go, at least in Heaven and Original modes. Enemy projectiles aren't overly fast, the constant slowdown can be considered a nice exercise in tight bullet hell practice and you can even hold the special attack button so that it's repeatedly deployed after each recharge cycle. For a regular bystander the difference from relaxed survival play and high level scoring attempts seems to be trivial, but it actually requires thorough route/positioning choices and tight usage of the special attack. Never mind switching wait or autoguard to OFF, since they do not affect any aspect of the game with regards to scoring.

During the very short time I played the game I cleared it a few times in Original mode, improving my score a little without training any particular section. Eden's Aegis does include practice options though, as well as stage select and the ability to change the color of bullets and save replays – you just can't pause, for pausing denies replay saves and goes as far as not allowing you to write your initials in the high score board. The game does warrant a lot more dedication than the short spell I was able to devote to it, but at least I had good unrestricted fun. My character of choice was Nanathy.

Note: I didn't try Hell mode at all, which is the only one that has a TLB (True Last Boss) in the end, accessible by 1CCing and having at least one bomb in stock when the fifth boss is defeated.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron (Playstation 4)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
25 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by HandyGames
Published by THQ Nordic in 2019

Originally launched in digital form in 2017, Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron is the direct sequel to Aces of the Luftwaffe. While the first one is a weird vertical shooter disguised as a horizontal thanks to its original mobile roots, the sequel is a pure vertical romp aimed at modern gaming audiences: instead of adopting the well known arcade structure of the shmup genre it uses stage-specific performances as basis for upgrades and the shooting experience as a whole, with aesthetics based on a World War II military setting with sci-fi undertones.

The retail version of the game includes the complete DLC campaign known as Nebelgeschwader, actually the sole reason for the Extended Edition subtitle. Nebelgeschwader also comes with 25 levels but this time you play as a German squadron instead of the default heroes of the “Squadron One” allied forces, complete with different weapons and enemy formations. In both variations of the game you are allowed/encouraged to play and replay all levels in order to obtain more experience points and maximize the score and as a result.

The good news for those looking for an arcade-like session is that no grinding is needed if you want to play from beginning to end in a single sitting. Just note that the complete campaign takes around two hours to complete.

Squadron One under heavy enemy fire

Capcom’s 19XX series is of course the main source of inspiration in Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron. A slew of cartoonish touches are the main differential in the latter, since you take control of a leader and three wingmen that banter all the time during the game itself. The art design for levels isn't particularly eye-catching, but planes and enemies show a good amount of detail. Controller inputs work like this for the default Squadron One team: button × fires, buttons L1/R1 are used to select the special weapon and button □ triggers it (button ○ has an extra purpose when playing with the Nebelgeschwader squadron). You can’t remap inputs, but in my opinion this is fortunately a good arrangement.

A full campaign has five missions divided in five chapters each for a total of 25 stages (not considering the short introduction part where your squadron is taken down by the final boss). You get five lives for every level, so even if you get through on your last life you’ll start the next stage with a new stock of five. The plane’s health is indicated by a meter that circles the plane and depletes as you receive damage. Each hit from a regular bullet takes away some health whereas cluster projectiles made of many bullets, such as those fired by some of the later bosses, can be instantly fatal. Fire curtains, poisonous mists, lasers and ramming attacks complete the arsenal of the enemy, imposing all sorts of danger as you advance.

The game is pretty self-explanatory regarding item pick-ups, showing brief explanations on how power-ups, medals and skill coins work. Power-ups increase your plane’s firepower, but you need to constantly get more of them otherwise you’ll revert to the previous power level. This limitation in ammo isn’t that contriving after all, even if you’re downgraded it’s not for long because power-ups come in a fairly regular basis. A maxed out Squadron One, for example, will bear an enormous amount of firepower, sending out lasers, wave blasts and shards all over the place for a great destruction effect. The catch is that you start every level with the weakest shot, which requires players to power up the squadron from scratch in every single mission.

Skill coins are used to activate enhancements and special weapons in the Skills menu in-between levels, and are obtained either by collecting medals or by sheer luck in certain areas. The game is balanced enough so that the coins you get are sufficient to enable all or almost all upgrades in a complete run. Other unlockables such as new planes might be awarded when a main boss is defeated – these rewards are random and in the long run players are supposed to replay stages to acquire all of them. Besides the functional upgrades, for Squadron One the most important skills to be enabled/upgraded in my opinion are the "sky bomb" and the "supply request" that immediately summons power-ups.

Official trailer for Aces of Luftwaffe Squadron - Extended Edition
(courtesy of YouTube user PlayStation)

Performing well in Aces of the Luftwaffe Squadron is relatively easy. It’s just a matter of avoiding damage, collecting medals, speed-killing enemies when possible and fulfilling all “side missions” in each level. These side missions range from just surviving to destroying specific targets, protecting fellow planes, dropping supplies, pursuing enemies, etc. There’s even a pacifist level (3.1) where you don’t need to fire a single bullet. The main problem is that you need to get used to the mild level of inertia of the default plane (some unlockable planes have less or no inertia), as well as the odd behavior of your wingmen: one of them goes berserk and starts flying around like crazy (killing you on contact), another is narcoleptic and sneezes all of a sudden (you need to protect him from enemy fire) and the girl is afraid of heights (fleeing when the squadron needs to fly at high altitude). Dealing with these problems well also contributes positively to your score.

Although some of the quirks described above rub me the wrong way, at least they’re not excessively harmful or gamebreaking. Relaxed playing is enough to beat most levels and fulfill all side missions, but from the 3rd boss onwards you definitely need to have some previous knowledge of boss behavior if you don’t want to lose all your lives against them. They’re also the obvious highlights in a game that otherwise lacks intensity and sounds generic and derivative, except for the quite decent atmospheric soundtrack. If you want to skip the constant blabbering between characters just press and hold button ○. I do wonder how they tease each other when there are 4 people playing in co-op though. 

When compared with Sky Force Anniversary, which has some visual and functional similarities, Aces of Luftwaffe Squadron is certainly a better choice for the simple fact that you absolutely don’t need to replay levels to beat the game. On the other hand, it doesn't compute your complete score, showing only stage-specific results. The picture below (click to enlarge) has all my stage scores for a total of 4.484.472 points on Normal difficulty in the Squadron One campaign, clocking at 1 hour and 56 minutes of play time. I used the default leader plane from start to finish because the game denied me the flying pancake upon beating the 2nd boss. I didn’t venture into the Hard or Extreme difficulties at all (Extreme is unlocked upon beating the game once), but intend to play the Nebelgeschwader mode on the Xbox One when the opportunity comes.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Geimos (NES)

Rail shooter
Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Wixel / Ascii Entertainment (Corporation)
Published by Ascii Entertainment in 1985

According to the game's instruction manual, in the distant future an alien race is disrupting the peace in the galaxy. Earth's defense forces then launch a fleet of space fighter crafts to try and stop the invasion. They must battle the enemy across six planets of our solar system: Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Pluto. Take those as designations for the levels, in a neverending adventure that forces you to keep fighting as the game loops over and over.

As a complement to the *aham* non-stop action, the game also comes with a soundtrack that might not make anyone's ears bleed but certainly adds to the endurance test with a brief Star Wars-like snippet at the start of the stage and a four-note beeping noise that's repeated non-stop until the stage itself is finished.

With such primitive video game efforts like Geimos, pretty much all that's left besides the fairly tedious gameplay is trying to understand the context of the market at the time of its release. Geimos is a rail shooter, but one that lacks the all-encompassing influence provided by Space Harrier – simply because it came out before Sega's classic. Hence its main visual influence being Capcom's Exerion, even though that's not a rail but an extremely odd vertical shooter instead.

Lovely craters to the left, the endlessness of the universe to the right

Another influence imprinted in the gameplay comes from Xevious, since button B fires your main shot while button A drops bombs aimed at hitting ground targets. Geimos lacks autofire, so the best way to enjoy the game is to get a turbo controller, activate rapid fire for both buttons and keep them pressed at all times. Flying enemies arrive in waves that start shooting at you as soon as they've travelled enough into the screen, ground targets are mostly harmless but every once in a while an angry turret will show up firing several scattered shots towards your location.

Once you've defeated the regular enemies a large mothership called Phobos will warp into the center of the screen. If you fail to destroy it in time (20 seconds), it will warp out and you'll have to play the level again. If you succeed in destroying the mothership it explodes and you move on to the next stage/planet. The main background and colors change accordingly, in what's certainly the most variation you'll come across while playing the game. And once Phobos is once again blasted into oblivion in Pluto you're sent back to Earth with no fanfare, no ending message, no sign of clear victory at all.

Apart from the timeout constraint on the boss fight, dying is another occurrence that sends you back to the start of the level regardless of where you stand in it. Dying is also the only means for the player to see his/her life stock or the current stage/round that's being played. However, since you're forever stuck with the same firepower and all stages have the same short duration, there's actually not much hassle from deaths in Geimos once you've got used to the game's overly repetitive patterns. Phobos can be destroyed with any particular method every single time, for example (you can't pause when fighting it though, which is just a minor harmless observation of course). The extend routine starts with 20.000 points and proceeds with 70.000 points, with a new extra life awarded at every 70.000 points after that.

Earth is under attack!
(courtesy of YouTube user FamicomGuide)

An interesting additon in Geimos is the possibility to play the game with a different approach as to how the screen behaves (use the SELECT button). Mode A offers the regular experience where your ship moves around freely. Mode B, on the other hand, fixes the ship at the bottom center of the screen while everything else moves around you. Despite adding a reticle to the ship's aim, the latter is quite confusing and tough to get used to, that's why most people will certainly opt for Mode A. Whatever the chosen mode, the difficulty increases and maxes out by the second loop, after that it's all a matter of how long you can hold on to your strategies until you counterstop the game.

Once I got used to how things worked I decided I coud try to max out the score, and so I did. In the picture below the counterstop came in round 45 of mode A, which corresponds to the 3rd stage in the 8th loop. I can't say I was either thrilled or actually amused by the experience, but it wasn't that horrible either. Most of the time it was just a matter of flying low, destroying targets as they approached and moving around before getting hit by enemy fire.

That's Geimos in a nutshell, folks!