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!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Firebird (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Irem
Published by Irem in 1992

In 1990 a new anime franchise started airing in Japan, following the end of the first generation of Transformers. Known as the Brave/Yūsha series, it focused on giant mechas working with humans as peacekeeping forces. Firebird (also known as Taiyō no Yūsha Firebird) is based on the second season of the Brave series, which came out in 1991. Why the developers chose to make the game for such an old platform like the Famicom was in 1992 is a little mystery, since one would naturally expect them to target the most powerful systems at the time. But then again, one could say the Super Famicom was still in its infancy while Irem had absolutely no allegiance with Sega.

Firebird is considered to be a mistranslation that actually makes a lot more sense than the original term Fighbird, so I'll keep using it for the time being. The full name of the game translates to The Brave Fighter of Sun Fighbird. For all purposes it's just another licensed product that leaves a lot to be desired, so don't get your hopes up when you see the powerful name of Irem in the game box or at the start screen. The game is slow, boring and for most of its duration it's quite frankly just another very effectively designed snoozefest.

There are lots of Japanese dialogue in Firebird, as well as many characters interacting in between levels. That was the whole idea of fan service in a licensed game, of course. You even have the chance to choose one out of both main characters of the show: Kenta (the yonger lad to the left) and Katori (the older guy to the right). There are no functional differences between them though, so it really doesn't matter who you go with.

First stage of Taiyō no Yūsha Fighbird/Firebird
(courtesy of YouTube user AAAA HERO)

The stage structure is very odd here. With the exception of the final level, each stage is divided in three parts with specific gameplay rules. In the first section you must fulfill a certain task while choosing any of the five available vehicles (or "barons") at the press of button A. Firing is accomplished with button B and differs for every vehicle, which in turn is powered up separately by picking up the P icons that appear from time to time. Other items you'll come across are the heart (for health refills), an S (for speed-up) and a clock that serves to extend time. If you fail to complete the mission in the alotted time frame you go directly into GAME OVER regardless of how many lives you have left.

In stage 1 the objective is to destroy seven green bombs, in stage 2 you're supposed to collect seven red canisters and in stage 3 you must arm seven bombs by pressing SELECT in specific orange platforms. Note that a small counter in the lower right corner of the screen shows how many items are missing in your objective list. In these sections Firebird behaves a little like Silkworm or SWIV, in that ground vehicles will not allow you to move freely around the screen. Since everything's so dull and easy, you might as well just pick the last vehicle, the Sky baron, and fly at will to complete your missions.

During the second sections of a level you're in control of a single jet that's powered up by picking up items numbered from 1 to 4, which activate and upgrade new weapons that must (again) be chosen by pressing button A. This is where boredom reaches its peak with endless empty backgrounds and few enemies crossing the screen. If you don't know what to do you might be stuck there for a long time, as I did when I first played the game. There's no timer anymore: the catch is that in order to move on you need to press SELECT as soon as the name of the game pops up in the corner.

Moving on the the final section of the level, you'll be in control of the large Firebird mecha in a quest to defeat the stage boss. It uses the same arsenal of the second section, including the need to switch weapons with button A. Note that the first weapon comes with an extremely powerful charge shot that's devastating against larger enemies. All other weapons require some sort of artificial turbofire in the controller if you don't fancy manually tapping your way towards victory.

The Drill baron in glorious action

In terms of difficulty, Firebird is nothing short of a joke. The challenge never picks up, and with the exception of bosses you'll never feel there's any danger whatsoever. You can take lots of hits because of the lifebar and the incoming refill hearts. Besides, it's also possible to get lots of 1UP items in all types of sections throughout the levels.

The only redeeming quality of this game, for Famicom standards at least, is the music. The soundtrack has decent moments that are sadly used over long stretches marked by tedious action and tepid design. Unless you're keen on having a taste of uninteresting gaming history, I doubt there will be any thrills even for the most diehard fans of the anime.

Firebird keeps no track of scores and even hides the score display when you pause. The result below was obtained by filming the fight against the last boss with a cell phone and then freezing the footage on his death afterwards. Since you can play second sections of levels indefinitely (without pressing SELECT when needed), there's no point at all in trying to play the game for score.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Shadow of Ganymede (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
15 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Mere Mortals
Published by Phoenix Games in 2005

It goes without saying that the dark chapters of any video game genre are understandably ignored by everyone. In the case of the Playstation 2, which is a veritable gaming powerhouse, anything released by Phoenix Games fits the bill with little effort, and as far as shmups go the mere mention of the company sends chills down the spine of every fan of the genre with a little more knowledge of what went on in the European scene during the final moments of the console.

Once again the foul stench of Phoenix Games is present in this blog by means of Shadow of Ganymede, whose only reasonable claim to fame is its cool-sounding name. The defunct company’s trademarks are all there: brainless, boring, lifeless gameplay that’s monotonous almost beyond belief. While certainly a little tougher than Guerrilla Strike or Search & Destroy, unfortunately this superior challenge does not come from any noticeable attempt at delivering something more interesting than what you’d get from a bad 8-bit video game.

The oddest thing is that I can’t say I’m completely lost for words when trying to categorize such a dismal excuse of a game. I’m here writing about it after all, ain’t I?

The red moon of torture

In the future, Jupiter’s satellite Ganymede is the source of an evil force that’s threatening the mining activities in the planets of the Solar System. Your mission is to fly from left to right over planets and moons to destroy the enemy armada. There are 15 areas to be cleansed of evil, but only one weapon to use in the process (button ×) with little variation in the way of firepower. The journey will require lots of focus and dedication since the game will do everything in its repetitive power to wear you down. Backgrounds alternate between outer space, a world map (only in stage 2), desertic moon landscapes, planet outskirts and arrangements of wall tubes. A few color swaps are applied here and there but that’s it, with no bosses at all for you to indulge in fierce shooting battles.

Every now and then one of the enemies will leave behind an item after being blown to pieces. It might be a wrench (power-up), an hexagon net (1-hit shield) or a candy (extra life). Wrenches increase the power and the reach of your weapon, which maxes out when the fifth one is collected. Oddly enough, you can cycle through the power levels that were already reached by pressing L1. My guess is that this was implemented because power level 2 feels better than power level 3, other than that there’s no reason at all to change your firing pattern once you’re sufficiently powered up.

As for the enemy gallery, it’s typical Phoenix Games bad. By the third stage you begin to see ground turrets, but they’re destroyed with a single shot and you’re left wondering what was the point of even adding them to the game. The little variation there is appears when your foes start arriving in the screen turning and aiming at your direction instead of only shooting forward. That’s most likely where players will die because the minor inertia when moving the ship might make it a little harder to avoid the overlapping enemy attacks. Losing a life in Shadow of Ganymede can quickly escalate to a GAME OVER if you don’t keep your cool because then you lose all firepower and it might take a while for power-ups to start appearing again.

A failed attempt at the first stage of Shadow of Ganymede
(courtesy of YouTube user GXZ95)

A minor strategy that helps survival is avoiding to take the shield icon if you’re already protected by one. Since items move slowly to the left, having a spare shield floating around is nice because you never know when you’re going to need it. Note that the shield does not protect you from collisions though, even at the end of the level when the AI takes control of the ship and might ram it against an incoming enemy (yes, I died a few times because of that). Finally, even though you might collect lots of 1UPs you can’t stock more than five spare lives.

Higher stakes on lives lost should at least give you that feeling of tension and anticipation one always gets when facing a situation of impending failure, but the gameplay is so lame you couldn't care less about it. There's no excitement, no good music, no specific detail to call out on the nigh possibility of considering this one a guilty pleasure. Yes, it's that pitiful, and enduring this torture to the end is something I will only try again on the basis of physical threat and torture.

And below is my 1CC high score for Shadow of Ganymede, folks. I'm probably alone in my achievement here, so I dare everybody to try and beat it. Come on, if you got a cheap copy lying around why not share my suffering and accept the challenge? The game even offers auto save and an optional controller vibration function!

Saturday, November 7, 2020

King's Knight (NES)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
5 Stages
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Square
Published by Squaresoft in 1989

The idea to mix shooting and medieval fantasy wasn't such a common thing to see back in the old days. Besides King's Knight, a few glaring exceptions that also appeared on the NES are Dragon Spirit (port of an arcade game) and The Guardian Legend (an original RPG-shooter hybrid). Even though the copyright year in the NES cartridge is 1989, in reality King's Knight predates these two examples because the Famicom version had been out since 1986. That's certainly the main reason why the game feels clearly dated for a 1989 release with such drab and blocky visuals.

One of the main influences on King's Knight is definitely Knightmare, which makes sense because the MSX also got its own version of the game alongside the Famicom/NES. However, while Knightmare focused exclusively in the shooting experience, King's Knight tries to spice things up with a heavy item-collecting aspect that often makes people consider the game to be an action RPG of sorts. It is true that you won't succeed if you do not adhere to the item collecting rules, but the game's also far from even having RPG gameplay elements. You won't see any stats or meters of any kind, and the only decision-making you need to make is reserved for the final stage at the press of a single button.

As usual, the story involves a kidnapped princess that needs rescue. Players take control of four characters that join forces to save her: Ray Jack the knight, Kaliva the wizard, Barusa the monster and Toby the kid thief.

Kaliva's garden of joy

Each character has his own stage to be played, but there isn't any actual difference between them besides their starting speed. They're all supposed to be powered up in the same way. The rule of thumb is to destroy everything in your path with button A in order to uncover what you need to pick up, starting with the basic performance enhancements: speed-up (boots), power-up (sphere), defense-up (shield) and jump-up (spring). The jump feature refers to the ability to move over ground surfaces from all sides, which might be necessary in certain parts of the level. There's also a single special orb in the first stage that shows hidden walls, but it doesn't appear anywhere else in the game.

Besides the important items mentioned above, most of what's uncovered are actually arrows. Up arrows refill your health, down arrows take away part of it. There are also unique magic elements to be taken that add up to a special ability that can only be used in the final stage. You must collect four of these for each character (four per stage), and if you miss one of them the respective character won't be able to use his spell at all, which can be simply gamebreaking for at least one of the heroes (Toby). The instruction manual refers to them as elements A, B, C and D, even though they appear as symbols: A/triangle (Kaliva's element), B/double bars (Toby), C/double Vs (Barusa) and D/round badge (Ray Jack). Once it's available, the special attack is deployed with button B.

The four initial stages in King's Knight are very similar, and except for the necessary memorization there isn't much to worry about. You definitely need to find the stairs that lead to an underground dungeon though, since one of the magic elements can only be found there. Whenever you die you go directly to the next level and don't get to see the stats of a successful stage completion. The max value for the upgrade level is 20 (for 7 speed-ups, 7 jump-ups, 3 power-ups and 3 defense-ups), whereas the asterisks indicate the A/B/C/D magic items you have collected. Four asterisks mean you've got them all.

It's in the last stage that the game goes crazy on the things you have to do to succeed in your mission. You control all surviving characters from the previous levels at the same time, in a formation where the uppermost one is the leader. You can only change the leader by touching the turning signs, but note that the results of a complete/U-turn is always random. Three magical swords must be collected for you to face the final dragon boss, which must receive damage from all characters in order to be defeated (check the flash before switching to a different formation leader). The magic spells you're entitled to use can only be triggered in certain areas depending on the character, and finding out where isn't something that a player like me would attempt with a smile on my face.

Knight Ray Jack goes out on a noble quest
(courtesy of YouTube user Patrick So)

I lost count of how many times I died stupidly in the final level due to the way the stage is laid out. On top of having to find out what to do you also have to deal with a humongous hitbox. The characters are always jumping everywhere like retards whenever you're close to a border, and you can't shoot neither when that happens nor when your formation is changing leaders (turning). Getting scroll-crushed by a single enemy and dying instantly is another risk, while more often than not you're at the mercy of how those crazy turning signs will work. It's more of an exercise in patience than an outright tough challenge, but fortunately the short length of the game helps with that.

Although it really comes off as quite a unique attempt at a vertical fantasy shooter, it's hard to recommend King's Knight unless your idea of fun is sheer trial and error with no other sort of in-game reward such as scoring, a feature that wasn't implemented at all. Moreover, the graphics are quite poor and the music is totally unremarkable. At least the instruction manual is useful for figuring out what to do, to a certain extent of course. If you don't feel like guessing things for yourself you can always refer to the great strategywiki on the game, complete with maps showing the locations of items and detailed explanations of where to use what in the final stage. Finally, if you don't fancy the act of button mashing you should definitely get a turbo controller for this one.

By pressing SELECT at the start screen you can choose any of the four stages that was previously played (even if you died in them) in order to improve the characters' stats and get them ready for the final stage. I didn't use this because I went for a straight clear. From the final screen below it doesn't seem the princess is that happy with Ray Jack though.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Gyrodine (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
3 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Crux / Human Entertainment
Published by Taito in 1986

We gamers all have fond memories of certain video games that came to become personal favorites in our childhood, and more often that not they're not even the most famous titles of the time. Gyrodine on the NES is such a game for me, one that my small group of friends would always play in our weekend competitive gatherings. At the time we played it by means of the Brazilian unlicensed version released by CCE, and only much later in my gaming life I was able to come back to it with the original Famicom cartridge.

It was also much later that I knew this is actually the port of an arcade game of the same name, and a rather important one since it represents the absolute origins of Toaplan. You can see many aspects that would later appear in Tiger-Heli and Twin Cobra, for example. Although seemingly simple and plain on a first glance, Gyrodine is actually quite varied in its minimalistic design, as was the game that served as its main inspiration, Namco's classic Xevious. I prefer Gyrodine myself though.

The choice for a helicopter as the player's avatar fits the gameplay like a glove. Press B to shoot your aerial gunfire, press A to sweep the ground with a machinegun and press A + B to fire a heat-seeking missile that tracks the closest enemy ahead while following the chopper's movement. The action is seamless as you fly over land and ocean shooting down enemy choppers, jets, rockets, missiles, tanks, submarines, ships and turrets in all possible configurations. It's indeed that simple on paper, but the execution quickly escalates into a fierce battle where your anticipation and dodging skills will be severely tested.

Battle of the choppers

Your main shot sort of follows the chopper's movement, and finding the rhythm of how this works and where and when to fire the heat-seeking missiles is the turning point to really start enjoying the game. In general this port is graphically very faithful to the arcade source, even though it shuffles the elements that make up the levels into a relatively different experience. Never mind the lack of in-game music and the meek collection of sound effects, what's most important here is the action and the way it keeps you coming back for more after each failure.

What's particularly neat about this port of Gyrodine is that in challenge terms it's superior to the arcade version. While the original flowed with no interruption in the scrolling whatsoever, there are three points where the Famicom version will halt for you to fight a huge turret-ridden boss while flying enemies swarm on you from all sides. You must either destroy all turrets or stay alive for at least 15 seconds for the game to continue into the next territory. This is the reason why I consider this version to have three stages, even though there's no explicit division between them besides the abovementioned scrolling halt. After the third one the game loops but the difficulty remains unchanged.

It's very easy to dismiss the game as a pretentious Xevious wannabe that's too hard for its own good. Perhaps if the item gallery was less secretive it would have a better shot at pleasing shooter fans. The tiny little men on the ground are easy to understand, they either give you 100 points or act as a screen-clearing smart bomb (the red ones), but all of them can be killed by your own ground fire. On the other hand, many people might play the game for a lifetime without realizing there are speed-ups to be uncovered and collected at several points, which greatly improve your maneuvering capability and make the game far less intimidating (if you manage to not die, of course). In order to find them you need to sweep the ground with the A button in specific areas, spraying your machinegun over a horizontal line because the exact location of the item is always a little randomized.

A light red mermaid grants you 10.000 points just for being uncovered (you don't need to fly over her), while a deep red mermaid gives temporary invincibility (as indicated by the duration of the brief musical cue). The white mermaid is the speed-up, and for the whole time you're flying at a faster speed a different characteristic sound will be heard. The additional catch with both the invincibility and the speed-up is that you need to collect the mermaids, and you need to do it quickly because they disappear quite fast. Other secret items exist in the form of a squid (at least it looks like it) that's worth 5.000 points and a gray moving stain which unlocks a flock of ten red animals that if completely killed is worth 10.000 points.

Justice on the blades of a powerful helicopter
(courtesy of YouTube user Espaciodejuegos)

As such in games of this nature, dying is frequent but fortunately there's a nice extend routine that starts giving extra lives at 20.000 points and continues with 50.000 points, with subsequent extends registered at every 50.000 points. Besides the bosses, the hardest parts in Gyrodine come when the most dangerous types of enemies overlap. Of course there are still many areas where the game keeps you on your toes all the time, such as the one where you need to fight invisible tanks. The action unfolds with no slowdown whatsoever and also no flicker, which is nice.

My advice whenever there are too many attacks on screen is to focus on the aerial enemies first and only going for ground targets when you've safely cleared most of the flying hazards. And if you're using a turbo controller only activate turbofire on button B: by doing that a single tap on button A will shoot a missile without interrupting the main fire, and both buttons pressed will make ground sweeps and missile launching much more effective.

I feel very happy to have finally conquered the loop in this game. Of course I thought I'd be able to do it again, but unfortunately I had to abandon the credit once the score maxed out at 999.990 points, as seen in the picture below. I had just beaten the second boss by then, so I guess I can consider that this was achieved in stage 2-3.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Thunder Cross (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Hamster in 2007

By 1988 Konami was already a force to be reckoned with in the world of video games. Speaking of shooters only, the Gradius franchise was in full throttle, with notable spin-offs Salamander / Life Force and Parodius also kicking off their own series and carving their names into shmup history. It was then that Thunder Cross came out without much of a splash, almost as an experiment in variation on the classic Gradius formula while its most famous bethren flourished.

That's certainly odd conisdering that Thunder Cross is actually part of the Gradius canon. Experienced players will easily spot the graphical/aural similarities and the influence it had on Gradius III, for example. The influence stops there though, since Thunder Cross is much tamer and definitely more forviging with its instant respawn mechanic, boasting a low to average difficulty level that’s certainly more approachable than the difficulty of any Gradius game that came before or after it. The Playstation 2 port is the authentic Japanese version, not the overseas one where the ship starts out with two options and has bombs called lil' baby (!).   

This port is also the second-to-last release (vol. 18) in the Oretachi Game Center collection. I guess by the time the series was coming to an end things weren't that good anymore in the quality department, that's why Thunder Cross on the PS2 is widely panned for its emulation job and the fact that a few well-known bugs when playing the game in MAME are also present (keep reading). The package does come with the usual extras from the Hamster series, such as the folder with arcade board info and the mini-discs with the soundtrack and videos including a demonstration credit of the game.

Getting to know Thunder Cross on the Playstation 2
(courtesy of YouTube user ZetaKong)

In order to leave the pea shooter you start with behind, players need to destroy all orange-colored minions in a particular wave or the standalone drones found throughout the game. The released icon will either be a speed-up (S), an option (O) or a weapon, which cycles between V (vulcan), B (boomerang) and T (a 2-way tail gun laser). Stick to the same one to increase its firepower by a small margin. Once you have acquired four options the weapon icon will also start cycling between other alternatives that include L (laser), F (fire) and N (napalm). These new weapons have a temporary effect indicated by a small gauge that appears at the bottom of the screen.

An important detail about Thunder Cross on the PS2 is that a turbo controller is definitely needed since the game lacks an autofire function. Besides the firing button, a secondary input is used to control option behavior: hold it to either contract or expand them in a vertical line above and below the ship. It's a simple resource that proves to be very strategic in several parts of the game. Cruising levels while destroying everything with four options is quite satisfying, as long as you don't die. Deaths strip the ship away of everything you've collected, and can be especially cruel during a boss fight because you're not only severely underpowered but also at the mercy of the sluggish default speed.

For a rather simplistic arcade shooter, Thunder Cross does show a decent level of variety. Simple yet effective parallax layers abound from start to finish, and pretty much all horizontal shooter staples appear. Cave, clouds/skyscraper, fortress and even a high-speed stage are included in the package, which also brings a large battleship level halfway into the credit. Colors are used to great effect and the general flow of the game is that of a relaxed adventure once you figure out the best strategies to deal with the incoming hazards. My favorite weapon is B, but you definitely need to switch to T during the final level.

No mercy for the 2nd boss

In the scoring front the game is also very straightforward. Every surplus item is worth 1.000 points, and some bosses can be exploited for a few projectile peanuts. By and large the best way to score higher is keep yourself powered and pummel everything that shoots and moves. There's a secret octopus-like creature that's worth 10.000 points if you can uncover and destroy it. I have the suspicion it might be related to the ? power-up that doesn't do anything but might sometimes appear as a 1UP. Score-based extends are given with 30.000 points and then for every 200.000 points achieved afterwards.

The bad news about this port is that it inherits the same random bugs experienced when emulating the game in MAME. The main problem is that it might freeze all of a sudden during the part where the mothership is about to leave the screen after you beat a boss. I heard it might happen anywhere, in any stage, but more often than not I was a victim in stages 4 to 6, both in the first and the second loops. Another bug that's more rare but happened to me in the final stage was the graphics breaking up, which completely crashed the level by creating obstacles I couldn't circumvent.

Click for the option menus translation for Thunder Cross on the PS2
I reached stage 2-7 in the high score below, playing on Normal difficulty. I did try to improve it for a while but the game kept freezing on me, so I gave up. The final assessment: Thunder Cross is definitely cool and fun (on top of having a badass soundtrack), but the version for the Playstation 2 is probably one of the worst porting jobs I have ever seen in any video game. As for the sequel Thunder Cross II, it still remains unported as of today.